Draper and Darwin at Oxford 1860

There are many interesting ideas in Draper’s 1860 Oxford BAAS address. Although he invoked Darwin’s name in the title, “The Intellectual Development of Europe (considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others) that the Progression of Organisms is Determined by Law,” there is actually very little about Darwin in the speech. Draper and Darwin did share some key assumptions about geology, biology, and physiology. But there was also some clear differences. Perhaps most important is that Draper negated the process of “natural selection” in his Oxford paper. Draper was also more willing than Darwin was in 1860 to address the question of human evolution. In his Oxford paper Draper argued for the equal application of natural law in physics and biology:

In the higher physiology as well as in the physical sciences orderly sequences are proofs of the operation of law. It matter not from what direction the examples may be drawn[—]the path of a stone thrown from the hand, the motions of a planetary body, the unvarying stages of development of a plant or an animal.[1]

Draper was actually quite comfortable claiming parallels between human physiology and other animals. He explained to his audience:

In the Physiology of Man considered as an Individual we ascertain the law of his development from an examination of his state at successive epochs and obtain light on the obscurities encountered in our studies by turning to other animal forms. We regard him as the first member of an infinite series of organisms all composed of the same elements[,] chemical and anatomical[,] subject to the same influences[,] governed by the same laws. We see no shadow of a great gulf between him and them. When instead of limiting our investigation of his life to the period of maturity we examine all that long career though which he passes from a mere microscopic speck[,] we find that as he moves from epoch to epoch he repeats in an ascending progress successively the structure of those[,] his humbler comrades[—]like them ever under the control of physical conditions[,] and advancing in his development in submission to an universal law.

But Draper was, of course, also interested in arguing that “man in civilization does not occur accidentally or in a fortuitous manner, but is determined by immutable law.” That is to say, he wanted to show that the same physical laws for biological evolution also applied to human society as a whole. Concomitantly, Draper believed that an understanding of these laws shows that society was essentially progressive:

There is a progress for races of men as well marked as the progress of one man. There are thoughts and actions appertaining to specific periods in the one case as in the other. The march of individual existence shadows forth the march of Race existence[,] being indeed its representation on a little scale. In this manner there emerges into prominence the noble conception that man is the archetype of Society, that individual development is the model of social progress.

Society was a living organism, which, just like all organisms, responded to external and internal laws:

Whatever may be the present state it is altogether transient. All systems of civil life are therefore necessarily ephemeral. Time brings new external conditions[,] the manner of thought is modified, with thought[,] action. Persons are the sum of organic particles, nations are the sums of persons, all are only transitional forms which have a definite cycle of motion[,] and that motion is never retrograde. The succession of social transmutation is as irresistible as the constitutional metamorphosis of the individual and so[,] too[,] it is in the intellectual public[,] ideas which are the sum of individual thoughts follow in an inevitable train. Everything is in movement.

The apparent “immutability of species” was simply a temporary moment in  “physical equilibrium” and nothing more:

Not man alone but all organic species depend on the physical conditions in under which they live. Any variation[,] no matter how insignificant it might be therein[,] would be forthwith followed by a corresponding variation in them form. The present invariability presented by the world of organization is the direct consequence of the physical equilibrium[,] and so it will continue as long as the mean temperature[,] the annual supply of light[,] the composition of the air[,] the distribution of water[,] oceanic and atmospheric currents[,] and other such agencies remain unchanged unaltered[,] but if any one of these or of a hundred other incidents that might be mentioned should suffer modification[,] in an instant the fanciful doctrine of the immutability of species would be brought to its true value. The organic world appears to be in repose because natural influences have reached an equilibrium. A marble may remain in motionless forever on a level table but let the surface be a little inclined and the marble will quickly run off. Looking at it in its state of rest we should hardly be justified in affirming that it was impossible for it ever to move.

In concluding his address, Draper turned more directly to his larger historical thesis, that nations, including the British empire, were also temporary, and would eventually be overcome by others, all according to immutable laws:

From the considerations now presented we see how completely the origin[,] existence[,] and death of Nations depend on physical influences which are themselves the results of immutable laws. Nations are only transitional forms of humanity. They must undergo obliteration as do the transitional forms offered by the animal series. There is no more immortality for them than there is an immobility for an embryo animal in any one of the manifold forms past through in its progress of development. Empires, the creation of Nations, are only sand hills in the hourglass of Time.

It was, then, perhaps Draper’s willingness to go “the whole orang” and then quickly consider its social implications, or perhaps his undermining of the British empire, with the implication that the American empire was now in its ascendancy as the next stage in the social evolutionary process, that might better explain why Draper’s presentation at the 1860 BAAS at Oxford was met with much criticism by Huxley and other supporters of Darwinism.

[1] John William Draper, “The Intellectual Development of Europe (considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others) that the Progression of Organisms is Determined by Law,” container 8, John William Draper Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Evelleen Richards and the Making of Darwin’s Theory of Sexual Selection

Tonight Evelleen Richards will be speaking at IASH on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In preparation for the talk, it has been suggested we read her 1983 essay, “Darwin and the Descent of Women.” It is a dated text, as many of her arguments have now become common parlance among Darwin scholars. Nevertheless, it is still relevant today, and thus worth familiarizing ourselves with its details.

Richards begins by pointing out that during the 1970s and 1980s social historians and sociologists were beginning to view scientific knowledge as a “contingent cultural product.” That is, scientific knowledge as socially constructed, as influenced by “non-scientific” content. She is careful to qualify the position, noting that “this is not to assert that science is merely a matter of convention…but rather that scientific knowledge ‘offers an account of the physical world which is mediated through available cultural resources; and these resources are in no way definitive.'” Richards supports this contention by citing work from M. Mulkay, B. Barnes, S. Shapin, R.M. Macleod, and a few others.

Using this new approach—i.e., that scientific knowledge is cultural constructed—Richards applies this method to Darwin’s conclusions on biological and social evolution, particularly his claims about women and sexual selection. Darwin has for too long (remember, this is a paper from the 1980s) been portrayed as an idealized, objective, “great man” of science. He has been “absolved of political and social intent and his theoretical constructs of ideological taint,” she writes.

But Richards wants to go beyond the feminist charge of sexism. Indeed, she aims to place “Darwin’s theoretical constructs and Darwin himself in their larger, social, intellectual and cultural framework.” In short, she wants to argue that Darwin was not merely a sexist or chauvinist, but that he was following an increasingly popular naturalistic explanation of nature—including human nature. Moreover, Darwin also derived his notion of sexual selection from the larger Victorian context, from socially sanctioned assumptions “of the innate inferiority and domesticity of women.” More interestingly, Richards wants to connect Darwin’s views on sexual selection to his relations with Emma Wedgwood, his wife, and their children. “I argue,” Richards writes, “that Darwin’s experience of women and his practical activities of husband and father entered into his concept of sexual selection and his associated interpretations of human evolution.” Finally, Richards wants to show how late-Victorian Darwinism was imposed on women, limiting their claims for social and political equality.

