History, Humanity, and Evolution

0521524784cvr.qxd (Page 1)In a festschrift honoring John C. Greene, most well-known for his seminal volumes, The Death of Adam: Evolution and its Impact on Western Thought (1959) and Science, Ideology and World View: Essays in the History of evolutionary Ideas (1981), James R. Moore (ed.) has collected thirteen essays in History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene (1989) that share Greene’s interest in the intellectual, cultural, and social history of evolution; and, in particular, the recurring interdependence of science and religion in the history of science. Beginning with a wonderful introductory interview with Moore, Greene describes his general approach to relating these two most powerful forces in history:

“Religion apart from science tends to become obscurantist, dogmatic and bigoted; science apart from some general view of human nature in its total context becomes meaningless and destructive. Unless science is practiced on the basis of a conception of human nature that does justice to our highest aspirations, the prospect for the future is bleak indeed.”

Although the essays range in quality, they collectively represent the growing trend of social constructivism among historians of science in the last decade of the twentieth century. Roy Porter begins with an intellectual portrait of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and his concern “to rescue ‘man’ from the aspersions of being just a machine.” Erasmus’ biomedical background was “informed by the evidence of change, both in degree and in kind, running ubiquitously through Nature.” But as an interpreter of nature, Erasmus’ attention was drawn to “features indicative of unity, integration and interdependence.” He would eventually develop a “hylozoic vision of natural continuity,” where living bodies were “capable of entering into dialectical interplay with their external environment.” In explaining this adaptive behavior, Erasmus had in mind “something close to the classic conception of the association of ideas as spelt out in empiricist epistemology from Locke through Hartley and Hume.” But Erasmus’ vision of human nature was not the l’homme machine of the Enlightenment. According to Porter, “his physician’s vision was dominated by the living organisms he saw fighting disease, changing over time, involved in subtle interplay with the personalities they housed…it is a vision of man for the machine age, but it is not a vision of man the machine.”

Ludmilla Jordanova examines Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744-1829) separation of God from nature, “creation from production.” Lamarck repudiated disorder in nature, but rather than adhering to a God who is in sovereign control over nature, he appealed to universal natural laws. Also interesting is Jordanova’s observation that “Lamarck’s ‘psychology’ was central to his philosophy of nature.” Lamarck shared many interests with the Parisian idéologues, a loosely affiliated group of self-styled social scientists such as Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutte de Tracy (1754-1836), Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), among others. “Lamarck’s commitment to this position is clearly vital,” writes Jordanova, “as it spurred him to think through a naturalistic account of the nervous system, and to reject any mental faculties, such as will and imagination, not strictly compatible with such an account.” By  redefining terms such as creation, production, life and nature, “Lamarck tried to generate a language purged of unwelcome theological associations, to set himself apart from natural philosophical traditions that could not sustain a science of life rooted in change over time, that is, production.”

Adrian Desmond argues that “the doctrines of scientific naturalism, in comparative anatomy at least, originated in republican Paris, and were actively imported into London and incorporated into Benthemite and radical dissenting strategies at the time of the Reform and Municipal Corporations Acts” of 1835, long before the “scientific naturalism” of the Huxleys and Tyndalls of the 1860s. When these radical dissenters stripped nature of its supernatural content, it “served a powerful religious and political purpose.” That is, “it vitiated the clergy’s claim to moral authority based on their mediating role in natural theology, and was in line with the dissenters’ belief in the priesthood of all believers and the right to private interpretation of the Bible.” The “new naturalism,” as Desmond phrases it, “appealed most strongly to younger reformers, many socially handicapped nonconformists and secularists, who were attempting to break the traditional power of the old corporation and Oxbridge oligarchs.”

Simon Schaffer focuses the “nebular hypothesis” of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and how it gained greater currency in the 1830s through the work of John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), becoming an “important site at which the Victorians worked out their differing views of the progress of their world.” The nebular hypothesis pretends to give an astronomical account of the origins of the solar system through natural laws. Both Robert Chambers and Herbert Spencer “gave the nebular cosmogony pride of place in their respective accounts of development in the world.” Indeed, Spencer said it exemplified “the law of all progress.”But as Schaffer argues, the nebular hypothesis was not imported from astronomy. It came to Britain through the writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and William Herschel (1738-1822), as reported by David Brewster (1781-1868) and J.S. Mill (1806-1873). It was William Whewell (1794-1866), however, who first coined the term “nebular hypothesis” in his 1833 Bridgewater Treatise. Indeed, “Whewell baptized the nebular hypothesis by claiming that it still demanded ‘an intelligent Author, an origin proceeding from free volition not from material necessity.'” But Nichol and his allies, according to Schaffer, “made their nebular hypothesis an object of a moral and a natural science. Stellar progress was pressed into the service of political reform.” Astronomical data was malleable; its “message was always interpreted to fit the local interests of protagonists in the contests about progress in the Universe and in Society.” In this sense, astronomy was the “science of progress.” According to Charles Lyell (1797-1875), astronomy “gave the most violent shock to the prejudices and long-received opinions of men.” This “science of progress appeared in government offices, lecture theatres, journals and popular texts of the reform movement in politics and education that developed during the 1820s and 1830s.” These reformers stressed the inevitability and certainty of natural laws, and therefore progress. Nichol’s impact on Darwin, Chambers, Mill, and others is well attested. According to Schaffer, Nichol’s “version of the nebular hypothesis was not an isolated statement of an astronomical truth. It appeared alongside reflections on the origin of life, the progress of humanity and the future of society. His cosmogony was part of a sectarian view of history and it had stiff competition.”

