The International Scientific Series and the Dissemination of Scientific Naturalism

ISSIn examining John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), it is important to recall that it belonged to D. Appleton and Co.’s popular International Scientific Series (ISS), which was, as Roy M. MacLeod put it in his seminal essay, “Evolutionism, Internationalism and Commercial Enterprise in Science: The International Scientific Series 1871-1910” (1980), the Victorian attempt at “codifying and popularizing scientific knowledge in a systematic fashion to a wide reading public.” Indeed, MacLeod’s essay was perhaps one of the earliest examples of what Adrian Johns would later call the “history of the book.” In MacLeod’s case, it was a series of books published under the entrepreneurial ambitions of American science popularizer Edward Livingstone Youmans.

Little work has been done on the ISS. MacLeod is a helpful starting point. In his essay he describes how Youmans traveled throughout Europe to secure authors and publishers for the series, including many of the leading scientific naturalists of England, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and many others. It is also worth pointing out that Youmans was the first editor of Popular Science Monthly, which he used “as a vehicle for communicating the findings and ideas of scientists to the educated American public,” as William E, Leverette has aptly observed. Thus in order to ascertain the diffusion of scientific naturalism and, more important, Draper’s History of Conflict, Youmans’ publishing motivations and ambitions are critical. MacLeod also provides a useful Appendix at the end of his essay listing the English editions of the ISS, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

A decade later Leslie Howsam published an essay on “Sustained Literary Ventures: The Series in Victorian Book Publishing” (1992), where she examines in some detail the publishing houses of Charles Kegan Paul, Henry S. King and his successors at Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. More recently, Howsam focuses on the ISS itself, in “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series” (2000). Here she argues that a “close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”

But perhaps the most helpful introduction to the ISS is Bernie Lightman’s recent essay, “The International Scientific Series and the Communication of Darwinism” (2010). A common theme that often emerges in Lightman’s work is the loss of control. That is, Huxley loses control of his “agnosticism,” the “scientific naturalists” lose control of “evolutionary naturalism,” and so on. Here Lightman argues that by “the early 1880’s a new course had been set when the original founders of the series were no longer in control.”

According to Lightman, the ISS was “based on diffusing Spencerian evolution beyond America to the world at large.” Youmans was obsessed with Spencer’s work. Indeed, his Popular Science Monthly promoted the idea of evolution and evolutionary philosophy not of Darwin but of Spencer. As Leverette has pointed out, Spencer’s ideas were frequently defended in the Popular Science Monthly. Besides Spencer, however, Youmans had formed a “British Committee” for the ISS that included Huxley and Tyndall. With this trio secured, Youmans added Henry S. King as the British publisher of the series. The series enjoyed great success, particularly the works published by Spencer and Draper, which both through more than 20 editions.

Dramatic changes occurred in the series during the late 1870s, however. King became ill and eventually died in 1878. Youmans, whose health was also failing, left the series by 1880. Charles Kegan Paul had purchased H.S. King and Co. and took it over by 1877. According to Lightman, Kegan Paul was a Broad Churchman who later abandoned his faith in 1874 because he could no longer “adhere to the teachings of the Church of England.” He became attracted to Positivism, but by 1890 converted to Catholicism. His return to the Church is retold in a number of remarkable essays and books, in his Faith and Unfaith and Other Essays (1891), Confessio Viatoris (1891), and Memories (1899). In his confession, for example, Paul writes

Day by day the Mystery of the Altar seems greater, the unseen world nearer, God more a Father, our Lady more tender, the great company of the saints more friendly, if I dare use the word, my guardian angel close to my side. All human relationships become holier, all human friends dearer, because they are explained and sanctified by the relationships and friendships of another life. Sorrows have come to me in abundance since God gave me grace to enter His Church, but I can bear them better than of old, and the blessing He has given me outweighs them all. May He forgive me that I so long resisted Him, and lead those I love unto the fair land wherein He has brought me to dwell! It will be said, and said with truth, that I am very confident. My experience is like that of the blind man in the Gospel who also was sure. He was still ignorant of much, nor could he fully explain how Jesus opened his eyes, but this he could say with unfaltering certainty, “One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.

And as Lightman points out, when Kegan Paul took over the series, “he did not feel bound by the contract that Tyndall, Spencer, and Huxley had signed with King.” For one, he no longer selected authors who wished to disseminate evolutionary naturalism. All three would eventually resign from the Committee. In their absence, Kegan Paul would bring in new authors who embraced new versions of natural theology. However, the series was never as successful as it was with Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer at the helm. By 1911, the series came to a close.

Book History and the History of Science

Nineteenth Century BooksThis morning I began reading the “special section” collection of articles published in The British Journal for the History of Science, entitled “Book History and the Sciences” (2000). Jonathan R. Topham provides an introduction explaining why historians of science have been not a little skeptical about the value of the book history approach. “It is often dismissed as an intellectual fad or as an enterprise which is illuminating but ultimately peripheral, rather than being valued as an approach which can offer major new insights within the field.” Historians of science in recent decades have tried to get away from an “unsocial history of ideas, usually rooted in texts,” so their apprehensions are well taken. In this sense they see book history as retrograde.