As soon as Darwin published his Origin of Species, he was feeling the pressure to apply his theory of evolution to humanity. According to his notebooks, Darwin had been thinking about human evolution since the 1830s. Indeed, “from the first he was convinced that humanity was part of the evolutionary process.” He delayed publishing his views once the storm over the Origin had subsided.

But that did not prevent others from making a go at it. Charles Lyell offered his own arguments in his 1863 Antiquity of Man. But Darwin was “bitterly disappointed” that Lyell did not “go the whole orang.” Darwin felt more assured by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection. He was so confident in Wallace that he offered to share his notes on “Man” with him. Darwin was shocked when Wallace retracted his “belief in the all-sufficiency of natural in human physical, social, and mental development.” By 1869, Wallace had posited a “higher intelligence” guiding the development of the human race.

Richards suggests that these men, who seem to have lost their nerve, reinforced Darwin’s determination to demonstrate that the “human races were the equivalent of the varieties of plants and animals…and they were subject to the same main agencies of struggle for existence and the struggle for mates.” Human evolution, as with other species, could and should be explained by natural evolutionary processes.

Sexual selection was indeed the key for Darwin. When he published his Descent of Man in 1871, he subtitled it: or Selection in Relation to Sex. Sexual selection had been vital for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his Origin, Darwin distinguished the two. Sexual selection, he wrote

depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the results is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring. Sexual selection is, therefore, less rigorous than natural selection. Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave most progeny. But in many cases, victory will depend not on general vigour, but on having special weapons, confined to the male sex.

Perhaps more importantly, Darwin attributed sexual selection to another factor: female choice. This explained, for example, the seemingly useless and even disadvantageous colors of some male birds, or the long horns of the antelope. In other words, these elements made the male more attractive, and hence better at “wooing” the female during courtship.

Richards carefully notes that in his Origin, Darwin views females as mere spectators, entirely submissive to the males, who actively compete with one another. “Female choice” she writes, is still very much “passive.” Darwin’s “androcentric bias,” she adds, is even more pronounced when he considered human evolution. According to Richards, Darwin badgered “naturalists and breeders for corroborative evidence” to support his position. For Darwin, “human evolution and sexual selection had become inextricably linked.”

In his Descent of Man, Darwin divides his argument into three parts. In part one he sought to demonstrate “that there was no fundamental difference between humanity and the higher animals.” At the end of this first section, Darwin introduced his theory of sexual selection to explain racial differences, including “skin colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc.” But sexual selection was also much wider in scope. As Darwin put it

He who admits the principle of sexual selection will be led to the remarkable conclusion that the nervous system not only regulates most of the existing functions of the body, but has indirectly influenced the progressive development of various bodily structures and of certain mental qualities. Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colours and ornamental appendages, have all been indirectly gained by the one sex or the other through the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealously, and the appreciation of the beautiful in sound, colour or form; and these powers of the mind manifestly depend on the development of the brain.

Sexual selection, in other words, account for the “higher” features of humanity, mental powers—emotional, intellectual, and moral.

In parts two and three of his Descent, Darwin concentrated on demonstrating sexual selection in the animal kingdom, and then extended it to human evolution. The point needs re-emphasizing: Darwin was not concerned with “sex” but with human evolution. Interestingly, Darwin reverses his theory on sexual selection when it came to humanity. While females, however passive, choose in the animal kingdom, it is male selection that predominated among humans. Indeed, in the course of evolution, “man had seized the power of selection from woman.”

In turn, male humans had become “more powerful in body and mind than woman.” Richards argues that Darwin’s understanding of sexual selection led him to the conclusion that the “higher education of women could have no long-term impact on social evolution and was, biologically and socially, a waste of resources.” She claims that Darwin derived some of his ideas on sexual selection from Carl Vogt’s Lectures on Man, which was first published in English in 1864 by the racist Anthropological Society of London. Indeed, Darwin cited Vogt’s morphological arguments on racial and sexual differences, which posited that “mature females, in the formation of her skull, is ‘intermediate between the child and the man’ and that woman’s anatomy generally, was more child-like or ‘primitive’ than man’s.” According to Richards, “it was an extension of Vogt’s woman-as-child-as-primitive argument that provided the sole scientific underpinning of Darwin’s conclusion on the futility of higher education for women.” As it was for Vogt, so it was for Darwin: sexual inequality was the hallmark of an advanced society.

Richards argues, however, that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was supported by little actual empirical evidence, and that most of it depended social stereotypes. “The whole was a triumph of ingenuity in response to theoretical necessity in the face of a dearth of hard evidence,” she writes.

At the same time, this was not just some political ploy by Darwin. His theory of sexual selection was “part of a more general tendency of nineteenth-century thought to treat human mental and social development more scientifically or naturalistically.” Although Richards does not put it in these words, the obvious desire to explain everything naturalistically seems to derive from the abandonment or rejection of theological explanations. In an attempt to fill the void left behind when religious explanations were ousted, Darwin needed to find another way of explaining the course of human evolution. Darwin chose sex. In this new understanding of human evolution and human nature, woman took the backseat, stagnate and trapped in a childlike and primitive state. Man, by contrast, became the higher being, the breeder who selected, shaped, and moulded woman to his fancy. Richards contends that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was part and parcel of Victorian bourgeoisie social and political assumptions about the sexes. But I would argue that it was more than this. As I mentioned above, it was also the attempt to support such assumptions, wittingly or unwittingly, naturalistically.

Richards now turns to how “Darwin, as an individual, came to hold his beliefs on feminine abilities and differences.” In the 1830s Darwin was looking for a “nice soft wife on a sofa.” He found her in Emma. Ironically, as Richards puts it, it was Darwin, who suffered from much ill-health, who often occupied the sofa. Yet Emma was entirely submissive to Darwin. She bore him ten children, wrote letters at his dictation, nursed him, and proofed his writings. She was also, as Richards notes, “deeply religious, and many of [Darwin’s] opinions were painful to her.” But Emma remained undeniably faithful to Darwin.

Darwin did not want an intellectual companion. He actually advised against it. When Emma picked up Lyell’s Elements of Geology, Darwin told her to put it down. For Darwin, “science was an exclusively male preserve, which women entered, if they entered at all, only as spectators.” Richards adds that Darwin “did not expect or want women to converse intelligently about science, but rather to be tolerant of masculine preoccupation with it.” Emma was expected to adhere to the stereotypes of Victorian feminine servitude, domesticity, and piety. And she did.

Richards also notes that although the Wedgwoods and Darwins held unconventional theological and political notions, they were entirely “orthodox” in their views of the role of women. It is, however, not entirely clear what Richards means by “orthodox.” That is, she never defines the term. Does she mean religiously orthodox? socially orthodox?

At any rate, Richards goes on to show how Henreitta, one of Darwin’s daughters, actually proofed and in fact edited his Descent. But it appears that she had no qualms about the section on woman’s intellectual inferiority. Like her mother Emma, her only concern was Darwin “putting God further off.”

Richards then turns to Darwinism and the social context. The nineteenth century, she says, experienced the “secular redefinition of the world.” She stresses—perhaps too much—that evolution was central to this redefinition. But as many scholars have pointed out since her paper was published in 1983, Darwin’s theory of evolution did not come into the “theological world like a plough into an ant hill.”