James A. Secord provides an early essay on Robert Chambers (1802-1871) and his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which would be developed in full in his Victorian Sensation (2000). Secord wants to present a “new view of the Vestiges and how it came to be written.” Chambers publicly delineated his ideas on the development of the cosmos and life on earth in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, a weekly periodical founded by William and Robert Chambers in 1832. “The tone of the Journal,” writes Secord, “is unmistakeable: self-improvement, the progress of society, and rational, non-sectarian entertainment.” The Vestiges can be seen as a consequence of the “progressive development” of the author himself. Initially, Chambers was a staunch Tory, but eventually shifting to liberal Whig in the 1830s. Religiously, Chambers was a moderate deist who disliked “evangelical enthusiasm and doctrinal controversy.” According Secord, the “explicitly religious aspects of the Vestiges were tacked on to placate those evangelicals he contemptuously referred to as ‘the saints.'” Further, his interest in natural science emerged from “a phrenologically inspired educational programme in publishing,” accepting the “essential tenets of phrenology and their significance for his growing interest in natural law.” It was Scottish phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858) and his Constitution of Man (1828) that came to influence Chambers the most in this regard. He was also influenced by Nichol’s Views of the Architecture of the Heavens (1837), which described the evolution of the universe and the formation of galaxies and stars. Nichol’s version of the nebular hypothesis compelled Chambers to apply the “law of progress to the whole realm of nature.” Much of these developing ideas, according to Secord, are present in Chambers’ Journal.

But how, exactly, did Chambers come to replace divine intervention with law-like regularities? “In the late 1830s,” Secord observes, “naturalistic physiological and anatomical doctrines were common currency among nonconformist medical men.” During this time, Chambers came under the influence of Perceval Lord’s Popular Physiology (1834) and John Fletcher’s Rudiments of Physiology (1835-7), and it appears that the “transmutation theory of Vestiges was initially constructed around the traditional concept of recapitulation available in the works of Lord and Fletcher.” At the time, of course, transmutation was a radical doctrine. But when Chambers composed Vestiges in the early 1840s, he utilized analogies of domesticity and human growth to disarm criticism. “Images of pregnancy, birth, childhood and the family were deeply embedded in the structure and language of the book.” Chambers used “generative images to bring the frightening notion of transmutation within the realm of the familiar.” The Vestiges was successful because Chambers employed such generative models of domestic virtues, which minimized or completely neutralized the fears of his audience.

In his own extraordinary and moving study, Moore traces Darwin’s gradual loss of faith to moral reasons rather than intellectual ones. He claims that the “prevailing view of Darwin’s loss of faith to be wrong.” This view holds that Darwin’s misgivings and eventual eschewal of the Christian faith are for the most part intellectual. Evidential considerations surely played some role, but the fact that this process was for so long protracted suggests that Darwin “was frankly reluctant to give up on Christianity.” In a 1879 letter to John Fordyce, author of Aspects of Scepticism: With Special Reference to the Present Time (1883), for example, Darwin writes

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

According to Moore, the most well-known account of Darwin’s loss of Christian faith comes from his Autobiography, written between 1876 and 1881. And it is here where we find a “different interpretation of Darwin’s loss of faith.” The Autobiography was written for no one but his family. There Darwin reveals that he had “gradually” come to distrust the Old Testament on empirical and moral grounds. Likewise, he “gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.” Here the reasons given “pertain chiefly to defects in historical evidence.” But Darwin also found the “damnable doctrine” of everlasting punishment to be morally repugnant as well. At any rate, he hastens to add, “I was very unwilling to give up my belief…disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate.”

Moore focuses on a section in the Autobiography entitled “Religious Belief,” which includes discussions on Christianity, natural religion, the existence of God and personal immortality, and the moral life of an agnostic. Theses sections were likely written sometime between 1876 and 1879. In 1879 Darwin also gave his full attention to “a biographical sketch of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.” As Moore writes, “the ‘constant inculcation’ of disbelief in the Darwin family, from his grandfather down to grandson, had produced neither moral obliquity nor guilt.”

Moore also makes the interesting observation that the life of Darwin’s wife, Emma, was marked full of death (her sister, Fanny, died in 1832; her infant and both parents died in the 1840s; two additional children and two aunts died in the 1850s; another sister, aunt, and nephew died in the 1860s; and yet another sister, brother, and a remaining aunt died in the 1880s), whereas Darwin “lost no one near and dear to him until his father’s death in 1848.” When his father died, Darwin entered a deep depression: “All the autumn & winter I have been much dispirited and inclined to do nothing but what I was forced to.”

