Romanticism

The Romanticism of the Victorian Scientific Naturalists

The scientific naturalists were, according to Frank M. Turner, “successors to the eighteenth-century philosophes.” “Combing research, polemical wit, and literary eloquence,” Turner writes,  “they defended and propagated a scientific world view based on atomism, conservation of energy, and evolution.” Turner, however, in his “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle” (1975), urges caution in showing the connection between nineteenth-century and eighteenth-century intellectuals. There is “considerable room for qualification in accepting contemporary or self-espoused views of the intellectual background of the scientific writers or in establishing a uniformitarian apostolic succession within naturalistic thought.”

These Victorian popularizers of science were all reared in a Christian home and attended clerically dominated universities, where scientific education was infused with metaphysics, idealism, and natural religion. Put succinctly, Turner reminds us that “Huxely as a boy would go off to the woods to deliver sermons from tree stumps. Tyndall had grown up amid the rigors of Irish Orange protestantism; Leslie Stephen, in a strict evangelical household. The latter had also taken holy orders. [And] Herbert Spencer’s childhood had been passed among liberal nonconformists in the provinces.”

There was, indeed, a gradual, transitional process to their more “naturalistic frame of mind.” Here Turner emphasizes the “rather unexpected influence of Thomas Carlyle on the naturalistic coterie.” Carlyle introduced German romanticism and idealism to the British, most well-known for his Sartor Resartus, published in 1836, but appearing in serial form from 1833-34 in Fraser’s Magazine. According to Turner, “Huxley, Tyndall, Morley, Galton, and even Spencer drew upon Carlyle’s wisdom in their early manhood.” Morley claimed that Carlyle “has done more than anybody else to fire men’s hearts with a feeling for right and an eager desire for social activity.” Huxley recalled “the bracing wholesome influence of his writings when, as a young man, I was essaying without rudder or compass to strike out a course for myself.” But highest praise came from Tyndall, writing: “I must ever gratefully remember that through three long cold German winters Carlyle placed me in my tub, even when ice was on its surface, at five o’clock every morning—not slavishly, but cheerfully, meeting each day’s studies with a resolute will, determined whether victor or vanquished not to shrink from difficulty.”

But Carlyle’s influence on the scientific naturalists went beyond mere temperament.  “Contemporaries of a rationlistic and naturalistic bent of mind,” Turner argues, “discovered the foundation for a view of nature, religion, and society that allowed them to regard themselves as thoroughly scientific and naturalistic without becoming either materialistic or atheistic and to accept secular society with good conscience and a finite universe without spiritual regret.”

The link between Carlyle and the scientific naturalists, Turner tells us, is social critique and the call for a new social and intellectual elite. “Carlyle believed the problems of Britain’s social and physical well-being should be addressed by leaders whose authority and legitimacy stemmed from talent, veracity, and knowledge of facts.” This appeal to a meritorious society characterized the “young guard’s” ambitious attempt to remove all aristocratic influence from the scientific societies. But this was not egalitarian enterprise. Like Carlyle, they “believed the new elite itself should formulate and direct policy. In Huxley’s words, “I should be very sorry to find myself on board a ship in which the voices of the cook and loblolly boys counted for as much as those of the officers, upon questions of steering, or reefing topsails.” In short, the naturalistic movement was a new elitist’s movement.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the thought and career of Galton. Indeed, Galton had nothing but contempt for democracy and equality. “I have no patience with the hypothesis,” he once wrote, “that babies are born pretty much alike…it is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretension of natural equality.” In Turner’s estimation, “a direct line of intellectual descent connects Carlyle’s demand for heroes and his devotion to great men with Galton’s eugenics.”

The scientist was the new hero, often represented in messianic imagery. This image of scientist as savor came, of course, with invectives against the current priesthood and clerical-scientist. In his Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), Past and Present (1843), and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), Carlyle declared that the reigning “sham” priesthood should (and will) be replaced with a more industrious, honest, courageous, effective, and active intellectual leadership. By the mid-nineteenth century, the new scientific elite asserted themselves as this new intellectual leadership. In a letter to Charles Kingsley, for example, Huxley claimed that the “caste of priests must give way to a new order of prophets”: “Understand that this new school of prophets [he writes] is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being ‘shocking.'” The scientists thus were the new teachers of truth.

