John Tyndall

That Great Temple that’s not Made with Hands


John Tyndall scaling a rock face. From John Tyndall “Hours of Exercise in the Alps” (London, 1871)

I causally opened John Tyndall’s New Fragments (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896) this morning on the desktop and was pleasantly surprised by its first entry, “The Sabbath,” a Presidential Address delivered before the Glasgow Sunday Society in October, 1880, which was then quickly published in The Nineteenth Century the following month, and subsequently as a pamphlet in December.

I say “surprised” because I knew that Draper and White had made much use of the then emerging comparative religious studies in their work, including new studies on higher criticism of the Bible. But did Tyndall? Indeed he did, and this short essay demonstrates this physicist’s wide reading in the new emerging field.

He begins by observing that the present age desires “to connect itself organically with proceeding ages.” This “developmental” view has been set forth, he says, by scientific naturalists Darwin and Spencer, but also by religious scholars Renan and Müller. In particular, Tyndall finds a kindred spirit in Scottish theologian John Caird (1820-98). According to Tyndall, Caird maintained in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1880) that “throughout the ages he discerns a purpose and growth, wherein the earlier and more imperfect religious constitute the natural and necessary precursors of the later and more perfect ones.”

This leads Tyndall to suggest that changes or “transmutations” (his word) in the mind, and especially in religion, are “often accompanied by conflict and suffering.” We see this, he says, with the transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, from “Jewish Christianity” to “Gentile Christianity,” from Peter to Paul. Tyndall derives this narrative from Renan’s L’Eglise Chrétienne, or The Christian Church (1879). But “men at length began to yearn for peace and unity,” he writes, “and out of the embroilment was slowly consolidated that great organisation the Church of Rome.”

Thus each “transmutation,” each period of growth, required some struggle, “in which the fittest survive.”  In short, even the errors, conflicts, and sufferings of bygone times “may have been necessary factors in the education of the world.” This background leads Tyndall to the main point of the essay: namely, the “Sabbath question.” He sees the issue of keeping the Sabbath as a problem of dogmatic theology and not religion, however. Following the anti-Sabbatarian works of Scottish lawyer and phrenologist Robert Cox (1810-72), including his massive Sabbath Laws and Sabbath Duties (1853), his two volume The Literature on the Sabbath Question (1865), and others, Tyndall offers a number of proof-texts showing that adherence to dogma “oppressed almost to suffocation” human civilization. According to Tyndall, Jesus deliberately broke the Sabbath, crowning his “protest against a sterile formalism by the enunciation of a principle which applies to us to-day as much as to the world in the time of Christ”—namely, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

What is particularly interesting in this essay is Tyndall’s concern about potential visitors to the British Museum. That is, he is targeting those who “object to the opening of the museums on religious [sic] grounds.” In an ironic twist taken from the natural theological tradition, Tyndall asks “Do they who thus stand between them and the public really believe those treasures to be the work of God? Do they or do they not hold, with Paul, that ‘the eternal power and Godhead’ may be clearly seen from ‘the things that are made’? If they do—and they dare not affirm that they do not—I fear that Paul, with his customary plainness of language, would pronounce their conduct to be ‘without excuse.'” He then lists Luther, Melanchthon, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox, and others, who, in his view, “emphatically asserted the freedom of Christian from Sabbatical bonds.” These reformers, in short, followed a “higher symbolism.”

At the same time, Tyndall could not help himself to a little military language, retelling the tale of the flat earth myth, the tyrannical power of the Catholic Church, and the “booming of the bigger guns” and the “incessant clatter of small arms” in his own day. He subsequently discusses the human nature of the Old Testament and his amazement that “learned men are still found willing to devote their time and energy to these writings under the assumption that they are not human but divine.”

Though this might seem a “liberal,” perhaps “radical” position, Tyndall claims he is truly a “Conservative.” He says that “madness or folly can demolish: it requires wisdom to conserve”! In his estimation, a conservative has foresight, looks ahead and prepares for the inevitable, and thus knows when the true spiritual nature of man will be bound up with his material condition. “Wholesome food, pure air, cleanliness—hard work if you will, but also fair rest and recreation—these are necessary not only to physical but to spiritual well-being.” This doctrine, he says, is the “true Gospel.” Indeed, a “most blessed influence would also be shed upon the clergy if they were enabled from time to time to change their ‘sloth urbane’ for action on heath or mountain.”

Taking a line from English poet, author, and humorist Thomas Hood (1799-1845), Tyndall reveals that his house of worship is not built by any human hands:

That bid you baulk

A Sunday walk,

And shun God’s work as you should shun your own

Calling all sermons contrabands, In that great Temple that’s not made with hands.


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.


The Age of Scientific Naturalism

John Tyndall died of poisoning. From 1890-93, this enthusiastic mountaineer found himself bedridden, struggling with illness. He was in the habit of taking doses of chloral hydrate at night to help him with his insomnia, and every other day some sulphate of magnesia for his constipation. Near the end, his wife, Louisa, 25 years his junior, administered the dosages to him.

