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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrestling with Nature – Science and Religion

Harrison et al - Wrestling with NatureWrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science (2011) uses the popular-case study format to examine “how students of nature themselves have understood and represented their work.” The essays are thematic but roughly chronological, beginning with “natural knowledge in ancient Mesopotamia” (Francesca Rochberg), moves on to “natural knowledge in the Classical World” (Daryn Lehoux), and then two essays on natural knowledge in the “Arabic Middle Ages” (Jon McGinnis) and “Latin Middle Ages” (Michael H. Shank). The book then transitions into the Renaissance and early modern periods with essays on “Natural History” (Peter Harrison), “Mixed Mathematics” (Peter Dear), and “Natural Philosophy” (John L. Heilbron). The second half of the book is less chronological and more thematic, concentrating on how “science” demarcated its territory, separating itself from other ways of understanding or manipulating the natural world, particularly in the nineteenth century. Here we find essays on “Science and Medicine” (Ronald L. Numbers), “Science and Technology” (Ronald R. Kline), “Science and Religion” (Jon H. Roberts), “Science, Pseudoscience, and Science Falsely So-Called” (Ronald L. Numbers and Daniel P. Thurs), and “Scientific Methods” (Daniel P. Thurs). The book concludes, as with the previous book reviewed on this blog, with essays by Bernard Lightman (“Science the Public”) and David N. Livingstone (“Science and Place”).

Here I want to focus only on three chapters I found particularly interesting. Roberts in “Science and Religion” observes that in recent years studies on relating science and religion “has become hot.” Everyone is doing it: from colleges and universities, journals and newsletters, organizations and think tanks, to books and magazines—everyone is talking about “science and religion.”

But “prior to about the middle of the nineteenth century, the trope ‘science and religion’ was virtually nonexistent.” The two only came together when both terms attained modern form. We have seen this argument before. Here Roberts emphasizes that it was “elite members” of the church who devoted themselves to theology, whereas “most adherents” treated “religion” primarily as a “life of piety and communal devotion and a set of ritual practices.” This however contradicts what Jaroslav Pelikan, Claude Welch, and many others (including Roberts himself, only a few pages further down) have said on the matter of creeds and dogma throughout the history of the Christian church.

The tracing of “science” is less contested. Roberts claims that “God-talk” was once central in the work of natural philosophers. But as early as the mid-eighteenth century, an “ever-growing number of investigators in the realms of natural philosophy and natural history began making determined efforts to pursue their inquiries untrammeled by concern with the testimony of biblical narrative.” By substituting “natural laws” for divine agency, “men of science” began “bringing all phenomena within the scope of natural laws and secondary causes,” a view that would become known as “methodological naturalism.”

But it was during the late nineteenth century where “science” underwent its most significant constriction. Once thought of as “systematized knowledge,” it was restricted to “empirical investigation of natural (and sometimes social) phenomena.” Many intellectuals at this time began casting science and theology as distinctly different enterprises. Thus John William Draper conceived science and religion as “two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.” By the end of the century, a deluge of books and articles addressing “science and religion” swept across the Anglo American landscape.

Conceptualizing science and religion as distinct entities with distinct enterprises led to their ultimate separation. Friedrich Schleiermacher and Immanuel Kant, for example, located religion in “a sense of contingency, or dependence,” in the “feelings associated with the human condition.” Albrecht Ritschl held that religion and science “appealed to different elements of human experience.” Twentieth-century Anglo American liberal Protestants often stressed inner experience and minimized doctrinal beliefs, in what Pelikan has acutely called the “discomfort with creed caused by the consciousness of modernity.” We see this sentiment in Andrew Dickson White’s qualifications that the villain was not “religion”—which defined as “the love of God and of our neighbor”—but “Dogmatic Theology.” This distinction, Roberts tells us, “became increasingly common among liberal Christians, including scientists, in the United States and Great Britain during the half century after 1890.” Science and religion had become “separate spheres of experiential data.”

Many Christians rejected such artificial separation. Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, and William Jennings Bryan were only a few of many who called for a more traditional, “Baconian” conception of science, one that would include theology among the sciences. In the 1920s “fundamentalism” emerged, pushing for a conception of science that would ban teaching evolution in public schools. But there were also more peaceful separatists. In 1923 Robert A. Milikan and a group of scientists, clergymen, and theologians signed a “Joint Statement upon the Relations of Science and Religion,” which maintained that science and religion “meet distinct human needs” and thus “supplement rather than displace or oppose each other.”

Between the two world wars, many theologians, and even some scientists, “insisted that the natural world served as an appropriate object for theological reflection.” For example, F.R. Tennant, Sir James Jeans, Arthur F. Smethrust, William Grosvenor Pollard, and Ian Barbour essentially called for a “re-merging of the spheres” of science and religion. Some conservative Protestants even began reasserting the theological perspective to once again bear on our understanding of the natural world.

More recently, the rise of young-earth creationists, who aggressively contest the notion that the “vocabulary of modern science” alone “provides an adequate description of the natural world,” has appealed to philosophers of science such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, who have even suggested that “creationism constitutes a ‘research program’ no less rigorously ‘scientific’ than Darwinism.” This in turn encouraged creationists to demand “equal time” in the public classroom. On the other side, “militance among proponents of scientific naturalism has also escalated.” Scientists such as Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Richard Lewontin, Edward O. Wilson, Francis Crick, and philosopher Daniel Dennett, “have dismissed, even scorned, the beliefs of orthodox Christians.”

More measured minds have resisted such efforts to compartmentalize science and religion. From theologians, philosophers, sociologists, to historians of science, these thinkers have called for a more contextualized understanding of science and religion. “Most modern intellectuals,” concludes Roberts, “have joined their predecessors in assuming that both enterprises possess distinctive elements and in exploring their interrelationship.” This congenial conclusion may strike one as deeply unsatisfying, however, especially in light of the fact that the fastest-growing religious category in the United States is what are called “nones“—people who say they have no religious affiliation—or the explosion of New Atheist “churches,” which proselytize “science” and calls to “unconversion.”