This Carlylean influence, Turner says, solves an apparent paradox. Although the scientific naturalists attacked the clergy and Christian doctrine, they remained men of deep moral and religious sensitivity. Carlyle had separated religion from spirituality. Religion was “wonder, humility, and work amidst the eternities and silences.” True religion was the “inner man.” Huxley likewise declared that “a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” Other members of the naturalistic coterie would concur. Carlyle had been a religious and philosophical agnostic long before Huxley coined the term. In a letter to Scottish author John Sterling, Carlyle proclaimed:

Assure yourself,  I am neither Pagan nor Turk, not circumcised Jew, but an unfortunate Christian individual resident at Chelsea in this year of Grace; neither Pantheist nor Pottheist, nor any Theist or ist whatsoever, having the most decided contempt for all manner of System-builders  and Sectfounders—so far as contempt may be compatible with so mild a nature; feeling well beforehand (taught by experience) that all such are and even must be wrong. By God’s blessing, one has got two eyes to look with; and also a mind capable of knowing, of believing: that is all the creed I will at this time insist on.

According to Turner, Carlyle statement “stood as a statement of Huxley’s, Tyndall’s, Spencer’s, or Stephen’s religious and metaphysical position.” The Victorian scientific naturalists’ philosophical skepticism, optimism, work ethic, and conceptions of force and matter, all belong to this Carlylean intellectual heritage. “Carlyle’s impetus provided the foundation for their moral commitment,” Turner concludes, “for the scientific publicists approached their age in the guise of the man of letters confident with Carlyle that ‘What he teaches, the whole world will do and make.'”

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“Religion” as a Modern Invention

Upon returning from my trip to England, I was delighted to find Amazon’s trademark smiling boxes waiting for me. I had ordered a number books before my trip, and among them was Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013). I first came across Nongbri’s book in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s forthcoming The Territories of Science and Religion (2014). Nongbri’s Before Religion follows a recent trend among historians of religion who have come to question the concept and even usefulness of the term “religion.” According to Nongbri, the “isolation of something called ‘religion’ as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics, and science is not a universal feature of human history.”

Brent Nongbri - Before ReligionNongbri is not the first scholar to draw our attention to the problematic nature of the term “religion.” This he readily admits. He is influenced first and foremost by the remarkable scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who in his The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), traced the development of the term “religion” (religio) in the west, showing how the it has changed meaning over time and how it was inextricably connected with polemics and apologetics. These claims are not without merit. Several studies beside Smith have traced the genesis of the term and have reached similar conclusions.

But Nongbri wants to move beyond Smith’s “reification” thesis. Here is follows Talal Asad’s view that “religion” and “secularization” are two sides of the same coin. That is, religion, according to Asad, is “a modern concept not because it is reified but because it has been linked to its Siamese twin ‘secularism.'” Thus Nongbri wants to address “how we have come to talk about ‘secular’ versus ‘religious.'” Indeed, how—and when—did we first divide the world between the “religious” and the “secular”? In short, Nongbri ventures an origins story. Or, as he puts it, “a diachronic narrative” of selected “representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period.”

Nongbri is also influenced by the work of deconstructionists Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell T. McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and in particular Jonathan Z. Smith and Peter Harrison. Pointing to post-Reformation hostilities, Nongbri maintains that these events “not only brought much bloodshed but also disrupted trade and commerce,” inspiring prominent public figures such as John Locke to argue “that stability in the commonwealth could be achieved not by settling arguments about which kind of Christianity was ‘true,’ but by isolating beliefs about god in a private sphere and elevating loyalty to the legal codes of developing nation-states over loyalties to god.” J.Z. Smith, in his incisive Drudgery Divine (1990), described the “Protestant, apologetic, historiographical project” of the reformers as “Pagano-papism,” which was, in a nutshell, Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics. Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990) also shows how “religion” was constructed “along essentially rationalistic lines.” Harrison too recognizes that “in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘paganopapism’ played a major role in the rhetoric of sectarian disputes.” Thus such early attempts to understand “religion” were often marred by polemics; they were attempts to show either the “superiority” of Protestantism over and against Catholicism and other Christian sects, or to promote a deistic, “natural” or “rational” religion. Nongbri returns to themes near the end of the book.

