Month: November 2013

Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: The Book-history Approach

As a doctoral student, Jonathan R. Topham worked under the inspiring tutelage of John Hedley Brooke, coming under the influence of his “diversity of interaction” regarding science-religion relations, which became a central part of his own study of the Bridgewater treatises of the 1830s.

In his essay, “Science, Religion, and the History of the Book,” Topham returns to his initial insights discovered during that study; but, more importantly, he wants to explore the interdisciplinary, book-historical approach to understanding the scientific and religious life of nineteenth-century Britain.

Topham has discussed the field of book history in detail elsewhere, especially in his massively informative “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources” (2000). I shall return to this essay later.

In his essay in Science and Religion, Topham relates how he viewed his work on the Bridgewater treatises as a “means of understanding more widely the interplay of scientific and religious concern in British culture of the period.” Rather than merely focusing on the authors and their ideas, Topham wanted to understand the “entire circuit or network of communication in which the treatises were enmeshed, including publishers, reviewers, libraries, and readers.” Accordingly, he discovered that the treatises were valuable for a range of reasons, from a religiously and politically safe account of the latest findings in several sciences, to a means of protecting religious sensibilities by directly relating scientific findings to divine agency. The latter was necessary, says Topham, for by the mid-nineteenth century there were increasingly new forms of secular “popular science” publishing, such as the sixpenny pamphlets of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), which published inexpensive texts intended to adapt scientific and similarly high-minded material for the rapidly expanding reading public. The Bridgewater treatises for Topham “provided important and novel evidence of the manner in which religious (and irreligious) readers from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds engaged with the sciences in the 1830s.”

Topham is not alone in emphasizing the importance of the history of reading in science-religion relations. James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000) shows how Robert Chambers’ (1802-1871) Vestiges of the natural history of creation (1844) developed the self-identity of freethinkers and evangelicals alike, and how, much more than Darwin’s On the origin of species (1859), it provided the “sweeping narratives of evolutionary progress” so central to British culture at the time. William Astore’s Observing God (2001) looks at the career of Thomas Dick (1774-1857), whose widely popular work on science and religion aimed to correct the secularizing trend among evangelicals and contemporary natural philosophers. “Through his many books,” Topham writes, “Dick developed [a] vision of the proper relation of scientific and religious concerns in direct opposition to more secular notions of popular science prevalent in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.” Aileen Fyfe’s Science and Salvation (2004) considers a wide range of publications under the auspices of the Religious Tract Society (RTS), which aimed to counter blasphemy and irreligion in the pauper presses. As Topham writes, “by the 1820s…cheap works of secular ‘popular science’ had begun to proliferate, and by the 1840s the society felt obliged to respond to what it felt to be a threat to Christianity by issuing its own works on science.” Fyfe perceptively concludes that “leading evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century were concerned about the ‘distorting manner’ in which scientific discoveries were presented, rather than with ‘specific discoveries themselves.'” The RTS was by no means the only publishing house issuing works of popular science to counter secular trends. According to Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), “a significant proportion of the most widely read science books in the post-Darwinian era presented the science within a Christian framework markedly at odds with the perspective of the secularizing ‘young guard’ of science typified by Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall.”

Topham also notes, following Secord’s notion of “literary replication,” that important works in the history of science of the nineteenth century were also made known to the reading public through a range of printed and oral formats—including advertisements, excerpts, abstracts, reviews, conversations, lectures, and even sermons. Topham concludes that the book history approach helps to “refocus the history of science and religion from religious and scientific specialists,” to readers, who must be seen to be at least as significant as authors and publishers.

From “who read what, and where?” Topham turns to questions of “who read how, and why?” Like much recent contributions to the history of science, Topham suggests that a shift in historical focus from beliefs to practices is another important element of book history. “For many religious believers,” he writes, “science has been encountered primarily through the practice of reading rather than through experimental or observational practices.” Indeed, the practice of reading among nineteenth-century evangelicals came to reflect a spiritual exercise, “a crucial part of the process by which the individual soul came to know God.” This “religious self-fashioning” is reflected in scientific reading and devotional practices “found throughout evangelical and other Christian writings of the nineteenth century.” The authors Topham reviews all attest to this fact. David Livingstone and James Secord in particular emphasize what has been called the “geographies of reading,” arguing that where scientific texts are read has important bearing on how they are read. Both the practice and place of reading has historical antecedents. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons,” Edward Said’s “traveling theory,” Gillian Beer’s “miscegenation of texts,” Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities,” and Nicolaas Rupke’s “geographies of reception” are a few examples of the latter. The former actually has quite a long history in the Christian tradition. From St Augustine tolle lege, the lectio divina of the Medieval period, to the sola scriptura of the Reformation, thinking by reading and reading by thinking were prominent spiritual exercises of Christian writers.

By focusing on readers, Topham does not want to abandon producers of books, publishers as well as authors. “By taking seriously the financial, vocational, and ideological circumstances in which works on science and religion were produced,” Topham argues, “the historian is better able to understand the motivations underlying the claims made, and therefore the claims themselves.” Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, wanted to establish a new identity of the man of science, in direct opposition to the clerical gentlemen of science. “Most of those involved in producing works on science and religion,” whether author or publisher,  “stood to gain professionally or financially, and the focus of book history on the practices of authorship and publishing helps to highlight such concerns.”

Topham concludes that “by refocusing…attention on the everyday practices of a far wider range of people than have previously been considered, historians can recover the nuts and bolts of the cultural history of science and religion.” All communities, author, publisher, reader, were “enmeshed in an industrialized network of print, situated within particular communities, engaged in personal but community-oriented spiritual journeys, and exploring different possible futures for science that the dynamic of historical change took place.”


Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: Some Words on Evolution and the Politics of Publishing

Conflict occurs at multiple levels. Principally, it is a tension created within the mind of an individual when confronted with information and beliefs that appear to be in opposition. Preachers, teachers, writers, media and so on often reinforce dicotomies rather than look for middle ground. These conflicts are, as they have always has been, between competing sources of authority. Conflict, where it has existed, has never been and will never be as simple as “all religion against all science,” for the contest for authority is also being fought out within religions and amongst scientists.

At first glance the current conflict between evolution and creationism appears to be a clear exemplar of the “conflict thesis.” But under closer inspection, it involves setting Christian biblical literalism against religious liberalism as well as against evolutionary and geological science.

The origins of our modern situation are reviewed in Bronislaw Szerszynski “Understanding Creationism and Evolution in America and Europe.”  “What was new and arguably more significant in Darwin’s work,” writes Szerszynski, “was the idea that the emergence of new and often more complex species could be explained by ‘natural selection’: by the way that environmental pressure will favour the reproduction of those individuals that possess certain characteristics, a process that over a long period of time can radically alter the characteristics of an interbreeding population.”

The influence of Darwin’s ideas are indisputable. But as his ideas circulated in wider society, they were used to legitimate an extraordinary range of socio-political ideologies, from Marxism to eugenics and ideas of racial supremacy. And since the 1940s, when genetics was combined with the idea of natural selection, producing what became known as “the modern synthesis” or neo-Darwinism, Darwin’s ideas have come to be seen as a hugely important part of our understanding of living things. With the success of rDNA technology in the 1970s and the reading of the human genome in the early twenty-first century, biological science attained an extraordinary symbolic significance as a potential basis for technological innovation, capital accumulation, medical advance, and environmental protection. Thus it is terribly important to keep in mind that Darwin and his theory of evolution have come to symbolize a cluster of cultural values (e.g. Enlightenment reason, anti-dogmatism, but also the modern project of mastering nature for the well-being of humanity); and that these values are threatened by the rise of creationism in the last few decades.

From the beginning, reaction to Darwin’s ideas among the religious were complex and varied, ranging from outright rejection to enthusiastic acceptance. But today “the polarized public contest between the advocates of naturalistic evolution and those of scientific creationism tends to mask the diversity and complexity of contemporary belief,” making it increasingly difficult to form a measured assessment of the doctrine of creation amongst religious thinkers. Thus Szerszynski wants to understand creationist beliefs, “not in the form of public polemics and campaigns but in terms of the private beliefs and opinion polls.” He says we need to “situate” these beliefs against the religious landscapes of Europe and America.

In trying to understand creationist beliefs, Szerszynski pursues three different types of studies. The first consists of mainly historical studies of the individuals and organizations that have been actively promoting creationist ideas over the last 100 years. According the Szerszynski, creationist ideas have evolved tremendously over the last century. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), for example, was not a strict biblical literalist, since he subscribed to a “day-age” creationism in which each day of Genesis was to be interpreted as a geological epoch. However, George McCready Price (1870-1963) insisted on a literal reading of Genesis, and thus a young earth. John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris continued Price’s arguments in their own work. By the 1990s there was significant new development with the rise of a theory of Intelligent Design (ID). The key development of ID were worked out in  Phillip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991) and Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996). Soon thereafter Stephen Meyer established the Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington, with funding from the Discovery Institute, a non-profit policy think tank best known for its advocacy of ID and “Teach the Controversy” campaign. According to Szerszynski, despite some temporary victories, ID has not been recognized as a credible scientific research program.

Another kind of study consists of quantitative data gathering, most common in America but also carried out elsewhere, which try to determine the distribution in different national populations of ideas about the origin and development of life, and of human beings in particular. Gallup polls, for example have found fairly consistent results over the last quarter-century, indicating a high incidence of creationist beliefs among Americans: in 2008 44% of those polled adhered to some form of creationism, whereas 36% adhered to theistic evolution , and only 14% supported evolution by natural selection. The numbers were markedly different elsewhere. In the EU, for example, an average of 70% polled adhered to evolution, “ranging from over 80 per cent in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France to 50 per cent or less in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Cyprus.” Surveys and polls, however, are always problematic, and Szerszynski points out some issues. But “overall it appears from poll data that, while in America the ratio of young-earth creationists to theistic evolutionists to naturalistic evolutionists is approximately 45:35:15, in Europe it is probably more like 20:20:45.”

And finally, the third kind of study involves attempts to understand why people believe in evolution or creationism. In both cases, however, reductionistic reasons have been given for belief, failing to do justice to why people hold to an evolutionary perspective or the creationist one. In place of this kind of study, Szerszynski wants to “attend to individual sense-making processes.” Combing the historical, quantitative and qualitative studies, he says, might help to place creationist beliefs in socio-historical context, and thus offer a much better understanding of them.

It has become a commonplace in the literature on creationism to say that the main reasons creationism is less common in Europe than in America are, first that European society is more secular, and, second, that the religious life of the continent is dominated by churches that have broadly accepted the truth of Darwinian evolution. Szerszynski rejects such platitudes. According to such scholars as diverse as David Martin, Peter Berger, and José Casanova, European thinkers had developed their theories of inevitable secularization by generalizing inappropriately from a distinctively European experience of religious decline. In any case, it has become recognized that secularization is not “a single, unified, and linear process but one that proceeds in ways that are contextually specific.”

According to Szerszynski, “attending to the broadly contrasting nature of religion in America and Europe can not only help explain differential distribution of creationist beliefs but also provide insight into their differential societal meanings.” In Europe, for example religion is significantly woven into its tradition through binding symbols and rituals, whereas in America religion is shaped by pilgrimage and revolution, in the very rejection of old churches and their hierarchies.