It was also during this time that Darwin began reading some works on apologetics. According to his reading notebook, for example, Darwin read Andrews Norton’s The Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1837), Julius Hare’s Essays and Tales by John Sterling (1848), three books by Francis Newman, the younger brother of John Henry, including The Soul, Her Sorrows and Her Aspirations: An Essay towards the Natural History of the Soul, as the True Basis of Theology (1849), A History of the Hebrew Monarchy from the Adminstration of Samuel to the Babylonish Captivity (1847), and Phases of Faith; or, Passages from the History of My Creed (1850). Darwin recorded his highest accolade, “excellent,” for this last publication. The Phases of Faith “was a model of spiritual autobiography conceived as the outgrowth of one ‘phase’ of faith from another, forming a natural progression in which the abandonment of Christianity appears at the end of a plausible, grandualistic narrative.” Darwin followed a similar technique in his own Autobiography.

Moore then tells the emotional story of the death of Annie in 1851, “Darwin’s favourite child.” At only ten years old, Annie’s death shook him to his core. According to Darwin, “Annie did not deserve to die; she did not even deserve to be punished—in this world, let alone the next.” But “nature’s check fell upon her, crushing her remorsefully.” As Moore aptly puts it, “If contemplation of Dr. Darwin eternal destiny had spiked Christianity—Emma’s Christianity, the only living faith he really knew—Annie’s death clinched the matter a fortiori.” In conclusion, “the circumstances under which Darwin came at last to reject Christianity were full of pain…and his decisive objection was [ultimately] moral.”

Martin Rudwick discusses “nineteenth-century visual representations of the deep past.” He begins with some brief remarks on dioramas of natural history, found in our modern museums. The dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period; the ichthyosaurs of the Jurassic seas; the swamps of the Carboniferous; the trilobites and the nautiloids among the coral reefs. “Evolution,” he writes, has “replaced ‘elohim.” Our dioramas of natural history are “reconstructed scenes.” They are anschaulichkeit, that is, “clear,” “graphic,” “vivid” representations of “the prehuman and barely-human past,” reconstructed as “ideal views,” familiar, conceivable, and, most importantly, imaginable. They help make evolutionary interpretation plausible and persuasive, better than any scientific theory can.

Modern dioramas have a history, most conspicuously in illustrations in nineteenth-century books. These artists “visualized the long aeons of ‘deep time’ that lie beyond human history or even the origins of our humanity.” Rudwick works backgrounds, starting with Guillaume Louis Figuier (1819-94) and Edouard Riou’s (1833-1900) “profusely illustrated works, particularly their The World before the Deluge (1863). Figuier had borrowed many of the images from the work of a predecessor, Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-57), professor of palaeontology at the National History Museum in Paris. But according to Rudwick, “Figuier’s human beings, although primitive in time, and simple in tools, clothing and shelter, were no primitives in any other sense: they were unmistakably white and European, and wholly modern in physical appearance.”

Before Figuier there was Austrian palaeobotanist Franz Unger (1800-70) and his illustrator Josef Kuwasseg (1799-1859) in The Primitive World in Its Different Periods of Formation (1847). Their images of the Ice Age in Europe and the origins of humankind were obviously “imaginative achievements.” Other contributors to this genre include August Wilhelm von Klipstein (1801-94), Johann Jakob Kaup (1803-73), Oxford geologist William Buckland (1784-1856), and Henry De la Beche (1796-1855). What is important here is that among these early contributors, “the idea of constructing a whole sequence of scenes from the deep past” was readily available.

Why? Where did this fascination originate? According to Rudwick, when Buckland had asked De la Beche to draw scenes from the deep past, he asked for caricatures of scientific research. De la Beche’s Duria Antiquior (c. 1830) is a prime example. In this “half-humorous” lithograph of ichthyosaurs, pleisiosaurs, and other creatures found as fossils in the Liassic strata of Dorset, “almost every animal was shown eating, of being eaten by, another.” Such caricatures were initially privately and widely circulated among gentlemen geologists of London. Another example is William Conybeare’s (1787-1857) “The Hyaena’s Den at Kirkdale,” which celebrated Buckland’s analysis of the bone relics in a cave in Kirkdale in Yorkshire. In this lithograph Buckland emerges from the cave passage, candle in hand, with a “surprise” expression on his face. “The geologist became in caricature a participant in the scene he had soberly reconstructed in words.” The visual form had obviously been exaggerated for poetic effect.

Thus by the time we reach Darwin, says Rudwick, a “principle had been established.” By making “deep time” anschaulichkeit, “clear,” “graphic,” “vivid,” and, in the end, “entertaining” by visual representation, evolutionary theory seemed more plausible.

I have reserved an special post for Bernard Lightman’s essay on “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers,” and therefore will pass over it here.

Paul Weindling discusses Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and the “secularization of nature,” connecting Haeckel’s acceptance of Darwinism to his views on German politics and social development.