Richards is correct, however, in connecting evolution to a “secular ideology of progress,” one which was “assimilated to the capitalist requirements of industrial and economic growth, catch-cry of a rapidly advancing liberal and ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie.'” Darwin of course was not disinterested in this connection. Indeed, as is now well known, he did not take a neutral position on the topic. He had incorporated contemporaneous social thought in support of his theory. As Richards puts it, “it was an alliance that made for success.”

In the last decades of the century, many turned to evolution rather than religion to corroborate their views on social values. “Social Darwinism” appealed, for example, to the “robber barons” of America, to J.D. Rockefeller and other powerful businessmen. We have even seen something of a rebirth of Social Darwinism recently with the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

In a succinct paragraph, Richards puts it thus:

Darwin, in pushing his case against the divine origin of human mind and conscience, argued for their evolution according to the same processes that had produced all living things. His refusal to concede any but naturalistic explanations of human intelligence and morality, hardened into a biological determinism that rejected all social and cultural causation other than that which could be subsumed under the natural laws of inheritance and thus become innate or fixed.

After the publication of Darwin’s Descent, there was a notable increase in treatises attempting to moralize naturalism. We see this, according to Richards, in the work of Huxley, Romanes, Galton, Lubbock, Spencer, and other popular works. “Those Darwinian theorists,” she writes, “raised insuperable evolutionary barriers against feminine intellectual and social equality.”

As feminism was rising to power in the last decades of the nineteenth century, social Darwinists declared it a direct threat to the bourgeois family. According to Richards, Darwin’s Descent appeared just in time. His “growing authority and prestige were pitted against the claims by women for intellectual and social equality.” There was also a massive upsurge of anthropological and medical studies used to support Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and more generally his views of women and their role in society.

Richards concludes that Darwin’s understanding of human sexual differences was “central to his naturalistic explanation of human evolution.” In this essay and her more recent work, Richards has demonstrated that scientific knowledge is not immune to the context of its reality. While science can transcend borders, it is also provincial. Science is situated knowledge; or, as David N. Livingstone has put it, it has a “place.”

Darwin and the Divine Programmer

Many have attempted to explain the inspiration and origins of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. One recent attempt comes from Dominic Klyve in his 2014 article “Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The Ultimate Origin of the Motivation for the Theory of Natural Selection,” published in Journal of the History of Biology. While Darwin was undoubtedly inspired by Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus’ own ideas about geometric population growth derived from the work of German Protestant pastor and demographer Johann Peter Süssmilch (1707-67) and Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-83). According to Klyve, it is here, in the work of Süssmilch and Euler, where we find the “ultimate” origins of Malthus’ geometric theory, and therefore Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

Interestingly enough, both Süssmilch and Euler were strong physico-theologians. Süssmilch, for example, believed the purpose of demography was the “study of the laws (that is, the ‘divine order’) which manifest themselves in mortality, fecundity, and the propagation of the human species, and which can be analyzed using the statistics of deaths, marriages, births, etc.” As Klyve puts it, Süssmilch “believed that population across Europe and the world was slowly increasing, and that this was due to the handiwork of God.” Euler too believed population growth was an example of “divine order.”

According to Klyve, Darwin needed three things to rightly conceptualize his theory of natural selection: time, rapid population growth, and stability. While the old age of the earth was demonstrated by Lyell’s work, the other two pieces come from Süssmilch and Euler.

While Klyve may have secured a spot for Euler in the intellectual history of Darwin’s work, I am more convinced that another mathematician may have played a similar, if not greater, role in Darwin’s ideas: Charles Babbage.

The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThis past week I have been reading Laura J. Snyder’s engrossing tale of the Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World (2011). The Philosophical Breakfast Club was the creation of four Cambridge men, William Whewell (1794-1866), Charles Babbage (1791-1871), John Herschel (1792-1871), and Richard Jones (1790-1855). These four Cambridge friends met together on Sunday mornings after chapel to discuss Francis Bacon, reforms in knowledge, society, and science. All four would become central to the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1831.

In Chapter 8 of this book, “A Divine Programmer,” Snyder gives a fascinating account of Darwin attending one of Babbage’s popular Saturday evening soirées. It was Lyell who had invited Darwin to Babbage’s dinner party, which were, as Darwin later put it in a letter to his sister “the best in the way of literary people in London—and that there is a good mixture of pretty women!”

These parties were also something of a gastronomic affair (much like the BAAS meetings were). According to Snyder, a “table would be laid with punch, cordials, wine, and Madeira; tarts; fruits both fresh and dried; nuts, cakes, cookies, and finger sandwiches…oysters, salads, croquettes, cold salmon, and various fowls.” There was also dancing, music, and literary, artistic, and scientific amusements. But most important of all was Babbage’s demonstration of his Difference Engine.

On this particular evening, with Darwin present in the audience, Babbage, according to Snyder, gave something of a sermon. In describing his machine, Babbage related God as a divine programmer:

“In like manner does God impress His creation with laws, laws that have built into them future alterations in their patterns. God’s omnipotence entails that He can foretell what causes will be needed to bring about the effects He desires; God does not need to intervene each and every time some new cause is required…God, then, is like the inventor of a complex, powerful calculating engine.”

Ignoring for the moment Babbage’s own god-complex, his image of God as programmer, who had, as Snyder puts it, “preset his Creation to run according to natural law, requiring no further intervention,” would lead to a remarkably different view of the relationship between science and religion in the nineteenth century—one that would dramatically alter Darwin’s own view of God’s agency in the natural world.

Babbage’s own view emerged from a confrontation he had with his Cambridge friend Whewell and his Bridgewater treatise, to which Babbage would later add his own, unauthorized work to the series. Indeed, as Snyder observes, Babbage constructed his engine with the purpose to “counter Whewell’s view of miracles as interventions of God outside natural law.”

But Snyder’s most salient point in this chapter is that before attending Babbage’s Dorset Street soirée, Darwin was already struggling with the species question. In fact, Darwin had just returned from his voyage on the Beagle when he was invited to Babbage’s party. “At the very moment he was introduced to Babbage and his machine,” she writes, “Darwin was questioning the fixity of species and the prevalent notion of special creation.”

Just as Babbage anticipated changes and modifications in his machine, he imagined God as a programer and inventor, who would have anticipated changes in creation. Darwin, Snyder suggests, “would have seen how Babbage’s view of a divine programmer gave him a way to reconcile his beliefs in God with his growing sense that new species arose from old ones in a purely natural, evolutionary process.” But in time, however, Darwin and many others would come to think that nature did not need a divine programmer at all.

The Cambridge Companion Series on Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species

Hodge and Radick - The Cambridge Companion to DarwinI have begun reading two related volumes on Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species (1859). As part of the Darwin anniversary celebrations of 2009, the Cambridge Companion series issued two new volumes, Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick’s (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (2009) and Michael Ruse and Robert J. Richards’ (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to the ‘Origin of Species’ (2009). As another reviewer has put it, these two volumes prove to be “caviar for professional scholars.”