Szerszynski also contrasts modern European and American educational systems and, using recent sociological research, suggests that religious education is just as important as scientific education in shaping popular attitudes to evolutionary science and to creationism. For example, Europe is characterized by greater levels of state control over educational systems than is the case in America. And, interestingly enough, polls conducted across European and American schools found that whereas most teachers in Europe favored discussing creationism in classrooms, American teachers did not. Even more interesting, recent statistical research on American and European “civic scientific literacy” showed that “28 per cent of American adults but only 14 per cent of European Union adults qualified as scientifically literate.”

But scientific literacy is not enough, says Szerszynski; religious literacy is just as important here—if not more. In stark contrast to American educational institutions, religious education has been a standard element of most European school curricula. In this context religious education has two goals: the first is confessional; the second is that of stimulating a reflexive understanding of religion and its place in history and contemporary society. This leads Szerszynski to the conclusion that “the strength of American creationism is not simply a product of the buildup of resentment among religious communities that their own teachings and values are not represented in education of the young; it is also a product of the lack of religious literacy in the second sense among the American population. So religious education is arguably as important as scientific education in creating the conditions for the public to understand and critically assess the significance of creationist ideas.”

The theory of evolution has indeed come to symbolize a cluster of cultural values, and in some sense has become a particular kind of “civil religion” for modern society.  In the cultural conflict between the two worldviews of evolutionary theory and creationism, evolutionary theory became a boundary object: “the progressivists used evolution as a new salvation narrative which underscored progress and human achievement, the fundamentalists saw it as a symbol for a godless, immoral culture.” Thus it should be no surprise that American creationists see this “atheistic humanism” as reducing the human to mere biology. Europeans, on the other hand, have found an alternative way. In the European context, writes Szerszynski, “a very different humanism, grounded less in the natural sciences and more in the humanities and social sciences, has helped provide not just a vocabulary for thinking about…’the human condition’ but also its own critique of biological reductionism that has nothing to do with either biblical literalism or religious enthusiasm.” “Instead of interpreting the creationist controversy simply as an issue about science,” he concludes, “perhaps we should use it as an occasion for reflecting about the importance of the development of such rich vocabularies for the full flourishing of what is to be human.”

The aggressive American-style evangelism now spreading around the world has chosen evolutionism as a symbol of the modernizing social trends it abhors. Of course there are more localized issues involved too, illustrated keenly by Adam R. Shapiro’s “The Scopes trial beyond science and religion,” demonstrating that the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 was made possible only by political decisions concerning the buying of new high-school textbooks in Tennessee, the publicity of a small rural town, and American self-identity. Rather than seeing the Scopes trial as another episode in the inherent “conflict” or struggle between science and religion, Shapiro wants to situate its uniqueness in Dayton, Tennessee.

In 1923 Tennessee governor Austin Peay took note of existing contracts with textbook publishers, which were set to expire the following year. In 1919 the state had signed a contract fixing the prices of textbooks for the next five years. The timing was unfortunate. Tennesseans would have to pay an increased fee for classroom textbooks, two months before Peay would have to stand for re-election. Thus “Peay, along with his Commissioner of Education and political ally, Perry L. Harned, devised a strategy to avert this political difficulty.” In April 1924, the State Text Book Commission unanimously decided to defer the adoption of text books until 1925. “Thus a political difficulty was converted into a boon. Voters would not feel the effects of a price increase until after the election, preventing it from becoming an issue against Peay in the election.”

This deferment, however, left Tennessee schoolchildren with a ten-year-old biology textbook; namely, George W. Hunter’s 1914 book, A Civic Biology. But biology textbooks had changed significantly since Hunter’s book was first written. Indeed, Hunter’s book was central to the trial. One month before the trial, for example, William Jennings Bryan wrote to a colleague: “If you have not read the book in question, ‘Hunter’s Civic Biology’, I suggest you get it. It certainly gives us all the ammunition we need.” Shapiro notes that other textbooks published in 1923 and 1924 had adopted, unlike Hunter, a more cautious attitude towards evolution. The Civic Biology, moreover, focused on issues of quarantine, food safety, and the improvement of human society (including a substantial section on eugenics), and thus was geared towards urban schools, not rural areas like Rhea Country, Dayton’s county seat. Indeed, when Tennessee adopted Hunter’s book in 1919 it was adopted for all public schools in the state. Rural populations like the one in Dayton found it deeply offensive that they were compelled to use a biology textbook that touted the benefits of urban life, rather than the more traditional structure of botany, zoology, and physiology.

There was also some publicity at stake. Shapiro reminds readers that the “citizen of Dayton seized upon the opportunity to host a test of the anti-evolution law as a means to promote their town.” Indeed, after Scopes was indicted, other towns attempted to follow suite, when citizens of Chattanooga sought to co-opt the publicity of the trial by indicting a schoolteacher of their own. Dayton had experienced the boom and bust of industrialization, and thus needed to reinvent itself, to draw more people into their rural community. One way of drawing in the population was to portray Dayton as the typical American town, one pamphleteer declaring that Dayton was “America—a town of a few thousand, in a region of fruit and corn and dares and littler groves.” “In one sense,” Shaprio suggests, “claiming that Dayton was Main Street, USA, was an attempt to establish Dayton’s character as typically American.”

According to Shaprio, “the complex network of concerns over economy, culture, industry, demography, and education was aligned by competing groups in the Scopes trial and then replaced by the universalizing rhetoric of science-and-religion conflict.” The trial “created a science-religion conflict more than it ever accurately embodied a pre-existing one.” And finally, “it was people—not ideas—that fought in Dayton. The reasons they were fighting were much more complicated than whether ideas they held were incommensurable.”

A Brief Word on Nineteenth-Century Periodicals

Interrupting the flow of my synopsis of Dixon’s et al. Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, I want to briefly share some exciting research prospects.

I have been burying myself in recent weeks in literature on the popularization of science and the circulation of periodicals and newspapers in nineteenth-century Britain. A number of scholars have been at the forefront of this kind of research. Books of significant import include James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensations: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000), Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences (2007), and an anthology of scientific and literary material edited by Laura Otis, Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2002). Other edited works include Geoffrey Cantor, Gowan Dawson, Graeme Goody, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttleworth, and Jonathan R. Topham’s Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (2004); Louise Henson, Geoffrey Cantor, Gowan Dawson, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttleworth, and Jonathan R. Topham’s Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media (2004); and Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth’s Science Serialized: Representation of the Sciences in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press (2004). Also very enlightening are Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Science in Context (1997),  Aileen Fyfe and Barnard Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (2007), and David N. Livingstone and Charles W.J. Withers’ Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science (2011).

Important antecedents to this more recent surge in periodical research are found in J. Donn Vann and Rosemary T. VanArsdel’s Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society (1994), Alvar Ellegard’s Darwin and the General Reader: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-1872 (1990), John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth’s Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900 (1989), George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (1988), Sally Shuttleworth’s George Eliot and Ninteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning (1984), and Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983). The work of such scholars show how numerous literary writers of the nineteenth century actively engaged with scientific themes in essays, novels, and poems. But they also show, according to Otis, how numerous scientific writers were also “imaginative writers,” depicting the world “imaginatively so that they could draw inferences about invisible phenomena based on observable effects.”

Included in this list are a host of articles and essays published in various academic journals. The Special Section of the 2000 issue of The British Journal for the History of Science contains essays exploring historical encounters of readers with printed matter, books, newspapers, magazines, almanacs, tracts, pamphlets and so on. Essayists include Jonathan R. Topham, “Book History and the Sciences”; Adrian Johns, “Miscellaneous Methods: Authors, Societies, and Journals in Early Modern England”; Leslie Howsam, “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-Century Book Trade: The International Scientific Series”; and Nicolaas Rupke, “Translation Studies in the History of Science: The Example of Vestiges.” The nineteenth century is a field I am not particularly familiar with, so another essay by Jonathan R. Topham, “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources,” published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2000) has become an invaluable source.

More recently, James Secord’s astutely titled review essay, “The Electronic Harvest,” in The British Journal for the History of Science (2005) shows how “a digital scanner linked to optical character recognition software is the combine harvester of twenty-first century scholarship,” which has, in a few short years, reaped “electronically the results of centuries of literary production.” In 1999, the Division of History and Philosophy of Science in the University of Leeds and the Department of English Literature in the University of Sheffield, and under the guidance of Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth, initiated the Science in Nineteenth-Century Periodical project, known commonly as “SciPer.” The project’s aim “has been to analyse the representation of science, technology, and medicine, as well as the inter-penetration of science and literature, in the general periodical press in Britain between 1800 and 1900.” The project’s prodigious electronic index includes thousands of periodicals of nineteenth-century Britain: Youth’s Magazine, Nineteenth Century, Westminster, Quarterly, Fortnightly, Edinburgh Reviews, Cornhill Magazine, Illustrated London News, Punch, Comic Annual, Mirror of Literature, Review of Reviews, Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, Nature, North American Review, All the Year Round, Friend, Dublin Penny Journal, Evangelical Magazine, Contemporary Review, Philosophical Magazine, Philosophical Transactions, and much, much more. Other extremely helpful electronic indexes include Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 and the well-known Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.

“Periodicals,” write Dawson and Topham, “represent some of the most significant material and cultural forms through which the sciences were communicated and debated in the Victorian period.” Studying the intertextual field afforded by nineteenth-century periodicals will hopefully yield a better understanding of science-religion relations in that century and, more importantly for my own research, the origin, definition, and dissemination of the conflict narrative between the two.

Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: A Word on Narratives

Having discussed the implications of recent literature that categorizes both “science” and “religion” as nineteenth-century social constructs, the same argument is applied to the scientific revolution by Margaret J. Osler in “Religion and the Changing Historiography of the Scientific Revolution.”

The idea that there was a “Scientific Revolution” between 1500 and 1700 and that this marked a definitive moment of separation between science and religion was, Osler argues, the creation of nineteenth-century positivists and twentieth-century historians who read their own secularist aspiration and experiences back into the history of the sciences during a period when they were, in fact, pursued in a climate of diverse, serious, and vibrant theological concern.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), in giving a historical account of the sciences, lauded thinkers of the seventeenth century for their scientific achievements while “scorning what they considered the irrationality and authoritarian attitude of religion.” During the nineteenth century, the ascendency of positivism, promoted by Auguete Comte (1798-1857) and Ernst Mach (1838-1916), predetermined how a retinue of historians of science would view the relationship between science and religion. Comte propounded a two laws. First was the “historical law” in which humanity passed through a theological, metaphysical and then culminating to a “positive” or scientific stage. The second was an “epistemological law,” which classified the sciences in a hierarchy determined by their sequence of arriving at the positive state and their increasing complexity. In all this “religion had to be eschewed before positive science could progress.” Mach rejected all metaphysical claims, arguing that such claims could not be proven empirically. He located the origin of modern science in Galileo. And like Comte, Mach accused religion of stifling the progress of science.