According to Weindling, “Darwinism in Germany was a movement promoting liberal, rational and secular values in perceptions of nature and society.” These German Darwinists were less materialistic and more idealistic and pantheistic. It was, as Weindling puts it, a “secular religion.” In this sense, German Darwinism, or “Darwinismus,” was not “categorically hostile to religion.” By focusing on the career of Haeckel, Weindling wants to track how “Darwinisums moved from its early alliance with political liberalism to perform [a] corporatist and integrative social function.” The life of Haeckel thus “provides valuable insight into German culture and public opinion at the end of the nineteenth century.”

“It is a commonplace that Darwin’s theory of natural selection replaced a harmonious view of nature with one based on chance and struggle,” writes Weindling. But in Germany, Darwin’s theory was, he claims, viewed differently. In Darwinismus, “the theory did not entail a pessimistic philosophy of purposeless conflict.” In Haeckel’s thought, for instance, the view “emerged in which even the most minute beings reveal beauty, harmonious order and the germs of intellectual and social life.” Haeckel is often remembered for “having inspired a love of nature in a generation of biologists,” and indeed he “possessed a deep sensitivity for natural beauties.” As such during his career he “surrounded himself with patriotic and nature-loving cohorts.”

During Haeckel’s lifetime, Germany transformed from a “predominately agrarian and politically fragmented society to an industrial and imperial power.” Such technological and political advancements whetted an appetite “for more optimistic and relevant explanation of the world than that of traditional theology, which was promulgated by churches tied closely to archaic and repressive social forms.”

Though a leader with a following, Haeckel had a need for paternal guidance, thus gathering a series of father-figures. The first was physiologist and comparative anatomist Johannes Müller (1801-1858). Interestingly enough, Müller had nothing but contempt for materialism and its supporters, such as Carl Vogt (1817-1895) and Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899). Initially, Haeckel shared this contempt. Once Müller died Haeckel found another mentor and father-figure, Max Schultze (1825-1874). The influence of Schultze lead Haeckel to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

A major transformation occurred after the death of his wife in 1864. According to Weindling, “it was a traumatic shock, and Haeckel began to feel his character hardening.” Soon after Haeckel began work on Generelle Morphologie (1866), which presented a revolutionary synthesis of Darwin’s ideas with the German tradition of Naturphilosophie. After its publication Haeckel traveled to Darwin’s residence at Down House. After this visit Darwin became Haeckel new mentor and father-figure. Although Darwin warned him that “you have in part taken what I said much stronger than what I intended,” Haeckel thereafter regarded himself a committed Darwinist.

But for Haeckel Darwinism “functioned as an ideology of human progress” rather than a theory of organic evolution. His enthusiasm and obvious emotional character made him “vulnerable to scientific criticisms, and when these came,” Weindling tells us, “old friendships were broken, to be replaced with enmity and bitterness.” He broke ties with cellular pathologist Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) over the politics of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898); Karl Gegenbaur (1826-1903), a colleague from the University of Jena, doubted Haeckel’s evolutionary synthesis, as did evolutionary biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His own students began questioning and criticizing his “biogenetic law and monophyletic theory.” According to Weindling, Haeckel is clearly a “tragic [King] Lear-figure.”

Fortunate for Haeckel, some students remained attached to him, and his “chief compensation for his personal losses was increasing popular success.” During the late 1870s, Haeckel embarked on a campaign of determined propaganda, publicizing “Darwinismus as never before, first by issuing a popular edition of his lectures, then by advertising ‘Monism’ as a link between science and religion.” According to Weindling, the “rational and empirical features in evolutionary theory now gradually gave way to mystic idealism,” as particularly expressed in his Die Welträtsel (1895-1899), “the riddle of the universe.” These ideas were immensely popular, appealing not only to a general audience, but also to disciplines of psychology, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Haeckel’s ideas were also “avidly read across the political spectrum, among socialists and extreme nationalists alike, and they inspired new evolutionary ethics.”

Darwinismus gradually became the basis of Social Darwinism, promoting national unity and creating a “more sympathetic attitude to welfare reforms both within the state and among landowners, industrialists and the middle classes.” Weindling rejects the idea that Nazi racism stems from Haeckel. Although he used concepts of human hierarchy, of “lower” and “higher” races, and occasionally made anti-Semitic remarks, his ideas were too complex and ambiguous to be seen as the standard-bearer for national socialism. Haeckel was “deeply ambivalent.” As Weindling argues, “Haeckel used biology to shore up a form of corporatist social thought that differed fundamentally from the hereditarian social pathologies current under the Nazis.”

Evolutionary theory was undoubtedly threatening, for it seemed to make mankind the “byproduct of a meaningless natural process.” It was less threatening, however, if it was “portrayed as a process leading inexorably towards moral and intellectual improvement, with the human race at the forefront of the advance.” Thus in the nineteenth century ideas of progress came attached to theories of evolution. But by the following century, the notion of progress came under heavy scrutiny. At the same time, in the late nineteenth century, many became obsessed with the “threat of cultural degeneration.” In his essay, Peter J. Bowler argues that both “progressionists” and “degenerationists” exploited all available theories of evolution, including Darwinism, Lamarckism, and orthogenesis.

