Science, Progress and History: Essay Competition

CHED - Science, Progress and History-headerThe Science, Progress and History project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the University of Queensland, and as part of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, seeks to explore questions at the interface of history and the natural sciences, with a focus on laws, patterns and narrative structures in human history, evolutionary history, and cosmology.

In recent news, the project is looking for essay submissions on any subject relevant to its main themes. There will be three prizes of $5,000, three prizes of $2,000, and three prizes of $1,000 awarded in Australian dollars. Students and recent graduates from any university or college are welcome to apply. The deadline for essay submission is 11 April 2014.

Broadly, essay topics range over the following questions:

1. How have conceptions of historical purpose or directionality influenced the emerging historical sciences (geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology)? These might include religious ideas (providential and eschatological), philosophical ideas (Hegelianism) sociological conceptions (Comte, Marx), or economics (Hayek).

2. In what sense was natural history a historical discipline, and what significance can be attached to its eclipse by biology?

3. Are there patterns, or evidence of directionality in evolutionary history?

4. Do the biological sciences, and evolutionary biology in particular, have ‘laws’ or allow for predictability in any strict sense?

5. What relationship, if any, is there been contingent or random processes, and the appearance of order, regularity, or directionality?

6. If historical conceptions of directionality and order in history did in fact influence the development of the historical sciences, can the vestiges of these influences still be discerned?

7. Does the popularization or communication of the sciences to a general public require that they be given some kind of narrative structure—e.g. ‘big history’,  ‘the epic of evolution’? Does this structure distort these sciences or might it be an essential ingredient?

8. Is ‘counterfactual history’ a useful explanatory tool in both spheres (history and the historical sciences)?

9. Are there similarities between the ways in which contingency and order are understood in these two spheres (history and the historical sciences)?

10. Has teleological explanation found its way back into biology and history?

Inventing Progress

Robert Nisbet has observed that “in the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, the belief in progress attained the status of a popular religion among the middle class, and was widely declared by intellectuals to be a fixed law.” The idea of progress, of course, is an ancient one. “But only in Western Civilization,” Nisbet claims, “does the idea exist that all history may be seen as one of humanity improving itself, step by step, stage by stage, through immanent forces, until at some remote time in the future a condition of near-perfection for all will exist.” It is a misconception to view progress as a modern idea, as did J.B. Bury (1861-1927) in his The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origins and Growth (1920). Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.) and his Works and Days is said to have “set before men the first idea of progress.” We also find contributions to ideas of progress in the writings of Xenophanes, Protagoras, Plato, and even Aristotle. Among the Romans, “the greatest description of human progress to be found in all of ancient thought is the Roman Lucretius.” To this we may add Seneca, who, in his Quaestiones Naturales, writes: “The time will come when mental acumen and prolonged study will bring to light what is now hidden…the time will come when our successors will wonder how we could have been ignorant of things so obvious.”

As is now well attested, Christianity contributed significantly to the idea of progress. As Nisbet puts it, recent scholarship “make it certain beyond question that a very real philosophy of human progress appears almost form the very beginning in Christian theology.” St Augustine (and indeed his predecessors, Eusebius, Tertullian, and others) “fused the Greek idea of growth or development with the Jewish idea of sacred history.” In an oft-cited passage, St Augustine, in his The City of God writes that “the education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible.” The legacy and influence of St Augustine can be found in the writings of Paulus Orosius, a student of St Augustine; Otto of Freising’s twelfth century Two Histories; and, most extraordinarily, Joachim of Fiore, who once “declared that human history must be seen as an ascent through three stages, each presided over by a figure of the Trinity. First, the Age of Father or of Law; second, the Age of the Son or of the Gospel; and third, still ahead, a thousand-year Age of Spirit when human beings would be liberated from their physical-animal desires and would know a contemplative serenity and happiness of mind scarcely even describable.” Within this tradition, the idea of progress belonged to a broader context of general teleology, of God’s providential plan for humanity, creation, and history.

Indeed, ideas of progress in early modern natural philosophy are centrally located within this Christian understanding of history. Many other examples are available, including ones that greatly complicate this picture, such as the inherent paradox of the Renaissance, which derived its vigor, its emotional impulse, not from looking forward but from looking background—or, as Frances Yates puts it in her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), the fundamental paradox of the forward movements of the Renaissance was that it viewed progress as “revival, rebirth, [the] renaissance of antiquity.” The point here is that modern scholars who claim progress is a modern phenomena—such as Bury—drew such anachronisms not from the historical record but from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers.

