Progress

John W. Draper on Natural Law and Providence

Descartes viewed nature as created by a wise Creator, who had created the universe from nothing and let it run, like a machine, by itself. That is, there was no need for God to constantly intervene. By contrast, Gassendi believed that the laws we discover in nature are our laws, not God’s, and therefore he is not constrained by them. Likewise, for Boyle, God’s laws were palpable and plain for anyone to see; but God could tinker with them if he so chose. Newton shared Gassendi’s and Boyle’s view of divine freedom. He opposed Descarte’s mechanical philosophy and argued that the universe in fact could not sustain itself without God’s continual supervision.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the conception of God as a “law-giver” or “law-maker” became extremely popular. Babbage and Powell placed great emphasis on the idea of God as law-maker. Indeed, the most incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence and wisdom is found in uninterrupted law. Lyell believed that natural history is fixed by invariable laws. Herschel argued that experiment demonstrated principles of law, and told Lyell that God operated thought a series of intermediate causes. Whewell too believed that “final causes” are unnecessary. For Whewell, though, they were enough to prove God’s existence. Law was uniform but no absolute. Natural laws were not independent of Providence. Thus the very practice of science is an exercise in proving his existence.

But as we all know, later practitioners of science would eschew all this God-talk. Some have argued that John W. Draper is partly to blame. His progressive narratives of the history of science took God out of the story. But that view is entirely mistaken. Behind his “law of development” and his understanding of the nature of science was not “inconsistent with the admission of a Providential guidance of the world.” His concern was that man was not always the most reliable interpreter of the ways of God. Draper, in short, seems to be returning to the older idea of rational religion, that God was indeed behind creation, but not constantly supervising it. Towards the close of his Intellectual Development of Europe, for example, Draper argued that

It might be consistent with the weakness and ignorance of man to be reduced to the necessity of personal intervention for the accomplishment of his plans, but would not that be the very result of ignorance? Does not absolute knowledge actually imply procedure by preconceived and unvarying law? Is not momentary intervention altogether derogatory to the thorough and absolute sovereignty of God? The astronomical calculation of ancient events, as well as the prediction of those to come, is essentially founded on the principle that there has not in the times under consideration, and that there will never be in the future, any exercise of an arbitrary or overriding will. The corner-stone of astronomy is this, that the solar system—nay, even the universe, is ruled by necessity. To operate by expedients is for the creature, to operate by law for the Creator; and so far from the doctrine that creations and extinctions are carried on by a foreseen and predestined ordinance—a system which works itself without need of any intermeddling—being an unworthy, an ignoble conception, it is completely in unison with the resistless movements of the mechanism of the universe, with whatever is orderly, symmetrical, and beautiful upon earth, and with all the dread the magnificence of the heavens.

Visions of Science: Humphry Davy

Secord - Visions of ScienceMy Christmas gift this year was James A. Secord’s recent Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (2014). After reading Secord’s magisterial Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2000) earlier in the year, I have looked forward to Secord’s next big book. And Visions is a big book, not so much in page number (a mere 306, including endnotes, whereas Victorian Sensation was a massive 624) as in topic. Secord focuses on a series of remarkable books published in the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. He discusses seven in total: Humphry Davy’s (1778-1829) Consolations in Travel (1830), Charles Babbage’s (1791-1871) Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), John Herschel’s (1792-1871) Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), Mary Somerville’s (1780-1872) On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), George Combe’s (1788-1858) Constitution of Man (1828), and Thomas Carlye’s (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus (1836). I have read all but Somerville’s On the Connexion this past year in my research, so Secord’s insights on these works is a much welcomed aid.

Initially, the selection may appear odd. But Secord is interested in the great transformation of the sciences during this period. “Science,” he says, “was changing from a relatively esoteric pursuit into one known to have profound consequences for the everyday life of all men and women.” Each of the above authors, in this respect, had something profound to say about the future of science. Each author, in his and her own way, had stressed the need of science “as a remedy for the country’s social, political, and religious malaise.” More importantly, each author “projected a vision of the future.”

