Herbert Spencer

The Failed Project of the New Religion

In 1884 Hebert Spencer published his “Religious Retrospect and Prospect” in the Popular Science Monthly, which appeared simultaneously in the Nineteenth Century. In this article Spencer offered an evolutionary account of the “religious consciousness.” By looking at its evolutionary history, Spencer believed he could infer the religious ideas and sentiments of the future. Importantly, he contested the notion that science had replaced religion. Science does not destroy religion, but “transfigures it.” According to Spencer, science had enlarged the sphere of wonder and “religious sentiment.” Primitive man had only a limited understanding of that wonder. The cosmogony of the “savage” is incomparable to the wonder established by the modern astronomer. This deeper insight, wonder, or feeling “is not likely to be decreased but increased by that analysis of knowledge which, while forcing him to agnosticism, yet continually prompts him to imagine some solution of the Great Enigma which he knows can not be solved.” But amid all this mystery, Spencer argued, there remains “the one absolute certainty, that he is ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.”

Spencer’s article elicited strong reactions. Canon George H. Curteis defended Spencer for his “courageous” position. No religious man, he said, should shrink from calling himself a “Christian agnostic.” Indeed, by proclaiming his agnosticism, the Christian follows an esteemed pedigree, one which Curteis traced to the Old Testament prophets. Although Spencer was not a “Christian” philosopher, his “guidance is none the less valuable to those who are approaching the same subject from a different side.” According to Curteis, Spencer had “purified” the idea of God for the believer, “pruned away all kinds of anthropomorphic accretions,” “reminded the country parson of a good many scientific facts,” and “schooled them into the reflection that a power present in innumerable worlds hardly needs our flattery, or indeed any kind of service from us at all.”

Others were not so congenial. Frederic Harrison, for instance, launched a blisteringly attack against Spencer’s ideas. He argued that Spencer’s conception of the Unknowable was really only a “ghost of religion.” “In spite of the capital letters, and the use of theological terms as old as Isaiah or Athanasius,” he wrote, “Mr. Spencer’s Energy has no analogy with God. It is Eternal, Infinite, and Incomprehensible; but still it is not He, but It.” Harrison emphatically declared that “neither goodness, nor wisdom, nor justice, nor consciousness, nor will, nor life, can be ascribed, even by analogy, to this Force.” Spencer’s own attempt to “put a little unction into the Unknowable” by describing it in theological terms, Harrison protested, is, in the final analysis, a “philosophical inaccuracy.”

Spencer responded with his “Retrogressive Religion,” where he charged Harrison with attacking an imaginary doctrine, “demolishing a simulacrum and walking off in triumph as though the reality had been demolished.” He then attacked Harrison’s “alternative doctrine,” his “Religion of Humanity,” as an “incongruity.” Indeed, papal assumptions, he argued, were more modest in comparison to the assumptions of “the founder of the religion of Humanity.” A pope may canonize a saint or two, but Comte, Spencer quipped, “undertook the canonization of all those men recorded in history whom he thought specially worthy of worship.” The new religion should not be a “rehabilitation of the religion with which mankind commenced, and from which they have been insensibly diverging.” Harrison’s Religion of Humanity was, therefore, according to Spencer, “retrogressive.”

The controversy rolled on into the following year with Harrison’s “Agnostic Metaphysics.” In this article Harrison wrote that he had warned Spencer a decade ago that his “Religion of the Unknowable” would find adherents among dubious theologians. He argued that the “Infinite and Eternal Energy,” the “Ultimate Cause,” the “All-Being,” and the “Creative Power,” have all been co-opted by the “Christian World,” renewing all the mystification of the old theology. Moreover, Harrison inveighed that Spencer knew too much about the Unknowable—“If his Unknowable be unknowable, then it is idle to talk of Infinite and Eternal Energy, sole Reality, All-Being, and Creative Power.” This is, at best, “slip-slop” theology and nothing more.

