George Levine

Scientific Epistemology as Moral Narrative

The latest hierology is hitting the big screen in November, director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.  Based on the trailer, the film sets out to tell the “love story” between world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his (first) wife, Jane Wilde. Nevermind that Wilde and Hawking divorced in 1995, after years of what she has called absolute “misery” (but which had little to do with his motor neuron disease ). The same year they were divorced, moreover, Hawking married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he also later divorced in 2006.

Upon watching the trailer, however, one of course only sees Hawking’s nobler traits. At least that is how the narrative unfolds. This reminds me of George Levine’s fascinating book, Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (2002). In this book Levine examines the narratives underlying Victorian scientific epistemology, which he locates in themes of self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-effacement, self-abnegation—in other words, in dying to self. “There is something in our culture,” he writes,” that drives it to find things out, even at the risk of life.” This is the central metaphor underlying Western culture’s quest for truth as well as the underlying narrative of scientific epistemology. The narrative of renunciation is found, for example, in Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes; in the dying-to-know narrative of Thomas Carlyle, which he seems to have derived from Goethe and a “rigid Calvinism”; in John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Anthony Trollope, and Francis Galton, among others; and finally in the autobiographical texts of Mary Somerville, Harriet Martineau, and Beatrice Webb.

Levine - Dying to KnowThis “new” narrative of science was also the “new” narrative of morality. Levine argues that the narrative of scientific epistemology had ethical underpinnings, which are still present in discussions today: the notion that to gain reliable knowledge, observers must die as individuals. The scientist must repress his or her desires, emotions, and “everything merely personal, contingent, historical, [and] material that might get in the way of acquiring knowledge.” Paradoxically, then, “all who rightly touch philosophy, study nothing else than to die, and to be dead.”

“The model for scientific investigation,” Levine writes, “is heroic, self-humiliation; the seeker of natural knowledge puts aside worldly things, the idols of theater, cave, and marketplace, and prepares to submit to the blows of reality for the sake of a pilgrimage to the promised land of pure knowledge, human enrichment, and material progress.” In short, universal, valid, and objective knowledge required a kind of pilgrimage from “humanness.”

This narrative of pursuing knowledge, a secular pilgrim’s progress, however, cannot be fully trusted. Levine cites philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that the narrative of repudiation is impossible, for the language we use is part and parcel of the same intellectual inheritance we are trying to repudiate! In other words, these narratives were often self-serving and disingenuous. Nevertheless, what emerged from writers such as Bacon and Descartes, Herschel and Whewell, and from Huxley, Tyndall and the scientific naturalists, is a narrative of scientific epistemology, a kind of “heroic epistemology.”

The Victorian narrative of scientific epistemology, much like the one we see in the trailer on Hawking, implies moral rigor: impartiality, patience, self-denial, the rejection of authority for experience, a strong intellectual independence, a willingness to face the facts, no matter how detrimental to tradition—in short, the total surrender of self to the thing being studied. Levine demonstrates that the story of dying-to-know has become the dominant story in our times and that the propagation of that story allows science to displace religion as the ultimate authority for all knowledge.

But in an ironic twist, as Steven Shapin has shown in various works, but which Levine only hints at, the narrative of scientific epistemology is undeniably intertwined with the religious—and particularly the Christian—ideal of self-renunciation: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9.23).

From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences: Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century Science

Cahan - From Natural Philosophy to the SciencesDavid Cahan’s (ed.) From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences (2003) takes stock of current historiography of the sciences in the “long nineteenth century.” In his Introduction, “looking at nineteenth-century science,” Cahan declares that “the study of nineteenth century science is flourishing.” During the nineteenth century, “the scientific enterprise underwent enormous and unprecedented intellectual and social changes.” These developments equaled or exceeded, Cahan argues, those in natural philosophy during the so-called “scientific revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the eighteenth century “science” still meant natural philosophy. It was only during the nineteenth century that “science” gained its modern connotations. This period was marked by redefinitions and significant reconceptualizations of scientific knowledge, ushering in new institutional and social structures, new practices, incredible advances in technology and industry, transforming culture, religion, and literature.