Secord sets up his project with a short introduction. Modern science emerged in Britain within a Christian atmosphere of apocalyptic and millennial ideas and hopes. But at the same time, Secord writes, “there was a sense of limitless possibility through projections of the future economy based on machines.” These utopian hopes were of course embodied within the new science. There was a danger in the new science, however. As Secord notes, “Paris was the scientific capital of the world in the 1820s.” But in the British mind, French science was associated with the naturalism or materialism of the philosophes. More importantly, concerns over the new science was directly associated with the shock of the French Revolution. Science had to be domesticated and disassociated from anything that smacked of the French, both from its “godless libertarianism” and its guillotines.

This was achieved by some of the authors that Secord discusses. They constructed an image of science as offering a way forward, as mending the current political tensions between the Tories, Ultras, and Whigs. This was a push toward reform, but not simply a reform in politics. It was an attempt to reform all aspects of society, knowledge, science, and religion. And this could only be achieved with what Secord calls “the mechanisms of intellect”; that is, the transformation of the production and availability of knowledge. The steam-powered printing press played a central role in the diffusion of the new knowledge. But so did the creation of new institutions, clubs, and societies, such as the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826. According to Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham (1778-1867), one of the founding members of the SDUK, the new science could be used as a route to political reform. In his short 1825 tract, Practical Observations upon the Education of the People trumpeted the new science as “nothing less than the complete reformation of society through knowledge.” Obstacles to self-improvement, says Brougham, are chiefly “want of money, and want of time.” He therefore promoted “cheap publications.” But more than that, he called for the publication of “our best authors upon ethics, politics, and history, and promote cheap editions of them in Numbers, without waiting until the demand was such as to make the sale a matter of perfect certainty.” To this end, new ambitious publishers emerged with the goal of diffusing the new knowledge to all classes of society, such as Archibald Constable, John Murry, the well-known Longman company, and most recently the enterprising brothers William and Robert Chambers. In short, these new books popularized science by using philosophy, religion, and history, thus rousing “metascientific” discourse. For “happily the time is past and gone,” writes Brougham in his Practical Observations, “when bigots could persuade mankind that the lights of philosophy were to be extinguished as dangerous to religion; when tyrants could proscribe the instructors of the people as enemies to their power.” Indeed, “it is preposterous to imagine that the enlargement of our acquaintance with the laws which regulate the universe, can dispose to unbelief.”

Humphry Davy

A young Humphry Davy (1778-1829)

Secord’s first chapter deals with Davy’s interesting Consolations in Travel. Davy was a well-known and well-regarded Cornish chemist, inventor, and president of the Royal Society. Davy’s book is constructed as a dialogue between Onuphrio (a liberal aristocrat), Ambrosio (a liberal Roman Catholic), Eubathes (a physiologist and naturalist), Philaethes (the narrator), and a “Unknown” stranger. The dialogue partners discuss the laws of history, divine progression, happiness, and the enlightenment of society.

According to Secord, Davy’s Consolations in Travel was modeled off of Boethius’ classic Consolation of Philosophy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (a close friend of Davy) Consolations and Comforts from the Exercise of and Right Application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, and, perhaps more covertly, French philosopher Comte de Volney’s The Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. Boethius and Coleridge were safe, but Volney was dangerous grounds. Davy thus takes Volney’s narrative and transforms it for English conservatism. Whereas Volney sees “kingcraft and priestcraft” as passing away, “to be replaced by a faith unified around a God known not through Scripture or dogma, but the laws of nature,” Davy has each character in his dialogue acknowledge the value in religion, including Christianity. The skeptical aristocrat Onuphrio, for example, declares: “I consider religion as essential to man, and belonging to the human mind in the same manner as instincts belong to the brute creation, a light, if you please, of revelation to guide him through the darkness of this life, and to keep alive his undying hope of immortality.” But this is a new kind of Christianity. Onuphrio, for example, does not see Christianity as occupying a more privileged place than other religious traditions. Even Ambrosio, the Catholic in the dialogue, envisions a “creed fitted for the most enlightened state of the human mind and equally adapted to every climate and every people.”

