Royal Society

Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011)

Since my post on Huxley’s treatment of “Nature,” I have occupied my time with readings from Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2009) and Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011). Otis’ work is an anthology of over 500 pages of excerpts and explanatory notes. Sleigh’s work is a sustained argument about the natural relationship between science and literature, covering a diverse range of topics, such as “Empiricism and the Novel,” “Epistolarity and the Democratic Ideal,” Idealism and the Inhuman,” Realism in Literature and the Laboratory,” Scientists, Moral Realism and the New World Order,” “Subjects of Science,” and “Says Who? Science and Public Understanding.” Both books serve well as introductions to the relatively recent field of science and literature.

Charlotte Sleigh - Literature and ScienceIn this entry I begin with Sleigh. She starts by debunking several myths about science and literature, namely science as objective and literature as subjective, essentially the “two cultures” argument presented by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in a 1959 lecture. Science, she says, is all about persuading others that certain hypotheses are true, and “persuasion is primarily an art of language and literature.” “Science,” she goes on to say, “cannot be conducted without language, and language is not a neutral tool. It actively shapes knowledge just as much as does the decision to dissect this animal, use that microscope, perform this test, and so on.” The advent of modern scientific knowledge, moreover, was “intimately connected to the gentlemanly trustworthiness of the reporter. Who did this? Who saw this? Was it someone they could trust?” Further, scientific knowledge is also representational, and thus depends on language. Scientific facts are only meaningful when they are made up of words and images, “and these words and images bring a host of allusions, history and connotations that themselves become part of the representation as the science is further developed.” Indeed, language constructs scientific discovery, “since no scientist can think through the process without the words and images of their culture.”

The distinction between an object science and a subjective literature also breaks down when “one considers the human identity of scientists.” Scientists, like everyone else, experience passion, curiosity, and awe that motivates their work. Again, these are human motivations. Indelibly, literary and scientific work “remain human activities undertaken for very human motives.”

During the nineteenth century, “the distinction between scientific writing and other kinds of publications blurs considerably.” Indeed, other scholars have argued that during the nineteenth century “science was literature.” “Knowledge was less specialized than it is today,” Sleigh explains, “and educated readers would respond to both the scientific and the literary elements of any text.”

In chapter one, Sleigh considers “the transition to modern science that took place in the later seventeenth century and the literary implications of the natural philosophers’ switch from textual to observational knowledge,” that is, “empiricism.”  She focuses on Robert Boyle and the founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660. Recent scholarship shows, however, that “experimental science and novelistic prose were not merely parallel developments born of the social shifts of the seventeenth century.” Rather, “there was also a closer and more necessary relation between them, stemming from the fact that not all scientific witnessing could be done face-to-face.” Thus some scholars have “characterized Boyle’s writing as a ‘literary technology’ that was no less important than physical technology (the air pump) and social technology (the new gentlemanly codes of observation) in making knowledge.” She then compares these developments to several pieces of literature, particularly Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1727), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) and The Wrench (1978).

In chapter two, Sleigh shows how a Benthamite model of law in courtroom hearings is employed in the reading and writing of epistolary fiction, “the layers of the text allow[ing] the reader to hear multiple perspectives and even to simulate participation in the dialogue concerning the novel’s economy of virtue.” Mary Shelley’s lusus naturae, Frankenstein (1818), an “examination of the powers of reason and experience,” is “both epistolary in nature and presented for readers’ judgment” over heated debates regarding vitalism.

Chapter three looks at the early Victorian era, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), and William Whewell’s model of scientific method. For Whewell, science was more “than the grindings of pure, mathematical, deductive logic.” “Induction, rather than deduction,” he says, “is the source of the great scientific truths which form the glory, and fasten on them the admiration of modern times.” The underlying assumption here, as Sleigh points out, is that “a person had to have the correct idea in mind before she or he could weigh up the claims of scientific observations.” Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, first published in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34, and then published as a single volume in Britain in 1838, and Edgar Allen Poe’s editorship of Southern Literary Messenger and other writings “did not conform happily” to Whewell’s agenda. Poe goes so far as to suggest that “science could be done by the power of imagination better than it could by either of Whewell’s methods; that is, by inductive or deductive logic.”

