Victorian Science in Context

Lightman - Victorian Science in Context“Victorians of every rank, at many sites, in many ways, defined knowledge, ordered nature, and practiced science.” This introductory remark, in Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Science in Context (1997), unveils the aim of the volume as a whole. Presented as a series of connected vignettes, it focuses on the local and the contingent. Situating a range of natural knowledge in their cultural milieu, Victorian Science in Context is a fascinating jaunt through nineteenth-century British science.

Lightman’s introduction is brief, lucid, and pertinent. According to Lightman, science was central to Victorian culture. And whether sensational, ceremonial, or mundane, Victorian science was always political. This is evident in the strong interest in science by literary figures, such as Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), George Eliot (1819-1880), Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and John Ruskin (1819-1900), to name only a few. The political nature of Victorian science is also evident among British scientists themselves, who “were deeply involved with general culture.” The realization that Victorian science was inextricably linked to powerful social and cultural forces drove historians away from intellectual history to contextualism, which sees the local, the context, the situated, or the particularities of historical events and figures as crucially important. Whose “truth,” “rationality,” “science,” “religion,” “ethics,” and so on, are the principle questions asked by contextualist historians. Lightman goes on to chart the development of the contextualist approach, tracing a detailed genealogy beginning with early attempts by Susan Faye (Walter) Cannon, John Greene, and the more recent work of Frank Turner, Robert Young, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, Martin Rudwick, Adrien Desmond, James Moore, Nick Jardine, James Secord, Emma Spary, Robert Stafford, Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Cynthia Russett, Evellen Richards, Gillian Beer, and George Levine.

The contributors of Victorian Science in Context “examine the varied contexts of Victorian “biological thought, astronomy, field theory in physics, probability theory in mathematics, political economy, scientific nomenclature, instruments, laboratories, measurement, fieldwork, and the popularization of science,” including their “imperial, industrial, political, gendered, ideological, racist, literary, and religious nature.” Lightman provides an apt précis of their contents in his Introduction, tying a tremendously diverse collection of essays into a seamless argument—namely, that in defining knowledge, in ordering nature, and in practicing science “we not only find nature but also encounter ourselves as inquisitive, social, and political beings.”

Fittingly, the essays are grouped into three sections: Part 1 deals with “Defining Nature”; Part 2 with “Ordering Nature”; and Part 3 “Practicing Science.” This overview of Victorian Science in Context reflects my particular research interests.

Alison Winter’s essay on “The Construction of Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in the Early Victorian Life Sciences” undermines the traditional image of early Victorian science. Science in the Victorian age was not made up of a homogeneous community; it was indeed “volatile” and “underdetermined,” indeed a “more fluid chaotic state of affairs” than traditionally reckoned. “We now know,” she writes, “that the practices, practitioners, contexts, and audiences that existed for early Victorian science were extremely diverse,” and that by the “late 1830s and 1840s there was a far wider range of specialist journals and societies, and a dizzying variety of other arenas in which science was practiced  and communicated.” This diversity is indicative of the multifarious definitions of “science” proposed during the era.

As already mentioned, recent research has overwhelmingly demonstrated the political significance attached to claims about nature. Winter notes, for example, how “radical artisans adapted evolutionary thought to give a blueprint in natural law for their socialist and cooperative projects.” Indeed, the “life science supplied pedigrees for the conservative, liberal, and radical” alike. What is more, “issues of place, practice, and audience have been central to the construction of scientific authority and orthodoxy.” In the second half of her essay, Winter concentrates on the case of William Benjamin Carpenter (181-1885), who personally sought “to demarcate the legitimate from the illegitimate experiments and phenomena.” His 1839 Principles of General and Comparative Physiology claimed that physiology should become as lawlike as the physical sciences, thus reducing “physiology to a set of naturalist laws.” This claim was just as controversial as what the radical artisans had advocated in their evolutionary project; but unlike the radicals, Winter argues, Carpenter solicited the support of specific elite scientists who were also religiously orthodox. And when his Principles did come under attack, he “took immediate and vigorous action to vindicate himself,” publishing an appendix “to one of the moderate progressive medical periodicals a personal defense of the spiritual respectability of his work.” In this defense Carpenter described a world “run by laws that had themselves been ushered into existence by a single divine act.” But more important than his own defense, Winter  explains, were the “letters of reference” from individuals who embodied orthodoxy in science and religion, defending Carpenter’s work as “theologically sound.” Carpenter’s act of “juxtaposing the names and statement of individually eminent personages” constructed them “as an authoritative and definitive community.” Thus the “specific work that was necessary to secure the status of orthodoxy for himself was the assertion of what counted as an authoritative community for him.” That is, by successfully soliciting the support of respected scientists of orthodox standing, Carpenter constructed his own definitions of what counted as heterodox or orthodox in his scientific work.