After the men retire, Philaethes, the narrator, experiences a vision. In the vision Philaethes is guided by “Genius” through a journey on the history of humanity. Genius explains to him how civilization has progressed from the barbarous to higher states of being. This has been achieved in two ways. First, and most recently, by the invention of the printing press. “I looked, and saw,” says Philaethes, “that in the place of the rolls of papyrus libraries were no filled with books. ‘Behold,’ the Genius said, ‘the printing press; by the invention of Faust the productions of genius are, as it were, made imperishable, capable of indefinite multiplication, and rendered an inalienable heritage of the human mind. By this art, apparently so humble, the progress of society is secured.” Second, the progress of civilization has been accomplished by great men. “It sometimes happens,” Genius discloses to Philaethes, “that a gigantic mind possess supreme power and rises superior to the age in which he is born…but such instances are very rare; and, in general, it is neither amongst sovereigns nor the higher classes of society, that the great improvers or benefactors of mankind are to be found.” Davy than adumbrates a list of such men: “Anaxagoras, Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Galileo Gallilei, in their deaths or their imprisonments, offer instances of this kind, and nothing can be more striking than what appears to have been the ingratitude of men towards their greatest benefactors.” Genius goes on to reveal the laws of history, society, and spiritual natures to Philaethes.

In another dialogue, while the characters are exploring the ruins of the temples of Paestum, they encounter an “Unknown” stranger who introduces the topic of geology to their discussions, a touchy subject for both British scientists and religious believers at the time. Ambrosio believes in a single creation, but is not a scriptural literalist. Onuphrio promotes the cyclical geological theory of James Hutton. What all speakers agree on, however, is that there is no evidence for the transmutation of species, a position advocated by more radical thinkers Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Philalethes argues that “all philosophy must begin from a foundation of faith, and that this can be validated not only by studying God’s works, but also by drawing parallels between the infinite mind of the divine and the mind of man.” It is interesting how the revelation of Scripture is replaced by a revelation of nature, or natural theology, in Davy’s dialogue.

Secord notes how some early reviews of Davy’s Consolations in Travel were highly critical. In general, however, Davy’s short book was well received. And what these more charitable reviewers focused on, from the Literary Gazette to La Belle Assemblée, was Davy’s spirit of progress. What is interesting about Davy, however, is that he was not at all enthusiastic about the spread or diffusion of scientific knowledge. In a letter to his wife, for example, he wrote:

I become, however, every day more sceptical as to the use of making or endeavoring to make the people philosophers. Happiness is the great object of existence, and knowledge is a good only so far as it promotes happiness; few persons ever attain the Socratic degree of knowledge to know their entire ignorance, and scepticism and discontent are the usual unripe fruits of this tree—the only fruits which the people can gather; but I will say no more, knowing how unpopular my arguments will be; yet I could say much.

According to Secord, Davy’s vision of universal history and the progress of European civilization “become a commonplace, moving from speculation to assumption as the century progressed.” The scientific sage of the philosophes had become a “scientific, Christian philosopher” in Davy. But this philosopher was not a philosophy of the people. Rather, he was the provincial, aristocratic gentlemen of science. According to Davy, with the help of “great men in history and in science” civilization will be reborn, “rising towards infinite wisdom.”

Progress as a Secularized Eschatology

Nineteenth-century Victorian scientific naturalists had a particular conception of scientific and social progress. In his “The Progress of Science 1837-1887” (1887), Thomas Henry Huxley argued that a “revolution” had taken place, both politically and socially, in the modern world. In brief, scientific progress came with the adoption of a naturalistic approach to studying nature. Any other approach would count as an obstacle both to scientific and social progress. Similar sentiments were shared by John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and other scientific naturalists.