The idea of degeneration has its roots in the Christian tradition. Christianity portrays humanity as fallen, as “degenerated from an original state of moral perfection.” This was certainly not the only view within the Christian tradition, but the fall of mankind and its subsequent corruption and degeneration is clearly a predominant theme in western culture. But among mid-nineteenth-century evolutionists, human history was viewed quite differently. Banker, politician, and scientist John Lubbock (1834-1913), for instance, argued that “the progress of civilization” was a “continuation of the progress inherent in biological evolution” (my emphasis). Yet as Bowler points out, by the end of the century, some writers were beginning to doubt that the “triumphal development of Western culture could be maintained.”

What “facts” were causing these doubts? As early as 1857, French psychiatrist Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873) had argued that certain environmental factors could lead to degeneration. In 1875, Italian criminologist and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) posited that the criminal was a “degenerate throwback to an earlier stage of evolution.” And in 1895, German sociologist Max Simon Nordau (1849-1923) stressed that the artist and the criminal were “equivalent cases of arrested development.” These men, and Lombroso in particular, believed that the “environment caused the arrest of development that produced the subhuman criminal type.” Moreover, these men also “identified certain races as more inclined to degeneracy than others.” According to Bowler, “the growing strength of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century indicates that many social thinkers had begun to doubt the inevitability of progress.”

Darwin had also stressed the role of environment in determining evolution. But Bowler claims that the notion of progress was not a “universal phenomenon in Darwin’s view.” That is debatable. Regardless of his actual views, Darwin “had never been the undisputed leader of the evolutionists, and his theory of natural selection was being challenged by a number of alternatives.” And these alternative theories were generally linked to theories of social degeneration. Lamarck’s theory of inheritance offered a ready explanation for degeneration: the cumulative effects of disuse. American “neo-Lamarckians” Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and Alpheus Hyatt (1838-1902) claimed that progressive evolution consisted of “successive addition of stages to the growth process, produced by the inheritance of acquired characters as each generation became more specialized for the species’ chosen way of life.” According to Bowler, the analogy of “growth” allowed Lamarckian evolutionists to “treat evolution as a highly directed process, moving inexorably toward a predetermined goal.” Hyatt even advocated the notion of “racial senility,” in which the individual “degenerated toward simpler characters and ultimate extinction.” Hyatt also argued against female emancipation, claiming that “to give women equal political rights would diminish the psychological difference between the sexes and would thus encourage a degenerate trend in the species.” More broadly, some evolutionists, such as E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), used analogies of human affairs to buttress their biological arguments. Whereas “Lubbock tended to assume that ‘primitive societies were relics of earlier stages in human progress…Lankester argued that ‘savages’ such as the bushmen and the Australian aborigines might be descendants of once-civilized peoples.” Lankester, in order words, viewed the contemporary “savage” as culturally degenerate. And according to Lankester, white man faces a similar fate. How does he prevent such a threatening state? By the cultivation of science.

In any event, both Darwinism and Lamarckianism were used to “stress the possibility of degeneration brought on by the adoption of a passive life-style.”An alternative theory was that of orthogenesis, “or evolution directed by internally programmed trends that would force variation inexorably in a certain direction, even when the results were non-adaptive.” What pieces of evidence convinced scientists of orthogenesis? For starters, the fossil record “seemed to reveal consistent trends in the development of certain structures,” such as the horn size on the “Irish elk.” But orthogenesis was also applied to human evolution, in the case of the trend towards increasing brain size. The human brain was seen as the “inevitable product of a longstanding evolutionary trend.” This was, of course, not Darwin’s view. Nevertheless, according to Bowler, orthogentic views became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century, advocated by such men as physical anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton (1887-1954), palaeoanthropologist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark (1895-1971), and palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944). Woodward even supported the view that “evolution was driven by forces somehow built into the germ plasm of the species.” Orthogenesis was essentially a degenerative theory, but most supporters turned it into “a progressive explanation of human origins.”

It is in this sense, as Bowler puts, “degeneration and progress went hand in hand,” or, as he puts it another way, “degeneration was indeed no more than an attempt to reassess the conceptual foundations of progressionism.” Thus the degeneration of the late-nineteenth century was only “skin deep.” Those scientists who studied the origins of the human race “automatically made progressionist assumptions.” Not until the mid-twentieth century was Darwin’s theory of natural selection fully embraced. No one wanted a totally undirected “evolution governed by ‘chance.'” According to Bowler, the “simplest ways of guaranteeing that evolution worked in an orderly, predictable manner, were to compare it with the growth of the embryo…or to postulate rigid variation trends.” In the end, “each theory was capable of being exploited by either side of the debate.”

As each essay in this festschrift honoring the scholarship of John C. Greene demonstrates, scientists are “constrained by professional as well as political interests, and if they make their decision first on professional grounds, they will always be able to find a way of adapting the theory of their choice to their wider beliefs.” As Bowler concludes, “any complex [scientific] theory can be turned into a panacea or a nightmare.”

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VI : Modern Life and Earth Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 6Perhaps the most engaging—and perhaps most relevant for my current research interests—installment of this series is Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone’s (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science Volume VI: Modern Life and Earth Sciences (2009). This volume seeks to present an “overview of the development of a diverse range of sciences through a period of major conceptual, methodological, and institutional changes.” Carefully arranged and edited, the work is, nevertheless, “representative,” and “by no means encyclopedic.”

