The 2017 History of Science Society Annual Meeting

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The History of Science Society will meet this year in Toronto, Canada. A preliminary program was recently published with some really fascinating panels and papers. I’m particularly excited about attending a panel on “Astronomical Phenomena in the Nineteenth Century: From the Global to the Provincial,” which includes papers by Jim Secord and Bernie Lightman. That same day, in the evening, Adam Shapiro will be presenting recent work on “Voices of Science Activism in the Age of Trump,” which is based on interviews he conducted during the March for Science rallies back in April. Participants, as Shapiro interestingly points out, reveal a “wide range of answers and anxieties concerning whether the Science March has a unifying message, whether science itself can (or should) avoid being ‘political,’ and whether ‘science’ can serve as a basis for organizing and resisting the knowledge politics of the Trumpian state and its allies.”

I also organized a panel for this conference on the “The Production and Reception of Science and Religion Narratives in the Anglo-American Periodical Press, 1860 – 1900,” which will take place on Friday, November 10, starting at 3:45 PM. Distinguished historian of science, Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), Peter Harrison, will chair the session. Most historians of science agree that stories about the “conflict” or “warfare” between religion and science were first fully articulated in the late-nineteenth century, specifically among Anglo-American writers. But since the late 1970s, scholars from various disciplines have systematically dismantled almost every facet of these narratives, many now labeling them “myths about science and religion.” Yet for all this work in “demythologizing” the relationship between science and religion, there is still much work to be done in charting the production, diffusion, and reception of such narratives. Historians have been so concerned with debunking myths about science and religion, that they have perhaps ignored the important task of uncovering and scrutinizing the cultural functions such narratives performed. My panel seeks to address this problem by exploring the production and reception of science and religion narratives in the late-nineteenth century periodical press. Indeed, the question of science-and-religion relations science permeated the content of most nineteenth-century Anglo-American periodicals, appearing not only in dedicated scientific journals, but also in other forms, including fiction, poetry, political reports, and comical allusions. My panel will examine science and religion narratives across a range of periodical genres, and consider the way readers responded to those narratives. This approach will shed further light on how such narratives were produced and diffused, and how readers reacted to those narratives that later historians of science have so strongly condemned.

The first paper will be presented by Sylvia M. Nickerson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the York University and currently co-writing a book with Bernie Lightman on Science, Religion and Victorian Print Culture: Constructing New Public Spaces, 1860-1890. Sylvia’s conference paper, entitled “A Seat at the Table: Publishers, Periodicals, and the Agendas of Science and Religion,” will examine how two British publishers—Alexander Macmillan (1818-96) and John Murray (1808-92)—either opened up or closed down debates on topics intersecting science and religion in the periodicals they published. In both the politically conservative Quarterly Review (1809) as well as the liberal monthly The Academy (1869), publisher John Murray attempted to limit debate on the question of Christianity, evolution and their reconciliation. While the Quarterly negatively reviewed authors whose science challenged traditional Christian world-views, The Academy aspired to cover both science and theology while representing “no party in Religion or Politics”. Edited by Charles Appleton, The Academy broke convention from the Quarterly in several ways, and the diversity of views Appleton sought to represent proved too controversial for Murray, who dumped it in 1870 after refusing to publish a review of the anonymous book, The Jesus of History (1869). Alexander Macmillan, by contrast, encouraged heterogeneous perspectives within his periodicals Macmillan’s Magazine (1859) and later, Nature (1869). Developed out of Macmillan’s social scene in London, Macmillan’s Magazine, edited by Charles Masson (and closely managed by Macmillan), translated the debate and discussion around the publisher’s table into print. On the pressing topics of liberalizing Anglicanism and modernizing British society, Macmillan gave science a seat at the table, with Macmillan’s Magazine and Nature representing a range of perspectives from scientific authors who advocated atheistic to religious views of evolution in book and periodical form.