For now, Nongbri begins Chapter One, “What do We Mean by ‘Religion,'” with a discussion on the many different definitions of religion. In 1912, professor of psychology James J. Leuba offered more than fifty different definitions of religion. In 1966, anthropologist Clifford Geertz offered a more careful definition of religion as a system of symbols established on conceptions of reality, designed to move and motivate mankind. More recently, historian of religion Bruce Lincoln offered yet another definition of religion in his Holy Terrors (2003) as a “discourse” and “set of practices” within a “community” of believers guided and directed by an “institution.” Nongbri offers his own provocative definition, following the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (as interpreted, however, by Richard Rorty): “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition [he says] might be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christianocentric, and even a bit flippant; it is all these things, but it is also highly accurate in reflecting the uses of the term in modern languages.” What Nongbri intends by this definition is made clearer by the end of the book.

Nongbri goes on to add three more points. First, religion is understood, in this modern sense, as essentially private or spiritual, and thus immune from the constraints of language and history. Second, this way of understanding religion sees religion as a “genus that contains a variety of species” (as, e.g., in the “World Religions”). According to Nongbri, “The picture of the world as divided among major ‘religions’ offering alternative means to ‘salvation’ or ‘enlightenment’ is thoroughly entrenched in the modern imagination.”And third, in the academic context, religion is either used descriptively or redescriptively. That is, religion is either described from an observer’s point of view, using the classificatory “systems of a group of people being studied,” or it is redescribed, using a classificatory system completely foreign to the group being observed.

The imposition of modern categories of “religious” and “secular” on ancient writings, for example, is the subject of Chapter Two, “Lost in Translation: Inserting ‘Religion’ into Ancient Texts.” Here Nongbri scrutinizes the Latin religio, the Greek thrēskei, and the Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. These terms are often rendered “religion” in modern English translation; however, according to Nongbri, each term had a range of meanings—and none like our modern understanding of religion. “Those aspects of life covered by these terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion.” Thus using “religion” to describe the worldview of ancient peoples serves only to mar our understanding of them. In looking at ancient texts from Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian peoples, for instance, Nongbri finds much incongruity with  modern notions of religion. “We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize,” he writes.

In Chapter Three Nongbri traces “Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity.” Scholars typically find the events of the Maccabean revolt, the writings of Cicero (esp. his On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods) and Eusebius (esp. his Demonstratio evangelica and Praeparatio evangelica), and finally the rise of Islam, as marking the beginning of the concept of “religion.” But Nongbri contends each case. “In each of these cases,” he writes, “the episode that modern authors have identified as ancient ‘religion’ have turned out to involve discourses that ancient authors themselves seem to have understood primarily in ethnic or civic terms.”

Chapter Four examines “Christians and ‘Others’ in the Premodern Era,” that is, examples of Christian interaction with “other religions.” Nongbri first looks at Mani and the Manichaeans, who in fact viewed themselves as “Christians,” and who saw “orthodox” Christianity as “inferior, and even  “hereticial.” Many scholars have seen Mani as “founding a religion,” but according to Nongbri “Mani’s self-understanding” operated entirely “within the sphere of Christian activity.” Indeed, Jesus remained a key figure to Mani and his later followers. Thus neither the orthodox nor Mani and his followers saw Manichaeaism as the foundations of a new “religion.” And in fact neither did orthodox Christians. Mani and the Manichaeans were viewed, from the beginning, as heretics.

Nongbri then turns to John of Damascus and his remarks on Islam. In a tract entitled Peri hairesōn (not unlike Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion), John lists a number of heresies, including what he called the “Ishmaelites.” According to John, Islam was not a new “religion,” but rather a Christian heresy. As Nongbri points out, John in fact was not alone in claiming that Muslims were a erroneous Christian sect.

Finally, Nongbri examines the tale of the Christian saints Barlaam and Ioasaph. This story of Barlaam and Ioasaph was an incredibly popular narrative in the late Middle Ages. According to this legend, Abenner, the father of Ioasaph, wanted to protect his son from the reality of death, disease, old age, and poverty, and therefore built palace in a secluded location. But Ioasaph grew to become a curiously young man, eventually convincing his father to permit him to venture beyond his sheltered palace, only to be shocked to find the ravages of reality. He immediately fell into a great depression. But the devout Christian monk, Barlaam visited Ioasaph at his palace and shared with him the Christian message of the Gospel. The message freed from this depression, and Ioasaph was thus baptized. He would eventually Christianize his portion of the kingdom. The tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph has many close similarities to the legendary biography of Siddhārtha Gautama. Indeed, according to Nongbri, it was a “reworked version of the life of the Buddha,” who was, in a sense, canonized as a Christian saint. “The story of the Buddha,” he writes, “was not seen as part of a story of a separate religion; rather, a late medieval Christian, and an earlier Manichaean Christian or a Muslim, simply absorbed the story of the Buddha  and made it their own.”

