Visions of Science: George Combe

George Comeb
George Combe (1788-1858)

“Skulls do not lie.” That was the common motto among the phrenologists of the nineteenth century. In his sixth chapter to Visions of Science (2014), Secord examines the life and work of George Combe (1788-1858), the most read and well-known phrenologist of the nineteenth century. Most of what Secord writes in this chapter can be found in his earlier Victorian Sensation (2000). In addition, he makes use of previous studies, including Roger Cooter’s The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1984), and especially John van Wyhe’s Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which I have mentioned in another post, and Charles Gibbon’s biography of Combe in The Life of George Combe, Author of ‘The Constitution of Man’, 2 vols. (1878).

Long before Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859), doctrines of natural law had been peddled by Combe—yet Combe has been accorded no role in standard histories of evolutionary naturalism. Combe originally published his The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects in 1828 to a select audience, but starting in 1835, when W. & R. Chambers began publishing an inexpensive “People’s Edition” version of the text, Combe became one of the most widely-read authors of the century.

Combe had been influenced by the writings of Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who had effectively argued that the brain was the organ of the mind, and its relative size and shape dictated the development of an individual, intellectually, morally, emotionally, and so on. Combe argued that so-called “natural laws” of phrenology were essential for living rightly, “as a first step towards self-help and not being misled by others.” As Secord writes, “readers could achieve the self-knowledge that would allow them to change their circumstances and act appropriately in a rapidly changing and increasingly individualistic world.”

Combe’s argument was immensely attractive to Victorians. Novelist Margracia Loudon, for example, read Constitution at least three times, sparking “an experience akin to a religious conversion.” As she writes in a letter to a friend:

…never was I so entirely delighted with any book. That one small volume seems to me to comprise more wisdom, of a kind practically applicable to the production of human happiness, than all the ponderous works put together that I have ever met with. All the vague aspirations after any thing true or beautiful, which I have ever traced, faintly gleaming through the mystic or inconsistent pages of other writers, appear to me to be, in Mr. Combe’s book, concentrated into a steady, cheering, guiding light, by which mankind, if they would be accept the aid it offers them, might feel assured of attaining true felicity, both temporal and eternal.

Combe’s Constitution proclaimed that the laws of nature were progressive. If we are to attain true progress, true happiness, we must obey these laws. “The first principle on which existence on earth, and all its advantages depend,” Combe writes, “is obedience to the physical and organic laws.”

L0022893 George Combe, names of phrenological organs, 1836
“Names of the Phrenological Organs,” from George Combe, Outlines of Phrenology (Edinburgh, 1836)

As Charles Lyell, Combe began as an Edinburgh barrister. During this time he came to reject the traditional Christian doctrines of human sin and redemption. He thought the philosophies of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart too abstract to apply to everyday life. Although impressed with Spurzheim’s work as a surgeon, he was disgusted by the Burke and Hare scandal, who murdered and sold prostitutes for dissection at university anatomy lectures. Phrenology, he thought, ought to be more practical, “pursued primarily through skilled observations by experienced practitioners, rather than through dissection or physiological experiment…what really mattered was the skilled movement of the fingers of the trained phrenologist.”

Combe wanted to give phrenology a greater “scientific” status, and what better way to achieve this goal than through the printed word. He developed a network of followers who published “primers, introductory surveys, advanced textbooks, and journals” on phrenology. From polemical pamphlets and treatises to standard works of scientific reference, Combe pushed for the respectability and scientific status of phrenology.

More than geology, the science of the mind was by far the most contentious of the new “sciences.” Radicals such as Thomas Hope (1769-1831), Richard Carlile (1790-1843), William Lawrence (1783-1867) and others used the new science for their materialist philosophies.

Combe wanted phrenology to be respectable, so when Scripture or theology came up in his Constitution, he discussed them in “reverential terms and claimed to be compatible with every word in the New Testament.” Combe feigned humility when he said that natural law did not ensure salvation. The problem, as Secord points out, “was that Constitution maintained that understanding the laws of nature must be a preliminary to all religious instruction, so that the Bible needed to be interpreted in light of the Constitution rather than the other way around.” Of course, the greatest fear among evangelical readers was that the “laws of nature revealed by science would replace the need fro a caring God.”

These fears were amplified when sales of the Constitution reached unprecedented numbers. However, like the rest of the authors Secord discusses, Combe was no atheist. For Combe, God had created a progressive system, and if humans truly wanted to improve themselves, they had to obey these progressive, natural laws. Indeed, “an understanding of the natural laws was an essential prerequisite to appreciating the higher truths of Christianity.”

So, why was Combe’s Constitution so appealing? According to Secord, Combe did not tell his readers what they did not already believe. Certain prejudices and assumptions about race, gender, and class were readily available to Victorians. What Combe achieved was giving these assumptions the veil of “scientific” status. As Seocrd observes, “it allowed readers to interpret the character of others as expressed in their behaviour, whether they were intimate relations, strangers on the street, or potential political allies.” This desire to judge character based on material or outward appearances became a “science” under Combe. Futhermore, the Constitution “motivated an understanding of one’s own mind that was at the core of the developing idea of self-help, while showing how that understanding could be used towards broader aims and social transformation.” Indeed, it provided the “underpinnings for a whole range of Victorian reform movements, from removing Church control over education to repeal of the taxes on corn.” In short, it provided both political and metaphysical assumptions under the guise of “science.”

“In this world of masks, misleading impressions, and the clutter of material things,” Secord concludes, “Constitution offered a way of using surfaces to penetrate to the underlying nature of individual character.”

Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers’] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)
Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.