Bowler and Pickstone begin with an introduction on the history of science. Traditional approaches routinely linked history of science with philosophy of science (i.e., the study of the scientific method and the epistemological problems generated by the search for objective knowledge of nature), which was “invariably done by hindsight, using modern interests to determine the value of past science, often thereby doing violence to what the [contemporary] historian sees as crucial within the very different cultural and social contexts of past eras.” This “internalist” approach thought of the history of science as part of the history of ideas, seeing new theories as “integral to the emergence of new worldviews that had transformed Western culture.”

But scientific knowledge was always part and parcel of “external” forces, be it philosophical, religious, political, or practical. Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) challenged internalist historians to take an interest in the workings of scientific communities, “arguing that the scientific community had to be understood in sociological terms.” As Bowler and Pickstone put it in their introduction, “social pressure helped maintain scientific conformity, and most research was done within paradigms that predetermined the projects that were relevant and the innovations that were acceptable.”

From the beginning, scientists have always held particular religious beliefs, philosophical opinions, and political views, “reflecting the less tangible influence of broader ideologies embedded within the societies within which they live.” Thus the “best modern historiography,” Bowler and Pickstone tells us, “seeks to integrate the ideological contexts with the detailed, technical work” of scientific practice. One of the most important consequences of the contextual approach has been the “recognition among historians that our own perception of the past is shaped by our viewpoint in the present.” For example, “the amount of attention focused on Charles Darwin by historians of evolutionism…reflects English-speaking scientists’ greater commitment to the genetical theory of natural selection as the defining feature of their field.” Such was and is not the case among French and German historians of science. The chapters that follow seek give a rich picture of “multiple dynamic interactions between changing conceptual structures, technical possibilities, and social formations” of life and earth sciences.

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1, “workers and places,” focuses on “amateurs and professionals” (David E. Allen), “discovery and exploration” (Roy Macleod), “museums” (Mary P. Winsor), “field stations and surveys” (Keith R. Benson), “universities” (Jonathan Harwood), “geological”(Paul Lucier) and “pharmaceutical industries” (John P. Swann), and “public and environmental health” (Michael Worboys). Noteworthy are Allen, Macleod and Winsor’s essays.

Allen recounts the process of professionalization of science. In the early nineteenth century, the “professional” was despised. This aristocratic and upper middle class prejudice was based on the view that “a professional was someone who received money to do something that others did for pleasure, and to put one’s labor up for hire placed one in the position of a servant.” Respectable occupations were limited to “the armed forces, the church, and…branches of the law and medicine.” “So small was the community of science professionals in the pre-1880 era,” Allen writes, “and so slight the difference in outlook between that community and everyone else involved in scholarly pursuits, that the category of ‘professional’ can hardly be of much use for historical analysis.” Rather, there were amateur “researchers,” “practitioners,” and “cultivators.”

That the principles of exploratory settlement were part of an imperial strategy is now obvious, says Macleod. The “process of seeing, mapping, and impressing a European identity on places otherwise ‘unknown to science’ held a compelling fascination” for early explorers and discoverers. Exploration reflected great power rivalries and imperial conquest. “The scientific expedition drew on the language of the military expedition and the heroism of the expeditionary force.” As such, “an active commitment to scientific exploration was, to some, the highest measure of a nation’s claim to civilization.” Thus scientific exploration often came with an imperial presence. Yet “if many scientific expeditions had been imperial in motive and state financed in practice, they would have enjoyed far less public impact had they not been accompanied by expanding networks of collectors and patron and a new thirst for private exploration and discovery.” Exploration and discovery were in fact a “convergence of science, strategy, and commerce.”

Winsor shares Macleod’s emphasis on imperial motives. “During the second half of the eighteenth century, collections of natural specimens rapidly increased in number and size.” This was largely due to imperial exploration and expansion—and exploitation—but “the motives was sometimes scientific curiosity, sometimes competitive vainglory.” Natural history during this period was dominated by the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Both men “shared the goal of making an inventory of every kind of living thing.” The “Paris model” found in the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle followed the publications and teaching of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), and would be imitated elsewhere, “where an avid naturalist teamed up with a generous monarch.”

During the mid- and late-nineteenth century, “all across the globe, wherever Europeans carried their culture and settled in sufficient numbers, natural history museums multiplied.” But at the same time, and perhaps naturally, “contested ideas of proper arrangement had plagued the process of designing the new natural history museum,” particularly in London. At this stage the art of taxidermy became central. Taxidermists William Bullock, Hermann Ploucquet, and Jules Verreaux were known for their theatrical designs: “a tiger wrestling with a boa constrictor, hounds pulling down a stag, and an Arab on his camel beset by lions.” By the late nineteenth century, there were artistic taxidermists commissioned by the British Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, the United States National Museum, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and many others. In this sense, Winsor notes, “the museum movement was progressive; that is, that making exhibits more attractive was a good thing.” Whether or not such exhibitions were “scientific” was no longer the concern.

