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.

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A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 7Edited by Theodore M. Porter and Dorothy Ross, The Cambridge History of Science Volume VII: The Modern Social Sciences (2003) is the last of the current seven volume series. There is, however, a forthcoming eight volume, entitled The Cambridge History of Science Volume VIII: Modern Science in National and International Contexts, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and David Livingstone.

The volume under consideration examines “the history of the social sciences over some three centuries and many countries, attending to their knowledge and methods, the contexts of their origin and development, and the practices through which they have acted on the world.” Part 1 discusses the origins of the social sciences; Part 2 on modern disciplines in “western Europe and North America since about 1880”; Part 3 on the “internationalization of the social sciences”; and Part 4 consists of “a collection of case studies illustrating the larger importance of social science” in public and private life. My interests chiefly concern the contents of Part 1, and thus the following will concentrate there alone.

In his chapter on “Genres and Objects of Social Inquiry: From Enlightenment to 1890,” Theodore Porter offers a “loose periodization of the early history of social science.” He begins during the “period of the Enlightenment, when discourses of nature and reason began to be applied more systematically to ‘man’ and society.” Before the nineteenth century, there were recognizable “European traditions of thought and practice concerned with politics, wealth, the senses, distant peoples, and so on.” There were treatises on human epistemology; travel narratives; medical works; and important discourses on populations, economies, states, bodies, minds, and customs that resemble what we call today “anthropology.” Porter argues that the “birth of social science has much to do with the liberalizing political moves and the growth of a public sphere.” And here the Enlightenment played an important role in its advance, for “as an intellectual and social movement, [it] depended on increasingly free public discussion, on the mechanisms for the circulation of ideas.” Indeed, philosophes like Condorcet (1743-1794) saw the printing press “as a signal event in the history of progress, since it allowed knowledge to advance without ever being lost.” The growth of newspapers, coffeehouses, salons, and lodges in the eighteenth century “provided opportunities for relatively free discussion of issues and events.”

Eighteenth-century thinkers were concerned with the subject of “human nature,” or what we now call “psychology.” And this subject, Porter writes, “was closely linked to natural philosophy, especially because one of its central ambitions was to understand the human ability to acquire and use empirical knowledge.” The philosophes were so impressed with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which sought a naturalistic account of human nature, that they used it as a weapon in “struggles against the moral and institutional power of the Church, as well as a rationale for systematic schooling.”

The French Revolution of 1789, Porter asserts, “marked an important shift, in which social progress came to seem both more powerful and more threatening.” Voltaire, Rousseau, Condillac, Turgot, d’Alembert, and Diderot all died between 1778 and 1784. “In the politically polarized climate after 1789, a career like that of Voltaire or Diderot, based on appeals to universal reason, was scarcely possible.” “Unruly passions,” Porter notes, “inspired a pervasive sense of danger,” which in turn gave way to a more urgent social science, “often more ideological, looking to the past, or to science, in order to comprehend what seemed the precarious circumstances of modernity.” In this sense, the social sciences moved beyond understanding to administration, particularly under the monarch. “The state, henceforth acting on the basis of full information and rational methods, would naturally advance the public good.” This was a social science in utopian form.

But this view was quickly rebuked by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), arguing that the Revolution was the “consequence of irresponsible men, shallow ideologues, provoking abrupt changes in a social organism—the state—whose natural development is slow and gradual.” Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) “attributed the excess of the Revolution to the influence of detached intellectuals, men without actual experience in government.”

Utopianism, nevertheless, continued unabated. Condorcet’s Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1794) shifted utopian ideals “from somewhere in space (far away) into time, the near or distant future.” Condercet’s mentor, Turgot, had also written on the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750), a “systematic, secular, and naturalistic statement of the ‘modern’ idea of progress,” a genre that flourished in the nineteenth century. Key figures here, according to Porter, are Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and his “most famous and rebellious disciple,” Auguste Comte (1798-1857). In their introduction, Porter and Ross summarize:

Comte initiated a massive effort to define the methods and historical progression of the sciences. His main purpose was to announce the discovery, and define the standing, of sociology. He rejected decisively the idea that social science should adopt the same methods as astronomy, physics, or physiology. Yet at the same time he defined a hierarchy of knowledge, with social science dependent for its formulation on all the sciences that had gone before. And despite his claims for the inclusion of social knowledge, he made of “science” something special and exclusive. There had been, he argued, no science of physics before the seventeenth century, no true chemistry before Lavoisier. The origins of physiology were still more recent, and the founder of scientific sociology was, to cast aside false modesty, himself. Theology and  metaphysics were not part of positive science, but its predecessors and its antithesis. Law, literature, and rhetoric could never occupy this hallowed ground. Thus, while Comte formulated his philosophy in order to vindicate sociology and to define its place within science, he insisted also on a highly restrictive sense of “science,” a standard the social sciences could not easily meet.

Another transition occurred “roughly during the decade of the 1830s, as the economic and social changes of industralization became visible to everyone.” This pushed social science to becoming a “tool for managing as well as for understanding the problems” of the era. “Economic change brought economic dislocation,” Porter tells us. The “massive flow of people from farms to cities” altered family arrangements, increased epidemics of diseases, urban squalor, crime and thus threatened the “good order of society.” “Social science, then, developed during the middle third of the nineteenth century above all as a liberal, reformist answer to the upheavals of the era.”