In 1893, on a Monday morning, Tyndall asked Louisa for a spoonful of magnesium. It was dark, and his beside table was littered with bottles. Louisa took a bottle a poured a spoonful, serving it to his lips. He took a big gulp and, tasting it, said, “there is a curious sweet taste.” Immediately Louisa realized she had accidentally given him a spoonful of chloral. She turned to him and said, “John, I have given you chloral.” He replied, “yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John” (see account in “Mrs. Tyndall’s Fatal Error,” New York Times, 1893).

The great physicist John Tyndall died that same evening. Stricken with guilt, Louisa spent the rest of her life attempting to resurrect him. She collected his journals, correspondence, and all unfinished writings for the purpose of publishing a massive Life and Letters. No Life and Letter ever came to fruition. She died in 1940 at the age of 95.

Lightman and Reidy - The Age of Scientific NaturalismThe current volume under review is a renewed attempt to resurrect the life and work of John Tyndall. Edited by Bernie Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and his Contemporaries (2014), the essays in this collection originate from two conferences specifically organized around the work of Tyndall, including the “Evolutionary Naturalism Conference” held at York University in 2011 and “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science Workshop and Conference” held at Montana State University in 2012. Publisher Pickering & Chatto (publishers of the current volume) will also begin publishing Tyndall’s correspondence in 16 volumes, beginning in 2015.

The Age of Scientific Naturalism is divided into three parts. Part I, “John Tyndall,” highlights Tyndall’s “unflinching defence of a naturalistic world view” and the role he played “within the contested nature of science in the Victorian era.” Tyndall was known for his “flamboyant lectures, which mixed practised showmanship with extravagant experiments,” presenting “science as an exhilarating spectacle.” The essays in this first part stress Tyndall’s research and the construction of his public persona. Elizabeth Neswald’s opening essay, “Saving the World in the Age of Entropy,” connects Tyndall with philosophical threads and ideological biases of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly German naturaphilosophie. In his work, for example, Tyndall marginalized the law of entropy in “favour of a balanced world of cycles,” in much the same way that German materialists did, proposing a “living nature in an eternal process of becoming.” Tyndall emphasized “the role of the sun in supporting life,” and drew “a picture of a nature embodying organic unity.” This verges on “nature worship,” and Neswald emphasizes that Victorian religious agnosticism “differed little from Christian theology.” According to Neswald, “for Tyndall…god was nature.” Following the work of Ruth Barton, Stephen S. Kim, and Tess Cosslett, Neswald notes that “the use of religious language in works of popular science was widespread in this period,” and that Tyndall’s language was particularly indebted to the “natural supernaturalism” of Thomas Carlyle. “Tyndall’s private writings, his journals and letters, reveal a view of nature and the universe that sees a creative power that could not be fully comprehended through science alone.” In a letter to his close friend Thomas Archer Hirst, for instance, Tyndall writes that “the universe is a body with life within it, and among it, and through it, permeating its every fiber…Everything in nature is in the act of becoming another thing.” These sentiments were due to Tyndall’s reading of “German philosophers,” which he “imbibed them through the interpretations and writings of Thomas Carlyle, who himself was deeply indebted to German idealist and romantic philosophies.” Indeed, Tyndall was very much encrusted within this tradition, so much so that modern interpretations, such as viewing him as a progenitor of global warming, become problematic, as Joshua Howe shows in the following essay, “Getting Past the Greenhouse.” Howe criticizes the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom for co-opting Tyndall as a forefather of modern climate science. Also criticizing recent “histories” of global warming, Howe writes that the “biography of global warming is ahistorical.” Such “presentist biography,” he argues, “has consequences for the way we understand the role of science in the twenty-first-century politics of climate change.” These stories “feed myths and misunderstandings about contemporary and historical issues, both academic and otherwise.” Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton, in the next essay, “Tyndall, Lewes and Popular Representations of Scientific Authority in Victorian Britain,” compare the popular science writings of Tyndall and those of literary critic George Henry Lewes, showing how porous the boundaries between public and private science, the laboratory and the field, and the popularizer and practitioner, were during the mid-Victorian period. Both Tyndall and Lewes, they argue, “pursued scientific research, wrote for the periodical press, addressed topics beyond their specialist expertise, and devoted considerable effort to popularizing a naturalistic version of science.” Indeed, both men used many of the “same tropes in their self-representation as reliable and authoritative expositors of science.”