These two agnostics, arguing so passionately about the future of religion, were condemned by believers and unbelievers alike. For instance, James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-94), older brother of Leslie Stephen, thought the liberal attempt at reconciling science and religion was impossible. He found the creeds of both men palpably fantastic pretensions. He argued that Spencer’s theory of religious development was weak, and that his game with words reminded him of “Isaiah’s description of the manufacture of idols.” “Effort and force and energy,” he wrote, “are to Mr. Spencer what the cypress and the oak and the ash were to the artifices described by the prophet. He works his words about this way and that, he accounts with part for ghosts and dreams, and the residue thereof he maketh a god, and saith Aha, I am wise, I have seen the truth.” Spencer’s Unknown was “a castle in the air, uninhabitable and destitute of foundations.” More pointedly, he declared that the Unknowable appeared “to have absolutely no meaning at all. It is so abstract that it asserts nothing. It is like a gigantic soap-bubble not burst but blown thinner and thinner till it has become absolutely imperceptible.” Harrison, according to Stephen, fared no better. “Humanity with a capital H […] is neither better nor worse fitted to be a god than the Unknowable with a capital U.” We cannot worship an “indefinite number of dead people,” and we certainly do not feel “awe and gratitude” to the multitude, “most of whom are utterly unknown to us even by name or reputation.” The men of history are, in the final analysis, “dead and done with.” Harrison’s language of awe and gratitude toward humanity “represents nothing at all, except a yearning after some object of affection, like a childless woman’s love for a lapdog.”

Stephen concluded that “if this is the prospect before religion, it would surely be simply to say that the prospect before it is that of extinction, that men will soon come to see that nothing can be ascertained, or even regarded as moderately probable, about the various questions which are generally described collectively as religious.” Interestingly enough, Stephen argued that the only religion capable of doing what both Spencer and Harrison want their respective new religions to do, “must be founded on a supernatural basis.” But though the “great leading doctrines of theology are noble and glorious,” it now must be acknowledged that their foundations were untrue. Theology, Stephen contended, is essential to religion, “and that to destroy the one is to destroy the other.”

From the other side of the spectrum, essayist and historian Wilfrid Philip Ward (1856-1916) also offered a witty condemnation of both Spencer and Harrison. Ward accused both men of suffering from “monomania.” He agreed with Harrison’s critique of Spencer, calling it “quite unanswerable common sense.” Spencer has no right, logical or otherwise, “to have his cake after he has eaten it.” An otherwise serious and cautious thinker, Spencer could not see that “if the death-knell of the old Theology be indeed sounded, all reasonable religious worship must die with it.” When looking at Harrison’s substitute religion, Ward was “startled beyond description.” Thus, like the starving man who eats a pair of boots, Spencer and Harrison, desperate to satisfy their religious cravings, have each taken a boot. Their religious language is mere dressing. “The truth seems to be,” Ward declared, “that these philosophers having conspired together to kill all real religion—the very essence of which is a really existing personal God, known to exist, and accessible to the prayers of His creatures—and having, as they suppose, accomplished their work of destruction and put religion to death, have proceeded to divide its clothes between them.”

The International Scientific Series and the Dissemination of Scientific Naturalism

ISSIn examining John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), it is important to recall that it belonged to D. Appleton and Co.’s popular International Scientific Series (ISS), which was, as Roy M. MacLeod put it in his seminal essay, “Evolutionism, Internationalism and Commercial Enterprise in Science: The International Scientific Series 1871-1910” (1980), the Victorian attempt at “codifying and popularizing scientific knowledge in a systematic fashion to a wide reading public.” Indeed, MacLeod’s essay was perhaps one of the earliest examples of what Adrian Johns would later call the “history of the book.” In MacLeod’s case, it was a series of books published under the entrepreneurial ambitions of American science popularizer Edward Livingstone Youmans.

Little work has been done on the ISS. MacLeod is a helpful starting point. In his essay he describes how Youmans traveled throughout Europe to secure authors and publishers for the series, including many of the leading scientific naturalists of England, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and many others. It is also worth pointing out that Youmans was the first editor of Popular Science Monthly, which he used “as a vehicle for communicating the findings and ideas of scientists to the educated American public,” as William E, Leverette has aptly observed. Thus in order to ascertain the diffusion of scientific naturalism and, more important, Draper’s History of Conflict, Youmans’ publishing motivations and ambitions are critical. MacLeod also provides a useful Appendix at the end of his essay listing the English editions of the ISS, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