Statistics became the characteristic social science of the mid nineteenth century, and was carried out largely by officials of the state. “During the 1830s, many of the leading nations of Europe…created permanent census offices.” According to Porter, this effort by the states were “very much a part of the history of social science, not only because they provided indispensable sources of data, but also because their leaders often took an active role in interpreting the figures—which often mean propagandizing for public education, for example, or for improved sanitation.” This movement was not without its critics, particularly when statistical data become closely associated with laissez-faire political economy.

In conclusion, Porter makes the interesting observation that “biology, not physics, was the crucial point of reference for the nascent social sciences in the nineteenth century.” “Throughout the nineteenth century, from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to Ernst Haeckel and beyond, theories of biological evolution were less mechanical than purposeful, involving a teleological progression of species toward greater perfection.” Herbert Spencer, for example, “regarded biological and social progress as parallel instances of a more general law, a tendency for homogeneous matter to become increasingly complex and differentiated.” Indeed, biological evolution provided the “framework that many found satisfying for interpreting the diversity of human peoples.” It also manifested itself, Porter notes in conclusion, in “hybrids of biological and social theories and practices, such as Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary sociology, Francis Galton’s eugenic campaign to improve mankind by selective breeding, the racialism against which Franz Boas fought for anthropology, and the Lamarckian elements of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.”

Johan Heilbron’s “Social Thought and Natural Science” continues the discussion by focusing on how the “natural sciences have provided an enduring set of models for modern social science, models that go well beyond suggestive analogies and illustrative metaphors.” Heilbron claims that “natural philosophy” searched for “natural principles and laws, in place of supernatural agencies.” When natural philosophy was applied to the domains of moral philosophy and political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “it allowed for a shift away from Christian doctrines toward secular models.”

The “naturalistic quest for knowledge of human nature and human society,” Heilbron tells us, was initiated by natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), who “developed elaborate systems of moral duty and political obligation based upon what they took to be permanent features of human nature, such as the concern for self-preservation.” Invoking natural science involved use of mechanical metaphors, the primacy of observation and experience, measurement and quantification, and rational deduction. But such a process was neither uniform nor uncontested.

During the Enlightenment period, the “secular intelligentsia,” Heilbron writes, “explicitly claimed, and effectively exercised, the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independent of established authorities and official doctrines.” Discourses on political, moral, and economic issues relied on “factual evidence and detail” provided by the natural sciences. This is the first of three distinct trends that Heilbron wants to point out.

The second trend was the differentiation of natural science, the demise of a unitary conception of natural philosophy, and a fundamental split between “animate and inanimate bodies.” Comte, for example, distinguished social science from biology, biology from chemistry, chemistry from physics. “Social science, for Comte, was a relatively autonomous endeavor, with a subject matter of its own and a specific method of study.”

The third trend was the opposition of prevailing forms of naturalism in the human sciences. Heilbron claims that the elaboration of “humanistic or cultural alternative made natural science, with its insistence on mechanical laws and causal models, an object of criticism.” Heilbron never expands on this third trend, so what he means here is not entirely clear.

The scientific conception of moral philosophy was strongest in England, Scotland, and France, reaching it apogee in the latter from about 1770 to 1830. In France, for example, we find the “most scientistic designation for the social sciences…’social mathematics,’ ‘social mechanics,’ ‘social physics,’ and ‘social physiology.'” Those espousing a scientific model of moral and political philosophy include Charles de Secondat baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), and John Millar (1735-1801). Montesquieu was particularly admired by the latter four for having demonstrated that “laws have, or ought to have, a constant references to the constitution of governments, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society.”

Salient in France were thinkers conceptualizing the social world in language derived from the physical and life sciences, such as Turgot (1727-1781), Condorcert  (1743-1794), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), all to some extant stressing “the urgency of adapting scientific method to the analysis of state matters.”

Utilitarian philosophers would also reason “in a style that was equally modeled on the physical sciences.” From Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836), proponents of the utilitarian view promoted a “calculus of pleasures and pains,” deductive reasoning, and physical analogies for understanding human nature. Drawing from the life sciences, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) argued that “human consciousness and conduct had to be explained by bodily arrangements and physical needs, and no longer in terms of immaterial substances.” Others, such as Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806) rejected mechanical conceptions and advocated a type of vitalism as the basis of the science of man. This position was taken up systematically by Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabnis (1757-1808) in his psychophysiological research programs, which also became the basis of the work of the idéologues, “a group of moderate revolutionary intellectuals.” Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), for example, wanted “the old metaphysics…to be replaced by a rigorously scientific program for which Cabanis’s biomedical theories provided the basis.” This was all appropriated by Saint-Simon within a physiological framework, “who proclaimed that human societies were also organized bodies.”