Part II, “Scientific Naturalism,” examines scientific naturalism itself, demonstrating that science was still in a state of flux in the late-nineteenth century. But this set of essays attempt to move beyond Frank Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Who were the “scientific naturalists” turns out to be an increasingly complex question. Looking at some of the “less obvious scientific naturalists,” these essays go beyond the myopic focus on Huxley and Tyndall, and examine the complex personalities of Herbert Spencer, William Kingdon Clifford, William Huggins, and Alfred Newton. Spencer, for example, planted his philosophical roots in the soil of naturaphilosophie and evolutionary deism. According to Michael Taylor, in his “Herbert Spencer and the Metaphysical Roots of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Spencer underscored the “popular and fluid definitions of scientific naturalism.” Rather than an empiricist and materialist, Taylor argues, Spencer’s philosophical system reveals “elements of transcendentalism and rationalism, as well as an awareness of the limits of knowledge that verged on mysticism.” Spencer undoubtedly had metaphysical sources, such as Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers’ “evolutionary deism,” which “articulated a vision of cosmic evolution that presented a story of progress from the nebulae to human society.” Another metaphysical source was German transcendental biology or naturaphilosophie. Despite his neglect in contemporary works, Spencer’s impact on Victorian intellectual life was immense. Taylor persuasively argues that “Spencer’s evolutionary naturalism had its roots deep in metaphysical theories that were far removed from empiricism and materialism.” Josipa Petrunic follows with an essay on the “Evolutionary Mathematics” of Clifford and his beliefs in the Spencerian process of evolution, which included the search for a foundation for a new morality within scientific naturalism. In the end, according to Petrunic, Clifford became a “more thoroughgoing evolutionary naturalist than either Huxley or Tyndall, as well as many others amongst the older generation who founded the X-Club.” Robert W. Smith’s essay, “The ‘Great Plan of the Visible Universe,'” looks at astronomer Huggins who, although rejecting traditional natural theology, sought a conception of the unity of nature founded upon divine design. A leading pioneer in the development of astrophysics, Huggins’ work, according to Smith, was shaped by deep “religious sensibilities.” However, this was only the Huggins of the mid-1860s. This early Huggins “saw very powerful evidence of design when he viewed the heavens.” Yet by the 1880s and 1890s, Huggins’ opinions had decidedly shifted to something more resembling Turner’s “Scientific Naturalist.” Unfortunately, why this shift occurred, says Smith, is rather obscure. Jonathan Smith, in the final essay in this section, “Alfred Newton: The Scientific Naturalist Who Wasn’t,” shows how Newton applied Darwinism to his own work in ornithology, but was “restrained and cautious in his public endorsement of Darwinism.” Indeed, he did not “share the broader agenda of scientific naturalism.” Newton was a clear example that “one could be a Darwinian without being a scientific naturalist.”

Part III, “Communicating Science,” looks at the disparate “modes of communication, including public lectures, scientific meetings, personal correspondence, newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and even town-hall meetings and church gatherings” that supported science during the Victorian period. Janet Brown, in the opening essay, “Corresponding Naturalists,”offers an engaging “correspondence-history” of the scientific naturalists, and “how epistolary exchange helped shape the very foundation of modern science, with its emphasis on evaluation, adjudication, authentication, prioritization and distribution of the latest scientific research” (my emphasis). In the same vein, Melinda Baldwin’s essay, “Tyndall and Stokes,” offers a more detailed examination of the epistolary exchange between Tyndall and mathematician and theologian George Gabriel Stokes. Although Tyndall and Strokes “differed radically in upbringing, temperament and religious orientation,” these ideological differences did not prevent them from maintaining a friendship, thus problematizing the notion of an antagonism between science and religion at the time. Baldwin demonstrates the central role their correspondence played in shaping the physical sciences in the Victorian period. The Tyndall Correspondence Project has found some two hundreds letters between Tyndall and Stokes, and it seems that Stokes, Baldwin suggests, “shaped both Tyndall’s papers and Tyndall’s idea about scientific theories.” In other words, Tyndall respected Stokes’ scientific expertise, consulted him on scientific theories, and even called on him to review some of his essays. Stokes was a member of the North British physicists, which have been portrayed as the great antagonists of the scientific naturalists. But the Tyndall-Stokes correspondence suggests a more complex picture. Bernie Lightman concludes with an essay on the “Science at the Metaphysical Society.” Much of what he has to say here depends on the research of Alan Willard Brown’s masterful The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (1947), but Lightman distinguishes himself from Brown’s politically idealistic philosophy. Most importantly, Lightman shows that religious members of the Society were not anti-science; rather, “they simply had their own definition of what it was, the role it should play in society, and the broader ramifications of its findings.”

This set of essays, along with those in Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2014) complicates our conventional understanding of Victorian naturalists. “The contest for cultural authority,” Lightman concludes in The Age of Scientific Naturalism, “was not only between the Anglican clergy and scientific naturalists. Feminists, socialists and others were claiming that they were qualified to provide leadership, and that contemporary science supported their claims.” Furthermore, the scientific naturalists were not mere “agnostics,” in the contemporary sense of the term, as “rationalists.” Their ideas, and ideals, were infused with metaphysics, a romantic sense of nature, and, indeed, a deep reforming spirit, of knowledge, society, and religion.

Contesting Cultural Authority

Cover TemplateFrank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974) presented a new perspective on the relationship between science and religion. By carefully examining Victorian figures, such as Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic W.H. Myers, George John Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward, Turner demonstrated that the pervading “conflict thesis” was overly simplistic. In that same book Turner examined the influence of the “scientific naturalists,” a phrase employed by T.H. Huxley in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), but which had an earlier history as a pejorative epithet among American evangelicals. For Huxley and others, the phrase came to encapsulate a particular set of assumptions, values, and cosmology (i.e. the three seminal theories found in the atomic theory, the law of the conservation of energy, and evolution).

Turner continued to develop his understanding of the scientific naturalists in a series of articles, most of which are collected in the volume Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (1993).