What we find in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “is the beginning and development of [the] secularization of the idea of progress—detaching it from its long-held relationship with God, making it a historical process activated and maintained by purely natural cases” or laws. The first secular statement of the idea of progress occurred during the so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns in France, but it would also move beyond it. In the writings of Fontenelle, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, William Godwin, Marie Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and many others, “there is a manifest desire to liberate progress from any crucial relationship with an active, guiding, ruling Providence” and replace it with a “demonstration of the scientific reality of human progress and of the laws and principles which make progress necessary.”

This was, of course, not so much a reality, as a myth, a narrative of progress and advancement, invented to serve a particular audience, time, and place. Peter Bowler’s The Invention of Progress: The Victorians and the Past (1989) traces discussions in nineteenth-century history, archaeology, anthropology, geology, and biology about the mechanisms of progress and change. He argues that Victorians structured the interpretation of the past to serve their own presentist purposes. History demonstrated inexorable laws of progress. Similar conceptions characterized other disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, geology, and biology. Even Darwin’s purposeless materialism was reinterpreted to better suit Victorians’ sense of superiority to other cultures, nations, and races. Progressionism in Victorian historical, philological, anthropological, and geological studies thus paralleled progressionism in biology, and vice versa. In other words, all these scientific disciplines were overdetermined and filtered, through particular control beliefs about the nature of progress.

At the same time, according to Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008), every major tradition of natural science spawned efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to social and political issues of contemporary concern. Or, in Oslon’s words, “the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context and study of the natural world…into the study of humans and their social institutions.” Beginning with French positivism and then different modes of German materialism, Olson recounts a well-known narrative. Here we find Pierre Cabanis, Saint-Simon, and Auguste Comte, and Friedrich Schelling, Ludwig Feuerbach; Olson also treats us to the “scientific materialism” of Friedrich Karl Christian Ludwig Büchner, the “organic physics” of Emil Du-Bois Reymond, and the “dialectical materialism” of Marx and Engels.

In later chapters Olson accounts for the “rise of materialisms and the reshaping of religion and politics,” “early Victorian public science and political science,” and the “rise of evolutionary perspectives.” Olson links the success of materialism as an ideology of political liberals with the advancements of the physical sciences: “If the status of science had not been rapidly on the rise in Germany during the 1840s, the materialist appeal to scientific authority in the name of humanistic religion and liberal politics would have had little impact, but such was not the case.” In any case, the scientisms of Saint-Simonian socialism, the socialism of Robert Owen, the positivism of Comte, the agenda of Marxism, and the plurality of social Darwinism were deeply imbued with optimistic hope for social progress. And all of these -isms held, to some extent, quasi-religious characteristics that can be traced back to a Christian legacy of progress.

The idea of progress had many elements in the nineteenth century, but one I find particularly fascinating is its alleged corollary: the myth of conflict between science and religion. In New York City, at the height of the Civil War, John William Draper spoke to a large audience and propounded the thesis that American history embodies a “social advancement…as completely under the control of natural law as is the bodily growth of an individual.” He would present this “physiological argument…respecting the mental progress of Europe” again at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Oxford in 1860, and again in his The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862), before publishing the work he is most well-known for, a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). In this work Draper declares that “Whoever has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the mental condition of the intelligent classes in Europe and America, must have perceived that there is a rapidly-increasing departure from the public religious faith.” This retreat from religion was the result of the victories of science. The history of science, he concluded “is no mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers.” Draper substantiated the idea that science and religion were at loggerheads, an idea framed within the bounds of a progressivist narrative—an idea, moreover, still ingrained in debates about science-religion relations to this day.

John William Draper’s work, his ideas, sources, and reception, I suggest, may act as a foil for understanding, more broadly, opinions about progress, science, and religion in the nineteenth century—and, more importantly, “how and why the original myth [of conflict] was constructed, the channels through which it circulated, and the ways it was transformed and mobilized in different settings.” By answering this central question, we may begin to shed light on the projected themes set by the Science, Progress and History project at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland.


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