Heilbron next turns to evolutionary thought. He argues that “evolutionary thinking in the life sciences owed as much to the human sciences as it did to biology.” Notions of progressive change over extended periods of time first emerged, according to Heilbron, in “the late-seventeenth-century battle between what were called the Ancients and the Moderns.” In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) published his anti-utopian Essay on the Principle of Population. There is attacked Condorcet’s optimistic vision of indefinite perfectibility, arguing that “the operation of natural laws could well produce misery and starvation, not progress.” Malthus’ argument, as many have pointed out, “provided Darwin with the clue for his theory of natural selection.” In general, natural history reinforced the historicization of the social sciences. “Developmental or evolutionary theories in the broad sense became the prevailing form of the science of society in the nineteenth century.” But the best-known representative of evolutionism, of course, was Herbert Spencer, “an evolutionist before Darwin’s Origin.” Spencer would popularize the idea that “from the maturation of an embryo to the development of human society and the evolution of the solar system, all things evolve from the simple to the complex through successive differentiation.” Much broader than Comte’s sociology or Darwin’s biological theory, Spencer’s view of evolution “had the status of a cosmic law and formed the core of his all-embracing system of synthetic philosophy.”

But the “promise and prestige of the natural sciences,” Heilbron tells us, “did not remain uncontested. Countermovements to the naturalistic understanding of human society became an intellectual force in the course of the nineteenth century,” particularly in and through the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder argued that “each society, each people, is marked by a peculiar cultural spirit, a Volksgesit, expressed in its customs, myths, and folktales [and] the task of the human sciences is to uncover the peculiarities of this spirit.” According to Heilbron, Herder’s work “contributed to an emerging culturalist understanding of human socieites,” reinforced by the Romantic reactions of Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Bonald, among others.

The following essays examine the same movements and figures, only in more concentrated areas. Stephen Turner, for example, focuses on the “ideas of cause and teleology before and during the period of Mill and Comte, and its aftermath up to the early twentieth century.” Although Enlightenment thinkers agreed that arguments of teleology were problematic, “they were impressed with the idea that organisms are understandable only teleologically, only in terms of some internal principle or nature that cannot be reduced by mechanism; and they relied freely on the idea of human nature, characterized by inherent purposes, in their political reasoning.” Turgot, Comte, and Mill all wanted to eliminate final causes in their social sciences. But teleology survived the onslaught by these writers, in the form of purposive language, organic analogy, and historical directionality. As Turner concludes, “the project of stripping science of its teleological elements was difficult, perhaps impossible to carry through consistently.” Indeed, teleology persists today in many forms, particularly in rational choice theory in the social sciences.

Antoine Picon examines “Utopian Socialism and Social Science” during the nineteenth century. Under the direction of the “founding figures of utopian socialism” Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and their disciples, a scientific understanding of society was a “prerequisite for its reconstruction.” The notion of progress was a key piece of utopian arguments. Whereas Thomas More’s (1478-1535) vision of utopia was the negation of place—literally to be found “nowhere”—eighteenth-century utopias shifted from “singularity to universality, from nowhere to everywhere…[and] relocated into the future, as the final stage of human progress.” The utopian socialists’ vision of history, Picon tells us, “was based on the identification of a series of organic stages…separated by periods of cultural and social uncertainty and unrest.” Ironically, while eighteenth- and nineteenth-century utopians rejected Christianity, they had no intention of rejecting religion tout court. In fact, they wanted to replace Christianity with a new religion, a “religion of humanity.” Although the attempt to found new religions was eventually abandoned in the social sciences, late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century “sociological literature was permeated by a dull nostalgia for what had been lost,” as seen in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. The cult of progress; the belief in absolutely positive social facts and permanent historical laws that could reveal the future of mankind, were a crucial part of the emerging social sciences.

Starting in the seventeenth century, Eileen Janes Yeo argues in her “Social Surveys in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” “voluntary enthusiasts as well as state bureaucrats were becoming concerned with statistics, in the sense not only of facts useful to the state but also of a tabulated facts that would depict ‘the present state of a country,’ often ‘with a view to its future improvement.'” Population surveys were thus a source of power for the state. Unsurprisingly, many of the surveys were contested. But by the mid-nineteenth century, “the state monopolized large-scale social inquiry.” The nineteenth century “was characterized by the involvement of a wider range of social groups and institutional settings, which made social surveys a more visible part of a contested politics of knowledge.”

Likewise, “Scientific ethnography and travel” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Harry Liebersohn tells us, not only “facilitated accurate navigation over the thousands of miles of a world sea voyage”; it also opened a “new round of competition between the two great powers [i.e. British and French], who now played out their rivalry in the vast, hitherto imperfectly charted expanse of the Pacific.” Ethnographers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not simply transcribe their impressions of the things they have witnessed—rather, “they capture a many-sided drama involving actors across the world, all of them contending to dominate the ‘truth’ about encounters among strange people.” These were indeed “narratives of knowledge,” accounts of “independent-minded intellectuals who formed their own views of the things that they saw and…sometimes developed a belief that they were bearing witness to world-historical events for a European public.” The philosophes, for example, “drew on travel writing to validate their criticisms of politics at home and of colonial administration overseas.” The institution of slavery, equality, and liberty were a common topics encouraged by ethnographic works. Darwin, for example, in his 1839 account of the Beagle voyage, “attributed the wildness and poverty of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego to their insistence on an equal sharing of property and power, which checked, he though, any formation of a higher culture.” These works also encouraged comparative methods of inquiry, “evaluating the fantastic clutter of skulls, costumes, vocabularies, adventure stories, economic reports, and other souvenirs” of knowledge. This would led, as many other scholars have pointed out, to the development of comparative linguistics, but also the comparative study of religion.