In 1973, Turner published his article on “Lucretius among the Victorians,” which traced the rising interest on the Roman poet Lucretius in late-Victorian scholarship. In the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875-1889), for example, W.Y. Sellar’s entry on “Lucretius” notes that “physical philosophy in the present day is occupied with the same problems as those which are discussed in the first two books of the De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), and that “the old war between science and theology, which has been revived in the present generation, is fought, though with different weapons, yet in the same ardent and uncompromising spirit throughout the whole poem, as it is in the writings of living thinkers.”

But according to Turner, associating Lucretius with science and the conflict with religion was an Victorian invention. “During this period,” he writes, “classical scholars, men of letters, and philosophers discovered commentaries on Lucretius to be convenient vehicles for attacking scientific naturalism.” In associating naturalistic and scientific thought with philosophical materialism, many authors saw a symbolic target in Lucretius. Liberal Christians in particular sought this connection. As religious philosopher and historian of Unitarianism James Martineau put it: “To get rid of a troublesome discoverer or vigorous thinker, there is no readier way…than to dismiss his new ideas as stale fallacies dug up again out of the discarded rubbish of the past.” The polemical advantage was clear. Huxley et al. modern scientific thought could be discredited as stale fallacies based on Lucretian philosophy.

But first Lucretius had to be transformed from a poet to a natural philosopher. Early Victorian commentators judged Lucretius on his artistic merit. Yet by mid-century, writers were beginning to see him in the spirit of modernity, as a precursor of the modern scientist. What happened? Turner cites Scottish scientist Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin (1833-85) as the earliest to associate Lucretius with atomic theory, thus setting the “precedent for considering the thought of Lucretius in relation to modern ideas and scientific theory and for drawing parallels between the work of the ancient poet and the endeavors of contemporary scientists.”

But according to Turner, it was John Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address of 1874 that solidified the association. In advocating his own naturalistic view of the development of science, Tyndall used Lucretius as giving “posterity the best and most eloquent explication of [atomic] theory.” In short, Lucretius became the “upholder of true science in the ancient world, a noble enemy of superstition, and a pioneer in the struggle to liberate science from the ideals, opinions, cosmology, and institutions of religion and theology.” This view continues to be popular, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s first episode of the rebooted Cosmos so clearly demonstrated.

Victorian writers were quick to pounce on the association, however. From James Martineau, John Veitch, Robert Flint, John Tulloch, W.H. Mallock, and John Masson,  “Lucretius,” Turner writes, “became the pawn in the struggle for cultural domination between the men of science and the men of religion.” According to these writers, Lucretius had anticipated the doctrines of modern scientists. But then they argued that Lucretius’ philosophy was inadequate or incorrect. The implication being that so were the ideas of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and other scientific naturalists. Perhaps most interestingly, these writers then “suggested that Lucretius’ critique of religion had been appropriate and necessary for the development of pure religion. However, his particular argument as resurrected by Huxley [et al.] had in the course of two millenia became inapplicable and invalid. Therefore the anti-religious arguments of the scientific publicists were both irrelevant and anachronistic” (my emphasis). In short, by re-constructing Lucretius as a precursor of modern science, these writers undermined Huxley and company. And whereas Lucretius presented a “high, reverential, moral, and spiritual purpose,” by contrast the scientific naturalists were simply “anti-religious.”

The scientific naturalists were not, of course, without a response. Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford and others were keen to disassociate classical atomic theories with those of the nineteenth century. But they also wanted to emphasize that they, too, “deduce social, philosophical, and religious conclusions from theories of matter and organic evolution,” thus indicating that they too sought to reform religion in ways similar to Lucretius.

The following year Turner came out with an article entitled “Rainfall, Plagues, and the Prince of Wales: A Chapter in the Conflict of Religion and Science,” published in the Journal of British Studies. Here he presented an early formulation of what would become his signature argument:  “Victorian conflict between religion and science,” he writes in his conclusion, “was something more than a dispute over ideas. It manifested the tension arising as the intellectual nation become more highly differentiated in functions, professions, and institutions. It was a clash between established and emerging intellectual and social elites for popular cultural preeminence in a modern industrial society.”

In this article Turner examines three episodes in the Victorian debate over the nature of prayer. First, the excessive rainfall in the summer of 1860, which Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce attributed to “the national sins of the Divorce Act of 1857, recent riots at St. George’s church in London’s East End, and the war with China,” spurred many in the Anglican church to call for appointed prayers for better weather. But this call was contested among many scientific practitioners, particularly physicist John Tyndall. The scientists were not alone, however. There were also others in the church who called for a new interpretation of nature without recourse to the supernatural. Charles Kingsley, for example, “told his parishioners that praying for fair weather was an act of unwarranted presumption,” and was thus unwilling to abide the call. For his resistance, Kingsley received several congratulatory letters, including one from geologist Charles Lyell. According to Turner, scientists were beginning to claim authority over matters that pertained to natural knowledge, and liberal churchmen were willing to oblige and support their position.

