A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VI : Modern Life and Earth Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 6Perhaps the most engaging—and perhaps most relevant for my current research interests—installment of this series is Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone’s (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science Volume VI: Modern Life and Earth Sciences (2009). This volume seeks to present an “overview of the development of a diverse range of sciences through a period of major conceptual, methodological, and institutional changes.” Carefully arranged and edited, the work is, nevertheless, “representative,” and “by no means encyclopedic.”

Bowler and Pickstone begin with an introduction on the history of science. Traditional approaches routinely linked history of science with philosophy of science (i.e., the study of the scientific method and the epistemological problems generated by the search for objective knowledge of nature), which was “invariably done by hindsight, using modern interests to determine the value of past science, often thereby doing violence to what the [contemporary] historian sees as crucial within the very different cultural and social contexts of past eras.” This “internalist” approach thought of the history of science as part of the history of ideas, seeing new theories as “integral to the emergence of new worldviews that had transformed Western culture.”

But scientific knowledge was always part and parcel of “external” forces, be it philosophical, religious, political, or practical. Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) challenged internalist historians to take an interest in the workings of scientific communities, “arguing that the scientific community had to be understood in sociological terms.” As Bowler and Pickstone put it in their introduction, “social pressure helped maintain scientific conformity, and most research was done within paradigms that predetermined the projects that were relevant and the innovations that were acceptable.”

From the beginning, scientists have always held particular religious beliefs, philosophical opinions, and political views, “reflecting the less tangible influence of broader ideologies embedded within the societies within which they live.” Thus the “best modern historiography,” Bowler and Pickstone tells us, “seeks to integrate the ideological contexts with the detailed, technical work” of scientific practice. One of the most important consequences of the contextual approach has been the “recognition among historians that our own perception of the past is shaped by our viewpoint in the present.” For example, “the amount of attention focused on Charles Darwin by historians of evolutionism…reflects English-speaking scientists’ greater commitment to the genetical theory of natural selection as the defining feature of their field.” Such was and is not the case among French and German historians of science. The chapters that follow seek give a rich picture of “multiple dynamic interactions between changing conceptual structures, technical possibilities, and social formations” of life and earth sciences.

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1, “workers and places,” focuses on “amateurs and professionals” (David E. Allen), “discovery and exploration” (Roy Macleod), “museums” (Mary P. Winsor), “field stations and surveys” (Keith R. Benson), “universities” (Jonathan Harwood), “geological”(Paul Lucier) and “pharmaceutical industries” (John P. Swann), and “public and environmental health” (Michael Worboys). Noteworthy are Allen, Macleod and Winsor’s essays.

Allen recounts the process of professionalization of science. In the early nineteenth century, the “professional” was despised. This aristocratic and upper middle class prejudice was based on the view that “a professional was someone who received money to do something that others did for pleasure, and to put one’s labor up for hire placed one in the position of a servant.” Respectable occupations were limited to “the armed forces, the church, and…branches of the law and medicine.” “So small was the community of science professionals in the pre-1880 era,” Allen writes, “and so slight the difference in outlook between that community and everyone else involved in scholarly pursuits, that the category of ‘professional’ can hardly be of much use for historical analysis.” Rather, there were amateur “researchers,” “practitioners,” and “cultivators.”

That the principles of exploratory settlement were part of an imperial strategy is now obvious, says Macleod. The “process of seeing, mapping, and impressing a European identity on places otherwise ‘unknown to science’ held a compelling fascination” for early explorers and discoverers. Exploration reflected great power rivalries and imperial conquest. “The scientific expedition drew on the language of the military expedition and the heroism of the expeditionary force.” As such, “an active commitment to scientific exploration was, to some, the highest measure of a nation’s claim to civilization.” Thus scientific exploration often came with an imperial presence. Yet “if many scientific expeditions had been imperial in motive and state financed in practice, they would have enjoyed far less public impact had they not been accompanied by expanding networks of collectors and patron and a new thirst for private exploration and discovery.” Exploration and discovery were in fact a “convergence of science, strategy, and commerce.”