The contributors of this volume are unanimous: during the nineteenth century, “the modern disciplines of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, and the earth sciences, as well as the social sciences, assume there more or less contemporary form.” New labels such as “biologist,” “physicist,” “mathematician,” “astronomer,” and “chemist” also emerged. “These new labels and categories,” writes Cahan, “reflected the fact that science had both delimited itself more fully from philosophy, theology, and other types of traditional learning and culture in differentiated itself internally into increasingly specialized regions of knowledge.”

Scholars and historians of science have offered different interpretations of the overall pattern of nineteenth-century science. John Theodore Merz, for instance, in his four-volume A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1904-12) saw a “unity both within nineteenth-century science proper and in its relationship to nineteenth-century thought in general.” In another assessment, John Desmond Bernal’s Science in History (1950) argued that the “development of science in the nineteenth century correlated closely with developments in the social and economic worlds.” And Joseph Ben-David’s The Scientist’s Role in Society: A Comparative Study (1970), saw “science’s development, including that during the nineteenth century, largely in terms of ‘the scientific role’ and competition among scientists and their potential state patrons.”

Whatever the shortcomings of Merz, Bernal, and Ben-David, the fact remains that all “sought to provide a sense of the unity of nineteenth-century science.” The current volume under inspection encourages scholars “to consider attempting a new, broad, and synthetic interpretation of the development of nineteenth-century science as a whole.” According to Cahan, its objective is twofold: first “to present historiographical analyses of work done by scholars of nineteenth-century science”; second, “to pose questions for future scholarship that will lead to a broader understanding of nineteenth-century science as a whole.” To this end, each essay provides a “thematic historiographical analysis of the most important problems, intellectual traditions, literature, methods, modes of explanation, and so on in a given field of scholarship.” Cahan’s volume also aims to follow the bellwether works of its predecessors, such as David Lindberg and Robert S. Westman’s reassessment of the early modern period in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (1990) or H. Floris Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (1994), or for Enlightenment science, G.S. Rousseau and Roy Porter’s The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980). Thus Cahan intends “to fill an essential gap in the historiography of the history of science” by encapsulating the current state of scholarship on nineteenth-century science and encouraging future research in the field.

There are eleven chapters total, beginning with “biology” (Robert J. Richards), “scientific medicine” (Michael Hagner), the “earth sciences” (David R. Oldroyd), “mathematics” (Joseph Dauben), “physics” (Jed Z. Buchwald and Sungook Hong), and “chemistry” (Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent), transitioning to applied sciences in “science, technology, and industry” (Ulrich Wengenroth), the “social sciences” (Theodore M. Porter), “institutions and communities” (David Cahan), concluding with a chapter on “science and religion” (Frederick Gregory). Each chapter contains a wealth of secondary literature, enough to overwhelm  undergrads and humble graduates and postgrads alike. Here I address only the chapter on “Biology” by Robert J. Richards.

Richards observes that “biology came to linguistic and conceptual birth” at the very outset of the nineteenth century. In 1800, romantic naturalist Karl Friedrich Burdach (1776-1847) coined biologie and used it “to indicate the study of human beings form a morphological, physiological, and psychological perspective.” Two years later, Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (1776-1837) and Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) “employed the term with comparable intention.”

It was indeed the German Romantic movement, “which organized thought in biology, literature, and personal culture,” that “readied the soil in Germany for the reception of evolutionary seeds blown over from France in the early part of the nineteenth century and the more fruitful germinations from England in the later years.” This was largely achieved by  Friedrich (1772-1829) and Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1865), Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). The work of these men, Cahan writes, “provided philosophical guidance for numerous works of biological importance that would penetrate far into the decades” of the nineteenth century. The romantic movement gave impetus to works of physiology, zoology, morphology, geology and so on. It gave particular focus to Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769-1859) geography and naturalistic explorations recounted in his Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (1818-29). This work would inspire Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).

These introductory remarks are intended to show (or perhaps provoke) the cultural context of biology. Traditional histories of biology have usually focused on its intellectual history; but a cultural history of biology demonstrates that the theories of Darwin, Mendal, Haeckel, Galton, Pasteur, and others, are best understood “as products of multiple forces.” In the reminder of his essay, Richards adumbrates a historiography of nineteenth-century histories of biology and concludes with a discussion on the ideals of cultural history.

