Evolution

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence

Buckley - The Triumph of TimeJerome Hamilton Buckley’s The Triumph of Time (1966) is a “little book” with an enormous and exceedingly complex subject. It pretends to be no less than a survey of Victorians’ attitudes towards time. Buckley proposes to “test the truth” of John Stuart Mill’s suggestion, articulated in his The Spirit of the Ages (1831), that his own generation “had a quite unprecedented awareness of time,” and to view the Victorians’ “multiple concern with time.” Buckley defines at the outset two kinds of time—public and private. The former “involves the attitudes of the society as a living changing whole,” the idea of a Zeitgeist, of progress or decadence; the other relates to “the subjective experience of the individual,” through memories of a personal past, confrontations of public notions of time, and the effort to conquer time, to “escape from the tyranny of the temporal.” Time was either an objective entity or a subjective one. Private time is arbitrary, relative, continuous, variable; public time is the working out of patterns of history. “In tracing the characteristic Victorian attitudes toward both public and private time,” writes Buckley, “I have drawn largely upon the most eloquent of spokesmen—above all, the poets, and then the novelists and essayists—especially those who did most to determine the temper of their own culture or have had the strongest impact upon ours.”

To this end, Buckley’s The Triumph of Time is replete with felicitous references and quotations from Mill, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Ruskin, Carlyle, Hardy, Whewell, Thackeray, Macauley, Browning, Seeley, Newman, Eliot, Huxley, Clifford, Babbage, Spencer, and many, many others. The Victorian interest in time was unusually extensive and persistent. The age was an elaborate milieu, copious, overpowering in quantity and in quality. The Victorian age is indeed a vast and crowded landscape, and Buckley’s The Triumph of Time attempts to show that the Victorians were preoccupied with time in their novels and poems, in their scientific speculations and philosophy, and in their social thought.

In the first chapter, Buckley outlines the “four faces of Victorian time,” past, present, future, eternity. During the nineteenth century, “a new generation of historians, both literate and laborious, enlarged the limits of the human past and speculated on the possibility of finding patterns of recurrence or meaningful analogies with their own time.” Buckley cites approvingly from Han Meyerhoff’s Time and Literature (1955), where he observed that during the nineteenth century “all the sciences of man—biology, anthropology, psychology, even economics and politics—became ‘historical’ sciences in the sense that they recognized and employed a historical, genetic, or evolutionary method.” Uniformitarian geology; nebular astronomy; evolutionary biology; the new social studies—all were “governed by temporal methodologies.”

This trend was part of what Buckley labels an objective, “public time.” But there were others who perceived time as subjective and thus as “private.” “As seen by poet and novelist,” Buckley writes, “human time…defies scientific analysis and measurement; contracting and expanding at will, mingling before and after without ordered sequence, it pays little heed to ordinary logical relations.” But even those with a private sense of time could not ignore that the Victorian age was an “age in perpetual motion.” “So widespread and so rapid were the changes wrought by the nineteenth century in the material conditions of living that no one, however much he might wish to dwell in the spirit, could altogether escape a sense of almost physical exhilaration or bewilderment rushing in upon him.” Change came at an alarming rate, and some Victorians responded quite positively to it, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Hopkins. The latter, for example, saw change as the “daily renewed freshness of nature a testimony that the Holy Ghost still broods over the whole bent world.”

But as Buckley correctly observes, “other poets were less sanguine in their view of change, especially insofar as new modes and attitudes seemed to threaten the great traditions of art and society.” Here we find Tennyson and Arnold.  Arnold especially was “troubled by the vision of universal change governing all human affairs of the past, present, and foreseeable future.” Change undoubtedly was “central to the intellectual life of the nineteenth century.” Some interpreted it as progress; others saw it as decline. Thus “the great polar ideas of the Victorian period were accordingly the idea of progress and the idea of decadence, the twin aspects of an all-encompassing history.”

Before discussing ideas of progress and decadence, Buckley, in chapter two, briefly considers “the uses of history.” Many Victorians expressed an retrospective nostalgia for the values of a lost culture. There was an immense fascination with the Greeks, as Frank M. Turner shows in his The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981). But there were also revivals of Gothic, Renaissance, and Georgian ideals as well.

This fascination with past societies and cultures inevitably encouraged a relativism in values, and that troubled some Victorians. As Buckley puts it, “since to understand is usually in some degree to condone, the deepening knowledge of other times and places engendered an increased relativity of judgment.” This historical relativism is nowhere more conspicuous than in its “assault on the absolutes of religious fundamentalism.” Higher criticism “raised problems of provenance, dating, authorship, stylistic consistency, and analogues in non-Hebraic literature—in short, questioned the reliability of the scriptural canon and the extent to which it might be regarded as inspired revelation.” The appeal to time by Strauss, Eliot, and Seeley, for example, “denied the sanction of eternity.” Even Newman, in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) “accounted for the presence of later Roman dogmas…by a theory of evolutionary growth: ideas at first merely implicit and undetected had been articulated and clarified over the ages, and new interpretations had been adopted to meet the needs not of a static institution but of an organic body growing steadily in time.”

Increasingly, Victorian historiography came to resemble a scientism. History took on the inductive approach of science, and thus became an “instructive laboratory.” According to Huxley, “Baconian induction was the only way to learn the causes of things.” In geology,  catastrophism was usurped by Lyell’s uniformitarianism, revealing “the terrible vastness of a geological time.” Archaeologists also demonstrated the greater antiquity of mankind, ushering the “concept of prehistory.” Biology would also take into account the “deep time” of the earth. As Buckley puts it, “in the nineteenth century the natural scientist moved closer than ever before to the approach and concern of the historian.” Moreover, the mechanistic image of history came to be replaced by an organic one: “the world was no longer a machine operating on a set cycle, but a living body fulfilling itself in constant adaptation to new conditions.”

At the same, historians learned to “emulate the scientists.” Ranke, Bury, and Lord Acton promoted history as an inductive discipline. Buckle believed human affairs were “reducible to laws, and could be made intelligible as the growth of the chalk cliffs or the coal measures.” This transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the study of the natural world to the study of human history and social institutions receives extended analysis in Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008). Periodization in history led to periodization in the life sciences, as when Lubbock introduced the terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” to designate successive ages. The new philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Macaulay, and others, presupposed a history moving in a “progressive direction.” As Buckley posits, the nineteenth century was the “golden age of the ideologists, intent on discovering or inventing patterns of growth and decay.” Buckley finds support in R.G. Collingwood, who, in his The Idea of History (1956), writes: “This distinction between periods of primitiveness, periods of greatness, and periods of decadence, is not and never can be historically true. It tells us much about historians who study the facts, but nothing about the facts they study.”

The “idea of progress,” which is the subject of chapter three, is found among many optimistic Victorians, and most eloquently expressed by Macaulay, who saw in history numerous signs of the natural progress of society. The new Baconian thought delivered “great and constant progress”:

it has lengthened life; it is the mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases;… it has extended the range of the human vision; has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to the descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, and the ocean and ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first fruits. For it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress.

Unprecedented mechanical progress throughout the Victorian era was only the proscenium. According to Buckley, the “Victorians succeeded remarkably both in meeting the social challenge of industrialism and in widening the base of democracy. Despite the new horrors of the factor system, which were gradually mitigated or removed by legislation, most workers were better fed, clothed, and housed than their ancestors had been, and the improvement whetted their desire for further reform.” These ideas of reform hark back to the eighteenth century. Indeed, the emphatic avowals of Arnold, Mill, Morley, Kingsley, and Huxley, explicitly “reaffirmed the eighteenth-century idea of progress as a primary dogma of the Victorian period.” In many ways, the idea of progress became a “substitute religion” and thus became an “object of worship.” And as the “true religion,” it rejected all others as false.

Yet this kind of progress did not change “the quality of human life.” Men and women of literature “seldom received the idea of progress with the unqualified optimism of the rationalists and men of science.” Buckley gives evidence for this “recession of progress” in chapter four. In verse Tennyson mocked  “the old dreams of a perfected world, without war or disease, a world cultivated like a paradisal garden…by the nightmare vision of vastly multiplied populations struggling hungrily for survival.” Morley “came to feel that material prosperity could impair ‘the moral and intellectual nerve’ and later to wonder whether it were more than an ‘optimistic superstition’ to believe ‘that civilized communities are universally bound somehow or another to be progressive,'” and thus questioning Spencer’s earlier claim that “progress is not an accident, but a necessity.”

For every thesis, Buckely provides an antithesis. The “idea of decadence” in the nineteenth century is as strong as that of progress. In 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote to his friend Cunninghame Graham: “The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.” The new physics, with its theory of entropy, pointed to decay in the universe, rather than the progress inferred from biological evolution. “In other words, according to assured scientific theory, human time eventually must have a stop.” Ruskin, after reading Lyell, viewed the earth as now in “decrepitude.” But as Buckley correctly observes, the idea of decadence “was far older than any of the new scientific sanctions it could find in the late Victorian period.”  The Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, all lamented in their own way the degeneration of their own times. Yet the “idea of decadence grew steadily more urgent and immediate throughout the Victorian age.” The image of a future wasteland and an encroaching barbarism appeared in the writings of Balfour, Froude, Hopkins, Morris, Jefferies, Tennyson, Arnold, Wells, and others.

