H.G. Wells

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.

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Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011)

Since my post on Huxley’s treatment of “Nature,” I have occupied my time with readings from Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2009) and Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011). Otis’ work is an anthology of over 500 pages of excerpts and explanatory notes. Sleigh’s work is a sustained argument about the natural relationship between science and literature, covering a diverse range of topics, such as “Empiricism and the Novel,” “Epistolarity and the Democratic Ideal,” Idealism and the Inhuman,” Realism in Literature and the Laboratory,” Scientists, Moral Realism and the New World Order,” “Subjects of Science,” and “Says Who? Science and Public Understanding.” Both books serve well as introductions to the relatively recent field of science and literature.

Charlotte Sleigh - Literature and ScienceIn this entry I begin with Sleigh. She starts by debunking several myths about science and literature, namely science as objective and literature as subjective, essentially the “two cultures” argument presented by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in a 1959 lecture. Science, she says, is all about persuading others that certain hypotheses are true, and “persuasion is primarily an art of language and literature.” “Science,” she goes on to say, “cannot be conducted without language, and language is not a neutral tool. It actively shapes knowledge just as much as does the decision to dissect this animal, use that microscope, perform this test, and so on.” The advent of modern scientific knowledge, moreover, was “intimately connected to the gentlemanly trustworthiness of the reporter. Who did this? Who saw this? Was it someone they could trust?” Further, scientific knowledge is also representational, and thus depends on language. Scientific facts are only meaningful when they are made up of words and images, “and these words and images bring a host of allusions, history and connotations that themselves become part of the representation as the science is further developed.” Indeed, language constructs scientific discovery, “since no scientist can think through the process without the words and images of their culture.”

The distinction between an object science and a subjective literature also breaks down when “one considers the human identity of scientists.” Scientists, like everyone else, experience passion, curiosity, and awe that motivates their work. Again, these are human motivations. Indelibly, literary and scientific work “remain human activities undertaken for very human motives.”

During the nineteenth century, “the distinction between scientific writing and other kinds of publications blurs considerably.” Indeed, other scholars have argued that during the nineteenth century “science was literature.” “Knowledge was less specialized than it is today,” Sleigh explains, “and educated readers would respond to both the scientific and the literary elements of any text.”

In chapter one, Sleigh considers “the transition to modern science that took place in the later seventeenth century and the literary implications of the natural philosophers’ switch from textual to observational knowledge,” that is, “empiricism.”  She focuses on Robert Boyle and the founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660. Recent scholarship shows, however, that “experimental science and novelistic prose were not merely parallel developments born of the social shifts of the seventeenth century.” Rather, “there was also a closer and more necessary relation between them, stemming from the fact that not all scientific witnessing could be done face-to-face.” Thus some scholars have “characterized Boyle’s writing as a ‘literary technology’ that was no less important than physical technology (the air pump) and social technology (the new gentlemanly codes of observation) in making knowledge.” She then compares these developments to several pieces of literature, particularly Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1727), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) and The Wrench (1978).

In chapter two, Sleigh shows how a Benthamite model of law in courtroom hearings is employed in the reading and writing of epistolary fiction, “the layers of the text allow[ing] the reader to hear multiple perspectives and even to simulate participation in the dialogue concerning the novel’s economy of virtue.” Mary Shelley’s lusus naturae, Frankenstein (1818), an “examination of the powers of reason and experience,” is “both epistolary in nature and presented for readers’ judgment” over heated debates regarding vitalism.

Chapter three looks at the early Victorian era, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), and William Whewell’s model of scientific method. For Whewell, science was more “than the grindings of pure, mathematical, deductive logic.” “Induction, rather than deduction,” he says, “is the source of the great scientific truths which form the glory, and fasten on them the admiration of modern times.” The underlying assumption here, as Sleigh points out, is that “a person had to have the correct idea in mind before she or he could weigh up the claims of scientific observations.” Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, first published in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34, and then published as a single volume in Britain in 1838, and Edgar Allen Poe’s editorship of Southern Literary Messenger and other writings “did not conform happily” to Whewell’s agenda. Poe goes so far as to suggest that “science could be done by the power of imagination better than it could by either of Whewell’s methods; that is, by inductive or deductive logic.”

Chapter four discusses the origin of realism in literature and laboratory, situating it in the “political turbulence of mid-nineteenth-century continental Europe.” Here Sleigh works closely with the work of French novelist and critic Emile Zola (1840-1902), who “came to present the scientist as a heroic figure.” Zola, among many other mid-nineteenth-century writers, artists, and dramatists, “professed a commitment to reality in their work.” They espoused “naturalism,” who “claimed to describe [things] as they inevitably were.” The science of evolution, Sleigh points out, “provided yet more evidence for Zola and the realists that humans obeyed the laws of nature.” “From positivism, statistics and evolutionary theory,” she continues, “naturalists gained confidence that they could explain and predict human behaviour, through a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors.” Zola subsumed this confidence in his novels, particularly his Thérèse Raquin (1867), where its characters are depicted as “predictable as chemicals in a test tube.”