Of course the idea of progress was held by other Victorians as well. “We are on the side of progress,” wrote British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835. “From the great advances which European society has made, during the last four centuries, in every species of knowledge, we infer, not that there is no room for improvement, but that, in every science which deserves the name, immense improvements may be confidently expected.” “History,” he continued, “is full of the signs of this natural progress of society.” From Macaulay, Arnold, Mill, Morley, and Kingsley, to Huxley and Co., the idea of progress became dogma for Victorian intellectuals.

But where did this idea of progress come from, and why was it so pervasive?  From the 1920s onward, several historians have offered strikingly different (and sometimes opposing) answers. J.B. Bury, for example, explained in his The Idea of Progress (1920) that progress was the “animating and controlling idea of western civilization.” But in saying this, Bury also disputed, and dismissed, the connection between the idea of progress and the Christian doctrine of providence. Indeed, the idea of progress presupposed its rejection: “it was not till men felt independence of Providence,” he writes, “that they could organize a theory of Progress…So long as the doctrine of Progress was…in the ascendent, a doctrine of Progress could not arise.” According to Bury, the origin of the idea of progress is found among eighteenth-century philosophes. To make his point, Bury also portrayed the philosophes as characteristically anti-Christian or anti-religious.

Lowith - Meaning in HistoryHowever, other historians saw the idea of progress in terms of the secularization of biblical eschatology. Ernest Lee Tuveson, for instance, argued in his Millennium and Utopia (1949) that “gradually the role of Providence was transferred to ‘natural laws’…Providence was disguised rather than eliminated.” A new kind of Providence emerged, one based on the confidence of the historical process: “This confidence…resulted in part from the transformation of a religious idea—the great millennial expectation…The New Jerusalem in a utopia of mechanistic philosophers; the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers and of the nineteenth-century optimists retained many features of the New Jerusalem.” Others would follow and expand Tuveson’s analysis, including Carl L. Becker, Nicolas Berdyaev, Carl Schmitt, Jacob Taubes, Karl Löwith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eric Voegelin, among others. It was becoming increasingly clear that the modern idea of progress rested on biblical presuppositions, particularly a secularized eschatological myth of salvation.

A great debate followed after the publication of Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1976). Blumenberg’s book was essentially a reply to Löwith’s Meaning in History (1949). Löwith had argued that modern categories of reason and progress, and modern philosophies of history are secularized vestiges of Judeo-Christian eschatology. In other words, the modern idea of progress only appears to be rational or scientific. Under the surface, it is supported by an eschatological hope and expectation. Löwith traces these religious elements backward, from Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, Proudhon, Comte, Condorcet and Turgot, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, Augustine and Orosius, all the way to the “biblical” view of history. According to Löwith, “philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and…ends with the secularization of its eschatological pattern.” Whether religious or irreligious, all narratives of progress are overtly or covertly “eschatological from Isaiah to Marx, form Augustine to Hegel, from Joachim to Schelling.”

Blumenberg - The Legitmacy of the Modern AgeOpposition to Löwith’s thesis came most forcefully from Blumenberg. According to Blumenberg, the idea of progress was no vestige of biblical eschatology. Rather, it was a radical break from it, a Neuzeit. Christian eschatology and modern progressivism, says Blumenberg, do not share any identifiable ideas, nor does the modern idea of progress contain any authentic, original content found in Christianity. In brief, they are diametrically different: “it is…a manifest difference,” he writes, “that an eschatology speaks of an event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it, while the idea of progress extrapolates from a structure present in every moment to a future that is immanent in history.” More explicitly, Blumenberg contends that the idea of progress “hopes for the greater security of man in the world,” the here and now, while “eschatology” is “more nearly an aggregate of terror and dread.” Blumenberg concludes that “the dependence of the idea of progress on Christian eschatology” is nil, and therefore “block any transposition of the one into the other.”