Osler argues that both Comte’s law of stages and Mach’s outline of history “profoundly influenced the formation of the history of science as an academic discipline in the twentieth century.” The other nineteenth-century influence came from American defenders of “secular” education in the sciences, namely John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918). According to Osler, the “conflict” model of Draper and the “warfare” metaphor of White “dominated discussions of the relationship between science and religion” in the twentieth century.

Both the positivists and the Draper-White thesis influenced the work of, for example, George Sarton (1884-1956), who once wrote that “Auguste Comte must be considered as the founder of the history of science, or at least as the first who had a clear and precise, if not a complete, apprehension of it.” Sarton also referred to White’s warfare metaphor with approval. Other historians, including Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alexandre Koyré, Herbert Butterfield, Richard S. Westfall, and others agreed that the “scientific revolution” was a dramatic break with earlier ways of thinking and that it resulted in a profound change in the concept of nature and, indeed, in the relationship between science and religion. The end result, in short, is that “historians of science in the twentieth century tended to see what they considered a progressive separation of science from religion” and the gradual secularization of modernity.

According to Osler, these historians influenced others, further aggrandizing the unexamined assumptions formulated by the nineteenth-century positivists. In the late twentieth century, however, major challenges to this “classical” or “traditional” narrative emerged. Scholars began arguing that the “entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasized divine creation, design, and providence.” That is, seventeenth-century natural philosophers “believed that the study of the created world provided knowledge of the wisdom and intelligence of the Creator.” Many historians have contributed to what Osler characterizes as a major “sea-change” or “shifting tide,” including P.M. Rattansi, J.E. McGuire, B.J.T. Dobbs, Stephen D. Snobelen, Peter Harrison, and Jan W. Wojcik, only to give a small sample.

In her conclusion Osler asks what caused this sea-change? Osler suggests that the historiography of the scientific revolution of the middle decades of the twentieth century occurred within the optimistic environment of “big science” and “massive government funding.” However, fear of nuclear holocaust, awareness of environmental degradation, the revival of occult practices of New Age spirituality, a new emphasis on social history and feminist studies, and the growth of fundamentalist religion, in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism undermined unqualified faith in science in the late twentieth century. It was in this context, Osler suggests, that historians of science finally began recognizing the complex relationships between science and religion.

Nineteenth-century positivists and twentieth-century historians clearly read their own secularist aspirations and experiences back into the history of the sciences. Frank M. Turner, in the following essay, offers a closer analysis of the “conflict thesis” itself, with reference to its origins in the intellectual and cultural world of the late-nineteenth century.

According to Turner, the relationship of science and religion passed from “fruitful co-operation and modest tension to harsh public conflict, a situation that many observers have since come incorrectly to assume to be a permanent fact of modern cultural life.” Certain transformations occurred in the nineteenth century “within scientific and religious communities and changes in the structure of publication, education, and wider cultural discourse,” which more narrowly circumscribed “science” and “religion,” thus abstracting them from their historical context.

Between 1840 and 1890, Turner tells us, numerous controversies erupted between science and religion. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Spencer’s cosmic evolution narrative, Tyndall’s materialism, anthropological theories of human pre-history and religion, and the rise of textual criticism all issued much debate amongst nineteenth-century thinkers. But we must recognize, Turner warns, that there is no necessary or existential conflict: “modes of idealism, naturphilosophie, natural religion, theism, and ethical progressionism informed the work and personal values of numerous natural philosophers. These metaphysical, theological, and moral factors were not extrinsic to their pursuit of natural knowledge but part and parcel of it and for many scientists…remained so certainly to the end of the nineteenth century, if not well beyond.”

But during the nineteenth century various scientific communities arose  to compete with religious authority, defining “science” within a narrower professional and naturalistic framework. Likewise, social, institutional, devotional, and theological phenomena subsumed under the term “religion” experienced transformation, manifesting liberal, rational, or moderate associations, the rise of “bibliolatry” among evangelical Protestants, an aggressive Roman Catholicism asserting its theological and ecclesiastical authority, and a general hostility between and among Christian groups. “Thus by 1860,” writes Turner, “European churches were engaging with their cultures, asserting their authority, and championing the Bible much more intensely than their forebears had a century earlier.”

However, it is important to note that this hostility was not between “religion and science,” or more precisely Christianity and science; rather, it was between Christianity and materialism or atheism, skeptical rationalism, theological heterodoxy, ecclesiastical irregularity, or attacks by the secular state. This ideas eventually morphed into a new definition of science, for those who pushed for new notions of science also espoused materialistic or atheistic, skeptical rationalistic or theologically heterodox ideas. Harking back to the French Revolution, Turner reminds us that revolutionaries’ anthems for science were often simultaneously coupled with attacks on religion, which undeniably raised nineteenth-century apprehensions that “scientific thought or culture might endanger religion and the social status quo.” “Science could,” Turner suggests, “be socially, politically, and religiously dangerous, especially when it displayed connection or sympathy with French culture.”

Working within a propositional fallacy, many conservative religious figures of the nineteenth century argued that “if ideas bearing the whiff of French materialism, tranformationism, or religious heterodoxy were embraced, published, or advocated, then atheism, immorality, anti-clericalism, and social disruption might (or must) follow.”

From the 1840s to the 1860s, many thinkers abandoned religious and philosophical outlooks when they changed their view on the social status quo, for such outlooks were intimately intertwined with existing political and social structures. As Turner notes, British natural theology provided both a theological and a social theodicy. The Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1840), for example, combined “intricate theological explications of nature with arguments supporting the contemporary British social and political status quo.” But these theodicies were fragile indeed, and a younger generation of scientists, discontent or even disgusted with existing boundaries of thought and action, either abandoned or wholly rejected them.

Ironically, by the mid-nineteenth century works began appearing challenging the “morality of the churches, the elitism of the major scientific societies, and the idea that any elite could control the discourse of natural knowledge.” Turner summarizes this development with an extended quote from Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004), worth quoting at length here as well:

as advocates of a specific idea of science professionalization they were committed to constructing a definition of value-neutral and hence ‘objective’ science…The scientific naturalists recognized the professional gains to be had by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science. Huxley and his camp could claim that they spoke as objective experts, not political or ideological partisans. This strategy involved erecting an epistemological divide between science and politics, ethics, religion, and other cultural forces. It also encouraged a distinction between elite and popular science…Such a strategy was brilliant but disingenuous. The scientific naturalists invoked an ‘ideologically pure’ science that concealed their own varied sociopolitical agenda behind the banner of rigorous professionalism.

New definitions of “science” were merely one side of the equation. The other side were new approaches to religion: “By about 1850 the contours of religious thought had undergone as much reconfiguration as science.” Protestant bibliolatry, with its growing emphasis on a literal reading of scripture, and an increased uncompromising attitude after the publication of Darwin’s Origins resulted in much sharper conflict over science. Roman Catholicism also underwent intellectual transformations that precipitated outright conflict with scientists. Pope Pius IX in 1864, for example, issued the Syllabus of Errors, putting the Roman Catholic Church in direct opposition not only to liberal politics but also science. In turn, the Tractarian Movement, led by John Henry Newman (1801-1890), argued that the authority of the Church should principally direct the faith of Christians, but in so doing he only cast further doubt on the historical authority on the Bible. The German philosophy of Friedrich Schleiermacher, with his emphasis on a “theology of feeling,” provided another context for men of science and others  to question older, traditional modes of religious life. Finally, voices of liberal biblical interpretation looked to advances in the physical sciences to aid them in their efforts to transform the reading of scripture and to challenge ecclesiastical authorities. “Just as the emerging generation of scientists sought to pursue new professional independence in thought and organization,” Turner writes, “various religious groups and theologians sought to establish their own intellectual and institutional independence.”

The medium in which this emerging conflict entered the public sphere were various. First was the unprecedented expansion of journals, scientific publications, religious papers and magazines, and Bible production. The learned periodical, according to Turner, “came to constitute a world of self-referential exchange and debate.” Second, the expansion of education, with the growth of government expenditures fostered conflict as different interest groups fought for resources and institutional authority. Finally, the prosperity and optimism of the mid-nineteenth century made the social dangers stemming from materialism no longer seemed necessary.

Turner thus reminds us that we should not discount the existence of real conflicts between science and religion in the nineteenth century. The fact that a strong public sense of a conflict between science and religion emerged when it did still itself needs to be explained. Particularly important for Turner is an appreciation of the history of religious life and thought during the nineteenth century, the emergence of a new sphere of state education, and the expanding literate sectors of transatlantic intellectual life.

Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: A Word on Categories

Dixon et al - Science and Religion New Historical PerspectivesBorrowing a line from Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, Dixon, Cantor, and Pumfrey’s Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010) may be said to argue that “there is no such thing as a conflict between science and religion, and this is a book about it.” Whenever the words “science” and “religion” appear together in a sentence, they are likely to conjure up other words like “debate,” “conflict,” and “inevitable.” That set of associations, real or imagined, is the underlying subject of this book. A fascinating set of subjects, including discussions on “categories,” “narratives,” “evolution and creationism,” and “the politics of publishing,” are all brought together in honor of John Hedley Brooke, celebrating his work in redefining the narrative of conflict between science and religion.

Dixon, in his introduction, describes the narrative as embodying “the hackneyed but popular idea that, ever since the Scientific Revolution, ‘science’ and ‘religion’ have been locked in a deadly battle in which science emerges triumphant.” But as the work of Brooke clearly demonstrates, says Dixon, one should adopt a far more nuanced perspective.

The influence of Brooke is so great, Dixon admits, “one might be forgiven for thinking that there was some pro-religious apologetic intention lurking here. At the very least, whatever the intentions of particular historians, the scholarly destruction of the conflict thesis is of obvious utility to those seeking to argue for the reasonableness of religious belief on the basis of its compatibility with modern science.” Thus there is a real danger that the new history tends to paint science as the aggressor and religion as the victim, of confusing dismissal of narrative of conflict and denial of any actual conflict. But Brooke has always displayed remarkable balance here. Brooke argued against the overly simple assumption that conflict between science and religion is inevitable because of the essential nature of the two and that all interactions between the two must be adversarial. But that is different from saying that there is, or has been, no conflict. For Brooke there is not just one “science” or one “religion,” and any interplay between whatever science and religion was, is—and are—socially conditioned. In other words, both sides of the apparent debate must be seen as necessarily complex and contextualized.

Science and Religion is not a book about science and religion per se, for nowhere in the text do either terms receive definition (or even conflict). Rather, the authors remind readers, again and again, that science has changed since its eighteenth-century days as natural philosophy, and that religion is neither a set of beliefs nor a code of practices, but some undefined mixture of the two. The book is instead a work of historiography, that is, “the study of the way history has been and is written…the changing interpretation of those events in the works of individual historians.”  While each chapter has its own particular subject, a key theme developed throughout is the insistence that there can be no simple one-to-one relationship between science and religion, because each area of science and each branch of religion will react to the interaction in different ways at different times.