Martin Fichman’s “Biology and Politics: Defining the Boundaries” examines the rich interplay between biological and political speculation. Because “evolutionary biology was at an interface between the natural and social science, it was notoriously susceptible to sociopolitical influences and deductions.” T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall’s strategy for advancing the professional status of biologists, by isolating biology from politics and by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science, failed. Evolutionary science become, unsurprisingly, “hostage to pervasive ideological manipulation by the scientific naturalists themselves.”  In this essay Fichman focuses on the work of Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, Huxley, and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Spencer, although one of the “grandest systematizers of evolutionary thought,” never fully embraced Darwinism, his perspective being more principally aligned with Lamarckian views. Spencer’s evolutionary synthesis “lent itself to the most diverse political readings,” mainly because his philosophy was not so much materialistic as it was socially progressive. Galton, Darwin’s cousin, “simply subsumed politics under biology.” Coining the term “eugenics” in 1883, he advocated “societal programs to foster talent, health, and other ‘fit’ traits (positive eugenics) and to suppress feeblemindedness and other ‘unfit’ traits (negative eugenics). In Galton’s mind, eugenics was a scientific “repudiation of conservative, aristocratic privilege; politically, he reflected the middle-class outlook of much of the liberal intelligentsia.” According to Fichman, Galton’s eugenics was “an evolutionary science constructed upon a political infrastructure.”

By the 1870s, science had increasingly gained ascendancy and cultural autonomy, largely at the hands of an influential coterie made up of Huxley, Tyndall, Galton, J.D. Hooker, John Lubbock, and other members of the X-Club. “With a combination of research achievements, polemic wit, and literary eloquence…” this group “helped create a largely secular climate of opinion in which the theories and metaphors of modern science penetrated the institutions of education, industry, and government.” Their “metascientific strategy,” as Fichman phrases it, was the promotion of ideological neutrality. But as Fichman demonstrates, the scientific naturalists, “rather than limiting and depoliticizing the authority of evolutionary science, subtly invoked it to support [their] own political views.” In short, “scientific naturalism had never been ideologically neutral.”

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) attacked any pretext to ideological neutrality. Indeed, for Wallace, evolutionary biology necessitated an ideological context. In his “Human Selection” (1890) and “Human Progress: Past and Future” (1892), Wallace unabashedly declared his socialist convictions, particularly towards sexual selection. “Socialism, by removing inequalities of wealth and rank, would free females from the obligation to marry solely on the grounds of financial necessity.” And as Fichman points out, “Wallace’s social progressionism informed his biological progressionism and reinforced his position that science did not function as a neutral blueprint for political philosophy.” That is, Wallace’s scientific views merged seamlessly with his advocacy of socialism and feminism.

The thought provoking “Satire and Science in Victorian Culture” by James Paradis examines the formation of attitudes towards claims of science and scientists themselves by focusing on the ways in which irony and its “militant” form, satire, was mobilized as a strategy for making sense of new claims about the world. Drawing from Punch (1841-1992), Figaro in London (1831-38), the Comic Almanack (1835-53), as well as Victorian literary pieces such as Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Huxley’s Lay Sermons, Adresses and Reviews (1870), Paradis argues that “literature became an important conduit for conveying scientific ideas of the day to the broad public.” What is more, the scientific elite themselves used cartoons, doodles, caricatures, and humor as “instruments of scientific infighting to contrast reform platforms with orthodox resistance.” This, of course, was stunningly reductive, to the point of irresponsible, incorrectly presenting figures and facts, often reinforcing crude prejudices, falsifying categories, and distorting significant truths. But as Huxley discovered, “irony and satire…could be used to privilege the emergent institutions of science.”