So, where does the modern idea of progress come from? Blumenberg offers an alternative genealogy, found in late-medieval theological nominalism, human self-assertion, and astronomy. The nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) pushed knowledge of God beyond the boundaries of human intelligibility or comprehension. Once God essentially “disappeared,” humanity had to assert itself:

deprived by God’s hiddenness of metaphysical guarantees for the world, man constructs for himself a counterworld of elementary rationality and manipulability…Because theology meant to defend God’s absolute interest, it allowed and caused man’s interest in himself and his concern for himself to become absolute.

Representative of this new position, says Blumenberg, is the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). From Blumenberg’s view, Bacon turned away from understanding God to understanding man and nature. With Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, we reach man’s full self-assertion. And herein lies Blumenberg’s central argument: this modern self-assertion of reason provided the means for “possible progress” rather than the “necessary progress” of the eschatological view.

But according to a host of scholars, Blumenberg’s critique of Löwith ultimately fails. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, found it unconvincing, if not perplexing. Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that “the modern age came into being out of a world in which Christianity was dominant, and therefore its relationship, and particularly that of its early stages, to Christianity is not merely a matter of historical interest.” Pannenberg goes on to observe that key to Blumenberg’s argument depended on the theme of theodicy. Christianity attempted to answer the question of the problem of evil. But according to Blumenberg, Christian theologians failed to provide a satisfactory answer. This, in Pannenberg’s assessment, is where Blumenberg derives his “conception that the modern age originated in opposition to theological absolutism.” In short, the idea of progress takes on “the vanished role of theodicy.”

But according to Pannenberg, Christian theodicy is not that simple. “Christianity came to terms in a decisive way with the evil and wickedness in the world,” Pannenberg argues, “not by removing responsibility for the world from the creator, but by belief in the reconciliation of the world by the God who took upon himself the burden of its guilt and misery and so set men free from it.” In this sense, Pannenberg finds it strange that Blumenberg neglects to mention this central Christian theme. What is more, the “rise of the modern age cannot be understood in the abstract terms of the history of ideas.” Pannenberg points to the Protestant Reformation and the “historical catastrophes which came about in its train,” that it was essential to the emancipation of the modern age. Here, too, Pannenberg is astonished that Blumenberg has ignored the role of the “Reformation in the rise and the self-understanding of the modern age.”

In his own response to Blumenberg, Löwith argued that the modern idea of progress and Christian eschatology are essentially common in “that both live by hope insofar as they conceive of history as proceeding toward final fulfillment which lies in the future.” In short, Blumenberg’s “possible progress” ultimately collapses back into “necessary progress.”

Many historians of science in recent years have argued that early modern science was a religious activity. With some minor modification, Blumenberg’s thesis of modern man’s self-assertion of reason was not a revolutionary turn away from God, but rather the attempt to find better proofs of God’s existence, in the natural world. Self-assertion, in other words, was a religious conception as well. It was a dialogue with God within a new medium, that of science.

Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers’] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)

Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.

 

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.”

The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence

Buckley - The Triumph of TimeJerome Hamilton Buckley’s The Triumph of Time (1966) is a “little book” with an enormous and exceedingly complex subject. It pretends to be no less than a survey of Victorians’ attitudes towards time. Buckley proposes to “test the truth” of John Stuart Mill’s suggestion, articulated in his The Spirit of the Ages (1831), that his own generation “had a quite unprecedented awareness of time,” and to view the Victorians’ “multiple concern with time.” Buckley defines at the outset two kinds of time—public and private. The former “involves the attitudes of the society as a living changing whole,” the idea of a Zeitgeist, of progress or decadence; the other relates to “the subjective experience of the individual,” through memories of a personal past, confrontations of public notions of time, and the effort to conquer time, to “escape from the tyranny of the temporal.” Time was either an objective entity or a subjective one. Private time is arbitrary, relative, continuous, variable; public time is the working out of patterns of history. “In tracing the characteristic Victorian attitudes toward both public and private time,” writes Buckley, “I have drawn largely upon the most eloquent of spokesmen—above all, the poets, and then the novelists and essayists—especially those who did most to determine the temper of their own culture or have had the strongest impact upon ours.”