The Cambridge Companion to Darwin aims to provide an “introduction to Darwin’s thinking and to the various and often contentious uses made of his legacies today.” It deals with historical and contextual issues relating to Darwin’s education and achievements, then outlines the ethical, metaphysical, and moral implications of his theory for present-day philosophy. One of Hodge and Radick’s primary objectives is to undercut popular interpretations of Darwin as a “naive, innocent, school-boyish, outdoor, nature-loving traveller and collector, whose theories emerged out of a conjunction of genius, luck and exceptional observational opportunity.” In historical reality, Darwin was indeed “a man of ideas, a thinker, even at times, yes, a philosopher…”

Ruse and Richards - The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of SpeciesThe Cambridge Companion to the ‘Origins of Species’ likewise aims to subvert traditional images of Darwin’s masterpiece. Editors Ruse and Richards gather essays that reconstruct the main arguments of the book, as well as its religious, social, political, literary and philosophical, contexts. According to the editors, “the Origin is still today a work of vital significance and interest.” Indeed, this volumes reveals how the Origin was conceived, developed, and published in dynamic interaction with the broader cultural and social context.

*  *  *

Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability

Gowan Dawson - Darwin Literature and Victorian RespectibilityWhen Richard Owen (1804-1892) denounced T.H. Huxley’s (1825-1895) paleontological methods at the Geological Society of London in 1856, he did so on peculiarly moralistic grounds. But this should come as no surprise, for Owen “drew upon a long, well-worn tradition connecting materialism and unbelief with moral corruption and debauchery, including the entwinement of pornography and materialist philosophies in the Enlightenment.” So writes Gowan Dawson in a striking study on Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (2007). In this volume Dawson explores the curious relationship that Victorian reviewers and commentators drew between the ideas and advocates of scientific naturalism and the “Fleshly School of Poetry” of W. Morris(1834-1896), D.G. Rossettie (1828-1882), A.C. Swinburne (1837-1909), and their “coterie of licentious companions.” Darwin and other scientific writers were haunted by an anxiety that their ideas, theories, illustrative examples and subject matter in general, might be construed as violating the boundaries of Victorian sexual respectability. Indeed, Darwin, Huxley, Hooker, and others were at pains to protect evolutionary theory from attack by those who saw evolution as leading to dangerous political and social practices such as sexual immortality, birth control, and divorce. As Dawson points out, “those seeking to discredit the cultural authority of evolutionary science identified it with the alleged sensual indulgence of aestheticism, while those attempting to establish it as a respectable secular theodicy denied such as connection and instead emphasized links with more reputable literary writers.”

In his Introduction, Dawson notes that Darwin’s “particular conception of organic evolution…quickly became part of a wider political campaign” by the scientific naturalists to “wrest the last vestiges of intellectual and cultural authority away from the monopolistic Anglican Church establishment, as well as the gentlemanly amateurs who represented its interests in the scientific world.” Their goal was not the abolition of traditional religion, however; rather, the scientific naturalists sought to naturalize it, with “law and uniformity supplanting theology as the guarantors of order in both the natural world and human society.” To this end, scientific naturalism “had to be urgently sequestered from any hostile associations that might tarnish them in the eyes of the various audiences for science in Victorian Britain and consequently undermine the political aspirations of dissident secular intellectuals.” And more than any other vice, specific anxieties over sexual immortality emerged as the “most significant impediment to establishing a naturalistic worldview as a morally respectable alternative to earlier theological outlooks.”

Darwinian evolution was seen by many Victorians as unleashing a “torrent of immortality and corruption that would surpass the scandalous vices of even the pagan world.” Thus “in order to neutralize the charges of encouraging sexual immorality, the proponents of evolutionary theory, attempting to forge their own naturalistic social theodicy, had to shield Darwinism equally vigorously from any such invidious connections, in part by distinguishing a self-proclaimed ‘pure’ science—drawing on all senses of that overdetermined adjective—from the less reputable aspects of nineteenth-century general culture.”

Dawson also argues that while the scientific naturalists sought to publicly cultivate a reputation of unimpeachable respectability and character, in private correspondence, “sardonic and permissive attitude towards…profane topics…contravened conventional standards of middle-class respectability.” This was indeed a “masculine culture,” a “convivial fraternalist discourse” and “tolerant cosmopolitanism.” Of course, such “bawdy” anecdotes shared between scientific naturalists were not “generally divulged to wives or other female family members.”

The periodical of choice of scientific naturalists was John Morley’s (1838-1923) Fortnightly Review. Here Huxley, John Tyndall (1820-1893), and W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) and other leading exponents of evolution and scientific naturalism found a ready audience. And as Dawson points out, the magazine “encompassed both evolutionary science and aesthetic literature, and this shared mode of publication evidently emphasized the areas of potential similarity between them.”

Robert W. Buchanan (1841-1901) was one of the earliest to aver against the “fleshy” and materialistic poetry of Swinburne, Rossetti, Morris and others. Buchanan would also connect aesthetic poetry with the alleged materialism of contemporary science. In the 1876 issue of New Quarterly Magazine, for example, Buchanan contested the principles that Tyndall had advanced less than two years earlier in his Presidential Address to the BAAS at Belfast. For Buchanan, Tyndall’s materialistic science was “merely another version of the fleshy creed promulgated in the verse of Rossetti, Swinburne and their coterie of licentious companions.”

The scientific naturalists responded to such raucous accusations in two ways. First, they simply reiterated the “scrupulous standards of personal morality exhibited by scientific practitioners, as well as the strict discipline and moral propriety instilled—and indeed required—by empirical methods of experimentation and observation.” Another response, particularly and effectively employed by Tyndall, emphasized “the already existing connection between the leading advocates of scientific naturalism and older and more reputable literary writers, most notably the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson and the conservative Sage of Chelsea Thomas Carlyle.” But as Dawson suggests, Huxley, Tyndall, and other scientific naturalists might have deliberately misinterpreted the work of these literary figures for their own particular purposes.

In the remaining chapters of Dawson’s remarkable book, he examines and analyzes “sexualized responses to evolution,” “nineteenth-century revival of paganism,” “Victorian freethought and the Obscene Publications Act,” “the refashioning of William Kingdon Clifford’s posthumous reputation,” and “the pathologization of aestheticism” by Huxley and Henry Maudsley (1835-1913). Judiciously integrating “contextualist approaches to the history of science with recent work in nineteenth-century literary and cultural history,” Dawson exemplifies what research in both archival and manuscript sources should look like. He draws from a broad ranges of sources, including journalism, scientific books and lectures, sermons, radical pamphlets, aesthetic and comic verse, novels, law reports, illustrations and satirical cartoons, and private letters. Dawson provides a fascinating account of the reception of scientific ideas and further evidence that science is never neutral.