Johnson Kent Wright argues in “History and Historicism” that historicism was not a distinctively nineteenth-century phenomenon, but one with an extensive genealogy connected to the Enlightenment. Moreover, he stresses “the close relations between historicism and conceptions of social science throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The “modernization” of historicism came from its chief architect, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who rendered it “irreducible to any other discipline.” Ranke’s vision of “historical development, concentrated resolutely on the political histories of the great nation-states of western Europe, from their first appearances in the Dark Ages down to the present,” became the model of “scientific” historiography in the second half of the nineteenth century. François Guizot’s (1787-1874) History of Civilization in Europe (1828) is a prime example. But it also influenced, as is well-known, the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose historical materialism was the conceptual centerpiece  of “a historicist device par excellence.” And as Terrell Carver concurs in his “Marx and Marxism,” Marx “absorbed and modified, but never rejected, a German intellectual tradition concerning knowledge and science.”


The Cambridge History of Science series is a massive and comprehensive undertaking. Beginning with Medieval Science and concluding with the Modern Social Sciences, the books serve as invaluable and indispensable references to the historian of science. I have found them valuable for orientating my thoughts and its judicious survey of movements, figures, and ideas. One must however carefully and selectively sift through their contents. Most of the essays are excellent; but many are also meandering, unfocused, and varying in quality. The cost of each book may also deter those looking to add them to their private library. Despite this, the series provides an incontrovertible resource for those interested in the history of science.

Science, Progress and History: Essay Competition

CHED - Science, Progress and History-headerThe Science, Progress and History project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the University of Queensland, and as part of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, seeks to explore questions at the interface of history and the natural sciences, with a focus on laws, patterns and narrative structures in human history, evolutionary history, and cosmology.

In recent news, the project is looking for essay submissions on any subject relevant to its main themes. There will be three prizes of $5,000, three prizes of $2,000, and three prizes of $1,000 awarded in Australian dollars. Students and recent graduates from any university or college are welcome to apply. The deadline for essay submission is 11 April 2014.

Broadly, essay topics range over the following questions:

1. How have conceptions of historical purpose or directionality influenced the emerging historical sciences (geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology)? These might include religious ideas (providential and eschatological), philosophical ideas (Hegelianism) sociological conceptions (Comte, Marx), or economics (Hayek).

2. In what sense was natural history a historical discipline, and what significance can be attached to its eclipse by biology?

3. Are there patterns, or evidence of directionality in evolutionary history?

4. Do the biological sciences, and evolutionary biology in particular, have ‘laws’ or allow for predictability in any strict sense?

5. What relationship, if any, is there been contingent or random processes, and the appearance of order, regularity, or directionality?

6. If historical conceptions of directionality and order in history did in fact influence the development of the historical sciences, can the vestiges of these influences still be discerned?

7. Does the popularization or communication of the sciences to a general public require that they be given some kind of narrative structure—e.g. ‘big history’,  ‘the epic of evolution’? Does this structure distort these sciences or might it be an essential ingredient?

8. Is ‘counterfactual history’ a useful explanatory tool in both spheres (history and the historical sciences)?

9. Are there similarities between the ways in which contingency and order are understood in these two spheres (history and the historical sciences)?

10. Has teleological explanation found its way back into biology and history?

Inventing Progress

Robert Nisbet has observed that “in the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, the belief in progress attained the status of a popular religion among the middle class, and was widely declared by intellectuals to be a fixed law.” The idea of progress, of course, is an ancient one. “But only in Western Civilization,” Nisbet claims, “does the idea exist that all history may be seen as one of humanity improving itself, step by step, stage by stage, through immanent forces, until at some remote time in the future a condition of near-perfection for all will exist.” It is a misconception to view progress as a modern idea, as did J.B. Bury (1861-1927) in his The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origins and Growth (1920). Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.) and his Works and Days is said to have “set before men the first idea of progress.” We also find contributions to ideas of progress in the writings of Xenophanes, Protagoras, Plato, and even Aristotle. Among the Romans, “the greatest description of human progress to be found in all of ancient thought is the Roman Lucretius.” To this we may add Seneca, who, in his Quaestiones Naturales, writes: “The time will come when mental acumen and prolonged study will bring to light what is now hidden…the time will come when our successors will wonder how we could have been ignorant of things so obvious.”

As is now well attested, Christianity contributed significantly to the idea of progress. As Nisbet puts it, recent scholarship “make it certain beyond question that a very real philosophy of human progress appears almost form the very beginning in Christian theology.” St Augustine (and indeed his predecessors, Eusebius, Tertullian, and others) “fused the Greek idea of growth or development with the Jewish idea of sacred history.” In an oft-cited passage, St Augustine, in his The City of God writes that “the education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible.” The legacy and influence of St Augustine can be found in the writings of Paulus Orosius, a student of St Augustine; Otto of Freising’s twelfth century Two Histories; and, most extraordinarily, Joachim of Fiore, who once “declared that human history must be seen as an ascent through three stages, each presided over by a figure of the Trinity. First, the Age of Father or of Law; second, the Age of the Son or of the Gospel; and third, still ahead, a thousand-year Age of Spirit when human beings would be liberated from their physical-animal desires and would know a contemplative serenity and happiness of mind scarcely even describable.” Within this tradition, the idea of progress belonged to a broader context of general teleology, of God’s providential plan for humanity, creation, and history.