A decade later Leslie Howsam published an essay on “Sustained Literary Ventures: The Series in Victorian Book Publishing” (1992), where she examines in some detail the publishing houses of Charles Kegan Paul, Henry S. King and his successors at Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. More recently, Howsam focuses on the ISS itself, in “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series” (2000). Here she argues that a “close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”

But perhaps the most helpful introduction to the ISS is Bernie Lightman’s recent essay, “The International Scientific Series and the Communication of Darwinism” (2010). A common theme that often emerges in Lightman’s work is the loss of control. That is, Huxley loses control of his “agnosticism,” the “scientific naturalists” lose control of “evolutionary naturalism,” and so on. Here Lightman argues that by “the early 1880’s a new course had been set when the original founders of the series were no longer in control.”

According to Lightman, the ISS was “based on diffusing Spencerian evolution beyond America to the world at large.” Youmans was obsessed with Spencer’s work. Indeed, his Popular Science Monthly promoted the idea of evolution and evolutionary philosophy not of Darwin but of Spencer. As Leverette has pointed out, Spencer’s ideas were frequently defended in the Popular Science Monthly. Besides Spencer, however, Youmans had formed a “British Committee” for the ISS that included Huxley and Tyndall. With this trio secured, Youmans added Henry S. King as the British publisher of the series. The series enjoyed great success, particularly the works published by Spencer and Draper, which both through more than 20 editions.

Dramatic changes occurred in the series during the late 1870s, however. King became ill and eventually died in 1878. Youmans, whose health was also failing, left the series by 1880. Charles Kegan Paul had purchased H.S. King and Co. and took it over by 1877. According to Lightman, Kegan Paul was a Broad Churchman who later abandoned his faith in 1874 because he could no longer “adhere to the teachings of the Church of England.” He became attracted to Positivism, but by 1890 converted to Catholicism. His return to the Church is retold in a number of remarkable essays and books, in his Faith and Unfaith and Other Essays (1891), Confessio Viatoris (1891), and Memories (1899). In his confession, for example, Paul writes

Day by day the Mystery of the Altar seems greater, the unseen world nearer, God more a Father, our Lady more tender, the great company of the saints more friendly, if I dare use the word, my guardian angel close to my side. All human relationships become holier, all human friends dearer, because they are explained and sanctified by the relationships and friendships of another life. Sorrows have come to me in abundance since God gave me grace to enter His Church, but I can bear them better than of old, and the blessing He has given me outweighs them all. May He forgive me that I so long resisted Him, and lead those I love unto the fair land wherein He has brought me to dwell! It will be said, and said with truth, that I am very confident. My experience is like that of the blind man in the Gospel who also was sure. He was still ignorant of much, nor could he fully explain how Jesus opened his eyes, but this he could say with unfaltering certainty, “One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.

And as Lightman points out, when Kegan Paul took over the series, “he did not feel bound by the contract that Tyndall, Spencer, and Huxley had signed with King.” For one, he no longer selected authors who wished to disseminate evolutionary naturalism. All three would eventually resign from the Committee. In their absence, Kegan Paul would bring in new authors who embraced new versions of natural theology. However, the series was never as successful as it was with Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer at the helm. By 1911, the series came to a close.

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.

 

Science, Ideology, and World View

Greene - Science, Ideology, and World ViewI made brief mention of John C. Greene’s Science, Ideology, and World View (1981) in an earlier post. Greene’s volume is composed of six essays with an introduction. He argues that the essays collectively “constitute a fairly unified interpretation of the interaction of science, ideology, and world view in the development of evolutionary biology in the last two centuries.”

Greene maintains that science—as well as philosophy and theology—cannot pretend to be “insulated from the social, economic, psychological, and cultural contexts in which intellectual endeavor takes place.” In an oft-cited passage, Greene claims that “the lines between science, ideology, and world view are seldom tightly drawn.” Indeed, that modern science has a powerful ideological component is now clear to most historians today. But when it comes to evolutionary theory, admirers of Darwin find “it difficult to believe that he could have given credence to a social philosophy so repugnant to the mid-twentieth-century mind.” Greene hopes to “lay to rest the naive idea that Darwin was a ‘pure scientist’ uncontaminated y the preconceptions of his age and culture.” In the course of the six essays, he convincingly shows that Spencer, Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley all shared a particular “worldview,” one that he terms as “Spencerian-Darwinism.” Despite different intellectual temperaments, intellectual histories, and general opinions, these men, according to Greene, all shared a common outlook in the early 1860s. These essays in the history of evolutionary ideas “dispel, or at least should dispel, the dream of a purely scientific view of reality. Science is but a part, though an important one, of man’s effort to understand himself, his culture, his universe.”