This Victorian rendition of the Fall of mankind led many to a “passion of the past,” which is the theme of chapter six. Indeed, many shared “a habit of reminiscence,” explaining why the nineteenth century was the “great age of English autobiography.” And although the prime objective in much of the autobiographical writings was “detachment,” Victorian autobiographers selected at will from their pasts, leaving out “unpleasant or unduly intimate detail.” Others chose to remember the past for “remorse or self-recrimination or simply bitterness.” The most important point however is that “in an age of great changes and large uncertainties many clung to the memory of ‘lost days’ that they could admire or idealize or often quite unabashedly sentimentalize.”

The last two chapters of Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a dramatic turn from the past to the “living present”; indeed to the “eternal now.” The past decreased as the pace of change and innovation increased, for the present was a constant “peremptory demand.” Carlyle provides an answer to this new challenge to mankind’s present state, first in his “Signs of the Times,” which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in June of 1829, and again in his more developed Sartor Resartus (1836): “Love no Pleasure; love God. This is the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him…Be no longer Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!…Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.” This was ultimately a secular gospel preached also by Emerson and Longfellow. Work endlessly to avoid modern skepticism and despair! Work will distract us from the more probing questions of life.

An awareness of the temporal relations and responsibilities of their time, however, did not deter Victorians from the “dream of eternity” and the “desire for transcendence.” But unlike previous generations, the Victorians searched for “tokens of permanence or stasis in or behind their passing impressions, and most came to regard their own deepest emotions and intuitions as partaking somehow of the timeless.” In other words, Victorians felled the “eternal”—or what they perceived as eternal—from heaven to earth. Some saw the eternal in human passion; others in art; still others saw it in nature itself.

Victorian literature exhibits an almost obsessive concern with the problems of time, history, progress, and decadence. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a broad description of this phenomenon. It is a work as well written as it is succinct, lucid, and refined. Its value rests in its mass of allusions, generalizations, and quotes, showing the Victorians, in their poetry, fiction, criticism, science, and philosophy, steeped, intellectually and emotionally, in ideas of time and of history.

In the end, however, Buckley, in his organization and categorization, presents a “card file”: Victorians on history; Victorians on progress; Victorians on decadence; Victorians on eternity; and so on. The material is just too vast and varied and complex to reduce to a system. Buckley admits at the outset that his intention was merely to “describe,” and that the book “undertakes no detailed analysis of the literary techniques of registering time’s passage or quality.” But the reader may desire some sort of order out of the cacophony of  materials.

Without sufficient analysis, the wealth of examples can be unsatisfying and even—as this reader experienced—somewhat confusing.  But perhaps this is the point. Victorians were hypocritical, contradictory, optimistic, pessimistic, sensual, ascetic, and ultimately conflicted about their age. The Victorian period was an elaborate milieu, and Buckley has gone a long way toward laying out the problem of time. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time therefore serves rather well as a stimulus, a handbook. Assembled economically, his handbook increases one’s appreciation for the complexity of Victorian culture.

Victorian Science in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science

Livingstone and Withers - Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science“Science,” writes Nicolaas Rupke, “is not just a collection of abstract theories and general truths but a concrete practice with spatial dimensions.” It is, indeed, “situated knowledge.” Rupke comes to this conclusion in an Afterword for David N. Livingstone and Charles W.J. Withers’ (eds.) Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science (2011). The essays in this volume “situate a range of scientific knowledge claims in civic, metropolitan, and even colonial island sites, and in such architectural spaces as museums and laboratories.” Its authors convincingly argue that “Nineteenth-century scientific knowledge…constituted a plurality of knowledges, each shaped by local customs and norms, dependent on locally generated authority and credibility, and serving partisan political purposes.”

Thinking geographically about nineteenth-century science, the editors argue, evinces a science practiced “in different ways in different places.” Accordingly, “scientific knowledge is differently spread across the surface of the earth, and moves from place to place through complex circulatory networks.” At the same time, “scientific institutions occupy distant locations in different settings.” A corollary to all this is that “scientific theories are shaped by the prevailing political, economic, religious, and social conditions, as well as a host of other cultural norms in different geographical localities, and…[thus] may bear the stamp of the environments within which they are constructed.”

Livingstone and Withers want to show how thinking geographically helps to disclose how “science—the sciences—became professional, popular, disciplined and discursively discrete, precisely institutionalized and widely instructive.” The volume contains 17 chapters and over 400 pages of text divided into three parts: “Sites and Scales,” “Practices and Performances,” and “Guides and Audiences.” All chapters work together in contributing to a continuing interdisciplinary debate about “the placed nature of science’s making and reception, about the processes that were adopted to make scientific knowledge mobile for whom and with what consequence…[revealing] that what has held to be science varied—but within institutions, at different scales, and for different audiences in different places.” Here I provide a synopsis of chapters I found particularly insightful.

Bernard Lightman’s “Refashioning the Spaces of London Science: Elite Epistemes in the Nineteenth Century,” turns to how space mattered. Following John Pickstone’s Foucauldian analysis of different “epistemes,” or ways of knowing, Lightman seeks to “identify broad epistemic patterns across disciplines and to see how they change over the course of time.”

Lightman begins by discussing sites of gentlemanly and utilitarian science. Under the helm of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), a vast scientific network was constructed around the sites of the Royal Institution, Royal Society, and Kew Gardens. “All three were to play a significant role throughout the nineteenth century, but at that point they were spaces of the landed aristocracy and the upper class…” After Banks’ death, however, these scientific sites gradually began to shed their aristocratic layers. Whereas Banks and his supporters had exploited and reinforced relations of genteel patronage and obligation, a group of reformers—i.e., the “gentlemen of science” and the untilitarians—altered the politics of science. These were the “young Turks” of the nineteenth century, who pushed for reform of aristocratic spaces of science. For these reformers, science was a “professional tool to be used to create a body of knowledge useful in government and in the professions.” This vision of science was in embodied in the founding of the “Godless” University College London in 1827, “which was set up as a secular institution modeled on the universities of Berlin and Bonn, and, unlike Cambridge and Oxford, it opened up its doors to non-Anglicans.”

Banks’ network of scientific sites also underwent metamorphosis under the leadership of new men. At the Royal institution, for example, the chemist William Thomas Brande (1788-1866), who led the Institution from 1813 to 1831, embodied utilitiarian ideals, undertaking a series of activities that gave it the reputation of being a metropolitan powerhouse for the scientific management of social problems. Subsequently, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had become an important figure by the end of the 1820s, and “Faraday and the Royal Institution were well suited to each other.” The establishment by Faraday in 1825 of the very successful Friday Evening Discourses gave the Royal Institution an even greater public presence. In 1840, the Kew Gardens was transferred to the British government, and thus by the time William Hooker (1785-1865) took charge of it, it was already a public institution. According to Lightman, “Hooker strived to transform it into a center for scientific research as well as a place for the amusement and edification of the nation.” Banks’ Royal Society was a bit more dogged, but by “1848 traditional loyalties to the Crown and Church were replaced by new contractual allegiances based on serve to knowledge and utility to the state.”

Refashioning aristocratic sites of science was only one part of a larger plan. Reformers also sought to create new sites of science. Along with the museum, which, according to Lightman, the “central institution of Victorian science, the “British Association for the Advancement of Science was created in 1831 as a peripatetic organization.” “Embracing natural theology, [members] pointed to a divine order behind both nature and society, and to the role of science as a neutral means for obtaining desirable ends.” And “like the Royal Institution and Kew Gardens, the BAAS reached out to the public.”

But as the founding of University College London makes clear, for some the “reformist inclinations of gentlemen and Utilitarians did not go nearly far enough.” Such thinkers were “enamored with French evolutionary theory,” using “radical Lamarckianism to challenge the Tory-Anglican establishment and argue for the [further] reform of aristocratic institutions.” Other thinkers thought the radicals went too far, particularly Henry Brougham (1778-1868), who attempted to counter radicals with establishing mechanics’ institutes and, more importantly, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), which published inexpensive texts intended to adapt scientific material for a rapidly expanding reading public. The latter’s central aim, Lightman tells us, “was to undermine political radicalism with rational information.”

Apparently the radicals had been more effective, for after 1850, a new generation of practitioners arrived on the scene, their aim “included the secularization of nature, the professionalization of their discipline, and the promotion of expertise.” Lightman selects three man that epitomize this new aim: Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), John Tyndall (1820-1893), and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911). These “scientific naturalists” were “sensitive to the power of place,” and set out to reconfigure, once again, several sites of science. Under Hooker, for example, “a fundamental change took place in Kew’s identity as an institution,” refashioning it into a research space as defined by scientific naturalists. As the mantle of leadership passed from Faraday to Tyndall, the Royal Institution too came to be defined under the rubric of scientific naturalism. And in his biological laboratory in the Science Schools Building in South Kensington, “Huxley was free to teach his students to view nature through secular eyes.” Ironically, the agenda of scientific naturalism, Lightman writes, “emphasized training, expertise, and laboratory research,” and thus led to “an even greater split between the public and professional spaces of science.”