Starting with the centenary celebration of Darwin’s Origin of Species, historians of science, and historians of biology in particular, began spurning a previous generation of scholarship on evolutionary biology. For example, Loren Eiseley’s Darwin’s Century (1958) refuted, with historical argument, what he saw as the biological determinism in Darwin’s theory. In a later book, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (1979), Eiseley reveals Darwin as a deeply flawed and basically dishonest seeker of self-aggrandizement. Eiseley “maintained that Edward Blyth, an obscure naturalist, had formulated the fundamental Darwinian concepts—variation, struggle for existence, natural and sexual selection—already in 1835, and that Darwin had tacitly appropriated them as his own.” John Greene’s Death of Adam (1959) likewise “dissolved Darwin’s genius into the musings of his predecessors.” In a collection of essays on Science, Ideology, and World View (1981), Greene also shows how Darwinism embodied a particular metaphysical worldview.

The metaphysical aspect of Darwinism was also emphasized in the early work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), but also more recently by Robert Young, Adrian Desmond, and Karl Popper, the latter arguing that the theory “failed as science but thrived happily as metaphysics.” Young’s Darwin’s Metaphor (1985) and his essay “Darwinism is Social,” published in David Kohn’s (ed.) The Darwinian Heritage (1988), argues that

once it is granted natural and theological conceptions are, in significant ways, projections of social ones, then important aspects of all of the Darwinian debate are social ones, and the distinction between Darwinism and Social Darwinism is one of level and scope, not of what is social and what is asocial…The point I [am] making is that biological ideas have to be seen as constituted by, evoked by, and following an agenda set by, larger social forces that determine the tempo, the mode, the mood, and the meaning of nature.

Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors (1985) examined the Huxley-Owen debates and “detected beneath the scientific surface…an ideological divide separating the rising professionals of strong materialistic bent from the establishment and church-supported idealists.” In his later The Politics of Evolution (1989), Desmond shows that Darwin himself knew the political ramifications of this theory, thus explaining why he delayed its publication for some twenty years.

This kind of scholarship led to counterreactions from “historically minded biologists,” such as Ernst Mayr, Michael Ghiselin, and Stephen Jay Gould—but their work read more like hagiography than history. As Richards puts it, “in their hands Darwin’s theory has been molded to late-twentieth-century specifications. They implicitly regard scientific theories as abstract entities that can be differently instantiated in the nineteenth century or today, while exhibiting the same essential features.”

More measured accounts appeared with the work of David Hull and Michael Ruse. Hull’s Darwin and His Critics (1973) and Ruse, in a series of books, The Darwinian Revolution (1879), Taking Darwin Seriously (1986), Evolutionary Naturalism (1995), and Monad to Man (1996), provide a clearer context to Darwin’s theory and its reception. In particular, Ruse shows in Monad to Man that “notions of progress clung to Darwin’s theory like barnacles to a ship.”

With the renewed archival mining of the 1970s, a new set of scholarly works emerged. Howard Gruber’s Darwin on Man (1974), Edward Manier’s The Young Darwin and His Cultural Circle (1978), David Kohn’s “Theories to Work By” (1980), and Dov Ospovat’s Development of Darwin’s Theory (1981) all show—by careful study of his notebooks, unpublished papers and letters—that Darwin came to his theory only gradually (and sometimes painfully), through correspondence with contemporaries, yes, but also with “virtual” dialogues with social, political, and philosophical writers.

In his own work, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (1987) and The Meaning of Evolution (1992), Richards maintained that “Darwin’s theory, from its inception through its mature development, beat precisely to progressivist and recapitulationist rhythms.” Thus Richards situates his work with Desmond, Young, and Himmelfarb, all emphasizing that Darwin’s theory must be understood as “saturated with social and political features, stains that sink right to the core of Darwinian thought.” But unlike Desmond and Young, who “examined the external context of ideas first, then moved inward to characterize the mind of the scientist,” Richards has endeavored to begin “with the individual mind—working out the formative experiences, examining the books read, assessing the interests that moved the soul…” and then determined “what features of the external environment had the most purchase on the scientist.”