In “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History,” Greene argues that “the primary function of intellectual historiography is to delineate the presuppositions of thought in given historical epochs and to explain the changes that those presuppositions undergo from epoch to epoch.” Here he admits his intellectual debt to a previous generation of historians of ideas, including Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Max Weber (1864-1920), Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962), and Perry Miller (1905-1963). Greene is careful to note, however, that presuppositions are never fixed, that there are often “several, some dominant, others subdominant, incipient, or vestigial” is readily recognized. As a case example, Greene examines the views of nature in the eighteenth century. The historian of ideas must first concern herself with texts, for example, from Galileo, Descartes, Huyghens, Newton, Laplace and others. From these works we may draw the conclusion, says Greene, that nature was conceived as a “law-bound system of matter in motion.”

Once we have “marked out the movement of thought,” one must seek to “explain how and why it took place,” and here the “problem becomes infinitely more complicated.” For the “men of genius are only single strands in the complicated web of causes that produces a movement of thought.” The thought movement from, for example, John Ray’s The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Worlds of the Creation (1691) to Spencer’s First Principles (1862) is a case in point. According to Greene, the “drawing out of the implications of the seventeenth-century cosmology undermined many traditional conceptions…but it could not in itself suggest the idea of evolution, or progressive improvement, in nature.” While the growth of empirical knowledge certainly played its role, “an earlier and more pervasive influence on biological thought was the general sense of progressive improvement in society; and this in turn had economic and technological, as well as intellectual roots.” There was a growing sense of social and historical optimism, and this itself developed into a historical narrative of progressive growth.

The following essay, “The Kuhnian Paradigm and the Darwinian Revolution in Natural History,” is a critique of Thomas Kuhn’s model for understanding changes in scientific thought. Greene argues that

scientists share the general preconceptions of their time; that these preconceptions change not simply because of new scientific discoveries…but more through the influence of alternative views of nature coexisting with the dominant view; that crises generated by the discovery of anomalous facts are not prerequisite to the elaboration of counterparadigms; that anomalous facts challenge world views as well as specific scientific theories and encounter opposition, even among scientists, for that reason; that the typical response to the challenge to anomalous facts is a compromise theory that minimizes the damage to traditional assumptions; that a challenge to a reigning paradigm may develop largely outside the relevant scientific community; that  national intellectual and cultural conditions may predispose the scientists of a given nation to push their speculations in one direction rather than another; and, more particularly, that British political economy played a significant role in the emergence of theories of natural selection in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The following two chapters trace some interactions between biology and social theory, revealing a continual interplay of science, ideology, and worldview.

In “Biology and Social Theory in the Nineteenth Century,” Greene observes that evolutionary theories in biology and sociology emerged simultaneously in the nineteenth century. Why? What was the particularly relationship between biological and social theory? Here Greene focuses on the writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

“[E]volutionary speculations in modern social theory appeared at approximately the same time as the first transformist ideas in biology,” says Greene. This is evident in mid-eighteenth-century writers such as Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In these works we find the idea that “the development of society, language, and the arts and sciences followed necessarily…that both nature and history were inherently progressive.” According to Greene, “nineteenth-century social science took its general character from these events and aspirations.” Indeed, nineteenth-century writers often took progress as a given, setting out to “discover the laws of historical development.” But to assume progress one had to not only assume what was modern (i.e. “science”) but had to assume what was primitive (i.e. “religion”), “whether of man or of the earth,” and thus one had to establish (i.e. construct) principles of development.

The construction of such principles of development are found in the writings of Comte.

In “Darwin as a Social Evolutionist,” Greene focuses on Darwin’s role in the development of a particularly British ideology of progress through relentless competition of individuals, tribes, nations, and races.