Altogether, the theme that consistently crops up in the essays of Part 1 is the profound effect government, politics, and industry has had on the modern development of life and earth sciences.

Part 2 looks more closely at particular disciplines, in “analysis and experimentation” within the fields of geology (Mott T. Greene), paleontology (Ronald Rainger), zoology (Mario A. Di Gregorio), botany (Eugene Cittadino), evolution (Jonathan Hodge), anatomy, histology, and ctyology (Susan C. Lawrence), embryology (Nick Hopwood), microbiology (Olga Amsterdamska), physiology (Richard L. Kremer), and pathology (Russell C. Maulitz). These essays provide a general reference to the origin, development, and expansion of these fields, intertwined as a “complex activity of scientists and sciences operating in larger philosophical, social, political, and economic” nineteenth-century contexts. Again, a few noteworthy essays deserve expansion and comment.

Rainger’s essay seeks to place paleontology within its social, cultural, and political context, covering such topics as extinction, stratigraphy, progress, and evolution, noting that “although many paleontologists studied evolution, few embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.” Rainger also includes an informative section on “paleontology and modern Darwinism,” which includes discussions on biogeography and fossil displays in modern museums. Here we see how Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould’s “powerful criticism of the evolutionary synthesis” of a previous generation sent paleontologists into the field to find evidence for “punctuated equilibrium.” Disappointing, however, is the omission of paleoart, where art and paleontology intersect in curious and sometimes problematic ways. Missing also is any discussion of the incredibly contentious field of paleoanthropology.

Hodge observes that today’s biologists view their field as a “historical continuity of succession.” This view, however, assumes “a sameness of enterprise, with everyone contributing to evolutionary biology as found in a current textbook.” Another assumption biologists make is that “only evolution gives fully scientific answers to their questions, and all other answers are ancient religious dogmas or persistent metaphysical preconceptions.” But these assumptions bare little to no historical reality. This view of science is traced back to nineteenth-century proponents for Darwin. “Science was then often demarcated, in accord with new positivist notions of science, by this very contrast with religion and metaphysics, so that the rise of evolution and fall of Hebrew creation or Hellenic stasis was subsumed within the rise of modern, scientific ways of thinking and feeling about ourselves and nature” (my emphasis).

What follows is a historical narrative of oft-cited dramatis personae. The influence—and contrast—of Buffon and Linnaeus is listed. Because of their major divergences, later followers like George Cuvier, Lorenz Oken (1779-1851), and Jean Lamarck (1744-1829) had to pick and mix between the two. As Hodge notes, “although once a protégé of Buffon, [Lamarck] never adopted his mentor’s…cosmogonies.” The years following the work of these three men found “no single resolution” amongst successors . Lamarck’s theories looked “threateningly materialistic”; Oken’s “seemed pantheistically unorthodox”; and Cuvier’s “hostility to materialism,” coupled with his respect for biblical scholarship, endeared him to many of his fellow Christians. Further complexities emerge with Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), and later Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) and Robert Chambers (1802-1871).

With the advent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, European and American discussion of life’s history and diversity was anything but unified. The Origin was not however influenced by evolutionary debates of the 1850s. Penned between 1837-1839, the context of Origin requires relating the work of Lyell, Robert Edmund Grant (1793-1874), Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), and Lamarck. Prior to his HMS Beagle voyage (1831-1836), Darwin completed a student of Grant’s at Edinburgh University in 1826-1827. While aboard the Beagle Darwin devoured Lyell’s first two volumes of Principles of Geology. It was Lyell who had “insisted that anyone favoring any transmutation of species should engage Lamarck’s whole system: spontaneous generation, the progression of classes, organ ancestry for man, and all.” By 1837, Darwin had done just that. At the same time, Darwin was rereading his grandfather’s Zoonomia, which had anticipated some of the views of Lamarck. According to Hodge, this “grandparental precedent inspired and sanctioned this emulation of Lamarckian precedent.” Darwin would also add Robert Malthus’s essay on populations to his own developing theory of evolution.

“The altered state of opinion created by Charles Darwin was less consensual than is often thought,” Hodge argues. He goes on, “for biologists did not merely disagree about the causes of evolution while agreeing about evolution itself; they disagreed deeply about evolution as such.”

Part 3 of this volume also looks at “new objects and ideas” found in “plate tectonics” (Henry Frankel), “geophysics and geochemistry (David Oldroyd), “mathematical models” (Jeffrey C. Schank and Charles Twardry), “genes” (Richard M. Burian and Doris T. Zallen), “ecosystems” (Pascal Acot), “immunology” (Thomas Söderqvist, Craig Stillwell and Mark Jackson), “cancer” (Jean-Paul Gaudillière), “brain and the behavioral sciences” (Anne Harrington), and “history of biotechnology” (Robert Bud).