Other authors were reconsidered as well. Richard Burkhardt’s The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology (1977) and Pietro Corsi’s The Age of Lamarck (1989) sought to contextualize Lamarck’s thought and theories. James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2001) shows that Robert Chambers’ (1802-1871) “conceptions were sands reshaped by the tides of readers’ political, social, and religious concerns.”

After a brief section on “social Darwinism and evolutionary ethics,” Richards spends a couple of illuminating pages on “biology and religion.” “Prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species,” he writes, “a biological scientist did not need to segregate his religious from his scientific beliefs.” But by the time Haeckel had published his polemical works, many “preached the sheer incompatibility of religious superstition and scientific reason.”

In the mid-twentieth century, however, scholars were beginning to reexamine the theological context of biology. Neal Gillespie’s Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (1979), for example, argues that while Darwin gave up on dogmatic religion, he nevertheless retained theism for most of his life, and only much later subscribed to Huxley’s “agnositicism.” James R. Moore’s magnificent Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979) defends the thesis that “more religiously orthodox individuals could adjust to Darwin’s theory, since their views were more consonant with those of the Darwin who once studied for the ministry, while the more liberal thinkers were likely to succumb to non-Darwinian evolutionary theory.” Jon Roberts’ Darwinism and the Divine in America (1988) also maintains the surprising proposition that many American Protestants did not perceive Darwinism as a great threat.

Other recent work has looked at the literary value of Darwin’s work. Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983) and George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists (1988) “explore in fine detail the metaphorical structure of the Origin, as well as the resonance of Darwin’s ideas in the fiction of Eliot, Dickens, and other Victorian writers.” The effort of Beer and Levine are part of the larger concern with “the rhetoric of science” in recent decades.

With brief sections on “morphology and romantic biology,” “neurophysiology,” “genetics and cell theory,” and “biography in the history of biology,” Richards concludes with a stunning methodological guide to a “cultural history of science.” According to Richards, in the first stage of a cultural history of science, “the historian, of whatever kind, begins work with some central event or series of events that he or she wishes historically to understand, that is, to explain.” To this end, the historian, in the second stage, “collects and reads the relevant books, papers, letters, notebooks, etc.,” and assesses their “relevancy in light of the central event.” This follows with some kind of abstraction, where the historian formulates meaning and devises patterns from the sources. To stop here is to provide only an intellectual history of science and not a cultural one. But “scientists, even the most divine, do not live in Platonic, abstract space.” “They live in a world,” Richards continues, “streaked with social relationships, penetrating passions, and the contingencies of life.” A cultural history thus must move beyond the stages of event, collection, and abstraction. The fourth stage of “historical recovery” is the attempt to ascertain “the mental processes of actors…that led to the production of those patterns of meaning abstracted in stage three.” Here we find “religious beliefs, metaphysical commitments, passionate loves, consuming hates, and aesthetic needs, along with scattered scientific ideas, theories, and suspicions.” The historian thus attempts to “step into the mind of the actor without being fully aware that he or she is crossing a boundary.” In the fifth stage a synthetic reconstruction begins, a recovery of sources through developmental analysis, portraying a “series of mental developments the scientist went through to arrive at the point of producing.” This requires external evidences, stimulus from “newly encountered ideas, newly stimulated emotional states, new relationships with other individuals.” This becomes the sixth stage of analysis, seeking to demonstrate the connections between mental development and immediate, external stimuli in which the scientist lived and worked. “The cultural environment provides the source of new notions, and of those that rub against and reshape already established considerations: it includes…the immediate scientific terrain of established theories and practices, but also the aesthetic notions, metaphysical conceits, and theological beliefs that play upon the mind of the scientist.” Thus “ideas of an abstract Platonic sort are impotent; they lie limply in the fallow ridges of the mind.” And in the final stage, the historian attempts to “understand, grasp, and articulate the cultural and social patterns that shaped the mental and emotional development of the scientist.” The cultural historian “must recover and re-create the intellectual, cultural, and emotional community of which [the scientist] was an immediate member.”