Perhaps more ominous, recent research suggests that at the same time as young adults are abandoning traditional news media, they are more likely to identify with late-night comedy programs, particularly Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, or with humor websites such as and and others, as a destination for learning about current events. This trend towards news as entertainment was pointed out long ago by Neil Postman. According to Fichman, “one who laughs not only directs criticism at the object of his laughter, but also invites his companions to share his sentiments. Irony and satire from the 1840s to the 1860s had increasingly become tools in the scientific community for shaping a minority cultural vision.” Huxley, with his mordant witticism, used his gift “to turn the direction of the irony against received tradition and to seize the moral high ground for a progressive intellectual culture associated with the sciences.”

Bernard Lightman’s “‘The Voices of Nature’: Popularizing Victorian Science” is similar to his more recent essay in Wrestling with Nature (2011). According to Lightman, Huxley and Tyndall “account only for a small portion of the works of Victorian popularizers of science.” Indeed, the popularizers of science played a far greater role in “shaping the understanding of science in the minds of a reading public composed of children, teenagers, women, and nonscientific males” than any of the scientific naturalists. Yet their comparative neglect by historians until most recently is the result of the successful campaign forged by the scientific naturalists, who convinced “future generations that scientists were the authoritative guides to deciphering the meaning of natural things—that they alone gave voice to mute nature.”

It is the contextualist approach that offers a necessary antidote. Recent work by contextualist historians, Lightman notes, reveals the “rich interaction between Victorian science and culture.” The contextualist approach also shows how Victorian popularizers of science experimented with the narrative form and the implicit “storytelling quality of all science.” “Both popularizers and professionals,” writes Lightman, “have continued to tell stories about the ultimate meaning of things as revealed by science, though this characteristic of science has been concealed in the scientific reports and papers of professional scientists.” Lightman then offers an account of Margart Gatty’s (1809-73) The Parables of Nature (1855), which was a series of fictional short stories for children designed to teach them about the natural world; Eliza Brightwen’s (1830-1906) Wild Nature Won by Kindness (1890) and other stories sought to “foster ‘the love of animated nature’ in her audience, especially ‘in the minds of the young'”; and Arabella Buckley’s (1840-1929) The Fairyland of Science (1879), likewise aimed to “awaken ‘a love of nature and of the study of science’ in ‘young people’ who more than likely ‘look upon science as a bundle of dray facts.'” Interestingly, Buckely does not shy away from introducing the story of evolution in The Fairyland of Science. Rather, she “reinterprets the story of evolution in way that emphasizes the moral dimensions of the process. The purpose of evolution was not, as Darwin had argued, merely the preservation of life, it encompassed the development of mutuality as well.” And like Gatty and Brightwen, Buckley “believed that science offered the means for ascertaining the true meaning of God’s works.” According to Lightman, all three authors are “part of the natural theology tradition.”

In the late nineteenth-century, “thousands of members of the public were introduced to astronomy” by the writings of Anthony Proctor (1837-88). His most popular work, Other Worlds Than Ours (1870), cast science into a “teleological framework” and encouraged the reading public to become amateur astronomers—for the astronomer, “imbued with the sense of beauty and perfection which each fresh hour of world-study instills more deeply into his soul, reads a nobler lesson in the skies.” Astronomy, according to Proctor, leads to God. Similar sentiments were shared by the Reverend John George Wood (1827-89) and Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) in their many writings, who both declared that the natural world testified “to the existence and wisdom of God.”  We may draw two important conclusions from the popularization of science during the Victorian era. The first is that “science continued to be contested territory in the latter half of the nineteenth century.” Second, the stories told about nature were also contested. Should stories about nature be told from a teleological, aesthetic, moral, or evolutionary perspective? The scientific naturalists fought for the hearts and minds of the reading public. But so did popularizers of science. Thus we may say that the professional scientist competed against the professional writer. Who won is still an open question, however.


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