Another clash over prayer came in 1865, when a cattle plague hit English farmers. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a special prayer for those affected. At the same time, a Royal Commission under Lyon Playfair instituted preventive measures and stricter regulations for cattle trade. Many saw the Archbishop’s call to prayer as a retrogression. Tyndall once again entered the scene with an article published by the Pall Mall Gazette, arguing that such prayers were no different than ancient and heathen prayers which called for some divine, spontaneous interference. The debate continued on into the monthly journals, such as the North British Review and Macmillan’s Magazine. Although presented with both scientific and theological arguments against such a conception of prayer, many bishops refused to back down. This led to a number of leading broad churchmen to declare that the “national church must encompass leading intellects of the nation and must not employ its dignity and power to block or discourage intellectual discourse and discovery.”

The final example Turner provides is when the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid in 1871. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with a committee drawn from members of the Cabinet and the Privy Council, issued a telegraph calling for prayers for the recovery of Prince Edward. The Prince eventually recovered and clergymen attested this to the power of prayer. This “vindication” was given further publicity in the Guardian, which saw the event as “a solemn recognition of the direct and personal working of the Hand of God in things of this life.” Without directly criticizing the special prayers offered, the professional and medical periodicals used the event as an opportunity “publicize the necessity for further sanitary reform and legislation.” Things became heated, however, when the “clergy explicitly and the government implicitly credited prayer rather than medical treatment for the recovery of the heir to the throne.” The medical journal Lancet, for example, declared that “while we recognize the hand of Providence, we still claim for modern medical science that she has signally won fresh laurels in the recovery of the Prince of Wales.”

Several months later, surgeon Henry Thompson challenged Christians, in an essay entitled “The Prayer for the Sick,” published in the Contemporary Review in 1872, and what would later be dubbed the “Prayer Gauge Debate,”  to “conduct an experiment to determine the physical efficacy of prayer.” The debate would appear very publicly in the British magazine, Spectator. What is more, eugenicist Francis Galton, in an article published in the Fortnightly Review, used statistical analysis to condemn the efficacy of religious practices and, more importantly, the general “ability of religious men to solve practical problems of society.” This same theme appeared in one of the Spectator articles, signed by a mysterious “Protagoras.” According to Turner, the article argued that “scientists had no intention of abolishing belief in the supernatural or reverence for God. Rather they sought to lead men to an understanding of the results of science and of their application to daily life.”

The removal of such base superstition from public knowledge required, Turner claims, “the recognition of a new intellectual elite who would displace the clergy on all levels of society as the interpreters of natural phenomena.” Once again, liberal religious thinkers were only too willing to oblige the emerging scientific elite. According to Huxley, Tyndall, and other leading scientific naturalists, “the scientist now stood as the mediator between modern man and a nature that could almost be commanded to serve his material needs.” In 1879, historian James Anthony Froude went so far as to argue that those who “observe the rules of health as ascertained and laid down by science…better deserve the name of religious men than those who neglect the means of protecting themselves which God has provided, and try to induce Him by prayers to suspend His ordinances in their favor.” Clearly, this was the “transfer of cultural and intellectual leadership and prestige from the exponents of one faith to those of another.”

Turner continued working on the scientific naturalists in his article, “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” first published by Isis in 1978. The conflict between science and religion was not only a narrative; it was also a by-product of professional elites vying for cultural authority. Writers like G.H. Lewes and Huxley used polemical language to construct a progressionist ideology that juxtaposed a “good progressive science against [an] evil retrogressive metaphysics and theology.” This was not simply a reified “science” against “religion” but a battle between particular spokesmen for science and religion.

Working from statements made by James Clerk Maxwell, A.W. Benn and others, to the effect that there was “a transfer of authority from religious to naturalistic beliefs,” Turner states his thesis clearly: “the primary motivating force behind this shift in social and intellectual authority…was activity within the scientific community that displayed most of the major features associated with nascent professionalism.” This “young guard of science,” to use a phrase employed by Leonard Huxley, consisting of Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, Joseph Dalton Hooker, George Busk, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Herbert Spencer, Henry Cole, Norman Lockyer, Francis Galton, Lyon Playfair, and others, “had established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.” They advocated a positivist epistemology as the exclusive epistemological foundation of legitimate science, which came to “discredit the wider cultural influences of organized religion.”

By the late-nineteenth century, these men held editorships, professorships, and offices in major scientific societies. Indeed, they had “established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.”

Now, this “young guard” agreed among themselves that science should be pursued without recourse to religious dogma, theology, or religious authority. This exclusivity eventually came to serve as a weapon against the cultural influence of religion in general. This was all, of course, a recent phenomena. According to Turner, during the seventeenth century and up to the 1840s, scientists—or more precisely, natural philosophers—saw natural science and natural theology not alone compatible, but complementary. By the 1840s, a “naturalistic bent of theories in geology, biology, and physiological psychology drove deep wedges into existing reconciliation of scientific theory with revelation or theology.” In addition, the “young guard” pushed for the recognition of greater expertise in scientific practice, thus not only excluding the clergy but also women. Then came the rhetorical ploy of accusing clerical scientists of “dual loyalties”; according to Huxley and his acolytes, one could not both serve God and science. Francis Galton, for example, in his well-known English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1872), declared that the “pursuit of science in uncongenial to the priestly character.” Using the veneer of statistical analysis, Galton claimed that clerical scientists had significantly dropped by the mid-nineteenth century. But what Galton left out in his “analysis” was the membership reforms that took place in many scientific societies after 1850. “Had he not so skewed his numbers by choosing the date of 1850,” writes Turner, “more clergymen would have been included.” This would become a commonplace tactic of the “young guard.”