To this end, Buckley’s The Triumph of Time is replete with felicitous references and quotations from Mill, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, Ruskin, Carlyle, Hardy, Whewell, Thackeray, Macauley, Browning, Seeley, Newman, Eliot, Huxley, Clifford, Babbage, Spencer, and many, many others. The Victorian interest in time was unusually extensive and persistent. The age was an elaborate milieu, copious, overpowering in quantity and in quality. The Victorian age is indeed a vast and crowded landscape, and Buckley’s The Triumph of Time attempts to show that the Victorians were preoccupied with time in their novels and poems, in their scientific speculations and philosophy, and in their social thought.

In the first chapter, Buckley outlines the “four faces of Victorian time,” past, present, future, eternity. During the nineteenth century, “a new generation of historians, both literate and laborious, enlarged the limits of the human past and speculated on the possibility of finding patterns of recurrence or meaningful analogies with their own time.” Buckley cites approvingly from Han Meyerhoff’s Time and Literature (1955), where he observed that during the nineteenth century “all the sciences of man—biology, anthropology, psychology, even economics and politics—became ‘historical’ sciences in the sense that they recognized and employed a historical, genetic, or evolutionary method.” Uniformitarian geology; nebular astronomy; evolutionary biology; the new social studies—all were “governed by temporal methodologies.”

This trend was part of what Buckley labels an objective, “public time.” But there were others who perceived time as subjective and thus as “private.” “As seen by poet and novelist,” Buckley writes, “human time…defies scientific analysis and measurement; contracting and expanding at will, mingling before and after without ordered sequence, it pays little heed to ordinary logical relations.” But even those with a private sense of time could not ignore that the Victorian age was an “age in perpetual motion.” “So widespread and so rapid were the changes wrought by the nineteenth century in the material conditions of living that no one, however much he might wish to dwell in the spirit, could altogether escape a sense of almost physical exhilaration or bewilderment rushing in upon him.” Change came at an alarming rate, and some Victorians responded quite positively to it, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Hopkins. The latter, for example, saw change as the “daily renewed freshness of nature a testimony that the Holy Ghost still broods over the whole bent world.”

But as Buckley correctly observes, “other poets were less sanguine in their view of change, especially insofar as new modes and attitudes seemed to threaten the great traditions of art and society.” Here we find Tennyson and Arnold.  Arnold especially was “troubled by the vision of universal change governing all human affairs of the past, present, and foreseeable future.” Change undoubtedly was “central to the intellectual life of the nineteenth century.” Some interpreted it as progress; others saw it as decline. Thus “the great polar ideas of the Victorian period were accordingly the idea of progress and the idea of decadence, the twin aspects of an all-encompassing history.”

Before discussing ideas of progress and decadence, Buckley, in chapter two, briefly considers “the uses of history.” Many Victorians expressed an retrospective nostalgia for the values of a lost culture. There was an immense fascination with the Greeks, as Frank M. Turner shows in his The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981). But there were also revivals of Gothic, Renaissance, and Georgian ideals as well.

This fascination with past societies and cultures inevitably encouraged a relativism in values, and that troubled some Victorians. As Buckley puts it, “since to understand is usually in some degree to condone, the deepening knowledge of other times and places engendered an increased relativity of judgment.” This historical relativism is nowhere more conspicuous than in its “assault on the absolutes of religious fundamentalism.” Higher criticism “raised problems of provenance, dating, authorship, stylistic consistency, and analogues in non-Hebraic literature—in short, questioned the reliability of the scriptural canon and the extent to which it might be regarded as inspired revelation.” The appeal to time by Strauss, Eliot, and Seeley, for example, “denied the sanction of eternity.” Even Newman, in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) “accounted for the presence of later Roman dogmas…by a theory of evolutionary growth: ideas at first merely implicit and undetected had been articulated and clarified over the ages, and new interpretations had been adopted to meet the needs not of a static institution but of an organic body growing steadily in time.”