*  *  *

In a book review for The British Journal for the History of Science (1983), Mark Ridley, provides a helpful summary:

In the eighteenth century natural history was a science of static, ordered classifications. Towards the end of the century a competing, more dynamic, causal paradigm of ‘matter in motion’ was applied to natural history, particularly by Lamarck, to produce theories of evolution. In the next century the ‘matter in motion’ paradigm triumphed with Charles Darwin at the wheel. The ‘matter in motion paradigm was also applied to human society, producing Spencerism or social Darwinism (or Darwinism, for short). It became a world view. In the twentieth century, evolutionary biologists continued to try to apply their theories to humans, and begot much nonsense in the attempt.

By using the tools of intellectual history, one can see in the writings of great scientists the interplay of science, ideology, and worldview. And by applying those tools specifically to the works of Darwin and his contemporaries, it dispels, or at least should dispel, “the dream of a purely scientific view of reality. Science is but a part, though an important one, of man’s effort to understand himself, his culture, his universe.”

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.

Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Secularism of George Jacob Holyoake

Wrapping up a series of essays I have been reading from The British Journal for the History of Science, I now come to two interrelated and complimentary essays by Ciaran Toal, “Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science: Sermons, Secularization and the Rhetoric of Conflict in the 1870s” (2012), and Michael Rectenwald, “Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-century Scientific Naturalism” (2013).

Toal argues that there was a “vast homiletic literature preached during the British Association meetings throughout the nineteenth century, ” despite Reverend Vernon Harcourt’s—one of the founders of the BAAS—dedication to neutrality and admonition against any discussion of religion and politics. As Toal writes in another context (see his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Speech at the British Association: William Henry Dallinger (1839-1909) Under the Microscope” [2013]), “concerned that the BAAS would become embroiled in theological disputes, and distracted from its mission of bringing science to the provinces, [Harcourt], along with the rest of the leadership, founded the Association as a ‘neutral’ body.”

However, the Sunday of the BAAS meeting, and the sermons preached on that day, constitutes an indelible part of its history. Toal’s essay “focuses on the range of sermons preached in connection with the British Association meetings in the 1870s,” and particular “attention is given to the differing views on the relationship between science and religion in the homiletic record, and the rhetoric of ‘science-religion conflict’ following John Tyndall’s 1874 ‘Belfast Address.'”

In an age often described as the “golden age of preaching,” sermons played an important role in the social and religious life of the Victorian. “Thomas Henry Huxley,” for example, “recognized the cultural power of the sermon, naming his own collection of essays, addresses and reviews ‘Lay Sermons.'”

The religious geography of nineteenth-century Britain often dictated what was preached during the British Association meeting. Although multifarious in style, content, proclamation, and instruction, the most important function of any sermon was the imparting of religious truth. In other words, sermons were didactic, especially those preached at the BAAS.

Sermons preached at the BAAS were responsive to the expectations and sensibilities of its audience. They were not your normal Sunday service, as Toal points out, for the preachers who preached on a Sunday of the BAAS “were aware that their discourses would be widely published and digested.”

Thus lines were often blurred between official BAAS business and associated religious activity. Broadly, sermons were either preached in the week preceding, the week during, or the week immediately following the visit of the BAAS to a host town or city, and directly addressing the prominent scientific issues under discussion.

Turning to the content of sermons and the varying views on the relationship between science and religion in them, Toal reiterates John Hedley Brooke’s warning that discussing science and religion in essentialist terms often obfuscate understanding by importing anachronistic boundaries. But he also argues that “many of the preachers did discuss science and religion in discrete terms, before commenting on how they were or were not related.” For example, a 1870 sermon by Rev. Abraham Hume preached the Connexion between Science and Religion: A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Kensington, Liverpool, 18th Septemberduring the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Hume quoted from Psalm 100.24, 25 “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches. So is the great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable.” He used the passage to argue that God’s works in nature and God’s word in Scripture both reveal him and our allies. Even more explicit, Anglican Charles Coombe, in 1879, preached a sermon entitled ‘Sirs, Ye are Brethren;’ or Science and Religion at One: Sermon Preached in St. Paul’s Church, Sheffield, on the Occasion of the Meeting of the British Association, August 24th, where he argued against antagonism between science religion, and that both should stop “maligning, fighting and devouring” each other.