There were also major changes within the religious community of the mid-nineteenth century. Many clergymen—naturally enough—came to have nothing but contempt for the new scientific elite. They wanted to reassert their authority, in matters of religion but also in matters of natural knowledge. Others took the opposite approach, leaving the pursuit of natural knowledge to the scientists and religious matters to the clergy, thus creating two separate spheres of knowledge. As Turner puts it, “within the Church of England a clergymen-scientist confronted the choice of perpetuating traditional natural theology and risking ridicule by scientists or attempting further rationalization of theology in accord with science and encountering persecution by fellow clergymen.” All this gave further credibility to stereotypes on both sides of the debate.

One of the most admirable aspects of Turner’s scholarship—and character—was his willingness to admit his failings. A rare trait among scholars indeed. In his opening essay in Contesting Cultural Authority (1993) , “The Religious and the Secular in Victorian Britain,” Turner reflects on some of the assumptions scholars of Victorian Britain have made—including himself—about the “secular,” “religious,” and “professionalization” of Victorian scientists.

To begin, “the secular interpretation of Victorian and general nineteenth-century intellectual life,” he writes, “very much reflected the concerns of mid-twentieth-century American university intellectuals” (my emphasis). In other words, the secularization of the nineteenth-century Victorian mind is a clear example of modern ideas imposed on the past. It was an assumption accepted without question, and thus became an obstacle to real understanding. As Turner observes, it “prevented scholars from confronting in a direct manner the full spectrum of the secular and religious as the latter concretely manifested themselves in nineteenth-century life and crossed over the twentieth-century conceptual boundaries.” The change in Turner’s outlook came when gave his figures of study a closer and more sympathetic reading: “I had begun to reject the conceptual categories then widely accepted in the historical literature because those categories simply could not encompass nineteenth-century intellectual life as I found it.” What had changed, he says, was a new sensibility among social and intellectual historians, ultimately leading to a “rethinking of the character of the secular and the religious in the nineteenth century.”

As Turner’s thought developed, he came to see religion playing an immense role in nineteenth-century Britain, culturally, politically, and scientifically. Here Turner credits the work of Bernie Lightman, Ruth Barton, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray and others for changing his mind. In his “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion” Turner argued against the view that the scientific naturalists were attempting to reform and free religion from dogmatic theology. Scientists sought to “reform religion for the sake not of purifying religious life but of improving the lot of science in Victorian society.” But as Lightman’s study of Victorian agnosticism reveals, “many agnostics [and scientific naturalists] sought to set forth a serious new, non-clerical religious synthesis.” In short, they pursued “genuine religious goals and not merely the substitution of something secular for something religious.”

The changes in scholarship in the last fifty years has revealed “religion” as a “far more many splendoured thing than most of us who pursue intellectual history have tended to recognize.” Turner’s challenge to us is to “recapture that world of concrete social reference that informed both religious and non-religious intellectual life and exchange.” When we do this, he says, our present categories of “secular” and “religious” will dissolve. “Although the words secular and religious, as well as the concept of secularization, remain and intellectual historians, including myself, will continue to employ them, those terms and the often unexamined assumptions that may lie behind them no longer in and of themselves provide an adequate analytic framework for probing the Victorian age.”

Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability

Gowan Dawson - Darwin Literature and Victorian RespectibilityWhen Richard Owen (1804-1892) denounced T.H. Huxley’s (1825-1895) paleontological methods at the Geological Society of London in 1856, he did so on peculiarly moralistic grounds. But this should come as no surprise, for Owen “drew upon a long, well-worn tradition connecting materialism and unbelief with moral corruption and debauchery, including the entwinement of pornography and materialist philosophies in the Enlightenment.” So writes Gowan Dawson in a striking study on Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (2007). In this volume Dawson explores the curious relationship that Victorian reviewers and commentators drew between the ideas and advocates of scientific naturalism and the “Fleshly School of Poetry” of W. Morris(1834-1896), D.G. Rossettie (1828-1882), A.C. Swinburne (1837-1909), and their “coterie of licentious companions.” Darwin and other scientific writers were haunted by an anxiety that their ideas, theories, illustrative examples and subject matter in general, might be construed as violating the boundaries of Victorian sexual respectability. Indeed, Darwin, Huxley, Hooker, and others were at pains to protect evolutionary theory from attack by those who saw evolution as leading to dangerous political and social practices such as sexual immortality, birth control, and divorce. As Dawson points out, “those seeking to discredit the cultural authority of evolutionary science identified it with the alleged sensual indulgence of aestheticism, while those attempting to establish it as a respectable secular theodicy denied such as connection and instead emphasized links with more reputable literary writers.”

