Poul la Cour (1846-1908)

Folk high school teacher, inventor, MSc physics and meteorology 1869, vice-director of the Meteorological Institute 1872-77, physics and mathematics teacher at Askov Folk High School 1878-1908.

The headmaster of the prominent Grundtvigian folk high school in Askov, Ludvig Schrøder, hired Poul la Cour in 1878 when the school strengthened its emphasis on natural science. La Cour was a devout Christian and he was seen by Schrøder as a much needed safeguard against positivist and materialist interpretations of science. La Cour was innovative in his historical teaching of science and in his work on wind turbines which had a great impact on the electrification of rural Denmark. He was also a prolific populariser of natural science. He published several popular works on physics and technology and delivered thousands of lectures at folk high schools and in village halls across the country, in which he combined his strong personal faith with the marvels of nature and science. La Cour’s progressivism, however, did not include evolutionary theories. When in 1880 he was asked by Schrøder to review the apologetic work on evolutionary geology Stenene råbe [The Stones Cry Out] by the clergyman J.N.L. Dalsgaard for Nordisk Maanedsskrift [Nordic Monthly] la Cour took an orthodox stance. Dalsgaard attempted to reconcile Scripture and geology by endorsing the so-called day-age theory, which suggested that the six days of creation should be interpreted as geological periods. La Cour criticised this and argued that the laws of nature were only introduced by God after He had put the rainbow on the sky as a sign of the covenant with Noah after the Flood. Through this interpretation of Scripture, la Cour was able to uphold a literal reading of Genesis, which was common among orthodox Grundtvigians and laypeople at this time. In the review, la Cour also addressed the question of organic evolution, but it was unclear how far he would go in allowing a restricted form of transmutation of species. There was no doubt, however, that Darwinism was not to be accepted in Askov. In fact, la Cour’s rejection of evolution did not reveal any detailed knowledge of the topic. He had probably not studied Darwin’s works at first hand, since the holdings at the comprehensive library in Askov did not contain Darwin’s works before 1909. La Cour’s dismissal of evolution did not pass unnoticed. He was criticized by the theologian Frederik Jungersen who warned against attempts to harmonise science and Scripture. During the winter of 1887-1888, a group of young students, including the writer Jeppe Aakjær, interested in literary realism as advocated by Georg Brandes were staying at the folk high school in Askov. The students complained that Darwin’s theory was ignored by the teachers, and when the students made their own study group discussing modern science and literature, they found themselves in open conflict with the teachers who proclaimed that people not willing to accept the Christian and anti-materialist atmosphere at the school should stay away. This restriction of the students’ freedom of thought was criticised by the liberal Grundtvigian Valdemar Brücker, and the Askov teachers now had to defend themselves. In Danskeren [The Dane] from November 1888, la Cour attacked evolutionary theories by claiming that Darwin’s theory and the nebular hypothesis advocated by Immanuel Kant and Pierre Simon de Laplace were not real works of science. Rather, they were attempts to replace creation with explanations based on contemporary natural laws. These laws, however, did not necessarily explain natural features in earlier periods. As la Cour had argued in 1880, it could be claimed that the natural laws at work today were not very old but had only originated after the Flood. According to la Cour, it was a question of sentiments whether one would prefer to believe in evolution or creation. Normally, religious people would prefer the latter and irreligious people the former, he asserted. No compromise was possible. If one insisted on applying scientific methods in deciding between evolution and creation, la Cour suggested that one turned to mathematics. La Cour argued by calculation of probabilities that Darwinian evolution by chance was untenable. He estimated the probability that the earth had developed into what it was now by chance to be only one in six million.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

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