There were, of course, contested spaces and sites of resistance to scientific naturalism. Although Tyndall used his presidential address in Belfast in 1874 to aggressively challenge the authority of Christian clerics, several men—Rayleigh (1884), Salisbury (1894), and Arthur Balfour (1904)—used the BAAS as a platform to deliver their defense of theism and criticism of scientific naturalism. Interestingly, it was the museum, however, that became the key space for “resisting the aims of scientific naturalists.” For example, the Oxford University Museum (1860) was embedded with “the principles of the natural theology tradition in its architecture.” Other museums, including the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, the Hunterian Museum, and the British Museum emphasized the “harmonious relationship between science and religion.” Laboratories and print culture were also generally hostile toward the agenda of scientific naturals, particularly the labs of the North British physicists and British publishers George Routledge (1812-1888) and Thomas Jarrold (1770-1853), who published a “steady stream of books containing theologies of nature that challenged the scientific naturalists’ secularized perspective.”

Lightman inspection of the places of London science reveals how different scientific sites operated different epistemes. These sites, and many others, were not simply physical locations; they were, as Lightman shows, symbolic urban places whose occupants were aligned for or against aristocratic privilege, radical reform, or scientific naturalism.

Charles W.J. Withers’ “Scale and the Geographies of Civic Science: Practice and Experience in the Meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Britain and in Ireland, c. 1845-1900” examines the geographical mobility of the BAAS, with a particular concern over what he calls “nineteenth-century civic science” in Britain. He asks, “how did the BAAS experience vary locally, by and perhaps even within, different towns?”

Withers begins by considering BAAS officers’ decision making process for choosing a host. This was a complex process that involved, among other things, apprehending “the scientific capacity of the location, the educational advantages for the local inhabitants, and the financial support that local civic bodies would give the association.” What is more, “hosting an annual meeting involved at least a three-year cycle of negotiations (often more) between BAAS General Committee officers and representatives of local civic and scientific bodies.”

The most interesting section of Withers’ chapter is his account of private responses to BAAS meetings, or how he terms it, “experiencing civic science.” According to Withers, “women formed a large part of BAAS audiences, especially from midcentury.” The diaries of Agnes Hudson, Caroline Fox, and Lady Caroline Howard are particularly instructive. Hudson attended the 1875 Bristol and 1879 Sheffield meetings, but complained about the intolerable heat because of the “insufficiently ventilated building” and the overcrowding. The Anthropological Section sessions in particular were so crowded that “several persons sat on the mantelpiece.”  According to Withers, “attendance at a BAAS meeting could be tiring, require a change of clothes (for a women perhaps more than for men), and last well into the evening.” Fox attended meetings in 1836, 1837, 1852, and 1857. She too recalls the crowds at certain meetings, succeeding in gaining admittance only “by most extraordinary muscular exertions.” She also recalls problems of audibility: “people made such a provoking noise, talking, coming in, and going out, opening and shutting boxes, that very little could we hear.” Howard likewise complained about her inability to hear the speakers at the geography session at the 1857 Dublin meeting, particularly famous African explorer David Livingstone, who spoke “in a whisper.”

The BAAS promoted what Withers calls “civic science”—science as a public good, a unifying, moral vision under the banner of scientific and political neutrality. But particulars of this mission were moderated by the different urban and institutional contexts where the BAAS convened. “Different practices in different setting—waiting for a lecture whose timetabling and audience behavior meant that hearing particular topics was a matter of luck, conversing with one’s fellows, viewing specimens without comprehension, going to lectures to seek sensation or instrumental mediation through lantern slides not understanding of scientific principles—were all elements in the making and reception of association science.”

Diarmid A. Finnegan shares a similar emphasis on the location of locution. As he writes in his “Placing Science in an Age of Oratory: Spaces of Scientific Speech in Mid-Victorian Edinburgh,” in the mid-Victorian period, “logic and location along with propositions and performances were tightly bound together in the delivery of science lectures.” He supports his claim with a close examination of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution (EPI). According to Finnegan, in EPI meetings, “science no less than any other subject was knotted together with local conditions, politics, and protocols.” The cultural significance of public speech during the Victorian period necessitated that “science had to sound right as well as look right to retain its place as part of intellectual culture in mid-nineteenth-century urban Britain.”

Founded in 1846, the EPI attracted many eminent speakers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, John Hutton Balfour, David Brewster, Samuel Brown, Hugh Miller, Edwin Lankester, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, John Pringle Nichol, John Henry Pepper, John Lubbock, and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. EPI lectures generally took place in Queen Street Hall, which was owned by the United Presbyterian Church. Much like the BAAS meetings, inadequate facilities, overcrowding, and poor acoustics were common maladies. But in addition to these “external” forces, internal forces pressed upon the lecturers. According to Finnegan, “tacit codes of behavior also applied to lecturers.” Indeed, “what could and could not be heard in the lecture hall was conditioned by the regulative ideals associated with the notion of a free platform.” Thus lecturers had to “position their scientific discourse” by taking in consideration “etiquette, aesthetics, and moral probity.”

This “positioning” is best seen in the 1850s popular lectures of Hugh Miller and George Wilson. Both Miller and Wilson “integrated literary charm and moral sobriety” into their scientific lectures. More importantly, both “held in common a commitment to creedal Christianity.” In his EPI lectures, Miller sought to “refute the charge that science lacked poetic power.” What is more, science affirmed theological orthodoxy: it was Miller’s belief, Finnegan writes, “that nature’s hieroglyphics, properly deciphered, would bring to light God’s own artistry and that the basis for the substantial harmony between geology and poetry was the identity between the aesthetic and musical sense in the mind of God and the mind of man.” This literary mode—modeled after Thomas Carlyle, albeit without his pantheism—appealed to the audience of the EPI. Similarly, Wilson’s lectures exhibited “a high strain of moral eloquence that linked every topic to man’s joys, and sorrows, and deep enduring interests.” As Finnegan puts it, “the earnest moral tone, the personal intensity of delivery, and the Carlylean tenor that characterized the scientific speech of Wilson and Miller resonated with the general intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities of members of the EPI.”

By the 1860s, however, there was a dramatic “change in the character of science lectures given to the EPI.” In the geology lectures by David Page, for example, he “actively opposed attempts to present science as a handmaiden to theology.” A more striking secular note were also delivered by Tyndall, Huxley, Lubbock, and Hawkins. Unsurprisingly, Huxley “caused the greatest stir both within and outside the institution…provoking the opprobrium of Edinburgh’s evangelical press.” All except for Hawkins, (who only spoke again in 1887) never returned to the EPI. The lectures of these men caused such a stir, that remaining science lectures of the decade had a decidedly more “combative and controversial tone.” There were even charges that the EPI had “contravened its own principles” of moral sobriety. These science lectures of the 1860s were “frequently suspected of instilling moral confusion and of severing the link between intellectual talk and moral culture.”

David N. Livingstone’s “Politics, Culture, and Human Origins: Geographies of Reading and Reputation in Nineteenth-Century Science” explores how “scientific meanings are imagined and reimagined through encounters with scientific texts and treatises,” drawing our attention particularly “to the cultural politics of origin narratives, whether creationist or evolutionary, throughout the nineteenth century.” Here the characterization of reputation become critical. Livingstone’s case study of Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676), the father of anthropological polygenism, assessed as either heretic, hero, or harmonizer, demonstrates how persons, and their ideas, were made to stand for different things at different times and places.

Livingstone’s varieties La Peyrère, a “reputational geography,” is simply a prerequisite for his discussion of the varieties of Darwinism in the nineteenth century. In the final section of his chapter, Livingstone triangulates “a number of Irish readings of evolutionary theory,” namely Dublin, Belfast, and Londonderry. Presbyterian layman and distinguished Trinity College anatomist, Alexander Macalister, for example, although unconvinced about psychic, religious, moral evolution, he was nevertheless “enthusiastic about the power of natural selection to account for both animal and human physiological evolution,” and thus embraced Darwin’s Descent of Man. Yet another Presbyterian, professor of biblical criticism and later president of Queen’s College, Josiah L. Porter, “could find no empirical evidence in supper of the ‘essence’ of Darwin’s theory ‘that all forms of life, from the humblest zoophyte up to man, have evolved from one primordial germ.’” And yet another fellow Presbyterian, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Presbyterian Magee College, John Robinson Leebody, praised Darwin’s theory as the “most complete attempt to prove with absolute continuity of the chain which connects man with the lower animals,” but that it also reveals its empirical dearth and therefore “we must decline, in the interests of science, to accept the Darwinian view of the origin of man’s body, until it is proved.”

More than personal predilection and professional preoccupation directed these judgments. According to Livingstone, the spaces these men occupied, in Dublin, Belfast, and Londonderry, “critically implicated both in the stances they assumed and the rhetorical tones they adopted in their public declarations.” Macalister, for instance, was not only a part of progressive set of scientists congregating around Trinity College, he was also part of a local Presbyterian community that fostered a particularly “secular” education in opposition to a Catholic “religious” one. Porter’s judgment was no doubt a reaction to Tyndall’s presidential “Belfast Address” in 1874. Indeed, Porter’s comments on Darwin were collected, along with others, into a single volume “intended to rebut the president’s attack.” And again, Leebody occupied a different rhetorical space. As president of Magee College, he too wanted to distance his institution from Catholic pedagogy, once quipping that “there is no Protestant Mathematics or Chemistry as distinguished from that taught in a Catholic college.” In conclusion, “the geography of Darwinism in Ireland,” Livingstone suggests, “was the compound product of long-standing feuds over who should control the curriculum, the iconic impact of Tyndall’s attack, the institutional spaces occupied by commentators, and the relative security local spokesmen felt in their own sense of cultural identity.”