Winsor shares Macleod’s emphasis on imperial motives. “During the second half of the eighteenth century, collections of natural specimens rapidly increased in number and size.” This was largely due to imperial exploration and expansion—and exploitation—but “the motives was sometimes scientific curiosity, sometimes competitive vainglory.” Natural history during this period was dominated by the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Both men “shared the goal of making an inventory of every kind of living thing.” The “Paris model” found in the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle followed the publications and teaching of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), and would be imitated elsewhere, “where an avid naturalist teamed up with a generous monarch.”

During the mid- and late-nineteenth century, “all across the globe, wherever Europeans carried their culture and settled in sufficient numbers, natural history museums multiplied.” But at the same time, and perhaps naturally, “contested ideas of proper arrangement had plagued the process of designing the new natural history museum,” particularly in London. At this stage the art of taxidermy became central. Taxidermists William Bullock, Hermann Ploucquet, and Jules Verreaux were known for their theatrical designs: “a tiger wrestling with a boa constrictor, hounds pulling down a stag, and an Arab on his camel beset by lions.” By the late nineteenth century, there were artistic taxidermists commissioned by the British Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, the United States National Museum, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and many others. In this sense, Winsor notes, “the museum movement was progressive; that is, that making exhibits more attractive was a good thing.” Whether or not such exhibitions were “scientific” was no longer the concern.

Altogether, the theme that consistently crops up in the essays of Part 1 is the profound effect government, politics, and industry has had on the modern development of life and earth sciences.

Part 2 looks more closely at particular disciplines, in “analysis and experimentation” within the fields of geology (Mott T. Greene), paleontology (Ronald Rainger), zoology (Mario A. Di Gregorio), botany (Eugene Cittadino), evolution (Jonathan Hodge), anatomy, histology, and ctyology (Susan C. Lawrence), embryology (Nick Hopwood), microbiology (Olga Amsterdamska), physiology (Richard L. Kremer), and pathology (Russell C. Maulitz). These essays provide a general reference to the origin, development, and expansion of these fields, intertwined as a “complex activity of scientists and sciences operating in larger philosophical, social, political, and economic” nineteenth-century contexts. Again, a few noteworthy essays deserve expansion and comment.

Rainger’s essay seeks to place paleontology within its social, cultural, and political context, covering such topics as extinction, stratigraphy, progress, and evolution, noting that “although many paleontologists studied evolution, few embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.” Rainger also includes an informative section on “paleontology and modern Darwinism,” which includes discussions on biogeography and fossil displays in modern museums. Here we see how Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould’s “powerful criticism of the evolutionary synthesis” of a previous generation sent paleontologists into the field to find evidence for “punctuated equilibrium.” Disappointing, however, is the omission of paleoart, where art and paleontology intersect in curious and sometimes problematic ways. Missing also is any discussion of the incredibly contentious field of paleoanthropology.

Hodge observes that today’s biologists view their field as a “historical continuity of succession.” This view, however, assumes “a sameness of enterprise, with everyone contributing to evolutionary biology as found in a current textbook.” Another assumption biologists make is that “only evolution gives fully scientific answers to their questions, and all other answers are ancient religious dogmas or persistent metaphysical preconceptions.” But these assumptions bare little to no historical reality. This view of science is traced back to nineteenth-century proponents for Darwin. “Science was then often demarcated, in accord with new positivist notions of science, by this very contrast with religion and metaphysics, so that the rise of evolution and fall of Hebrew creation or Hellenic stasis was subsumed within the rise of modern, scientific ways of thinking and feeling about ourselves and nature” (my emphasis).