Indeed, ideas of progress in early modern natural philosophy are centrally located within this Christian understanding of history. Many other examples are available, including ones that greatly complicate this picture, such as the inherent paradox of the Renaissance, which derived its vigor, its emotional impulse, not from looking forward but from looking background—or, as Frances Yates puts it in her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), the fundamental paradox of the forward movements of the Renaissance was that it viewed progress as “revival, rebirth, [the] renaissance of antiquity.” The point here is that modern scholars who claim progress is a modern phenomena—such as Bury—drew such anachronisms not from the historical record but from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers.

What we find in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “is the beginning and development of [the] secularization of the idea of progress—detaching it from its long-held relationship with God, making it a historical process activated and maintained by purely natural cases” or laws. The first secular statement of the idea of progress occurred during the so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns in France, but it would also move beyond it. In the writings of Fontenelle, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, William Godwin, Marie Jean Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and many others, “there is a manifest desire to liberate progress from any crucial relationship with an active, guiding, ruling Providence” and replace it with a “demonstration of the scientific reality of human progress and of the laws and principles which make progress necessary.”

This was, of course, not so much a reality, as a myth, a narrative of progress and advancement, invented to serve a particular audience, time, and place. Peter Bowler’s The Invention of Progress: The Victorians and the Past (1989) traces discussions in nineteenth-century history, archaeology, anthropology, geology, and biology about the mechanisms of progress and change. He argues that Victorians structured the interpretation of the past to serve their own presentist purposes. History demonstrated inexorable laws of progress. Similar conceptions characterized other disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, geology, and biology. Even Darwin’s purposeless materialism was reinterpreted to better suit Victorians’ sense of superiority to other cultures, nations, and races. Progressionism in Victorian historical, philological, anthropological, and geological studies thus paralleled progressionism in biology, and vice versa. In other words, all these scientific disciplines were overdetermined and filtered, through particular control beliefs about the nature of progress.

At the same time, according to Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008), every major tradition of natural science spawned efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to social and political issues of contemporary concern. Or, in Oslon’s words, “the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context and study of the natural world…into the study of humans and their social institutions.” Beginning with French positivism and then different modes of German materialism, Olson recounts a well-known narrative. Here we find Pierre Cabanis, Saint-Simon, and Auguste Comte, and Friedrich Schelling, Ludwig Feuerbach; Olson also treats us to the “scientific materialism” of Friedrich Karl Christian Ludwig Büchner, the “organic physics” of Emil Du-Bois Reymond, and the “dialectical materialism” of Marx and Engels.

In later chapters Olson accounts for the “rise of materialisms and the reshaping of religion and politics,” “early Victorian public science and political science,” and the “rise of evolutionary perspectives.” Olson links the success of materialism as an ideology of political liberals with the advancements of the physical sciences: “If the status of science had not been rapidly on the rise in Germany during the 1840s, the materialist appeal to scientific authority in the name of humanistic religion and liberal politics would have had little impact, but such was not the case.” In any case, the scientisms of Saint-Simonian socialism, the socialism of Robert Owen, the positivism of Comte, the agenda of Marxism, and the plurality of social Darwinism were deeply imbued with optimistic hope for social progress. And all of these -isms held, to some extent, quasi-religious characteristics that can be traced back to a Christian legacy of progress.

The idea of progress had many elements in the nineteenth century, but one I find particularly fascinating is its alleged corollary: the myth of conflict between science and religion. In New York City, at the height of the Civil War, John William Draper spoke to a large audience and propounded the thesis that American history embodies a “social advancement…as completely under the control of natural law as is the bodily growth of an individual.” He would present this “physiological argument…respecting the mental progress of Europe” again at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Oxford in 1860, and again in his The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862), before publishing the work he is most well-known for, a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). In this work Draper declares that “Whoever has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the mental condition of the intelligent classes in Europe and America, must have perceived that there is a rapidly-increasing departure from the public religious faith.” This retreat from religion was the result of the victories of science. The history of science, he concluded “is no mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers.” Draper substantiated the idea that science and religion were at loggerheads, an idea framed within the bounds of a progressivist narrative—an idea, moreover, still ingrained in debates about science-religion relations to this day.

John William Draper’s work, his ideas, sources, and reception, I suggest, may act as a foil for understanding, more broadly, opinions about progress, science, and religion in the nineteenth century—and, more importantly, “how and why the original myth [of conflict] was constructed, the channels through which it circulated, and the ways it was transformed and mobilized in different settings.” By answering this central question, we may begin to shed light on the projected themes set by the Science, Progress and History project at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Translation comes Interpretation: Translations of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation

Robert Chambers
Robert Chambers believed that nature’s laws could explain the material universe. His Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (published anonymously) described a theory of everything, from the origin of the universe to the origin of life of humanity.

Earlier this month I mentioned reading through a collection of essays in the 2000 issue of The British Journal for the History of Science, with an Introduction by Jonathan R. Topham. The final essay in that collection comes from Nicholaas Rupke, “Translation Studies in the History of Science: the example of Vestiges.”