In general, according to Toal, three positions in the relationship between science and religion dominate the sermons preached throughout the 1870s. First, the relationship between science religion was underpinned by the idea that they were essentially separate entities. This is usually the position taken by liberal Anglicans and the Unitarians, who were more open to “speculative science.” Other Unitarians, such as itinerant preacher Charles Wicksteed, wanted to separate science and religion into spheres of physical and spiritual knowledge, “as they were different modes of God’s voices, and [thus] should not be judged against each other.” But a number of preachers also maintained that science and religion were integrated as inextricably linked forms of knowledge. Those who took this position often preached that science and its conclusions had to be limited by religion: “relation is crucial, as it could provide a fuller interpretation of nature and, more importantly, offer salvation for nature could not.” Those who took up this position often expressed the views that physical and experimental science, and especially the theories of Darwin, sought to destroy religion. They were also the fiercest critics of Tyndall.

With these “positional readings” in mind, Toal turns specifically to the conflict rhetoric before and after Tyndall’s Belfast Address in 1874. According to Toal, before Tyndall’s attack, preachers explained any science-religion antagonism as a result of either human error, inept theology, over eagerness, a lack of full knowledge of both science and religion, or inattention to the “varieties of God’s voices.” After the Belfast Address, the tone of sermons changes, and, importantly, preachers began leveling “accusation for promoting science-religion conflict at a distinct group, or groups, particularly the scientific naturalists.”

But these accusations had little effect on the reputation of the BAAS. According to Toal, throughout the sermon record in the 1870s, in the context of hostility to religion, the BAAS was without exception received favorably; that is, little criticism is ever directed at the BAAS as a body. This demonstrates, according to Toal, that preachers deliberately differentiated between the BAAS and the antagonistic statements of some of its members. This shows that the responsibility for propagating antagonistic science-religion is rhetoric was identified with a particular group, often labeled as “dogmatic scientists,” “materialists,” “atheists,” or “unbelievers,”and not with the BAAS as a whole. In short, the BAAS was seen, broadly, as an institution favorable to religion and religious groups.

Toal concludes his essay with a note on how “the explanatory power of a ‘secularization thesis’ is diminished in the context of the vast number of Sunday sermons preached at the [BAAS].” “Victorian culture,” he adds, “was arguably no less religious in 1870s than it had been before…[and], similarly, many Victorian scientists were no less religious.”

George Jacob HolyoakeRectenwald’s essay nicely compliments Toal’s, in which he argues that in the mid-1840s, a philosophical, social and political movement named Secularism evolved from the radical tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and the radical periodical press. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) founded and named Secularism at mid-century, and it was this Secularism that acted as a “significant source for the emerging new creed of scientific naturalism in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Rectenwald writes, “Secularism drew from the social base of artisan intellectuals who came of age in the era of self-improvement; the diffusion of knowledge; and agitation for social, political and economic reform—but it also enrolled the support of middle-class radicals.” Holyoake developed secularism as a creed with a naturalistic epistemology, morality, and politics; its principle as an ontological demarcation stratagem, “dividing the metaphysical, spiritual or eternal from ‘this life’—the material, the worldly or the temporal.” But Holyoake’s secularism did not require atheism as a prerequisite; “secularism represented ‘unknowingness without denial.” As Rectenwald puts it, “one’s beliefs in the supernatural were a matter of speculation or opinion to which one was entitled, unless such beliefs precluded positive knowledge or action.” And unlike Charles Bradlaugh’s (1833-1891) politically active atheism, Holyoake’s secularism was not aimed at “abolishing religious ideology from law, education and government.” In short, “secularism represented the necessary conciliation with respectable middle-class unbelief and liberal theology that would allow for an association with the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” and as such it was “constitutive of the cultural and intellectual environment necessary for the promotion and relative success of scientific naturalism beginning in the 1850s.”

There was indeed a “circuit of exchanges” between Holyoake and the scientific naturalists, suggesting that secularism was important to scientific naturalism from the outset. Rectenwald gives us fascinating overview of secularism in the periodicals, pamphlets, and other publications with which Holyoake was associated with in the mid-century. Freethought periodicals such as Oracle of Reason—with its epigraph on the front of every issue, “Faith’s empire is the World, its monarch God, its minister the priests, its slaves the people”—Movement and Anti-persecution Gazette, The Investigator, and the Free Thinkers’ Information for the People were founded in the 1840s and “began as working-class productions aimed at working-class readers.” The Oracle of Reason proudly boasted that it was “the only exclusively atheistical print that has appeared in any age or country.”