Under the rubric of “Categories,” Peter Harrison starts things off with considering the historically conditioned nature of “science” and “religion.” He discusses the implications of recent literature that categorizes both terms as nineteenth-century social constructs. Presumed continuities in the history of science are called into question when we realize that the “sort of activities that are part of science at any one time are extremely heterogeneous, and they change through time.” He looks at the connotations  of “science” in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods, arguing that “science” was never independent from “religion.” In the early modern period, for example, the study of nature took place within the boundaries of “natural philosophy,” which was “frequently pursued from religious motives…based on religious presuppositions” and drew “social sanctions from religion.” The birth of the modern discipline of science took place during the nineteenth century, often serving the political purposes of those deploying “a rhetoric of conflict between theology and science.” The historizing of the term therefore shows that “science” is a human construction and reification.

But if “science” is a category that took on its characteristic form during the nineteenth century, “religion,” defined as a belief in certain propositions (about God, humanity, redemption and so on), is a category that first emerged amongst Enlightenment scholars grappling with the fragmentation of Christendom in the Reformation. Following the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Harrison evokes the etymological origins of religio, arguing that during the medieval period “religion” had been “faith or piety—an inner dynamic of the heart” (see also Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment [1990]). A shift occurred, however, beginning in the European Enlightenment and culminating during the nineteenth century with the creation of “religion” as a reified entity. This new conception, which was intended to model religion on the newly emerging sciences, “was less about emulating Christ than it was about giving intellectual assent to the doctrines that he had preached.” Not surprisingly, “religion” defined in these terms began to look like an inferior or immature version of science rather than a spiritual exercise. “The problem of the relation of Christianity to science is thus,” writes Harrison, “a problem generated to a large degree by the categories in question.” “It is the God of the philosophers,” he continues, “who figures in many discussions of the science-religion relation—the God who is necessary cause for the existence of the universe, who sustains the created order and its mathematical laws, who works, if necessary, within quantum uncertainties, in short the God in whom reason induces belief.”

Harrison concludes with some prospects of future science-religion discussions. First, those who deploy such abstractions as “science” and “religion” must do so with great sensitivity to their limitations and their inherent distorting affects. As such, it is important to also consider the political dimensions that each category and their relations has served. Moreover, the personal dimension of individuals espousing one view or the other ought to be taken more seriously. And finally, historical analysis is key in providing insight and visibility to such categories, events, and figures.

The suggestion that “religion” is better seen as spiritualizing practice or exercise, or the “inner dynamic of the heart,” rather than as belief systems is intended to challenge the way we have viewed its relationship with “science.” If we adopt an artificial definition of religion modeled on science, it is easy to see why the two areas have come to be depicted as mutually exclusive or hostile to one another—”science” is simply replacing an obsolete version of its own, perennial program. The implication seems to be that if we switch our definition of religion to focus solely on practice, the arena for conflict simply disappears because we are no longer looking at rival systems based on assent to proposition about the world.

But just how far can this approach take us in the area of science and religion? Can we really say that religion never focuses seriously on beliefs? This problem is highlighted in the following chapter by Jan Golinski on Bruno Latour’s religion. Latour, a sociologist of science and an anthropologist known for his work in the field of science and technological studies, is not widely known outside France that he is a practising Catholic who nevertheless insists that his religion is also non-propositional. According to Golinski, Latour sees a problem in belief-centered definitions of religion, “it assimilates religion to a scientific or factual model, in which it is taken to be primarily concerned with making claims about reality.” Religion is misunderstood “if it taken to operate in the same way science does. It does not share the aim of aligning representations so that information is transmitted effectively.” The notion that religious imagery and language represent a hidden reality behind that experienced by science is a double mistake: mistaken in its assumption that science grasps reality directly, and mistaken in ascribing the same aim to religion. Rather than a system of factual knowledge or beliefs, Latour argues, religion is performative, that is, it transforms both enunciator and audience. That is, religion “operates performatively by making something present in the act of enunciation; and what they make present is what Latour calls ‘the divine.'” “Religion is not about transcendence,” he writes, “a Spirit from above, but all about immanence to which is added the renewal, the rendering present again of this immanence.”

As Golinski points out, however, “those who hold certain theological doctrines as central to their faith will see Latour’s analysis as another version of the human sciences’ attempt to explain religion—and thereby to explain it away.” But more importantly, according to Golinski, Latour “overstates his case when he asserts that religion has only been construed as a system of beliefs since science established its epistemological primacy” in post-Reformation Europe. If this were true of all religion, particularly Christianity, why all those heresy disputes and trials in the past? According to scholars like Philip Schaff, Jaroslav Pelikan, J.N.D. Kelly, and John H. Leith, “Christianity has always been a ‘creedal’ religion in that it has always been theological.” It was rooted, writes Leith, “in the theological traditions of ancient Israel, which was unified by its historical credos and declaratory affirmations of faith.” Interestingly enough, the discomfort with creed or doctrinal statements is itself a byproduct of the modern consciousness. “The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” were marked, Claude Welch observes in his Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, by “the antidogmatic, antienthusiatic temper of an age tired and disgusted with religious controversies.” In turn an emphasis emerged on authentic “faith,” of personal feeling and experience. The fides quae creditur was subordinated by the fides qua creditur, the “faith which one believes” to the “faith by which one believes.” Defined most memorably by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in his The Christian Faith, as “the feeling of absolute dependence,” this revised definition of “religion” or “faith” replaced not only the traditional proofs for the existence of God, but of dogma, creed, and confession as well. Golinski also argues that “the notion that science provided an epistemic model that influenced conceptions of religion has more plausibility in the nineteenth century, when the cultural authority accorded to science had increased considerably.”

At any rate, “science” and “religion” are clearly products of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Science,” in the modern sense, was invented sometime between 1780 and 1850. The term “scientist” was first coined by William Whewell in 1833, but not widely adopted until the end of the century. Religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian kind, has historically been doctrinal, propositional, creedal, and confessional. After the Reformation, with the emergence of abundant new sects, it only became more confessional. Exhausted by the religious wars, a new emphasis soon emerged, encouraging a Christianity of more feeling and emotion than of intellectual assent to certain propositions. This new religion of feeling, however, was juxtaposed to a new understanding of science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and, in the end, came out lacking. The point is that both categories are products of long gestation that require detailed contextual and historical analysis in order to make sense of science-religion discussions.

Conflict in History: Science and Religion

Conflict Between Science and Religion

With this post I transition from historicizing the “scientific revolution” and into my own particular area of research, namely, on the relationship between science and religion in Victorian Britain. The two are closely related, however. When popular narratives of the “revolutions in science” first emerged, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were often in conjunction with new definitions of “science” and “religion” and their respective relationship.

Brooke - Science and Religion Some Historical PerspectivesOne of the books that first caught my attention regarding the relations between science and religion was John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991). I had initially dabbled with the “conflict thesis” of John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) from my reading of Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1975), but it was in Brooke’s Science and Religion where I first learned of the complexity of science and religion relations. It was as an undergraduate when I located his book in the university library, my curiosity exponentially increasing as I studied its portentously lime-on-black cover, seemingly calling out to me tolle lege, tolle lege. Not waiting to return to my study carrel, I began reading its introduction, inevitably settling on the floor there between the stacks, where I would remain all day mesmerized by its contents.

Brooke’s Science and Religion masterfully demolished the hackneyed “conflict thesis.” This new history of science replaced simplistic master-narratives with a richer sense of the complexity of past engagements between science and religion; it placed those intellectual engagements firmly in their proper social and political contexts; and it undermined the very idea that “science” or “religion” could be reified as entities with timeless essences. Once I had stepped foot into this stream of Brookean historiography, I was swept away, becoming a confirmed and irredeemable history of science addict.

“Conflicts allegedly between science and religion,” Brooke suggests in the introduction of Science and Religion, “may turn out to be between rival scientific interests, or conversely between rival theological factions.” In other words, alleged conflicts between science and religion often times turn out to be issues of political power, social prestige, or intellectual authority. More importantly, the shifting nature of the boundaries between “science” and “religion” makes it impossible to analyze their relationship according to any one simple thesis or conventional historical narrative. As such, Science and Religion offers “a historically-based commentary” on a series of topics, covering roughly the period between 1543 to 1900, with a postscript on the twentieth century.

Brooke’s aim in the following pages is to “display the diversity, the subtlety, and ingenuity of the method employed, both by apologists for science and for religion, as they wrestled with fundamental questions concerning their relationship with nature and with God.” Each of the chapters of Science and Religion tackles themes which have been important in previous attempts to analyze the relation of science and religion. As Brooke observes, historians have identified a great diversity of ways in which, at different times, religious beliefs constituted “a presupposition of the scientific enterprise,” a “sanction” or “motive” for engaging in it, or had a role in “regulating scientific methodology,” providing means of selecting between competing theories, and even serving a “constitutive role” in the formulation of such theories. The most fundamental weakness of the “conflict thesis,” writes Brooke, “is its tendency to portray science and religion as hypostatized forces, as entities in themselves.”

To view the history of science and religion using such crude a priori notions of both science and religion is to distort our understanding of the past. Context and place matter, contingency reigns, and historical complexity abounds. Thus Brooke begins with a chapter stressing the relatedness of science and religion throughout his period, and the inappropriateness of treating them as “separate spheres.” Statements about God and statements about nature are closely interrelated in the works of such seminal figures as Descartes, Kepler, Brahe, Bacon, Sprat, Ray, Priestley, and many others, and as such illustrates the artificiality of discussing the “relationship between science and religion,” as if the province of each had already been established. But in rejecting the conflict thesis Brooke also rejects a thesis of harmony between science and religion. The problem, of course, is “that claims for inherent harmony are vulnerable to the same kinds of objections as claims for an inherent conflict,” leading to positions of cultural chauvinism or general myopia.

He moves on in chapter two to address a specific historical problem: the question of whether the so-called scientific revolution in early modern Europe led to a separation of science from religion. “The common view is that by the end of the seventeenth century, a recognizably modern science had emerged, separated at last from a preoccupation with matters of philosophy and religion.” This is indeed a seductive view, and many have embraced it in streamlining their historical narrative. But it is also deceptive and, in the final analysis, unsustainable. Brooke shows that although developments during the scientific revolution may have led to a differentiation and reinterpretation of the relationships between science and religion, they did not lead to a separation of the two. Scientific innovations continued to be presented and proffered in theological terms and divine attributes continued to be given physical meanings.

In chapter three, Brooke considers the question of whether there might be a parallel between movements for scientific and religious reform. “Certain developments in seventeenth-century science did prove more difficult for Catholic authorities to assimilate,” writes Brooke. But “while there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that certain Protestant societies were more tolerant toward new scientific learning, difficulties that arise in testing such generalizations can be formidable.”

Brooke discusses in chapter four the irony that mechanical philosophy, which was used to uphold the sense of the sacred in nature and enrich conceptions of divine activity, could also be reinterpreted into a secular creed, “for, if nature ran like clockwork, what room was therefore God’s direct activity or special Providence?” But of course the issue turns out to be far more subtle. In the case of Boyle, for example, mechanical images of nature were enlisted in the defense of Christianity and to demonstrate God’s sovereignty. The role of Providence in the mechanical philosophies of Descartes, Boyle, and Newton are incontrovertible.