Increasingly, Victorian historiography came to resemble a scientism. History took on the inductive approach of science, and thus became an “instructive laboratory.” According to Huxley, “Baconian induction was the only way to learn the causes of things.” In geology,  catastrophism was usurped by Lyell’s uniformitarianism, revealing “the terrible vastness of a geological time.” Archaeologists also demonstrated the greater antiquity of mankind, ushering the “concept of prehistory.” Biology would also take into account the “deep time” of the earth. As Buckley puts it, “in the nineteenth century the natural scientist moved closer than ever before to the approach and concern of the historian.” Moreover, the mechanistic image of history came to be replaced by an organic one: “the world was no longer a machine operating on a set cycle, but a living body fulfilling itself in constant adaptation to new conditions.”

At the same, historians learned to “emulate the scientists.” Ranke, Bury, and Lord Acton promoted history as an inductive discipline. Buckle believed human affairs were “reducible to laws, and could be made intelligible as the growth of the chalk cliffs or the coal measures.” This transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the study of the natural world to the study of human history and social institutions receives extended analysis in Richard G. Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2008). Periodization in history led to periodization in the life sciences, as when Lubbock introduced the terms “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic” to designate successive ages. The new philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Macaulay, and others, presupposed a history moving in a “progressive direction.” As Buckley posits, the nineteenth century was the “golden age of the ideologists, intent on discovering or inventing patterns of growth and decay.” Buckley finds support in R.G. Collingwood, who, in his The Idea of History (1956), writes: “This distinction between periods of primitiveness, periods of greatness, and periods of decadence, is not and never can be historically true. It tells us much about historians who study the facts, but nothing about the facts they study.”

The “idea of progress,” which is the subject of chapter three, is found among many optimistic Victorians, and most eloquently expressed by Macaulay, who saw in history numerous signs of the natural progress of society. The new Baconian thought delivered “great and constant progress”:

it has lengthened life; it is the mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases;… it has extended the range of the human vision; has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to the descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, and the ocean and ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first fruits. For it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress.

Unprecedented mechanical progress throughout the Victorian era was only the proscenium. According to Buckley, the “Victorians succeeded remarkably both in meeting the social challenge of industrialism and in widening the base of democracy. Despite the new horrors of the factor system, which were gradually mitigated or removed by legislation, most workers were better fed, clothed, and housed than their ancestors had been, and the improvement whetted their desire for further reform.” These ideas of reform hark back to the eighteenth century. Indeed, the emphatic avowals of Arnold, Mill, Morley, Kingsley, and Huxley, explicitly “reaffirmed the eighteenth-century idea of progress as a primary dogma of the Victorian period.” In many ways, the idea of progress became a “substitute religion” and thus became an “object of worship.” And as the “true religion,” it rejected all others as false.

Yet this kind of progress did not change “the quality of human life.” Men and women of literature “seldom received the idea of progress with the unqualified optimism of the rationalists and men of science.” Buckley gives evidence for this “recession of progress” in chapter four. In verse Tennyson mocked  “the old dreams of a perfected world, without war or disease, a world cultivated like a paradisal garden…by the nightmare vision of vastly multiplied populations struggling hungrily for survival.” Morley “came to feel that material prosperity could impair ‘the moral and intellectual nerve’ and later to wonder whether it were more than an ‘optimistic superstition’ to believe ‘that civilized communities are universally bound somehow or another to be progressive,'” and thus questioning Spencer’s earlier claim that “progress is not an accident, but a necessity.”