When Holyoake took over many of these radical publications, he opened the pages to “respectable” radicals, such as Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte, forming an alliance between radical artisans and middle-class unbelievers. As many historians have shown, Lamarck’s theory of evolution was taken up by various radical political thinkers, which seemed to provide scientific underpinning for their reformist political views. Rectenwald recounts how “evolutionary ideas were marshaled to counter a static, hierarchical, theocratic social order with a vision of a transformative, ‘uprising’ nature” in the pages of the radical press, particularly under Holyoake’s editorship.

In late 1849 Holyoake joined the radical journalist Thornton Hunt’s (1810-1873) group, Confidential Combination, with the vision of enlisting “wary middle-class freethinkers into an anonymous groups where they might voice advanced opinion on ‘politics, sociology, or religion’ without fear of reprisal.” According to Rectenwald, this group “no doubt included…Herbert Spencer, W. Savage Landor, W.J. Linton, W.E. Forster, T. Ballatine and George Hooper,” all of whom contributed to the radical press. In their meetings, Holyoake regularly met with Spencer, becoming “lifelong friends, with regular correspondence continuing to 1894.”

This same circle of London writers often met at the publishing of John Chapman, the publisher of the Westminster Review, “the organ of philosophical radicalism.” The gatherings consisted of contributors George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Spencer, Harriet Martineau, Charles Bray, George Combe and Thomas Henry Huxley. It was through Martineau and Eliot that Holyoake “came to know Comte’s ideas” in the Positive Philosophy. It was also here where Holyoake began a friendship with Huxley.

In the early 1860s, Holyoake “regularly corresponded with Spencer, Huxley and Tyndall.” According to Rectenwald, “the letters covered numerous issues, including polemics against religious interlocutors, the mutual promotion of literature, the naturalists’ financial and written support for Secularism and Secularists and health, amongst other topics.” And when Huxley sought to dissociate himself from materialism and coarse atheism, his association with Holyoake’s secularism offered  a “respectable” alternative. Tyndall also once extolled Holyoake as an exemplar of secular morality. This correspondence was not merely professional, but, as Rectenwald points out, quite personal, as when each man supported, morally and financially, the other during certain illnesses.

Rectenwald demonstrates, by careful readings of a vast array of radical publications and personal correspondence, “the importance of freethought radicalism to the emergence of the powerful discourse of scientific naturalism” in the second half of the nineteenth century. Holyoake in particular “modified freethought by pruning its atheistic rhetoric, allowing freethinkers to discount the supernatural and to disavow the clergy in matter relating to knowledge and morals, without the expected bombast and negation.” Popular among an audience of sophisticated working-class and lower-middle-class readers, Holyoake’s secularism “did much to advance the world view developed and promulgated by Huxley and Tyndall.”

Book History and the History of Science

Nineteenth Century BooksThis morning I began reading the “special section” collection of articles published in The British Journal for the History of Science, entitled “Book History and the Sciences” (2000). Jonathan R. Topham provides an introduction explaining why historians of science have been not a little skeptical about the value of the book history approach. “It is often dismissed as an intellectual fad or as an enterprise which is illuminating but ultimately peripheral, rather than being valued as an approach which can offer major new insights within the field.” Historians of science in recent decades have tried to get away from an “unsocial history of ideas, usually rooted in texts,” so their apprehensions are well taken. In this sense they see book history as retrograde.

Topham wants to reassure historians of science that book history does indeed “reintroduce social actors,” but with the caveat: as “engaged in a variety of practices with respect to material objects.” It is an approach that rejects a history in which books are seen as merely disembodied texts. According to Topham, book history “applies to print culture an approach which historians of science have pioneered in other contexts, such as studies of laboratories, observatories, lecture halls and museums.” Such an approach can contribute significantly to a cultural history of science. “Exploring in detail the historical encounters of readers with printed matter enables the historian to elaborate an account of scientific communication by print which, instead of methodologically privileging the role of scientific authors, acknowledges the complex and contested nature of such communication.”