This mechanical model of the universe, which in the seventeenth century was used to affirm God’s sovereignty, was utilized by deists of the eighteenth century in their irrepressible attacks on established religion, so Brooke discusses in chapter five. During the period of enlightenment the sciences were hailed as instruments of progress and were used to vilify superstition and priestcraft. Brooke demonstrates how, in the enlightenment, cultural relativism rather than science was the main cause of the rethinking of the authority of the Bible by deists like Tindal, who, more often than not, had a social political ax to grind, wishing to transform the sciences into a secularizing force.

Brooke discusses in chapter six natural theology, stressing the utility of design arguments for both Christians and deists, which only became stronger with advances of scientific knowledge. Yet the eventual shortcomings of arguments from design arose from their tendency to overburden scientific discoveries with religious meanings. In this sense natural theology dug its own grave; degrading religious feeling, on the one hand, and, on the other, convincing only those with preexisting faith. Science did not naturally lead to religion.

In chapters seven and eight, Brooke provides a detailed account of the background to Darwin’s ideas in the development of the historical sciences, and the religious meanings of those ideas found in the later nineteenth century. “As evolutionary models came to the fore in astronomy, geology, and biology, traditional beliefs about humanity’s place in nature were increasingly difficult to defend,” writes Brooke. He concludes these chapters with a detailed chronological treatment of natural history, beginning with Buffon’s history of the earth, Laplace’s history of the solar system, Lamarck and Cuvier’s evolutionary history of life, Lyell’s uniformitarianism in geology, and culminating in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Brooke continues the discussion with an analysis of the post-Darwinian debates in chapter eight, noting the differing perceptions of Darwinism in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. “The use of Darwin to justify the whole gamut of social and political creeds,” he writes, “was a remarkably pervasive and enduring phenomenon.” In both Britain and the United States, for example, Darwinism was enlisted to support interests in conservatism, racism, and even sexism. Studying the reception of Darwinism in different cultures indicates that popularizing evolutionary science was rarely, if ever, a straightforward process. Darwin’s science was “vulgarized in the promotion of particular political goals and these, in turn, often reflected local circumstances.”

Brooke concludes his book with a postscript on science and religion in the twentieth century. Displaying continued tolerance and balance, Brooke argues that despite a prevailing ethos, in which science and secularization are seen as linked together in the constitution of modern culture, the twentieth century witnessed certain developments in the sciences—namely, the revolution in subatomic physics, the emphasis that reductionist accounts of natural phenomena must always be complemented by holistic perspectives, and the reintegration of science with questions of value—that have given much solace to the religious apologist.

More Recent Work

Since 1991, Brooke’s Science and Religion has become the standard textbook for budding historians of science, teaching students the value of historical particulars over grand theories. Brooke was by no means the first to reject the conflict thesis, but he went further than anyone else, replacing it with what has been dubbed a “complexity thesis.”

More recently, with his retirement, Brooke’s students and colleagues have gathered together a collection of new historical perspectives in his honor in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010), edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey. Like many such collections of recent date (including J. H. Brooke and G. Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion [1998]; G. Ferngren, Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction [2002]; D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers, When Science and Christianity Meet [2003]; R. L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion [2009]; P. Harrison, The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion [2010]; J. H. Brooke and R. L. Numbers, Science and Religion Around the World [2011]; and P. Harrison, R. L. Numbers, and M. H. Shank, Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science [2011]), the contents of this book are of varying usefulness and quality. In forthcoming posts, I will highlight certain chapters from Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, including some from other recent publications which are especially worth reading, namely J. H. Brooke and G. Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion, J. H. Brooke and R. L. Numbers, Science and Religion Around the World, and P. Harrison, R. L. Numbers, and M. H. Shank, Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science.

Unintended Consequences: Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Peter Harrison argues in his The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998) that it was only after people began reading the Bible in a different way that they began reading “God’s other book,” that is, the “Book of Nature,” in a different way, and in consequence scientific knowledge began to increase as an indirect result of this new way of reading the Bible. The new way of reading the Bible was promoted, of course, by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers. The Protestant emphasis upon rejecting intermediary authorities between oneself and God, and insisting upon a “priesthood of all believers,” meant that they encouraged the faithful to read the Bible for themselves.

The unforeseen consequence of this, Harrison argues, was that the literalist mentality of the Protestant readers led them to avoid, or even reject, assigning extra levels of meaning not only to the words of Scripture, but also to objects in the Book of Nature. Where previously flora and fauna were seen in allegorical terms and assumed to be invested with moral and spiritual meanings for the benefit of mankind, Protestant observers of nature began to look at the world for its own sake, developing in turn a more naturalistic way of seeing the world. Consequently, the new literalist approach to reading Scripture developed by Protestants played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the early modern period, and accounts for the increasing dominance of Protestants in the development of the sciences throughout the seventeenth century.

Brad Gregory - The Unintended ReformationThe historian of science, therefore, cannot avoid discussing the Reformation in accounting for the rise of modern science. “The Reformation,” Harrison argues elsewhere, “was a major factor in creating the kind of world in which a particular kind of natural philosophy could take root and flourish,” one which would eventually lead to the emergence of scientific culture in western civilization. Thus when a book like Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012) appears, the historian of science must engage it. Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is not limited to students of history of science, however. It will also interest those students of the history of Christianity, Reformation studies, philosophy and philosophical ethics, the social sciences, or anyone interested in the rise of modern western civilization. Breaking out of conventional molds, The Unintended Reformation is a hybrid work of history, philosophy, and contemporary moral and political commentary. According to Carlos Eire, Gregory brazenly challenges the guiding principles of current historiographical orthodoxy. “It was written,” says Eire, “to incite debate, and also to sway minds and hearts, but the author’s erudition and his impeccable scholarship also make it an unavoidable must-read in every early modernist’s reading list.”

Indeed, there has already been a massive response to this book, ranging from highly appreciative to rather dismissive and, as another reviewer put it, sometimes even “venomous reviews.” The journal Historically Speaking devoted a forum to it in June 2012. More recently The Immanent Frame has published several responses to the book on their website. There have been a wide range of reactions—many of them with conflicted impulses. Alexandra Walsham, for instance, praises Gregory’s book as “a persuasive and subtle analysis of many aspects of his subject,” and that his “adoption of a ‘genealogical’ method…yields many suggestive ideas and fruitful insights,” but then goes on to say that he has made “rather large logical leaps,” and that the book is “curiously reminiscent of the grand analyses produced by early members of the Annales School.” Walsham concludes that The Unintended Reformation is a “sermon, a manifesto, and a tract for our times…a piece of Christian apologetic that pits absolute truth against relativizing secular reason.”

Bruce Gordon, although he commends Gregory on writing a powerful and persuasive book,  ultimately concludes that “the manner in which he treats religion is, however, unsatisfying,” arguing that the diverse forms of Catholicism and Protestantism “deserve to be heard more loudly.”

Euan Cameron calls The Unintended Reformation “extraordinary and fascinating,” a work that is “phenomenally learned, intricately and ingeniously argued…with astonishing intellectual virtuosity as well as erudition,” a work that impresses its readers with “intricate chains of logic…stacked one upon another, such that the argument appears to sweep one along with the irresistible force of a mountain torrent.” However, according to Cameron, it is also “deliberately provocative and sometimes exasperating.” Cameron, a professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary, claims he does “not recognize [Gregory’s] portrait of the Reformation.” He argues that “Gregory’s underlying assumption throughout the book appears to be that medieval Western Catholicism constituted a ‘correct’ understanding of Christianity, and that all other belief systems are therefore profoundly erroneous.” In this sense, Cameron seems to imply that The Unintended Reformation is a “Catholic historiography blaming the reformers for breaking up the medieval synthesis.” It is, in the end, a “long threnody for a lost age of grace, specifically, the lost age of medieval Western European Catholicism, or even more specifically that of Thomist philosophy and medieval monastic/sacramental piety.”

And according to Eire, although it challenges current historiographical orthodoxy, his take on The Unintended Reformation is “overwhelming positive,” mainly because he appreciates Gregory’s “eagerness to challenge prevailing assumptions, especially those that have governed Reformation studies.”

The essays published on The Immanent Frame are less conflicted, however. James Chappel, for instance, argues that The Unintended Reformation is a “deeply anti-democratic work.” “It is not,” writes Chappel, “a serious work of history.” It is a work written in an “imperious intellectual style,” and refuses “to engage in dialogue.” Perhaps most harshly, Chappel compares Gregory’s “persistent closed-mindedness” to Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Both scholars are “convinced that the die of modernity were cast somewhere around 1650…both are inordinately long…both are obsessed with Spinoza…and both authors adopt the pose of a Cassandra, howling obvious truths into a world too blinkered by its iPhones to understand.”

If Chappel’s verdict can be deemed as “much too harsh,” Ian Hunter‘s review is downright acerbic.  He maintains that Gregory’s “narrative of the modern world is precommitted to the historical centrality of the Catholic and Protestant churches,” and his “portrayal and solution to the problem of modern cultural pluralism is thus wholly internal to his own confessional-intellectual position.” The Unintended Reformation, as Hunter’s entitled essay clearly states, is a “return to sacred history”; it is ahistorical and absolute, an example of a “particular faith commitment jostling for space alongside a plurality of others.”

The reviews of Peter E. Gordon, Victoria Kahn, Adrian Pabst, Paul Silas Peterson, Guido Vanheeswijkck, and Thomas Pfau are less severe, more measured, and even congenial. In the Historically Speaking forum, Gregory offers a defense—if not blistering correction—against his critics (he has not responded to his critics in The Immanent Frame).

The Unintended Reformation aims “to answer a basic but very big question: How did contemporary ideological and institutional realities in North America and Europe come to be as they are?” In answering this “very big question,” Gregory traces the complex historical legacies of the religious revolution inaugurated by Protestant reformers in sixteenth-century Europe. He centers on the paradox that a movement that was designed to renew and purify religious truth and to intensify spirituality had the unforeseen consequence of creating the increasingly secular societies in which we live today, and which, according to Gregory, reveals the absence of any substantive common good

Gregory wants to discredit what he calls “supersessionist” models of historical change: narratives predicated upon teleology and upon the assumption that the steady displacement of “medieval” (read: primitive) by “modern” (read: progressive) ideas, practices, and structures is a wholly positive development. These modern, sophisticated, or enlightened ideas, Gregory notes, always seem to bear a striking similarity to those of the historian and his or her like-minded colleagues in the faculty lounge. The problem with supercessionist histories is that the overwhelming majority of westerners, unlike most historians, are not disenchanted, secularist intellectuals, and any serious interpretations of history claiming to explain how we got to the present day must also describe the present as it actually is—not as the historian thinks it should be or soon will be.