The final section in Part 5 consists of essays of wider scope, in “science and culture,” and are much more relevant to my own research. Here I only make mention of one. James Moore’s (“Religion and Science”) excellent essay argues that the “religion and science” trope “is first and foremost an intellectual rubric, proper to the history of ideas, particularly ideas in the English-speaking world.” Indeed, the trope existed as “an organizing category—an agonizing category—for many Victorians.” Here Moore mentions John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1847) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Only a year later in 1897, the Library of Congress incorporating “Religion and Science” into its authoritative subject headings, “a pair of hypostatized abstractions made memorable by a pair of embattled propagandists became canonical for interpreting modern intellectual history.” This “secular teleology” would later be taken for granted by pundits and popularizers and even academic historians.

Revisions to this thesis emerged in the mid-twentieth century. During this time “Religion and Science” went from being explanans to explanandum. Moore provides long footnotes of contributors who demolished the Victorian propaganda, from Frank M. Turner, Martin Rudwick, A.R. Peacocke, Robert M. Young, Ronald L. Numbers, David C. Lindberg, David Livingstone, Pietro Corsi, John Hedley Brooke, Edward J. Larson, Geoffrey Cantor, Peter J. Bowler, Adrian Desmond, to James Moore himself.

What follows is a review of “five fields of contention clustered around the transformed domain of Darwin studies”: freethought, natural theology, earth history, Darwin, and actual conflict.    “Freethought” or “unbelief” stood for all such deviant “isms” as “materialism,” “atheism,” “rationalism,” “secularism,” “agnosticism,” and “positivism.” But unbelief is “gritty, irrepressible”; “it constantly reinvented itself, or was reinvented, as the nineteenth century’s ideological ‘other.'” Here we find heresies of William Frend and John Leslie, the materialism of Paul d’Holbach, the determinism of Pierre Laplace, the transmutation theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and the rebellion of Richard Carlile. Interestingly enough, it is here, also, “in a twilight world of backstreet cliques, soapbox rants, and unstamped rages, the Victorian roots of ‘Religion and Science’ are to be found.” “Science,” Moore qualifies, “was manifold, not the monolith of propagandists.”

Natural theology was what freethinkers fought and Darwin finally refuted. Such was the old view, and is no longer tenable today. “Natural theology was not single and static but a shifting congeries of moral pursuits.” It was indeed apologetic; but it was edifying, mediating, motivating, ratifying. It was also a stumbling block for many Christians. “High Anglicans, Scot evangelicals, and pietists everywhere saw it as tainted with rationalism.” Despite criticism from both unbelievers and believers, natural theology remained vital.

The belief that providentialism cast up embarrassing obstacles to the progress of the earth and life sciences is another piece of Victoriana, and can longer be maintained. According to Moore, “the cultured men who first made the earth sciences a profession, none did more than genuflect toward Genesis in his research.” Nineteenth-century earth sciences were full of men of eminence—”squires, clergymen, lawyers, military officers, and only later full-time academic specialists.” As Moore put it, “piety united these patricians.”

Darwin stood at the “crossroads of freethought, natural theology, and Lyellian earth history.” At this Victorian crossroad, “he struck out in a direction all his own, an evolutionist incognito, hell-bent on explaining the whole living creation…by natural law. The church was left behind.” Although his faith eventually faltered, Darwin did not have an “atheist agenda.” “While writing the Origin of Species, Darwin’s faith in a ‘personal God’ remained firm, and he never considered himself an atheist.” What he could not fathom was Christian theism, a perpetual, designing Providence, present in all events; a God who punished men eternally for their unbelief. Darwin though such a god immoral.

Despite Darwin’s own beliefs, “freethinkers everywhere welcomed the Origin of Species…as a potent addition to their liberal armory.” Indeed, “most read it through philosophical spectacles.” As Moore writes, “the Origin of Species did not cause a ‘Darwinian revolution,’ destroying natural theology and propelling religion and science into unholy conflict.” What it did do was “merely pointed up and sharpened preexisting tensions.” “What set people at odds,” Moore continues, “were a range of issues, practical as well as theoretical, empirical as well as metaphysical, social and political as well as ideological.” Draper’s Conflict and White’s Warfare followed suit “of an age when New World hubris took on Old World hauteur in the cause of [a] Science” instigated by Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, members of the X-Club, and others vying for cultural hegemony in the nineteenth century.

“Science made up for lost religious hopes by promising endless secular abundance.” But in the twentieth century such promises were short lived. After World War I, self-styled “fundamentalism” inspired “ordinary Americans angry that their most cherished beliefs were being undermined with their own tax dollars.” “Liberal believers in science…[also] got their comeuppance in the depressed 1930s.” The horrors of the German scientific experiment, with their support of Darwinian policies of ethnic extermination, and the Soviet Union’s industrialized, militarized, and committed Marxist materialism, caused great consternation among western liberals. “During World War II, and particularly with the mobilization of research to meet the postwar Soviet challenge, science in the West was harnessed to state objectives, tied to state funding, and subjected to state regulation as never before.”

Moore nevertheless ends on an optimistic note. Today, he says, “historians aim to situate religion and science on cultural common ground and so recover the religiosity of science, the scientificity of religion, and the integrity of metaphysics occupying that large terra incognita ‘between science and religion’ as traditionally conceived.” Indeed, “perhaps the most telling recent development noted by historians is the vaunted convergence of religion and science in some new vision of reality whose scientific authority will command full religious and moral assent.”