*  *  *

History, Humanity, and Evolution

0521524784cvr.qxd (Page 1)In a festschrift honoring John C. Greene, most well-known for his seminal volumes, The Death of Adam: Evolution and its Impact on Western Thought (1959) and Science, Ideology and World View: Essays in the History of evolutionary Ideas (1981), James R. Moore (ed.) has collected thirteen essays in History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene (1989) that share Greene’s interest in the intellectual, cultural, and social history of evolution; and, in particular, the recurring interdependence of science and religion in the history of science. Beginning with a wonderful introductory interview with Moore, Greene describes his general approach to relating these two most powerful forces in history:

“Religion apart from science tends to become obscurantist, dogmatic and bigoted; science apart from some general view of human nature in its total context becomes meaningless and destructive. Unless science is practiced on the basis of a conception of human nature that does justice to our highest aspirations, the prospect for the future is bleak indeed.”

Although the essays range in quality, they collectively represent the growing trend of social constructivism among historians of science in the last decade of the twentieth century. Roy Porter begins with an intellectual portrait of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and his concern “to rescue ‘man’ from the aspersions of being just a machine.” Erasmus’ biomedical background was “informed by the evidence of change, both in degree and in kind, running ubiquitously through Nature.” But as an interpreter of nature, Erasmus’ attention was drawn to “features indicative of unity, integration and interdependence.” He would eventually develop a “hylozoic vision of natural continuity,” where living bodies were “capable of entering into dialectical interplay with their external environment.” In explaining this adaptive behavior, Erasmus had in mind “something close to the classic conception of the association of ideas as spelt out in empiricist epistemology from Locke through Hartley and Hume.” But Erasmus’ vision of human nature was not the l’homme machine of the Enlightenment. According to Porter, “his physician’s vision was dominated by the living organisms he saw fighting disease, changing over time, involved in subtle interplay with the personalities they housed…it is a vision of man for the machine age, but it is not a vision of man the machine.”

Ludmilla Jordanova examines Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744-1829) separation of God from nature, “creation from production.” Lamarck repudiated disorder in nature, but rather than adhering to a God who is in sovereign control over nature, he appealed to universal natural laws. Also interesting is Jordanova’s observation that “Lamarck’s ‘psychology’ was central to his philosophy of nature.” Lamarck shared many interests with the Parisian idéologues, a loosely affiliated group of self-styled social scientists such as Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutte de Tracy (1754-1836), Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), among others. “Lamarck’s commitment to this position is clearly vital,” writes Jordanova, “as it spurred him to think through a naturalistic account of the nervous system, and to reject any mental faculties, such as will and imagination, not strictly compatible with such an account.” By  redefining terms such as creation, production, life and nature, “Lamarck tried to generate a language purged of unwelcome theological associations, to set himself apart from natural philosophical traditions that could not sustain a science of life rooted in change over time, that is, production.”

Adrian Desmond argues that “the doctrines of scientific naturalism, in comparative anatomy at least, originated in republican Paris, and were actively imported into London and incorporated into Benthemite and radical dissenting strategies at the time of the Reform and Municipal Corporations Acts” of 1835, long before the “scientific naturalism” of the Huxleys and Tyndalls of the 1860s. When these radical dissenters stripped nature of its supernatural content, it “served a powerful religious and political purpose.” That is, “it vitiated the clergy’s claim to moral authority based on their mediating role in natural theology, and was in line with the dissenters’ belief in the priesthood of all believers and the right to private interpretation of the Bible.” The “new naturalism,” as Desmond phrases it, “appealed most strongly to younger reformers, many socially handicapped nonconformists and secularists, who were attempting to break the traditional power of the old corporation and Oxbridge oligarchs.”

Simon Schaffer focuses the “nebular hypothesis” of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and how it gained greater currency in the 1830s through the work of John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), becoming an “important site at which the Victorians worked out their differing views of the progress of their world.” The nebular hypothesis pretends to give an astronomical account of the origins of the solar system through natural laws. Both Robert Chambers and Herbert Spencer “gave the nebular cosmogony pride of place in their respective accounts of development in the world.” Indeed, Spencer said it exemplified “the law of all progress.”But as Schaffer argues, the nebular hypothesis was not imported from astronomy. It came to Britain through the writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and William Herschel (1738-1822), as reported by David Brewster (1781-1868) and J.S. Mill (1806-1873). It was William Whewell (1794-1866), however, who first coined the term “nebular hypothesis” in his 1833 Bridgewater Treatise. Indeed, “Whewell baptized the nebular hypothesis by claiming that it still demanded ‘an intelligent Author, an origin proceeding from free volition not from material necessity.'” But Nichol and his allies, according to Schaffer, “made their nebular hypothesis an object of a moral and a natural science. Stellar progress was pressed into the service of political reform.” Astronomical data was malleable; its “message was always interpreted to fit the local interests of protagonists in the contests about progress in the Universe and in Society.” In this sense, astronomy was the “science of progress.” According to Charles Lyell (1797-1875), astronomy “gave the most violent shock to the prejudices and long-received opinions of men.” This “science of progress appeared in government offices, lecture theatres, journals and popular texts of the reform movement in politics and education that developed during the 1820s and 1830s.” These reformers stressed the inevitability and certainty of natural laws, and therefore progress. Nichol’s impact on Darwin, Chambers, Mill, and others is well attested. According to Schaffer, Nichol’s “version of the nebular hypothesis was not an isolated statement of an astronomical truth. It appeared alongside reflections on the origin of life, the progress of humanity and the future of society. His cosmogony was part of a sectarian view of history and it had stiff competition.”

James A. Secord provides an early essay on Robert Chambers (1802-1871) and his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which would be developed in full in his Victorian Sensation (2000). Secord wants to present a “new view of the Vestiges and how it came to be written.” Chambers publicly delineated his ideas on the development of the cosmos and life on earth in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, a weekly periodical founded by William and Robert Chambers in 1832. “The tone of the Journal,” writes Secord, “is unmistakeable: self-improvement, the progress of society, and rational, non-sectarian entertainment.” The Vestiges can be seen as a consequence of the “progressive development” of the author himself. Initially, Chambers was a staunch Tory, but eventually shifting to liberal Whig in the 1830s. Religiously, Chambers was a moderate deist who disliked “evangelical enthusiasm and doctrinal controversy.” According Secord, the “explicitly religious aspects of the Vestiges were tacked on to placate those evangelicals he contemptuously referred to as ‘the saints.'” Further, his interest in natural science emerged from “a phrenologically inspired educational programme in publishing,” accepting the “essential tenets of phrenology and their significance for his growing interest in natural law.” It was Scottish phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858) and his Constitution of Man (1828) that came to influence Chambers the most in this regard. He was also influenced by Nichol’s Views of the Architecture of the Heavens (1837), which described the evolution of the universe and the formation of galaxies and stars. Nichol’s version of the nebular hypothesis compelled Chambers to apply the “law of progress to the whole realm of nature.” Much of these developing ideas, according to Secord, are present in Chambers’ Journal.

But how, exactly, did Chambers come to replace divine intervention with law-like regularities? “In the late 1830s,” Secord observes, “naturalistic physiological and anatomical doctrines were common currency among nonconformist medical men.” During this time, Chambers came under the influence of Perceval Lord’s Popular Physiology (1834) and John Fletcher’s Rudiments of Physiology (1835-7), and it appears that the “transmutation theory of Vestiges was initially constructed around the traditional concept of recapitulation available in the works of Lord and Fletcher.” At the time, of course, transmutation was a radical doctrine. But when Chambers composed Vestiges in the early 1840s, he utilized analogies of domesticity and human growth to disarm criticism. “Images of pregnancy, birth, childhood and the family were deeply embedded in the structure and language of the book.” Chambers used “generative images to bring the frightening notion of transmutation within the realm of the familiar.” The Vestiges was successful because Chambers employed such generative models of domestic virtues, which minimized or completely neutralized the fears of his audience.