There Rupke argues that the three translations of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation—first into German in 1846, then into Dutch in 1849, and finally another German translation in 1851—invested the text with new meaning. Renditions of scientific texts into other languages can serve as “autochthonous cultural products.” “In the process of transfer and assimilation into a different culture,” Rupke explains, “texts can acquire an altered meaning. Translators relocate books, taking these away from the intellectual control of authors, repossessing the texts, possibly in the service of very different purposes than those for which the works were originally intended. Such alterations of meaning can be effected by new, additional prefaces, by footnote commentary, by other additions such as illustrations, by omissions and, most fundamentally, by the very act of cultural relocation.” In this way, translation studies demonstrate the “situatedness of scientific knowledge.”

The Vestiges was a publishing triumph. Four editions of the book appeared in just half a year, and eleven more during the period 1844-60. It also garnered in the English-speaking world a very substantial, critical response: “over eighty reviews which appeared in daily newspapers, popular weeklies and heavyweight quarterlies.” By contrast, there were almost no review of its English editions on the Continent. Prominent continental reviewing magazines Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen, Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, Heidelbergische Jahrbucher der Literatur, and Revue des deux mondes offered no reviews of the Vestiges. The book was also never translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, or Swedish.

But translations did appear. According to Rupke, the first translation was into German in 1846, which was an adaptation of the third English edition of the Vestiges, by Adolf Friedrich Seubert (1819-1890), entitled Spuren der Gottheit in der Entwickelungs- und Bildungsgeschichte der Schöpfung: Nach William Whewell’s Indications of the Creator und der dritten Auflage der Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, für deutsche Leser bearbeitet. This translation does not provide its reader with either a preface or footnotes to the text; but it does include William Whewell’s (1794-1866) famous rebuttal of Vestiges in his Indications of the Creator (1845). Interestingly enough, Seubert “interwove the two texts, producing an almost seamless, integrated product by alternating chapters from the one with sections from the other.” In the English-speaking world, the two books were antithetical. Here, in Seubert’s translation, the concern “lay in something other than its transmutationism”; rather, it was put forward as evincing divine design in nature.

The Dutch translation of the Vestiges was carried out by Jan Hubert van den Broek (1815-1896) and appeared in 1849. It was an adaptation of the sixth English edition, under the title Sporen van de natuurlijke geschiedenis der schepping, of schepping en voortgaande ontwikkeling van planten en dieren, onder den invloed en het beheer der natuurwetten. This was a popular text, and underwent three more editions by 1854. Unlike the original English Vestiges, Broek included illustrations of principle plants and animals. And like Seubert’s German translation, Broek’s Dutch version added the opposing voice of Thomas Monck Mason’s (1803-1889) Creation by the Immediate Agency of God, as Opposed to Creation by Natural Law; being a Refutation of the Work Entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1845). This Dutch translation was used, argues Rupke, as proof of divine order in nature and, more specifically, as aiding the stabilization of society under God and king in a process of recovery from the 1848 Revolution. The preface of the Sporen was written by Gerrit Jan Mulder (1802-1880), a man “disenchanted with the liberalization of post-1848 politics in the Netherlands and actively campaigned to keep a strong monarchy over and against parliamentary democracy.” To Mulder, the Vestiges was a salutary book, put forward in the “context of a form of Calvinist theism and of reactionary, monarchist politics.”

The second German translations comes from the “notorious materialist and anti-monarchist rebel,” Karl Vogt (1817-1895). Appearing in 1851, entitled Natürliche Geschichte der Schopfung des Weltalls, der Erde und der auf ihr befindlichen Organismen, begrundet auf die durch die Wissenschaft errungenen Tatsachen, Vogt’s translation included illustrations from 164 woodcuts, eighty-three footnotes, corrections, new information, and expressions of disagreement. As a leading champion of revolution and materialism, Vogt “highlighted Chambers’s deistic view that the laws of nature are regulations that in the beginning were enacted by divine will but since have operated autonomously.” Vogt argues in his brief introduction to Vestiges:

I recommend this book in a spirit of pure goodwill to the constitutional party in Germany, whose effectiveness before long will be limited to the innocent reading of innocent books. It will find in the book a constitutional Englishman, who has constructed a constitutional God, who, admittedly, in the beginning autocratically decreed laws, but then, out of his own volition, gave up his autocratic rule, letting the laws act in his place, by themselves, without himself exerting direct influence on his subjects. A beautiful example for sovereigns!

This God-talk is mere facetiousness, for Vogt did not believe in Chambers’ God, nor in any other God. Indeed, Vogt is famous for expressing the materialistic view that the human soul is nothing more than a function of the brain and that thought is a product of the brain in the same way that bile is secreted by the liver or urine is produced by the kidneys. And in a stunning footnote, Vogt declares that “the belief in an immortal soul being the only foundation for religion and church, its increasing untenability would soon lead to the collapse of ‘the whole nonsensical building.'” Thus Vogt’s German translation “interpreted the book as furthering the very revolutionary, anti-ecclesiastical and anti-monarchist ideals that” the Dutch and first German translations sought to counter.

Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012) has caused quite a stir. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings finds “Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling.” She sees it as “a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that ‘the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.'”

While Louis B. Jones argues in the ThreePenny Review that Nagel’s “project seems like a glance in the right direction,” P.N. Furbank, in the same review article, argues that he is “fatally unspecific,” “impalpable,” and “reckless.”