Besides this introduction, I found particularly fascinating Lesile Howsam’s “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-Century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series.” She argues that “a close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” Her object of study is the International Scientific Series (ISS), published in Britain and North America from 1871 to 1911. She asks a series of questions about the histories of authorship, of publishing and of reading in the Victorian era: “What are historians of Victorian science to make of this collection of texts, most of which were written by scientific practitioners, and some by world-famous men of science? Can we construe the contributions as an ideological community in the scientific culture of the late nineteenth century? What are we to make of the publishers and promoters of the series? Can anything be found out about the people who read the books and what contribution they made to popular conceptions of what constituted the ‘sound material’ of science that prevailed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century?” But whereas historians of science may inquire about the way professionals and amateurs defined science in the ISS, historians of the book may inquire: “What and how did these works fit in the contemporary context of scientific publishing, and of publishing in general? Were the texts as fixed as they appear, or is there evidence of revision? When revisions occurred, were they announced to booksellers and the reading public, or were they concealed? Did publishers agree with the titans of science who gave them editorial advice about what constituted a saleable manuscript, and when they failed to agree, whose opinion prevailed?

Both sets of questions yield remarkable dividends. According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”

Books emerge not merely from artistic motives, but from a “desire to instruct,” “inform,” or “persuade.” Books, and nineteenth-century books in particular, were “conversion projects,” and scientific authors of science of nineteenth-century Europe and North America “were just as passionate evangelists, for science, as were their opposite numbers in the missionary societies.” T.H. Huxley and his coterie wished to revolutionize the dissemination of science in society, to create a much broader audience than before. They found this in Edward Livingston Youmans (1821-1887) call for a series of new books “covering the entire field of modern science.” Youmans was an American writer working for New York publishing firm D. Appleton and Company. According to his biographer, John Fiske, Youmans was “an interpreter of science for the people.” In 1871, Youmans traveled to Britain to pitch the series to a number of scientists and philosophers, including John Tyndall, T.H. Huxley, his close friend Herbert Spencer, and even requested Charles Darwin to endorse the project. Youmans and William Henry Appleton entered into contract with London publisher Henry S. King and Company later that year. Before returning to New York, Youmans also traveled to France and Germany, making arrangements with publishers and scientists for the corresponding series there.

Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer would form as ISS’s advisory body, “charged with helping the publisher decide which books should be included in the series, and to some extent with soliciting further titles form their powerful network of acquaintances.” Their motives, according to Howsam’s analysis of letters and other documents, were threefold. First, they wanted greater recompense for their own personal efforts. Second, “they envisioned the series as a tool in their campaign for a more secular approach to public policy.” Finally, they wanted the series to “educate” the non-professional reader about what they perceived was the latest developments in the physical and social sciences.

Howsam goes on to show how bookseller became aware of the series, how it was revised for new editions, including substantial changes based on criticisms and translations, the addition of prefaces or appendices to bring them up to date, and how in general authors kept their specific contributions “alive.” “Although the series must have found its place on the bookshelves of many collections both public and private,” Howsam argues, “few collectors were aware of the fluidity of the texts enclosed inside the uniform red bindings.”

In tracing its reception, Howsam relies on book review columns gleaned from Nature and Westminster Review, but also suggests other journals, letters, and autobiographies in order to enter the consciousness of nineteenth-century readers of popular scientific works. These latter remain, however, fragmentary, and thus periodical reviews is our best source of “what the reviewers, and beyond them readers, thought of how the series was achieving its objectives.”

“In the hands of Yousmans, King and Appleton, and Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” Howsam concludes, the International Scientific Series became a “vision of modern secular science.” And it was the “publishers who made the ultimate publishing decisions.” Books have a dual nature, as text and as physical object. Investigating both aspects, historians of the book are “learning to recognize the malleable text lurking below the deceptively bland leather or cloth-bound skin of the apparently torpid beast, and to demonstrate that books produced in the past had a recoverable dynamic existence in that past culture.” Book history reveals books as complexly embodied objects, giving us a glimpse of  “motivations not only of the men and woman who wrote and published them, but also of booksellers who distributed them and the readers who consumed them.”