And finally Jonathan R. Topham’s “Science, Print, and Crossing Borders: Importing French Science Books into Britain, 1789-1815” demonstrates the critical importance of print. There are a number of discrete, but nevertheless inextricably linked, geographies operating here, including publishers, booksellers, translators, and editors. Key figures in the Franco-British book trade were Arnaud Dulau (1762/3-1813), Thomas Boosey, who established his Boosey & Company in London in about 1792, and most important Joseph De Boffe (1749/50-1807). De Boffe himself was the son of a French bookseller based in Fribourg, Switzerland. De Boffe followed in his father’s footsteps, and soon after moving to London he became a “significant figure in the supply of French-language publications.” Topham notes that “a catalogue issued by De Boffe in 1794 listed more than twenty-five hundred French books, many relating to the arts, sciences, travels, and natural history.”

The “decisions and activities of” De Boffe and others, Topham argues, demonstrates how “technicians of print affected the availability of French science books in Britain.” This is most visible in periodicals. The Monthly Review, Critical Review, Anti-Jacobin Review, British Critic, Analytical Review, Edinburgh Review, and Quarterly Review all included a section of reviews and notices on foreign literature, some, such as the Monthly seeking to “provide a regular retrospect of French literature.”

After discussing booksellers and periodicals in general, Topham turns specifically to four case studies of imported French science books: (1) Antoine Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie, présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d’après les découvertes modernes (1789); (2) Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Traité de mécanique celeste (1799-1805); (3) Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Philosophie zooloqique (1809); and (4) Georges Cuvier’s Recherches sur les ossemens fossils (1812). In this section Topham introduces a cast of characters, including booksellers, translators, publishers, and reviewers. Despite the revolutionary war, and the subsequent mutual blockade between Britain and France, these events had little impact on the importation of French science books and their reading and reviewing in public periodicals. What becomes clear in these case studies, as Topham argues, “far from being automatic” the mechanism of publications “require the agency of a wide range of people, including not only scientific practitioners but also technicians of scientific print, often motivated by financial considerations.” It shows, in short, that all knowledge-making is a situated process, and thus “renders problematic any assumptions that scientific knowledge, either in its words or in its pictures, simply diffuses across the globe in a straightforward manner. Disruption of supply, translation between languages, selective reviewing of scientific literature, the local interpretations of meaning, all point to the salience of textual geography in the study of the forms of its representation in the movement of scientific knowledge.”

These essays and others in Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science convincingly show “the placed nature of science’s making and reception”—its “practices and forms of communicative action are always grounded in particular settings, and questions regarding site, institutional organization, and social relationship in place will for that reason always continue to matter to an explanation of science’s cognitive content and variable reception.”

Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009)

Laura Otis - Literature and Science in the Nineteenth CenturyIt is perhaps fitting that my 100th post on this blog should be Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009). My research began in September with historiographies of the Scientific Revolution, only to converge in recent months on nineteenth-century narratologies of “conflict” between religion and science, which, I believe, depended crucially on literature and the stories nineteenth-century figures told about what counted as “religion” or what counted as “science.” To this end, Otis’ collection of excerpts from novels, plays, poetry, essays, scientific articles, lectures, treatises, and textbooks written throughout the course of the nineteenth century offers a solid starting place.

At the 1833 meeting of the BAAS, William Whewell proposed the neologism “scientist” for investigators who until then had been known as natural philosophers. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to signify the study of the natural physical world. According to Otis, “the notion of a split between literature and science, of a gap to be bridged between the two, was never a nineteenth-century phenomenon.” Indeed, “the two commingled and were assessable to all readers.” Like Sleigh, Otis notes that “scientists quoted well-known poets both in their textbooks and in their articles for lay readers, and writers…explored the implications of scientific theories.” “As a growing system of knowledge expressed in familiar words, science was in effect a variety of literature.” In nineteenth-century periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, “articles on scientific issues were set side-by-side with fiction, poetry and literary criticism.”

At the same time, however, “as Western economies became more industrial and agricultural, educational reformers protested that the traditional curriculum of Greek and Latin literature…failed to prepare the new professional classes for modern life.” T.H. Huxley, for example, “claimed provocatively that for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.” This insistence on the cultural centrality of science disturbed English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who protested that Huxley was defining literature much too narrowly. According to Arnold, “all knowledge that reaches us through books is literature.”

Otis intends this anthology “to illustrate both common and divergent patterns in the techniques of nineteenth-century authors.” Even a cursory reading of successful scientists in the nineteenth century shows that “most good scientists were also imaginative writers. The ability to express oneself articulately was essential for the communication and progress of science.”

Because scientific knowledge was spread most effectively through the printed word, “to win the confidence of educated readers, nineteenth-century scientists made frequent references to the fiction and poetry of the day and to that of earlier generations.” And by doing so, they declared an affinity with respected authors and, implicitly, with their readers. According to James Secord, for example, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) “won a wide readership not just because he provided convincing evidence for gradual geological change but because he used literary references to Milton, Scott, and Wordsworth to present geology as a respectable, gentlemanly pursuit.”

At its most fundamental level, Otis argues, “scientific explanation of the world is akin to processes of reading and writing.” Whether studying skull structures, geological layers, or bird populations, scientists were deciphering sign systems and interpreting texts.

Images render vague ideas more clearly. Indeed, to complement his factual evidence for evolution in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin offered readers a series of “imaginary illustrations,” scenes which encourage them to picture natural selection at work. “When Darwin presented his theory of natural selection, he knew that readers were used to such voyages [imaginary voyages and imaginary travelers were very popular in nineteenth-century periodicals], and he drew on their capabilities to re-create the evolutionary process. Like novelists who took readers into imaginary worlds, Darwin appealed to his readers to imagine the development of life as he described it.”

But “it would be inaccurate,” Otis warns us, “to depict nineteenth-century literature as a realm in which the imagination had comparatively free reign. As we have seen with Sleigh, novelists of the period greatly concerned themselves with the latest scientific “facts.”

Similarly, “nineteenth-century scientists found they could be more persuasive by using the storytelling techniques of fiction writers.” Darwin, who took a volume of Milton’s poems with him on his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, described the struggle for life through references to Milton’s poetic images. “Milton’s poems allowed Darwin to imagine the creation as a long, continuous process, nurturing his developing concept of evolution.”

For most of the nineteenth century, scientists and literary writers shared a common vocabulary and common literary techniques. But as Otis argues, “it is also crucial to recognize that the same subjects occupied both scientific and literary writers.” The quest for origins developed simultaneously in studies of language, geology, zoology, and numerous other fields. Questions of individuality also preoccupied both scientist and writer. And more narrowly questions about what it meant to be human disturbed both nineteenth-century writers and scientists. “The rapid development of industrialization, physiology, evolutionary theory, and the mental and social sciences challenge the traditional view of people as uniquely privileged beings created in the divine image.”

Otis’ anthology ultimately “invites readers to explore the fertile exchange of images, metaphors, and narrative techniques among writers who today—though not in their own day—are regarded as members of very different disciplines.” It aims to “reveal dialogues and confluences.”

The selected bibliography following the introduction is indispensable, including sources on mathematics, physical science, and technology; sciences of the body; evolution; sciences of the mind; and the social sciences, which are all presented as major themes in the text. Also follows is a helpful chronology of events and publications from 1800 to 1900.

Literature and Science

The anthology begins with a prologue on Literature and Science, with excerpts from Edgar Allen Poe’s Sonnet—To Science (1829), who lamented over the dangers of science posed on poetry and creativity: “why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” There follows John Tyndall’s Belfast Address (1874), commanding scientists to “wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory,” yet maintaining that “some of the greatest [scientific] discoveries have been made under the stimulus of a non-scientific ideal.” Indeed, Tyndall called imagination “the mightiest instrument of the physical discoverer.” Thus “science desires not isolation, but freely combines with every effort towards the bettering of man’s estate.” Also included in this prologue are excerpts of the debate between Thomas Henry Huxley, from Science and Culture (1880), and Matthew Arnold, from Literature and Science (1882) mentioned earlier in introduction.

Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology

Each collection of essays is guided by a particular theme, and here Otis offers helpful introductory comments. The guiding theme for the first set of writings, for example, is Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology. In Mathematics, Otis argues that both mathematicians and literary writers used analogies, metaphors, and the malleability of language to convey meaning to new scientific discoveries. Here she includes excerpts from Ada Lovelace’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine (1843); Augustus de Morgan’s Formal Logic (1847); George Boole’s An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854); John Venn’s The Logic of Chance (1866); Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and The Game of Logic (1886); George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876); and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895).

In the Physical Science, Otis claims that “both physicists and literary writers challenged the notion that humankind could anticipate a more civilized, prosperous future.” In introducing theories of gradual energy loss, some asked readers to “conceive of a being” who selectively opens portals between two compartments. Vision also became “a key metaphorical vehicle in nineteenth-century writing.” Imaginative journeys among the stars and within electrical and magnetic forces, invisible phenomena such as X-rays and literary allusions were all used to explain advances in the physical sciences. Otis includes excerpts from Sir William Herschel’s One the Power of Penetrating into Space by Telescopes (1800); Thomas Carlye’s Past and Present (1843); Sir John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy (1849); Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839-55) (1852); William Thomson, Lord Kelvin’s On the Age of the Sun’s Heat (1862) and The Sorting Demon of Maxwell (1879); John Tyndall’s On Chemical Rays, and the Light of the Sky (1869) and On the Scientific Use of the Imagination (1870); James Clerk Maxwell’s Theory of Heat (1871), To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode (1874), Professor Tait, Loquitur and Answer to Tait (1877), and To Hermann Stoffkraft (1878); Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882); Richard A. Proctor’s The Photographic Eyes of Science (1883); and Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s On a New Kind of Rays (1895).