My own paper follows, which will discuss the Failed Reconciliation: J. W. Draper, A. D. White, and the Reception of their Historical Narratives in the Periodical Press. Historians of science usually trace the origins of the “conflict thesis,” the notion that science and religion have been in a constant state of “conflict” or “warfare,” to two nineteenth-century works—John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). While these two works have been designated by historians as founding the conflict thesis, there has been little research on how contemporaries responded to these historical narratives. My paper examines the early reception of these narratives by considering the extensive commentary they received in British and American periodicals from 1875 to 1900. Examining a selection of this material reveals three key aspects of this reception. First, more religiously liberal readers welcomed these narratives as genuine attempts at reconciling science and religion. Second, the more religiously orthodox, while also recognizing their conciliatory intentions, nevertheless accused Draper and White of instigating conflict. Finally, a younger generation, who were further removed from the kind of religious upbringing Draper and White enjoyed, appropriated their narratives to demonstrate that religion had always been in conflict with science. In short, I aim to show that while Draper and White had more nuanced views about the history of science and religion than has been contended by the secondary literature, their religiously liberal views had the unintended consequence of creating in the minds of their contemporaries and later generations the belief that science and religion have been and are at war.

The third paper will be delivered by IASH Senior Research Fellow Ian Hesketh, on Debating the Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion in the Victorian Periodical Press: The Reception of J. R. Seeley’s Natural Religion (1882). Ian contends that while much has been written about late nineteenth-century narratives that promoted an inevitable clash between science and religion, less well known is the fact that these narratives competed directly with studies that promoted a theme of harmony and reconciliation. One such narrative was the anonymous Natural Religion (1882), the long-awaited sequel to the sensational Ecce Homo (1865), written by the Cambridge historian John Robert Seeley. Whereas in the earlier controversial study, Seeley sought to modernize Christianity through an historical analysis of Jesus Christ’s humanity, in Natural Religion he sought to make apparent what he called the “deeper harmonies of science and religion.” He did so by situating Christianity within a larger history of religious and scientific thought, one that presented a naturalized Christianity as the necessary next stage in the progressive development of English civilization. Natural Religion is, therefore, a wonderful illustration of how some liberal religious thinkers sought to engender a reconciliation between science and religion at a time when the conflict thesis was just emerging. At the same time, the reception of the book in the periodical press shows just how difficult it was to establish any sort of consensus concerning the construction of a modernized and scientific Christianity. Moreover, while Natural Religion gained a large readership because it was written “by the author of Ecce Homo,” its connection to its much more enthusiastic and orthodox predecessor meant that it could only fail to meet the high expectations of its many readers.

The panel will close with a fascinating paper by Anne DeWitt, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study of New York University, on Religion and Evolution in Victorian Periodical Poetry. According to Anne, in recent years scholars seeking to understand the reception of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century have turned to the study of popular forms. Work by Janet Browne and Constance Areson Clark on cartoons, by Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis on music, and by Bernard Lightman on popular science have shown that evolutionary ideas were taken up and transformed in the widest reaches of Victorian culture. In her paper, Anne builds on this work by analyzing a form that has received relatively little attention: poetry about evolution that circulated in Victorian periodicals. She focuses in particular on poems from the 1880s that deal with evolution in relation to religion. Their treatment tends to be open-ended and unresolved: for instance, Robert Buchanan’s long narrative poem “Justinian,” from the Contemporary Review of 1880, explores, but does not reconcile, the conflict between religious faith and materialism. Charles F. Johnson’s “Evolution,” from the May 1889 number of Temple Bar, modifies the usual sonnet form with a sestet that, instead of providing resolution, presents a series of unanswered questions. The open-ended quality of these poems should, she argues, be understood in relation to the dialogism of the Victorian periodical. This quality, moreover, challenges the thesis of a conflict between Victorian science and religion, revealing a more nuanced and complicated relationship.

For those of you attending the conference, please join us for what will no doubt be a very interesting discussion.

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One comment

  1. Congratulation! It seems to be an interesting conference. Is this part of your final PHD papers? Thanks Will talk soon.

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