In his Introduction, Dawson notes that Darwin’s “particular conception of organic evolution…quickly became part of a wider political campaign” by the scientific naturalists to “wrest the last vestiges of intellectual and cultural authority away from the monopolistic Anglican Church establishment, as well as the gentlemanly amateurs who represented its interests in the scientific world.” Their goal was not the abolition of traditional religion, however; rather, the scientific naturalists sought to naturalize it, with “law and uniformity supplanting theology as the guarantors of order in both the natural world and human society.” To this end, scientific naturalism “had to be urgently sequestered from any hostile associations that might tarnish them in the eyes of the various audiences for science in Victorian Britain and consequently undermine the political aspirations of dissident secular intellectuals.” And more than any other vice, specific anxieties over sexual immortality emerged as the “most significant impediment to establishing a naturalistic worldview as a morally respectable alternative to earlier theological outlooks.”

Darwinian evolution was seen by many Victorians as unleashing a “torrent of immortality and corruption that would surpass the scandalous vices of even the pagan world.” Thus “in order to neutralize the charges of encouraging sexual immorality, the proponents of evolutionary theory, attempting to forge their own naturalistic social theodicy, had to shield Darwinism equally vigorously from any such invidious connections, in part by distinguishing a self-proclaimed ‘pure’ science—drawing on all senses of that overdetermined adjective—from the less reputable aspects of nineteenth-century general culture.”

Dawson also argues that while the scientific naturalists sought to publicly cultivate a reputation of unimpeachable respectability and character, in private correspondence, “sardonic and permissive attitude towards…profane topics…contravened conventional standards of middle-class respectability.” This was indeed a “masculine culture,” a “convivial fraternalist discourse” and “tolerant cosmopolitanism.” Of course, such “bawdy” anecdotes shared between scientific naturalists were not “generally divulged to wives or other female family members.”

The periodical of choice of scientific naturalists was John Morley’s (1838-1923) Fortnightly Review. Here Huxley, John Tyndall (1820-1893), and W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) and other leading exponents of evolution and scientific naturalism found a ready audience. And as Dawson points out, the magazine “encompassed both evolutionary science and aesthetic literature, and this shared mode of publication evidently emphasized the areas of potential similarity between them.”

Robert W. Buchanan (1841-1901) was one of the earliest to aver against the “fleshy” and materialistic poetry of Swinburne, Rossetti, Morris and others. Buchanan would also connect aesthetic poetry with the alleged materialism of contemporary science. In the 1876 issue of New Quarterly Magazine, for example, Buchanan contested the principles that Tyndall had advanced less than two years earlier in his Presidential Address to the BAAS at Belfast. For Buchanan, Tyndall’s materialistic science was “merely another version of the fleshy creed promulgated in the verse of Rossetti, Swinburne and their coterie of licentious companions.”

The scientific naturalists responded to such raucous accusations in two ways. First, they simply reiterated the “scrupulous standards of personal morality exhibited by scientific practitioners, as well as the strict discipline and moral propriety instilled—and indeed required—by empirical methods of experimentation and observation.” Another response, particularly and effectively employed by Tyndall, emphasized “the already existing connection between the leading advocates of scientific naturalism and older and more reputable literary writers, most notably the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson and the conservative Sage of Chelsea Thomas Carlyle.” But as Dawson suggests, Huxley, Tyndall, and other scientific naturalists might have deliberately misinterpreted the work of these literary figures for their own particular purposes.

In the remaining chapters of Dawson’s remarkable book, he examines and analyzes “sexualized responses to evolution,” “nineteenth-century revival of paganism,” “Victorian freethought and the Obscene Publications Act,” “the refashioning of William Kingdon Clifford’s posthumous reputation,” and “the pathologization of aestheticism” by Huxley and Henry Maudsley (1835-1913). Judiciously integrating “contextualist approaches to the history of science with recent work in nineteenth-century literary and cultural history,” Dawson exemplifies what research in both archival and manuscript sources should look like. He draws from a broad ranges of sources, including journalism, scientific books and lectures, sermons, radical pamphlets, aesthetic and comic verse, novels, law reports, illustrations and satirical cartoons, and private letters. Dawson provides a fascinating account of the reception of scientific ideas and further evidence that science is never neutral.

*  *  *

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 and 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.

The Agnostic Theology of Huxley and Tyndall

Earlier today I read Bernard Lightman’s short essay “Does the History of Science and Religion Change Depending on the Narrator? Some Atheist and Agnostic Perspectives” (2012) as a break from reading his edited volume Victorian Science in Context (1997). It was, as expected, excellent.

Lightman’s answer is a resounding yes. In his estimation, “during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the strategy of unbelievers revolved around attempting, without too much success, to draw out of Newtonianism some kind of justification for their materialism and their atheism.” But later, in the nineteenth century and after the publication of The Origins of Species, “evolutionary theory offered new opportunities to unbelievers for dealing with the Newton problem”—the problem being that Newtonian physics was inextricably intertwined with Newton’s theology. The strategy of nineteenth-century scientific naturalists like T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall, for example, was “separating science and religion into two separate spheres,” which allowed them to “construct a religiously neutral scientific system and to offer a re-interpreation of the history of science and region that relegated Newtonianism to the sidelines.”