What follows is a historical narrative of oft-cited dramatis personae. The influence—and contrast—of Buffon and Linnaeus is listed. Because of their major divergences, later followers like George Cuvier, Lorenz Oken (1779-1851), and Jean Lamarck (1744-1829) had to pick and mix between the two. As Hodge notes, “although once a protégé of Buffon, [Lamarck] never adopted his mentor’s…cosmogonies.” The years following the work of these three men found “no single resolution” amongst successors . Lamarck’s theories looked “threateningly materialistic”; Oken’s “seemed pantheistically unorthodox”; and Cuvier’s “hostility to materialism,” coupled with his respect for biblical scholarship, endeared him to many of his fellow Christians. Further complexities emerge with Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), and later Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) and Robert Chambers (1802-1871).

With the advent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, European and American discussion of life’s history and diversity was anything but unified. The Origin was not however influenced by evolutionary debates of the 1850s. Penned between 1837-1839, the context of Origin requires relating the work of Lyell, Robert Edmund Grant (1793-1874), Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), and Lamarck. Prior to his HMS Beagle voyage (1831-1836), Darwin completed a student of Grant’s at Edinburgh University in 1826-1827. While aboard the Beagle Darwin devoured Lyell’s first two volumes of Principles of Geology. It was Lyell who had “insisted that anyone favoring any transmutation of species should engage Lamarck’s whole system: spontaneous generation, the progression of classes, organ ancestry for man, and all.” By 1837, Darwin had done just that. At the same time, Darwin was rereading his grandfather’s Zoonomia, which had anticipated some of the views of Lamarck. According to Hodge, this “grandparental precedent inspired and sanctioned this emulation of Lamarckian precedent.” Darwin would also add Robert Malthus’s essay on populations to his own developing theory of evolution.

“The altered state of opinion created by Charles Darwin was less consensual than is often thought,” Hodge argues. He goes on, “for biologists did not merely disagree about the causes of evolution while agreeing about evolution itself; they disagreed deeply about evolution as such.”

Part 3 of this volume also looks at “new objects and ideas” found in “plate tectonics” (Henry Frankel), “geophysics and geochemistry (David Oldroyd), “mathematical models” (Jeffrey C. Schank and Charles Twardry), “genes” (Richard M. Burian and Doris T. Zallen), “ecosystems” (Pascal Acot), “immunology” (Thomas Söderqvist, Craig Stillwell and Mark Jackson), “cancer” (Jean-Paul Gaudillière), “brain and the behavioral sciences” (Anne Harrington), and “history of biotechnology” (Robert Bud).

The final section in Part 5 consists of essays of wider scope, in “science and culture,” and are much more relevant to my own research. Here I only make mention of one. James Moore’s (“Religion and Science”) excellent essay argues that the “religion and science” trope “is first and foremost an intellectual rubric, proper to the history of ideas, particularly ideas in the English-speaking world.” Indeed, the trope existed as “an organizing category—an agonizing category—for many Victorians.” Here Moore mentions John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1847) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Only a year later in 1897, the Library of Congress incorporating “Religion and Science” into its authoritative subject headings, “a pair of hypostatized abstractions made memorable by a pair of embattled propagandists became canonical for interpreting modern intellectual history.” This “secular teleology” would later be taken for granted by pundits and popularizers and even academic historians.

Revisions to this thesis emerged in the mid-twentieth century. During this time “Religion and Science” went from being explanans to explanandum. Moore provides long footnotes of contributors who demolished the Victorian propaganda, from Frank M. Turner, Martin Rudwick, A.R. Peacocke, Robert M. Young, Ronald L. Numbers, David C. Lindberg, David Livingstone, Pietro Corsi, John Hedley Brooke, Edward J. Larson, Geoffrey Cantor, Peter J. Bowler, Adrian Desmond, to James Moore himself.