From Buddhism to Islam, in short, these traditions were not seen as new “religions,” but, in some sense, as “flawed” Christianity.

In Chapters Five and Six, Nongbri finally provides an account of the development of the modern notion of “religion.” In “Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” he traces the development and consequences of the fragmentation of Christendom as a result of the reform movements. But first Nongbri wants to examine the idea of the vera religio, or “true religion,” among Italian Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance and seventeenth-century English deists. True religion or worship has always existed. Christianity was simply the best example of this vera religio. It follows that “non-Christian thought, even if vastly deficient, might be expected to show at least some qualities of this vera religio.” This was the position of Augustine, Eusebius, Lactantius, and Photius, among others. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the influx of “pagan” wisdom from translations of Greek and Arabic texts, the prisca theologia (“ancient theology”) became the guiding principle of Renaissance thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and, later, Giordano Bruno. The prisca theologia was the practice of finding harmony between Christianity and pagan philosophy, particularly the Platonic, but also the Hermetic, which emerged from the recent translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

In the wake of the reformation, Nongbri claims (citing Harrison), “the fragmentation of Christendom led to a change from an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding.” Once a quest for harmony, Protestant thinkers now saw parallels between pagan and Catholic practices as a corruption of the true, pristine faith of the Scriptures. This polemic of “pagano-papism” was not only used against Catholics but also “appeared in disputes among different groups of Protestants.” According to Nongbri, “this kind of polemic itself contributed to the formation of distinct religions.”

These disputes led to much bloodshed and warfare among vying Protestant sects. English “deists” such as Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Toland renewed the search for an “original religion.” Herbert, for example, found it in his “Common Notions.” But as Nongbri puts it, “by shearing away all the practices of ancient people in his discussions of what was essential and original” in all religions, “Herbert contributed to the growing sense that religion was a matter of beliefs apart from ‘various Rites, Ceremonies, and Sacred Mysteries.'” Religion was thus increasingly seen a “set of beliefs that could be either true or false.”

Before turning to the next chapter, Nongbri wants to further contextualize these ideas by setting them within the political philosophies of Jean Bodin and John Locke. Bodin maintained that state stability depended on the toleration of distinct groups. In his Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, Bodin concluded that “we are unable to command religion because no one can be forced to believe against his will.” Likewise, Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, maintained that “religion ought to be purely a matter of the salvation of the individual.” Any gathering of religious individuals therefore ought to be tolerated by the government, no matter the creed (except the atheists, which Locke excluded, for they interfered with the proper operation of the state). In the end, however, the “isolation of religion as a distinct sphere of life ideally separated from other areas of life allowed for a new kind of mental mapping of Europe and the world.”

In the following chapter, “New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions,” Nongbri seeks to outline the European struggle and reaction to “increasing amounts of information, primarily from the ‘New World,'” which called into question the biblical worldview of reality. He writes, “At the same time that the genus of religion was coming to be thought of as ideally an internal, private, depoliticized entity, interactions with previously unknown peoples were beginning to create new species of individual religions.” In this section Nongbri closely follows J.Z. Smith’s insightful essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998), where he suggests that a “world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it” (my emphasis). In particular, Nongbri traces the origins, construction, and classification of “religion” in India, Africa, and Japan. Here we begin to see emerging the “four grand Religions of the world,” that is, the Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Mohamedan, which eventually morphed into the modern framework of the modern “World Religions,” first promoted by Cornelis P. Tiele in the nineteenth century. Thus, according to Nongbri, there is “nothing natural or neutral about either the concept of religion or the framework of World Religions.”