In his own extraordinary and moving study, Moore traces Darwin’s gradual loss of faith to moral reasons rather than intellectual ones. He claims that the “prevailing view of Darwin’s loss of faith to be wrong.” This view holds that Darwin’s misgivings and eventual eschewal of the Christian faith are for the most part intellectual. Evidential considerations surely played some role, but the fact that this process was for so long protracted suggests that Darwin “was frankly reluctant to give up on Christianity.” In a 1879 letter to John Fordyce, author of Aspects of Scepticism: With Special Reference to the Present Time (1883), for example, Darwin writes

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

According to Moore, the most well-known account of Darwin’s loss of Christian faith comes from his Autobiography, written between 1876 and 1881. And it is here where we find a “different interpretation of Darwin’s loss of faith.” The Autobiography was written for no one but his family. There Darwin reveals that he had “gradually” come to distrust the Old Testament on empirical and moral grounds. Likewise, he “gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.” Here the reasons given “pertain chiefly to defects in historical evidence.” But Darwin also found the “damnable doctrine” of everlasting punishment to be morally repugnant as well. At any rate, he hastens to add, “I was very unwilling to give up my belief…disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate.”

Moore focuses on a section in the Autobiography entitled “Religious Belief,” which includes discussions on Christianity, natural religion, the existence of God and personal immortality, and the moral life of an agnostic. Theses sections were likely written sometime between 1876 and 1879. In 1879 Darwin also gave his full attention to “a biographical sketch of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.” As Moore writes, “the ‘constant inculcation’ of disbelief in the Darwin family, from his grandfather down to grandson, had produced neither moral obliquity nor guilt.”

Moore also makes the interesting observation that the life of Darwin’s wife, Emma, was marked full of death (her sister, Fanny, died in 1832; her infant and both parents died in the 1840s; two additional children and two aunts died in the 1850s; another sister, aunt, and nephew died in the 1860s; and yet another sister, brother, and a remaining aunt died in the 1880s), whereas Darwin “lost no one near and dear to him until his father’s death in 1848.” When his father died, Darwin entered a deep depression: “All the autumn & winter I have been much dispirited and inclined to do nothing but what I was forced to.”

It was also during this time that Darwin began reading some works on apologetics. According to his reading notebook, for example, Darwin read Andrews Norton’s The Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1837), Julius Hare’s Essays and Tales by John Sterling (1848), three books by Francis Newman, the younger brother of John Henry, including The Soul, Her Sorrows and Her Aspirations: An Essay towards the Natural History of the Soul, as the True Basis of Theology (1849), A History of the Hebrew Monarchy from the Adminstration of Samuel to the Babylonish Captivity (1847), and Phases of Faith; or, Passages from the History of My Creed (1850). Darwin recorded his highest accolade, “excellent,” for this last publication. The Phases of Faith “was a model of spiritual autobiography conceived as the outgrowth of one ‘phase’ of faith from another, forming a natural progression in which the abandonment of Christianity appears at the end of a plausible, grandualistic narrative.” Darwin followed a similar technique in his own Autobiography.

Moore then tells the emotional story of the death of Annie in 1851, “Darwin’s favourite child.” At only ten years old, Annie’s death shook him to his core. According to Darwin, “Annie did not deserve to die; she did not even deserve to be punished—in this world, let alone the next.” But “nature’s check fell upon her, crushing her remorsefully.” As Moore aptly puts it, “If contemplation of Dr. Darwin eternal destiny had spiked Christianity—Emma’s Christianity, the only living faith he really knew—Annie’s death clinched the matter a fortiori.” In conclusion, “the circumstances under which Darwin came at last to reject Christianity were full of pain…and his decisive objection was [ultimately] moral.”

Martin Rudwick discusses “nineteenth-century visual representations of the deep past.” He begins with some brief remarks on dioramas of natural history, found in our modern museums. The dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period; the ichthyosaurs of the Jurassic seas; the swamps of the Carboniferous; the trilobites and the nautiloids among the coral reefs. “Evolution,” he writes, has “replaced ‘elohim.” Our dioramas of natural history are “reconstructed scenes.” They are anschaulichkeit, that is, “clear,” “graphic,” “vivid” representations of “the prehuman and barely-human past,” reconstructed as “ideal views,” familiar, conceivable, and, most importantly, imaginable. They help make evolutionary interpretation plausible and persuasive, better than any scientific theory can.

Modern dioramas have a history, most conspicuously in illustrations in nineteenth-century books. These artists “visualized the long aeons of ‘deep time’ that lie beyond human history or even the origins of our humanity.” Rudwick works backgrounds, starting with Guillaume Louis Figuier (1819-94) and Edouard Riou’s (1833-1900) “profusely illustrated works, particularly their The World before the Deluge (1863). Figuier had borrowed many of the images from the work of a predecessor, Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-57), professor of palaeontology at the National History Museum in Paris. But according to Rudwick, “Figuier’s human beings, although primitive in time, and simple in tools, clothing and shelter, were no primitives in any other sense: they were unmistakably white and European, and wholly modern in physical appearance.”

Before Figuier there was Austrian palaeobotanist Franz Unger (1800-70) and his illustrator Josef Kuwasseg (1799-1859) in The Primitive World in Its Different Periods of Formation (1847). Their images of the Ice Age in Europe and the origins of humankind were obviously “imaginative achievements.” Other contributors to this genre include August Wilhelm von Klipstein (1801-94), Johann Jakob Kaup (1803-73), Oxford geologist William Buckland (1784-1856), and Henry De la Beche (1796-1855). What is important here is that among these early contributors, “the idea of constructing a whole sequence of scenes from the deep past” was readily available.

Why? Where did this fascination originate? According to Rudwick, when Buckland had asked De la Beche to draw scenes from the deep past, he asked for caricatures of scientific research. De la Beche’s Duria Antiquior (c. 1830) is a prime example. In this “half-humorous” lithograph of ichthyosaurs, pleisiosaurs, and other creatures found as fossils in the Liassic strata of Dorset, “almost every animal was shown eating, of being eaten by, another.” Such caricatures were initially privately and widely circulated among gentlemen geologists of London. Another example is William Conybeare’s (1787-1857) “The Hyaena’s Den at Kirkdale,” which celebrated Buckland’s analysis of the bone relics in a cave in Kirkdale in Yorkshire. In this lithograph Buckland emerges from the cave passage, candle in hand, with a “surprise” expression on his face. “The geologist became in caricature a participant in the scene he had soberly reconstructed in words.” The visual form had obviously been exaggerated for poetic effect.

Thus by the time we reach Darwin, says Rudwick, a “principle had been established.” By making “deep time” anschaulichkeit, “clear,” “graphic,” “vivid,” and, in the end, “entertaining” by visual representation, evolutionary theory seemed more plausible.