Chapter four discusses the origin of realism in literature and laboratory, situating it in the “political turbulence of mid-nineteenth-century continental Europe.” Here Sleigh works closely with the work of French novelist and critic Emile Zola (1840-1902), who “came to present the scientist as a heroic figure.” Zola, among many other mid-nineteenth-century writers, artists, and dramatists, “professed a commitment to reality in their work.” They espoused “naturalism,” who “claimed to describe [things] as they inevitably were.” The science of evolution, Sleigh points out, “provided yet more evidence for Zola and the realists that humans obeyed the laws of nature.” “From positivism, statistics and evolutionary theory,” she continues, “naturalists gained confidence that they could explain and predict human behaviour, through a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors.” Zola subsumed this confidence in his novels, particularly his Thérèse Raquin (1867), where its characters are depicted as “predictable as chemicals in a test tube.”

Chapter five develops these themes further, in the form that realism took in Victorian Britain. Unlike continental thinkers, “Victorian realism was essentially moral rather than ontological,” which transitioned from “a theological form in the nineteenth century to a rather more secular version of authoritarianism in the twentieth.” Here we find case studies on George Eliot (1819-1890), Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), and H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Like the continental realists, Eliot’s novels were packed with accurate details. But unlike Zola and continental realists, rather than just explaining the “how,” she concerned herself with the “why” of human behavior. Sleigh makes comments on Eliot’s translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (trans. 1860), Romola (1862-63), Middlemarch (1871-2), and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Sleigh, these writings suggests “that it is not so much facts captured that matter as the spirit in which they are searched out,” a “kind of moral realism.” Similarly, Charles Kingsley’s writings, particularly his Two Years Ago (1857) and The Water Babies (1863) expresses the authority of the heroic scientist on firmly moral grounds. Indeed, the true scientist has Christ-like qualities, who courageously and selflessly pursues reform and truth.

In the later part of the nineteenth century, scientists became “more assertive in their efforts to dominate moral culture.” As Sleigh correctly points out, “histories of the supposed ‘conflict’ between religion and faith were written at this time.” The teaching—and, quite honestly—preaching of T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall are noted. As Ruth Barton pointed out, Tyndall’s 1874 Belfast Address “demonstrates an almost religious faith in science. “Believing, as I do,” writes Tyndall,

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

Similar to Eliot, “there came for Tyndall a point where observations had to stop and only ‘veracious imagination’ could stand in. What governed this imagination was a moral economy of heroism: a lonely servitude to truth.” And here is where H.G. Wells comes in. He was, according to Sleigh, a “spokesman for the truth and social value of science.” It was Huxley’s views on evolution that guided his The Time Machine (1895). Other writings of Wells are more explicitly didactic in nature, including Anticipations (1901), A Modern Utopia (1905), The Outline of History (1918-19), The Open Conspiracy (1928), The Science of Life (1929-30), and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932). Sleigh concludes this chapter with a brief look at William Morton Wheeler’s “The Termitodoxa, or Biology and Society” (1920), which she describes as “a thinly disguised demand for biologists to be given the social authority to practice their eugenics in human society,” and Aldous Huxley’s more ambivalent view of the value of science in his Brave New World (1932). Aldous Huxley and others began to “recognize that ‘pure’ science was in fact nothing of the sort, and that its alternative title, ‘high science,’ actually gave a great deal away about its class identity and purposes.”

Chapter six discusses the subjectivist reaction against the objective, realist perspective, particularly in subjectivist psychologies of associationism, Bergsonism, Freudianism, and beyond, producing literature and art that came to be known as “modernist.” According to Sleigh, the two brothers William (1842-1910) and Henry James (1843-1916) “form a happy pairing of science and literature.” Briefly discussed are William James’ “subjectivity of thought” in The Principles of Psychology (1890) and Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908), which is an example of “subjectivity without a subject.” Sleigh also includes May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier (1919), which more explicitly than the James’s combined “the relativistic insights of physics and psychology.” Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1905) is called “novel of modernity,” incorporating the science of thermodynamics, Darwinian and biological degeneration, and the subjectivity of time and space. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is the subjectivity of William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors, “an astonishing attempt to write a work of literature focalised by a character—whom we are given to understand is a Neanderthal—who barely possesses language.” Golding’s book “tapped into a specific debate of about fifty years’ standing regarding the order of mental and physical evolution.”