Despite all this, Nongbri, in his Conclusion, maintains we should not altogether abandon the category of religion. He says, “I think there is still a place for ‘the study of religion’ in the modern world, provided that those doing the study adopt a self-conscious and critical attitude that has often been lacking.” In other words, something may be a historically construed term, but it does not follow therefore that it is useless. Or, as Paul Hedges recently argues in his article, “Discourse on the Invention of Discourse: Why We Need the Terminology of ‘Religion’ and ‘Religions'” (2014),  “if conventional knowledge is wrong because it is based upon socially constructed terminology, it is unclear why we should prefer another set of ideological socially constructed terminology which seeks to overcome it.” The critique of “religion” by Fitzgerald, McCutcheon, Masuzawa, and others, for instance, simply reintroduces “religion” by other names, whether it be “faith,” “sacred,” or “tradition.” Throughout his own book, moreover, Nongbri uses “religion” without the quotation marks. This suggests that “religion,” with the necessary qualifications, is here to stay. As Nongbri concludes, “if we are going to use religion as a second-order, redescriptive concept, we must always be explicit that we are doing so and avoid giving the impression that religion really was ‘out there,’ ’embedded in’ or ‘diffused in’ the ancient evidence.”

Nongbri’s book is a fine text that synthesizes a great deal of scholarship. It may serve as a useful, quickl reference guide for undergraduates and laypersons alike. However, a point unduly neglected, it seems to me, if one focuses solely on the modern construction of “religion,” is the contribution of Romanticism to the rise of the scientific study of religion (Religionswissenschaft). This was a point emphasized by H.G. Kippenberg in his essay, “Einleitung. Religionswissenschaft und Kulturkritik” (1991). Kippenberg, in brief, argued that the rise of a critical approach—which takes into account historical and cultural differences, but which emphasizes a non-sectarian, non-confessional, and non-reductive attitude—to the study of religion was given impetus by the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. This, it seems to me, was a necessary condition. Ahistorical explanations of religion, as “priest-craft” or infantile “wish-fulfillment” or “neuroses” are not conducive to the particularities of religion, of its long and complex history, or of its doubtless interconnectedness with different social and political contexts.

If Kippenberg’s argument is correct (and I think it is), the question then becomes: what were the origins of the Romantic worldview, and how did it become so crucial for understanding the study of religion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prolegomena to A History of Evolution: Taking Biology from Metaphysics

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;Robert Bowler
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas’d at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
Th’ increasing prospects tire our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

To the Greeks, drinking from the Pierian Spring brings great knowledge and inspiration. Thus, Pope is explaining how if you only learn a little it can “intoxicate” you in such a way that makes you feel as though you know a great deal. However, when “drinking largely sobers” you, you become aware of how little you truly know.

I was reminded by Pope’s couplet over the weekend, when someone I know very well broached the topic about evolution and the church—particularly his church. He bemoaned his church’s alleged anti-evolutionary stance—although the nature of the conflict was not entirely clear to me. I asked what, exactly, was so troubling. He replied that “the majority of the scientific community hold evolution to be true,” and thus it followed, in his mind, that this church needed some updating. I pressed him to expand on this, but he merely repeated anecdotal “evidence” gleamed from popular accounts, namely newspaper editorials, magazines, television programs, and the like.  Now, this person is highly educated, but neither in the biological sciences nor in the history of ideas. His knowledge on the subject is based on what Neil Postman has called “the news of the day”; that is, the massive flow of “decontextualized” information over a vast medium. But that kind of knowledge is narrative, stories or myths the media (de)constructs for its audiences.

This had me thinking about my own research interests; namely, tracing the genesis, growth, and dissemination of the narratology of the Scientific Revolution in nineteenth-century Europe. The Biological Revolution is a similar narrative, only constructed later, mostly in the twentieth century, and particularly in North America. What this narrative ignores is that evolutionary biologists are constantly involved in some controversy. Despite appearances, there is tremendous disagreement among practicing scientists. Some of Darwin’s staunchest supporters disagreed with him on key issues. For example, T.H. Huxley, Joseph Hooker,  and Alfred Russel Wallace were all strong supporters of evolutionary ideas, and yet all argued with Darwin privately in letters and sometimes in print. More recently few know of the controversies surrounding John Maynard Smith,  Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge. These controversies involve complexities that the media ignore because it is messy. No one likes a messy story. We want black and white. We want to cheer for heroes and condemn the villains.

So this inevitably raises the question, “How could these individuals have supported Darwin if they did not believe in some of his most basic ideas?” Part of the answer becomes clearer when we realize that Darwin’s theory of evolution can be divided into distinct sub-theories, which are, for the most part, independent of one another. German-American biologist Ernst Mayr breaks these sub-theories into five categories:

  1. Evolution as such: This is the idea that evolution takes place.
  2. Common descent: This is the idea that every group or organisms (mammals, e.g.) is descended from a common ancestor, and that all organisms can be traced back to a single origin of life.
  3. Multiplication of species: This is the idea that species multiply. They may do this by splitting into two distinct species at various different times during their evolution.
  4. Gradualism: This is the idea that evolution is an accumulation of small changes. New types do not suddenly appear. That is, there is no saltation.
  5. Natural selection: Evolution comes about because there is an abundance of genetic variation in every generation. Relatively few individuals survive and pass along their favorable genetic characteristic to the next generation.