The Unintended Reformation is, therefore, a “damning critique and a salutary admonition that narratives of progress…have failed to give an adequate account of the contemporary world.” Following in the footsteps of Herbert Butterfield and others, Gregory recognizes the roots of this whiggish historical vision in the very eras under his examination and regards its tenacious success as a reflection of “ideological imperialism.” “Prevailing periodization and parceling of the past,” Gregory argues, “reflect institutionalized assumptions about change over time, which are in turn related to other intellectual discipline with their own aims and presuppositions, all of which are also part of what needs to be explained because they, too, are historical products.” “It seeks to show,” he goes on, “that intellectual, political, social, and economic history cannot be neatly separated from one another, because human beings embedded within social and political relationships enact desires in relationship to the natural world influenced by beliefs and ideas.” And finally, pivotal to his narrative is “the Reformation era because its unresolved doctrinal disagreements and concrete religio-political disruptions are the key to answering the book’s central question. The ongoing consequences of these controversies and conflicts,” he says, “continue to influence all Western women and men today regardless of anyone’s particular commitments.”

In this way The Unintended Reformation uses historical analysis to highlight and speak to contemporary concerns. “I hope the book will convince colleagues,” Gregory pleads, “that the exclusion of intellectually sophisticated religious perspectives from research universities is inconsistent with the open-mindedness that should characterize the academy’s ostensible commitments to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry without ideological restrictions.”

Chapter one traces how a metaphysical system in which God was regarded as a transcendent being separate from his creation and outside the normal order of causation was displaced by a “univocal” one in which He is seen as an integral part of it and conceived of in spatial terms. It is intended, Gregory writes, to explain “why so many highly educated people today think that the truth claims of revealed religion per se are rendered less plausible in proportion to the explanatory power of the natural sciences.” It is this chapter that should interest historians of science the most, for Gregory “challenges an all-too-complacent textbook narrative about the relationship between religion and science.” Chapter one argues that this assumption is a function not of scientific findings, but rather derives from a metaphysical view with its origins in the later Middle Ages.

The roots of this mindset reach back centuries, Gregory says, to the late-medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), who argued that God and man both exist in the same essence of things and that therefore man may speak of God with univocal as opposed to analogical language. In Scotus’ thinking, the word “wise,” for example, might apply to God in the same sense in which it applies to man. This had the effect, says Gregory, of defining God as if He were bound by the material world rather than transcendent over it. And when this view combined with William of Occam’s (1285-1349) “razor”—the principle that the best argument is the one with the fewest unnecessary parts—philosophers eventually felt emboldened to exclude God from any explanation of natural phenomena: and, in time, from any argument at all.

Chapter two explores the relativization of religious truth in the wake of the Reformation and the origins of what Gregory calls “Western hyperpluralism.” Gregory expands on a familiar contention of Catholic intellectuals: that the Protestant reformers, by placing more emphasis on Scripture than on ecclesiastical authority, paved the way for modern moral relativism. The reformers, who clashed over scriptural interpretation even as they championed it as the sole authority in matters of faith, in effect tempted later generations of philosophers and intellectuals to replace Scripture with reason. When reason later failed, it was replaced in the guise of “tolerance.” “The anti-Roman appeal to scripture alone yielded an open-ended range of rival interpretations of God’s truth.” The point is not whether or not Protestants could agree on anything, but “the historical impact of the disagreements that were in fact doctrinally, socially, and politically divisive regardless of whatever else was still held in common.”

Gregory’s third chapter explores the evolving relationship between church and state since the late Middle Ages. His argument in this chapter is that “what had been a jurisdictional rather than a doctrinal contestation in the late Middle Ages, one in which secular authorities were indeed increasingly exercising temporal control over ecclesiastical institutions, was actually intensified and transformed as a result of the doctrinal disagreements that accompanied the Reformation.”

Chapter four and five analyzes the “subjectivizing of morality” and, closely related,  “manufacturing the goods life.” He traces the long-term transition from virtue ethics (moral behavior as an outgrowth of personal character) to an ethics centered on individual rights. The multiplication of mutually exclusive moral communities sowed the seeds of the idea that morality is contingent and constructed. This was assisted by Protestantism’s distinctive soteriology: its insistence that human behavior and will play no part at all in salvation, which is entirely dependent upon the gift of divine grace. When the reformers propounded their belief that salvation could be achieved by faith alone, they prepared the way for moral individualism and consumerism. The result being our “modern Western moral philosophy and political thought.” In turn, all this has created the conditions for rampant consumerism, for “the cycle of acquire, discard, repeat,” which is “the default fabric of Western life.”

In chapter six Gregory argues that knowledge itself has become secularized. The Reformation’s central tenet of sola scriptura meant that the parameters of intellectual life were essentially defined by the content of the Bible. By problematizing the relationship between theology and human understanding, Protestantism laid “the first paving stones of the twisting path that led to the secularization of knowledge.” Instilling “a carefully calibrated skepticism” in students became the chief aim of higher education. Indeed, as he argues in his defense, Gregory sees that “specialized academic research tends to discourage critical inquiry about the character and presumptive neutrality of intellectual assumptions that are routinely taken for granted. One cannot be aware of problems one does not see, and one cannot see what is occluded by the very disciplinary boundaries and research agendas we are supposed to accept.”

Gregory’s descriptions at times are partial and exaggerated, but there is a great deal of truth in them, too. The trouble sets in when he tries to trace the “genealogy” of our lamentable state back to the Reformation. That is, Gregory attempts to show a direct and causal link between two moments in history, dissected by centuries of complexity, of intermingling, interfering, and intervening events. Gregory’s argument is quite plausible, but his analysis is too truncated by his selection of figures and events.

Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 3 – Final)

Livingstone’s chapters on “Site” and “Region” followed recent scholarship, showing how historians have begun addressing the significance of the publication and spatial differentiation of science. In his final chapter on “Circulation,” he looks at the ways science moves from location to location and to how fundamentally local knowledge has taken on the appearance of universality.

On Circulation

“Circulation” considers the transmission of scientific knowledge from the local site to the validating authority, or from one experimental observation location to another. Livingstone challenges the idea that the movement of scientific knowledge is a function of its transcendent, neutral, and disembodied character, or, more fundamentally, it inherent universality. For Livingstone, what looks like universality has a great deal to do with the standardization practices across locales.

All aspects of science diffuse differently in different contexts. Take the diffusion of the Copernican theory throughout Europe during the early seventeenth century. While copies of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus were censored in Italy, elsewhere it found little suppression. In France, for example, most copies were available in Jesuit libraries.

The means of transmission of scientific knowledge varied greatly. Scientific societies, learned academies, field clubs, and circulating libraries diffused “ideas and instruments, texts and theories, individuals and inventions” from one place to another. Alongside these organizations there were peripatetic mathematical practitioners, public lecturers, merchants, itinerant clergyman, journalists, and a host of others who acted as conduits in the flow of knowledge.

But the transmission of scientific knowledge is never a straightforward process. Livingstone uses the case of the air pump, invented by Robert Boyle. In the 1660s various efforts were made throughout Europe to construct replicas of Boyle’s celebrated air pump. But the “air pump was in constant alteration: transmission meant transformation.” Because circulation required calibration, disputes arose. According to Livingstone, the knowledge acquired from the air pump experiments depended on “craft knowledge of the working of experimental devices.” “Its circulation beyond the confines of one venue is not simply the story of universal truths being manifest in particular settings.”

Scientific knowledge, for scientist and non-scientist alike, is often inextricably bound up with traveling reports from distant realms. Sciences like observational astronomy, geography, natural history, surveying, meteorology, hydrology, medicinal botany, and so on, depends on eyewitness accounts detached from the controlled environment of the laboratory. Travelers experience necessarily created problems for the ways of knowing for the new science. Who could be trusted? According to Livingstone, “finding out about distant things required discernment about people.” Traveling reports, moreover, were rarely composed spontaneously. They were usually the product of lengthy compositional revision. They were the outcome, writes Livingstone, of “editorial fashioning and rhetorical flourish…a composite product of stylistic convention, personal experience, and travelogue heritage.” The circulation of scientific knowledge, then, raised profound cultural and conceptual challenges.

Livingstone pursues in the next section the problem of verifying the credibility of scientific knowledge presented by local informants, maps, drawings, and photographs. Each of these “objective” formats, he argues, are constrained both by the local conditions of their making and by the community conventions that govern their interpretation.

The challenge of eyewitness testimony encouraged early scientists to develop certain techniques to circumvent these cognitive difficulties. Guaranteeing the trustworthiness of knowledge was supposed by “properly trained eyewitnesses.” This meant disciplining the senses through suitable instruments, instruction in technique, and data gathering. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a slew of texts were published intended to instruct travelers in the art of geographical observation. “Just what should be observed and how such observation should be taken were rehearsed in detail.” But acquiring trustworthy knowledge depended on more than technical know-how—it required moral fiber. “Trustworthiness and personal character,” writes Livingstone, “was all of a piece with trustworthiness in scientific reporting.” The mental, the moral, and the material of scientific traveler were thus merged. The circulation of knowledge, therefore, was an “inescapably social affair involving judgments about people.”

Maps, seemingly objective representations of reality and repositories of trust, were more than just typographic mapping of terrain. They charted magnetic deviation, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, linguistic families and climate patterns, distribution of animal species, poverty and disease, mammal migration, and religious affiliation. But the idea that the map is a straightforward representation of reality is a deception. According to Livingstone, “every map is a controlled fiction.”  When Christopher Columbus produced a new world map he effectively dissolved the local geography of its natives. When James Cook named hundreds of Australian capes, bays, and isles after European naturalists, he at once effaced local designations and brought those spaces into European vernaculars. More examples are readily available, but suffice it to say, “the maps uses of projection and simplification render it a useful fiction.” The map is thus a cultural production.

In the 1800s, photography became yet another strategy for accurately depicting reality. Artistic renderings, just as eyewitness testimony, were quickly called into question and thus untrustworthy. As a consequence, the photograph was a much welcomed instrument, for it was not only empirical, simple, and precise, it also provided vicarious travel, ecstatic visual experience, accurate representation, and unvarnished truth. In reality, however, photographic evidence created as many problems as it solved. Photography is undoubtedly an “artistic craft.” In reproducing the world, travel photographs constructed an imagined world through the lens of the camera. There was much deliberate set up to give the impression of something more visually appealing. “Photographs, then, like paintings and maps, have always been the work of situated observers.”

In the final section of “Circulation,” Livingstone turns to examining the mechanism by which science standardized its findings. What looks like the universality of science turns out to have much to do with replicating, standardizing, or customizing of local procedure. Instruments, training, questionnaires, maps, and images are the techniques of trust that instills knowledge as dependable. All of these techniques help create the illusion of “placelessness,” a requirement to give “universal science” credibility and objectivity.

In conclusion Livingstone offers suggestions for further work, the biographical, or life geographical studies, of the mutual making of scientist and science. Most provocatively, Livingstone calls for a closer examination of rationality itself, “the customary conventions of practical reasoning” as adapted and employed in local settings. “Rationality,” he says, “is always situated rationality. And it is always embodied rationality.”

Science for Livingstone is not a transcendental entity; it is a human invention that necessarily has a history and geography. The implication of this emphasis on social processes erodes naively realistic beliefs about the progress of science. “Bringing science within the domain of geographical scrutiny seems disquieting. It disturbs settled assumptions about the kind of enterprise science is supposed to be.” It complicates the taken for granted division between science, society, and nature. “It [even] renders suspect the idea that there is some unified thing called ‘science.'” Science is not about culture; it is part of culture. For all the rhetoric that science is independent of class, politics, gender, race, religion, and much else besides, Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place demonstrates how science indeed bears the marks of these very particularities.

Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 2)

In his first chapter on “Site,” Livingstone demonstrated that science embraces a huge range of activities carried out in many venues. In heterogeneous spaces, nature is differently experienced, objects are differently regarded, claims to knowledge are adjudicated in different ways. It is only when the practices and procedures that are mobilized to generate knowledge are located—sited—that scientific inquiry can be made intelligible as a human undertaking. In important ways, scientific knowledge is always the product of specific spaces. To claim otherwise is to displace science from the culture of which it is so profoundly a part. In his chapter on “Region,” Livingstone considers the making and reception of scientific knowledge within defined political boundaries, prefaced with the observation that those boundaries are themselves human constructions.

On Region

We live on a highly differentiated planet, divided by regional mosaics. “Traditions of thought, channels of intellectual exchange, linguistic heritage, educational customs, codes of cultural communication, forms of religious belief, and numerous other constituents of human consciousness are decisively operative in producing regional identity.” Moreover, these regions are not fixed, static entities; rather, region is dynamic, “constructed through the tangled circuits of social relations.” As such, the conduct and content of scientific endeavor, from “styles of patronage, pedagogic traditions, and conduits of intellectual transmission to networks of communication, patterns of social organization, and expressions of religious devotion has conditioned local practices of scientific inquiry and the reception of scientific knowledge.”

At the regional and national scale, Livingstone links scientific practices to issues of cultural identity. The practices of science are interrelated to the cultural practices of the people in their homeland. Both the facilitation of scientific enterprises and the receptivity the scientific claims vary regionally and nationally.

Thus the “European Scientific Revolution” must be understood not only in terms of linear histories of science that highlight the common rationalistic elements of the scientific enterprise but also in relation to the cultural specifics of religion and politics of relevant geographies. Livingstone finds the category troublesome. First, the idea that there was some single event called “the” scientific revolution is the product of self-conscious labeling on the part of apologists and historians. Second, the idea of a momentous “revolution” suddenly inaugurating modernity fails to do justice to the lengthy historical transformations connecting the medieval with the modern. And third, that imagined regional unity—Europe—may be usefully prised open to disclose external influence and internal variation. Thus the idea of an autonomous European science is sustainable only at the expense of a series of strategic exclusions.

According to Livingstone, one must take seriously the regional geography of science. Indeed, particular and cultural circumstances and different national settings all influence scientific ideas in significantly different ways. Early modern science, he says, “followed the contours of geocultural variation.”

Livingstone supports his argument drawing our attention to the ways science was conducted in several geographical regions. On the Italian peninsula in the 1500s, for instance, scientific practice was chiefly cultivated by princely patronage. Such was the case with Galileo, who managed to acquire the munificence of the powerful Medici family. Galileo had moved from the University of Padua (in the Venetian Republic) to Florence in order to become philosopher and chief mathematician to the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici, in 1610. It was during his stay in Florence when Galileo first became seriously involved in the heliocentric debate, publishing his treatise, Sidereus Nuncius (1610), which was the first published scientific work based on observations made through a telescope. Galileo dedicated this work to Cosimo II. Interestingly enough, the courtly culture of the Medici dynasty had a theatrical style in which controversial subjects were unfettered, but would have been seen as improper elsewhere. According to Livingstone, “Galileo’s clash with the church is not to be thought of as an inevitable confrontation between science and theology; rather, it was an embodied struggle between religious authorities and new ways of knowing in a specific regional setting.”

In any case, the Galileo affair was not representative of Italian science. The Jesuits, for example, pursued observational astronomy, electricity, medicine. hydraulics, and natural history without dispute. As John W. O’Malley has observed, “Jesuits taught mathematics, astronomy, physics, and other sciences, wrote on these subjects, ran observatories and
laboratories, and attained renown in these fields.”

Another Italian site of knowledge were anatomy theaters, where public dissections of cadavers were carried out. “The defilement ordinarily associated with dead bodies,” writes Livingstone,” was sanctified by having its social meaning inverted. What was criminal outside became science inside. What was profane was made sacred.”

Cultural conditions and knowledge making enterprises were correspondingly different along Europe’s western fringe, the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal. Here we see most profoundly Islamic influences, notably in works of astronomy and medicine. Another distinguishing feature was its maritime imperatives, stimulating a scientific tradition conspicuously different that of Italy’s courtly culture. Indeed, founded on the tradition of exploration, science in this region was “stamped by imperial utility.” Thus Iberian science, stemming in large part from the imperatives of empire, was a markedly different pursuit from that practiced in the Italian court under the patronage of powerful family dynasties.

This brings Livingstone to the conclusion that “scientific inquiry in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas meant very different things—in what was investigated, who had the power to make knowledge, and why certain lines of inquiry were pursued.”

The same is true of England. Similar to its Iberian counterpart, but nevertheless conspicuously distinct, overseas voyages contributed to a remarkable transformation in regional consciousness. What made English navigational concerns so distinct was its post-Reformation setting, and thus its political and religious geography. In England the “triumph of experimental philosophy took place in the midst of religious turmoil.” Protestant impulses in England directed scientific endeavors in a variety of ways. First, Protestant aversion to ecclesiastical control nurtured an anti-authoritarian stance in matters of natural knowledge. Second, the virtues of hard work, an inclination toward social improvement, and dedication to a life of personal piety fostered a philosophy of self-reliance and harmony with the utilitarian thrust of new scientific enterprises. And third, Protestant expectations of the imminent return of Christ in the ushering in of his millennial kingdom fostered misgivings about abstract, speculative disputes of precisely the sort that typified thought elsewhere, particularly France.

These sentiments inclined English science and scientists toward a “physicotheology,” in which nature was investigated for evidences of God’s handy work, His design. “The character of God was to be found in the orderliness of his creation. Natural philosophers from Boyle to Newton consistently used their investigations to disclose the regularity that the creator had built into the fabric of the universe and to demonstrate the ways he intervened to preserve its stability.”

Another characteristic feature of science—or, more properly, natural philosophy—in Protestant England was a propitious exegesis of God’s two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Inaugurated by the Reformation, allegorical biblical interpretation was replaced by a more literal and historical exegesis. This move also bore on how the text of nature was read.

And finally, in England it was the gentleman who constituted the culture paradigm of truth teller. “Because gentlemen enjoyed financial independence, they had no need to fabricate falsehoods.” The economic subservience of the poor made them suspect as truth tellers. Merchants and traders were in the same boat: because the economic survival required material advantage, their word was not to be trusted. “To the extent that Italian science was a spectacular courtly affair, its English counterpart was a subdued gentlemanly pursuit.”

But Livingstone wants to revel in more complexity. “In different towns and cities, in different counties and provinces, in different municipalities and parishes,” he writes, “scientific endeavors have been molded by subregional particularities.” Looking at the circumstances of Victorian Britain,  political conditions directly impress themselves on the culture of science. Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, and Sheffield all attest to scientific practices that were constituted in different ways by different urban cultures.

The consumption, or reception, of science is also marked by local circumstances.”The meaning of particular scientific texts and theories has varied from place to place.” Here Livingstone briefly examines the work and reception of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Robert Chambers (1802-1871), and, most importantly, Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Different Victorian cities met the challenges of Darwinism in different ways. For instance, Robert Rainy, the principal of the Free Church College in Edinburgh, “openly accepted the legitimacy of evolutionary speculation,”while J.L. Porter, in Belfast, was telling his students that evolutionary theory “threatened to quench every trace of virtue.” Charles Hodge, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary from 1851-1878, insisted that it eliminated purpose and plan; to Hodge Darwinism was atheism.

Rainy’s sentiment is characteristic of Edinburgh thinkers who thought about the issue of Darwinism. This was largely because Darwinism paled in comparison to other intellectual assaults on the religious mind, most conspicuous among them was the new Biblical criticism. In a retiring presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Belfast, John Tyndall, proclaimed that religious beliefs should be subject to scientific constraints:

All religious theories, schemes, and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, insofar as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thoughts of controlling it…Every system which would escape the fate of an organism too rigid to adjust itself to its environment must be plastic to the extent that the growth of knowledge demands.

Tyndall’s claims understandably produced a flood of angry responses from clerics and layperson alike. But most importantly, and perhaps the perspective taken by Porter and others, many who had strongly supported scientific activity as long as they believed that it would support religious ends now withdrew their support of what they perceived as a heartless, soulless, and anti-Christian science.

While Hodge proclaimed Darwinism as atheism, another Princeton scholar, namely James McCosh, read evolution as a story of divine design. Thus even within Protestantism, regional cultures and concerns led to different responses to evolutionary ideas. “The reception of Darwinism thus displayed an uneven regional geography. In some cases religious commitment was crucial. In others racial neuroses or political fixations controlled the diffusion of the Darwinian mind-set…Whatever the particulars, local circumstances were decisive in shaping how regional cultures encountered new theories. In the consumption of science, as in its production, the distinctive regionalism manifests itself.”

Science has been, and continues to be, promoted as a universal undertaking untouched by the vicissitudes of the local. This account, however, is historically misleading. “Science has borne the stamp of the regional circumstances within which it has been practiced.” Science has served dramatically disparate agendas in different ideological spaces. Treating scientific knowledge as a universal phenomenon, untouched by the particulars of location, fails to accurately depict its development and immense power in society.

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 3)

Following a suggestion from my supervisor, I have looked at a collection of essays contained in  European Review‘s (2007) forum Focus: Thoughts on the Scientific Revolution. Some of the essays in this journal were reproduced, albeit modified, in Recent Themes in The History of Science and Religion: Historians in Conversation (2009), edited by Donald A. Yerxa, which were conversations selected from a series of forums appearing in the journal Historically Speaking from 2005 to 2008.

Donald A. Yerxa begins the discussion by assessing the “turmoil” within the historical profession caused by postmodernist thinking and literary theory. The postmodernists “dismissed as epistemological naivety the notion that historians employing detached empirical methods can arrive at narratives that reasonably correspond with the past.” The past only reaches us “configured, troped, emplotted, read, mythologized and ideologized.” As a compromise, practicing historians are now more “open to almost any aspect of human experience,” yet have rejected the “nihilistic tendencies of postmodernism in favor of a commonsensical approach to their craft.”

These challenges and changes in the historical profession calls for “revisiting the question of whether there was such a thing as a Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” According to Yerxa, recent historiography has not been kind to the concept of a coherent and momentous scientific revolution. He fears a historiographical “climate that celebrates novelty, the particular, the local, in a word, complexity.” Why? He says that “if the quest for a coherent Scientific Revolution is deemed a fool’s errand, what then of other historical frameworks like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment?” “Absent the search for coherence,” he goes on, “historical inquiry as a meaningful intellectual enterprise flirts with bankruptcy and historians risk becoming guardians of antiquarianism.” One should not however overemphasize these fears. Yerxa himself comes to a more measured conclusion in his introduction to Recent Themes, aided by a closer reading of John Hedley Brooke’s Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement if Science and Religion (1998), who maintained that “paying attention to complexity does not eliminate the historical patterns needed to make coherent historical narratives; it just yields ones that are more intricate.”