For every thesis, Buckely provides an antithesis. The “idea of decadence” in the nineteenth century is as strong as that of progress. In 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote to his friend Cunninghame Graham: “The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.” The new physics, with its theory of entropy, pointed to decay in the universe, rather than the progress inferred from biological evolution. “In other words, according to assured scientific theory, human time eventually must have a stop.” Ruskin, after reading Lyell, viewed the earth as now in “decrepitude.” But as Buckley correctly observes, the idea of decadence “was far older than any of the new scientific sanctions it could find in the late Victorian period.”  The Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christians, all lamented in their own way the degeneration of their own times. Yet the “idea of decadence grew steadily more urgent and immediate throughout the Victorian age.” The image of a future wasteland and an encroaching barbarism appeared in the writings of Balfour, Froude, Hopkins, Morris, Jefferies, Tennyson, Arnold, Wells, and others.

This Victorian rendition of the Fall of mankind led many to a “passion of the past,” which is the theme of chapter six. Indeed, many shared “a habit of reminiscence,” explaining why the nineteenth century was the “great age of English autobiography.” And although the prime objective in much of the autobiographical writings was “detachment,” Victorian autobiographers selected at will from their pasts, leaving out “unpleasant or unduly intimate detail.” Others chose to remember the past for “remorse or self-recrimination or simply bitterness.” The most important point however is that “in an age of great changes and large uncertainties many clung to the memory of ‘lost days’ that they could admire or idealize or often quite unabashedly sentimentalize.”

The last two chapters of Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a dramatic turn from the past to the “living present”; indeed to the “eternal now.” The past decreased as the pace of change and innovation increased, for the present was a constant “peremptory demand.” Carlyle provides an answer to this new challenge to mankind’s present state, first in his “Signs of the Times,” which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in June of 1829, and again in his more developed Sartor Resartus (1836): “Love no Pleasure; love God. This is the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him…Be no longer Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!…Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.” This was ultimately a secular gospel preached also by Emerson and Longfellow. Work endlessly to avoid modern skepticism and despair! Work will distract us from the more probing questions of life.

An awareness of the temporal relations and responsibilities of their time, however, did not deter Victorians from the “dream of eternity” and the “desire for transcendence.” But unlike previous generations, the Victorians searched for “tokens of permanence or stasis in or behind their passing impressions, and most came to regard their own deepest emotions and intuitions as partaking somehow of the timeless.” In other words, Victorians felled the “eternal”—or what they perceived as eternal—from heaven to earth. Some saw the eternal in human passion; others in art; still others saw it in nature itself.

Victorian literature exhibits an almost obsessive concern with the problems of time, history, progress, and decadence. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time provides a broad description of this phenomenon. It is a work as well written as it is succinct, lucid, and refined. Its value rests in its mass of allusions, generalizations, and quotes, showing the Victorians, in their poetry, fiction, criticism, science, and philosophy, steeped, intellectually and emotionally, in ideas of time and of history.

In the end, however, Buckley, in his organization and categorization, presents a “card file”: Victorians on history; Victorians on progress; Victorians on decadence; Victorians on eternity; and so on. The material is just too vast and varied and complex to reduce to a system. Buckley admits at the outset that his intention was merely to “describe,” and that the book “undertakes no detailed analysis of the literary techniques of registering time’s passage or quality.” But the reader may desire some sort of order out of the cacophony of  materials.

Without sufficient analysis, the wealth of examples can be unsatisfying and even—as this reader experienced—somewhat confusing.  But perhaps this is the point. Victorians were hypocritical, contradictory, optimistic, pessimistic, sensual, ascetic, and ultimately conflicted about their age. The Victorian period was an elaborate milieu, and Buckley has gone a long way toward laying out the problem of time. Buckley’s The Triumph of Time therefore serves rather well as a stimulus, a handbook. Assembled economically, his handbook increases one’s appreciation for the complexity of Victorian culture.

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.”

Conclusion

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.