Edward Fesser at First Things declares that Nagel’s work “marks an important contribution to the small but significant Aristotelian revival currently underway in academic philosophy of science and metaphysics.”

Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg over at The Nation find Nagel’s argument perplexing, quixotic, unconvincing, and highly misleading; his book is declared “an instrument of mischief.”

John Dupré at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews also found the book “frustrating and unconvincing.”

Alva Noë, in a series of articles for NPR, “Are the Mind and Life Natural?,” “Moving Beyond Political Correctness,” and “Arguing the Nature of Values,” rejects some of Nagel’s convictions, but also finds Leiter and Weisberg’s review “superficial and unsatisfying.” It is, in the end, a “worthwhile” book.

Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s review in New Statesmen find’s Nagel’s confession to “finding things bewildering” quite charming. But ultimately regrets its appearance. “It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design,'” he says, and “if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.”

Alvin Plantinga, whose own Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011) sits beside Nagel’s book on my bookshelf, argues in the New Republic that Nagel makes a strong and persuasive case against materialist naturalism. According to Plantinga, “if Nagel followed his own methodological prescriptions and requirements for sound philosophy, if he followed his own arguments wherever they lead, if he ignored his emotional antipathy to belief in God, then (or so I think) he would wind up a theist.”

More recently, John Horgan at The Globe and Mail, states he shares “Nagel’s view of science’s inadequacies,” but was disappointed by his dry, abstract style. Like Popova, Horgan recommends Nagel’s book “as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists.”

Adam Frank at NPR sees “Nagel’s arguments against Darwin…[as] a kind wishful thinking.” Nevertheless, he finds his “perspective bracing.” “[O]nce I got past Nagel’s missteps on Darwin,” Frank writes, “I found his arguments to be quite brave, even if I am not ready to follow him to the ends of his ontology. There is a stiff, cold wind in his perspective. Those who dismiss him out of hand are holding fast to a knowledge that does not exist. The truth of the matter is we are just at the beginning of our understanding of consciousness and of the Mind.”

In the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr sees Nagel’s work as “provocative,” reflecting the “efforts of a fiercely independent mind.” In important places, however, Orr believes that it is “wrong.”

Richard Brody at The New Yorker is “immensely sympathetic to Nagel’s line of thought.”

Finally, at The New York Times, Thomas Nagel responds to both his critics and supporters with a brief restatement of his position. He argues that “the physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view.” Purely physical descriptions of neurophysiological processes of experience will always leave out the subjective essence of experience. The physical sciences, therefore, leave an important aspect of nature unexplained.

The sciences, if it wishes to have the full domain of explanation, “must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur.”

Nagel sees two responses to this claim as self-evidently false: namely, (a) that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical; and (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all. He also sees a third response as completely implausible, (c) that we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms. But by rejecting all three responses he does not see how it entails (d) that we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology—in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.

According to Nagel, “a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order.” In other words, Nagel wants an “expanded form of understanding.” “Mind,” he continues, “is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.” Although Nagel does not “believe” the theistic outlook, he does admit that “some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”

John Tyndall, the Pantheist

John Tyndall’s Belfast Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874 has been said to be the “chief pronouncement of materialism of the nineteenth century.”

But according to Ruth Barton’s “John Tyndall, Pantheist: A Rereading of the Belfast Address” (1987), Tyndall was an admirer of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, leading representatives of idealist philosophy. As Frank Turner has shown, in “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle” (1975), Tyndall’s attraction to idealism, although something of a paradox, consisted more than just an appeal to its social theory; it also included an appeal to its metaphysics. “The Belfast Address,” Barton argues, “was a conscious and deliberate attempt by Tyndall to set scientific ‘materialism’ in the larger context of natural supernaturalism” of figures such as Carlyle, Emerson, and Fichte. Indeed, Tyndall often qualified his views on materialism, asserting that it cannot be “a complete philosophy of life,” and warning his listeners that “the ‘materialism’ here professed may be vastly different from what you suppose.”

In the first section of this paper Barton provides some insightful comments regarding the British Association and the context for its meeting in Belfast. A later post will specifically address this, along with Barton’s other essays, “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990), and “Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others”: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864″ (1998). Here the focus is on Barton’s comments on the Belfast Address and Tyndall’s idealist and pantheist beliefs.

At its core, “the Belfast Address was an argument for the adequacy of materialism as a philosophy of science.” But this materialism must be seen in the context of other recurring themes in the address, including “wonder,” “religious awe,” “artistic creativity,” “sexual passion”; in other words, human feelings. While the first part of the address introduces the atomic theories of the ancients, in the second part Tyndall argues that “the mind’s capacity to form clear, coherent pictures of physical conceptions is the basis of theory formation in science. Such a picture is called Vorstellung in German, and the act of picturing, vorstellen. The closet English translation is ‘imagination.'” Interestingly enough, Tyndall uses the example of Giordano Bruno rather than Copernicus as marking the end of the so-called “stationary period” in science. According to Tyndall, Bruno came close to “our present line of thought” in pondering the problem of life. Following the work of Friedrich A. Lange’s The History of Materialism and Criticism of Its Present Importance (first published in 1865), Tyndall writes

Nature, in her productions,  does not imitate the technic of man. Her process is one of  unravelling  and unfolding. The infinity  of forms under which matter appears was not imposed upon it by an external artificer;  by its own intrinsic  force and virtue it brings these forms forth. Matter is not the mere naked, empty capacity which philosophers have pictured her to be, but the universal mother, who brings forth all things as the fruit of her own womb.