I have reserved an special post for Bernard Lightman’s essay on “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers,” and therefore will pass over it here.

Paul Weindling discusses Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and the “secularization of nature,” connecting Haeckel’s acceptance of Darwinism to his views on German politics and social development.

According to Weindling, “Darwinism in Germany was a movement promoting liberal, rational and secular values in perceptions of nature and society.” These German Darwinists were less materialistic and more idealistic and pantheistic. It was, as Weindling puts it, a “secular religion.” In this sense, German Darwinism, or “Darwinismus,” was not “categorically hostile to religion.” By focusing on the career of Haeckel, Weindling wants to track how “Darwinisums moved from its early alliance with political liberalism to perform [a] corporatist and integrative social function.” The life of Haeckel thus “provides valuable insight into German culture and public opinion at the end of the nineteenth century.”

“It is a commonplace that Darwin’s theory of natural selection replaced a harmonious view of nature with one based on chance and struggle,” writes Weindling. But in Germany, Darwin’s theory was, he claims, viewed differently. In Darwinismus, “the theory did not entail a pessimistic philosophy of purposeless conflict.” In Haeckel’s thought, for instance, the view “emerged in which even the most minute beings reveal beauty, harmonious order and the germs of intellectual and social life.” Haeckel is often remembered for “having inspired a love of nature in a generation of biologists,” and indeed he “possessed a deep sensitivity for natural beauties.” As such during his career he “surrounded himself with patriotic and nature-loving cohorts.”

During Haeckel’s lifetime, Germany transformed from a “predominately agrarian and politically fragmented society to an industrial and imperial power.” Such technological and political advancements whetted an appetite “for more optimistic and relevant explanation of the world than that of traditional theology, which was promulgated by churches tied closely to archaic and repressive social forms.”

Though a leader with a following, Haeckel had a need for paternal guidance, thus gathering a series of father-figures. The first was physiologist and comparative anatomist Johannes Müller (1801-1858). Interestingly enough, Müller had nothing but contempt for materialism and its supporters, such as Carl Vogt (1817-1895) and Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899). Initially, Haeckel shared this contempt. Once Müller died Haeckel found another mentor and father-figure, Max Schultze (1825-1874). The influence of Schultze lead Haeckel to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

A major transformation occurred after the death of his wife in 1864. According to Weindling, “it was a traumatic shock, and Haeckel began to feel his character hardening.” Soon after Haeckel began work on Generelle Morphologie (1866), which presented a revolutionary synthesis of Darwin’s ideas with the German tradition of Naturphilosophie. After its publication Haeckel traveled to Darwin’s residence at Down House. After this visit Darwin became Haeckel new mentor and father-figure. Although Darwin warned him that “you have in part taken what I said much stronger than what I intended,” Haeckel thereafter regarded himself a committed Darwinist.

But for Haeckel Darwinism “functioned as an ideology of human progress” rather than a theory of organic evolution. His enthusiasm and obvious emotional character made him “vulnerable to scientific criticisms, and when these came,” Weindling tells us, “old friendships were broken, to be replaced with enmity and bitterness.” He broke ties with cellular pathologist Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) over the politics of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898); Karl Gegenbaur (1826-1903), a colleague from the University of Jena, doubted Haeckel’s evolutionary synthesis, as did evolutionary biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His own students began questioning and criticizing his “biogenetic law and monophyletic theory.” According to Weindling, Haeckel is clearly a “tragic [King] Lear-figure.”

Fortunate for Haeckel, some students remained attached to him, and his “chief compensation for his personal losses was increasing popular success.” During the late 1870s, Haeckel embarked on a campaign of determined propaganda, publicizing “Darwinismus as never before, first by issuing a popular edition of his lectures, then by advertising ‘Monism’ as a link between science and religion.” According to Weindling, the “rational and empirical features in evolutionary theory now gradually gave way to mystic idealism,” as particularly expressed in his Die Welträtsel (1895-1899), “the riddle of the universe.” These ideas were immensely popular, appealing not only to a general audience, but also to disciplines of psychology, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Haeckel’s ideas were also “avidly read across the political spectrum, among socialists and extreme nationalists alike, and they inspired new evolutionary ethics.”

Darwinismus gradually became the basis of Social Darwinism, promoting national unity and creating a “more sympathetic attitude to welfare reforms both within the state and among landowners, industrialists and the middle classes.” Weindling rejects the idea that Nazi racism stems from Haeckel. Although he used concepts of human hierarchy, of “lower” and “higher” races, and occasionally made anti-Semitic remarks, his ideas were too complex and ambiguous to be seen as the standard-bearer for national socialism. Haeckel was “deeply ambivalent.” As Weindling argues, “Haeckel used biology to shore up a form of corporatist social thought that differed fundamentally from the hereditarian social pathologies current under the Nazis.”

Evolutionary theory was undoubtedly threatening, for it seemed to make mankind the “byproduct of a meaningless natural process.” It was less threatening, however, if it was “portrayed as a process leading inexorably towards moral and intellectual improvement, with the human race at the forefront of the advance.” Thus in the nineteenth century ideas of progress came attached to theories of evolution. But by the following century, the notion of progress came under heavy scrutiny. At the same time, in the late nineteenth century, many became obsessed with the “threat of cultural degeneration.” In his essay, Peter J. Bowler argues that both “progressionists” and “degenerationists” exploited all available theories of evolution, including Darwinism, Lamarckism, and orthogenesis.

The idea of degeneration has its roots in the Christian tradition. Christianity portrays humanity as fallen, as “degenerated from an original state of moral perfection.” This was certainly not the only view within the Christian tradition, but the fall of mankind and its subsequent corruption and degeneration is clearly a predominant theme in western culture. But among mid-nineteenth-century evolutionists, human history was viewed quite differently. Banker, politician, and scientist John Lubbock (1834-1913), for instance, argued that “the progress of civilization” was a “continuation of the progress inherent in biological evolution” (my emphasis). Yet as Bowler points out, by the end of the century, some writers were beginning to doubt that the “triumphal development of Western culture could be maintained.”

What “facts” were causing these doubts? As early as 1857, French psychiatrist Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873) had argued that certain environmental factors could lead to degeneration. In 1875, Italian criminologist and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) posited that the criminal was a “degenerate throwback to an earlier stage of evolution.” And in 1895, German sociologist Max Simon Nordau (1849-1923) stressed that the artist and the criminal were “equivalent cases of arrested development.” These men, and Lombroso in particular, believed that the “environment caused the arrest of development that produced the subhuman criminal type.” Moreover, these men also “identified certain races as more inclined to degeneracy than others.” According to Bowler, “the growing strength of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century indicates that many social thinkers had begun to doubt the inevitability of progress.”