In Technology (or Telecommunications?), Otis relates how Samuel F.B. Morse’s Letter to Hon. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the US Treasury, 27 September 1837 presented his electromagnetic telegraph as “a national nervous system.” An anonymous reviewer from Westminster Review (1878) on The Telephone also utilized analogies of the human body. According to Otis, “for nineteenth-century inventors the resemblance between sensory organs and technical devices was more than an informative metaphor; it inspired the design of communications devices.” Also included in this section is Mark Twain’s satire, Mental Telegraphy (1891), “in which a narrator argues that thoughts can be transmitted from mind to mind.” Otis also includes excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s The Deep-Sea Cables (1896) and Henry James’ In the Cage (1898), the latter arguing with prescience that “the telegraph fails to deliver the knowledge or relationships it promises, and the feeling of connectedness offered by technological communications proves illusory.”

In the final section, Bodies and Machines, Otis observes that “as mechanized industry developed, writers from all fields compared bodies to machines.” This, of course, is not unique to nineteenth-century thinkers. But unlike previous analogies, nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the rapid development of a great variety of technologies, encouraging “all those who used it to rethink their notions of mind, body, and identity.” Excerpts are drawn from Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832); Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1847-8); Hermann von Helmholtz’ On the Conservation of Force (1847); Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872); and Walt Whitman’s To a Locomotive in Winter (1876).

Sciences of the Body

The second theme of writings concerns the Sciences of the Body. “Both the scientific and literary writers represented here,” Otis tells us, “do their utmost to take readers into a scene so that the readers can experience it for themselves.” On Animal Electricity, Luigi Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis (1791) “offers vivid pictures of fluids circulating through tubes” in order to explain the nervous system, identifying “the principle of life” with electricity. Sir Humphry Davy’s Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802) also uses metaphors to describe the usefulness of chemistry. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) uses the writings of Xavier Bichat and Galvani in her account of the irresponsible scientist Victor Frankenstein. Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric (1855) uses similar language of electromagnetism.

In Cells and Tissues and Their Relation to the Body, Otis brings together writings from Xavier Bichat’s General Anatomy (1801), who, in studying living tissues, ironically proposed “one must investigate death.” Rudolf Virchow’s Cellular Pathology (1858), using a microcosm-macrocosm analogy, compared the relationship between the cell and the body to that of the individual and society. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) likewise viewed “bodies and societies has highly interconnected webs in which one could explain events only by comprehending the relations among individuals.” George Henry Lewes’ The Physical Basis of Mind (1877), although critical of “imaginary anatomy” used by some scientists, nevertheless argues, like Tyndall and Eliot before him, “that imagination played a central role in scientific thinking.”

On Hygiene, Germ Theory, and Infectious Diseases, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), using the metaphor of fire, “presents disease as something that both can and cannot be contained.” Sir Edwin Chadwick’s An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) “demands that readers confront not just the sights but the nauseating smells of the slums…organizing his narrative so that the reader follows eye-witnesses into industrial cities’ forbidding alleys.” But having said this, Chadwick also rejects Shelley’s representation of diseases as an uncontrollable force in nature.  Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death (1842) also conveys a growing understanding of individual identity and responsibility in mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843), Louis Pasteur’s On the Organized Bodies Which Exist in the Atmosphere (1861) and Sir Joseph Lister’s Illustrations of the Antiseptic System (1867) argue that bacterial infections can be greatly reduced, simply by “covering wounds, sterilizing instruments, and washing one’s hands.” The anonymous author of Dr Koch on the Cholera (1884) in The Lancet, likewise, argued that people are “responsible for their diseases not because they have incurred divine wrath but because they have failed to follow hygienic laws.” And H.G. Wells’ The Stolen Bacillus (1895) invites readers “to look through a microscope with his character so that they can see the cholera bacillus as a bacteriologist sees it.”

The last section in this collection of writings concentrates on Experimental Medicine and Vivisection, calling for greater responsibility and accountability on the part of scientists themselves. Excerpts from Claude Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) and Sir James Paget’s Vivisection: Its Pains and Its Uses (1881) argue that “experiments must be responsibly designed.” Frances Power Cobbe’s Vivisection and Its Two-Faced Advocates (1882) quotes physiologists’ own metaphorical descriptions of a damaged brain “as a ‘lately-hoed potato field’…to alert readers to the ‘real’ nature of their experiments.” More polemically, Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) depict arrogant, sadistic scientists, “those who fail to think ahead and consider the value and consequences of their experiments.”

Evolution

The third theme of Otis’ anthology focuses on Evolution. “Forced to describe an inaccessible past, scientists and literary writers recreating natural history appealed to their readers’ imagination.” The challenge, of course, was to make “readers picture a thousand, ten thousand, or a million years of gradual change, periods that for most people were almost unimaginable.”

Under the section of The Present and the Past, selections from Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy (1809) describes how “valuable new traits and habits could be directly transmitted to the next generation,” thus appealing to “people’s sense of self-worth.” Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-3) “compared himself to a historian, criticizing his opponents’ theories in terms that echo reviews of bad fiction.” Lyell was also anxious to appeal to conservative readers, and thus wrote his “story in the language of educated gentlemen, illustrating his ideas with quotations from Virgil, Horace, Shakespeare, and Milton.” William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840) relates the limitations of the English language when accounting for both space and time. According to Whewell, “the rhythm and metre of language suggested time’s passage far better than the spatial metaphors that language offered.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) challenges the notion that a fragmented past constitutes a coherent history: “Like the portraits of ancestors, fossils alone can tell no story. It takes imagination, not just memories, to create a meaningful narrative.” Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) reminded readers of how breeders produced new animals, “summoning images from their memories.” What is more, despite numerous observations to support his theory, Darwin knew—ironically—he needed to tell readers a story for them to accept it as real. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) suggests, like geologists and naturalists, “novelists are retelling lost tales, recovering lives and events whose traces have been obliterated…[presenting] the relations between present and past in a manner quite similar to Lyell’s.” Thomas Henry Huxley’s On the Physical Basis of Life (1869) cites French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), known for his interests in the relationship between animals (especially human beings) to their environment. According to Otis, “cultural debates about evolution encouraged observations of people’s similarity to animals.” Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), for example, “presents a scenario in which noble labour ends ‘in nothing’ because of an urge people and animals share.” Similarly, George John Romanes’ Mental Evolution of Man (1888) argues that “people and animals differ only in degree,” thus challenging the “uniqueness of the human soul.”

On Individual and Species, “in the intense debates that evolutionary theory provoked, the consequences for individual identity become immediately apparent.” August Weismann’s Essays on Heredity (1881-5), for example, argued against Lamarck, “individual organisms lived and died without influencing their ‘immortal’ germ plasm. Here we also have excerpts from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), who used language to immortalize life that nature, “red in tooth and claw,” constantly threatens to obliterate. Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology (1864-7) argued that “selfhood made no sense on an evolutionary scale…the idea of a unique, representative individual loses its meaning” under evolutionary theory. Or as Otis puts it, “the human concept of individuality had no basis in nature. It was rooted in culture and was being imposed on nature by writers who failed to see humanity from a broader, evolutionary perspective.” Thomas Hardy’s Hap (1866) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) “subversively suggests that it is more comforting to think of a world directed by a vengeful god than a world without direction or purpose.” Ernst Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man (1874) sees organisms as “texts in which one could read the past.” Samuel Butler’s Unconscious Memory (1880) “described the individual as a ‘link in a chain,’ a body that contained and often re-enacted the past.” Emily Pfeiffer’s Evolution (1880) and To Nature pictures nature as “dread Force,” churning the universe with mindless motion. May Kendall’s amusing, yet moving, Lay of the Trilobite (1885) “invites the reader to imagine life from the perspective of an extinct animal.” And Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Nature is a Heraclitean Fire (1888), like Tennyson’s In Memoriam, “resists science’s claim to replace religion as a provider of inspiration and enlightenment.”

In the final section on Sexual Selection, we see how both scientists and literary writers continued to reinforce cultural renderings of sex. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) “suggested how much was at stake—socially and economically—in the search for a wealthy husband.” Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) provided “anthropomorphic descriptions in which females choose their mates,” but when describing human beings, “Darwin’s account reinforced cultural readings of female desire as a dangerous force that threated the social order.” This is how Otis puts it: “When women did take the active role and select their mates, they were acting in a primitive fashion, revealing people’s animal origins.” Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Constance Naden’s Natural Selection (1887), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) only further confirms these convictions, using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection to “formulate a problem they had long been describing.”

Sciences of the Mind

The forth theme within this magnificent anthology is Sciences of the Mind. According to Otis, the mental sciences emerged slowly, and amid much controversy. One reason for this is because studies of the mind retained much of their philosophical roots. “The main tenet of the nineteenth-century mental physiology, the conviction that the mind and body were interdependent so that any understanding of the mind must be based on neuroanatomical and neurophysiological knowledge, owes a great deal to John Locke’s belief that true knowledge must be gained through experience, and David Hume’s insistence that philosophy be inductive.” During the nineteenth century, the emergence of mental science came at the heels of several combined factors: “an increasing respect for knowledge gained through experimentation; a conviction that the methods of the physical sciences could be applied to other fields; and an idea that minds, like bodies, had evolved and could be scanned for traces of ancestral forms.”