Through such anthropomorphism of the “universal mother,” Tyndall presents matter as having the capacity for life.

The “analytic tendency” of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, says Tyndall, explained the motion of matter by “a detached Creator, working more or less after the manner of men.” By contrast, Goethe, Carlyle, and other “men of warm feelings” with “minds open to the elevating impressions produced by nature as a whole, whose satisfaction, therefore, is rather ethical than logical,” usually adopt “some form of pantheism.” In his concluding remarks, Tyndall asserts:

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

Introducing epistemological arguments from John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Tyndall concludes that “we cannot know the real nature of the external world, although there is no doubt as to its existence: ‘Our states of consciousness are mere symbols of an outside entity which produces them and determines the order of their succession, but the real nature of which we can never know.’ All—the nature of matter, the evolution of life, of species, and of mind—is inscrutable mystery.”

According to Barton, Tyndall sought unity between objective knowledge and moral and emotional nature. Tyndall found this unity “not in materialism but in a cosmical life that is manifested in both matter and mind, thought and emotion.”

Yet in the polarized popular debate of the 1870s, Protestant and Catholic defenders of orthodox Christianity saw the Belfast Address as an attack. As Bernard Lightman as shown more recently in “Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address,” in Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (eds.) Science Serialized: Representation of Sciences in the Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (2004), “through the periodical press, a concerted effort was made to transform Tyndall’s image in the public eye from the respected popular lecturer well known to genteel audiences at the Royal Institution into the aggressive and radical materialist.”

But according to Barton, Tyndall’s “materialism was located within a broader idealist metaphysic.” In saying that his conclusions were the same as Bruno, adding a footnote in the printed version of the address  reminding the reader that “Bruno was a ‘Pantheist,’ not an ‘Atheist’ or a ‘Materialist,'” Tyndall was claiming for himself the title of “Pantheist.” But more than labels, Tyndall’s arguments and concepts show patterns belonging to “romantic idealism,” writes Barton. In romanticism a new conception of nature was central, where qualities traditionally attributed to God are now found in nature. “The divine is immanent in the world, and…the world is the garment of God.” The true religion is a “sense of dependence on, participation in, or union with the great universal life.”

“These aspects of idealism,” Barton claims, “are all found in Tyndall’s writings.” Besides the Belfast Address, Tyndall’s personal philosophy is also recorded in his journal and correspondence between is protégé, friend, and member of the “X-Club” Thomas Hirst. In a journal entry marked 1847, for example, Tyndall, on reading Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Presrnt and Chartism, commented, “His position is sometimes startling—to many he will appear impious…I however thank the gods for having flung him as a beacon to guide me amid life’s entanglements.” And after reading Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Tyndall recorded: “the writer must be a true hero. My feelings toward him are those of worship [or] transcendent wonder’ as he defines it.” But Carlyle’s ideas were one among many that Tyndall subscribed to. In 1848, after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tyndall subsequently bought his works. Later in the year he also bought Fichte’s Characteristics of the Age, and in October he began reading romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel. In a later speech to his pupils at Queenwood, Tyndall described his time studying these authors as a religious purpose: “It was not merely to understand physical laws, for ‘what are sun, stars, science, chemistry, geology, mathematics, but pages of a book whose author is God! I want to know the meaning of this book, to penetrate the spirit of this author and if I fail then are my scientific attainments apple rinds without a core.'” Reading Kant, Schlegel, Fichte, Emerson, and Carlyle, and many others was part of Tyndall’s continuing search for the meaning of the whole.

Following Schlegel, Tyndall claimed that “God does not allow his existence to be proved…[It] must be adopted with the vividness of feeling.” Writing to Hirst, Tyndall said he considered Emerson and Carlyle to be pantheists “in the highest sense”:

I dropped an hour ago upon a very significant  passage in the Sartor. ‘Is there no God then, but at best an absentee God sitting idle ever since the first Sabbath at the outside of his Universe and seeing it go?’ At the ‘outside‘ of his universe. I imagine Carlyle’s entire creed is folded in this sentence…With Carlyle the universe is the blood and bones of Jehovah—he climbs in the sap of trees and falls in cataract.

Tyndall declared William Paley’s God in Natural Theology no better than atheism. Indeed, as Barton puts it, Tyndall “preferred the organic analogy of the universe as a tree to the mechanical analogy of the universe as clock.”

During the twenty years before the Belfast Address, Tyndall was far from materialism. In a number of essays and speeches, however, he elaborated on materialism and its limits, for the materialist debates were raging in places such as Germany. Although he began formulating his own version of materialism and determinism during these years, Tyndall consistently “assured his hearers that the matter of which he spoke was not the matter described by theologians and philosophers; rather, matter is ‘essentially mystical and transcendental,'” and “science, by its limitations, maintained mystery.”

Barton concludes that “Tyndall, like Huxley, Hermann con Helmholtz, and [Friedrich A.] Lange, advocated materialism as a methodology, a program, or a maxim of scientific research, but not as a general philosophy” of life.