The final chapter brings us to the twenty-first century. The production of science is now inextricably linked to its consumption. Thomas Kuhn is noted for his “distrust of the big-progress story told by scientists.” The 1960s counterculture movement disputed scientific authority. “[The] promise of happiness, wrapped up in fake scientificity, together with the gabbled list, obligatory under the advertising code, of bizarre and occasionally horrific possible side-effects…undercuts the notion of heroic progress, and offers instead a cynical account of the promises of science in a climate of profit.” A crucial account of scientific hubris is told in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (1981), the maverick scientist “Allie Fox is arguably more of a Frankenstein figure than Frankenstein himself.” This theme of uncertainty is also exemplified in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) and Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) and The Corrections (2001), each responding to a number of man-made environmental incidents.

Sleigh offers at the end of each chapter a helpful selection of annotated relevant texts for further reading. This is extremely helpful as a reading list, encouraging readers to broaden or reconsider their existing arguments in light of the issues she raises. “Even though science and literature are more specialist fields than they were in Darwin’s day,” as Sleigh writes at the close of her introduction, “novels can still open up these questions about the credibility and value of science. Indeed, literature reveals that belief in science depends on many things—credibility, trust, rhetoric, representation and human motivation—beyond facts themselves.”

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Huxley, Agnosticism, and the X-Club

In assessing the “climate of opinion” in Victorian Britain, and more specifically the context of the evolution debates and narratives of conflict between science and religion that bolstered them, I have been engaging with a number of articles and books about prominent nineteenth-century dramatis personae, including Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, William Whewell, John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and others.

Several articles on Huxley and his X-Club are worth mentioning. Bernard Lightman’s “Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: the Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy” (2002) challenges the traditional interpretation that Huxley invented the term “agnostic” in 1869. In 1889 Huxley published a trilogy of essays on the history of agnosticism in the periodical The Nineteenth Century, arguing that he first coined the term in 1869. His friends at the X-Club, however, were surprised at the fact. Lightman finds it strange that Huxley’s inner circle of friends were unaware of the origins of its coinage. “If the members were so open about their religious heterdoxy,” writes Lightman, “and if agnosticism was an important weapon in the attempt to challenge the power of the Anglican establishment, then why did [some of its members] first learn that Huxley had coined the term ‘agnostic’ twenty years after the fact?”

According to Lightman, Huxley’s relationship with the term is far more complicated than traditional accounts. “Not only was he reluctant to identify himself unambiguously as an agnostic in public until 1883, his restricted rhetorical use of agnostic concepts during the 1870s and 1880s was also compromised when other unbelievers, with different agendas, sought to capitalize on the polemical advantages of referring to themselves as agnostics.” Indeed, “Huxley found that he could not control the public meaning of ‘agnosticism’ and that consequently its value as a rhetorical weapon was limited.” By 1889, Huxley realized he need to take control of his neologism by revealing that he was solely responsible for its creation. As such, “historian have been fooled by Huxley’s self-serving reconstruction in 1889 of the history of agnosticism.”

In 1889 Huxley claimed he initially paraded the term at the Metaphysical Society. But this is not reflected, Lightman points out, in the papers he delivered to its members. In papers presented in 1869, 1870, and in 1876, “none of them use the terms ‘agnostic’ or ‘agnosticism.'” Even more glaring, few journals used the new term in discussion of Huxley’s work. Indeed, in the pages of periodical reviews, such as Blackwood Magazine, Contemporary Review, and Scribner’s Monthly, “Huxley was seldom seen as the chief threat to religious orthodoxy.” It was not until 1873, in an article published by St George Mivart in the Fortnightly Review, when Huxley was identified, not as the inventor of the term, but as a prominent leader of the “agnostic philosophy.”

But it was Richard Holt Hutton, theologian, journalist, and editor of the The Spectator, who gave the term its widest circulation. In an article on “Pope Huxley” in the 1870 issue of The Spectator, Hutton referred to as “a great and severe Agnostic.” Interestingly enough, he did not assert that Huxely was responsible for coining the term.

Circulation of the term increased from 1879 to 1883. Yet none of Huxley’s published work during this time contain references to his coinage. It was James Knowles, editor of the Nineteenth Century, who was “partly responsible for the increased currency of the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘agnosticism’ in this period, as well as throughout the rest of the decade and into the next.” Other authors who discussed agnosticism directly at this time were Bertha Lathbury (1880), J.H. Clapperton (1880), Louis Greg (1882), Rev. Prebendary W. Anderson (1881), B. Thomas (1881), J. Henry Shorthouse (1882), G. Matheson (1883), and others. But in none of these articles is Huxley credited with the term. Indeed, in a Catholic journal, The Month (1882), it is Spencer, not Huxley, who is treated as the “typical representative of atheistical agnosticism.”