The following essays in European Review “maintain that the Scientific Revolution, refined in various ways, remains a functional historical framework.” Peter Harrison, for example, asks “was there a Scientific Revolution?” and responds with a resounding “yes,” but adds it was more philosophical in nature than scientific. Following Pierre Hadot’s recent suggestion, who understood pre-modern philosophy “‘as a way of life’ rather than a body of philosophical doctrines,” Harrison argues that in the early modern period we see “a major reorientation of the goals of philosophy, a reorientation that will eventually produce not only something more akin to modern science, but also something more like modern philosophy.” This philosophical reorientation begins with Francis Bacon’s new vision of knowledge. According to Bacon, the study of nature should not be a passive, contemplative activity; rather, it should be a collective and cumulative endeavor. As Harrison rightly points out, “although Bacon is generally regarded as having made no substantive contribution to science, his ideas about its goals and method were influential and served as the inspiration for scientific societies both in England and Continental Europe.” In the end, Harrison sees in the seventeenth century the appearance of “new attitudes and values that will promote…’the emergence of scientific culture.'”

William R. Shea’s essay argues that the scientific revolution is best “described not by imposing a twentieth-century template on the seventeenth-century, but by attending to the actual unfolding of science against the background of the richness and the idiosyncrasies of human nature.” The work of Paolo Rossi and Frances Yates, Shea tells us, offers a fresh interpretation of that great philosophical innovator, Francis Bacon. According to Rossi, Bacon was an alchemist and was inspired by the Hermetic tradition. Indeed, his “experimental science” was partly rooted in the “occult philosophy” of the Renaissance. Thus in Sylva sylvarum (Forest of Forests), a natural history book that emphasized the necessity of practical experiments, Bacon stated that he considered experimental science as a “high kind of natural magic.”

Shea also argues that new technology opened new vistas. The telescope and microscope, the thermometer and the barometer, changed the philosophers’ attitude toward their craft. This new attitude was that knowledge is power, and that “power is to be used not only to contemplate nature but to modify and improve it.” Shea concludes his essay by admitting that the desire of achieving mastery over nature was present in the Hermetic tradition, but during the scientific revolution achieving that mastery was “profoundly different.” “Modern science,” he says, “favoured logical rigour, experimental control and public debate where hermeticism merely dreamt of leaping over rationality itself.” Shea’s tendentious language here reveals his partiality. Such seemingly innocuous terminological (“misguided,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” “ridiculous,” and the like) conventions are often the reflection of hidden or implicit ideological agendas. Often this perception of “modern science” has led to serious distortions of the historical record, usually in the form of simplified pictures of complex realities and the creation of imaginary “enemies.” It is odd that Shea would come to such conclusions while being familiar with the exceptional and path-breaking work of Rossi and Yates. Ideologies die hard.

John L. Heilbron rejects the advice of Tore Frängsmyr, who had argued that historians are better off avoiding the metaphor “scientific revolution” because it can only serve as a model, a heuristic approximation, not a literal truth, and thus cannot be used unambiguously. Heilbron, in contradistinction, wants to distinguish between revolutionary ideas, revolutionary situations, and revolution. By revolutionary ideas, Heilbron banally says “where they are encouraged and rewarded, there is no end to them.” By revolutionary situation, he means an event where “people lose confidence in existing law and authority, when they reject obligations as impositions, regard respect for superiors as humiliation, and condemn privilege as unfair and government as irrelevant.” And by revolution he means the lost sense of unity a community once held.

There was no scientific revolution in the sixteenth century, despite an amazing array of developments. Why? One reason, according to Heilbron, was that the best minds were engaged with doctrinal disputes and the wars of the Reformation and not the knowledge of nature. Its aftermath, the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, “enforced a doctrinal conformity little conducive to innovation in natural philosophy.” The political situation of the Thirty Years War was not conducive to attaining natural knowledge either. It was not until the second half of the seventeenth century when “an exhausted Europe was able to devote what energy it had left to improving and dissemination natural knowledge.” Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), for instance, in his History of the Royal Society in London (1667) stressed the importance of equanimity, of a time and place “where people who might not agree on politics or religion could meet civilly and productively over a common interest” of natural knowledge. We see this same emphasis, Heilbrin asserts, in Louis XIV’s Académie Royale des Sciences and the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s Accademia del Cimento. From the founding of these scientific academies we may infer a revolution in ideas and practices. “That is what happened in natural knowledge in the second half of the seventeenth century, when ideas opposed to established learning took root in experimental academies.”

The “ingredients” that led to this revolution were “a powerful program to supplant established ways and teachings, the existence of vigorous well-educated cadres devoted to the program and the creation of new institutions and instrumentalities with which to preserve the gains of the cadres.”

This powerful program, Heilbron begins, appeared with the advent of Descartes and Cartesion physics, only reinforced by the rejection of scholastic forms, the privileging of quantifiable concepts, and a comprehensiveness in explanation. Indeed, Cartesianism quickly gained recruits, including Queen Christina, Elizabeth of Bohemia, physicians and doctors in medical schools of Utrecht, Leyden, and Naples. In France cadre were found among both Cartesian doctors and lawyers. In 1699, the Paris Academy of Sciences reorganized under its Cartesian secretary Fontenelle. In his éloges of deceased members, Fontenelle developed a standard account of enlightenment beginning with the discovery of Descartes and ending with admission to the pantheon of science. These ideas and the memory of these figures were preserved and multiplied in the academies and institutions built up around princes and prelates, librarians, lawyers, and professors. Heilbron maintains that these academies fought censorship on many levels, ushering a kind of “guerrilla warfare.” “Against this process of recruitment and cooptation, sterner censors and other guardians of the past could try to mobilize the church’s formidable machinery of repression.” The church, however, was forced to “modernize” on account of princes appointing “men more open to modern ideas to chairs of medicine” and the like. Heilbron ends with fustian praise for Isaac Newton, the “Napoleon of the piece, the Prince of Physics, the Emperor of Science.” Indeed, Newton, like Napoleon, “consolidated the gains of a revolution fought by others and extended it beyond their wildest dreams.” Heilbron leaves out Newton’s alchemical, theological, and hermetic influences, however. Indeed, in almost every way, Heilbron’s account is question begging and contested by most modern historians of science today. Heilbron certainly keeps the traditional framework of the “Scientific Revolution,” but offers little refinement.

Another essay comes from H. Floris Cohen, a scholar we have come across in previous posts. In relating how the master narrative of the scientific revolution was challenged, starting in the 1960s, Cohen tells us that many scholars began questioning an earlier generation of historical work as unreflective, often identifying present day definitions and classifications of scientific disciplines with their apparent seventeenth-century counterparts. Even the term “science” is disputed, as it carries too many associations far removed from seventeenth-century realities . Strikly speaking, science in its modern form did not appear until the nineteenth century. Modern scholars have placed scientific ideas in institutional and other sociocultural contexts, in local particularity over and against the claims of universal validity of the most seminal ideas of the scientific revolution.

The result, according to Cohen, has been skeptical resignation. “Numerous historians of science have…given up the very idea that…something identifiable holds so complex an event as the Scientific Revolution…” But this is no celebration. Indeed, Cohen laments this resignation, and that it is tantamount to giving up the quest for coherence. The general message is that the advent of modern science in our modern world was in “effect due to chance.” But in following Joseph Needham, Cohen argues that to “attribute the origin of modern science entirely to chance is to declare the bankruptcy of history as a form of enlightenment of the human mind.”

Historical scholarship requires concepts and carefully delineated theories and hypotheses. But historians often keep their conceptulaizations “fuzzy,” to avoid clear-cut, black-and-white explanations, for historians work with a fugitive called “change.” And “change over time cannot be captured well by means of fixed concepts over time.” Thus historians, Cohen argues, sometime borrow conceptual apparatuses from other disciplines. In the 1980s, for example, historians borrowed social-constructivist conceptions. But Cohen wants historians to develop their own apparatus, from the “inside,” so as to avoid a propri limitations on historical figures.

Cohen wants to replace the Euro-centric account of the history of science with a globalized account, or a “world history of science.” Previous attempts have been made by a few scholars, including Harold Dorn and Toby E. Huff, but by and large these attempts have been “unidirectional.”  What Cohen calls for is a “full-scale comparative approach.” Comparison, he tells us, is “indispensable for coming to grips with the big questions.” And then, quoting Huff— who he just criticized—Cohen argues that  “from a comparative and civilizational point of view, the rise of modern science appears quite different than it does when seen exclusively as an intra-European movement.” By the comparative approach, Cohen believes, historians can once again discover underlying patterns, and, therefore, coherence in their craft.

The final essay in the forum is by Theodore K. Rabb. Rabb begins with some personal reflections of his time as a PhD student in the 1950s. During that time he learned about the basic divisions of the past (e.g. the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, Early Modern, Enlightenment, and Modern). “The boundaries may sometimes have been vague,” he writes, “but the essential contours were clear.”

But all that changed in the intervening half century. Added to this basic division was Buterfield’s pioneering construction of the “Scientific Revolution.” Other scholars, such as Charles Gillispie, Marie Boas Hall, Richard Westfall, and others, soon followed suit. Rabb recounts how in the 1970s he attempted to integrate the scientific revolution into the crisis literature so as to create a comprehensive interpretation of the structure of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European history. “In my view,” he writes, “the discoveries in astronomy, physics, and anatomy were not only integral to the era, but were essential to its definition.” It is undeniable that remarkable changes took place between the 1530s and the 1690s: “objects no longer had a natural resting place; the crystalline spheres were gone; the moon was not in fact smooth and unchanging; the heart was no longer a strange organ of unknown function.” Here was a “revolution in knowledge and outlook.”

The scientific revolution, according to Rabb, “offers a means of organizing the period whose implications go well beyond the specifics of astronomy, anatomy, or physics.” It is, he says, “a shift in mentality of immense import.” This shift, or change, was from a reliance on the authority of the past to reliance on observation, mathematics, and certain kinds of reasoning. The forces at work during the scientific revolution was an increase of skepticism and the establishment of scientists as new authority figures. The religious wars of the previous century saw Europe searching to restore a sense of confidence. That confidence was found, according to Rabb, in the reassurance and tangible certainty of the increasingly united claims for the new truth about the physical world. But there is more. “What the Scientific Revolution accomplished was not merely to provide the underpinnings for a reassertion of confidence in the culture of the late seventeenth century. It achieved such status by helping shift that culture away from the assumptions it had held to be virtually inviolate for some 400 years.”

Rabb recounts a familiar narrative. In saying that “Europe would not move on from the assumptions of the Renaissance until the hold of the ancient past was broken, until it became clear that the ‘moderns’ might be able to move past these masters and establish their own authority,” he repeats the simplistic narrative of the philosophes.

This collection of essays achieves some important refinements to the scientific revolution narrative (particularly Harrison’s emphasis on a new understanding of “philosophy), but most, it seems to me, simply repeat the commonplace of a previous generation of historical scholarship. This commonplace is entrenched not only in popular interpretations but, as we have just seen, among scholars of repute as well.