Topham wants to reassure historians of science that book history does indeed “reintroduce social actors,” but with the caveat: as “engaged in a variety of practices with respect to material objects.” It is an approach that rejects a history in which books are seen as merely disembodied texts. According to Topham, book history “applies to print culture an approach which historians of science have pioneered in other contexts, such as studies of laboratories, observatories, lecture halls and museums.” Such an approach can contribute significantly to a cultural history of science. “Exploring in detail the historical encounters of readers with printed matter enables the historian to elaborate an account of scientific communication by print which, instead of methodologically privileging the role of scientific authors, acknowledges the complex and contested nature of such communication.”

Besides this introduction, I found particularly fascinating Lesile Howsam’s “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-Century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series.” She argues that “a close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” Her object of study is the International Scientific Series (ISS), published in Britain and North America from 1871 to 1911. She asks a series of questions about the histories of authorship, of publishing and of reading in the Victorian era: “What are historians of Victorian science to make of this collection of texts, most of which were written by scientific practitioners, and some by world-famous men of science? Can we construe the contributions as an ideological community in the scientific culture of the late nineteenth century? What are we to make of the publishers and promoters of the series? Can anything be found out about the people who read the books and what contribution they made to popular conceptions of what constituted the ‘sound material’ of science that prevailed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century?” But whereas historians of science may inquire about the way professionals and amateurs defined science in the ISS, historians of the book may inquire: “What and how did these works fit in the contemporary context of scientific publishing, and of publishing in general? Were the texts as fixed as they appear, or is there evidence of revision? When revisions occurred, were they announced to booksellers and the reading public, or were they concealed? Did publishers agree with the titans of science who gave them editorial advice about what constituted a saleable manuscript, and when they failed to agree, whose opinion prevailed?

Both sets of questions yield remarkable dividends. According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”

Books emerge not merely from artistic motives, but from a “desire to instruct,” “inform,” or “persuade.” Books, and nineteenth-century books in particular, were “conversion projects,” and scientific authors of science of nineteenth-century Europe and North America “were just as passionate evangelists, for science, as were their opposite numbers in the missionary societies.” T.H. Huxley and his coterie wished to revolutionize the dissemination of science in society, to create a much broader audience than before. They found this in Edward Livingston Youmans (1821-1887) call for a series of new books “covering the entire field of modern science.” Youmans was an American writer working for New York publishing firm D. Appleton and Company. According to his biographer, John Fiske, Youmans was “an interpreter of science for the people.” In 1871, Youmans traveled to Britain to pitch the series to a number of scientists and philosophers, including John Tyndall, T.H. Huxley, his close friend Herbert Spencer, and even requested Charles Darwin to endorse the project. Youmans and William Henry Appleton entered into contract with London publisher Henry S. King and Company later that year. Before returning to New York, Youmans also traveled to France and Germany, making arrangements with publishers and scientists for the corresponding series there.

Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer would form as ISS’s advisory body, “charged with helping the publisher decide which books should be included in the series, and to some extent with soliciting further titles form their powerful network of acquaintances.” Their motives, according to Howsam’s analysis of letters and other documents, were threefold. First, they wanted greater recompense for their own personal efforts. Second, “they envisioned the series as a tool in their campaign for a more secular approach to public policy.” Finally, they wanted the series to “educate” the non-professional reader about what they perceived was the latest developments in the physical and social sciences.

Howsam goes on to show how bookseller became aware of the series, how it was revised for new editions, including substantial changes based on criticisms and translations, the addition of prefaces or appendices to bring them up to date, and how in general authors kept their specific contributions “alive.” “Although the series must have found its place on the bookshelves of many collections both public and private,” Howsam argues, “few collectors were aware of the fluidity of the texts enclosed inside the uniform red bindings.”

In tracing its reception, Howsam relies on book review columns gleaned from Nature and Westminster Review, but also suggests other journals, letters, and autobiographies in order to enter the consciousness of nineteenth-century readers of popular scientific works. These latter remain, however, fragmentary, and thus periodical reviews is our best source of “what the reviewers, and beyond them readers, thought of how the series was achieving its objectives.”

“In the hands of Yousmans, King and Appleton, and Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” Howsam concludes, the International Scientific Series became a “vision of modern secular science.” And it was the “publishers who made the ultimate publishing decisions.” Books have a dual nature, as text and as physical object. Investigating both aspects, historians of the book are “learning to recognize the malleable text lurking below the deceptively bland leather or cloth-bound skin of the apparently torpid beast, and to demonstrate that books produced in the past had a recoverable dynamic existence in that past culture.” Book history reveals books as complexly embodied objects, giving us a glimpse of  “motivations not only of the men and woman who wrote and published them, but also of booksellers who distributed them and the readers who consumed them.”