There was, of course, resistance. But resistance came from those who thought the subject matter—namely, human perceptions, thoughts, and behavior—was “inherently subjective.” Mental scientists in turn sought efforts to persuade readers of the validity of their studies. “In their effort to create an authoritative voice,” Otis writes, “they quoted poets whose insights into the mind were culturally respected.”

In The Relationship between Mind and Body, for example, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) describes his sensations after ingesting opium, thus using his “own personal testimony as ‘evidence’…of how changes to the body could alter one’s perceptions.” Marshall Hall’s On Reflex Function (1833) “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone.” James Cowles Prichard’s A Treatise on Insanity (1835) offers portraits of morally insane individuals through “histories, personal idiosyncrasies, and detailed narratives similar to those associated with fictional characters.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark (1846) argues that “mind could affect the body,” and that “the body” was a mental construct, “subject to the projections…of the mind.” Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1856) “suggested the ways to describe the effects of food and alcohol on behavior, illustrating the complex interplay of constitution and environment.” Thomas Laycock’s Mind and Brain (1860) argues that both hemispheres of the brain are now seen as the seat of “teleorganic processes” and “noetic ideas” of the mind. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) “depicts a woman tainted by hereditary madness and is at time so suspenseful that it nearly maddens the reader.” S. Weir Mitchell “explored the mental and physical roots of personal identity by studying his patient’s phantom limb experiences,” illustrating such experiences in his fictional patient of The Case of George Dedlow (1866). Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870) observed how women’s reproductive system “powerfully influenced their mental state.” William B. Carpenter’s Principles of Mental Physiology (1874) contended that the interplay between mind and body was extremely complex, “so that no one could define no clear boundary between voluntary and involuntary phenomena.” And William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890), ever the moderate, attempts to steer a middle-way between the “associationists” and “spiritualists” account of our mental life, for both positions, in his estimation, are found wanting. James says, “The spiritualist and the associationist must both be ‘cerebralists,’ [his emphasis] to the extent at least of admitting that certain peculiarities in the way of working their own favorite principles are explicable only by the fact that the brain laws are a codeterminant of the result.”

“If the human mind was housed in a bodily organ, the brain, then, structural studies of that organ might yield valuable information about its function.” In this sense both Physiognomy and Phrenology became a “science of reading.” As skilled interpreters of bodily texts, George Combe’s Elements of Phrenology (1824) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim’s Phrenology in Connection with the Study of Physiognomy (1826) argue that the relative size of the brain’s component parts act as indicators of potential character and behavior. Novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859) “integrated the language of phrenology into physical descriptions of their characters so as to play on readers’ assumptions.”

According to Otis, Mesmerism and Magnetism “gave the subject’s own testimony much greater importance.” Chauncey Hare Townsend’s Facts in Mesmerism (1840), besides quoting both “Coleridge and Newton side by side” to support his claims, sees mesmerism as another technique for exploring the mind. John Elliotson’s Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State (1843) viewed his patients as both object and subject. “When literary writers used the same kind of detail, they sometimes convinced readers their imaginary patients were real,” such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s Mesmeric Revelation (1844). Turning to mesmerism to relieve her chronic pain, Harriet Martineau’s Letters on Mesmerism (1845) used “precise visual descriptions and innovative metaphors her readers would have encountered in good realist fiction.” James Esdaile’s Mesmerism in India (1847) reinforced fears of mind control in his reports of mesmerism in India. Robert Browning’s Mesmerism (1855) suggested that “both imagination and mesmerism offered opportunities for controlling the world around one.” And Wilkie Collins’ popular mystery novel The Moonstone (1868) transposed Esdaile’s findings into the British context.

In Dreams and the Unconscious, when Hall “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone,” scientific studies of the “unconscious mind” quickly emerged. These studies provoked wide interest in literary writers as well, such as Charlotte Brontë’s When Thou Sleepest (1837). Frances Power Cobbe’s Unconscious Cerebration: A Psychological Study (1871) also “combines scientific and literary accounts of dreams and sleep.” More importantly, Cobbe proposed that people commit immoral actions all the time in their dreams “without apparent attacks of conscience because consciousness is not needed for thought, and mental activity continues when the will is suspended.” “The existence of an unconscious mind that spoke when the will was relaxed suggested the potential for struggle between different parts of human consciousness,” as memorably played in the fictional case study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Finally, August Kekulé’s Address to the German Chemical Society (1890) advised his listeners to “‘learn to dream,’ suggesting that rather than forging scientific ideas, reason might destroy them in the process of emergence.”

And in Nervous Exhaustion, Otis observes how nineteenth-century scientists contended that in an exhausted mind, “the will could no longer control emotional impulses, so that one might fall victim to hysteria.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner (1861) shows how “overwhelming environmental pressures can wear out a mind.” S. Weir Mitchell’s Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked (1872) “maintained that women were especially vulnerable to nervous exhaustion.” Interestingly enough, both Holmes and Mitchell “wrote fictional as well as actual case studies to illustrate” their views. But Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892) uses personal experience to challenge such scientific theories, often espoused from male physicians of “high standing.”

Social Sciences

The final theme is Social Sciences. During the nineteenth century, “new discoveries and theories increasingly indicated that human beings were subject to natural laws, so that the societies and legal systems they created might be seen to have a foundation in nature.” Like the mental sciences, “social phenomena had been a subject for philosophers.” And like those before them “while struggling to legitimize their field, early sociologists relied heavily on literary techniques.”

Under Creating the Social Sciences, Otis explains that the social sciences “originated not in the field’s scientific and literary allegiances, whose interplay stimulated its growth, but in the issue of government interference.” As such, “the social sciences attempted to build knowledge in order to control and improve societies.” Interestingly enough, while Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791) proposed an architectural panopticon, intended for prisons, workhouses, hospitals, and schools, “which allowed government supervisors to control every aspect of their subjects’ lives,” his Manual of Political Economy (1793) “advised governments not to interfere in economic matters.” This contradictory desire for both freedom and control makes sense when one considers whose freedom is being advocated and who needs to be controlled. According to Otis, “every social scientist sought to legitimize a system in which wealthy subjected managed their lives as they chose, but troublesome paupers were managed for their own good.” “If social laws were an extension of natural ones, then poverty was a natural phenomenon and could be viewed as inevitable,” and perhaps even necessary. Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) “argued along these lines, proposing that charity, however well-intended, only added to human suffering.” J.R. M‘Culloch’s A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1832), inspired by Bentham, “offered readers volumes of facts, inscribing knowledge in terms of practical uses rather than intellectual value.” Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1853) “proposed that human thought had developed in distinct stages, progressing from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific.” Charles Dickens hoped his novels, such as Bleak House (1852-3) and Hard Times (1854), would “stimulate social reform.” John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861), like Bentham, advocated a “society that would please as many members [i.e. the wealthy elite] as possible.” And Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) depict “overpopulation in a tragic, despairing light, as a biological fact that no social initiative can overcome.”

Under Race Science, Otis observes that imperial expansion “stimulated naturalists’ efforts to classify unknown plants and animals,” ultimately “encourage[ing] anthropologists to categorize human beings” as well. Both Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) and Sir Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) set out a “racial science” of eugenics, which presented the “supplanting of one people by another as a natural, even compassionate process.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Yellow Face (1894), however, questions the validity of racial science, suggesting that racial characteristics are often “projected onto subjects by observers.”

In Urban Poverty, an excerpt from Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) argues that “the rich have consciously constructed their city so that its leading citizens never see the slums in which their employees live.” Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Walter Besant’s East London (1899) “described urban problems by creating semi-fictional protagonists, inviting readers to hear the poor ‘speak with their own voices.’” Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) suggests that “impoverished workers frightened members of the middle classes.” Matthew Arnold’s East London and West London (1867) expressed the desire to “make middle-class readers see and hear the poor.” Thus J.W. Horsley’s Autobiography of a Thief in Thieves’ Language (1879) “envisioned himself a translator, converting the argot of the very poor into a language his readers would understand.” And George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1898) reinforces Engel’s claim that poverty sustains the wealth of the elite by focusing on an “unbreakable bond between the rich and the poor, implying that even the highest intellectual work is sustained by the sale of the human flesh.”

And the final section to this anthology ends, fittingly, with Degeneration. “When social scientists appropriated Darwin’s natural selection hypothesis…many began to attribute vice to hereditary factors.” Excerpts from Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal Mind (1876) argues “that a third of all criminals were physical and moral degenerates who had reverted to earlier stages in human development.” Such studies “encouraged scientists all over the world to look for signs of inborn criminality.” George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889) relies heavily on French psychologist Benedict Morel’s argument that mental illness is the accumulation of successive generations of poor urban dwellings, malnutrition, bad air, alcohol, tobacco, ultimately leading to degeneration. Degeneracy was not restricted to the poor, as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) paints a picture of degeneracy among society’s most privileged members. Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892) argues that “modern stresses like railway travel and urban crowding were overtaxing people’s nervous systems, leaving them unfit for the demands of everyday life.” Sarah Grand’s controversial novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893), depicts degeneration as an avoidable process, proposing that unfit Europeans should be forbidden from breeding, in the interest of maintaining an intelligent, physically healthy population. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) likewise sees a “dreaded emasculation as a literal draining.”