Darwin had also stressed the role of environment in determining evolution. But Bowler claims that the notion of progress was not a “universal phenomenon in Darwin’s view.” That is debatable. Regardless of his actual views, Darwin “had never been the undisputed leader of the evolutionists, and his theory of natural selection was being challenged by a number of alternatives.” And these alternative theories were generally linked to theories of social degeneration. Lamarck’s theory of inheritance offered a ready explanation for degeneration: the cumulative effects of disuse. American “neo-Lamarckians” Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and Alpheus Hyatt (1838-1902) claimed that progressive evolution consisted of “successive addition of stages to the growth process, produced by the inheritance of acquired characters as each generation became more specialized for the species’ chosen way of life.” According to Bowler, the analogy of “growth” allowed Lamarckian evolutionists to “treat evolution as a highly directed process, moving inexorably toward a predetermined goal.” Hyatt even advocated the notion of “racial senility,” in which the individual “degenerated toward simpler characters and ultimate extinction.” Hyatt also argued against female emancipation, claiming that “to give women equal political rights would diminish the psychological difference between the sexes and would thus encourage a degenerate trend in the species.” More broadly, some evolutionists, such as E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), used analogies of human affairs to buttress their biological arguments. Whereas “Lubbock tended to assume that ‘primitive societies were relics of earlier stages in human progress…Lankester argued that ‘savages’ such as the bushmen and the Australian aborigines might be descendants of once-civilized peoples.” Lankester, in order words, viewed the contemporary “savage” as culturally degenerate. And according to Lankester, white man faces a similar fate. How does he prevent such a threatening state? By the cultivation of science.

In any event, both Darwinism and Lamarckianism were used to “stress the possibility of degeneration brought on by the adoption of a passive life-style.”An alternative theory was that of orthogenesis, “or evolution directed by internally programmed trends that would force variation inexorably in a certain direction, even when the results were non-adaptive.” What pieces of evidence convinced scientists of orthogenesis? For starters, the fossil record “seemed to reveal consistent trends in the development of certain structures,” such as the horn size on the “Irish elk.” But orthogenesis was also applied to human evolution, in the case of the trend towards increasing brain size. The human brain was seen as the “inevitable product of a longstanding evolutionary trend.” This was, of course, not Darwin’s view. Nevertheless, according to Bowler, orthogentic views became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century, advocated by such men as physical anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton (1887-1954), palaeoanthropologist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark (1895-1971), and palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944). Woodward even supported the view that “evolution was driven by forces somehow built into the germ plasm of the species.” Orthogenesis was essentially a degenerative theory, but most supporters turned it into “a progressive explanation of human origins.”

It is in this sense, as Bowler puts, “degeneration and progress went hand in hand,” or, as he puts it another way, “degeneration was indeed no more than an attempt to reassess the conceptual foundations of progressionism.” Thus the degeneration of the late-nineteenth century was only “skin deep.” Those scientists who studied the origins of the human race “automatically made progressionist assumptions.” Not until the mid-twentieth century was Darwin’s theory of natural selection fully embraced. No one wanted a totally undirected “evolution governed by ‘chance.'” According to Bowler, the “simplest ways of guaranteeing that evolution worked in an orderly, predictable manner, were to compare it with the growth of the embryo…or to postulate rigid variation trends.” In the end, “each theory was capable of being exploited by either side of the debate.”

As each essay in this festschrift honoring the scholarship of John C. Greene demonstrates, scientists are “constrained by professional as well as political interests, and if they make their decision first on professional grounds, they will always be able to find a way of adapting the theory of their choice to their wider beliefs.” As Bowler concludes, “any complex [scientific] theory can be turned into a panacea or a nightmare.”

Science and Literature: Nature Transfigured

Laputa - SwiftOver the weekend I continued thinking about science and literature through a reading of John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth’s (eds.) Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900 (1989). This volume, according to its editors, sketches the “ways in which the cultural division of literature and science was historically initiated and has been historically maintained by unpacking aspects of that history and revealing its selectivity and partiality, and by indicating the kinds of approaches which offer the possibility of going beyond the boundaries currently drawn by entrenched cultural assumptions and conventional academic practice.” To their credit, the editors also maintain that “to reduce science to literature by insisting that science is a kind of writing, or to reduce literature to science by insisting that its codes also give a higher or privileged access to the real, are simplifications offering only the most banal of realisations.” Instead, the essays in this collection “wish to recognise the potential complexity of the terrain of literature and science once the strict and definitive boundary between them is not taken for a feature of a natural landscape, but recognised as a cultural artefact.”

The authors intend to show how both science and literature were dynamic, developing processes. Science and literature were “constantly extending their institutional locations, their communicative vehicles, their markets and their publics.” The eighteenth century is once again blamed for introducing a “polarised model of literature and science and the historical abstraction which it rests upon.” To undercut this model, the essays in this collection “pursue and particularise the diversities of scientific culture in their various refractions, interactions and transfigurations in literatures which themselves also resist monolithic abstractions.” Simon Schaffer looks at Daniel Defoe’s (1660-1731) natural philosophy in his novels. John Christie revisits Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Roy Porter examines Laurence Sterne’s (1713-1768) humorous The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) and its use of biomedical, philosophical, and psychological knowledge and practice. Trevor H. Levere discloses the science in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Humphry Davy (1778-1829). David Van Leer explores “spirit-body” themes in Nathaniel Hawthrone’s (1804-1864) The Scarlet Letter (1850). Sally Shuttleworth focuses on Charlotte Brontë’s (1816-1855) phrenology. Gillian Beer analyzes the important relation between nineteenth-century linguistics and Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) evolutionary theory, showing “processes of metaphoric transposition” between them. Greg Meyers investigates nineteenth-century science education aimed at women and children, revealing “the specific techniques of audience designation, of anthropomorphism, and of the moralisation of nature, through which aspects of science reached sectors of its Victorian consumers.” And Peter Dale delves into the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), demonstrating “ways in which a thorough acquaintance of tendencies within late nineteenth-century biological science, in particular its focus upon degeneration, can provide the basis for a far more informed reading of Hardy than would otherwise be the case.”

My main motivation for picking up this volume was Beer’s “Darwin and the growth of language theory.” She examines the “conscious appropriation and re-appropriation” between Darwinian evolutionary theory and nineteenth-century language theory. She shows how Darwin depended and drew upon mid-nineteenth-century linguistics for his organic metaphors. Indeed, in the 1830s Darwin was reading the works James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799), particularly his Of the Origin and Progress of Language (1773-92), and the philology of Horne Tooke (1736-1812). In many places in his The Origin, Darwin “turns to comparative grammar, and to the different rates at which languages change, to make clear what is novel in his ideas.” For example, Darwin writes his The Origin:

It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue.

In confirmation of this view, let us glance at the classification of varieties, which are believed or known to have descended from one species.

Thus, according to Beer, “Darwin uses linguistic theory here not only as a metaphor but also as an example, an ‘illustration’ of evolutionary processes.” In searching the geological record, Darwin saw the scientists’ “activity as a ‘decipherment’ of ‘characters.'”

For my part, following out Lyell’s metaphor, I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each world of the slowly-changing language, in which the history is supposed to be written, being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of life, entombed in our consecutive, but widely separated formations.

The rhetoric of “writing” and “language” here is not merely incidental. This is indeed a program for further research. As Beer puts it, “language study therefore provided not only the metaphors and illustrations but also a hopeful model for future research.”