What follows is a review of “five fields of contention clustered around the transformed domain of Darwin studies”: freethought, natural theology, earth history, Darwin, and actual conflict.    “Freethought” or “unbelief” stood for all such deviant “isms” as “materialism,” “atheism,” “rationalism,” “secularism,” “agnosticism,” and “positivism.” But unbelief is “gritty, irrepressible”; “it constantly reinvented itself, or was reinvented, as the nineteenth century’s ideological ‘other.'” Here we find heresies of William Frend and John Leslie, the materialism of Paul d’Holbach, the determinism of Pierre Laplace, the transmutation theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and the rebellion of Richard Carlile. Interestingly enough, it is here, also, “in a twilight world of backstreet cliques, soapbox rants, and unstamped rages, the Victorian roots of ‘Religion and Science’ are to be found.” “Science,” Moore qualifies, “was manifold, not the monolith of propagandists.”

Natural theology was what freethinkers fought and Darwin finally refuted. Such was the old view, and is no longer tenable today. “Natural theology was not single and static but a shifting congeries of moral pursuits.” It was indeed apologetic; but it was edifying, mediating, motivating, ratifying. It was also a stumbling block for many Christians. “High Anglicans, Scot evangelicals, and pietists everywhere saw it as tainted with rationalism.” Despite criticism from both unbelievers and believers, natural theology remained vital.

The belief that providentialism cast up embarrassing obstacles to the progress of the earth and life sciences is another piece of Victoriana, and can longer be maintained. According to Moore, “the cultured men who first made the earth sciences a profession, none did more than genuflect toward Genesis in his research.” Nineteenth-century earth sciences were full of men of eminence—”squires, clergymen, lawyers, military officers, and only later full-time academic specialists.” As Moore put it, “piety united these patricians.”

Darwin stood at the “crossroads of freethought, natural theology, and Lyellian earth history.” At this Victorian crossroad, “he struck out in a direction all his own, an evolutionist incognito, hell-bent on explaining the whole living creation…by natural law. The church was left behind.” Although his faith eventually faltered, Darwin did not have an “atheist agenda.” “While writing the Origin of Species, Darwin’s faith in a ‘personal God’ remained firm, and he never considered himself an atheist.” What he could not fathom was Christian theism, a perpetual, designing Providence, present in all events; a God who punished men eternally for their unbelief. Darwin though such a god immoral.

Despite Darwin’s own beliefs, “freethinkers everywhere welcomed the Origin of Species…as a potent addition to their liberal armory.” Indeed, “most read it through philosophical spectacles.” As Moore writes, “the Origin of Species did not cause a ‘Darwinian revolution,’ destroying natural theology and propelling religion and science into unholy conflict.” What it did do was “merely pointed up and sharpened preexisting tensions.” “What set people at odds,” Moore continues, “were a range of issues, practical as well as theoretical, empirical as well as metaphysical, social and political as well as ideological.” Draper’s Conflict and White’s Warfare followed suit “of an age when New World hubris took on Old World hauteur in the cause of [a] Science” instigated by Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, members of the X-Club, and others vying for cultural hegemony in the nineteenth century.

“Science made up for lost religious hopes by promising endless secular abundance.” But in the twentieth century such promises were short lived. After World War I, self-styled “fundamentalism” inspired “ordinary Americans angry that their most cherished beliefs were being undermined with their own tax dollars.” “Liberal believers in science…[also] got their comeuppance in the depressed 1930s.” The horrors of the German scientific experiment, with their support of Darwinian policies of ethnic extermination, and the Soviet Union’s industrialized, militarized, and committed Marxist materialism, caused great consternation among western liberals. “During World War II, and particularly with the mobilization of research to meet the postwar Soviet challenge, science in the West was harnessed to state objectives, tied to state funding, and subjected to state regulation as never before.”

Moore nevertheless ends on an optimistic note. Today, he says, “historians aim to situate religion and science on cultural common ground and so recover the religiosity of science, the scientificity of religion, and the integrity of metaphysics occupying that large terra incognita ‘between science and religion’ as traditionally conceived.” Indeed, “perhaps the most telling recent development noted by historians is the vaunted convergence of religion and science in some new vision of reality whose scientific authority will command full religious and moral assent.”


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