A cross-pollination of novels, scientific essays, poems, and textbooks, Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century clearly demonstrates the “feedback loop” of influence between literary and scientific writers.

Lay of the Trilobite (1885), by May Kendall

A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.

So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!

And then, quite natural and free
Out of his rocky bed,
That Trilobite he spoke to me
And this is what he said:
‘I don’t know how the thing was done,
Although I cannot doubt it;
But Huxley—he if anyone
Can tell you all about it;

‘How all your faiths are ghosts and dreams,
How in the silent sea
Your ancestors were Monotremes—
Whatever these may be;
How you evolved your shining lights
Of wisdom and perfection
From Jelly-Fish and Trilobites
By Natural Selection.

‘You’ve Kant to make your brains go round,
Hegel you have to clear them,
You’ve Mr Browning to confound,
And Mr Punch to cheer them!
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!

‘You’ve Politics to make you fight
As if you were possessed:
You’ve cannon and you’ve dynamite
To give the nations rest:
The side that makes the loudest din
Is surest to be right,
And oh, a pretty fix you’re in!’
Remarked the Trilobite.

‘But gentle, stupid, free from woe
I lived among my nation,
I didn’t care—I didn’t know
That I was a Crustacean.
I didn’t grumble, didn’t steal,
I never took to rhyme:
Salt water was my frugal meal,
And carbonate of lime.’

Reluctantly I turned away,
No other word he said;
An ancient Trilobite, he lay
Within his rocky bed.
I did not answer him, for that
Would have annoyed my pride:
I merely bowed, and raised my hat,
But in my heart I cried:—

‘I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!’

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 7Edited by Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, The Cambridge History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences (2003) is the last of the current seven volume series. There is, however, a forthcoming eight volume, entitled The Cambridge History of Science Volume VIII: Modern Science in National and International Contexts, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and David Livingstone.

The volume under consideration examines “the history of the social sciences over some three centuries and many countries, attending to their knowledge and methods, the contexts of their origin and development, and the practices through which they have acted on the world.” Part 1 discusses the origins of the social sciences; Part 2 on modern disciplines in “western Europe and North America since about 1880”; Part 3 on the “internationalization of the social sciences”; and Part 4 consists of “a collection of case studies illustrating the larger importance of social science” in public and private life. My interests chiefly concern the contents of Part 1, and thus the following will concentrate there alone.

In his chapter on “Genres and Objects of Social Inquiry: From Enlightenment to 1890,” Theodore Porter offers a “loose periodization of the early history of social science.” He begins during the “period of the Enlightenment, when discourses of nature and reason began to be applied more systematically to ‘man’ and society.” Before the nineteenth century, there were recognizable “European traditions of thought and practice concerned with politics, wealth, the senses, distant peoples, and so on.” There were treatises on human epistemology; travel narratives; medical works; and important discourses on populations, economies, states, bodies, minds, and customs that resemble what we call today “anthropology.” Porter argues that the “birth of social science has much to do with the liberalizing political moves and the growth of a public sphere.” And here the Enlightenment played an important role in its advance, for “as an intellectual and social movement, [it] depended on increasingly free public discussion, on the mechanisms for the circulation of ideas.” Indeed, philosophes like Condorcet (1743-1794) saw the printing press “as a signal event in the history of progress, since it allowed knowledge to advance without ever being lost.” The growth of newspapers, coffeehouses, salons, and lodges in the eighteenth century “provided opportunities for relatively free discussion of issues and events.”

Eighteenth-century thinkers were concerned with the subject of “human nature,” or what we now call “psychology.” And this subject, Porter writes, “was closely linked to natural philosophy, especially because one of its central ambitions was to understand the human ability to acquire and use empirical knowledge.” The philosophes were so impressed with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which sought a naturalistic account of human nature, that they used it as a weapon in “struggles against the moral and institutional power of the Church, as well as a rationale for systematic schooling.”

The French Revolution of 1789, Porter asserts, “marked an important shift, in which social progress came to seem both more powerful and more threatening.” Voltaire, Rousseau, Condillac, Turgot, d’Alembert, and Diderot all died between 1778 and 1784. “In the politically polarized climate after 1789, a career like that of Voltaire or Diderot, based on appeals to universal reason, was scarcely possible.” “Unruly passions,” Porter notes, “inspired a pervasive sense of danger,” which in turn gave way to a more urgent social science, “often more ideological, looking to the past, or to science, in order to comprehend what seemed the precarious circumstances of modernity.” In this sense, the social sciences moved beyond understanding to administration, particularly under the monarch. “The state, henceforth acting on the basis of full information and rational methods, would naturally advance the public good.” This was a social science in utopian form.

But this view was quickly rebuked by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), arguing that the Revolution was the “consequence of irresponsible men, shallow ideologues, provoking abrupt changes in a social organism—the state—whose natural development is slow and gradual.” Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) “attributed the excess of the Revolution to the influence of detached intellectuals, men without actual experience in government.”

Utopianism, nevertheless, continued unabated. Condorcet’s Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1794) shifted utopian ideals “from somewhere in space (far away) into time, the near or distant future.” Condercet’s mentor, Turgot, had also written on the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750), a “systematic, secular, and naturalistic statement of the ‘modern’ idea of progress,” a genre that flourished in the nineteenth century. Key figures here, according to Porter, are Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and his “most famous and rebellious disciple,” Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In their introduction, Porter and Ross summarize:

Comte initiated a massive effort to define the methods and historical progression of the sciences. His main purpose was to announce the discovery, and define the standing, of sociology. He rejected decisively the idea that social science should adopt the same methods as astronomy, physics, or physiology. Yet at the same time he defined a hierarchy of knowledge, with social science dependent for its formulation on all the sciences that had gone before. And despite his claims for the inclusion of social knowledge, he made of “science” something special and exclusive. There had been, he argued, no science of physics before the seventeenth century, no true chemistry before Lavoisier. The origins of physiology were still more recent, and the founder of scientific sociology was, to cast aside false modesty, himself. Theology and  metaphysics were not part of positive science, but its predecessors and its antithesis. Law, literature, and rhetoric could never occupy this hallowed ground. Thus, while Comte formulated his philosophy in order to vindicate sociology and to define its place within science, he insisted also on a highly restrictive sense of “science,” a standard the social sciences could not easily meet.

Another transition occurred “roughly during the decade of the 1830s, as the economic and social changes of industralization became visible to everyone.” This pushed social science to becoming a “tool for managing as well as for understanding the problems” of the era. “Economic change brought economic dislocation,” Porter tells us. The “massive flow of people from farms to cities” altered family arrangements, increased epidemics of diseases, urban squalor, crime and thus threatened the “good order of society.” “Social science, then, developed during the middle third of the nineteenth century above all as a liberal, reformist answer to the upheavals of the era.”

Statistics became the characteristic social science of the mid nineteenth century, and was carried out largely by officials of the state. “During the 1830s, many of the leading nations of Europe…created permanent census offices.” According to Porter, this effort by the states were “very much a part of the history of social science, not only because they provided indispensable sources of data, but also because their leaders often took an active role in interpreting the figures—which often mean propagandizing for public education, for example, or for improved sanitation.” This movement was not without its critics, particularly when statistical data become closely associated with laissez-faire political economy.

In conclusion, Porter makes the interesting observation that “biology, not physics, was the crucial point of reference for the nascent social sciences in the nineteenth century.” “Throughout the nineteenth century, from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to Ernst Haeckel and beyond, theories of biological evolution were less mechanical than purposeful, involving a teleological progression of species toward greater perfection.” Herbert Spencer, for example, “regarded biological and social progress as parallel instances of a more general law, a tendency for homogeneous matter to become increasingly complex and differentiated.” Indeed, biological evolution provided the “framework that many found satisfying for interpreting the diversity of human peoples.” It also manifested itself, Porter notes in conclusion, in “hybrids of biological and social theories and practices, such as Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary sociology, Francis Galton’s eugenic campaign to improve mankind by selective breeding, the racialism against which Franz Boas fought for anthropology, and the Lamarckian elements of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.”

Johan Heilbron’s “Social Thought and Natural Science” continues the discussion by focusing on how the “natural sciences have provided an enduring set of models for modern social science, models that go well beyond suggestive analogies and illustrative metaphors.” Heilbron claims that “natural philosophy” searched for “natural principles and laws, in place of supernatural agencies.” When natural philosophy was applied to the domains of moral philosophy and political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “it allowed for a shift away from Christian doctrines toward secular models.”

The “naturalistic quest for knowledge of human nature and human society,” Heilbron tells us, was initiated by natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), who “developed elaborate systems of moral duty and political obligation based upon what they took to be permanent features of human nature, such as the concern for self-preservation.” Invoking natural science involved use of mechanical metaphors, the primacy of observation and experience, measurement and quantification, and rational deduction. But such a process was neither uniform nor uncontested.

During the Enlightenment period, the “secular intelligentsia,” Heilbron writes, “explicitly claimed, and effectively exercised, the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independent of established authorities and official doctrines.” Discourses on political, moral, and economic issues relied on “factual evidence and detail” provided by the natural sciences. This is the first of three distinct trends that Heilbron wants to point out.