Some of these are more inclusive than others. But it is possible to break Mayr’s five sub-theories down further. Some authors have even cited eight or more components. At any rate, once this point is understood, it is easy to see how scientists such as Huxley could have counted themselves among Darwin’s supporters when they disagreed with him on major points.

A better answer, as Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton perceptively observe in their The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (1996), is that the revolution in biological sciences blossomed fourth suddenly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in a welter of contrary philosophies and approaches. Biological theories of those centuries jumped from mechanistic to vitalistic, from reductionistic to holistic, from essentialist to transformist, from radical materialism to natural theologians who regarded living things as evidence for belief in God.

The contrasting theories sort themselves out once we realize that biology was nourished by the same streams of thought that dominated the physical sciences in previous generations; namely the Aristotelian, Neo-platonic, and Mechanistic worldviews. Grasp these three worldviews and you have the tools to sort through the rich diversity making up the history of biology and to understand the intellectual commitments motivating individual figures. In other words, advocates of various interpretations of life ultimately borrowed their biology from their metaphysics. Each metaphysical tradition primed its adherents to look for certain kinds of facts and to apply certain interpretations.

For example, the Aristotelian worldview, though discredited in physics and astronomy, remained vigorous in natural history. Its major theme was that organic structures must be understood according to built-in purposes. The Aristotelian approach was particularly popular with anatomists, who were impressed with how perfectly the eye is constructed for seeing and the ear for hearing. Many saw in the wonderful “fit” between structure and function the hand of a wise Creator. In addition, Aristotelian logic was used in the construction of classification systems to organize the vast array of living things. Aristotelians tended toward the descriptive side of biology. They interpreted the order in the organic world as an expression of the divine plan of creation; their reasoning was the logic of categorization; their method was observation in the wild. The explosion of biological information gathered by European explorers made the need for biological classification paramount. Physician William Harvey (1578-1657), botanists John Ray (1627-1705) and Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) all displayed a remarkable Aristotelian tone in their work.

By contrast, Neo-platonism stressed immanent semi-spiritual “active principles” as formative forces in nature. The nineteenth century witnessed a great revival of Neo-platonism through the romantic movement, especially in Germany where it developed into Naturphilosophie (nature philosophy). The romantic biologists embraced a form of pantheistic vitalism, especially popular among embryologists, who sought an inner Law of Development to explain organic forms.

By drawing an analogy between embryonic development and the development of categories of organisms, romantic biologists were the first to construct theories of evolution. Just as individuals move up through several stages of development, so all of life was presumed to move up the “great chain of being” from simpler forms to humanity. In most cases, this was not evolution as the term is used today but rather as its literal definition suggests—an “unfolding” of a preordained pattern, the gradual realization of an immanent or built-in pattern. Like earlier Neo-platonists (Paracelsus, van Helmont, Leibniz), the romantic biologists often spoke of “seeds” in nature—hidden, latent powers that unfold over time. Each category of organism was regarded as the realization of such a seed.

The romantic biologists also searched for fundamental anatomical patterns for each class of organisms. They referred to these patterns as “archetypes”—a term reminiscent of Plato’s perfect and eternal Ideas. Hence romantic biology is often described as an idealist philosophy of nature; the search for archetypes was labeled Transcendental Anatomy. The romantic biologists interpreted the order in the organic world as a progression up the chain of being, a succession of archetypes; they reasoned by analogy; their method was historical. The astronomer and biologist Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) was one of the first to recognize that a simplistic Newtonian paradigm of “forces and motions” was inadequate for biology.  French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopedic author, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), once he had become acquainted with Leibniz’ work, wrote a multi-volume natural history that became a key influence in the rise of romanticism and Naturphilosophie. A contemporary of Cuvier, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) reacted against what he regarded as the dry systematic approach of the Aristotelian tradition. According to Lamarck, the essence of life is flux, motion, change, and central to his philosophy of nature is the organism as it strives to adapt and develop.