Chapter five develops these themes further, in the form that realism took in Victorian Britain. Unlike continental thinkers, “Victorian realism was essentially moral rather than ontological,” which transitioned from “a theological form in the nineteenth century to a rather more secular version of authoritarianism in the twentieth.” Here we find case studies on George Eliot (1819-1890), Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), and H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Like the continental realists, Eliot’s novels were packed with accurate details. But unlike Zola and continental realists, rather than just explaining the “how,” she concerned herself with the “why” of human behavior. Sleigh makes comments on Eliot’s translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (trans. 1860), Romola (1862-63), Middlemarch (1871-2), and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Sleigh, these writings suggests “that it is not so much facts captured that matter as the spirit in which they are searched out,” a “kind of moral realism.” Similarly, Charles Kingsley’s writings, particularly his Two Years Ago (1857) and The Water Babies (1863) expresses the authority of the heroic scientist on firmly moral grounds. Indeed, the true scientist has Christ-like qualities, who courageously and selflessly pursues reform and truth.

In the later part of the nineteenth century, scientists became “more assertive in their efforts to dominate moral culture.” As Sleigh correctly points out, “histories of the supposed ‘conflict’ between religion and faith were written at this time.” The teaching—and, quite honestly—preaching of T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall are noted. As Ruth Barton pointed out, Tyndall’s 1874 Belfast Address “demonstrates an almost religious faith in science. “Believing, as I do,” writes Tyndall,

in the continuity of nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.

Similar to Eliot, “there came for Tyndall a point where observations had to stop and only ‘veracious imagination’ could stand in. What governed this imagination was a moral economy of heroism: a lonely servitude to truth.” And here is where H.G. Wells comes in. He was, according to Sleigh, a “spokesman for the truth and social value of science.” It was Huxley’s views on evolution that guided his The Time Machine (1895). Other writings of Wells are more explicitly didactic in nature, including Anticipations (1901), A Modern Utopia (1905), The Outline of History (1918-19), The Open Conspiracy (1928), The Science of Life (1929-30), and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932). Sleigh concludes this chapter with a brief look at William Morton Wheeler’s “The Termitodoxa, or Biology and Society” (1920), which she describes as “a thinly disguised demand for biologists to be given the social authority to practice their eugenics in human society,” and Aldous Huxley’s more ambivalent view of the value of science in his Brave New World (1932). Aldous Huxley and others began to “recognize that ‘pure’ science was in fact nothing of the sort, and that its alternative title, ‘high science,’ actually gave a great deal away about its class identity and purposes.”

Chapter six discusses the subjectivist reaction against the objective, realist perspective, particularly in subjectivist psychologies of associationism, Bergsonism, Freudianism, and beyond, producing literature and art that came to be known as “modernist.” According to Sleigh, the two brothers William (1842-1910) and Henry James (1843-1916) “form a happy pairing of science and literature.” Briefly discussed are William James’ “subjectivity of thought” in The Principles of Psychology (1890) and Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908), which is an example of “subjectivity without a subject.” Sleigh also includes May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier (1919), which more explicitly than the James’s combined “the relativistic insights of physics and psychology.” Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1905) is called “novel of modernity,” incorporating the science of thermodynamics, Darwinian and biological degeneration, and the subjectivity of time and space. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is the subjectivity of William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors, “an astonishing attempt to write a work of literature focalised by a character—whom we are given to understand is a Neanderthal—who barely possesses language.” Golding’s book “tapped into a specific debate of about fifty years’ standing regarding the order of mental and physical evolution.”

The final chapter brings us to the twenty-first century. The production of science is now inextricably linked to its consumption. Thomas Kuhn is noted for his “distrust of the big-progress story told by scientists.” The 1960s counterculture movement disputed scientific authority. “[The] promise of happiness, wrapped up in fake scientificity, together with the gabbled list, obligatory under the advertising code, of bizarre and occasionally horrific possible side-effects…undercuts the notion of heroic progress, and offers instead a cynical account of the promises of science in a climate of profit.” A crucial account of scientific hubris is told in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (1981), the maverick scientist “Allie Fox is arguably more of a Frankenstein figure than Frankenstein himself.” This theme of uncertainty is also exemplified in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) and Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) and The Corrections (2001), each responding to a number of man-made environmental incidents.

Sleigh offers at the end of each chapter a helpful selection of annotated relevant texts for further reading. This is extremely helpful as a reading list, encouraging readers to broaden or reconsider their existing arguments in light of the issues she raises. “Even though science and literature are more specialist fields than they were in Darwin’s day,” as Sleigh writes at the close of her introduction, “novels can still open up these questions about the credibility and value of science. Indeed, literature reveals that belief in science depends on many things—credibility, trust, rhetoric, representation and human motivation—beyond facts themselves.”