The second trend was the differentiation of natural science, the demise of a unitary conception of natural philosophy, and a fundamental split between “animate and inanimate bodies.” Comte, for example, distinguished social science from biology, biology from chemistry, chemistry from physics. “Social science, for Comte, was a relatively autonomous endeavor, with a subject matter of its own and a specific method of study.”

The third trend was the opposition of prevailing forms of naturalism in the human sciences. Heilbron claims that the elaboration of “humanistic or cultural alternative made natural science, with its insistence on mechanical laws and causal models, an object of criticism.” Heilbron never expands on this third trend, so what he means here is not entirely clear.

The scientific conception of moral philosophy was strongest in England, Scotland, and France, reaching it apogee in the latter from about 1770 to 1830. In France, for example, we find the “most scientistic designation for the social sciences…’social mathematics,’ ‘social mechanics,’ ‘social physics,’ and ‘social physiology.'” Those espousing a scientific model of moral and political philosophy include Charles de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), and John Millar (1735-1801). Montesquieu was particularly admired by the latter four for having demonstrated that “laws have, or ought to have, a constant references to the constitution of governments, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society.”

Salient in France were thinkers conceptualizing the social world in language derived from the physical and life sciences, such as Turgot (1727-1781), Condorcert  (1743-1794), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), all to some extant stressing “the urgency of adapting scientific method to the analysis of state matters.”

Utilitarian philosophers would also reason “in a style that was equally modeled on the physical sciences.” From Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836), proponents of the utilitarian view promoted a “calculus of pleasures and pains,” deductive reasoning, and physical analogies for understanding human nature. Drawing from the life sciences, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) argued that “human consciousness and conduct had to be explained by bodily arrangements and physical needs, and no longer in terms of immaterial substances.” Others, such as Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806) rejected mechanical conceptions and advocated a type of vitalism as the basis of the science of man. This position was taken up systematically by Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabnis (1757-1808) in his psychophysiological research programs, which also became the basis of the work of the idéologues, “a group of moderate revolutionary intellectuals.” Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), for example, wanted “the old metaphysics…to be replaced by a rigorously scientific program for which Cabanis’s biomedical theories provided the basis.” This was all appropriated by Saint-Simon within a physiological framework, “who proclaimed that human societies were also organized bodies.”

Heilbron next turns to evolutionary thought. He argues that “evolutionary thinking in the life sciences owed as much to the human sciences as it did to biology.” Notions of progressive change over extended periods of time first emerged, according to Heilbron, in “the late-seventeenth-century battle between what were called the Ancients and the Moderns.” In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) published his anti-utopian Essay on the Principle of Population. There is attacked Condorcet’s optimistic vision of indefinite perfectibility, arguing that “the operation of natural laws could well produce misery and starvation, not progress.” Malthus’ argument, as many have pointed out, “provided Darwin with the clue for his theory of natural selection.” In general, natural history reinforced the historicization of the social sciences. “Developmental or evolutionary theories in the broad sense became the prevailing form of the science of society in the nineteenth century.” But the best-known representative of evolutionism, of course, was Herbert Spencer, “an evolutionist before Darwin’s Origin.” Spencer would popularize the idea that “from the maturation of an embryo to the development of human society and the evolution of the solar system, all things evolve from the simple to the complex through successive differentiation.” Much broader than Comte’s sociology or Darwin’s biological theory, Spencer’s view of evolution “had the status of a cosmic law and formed the core of his all-embracing system of synthetic philosophy.”

But the “promise and prestige of the natural sciences,” Heilbron tells us, “did not remain uncontested. Countermovements to the naturalistic understanding of human society became an intellectual force in the course of the nineteenth century,” particularly in and through the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder argued that “each society, each people, is marked by a peculiar cultural spirit, a Volksgesit, expressed in its customs, myths, and folktales [and] the task of the human sciences is to uncover the peculiarities of this spirit.” According to Heilbron, Herder’s work “contributed to an emerging culturalist understanding of human socieites,” reinforced by the Romantic reactions of Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Bonald, among others.

The following essays examine the same movements and figures, only in more concentrated areas. Stephen Turner, for example, focuses on the “ideas of cause and teleology before and during the period of Mill and Comte, and its aftermath up to the early twentieth century.” Although Enlightenment thinkers agreed that arguments of teleology were problematic, “they were impressed with the idea that organisms are understandable only teleologically, only in terms of some internal principle or nature that cannot be reduced by mechanism; and they relied freely on the idea of human nature, characterized by inherent purposes, in their political reasoning.” Turgot, Comte, and Mill all wanted to eliminate final causes in their social sciences. But teleology survived the onslaught by these writers, in the form of purposive language, organic analogy, and historical directionality. As Turner concludes, “the project of stripping science of its teleological elements was difficult, perhaps impossible to carry through consistently.” Indeed, teleology persists today in many forms, particularly in rational choice theory in the social sciences.

Antoine Picon examines “Utopian Socialism and Social Science” during the nineteenth century. Under the direction of the “founding figures of utopian socialism” Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and their disciples, a scientific understanding of society was a “prerequisite for its reconstruction.” The notion of progress was a key piece of utopian arguments. Whereas Thomas More’s (1478-1535) vision of utopia was the negation of place—literally to be found “nowhere”—eighteenth-century utopias shifted from “singularity to universality, from nowhere to everywhere…[and] relocated into the future, as the final stage of human progress.” The utopian socialists’ vision of history, Picon tells us, “was based on the identification of a series of organic stages…separated by periods of cultural and social uncertainty and unrest.” Ironically, while eighteenth- and nineteenth-century utopians rejected Christianity, they had no intention of rejecting religion tout court. In fact, they wanted to replace Christianity with a new religion, a “religion of humanity.” Although the attempt to found new religions was eventually abandoned in the social sciences, late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century “sociological literature was permeated by a dull nostalgia for what had been lost,” as seen in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. The cult of progress; the belief in absolutely positive social facts and permanent historical laws that could reveal the future of mankind, were a crucial part of the emerging social sciences.

Starting in the seventeenth century, Eileen Janes Yeo argues in her “Social Surveys in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” “voluntary enthusiasts as well as state bureaucrats were becoming concerned with statistics, in the sense not only of facts useful to the state but also of a tabulated facts that would depict ‘the present state of a country,’ often ‘with a view to its future improvement.'” Population surveys were thus a source of power for the state. Unsurprisingly, many of the surveys were contested. But by the mid-nineteenth century, “the state monopolized large-scale social inquiry.” The nineteenth century “was characterized by the involvement of a wider range of social groups and institutional settings, which made social surveys a more visible part of a contested politics of knowledge.”

Likewise, “Scientific ethnography and travel” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Harry Liebersohn tells us, not only “facilitated accurate navigation over the thousands of miles of a world sea voyage”; it also opened a “new round of competition between the two great powers [i.e. British and French], who now played out their rivalry in the vast, hitherto imperfectly charted expanse of the Pacific.” Ethnographers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not simply transcribe their impressions of the things they have witnessed—rather, “they capture a many-sided drama involving actors across the world, all of them contending to dominate the ‘truth’ about encounters among strange people.” These were indeed “narratives of knowledge,” accounts of “independent-minded intellectuals who formed their own views of the things that they saw and…sometimes developed a belief that they were bearing witness to world-historical events for a European public.” The philosophes, for example, “drew on travel writing to validate their criticisms of politics at home and of colonial administration overseas.” The institution of slavery, equality, and liberty were a common topics encouraged by ethnographic works. Darwin, for example, in his 1839 account of the Beagle voyage, “attributed the wildness and poverty of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to their insistence on an equal sharing of property and power, which checked, he though, any formation of a higher culture.” These works also encouraged comparative methods of inquiry, “evaluating the fantastic clutter of skulls, costumes, vocabularies, adventure stories, economic reports, and other souvenirs” of knowledge. This would led, as many other scholars have pointed out, to the development of comparative linguistics, but also the comparative study of religion.

Johnson Kent Wright argues in “History and Historicism” that historicism was not a distinctively nineteenth-century phenomenon, but one with an extensive genealogy connected to the Enlightenment. Moreover, he stresses “the close relations between historicism and conceptions of social science throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The “modernization” of historicism came from its chief architect, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who rendered it “irreducible to any other discipline.” Ranke’s vision of “historical development, concentrated resolutely on the political histories of the great nation-states of western Europe, from their first appearances in the Dark Ages down to the present,” became the model of “scientific” historiography in the second half of the nineteenth century. François Guizot’s (1787-1874) History of Civilization in Europe (1828) is a prime example. But it also influenced, as is well-known, the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose historical materialism was the conceptual centerpiece  of “a historicist device par excellence.” And as Terrell Carver concurs in his “Marx and Marxism,” Marx “absorbed and modified, but never rejected, a German intellectual tradition concerning knowledge and science.”

Conclusion

The Cambridge History of Science series is a massive and comprehensive undertaking. Beginning with Medieval Science and concluding with the Modern Social Sciences, the books serve as invaluable and indispensable references to the historian of science. I have found them valuable for orientating my thoughts and its judicious survey of movements, figures, and ideas. One must however carefully and selectively sift through their contents. Most of the essays are excellent; but many are also meandering, unfocused, and varying in quality. The cost of each book may also deter those looking to add them to their private library. Despite this, the series provides an incontrovertible resource for those interested in the history of science.