And finally there was the Mechanistic worldview, which came to biology through Descartes, with his proposal that living things (animals and the human body) are automatons, operating solely by physical laws. Mechanistic philosophy appealed particularly to physiologists studying the way the body operates. Early physiologists focused on the mechanical operation of limbs and joints; later they experimented with chemical reactions in the body. Mechanists interpreted the order in the organic world as a result of order in the physical world, in the atoms and chemicals that comprise living things; they reasoned by analysis; they championed the method of controlled experiment. We can distinguish two groups of mechanistic biologists during the period. One group was motivated by political and religious concerns as much as by biological ones. They hoped that a radical materialism would sap the supernatural sanctions of Christianity and in so doing not only shake the dogma of the churches but also undermine the legitimacy of contemporary absolutist princes. This group included figures such as Karl Vogt (1817–1895), Jacob Moleschott (1822–1893), and Ludwig Buchner (1824–1899). They turned their hand to the popularization of science, using it to support materialism. The second group of mechanistic biologists were more moderate, focusing on physiology, not politics. They tended to treat reductionism primarily as a methodology, not an all-embracing philosophy. This group included figures such as Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), Karl Ludwig (1816–1895), and Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894).

The three traditions adumbrated here did not, of course, remain exclusive from one another. Once terms or phrases became common usage in one tradition, they tended to spill over into general discourse. Adherents of other traditions might pick them up and pay them lip service without necessarily accepting their metaphysical context.

On the other hand, there were some who consciously sought to reconcile the different traditions. Richard Owen (1804–1858), a student of Cuvier, was subsequently influenced by romantic biology and worked out a synthesis of the two. Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), the Swiss naturalist who headed the zoology department at Harvard University, likewise combined elements of Aristotelianism with the idealistic progressivism of Naturphilosophie. In Germany Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) grafted Darwin’s materialistic evolution onto the roots of romantic biology and became one of Darwin’s most vigorous popularizers.

Clearly, science is not simply a matter of observing facts. Every scientific theory also expresses a worldview. Philosophical preconceptions determine where facts are sought, how experiments are designed, and which conclusions are drawn from them. It is only by grasping the worldview traditions that have shaped the development of biology that we really understand what motivated a Cuvier, a Buffon, or a Darwin.

But we might wonder whether these worldview traditions discussed here are still alive today. The answer is yes. The most visible is the mechanistic tradition. Mainstream academic biology is adamantly committed to a materialist, reductionist form of mechanism. And as noted in the beginning of this post entry, controversies and conflicts in the biological sciences continue to exist today. According to the noted British geneticist John Maynard Smith, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is “a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with.” Oxford University zoologists Richard Dawkins charges Gould’s view of evolution is based on fundamental misunderstanding. Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett goes further. According to Dennett, Gould is “a would-be revolutionary” who has mounted a series of attacks on conventional Darwinism over the years. Furthermore, Dennett says, as the best-known writer on evolutionary topics, Gould has had an influence that is “immense and distorting.” Gould must have some “hidden agenda,” Dennett speculates.

Gould, on the other hand, brands Maynard Smith, Dawkins, and Dennett as “Darwinian fundamentalists,” who place an emphasis on one component of Charles Darwin’s theory and “push their line with an almost theological fervor.” Maynard Smith, he says, has apparently gotten caught up in an “apocalytpic ultra-Darwinian fervor.” Dennett’s writings, he adds, are characterized by “hint, innuendo, false attribution and error.”

Maynard Smith, Dawkins, Dennett, and Gould are not the only individuals engaged in this controversy. For example, Gould’s colleague, paleontologist Niles Eldredge has also critized Dawkins, Dennett, and Maynard Smith. So have various other scientists, including as H. Allen Orr, Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby. The controversy is ongoing and it is not likely that the argument will end soon. The differences between all these scientists arise not from the scientific data, but their interpretations of it. There are fundamental philosophical differences between them. Dawkins, Maynard Smith, and other orthodox Darwinians are reductionists who see only one important factor in evolution. Gould and Eldregde, on the other hand, describe themselves as pluralists who see evolution as something that is much more complex. Thus the differences in outlook have led not one but a variety of different controversies.

This post entry is merely an introduction to a vastly complex subject. I have recently acquired Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (2009), recognized as a comprehensive and authoritative source on the development and impact of this most controversial of scientific theories. This twentieth anniversary edition is updated with a new preface examining recent scholarship and trends within the study of evolution. For those who are interested in going beyond “the news of the day,” Bowler’s book is a good start.