Focusing on Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), Lightman underscores how radical Enlightenment philosophes saw science, particularly Newtonianism, as providing intellectual support for atheism—that is, as long as it was “purged of religious concepts that Newton had enshrined in the heart of his physics.” Indeed, d’Holbach and other radical philosophes such as Denis Diderot, Jean d’Alembert, Claude Adrien Helvétius, and Pierre-Simon Laplace, “pressed Newton into service as an ally.” But in order to deify Newton, of course, he had to be defied. In order to explain away Newton’s religious commitments, for instance, he was reinterpreted as schizophrenic (d’Holbach) or mentally deranged (Laplace). For d’Holbach and his coterie, “the history of science and religion confirmed the validity of materialism.”

Transitioning to Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) System of Synthetic Philosophy, Lightman shows that Spencer actually sought the “basis of a complete reconciliation” between science and religion. This was, Lightman notes, the central aim of Spencer’s First Principles, published in 1862. For Spencer, “the basis for a total reconciliation between science and religion, is the idea of a mysterious power underlying phenomena.”

Likewise, Tyndall was actually “curiously conciliatory towards religion.” In a 1847 journey entry Tyndall rejected the “main doctrines of Victorian Christianity”:

I cannot for an instant imagine that a good and merciful God would ever make our eternal salvation depend upon such slender links, as conformity with what some are pleased to call the essentials of religion. I was long fettered by these things, but now thank God they are placed upon the same shelf with the swaddling clothes which bound up my infancy.

But as Lightman points out, “this rejection of Christian doctrines did not lead him to atheism.” Indeed, Tyndall actually “believed that science and religion, as he defined them, could exist in peaceful harmony.” He saw subjective religious feeling “as true as any other part of human consciousness,” and thus was safe from any kind of scientific attack. According to Lightman, Tyndall thought “religion, in its subjective dimension and its articulation through symbol, could be reconciled with the objective facts of science if the boundaries between the two ‘magisteria’, as Stephen Jay Gould referred to them, were maintained.” In this sense, Tyndall rejected the label “materialist,” arguing that “materialism was fruitful as a scientific methodology, but it could not be a complete philosophy of life.” (Incidentally, this seems to be contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel‘s own position.) Rather, he ascribed to a “higher materialism” that “found in matter ‘the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.'” Religion was the “inward completeness and dignity of man.” And as pointed out by Ruth Barton elsewhere, “Tyndall voiced his debt to [Thomas] Carlyle” for much of his understanding of science-religion relations.

Although a physicist, Tyndall made little mention of Newton in his history of science and religion. As Lightman puts it, Tyndall displaced Newton “from the centre of the story of the making of modern science.” This is unsurprising as Newtonianism was central to nineteenth-century natural theology, which, like Carlyle, Tyndall completely rejected. Tyndall’s rejection of natural theology deserves closer inspection because it seems he did so on the basis that it led to deism. In 1849, for example, after reading William Paley’s (1743-1805) Natural Theology, Tyndall wrote in his journal that “the Great Spirit is not to be come at in this way; if so, his cognition would only be accessible to the scientific and to very little purpose even here,” and later wrote that he rejects “a detached God—a God outside his Universe who superintends the clockwork thereof.”

Huxley, the “self-styled ‘gladiator-general’ of evolutionary science,” took a surprisingly similar position on the science-religion relationship. Like Tyndall, “Huxley held to the idea that science and religion belonged to two distinct realms,” and once rightly conceived “science and religion could never come into conflict because each realm was distinct and without authority outside its proper sphere of interest.” What is more, Huxley argued that “atheism is as absurd, logically speaking, as polytheism.” For Huxley, agnosticism was the only legitimate course regarding religious questions. In Science and Hebrew Tradition (1893), Huxley declared that

the antagonism between science and religion about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely fictitious—fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people who confound a certain branch of science, theology, with religion; and, on the other, by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension.

However, when it came to understanding Newton, Huxley falls victim to his own short-sighted position, ignoring Newton’s “profound relationship between universal natural laws and a divine being” and simplistically arguing that “Newton stands as the exemplary empirical scientist.”

In conclusion Lightman highlights how contemporary atheists, particularly Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, have “far more in common with Enlightenment philosophes like d’Holbach than they do with Victorian agnostics such as Huxley and Tyndall.” But unlike the philosophes, who tried to “finesse Newton, as did early modern unbelievers, their atheism, and their perpetuation of the conflict thesis in history…seems, to the uninformed, to have the complete backing of history.” In other words, the so-called “New Atheists” not only misread the history of science, they ultimately distort it for their readers. As Borden Painter points out in his reprimanding “New Atheism’s Old—and Flawed—History” article in Historically Speaking (2012), “the deficiencies of New Atheist history should be obvious to professional historians: choosing evidence to suit a predetermined and state ideology while ignoring the rest; lack of nuance and context; simplistic and monocausal explanations; anachronism and moralism; [and] poor choice or misrepresentation of secondary sources.”

Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature and Science

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

Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology

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

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

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

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

Sciences of the Body

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

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

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

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


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.