Finally in 1882 an article in the pages of Notes and Queries James A.H. Murray credits Huxley with coining the term in 1869. Late in 1883, Huxley was forced “out of the closet” by Charles Albert Watts when the latter published a private letter from Huxley in his periodical Agnostic Annual. On 17 November 1883 the Academy carried a story on Huxley’s contribution to Agnostic Annual. Huxley quickly wrote to the Academy that he made no such contribution and that in fact Watts had played a trick on him. This was apparently newsworthy, as The New York Times entered the show with its own story on the Watts-Huxley debacle in 10 December 1883.

From 1884 to 1888 agnosticism became a hot topic of debate. While in 1884 J. Murray’s A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles noted Huxley’s role as its inventor, “Huxley’s relationship to agnosticism was overshadowed…by the spectacle of two unbelievers [namely, Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer] engaged in bitter controversy in the pages of Nineteenth Century.” Other journal gladly became involved in the debate. The debate raged on in 1887 and 1888, when Francis Darwin’s Life and Letter of Charles Darwin (1887) brought to the fight Darwin’s own religious beliefs—or lack there of. During this time “renegade secularists were equally taken by the lure of agnosticism,” including C.A. Watts, William Steward Ross, Richard Bithell, Frederick James Gould, and Samiel Laing. In the work of these men, “Spencer, not Huxley, was the master…as they were inspired by Spencer’s vision of an Unknowable deity.”

From 1884 to 1888, Huxley was still reticent to take full credit of the term. What finally caused his intervention in the controversy, writes Lightman, was accusations of materialism. “Huxley defended himself by saying that earlier in life he could not find a label which suited him, so he ‘invented’ one, calling himself ‘Agnostic.'” But by the time he published his trilogy in 1889, it was a “belated attempt to regain control.” Others were to “endow it with the meanings which he could not accept.”

Ruth Barton’s “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990) and “‘Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others’: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864” (1998) demonstrates how the X-Club was more than “just friends” fraternizing. Founded in 1864, the X-Club was a private, informal society where members could engage in frank discussion about literature, politics, and science over dinner. Moreover, they could plot together on how to achieve common goals, such as the advancement of research, the infiltration and control of important scientific institutions and societies, and the bid to undermine the cultural authority of the Anglican clergy. “The club was for serious research, against aristocratic patronage of science, for a naturalistic world view, and against the commercialization of science.”

In the first paper, Barton analyzes the “politicking which brought X-Club members to position of power and status in the Royal Society.” The Royal Society was full of “disciplinary rivalries, class interests, institutional interconnections and research priorities.” The X-Club represented the most dominant interest group of the Royal Society in the mid-Victorian period. Members were “energetic and ambitious reformers of science,” which included Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), John Tyndall (1820-1893), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Archer Hirst (1830-1892), George Busk (1807-1886), John Lubbock (1834-1913), and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Everyone of these figures, except for Spencer, was active in the Royal Society. Darwinian in orientation, “its members were engaged in developing and propagating naturalistic account of physical and human phenomena. They opposed all suggestion that there were supernatural interventions in the natural order and any attempts to constrain scientific investigation within theologically determined boundaries.” They were, as Frank Turner put it, “scientific naturalists.”

The influence of this “small coterie in the affairs of the Royal Society” is revealed in the minutes of X-Club meetings and letters between members. For instance, “personal friendship and disciplinary alliance both played significant parts in the procedures of suggesting, nominating and voting which preceded the award” for the Royal Medal. They also played a substantive role in the election of Royal Society Council members, including changing it Presidents. Indeed, according to Barton, “the X-Club devoted enormous energy to gaining power.” Because the Royal Society represented science, members of the X-Club did all they could to espouse a redefinition of science within a naturalistic worldview.

When members of the X-Club succeeded in gaining Spottiswoode the Presidency, his most memorable act was the push to have Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey. “They were successful, and on Tuesday 25 April 1882, Spottiswoode, Lubbock, Hooker, Huxley, the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Derby, and the American Ambassador, accompanied by Alfred Russel Wallace and Dean Farrar of Westminster, were pall-bearers in the Abbey funeral.” This was immensely symbolic, and Darwin was “presented as a middle-class saint.” “It was an irony of which they seemed unaware,” write Barton, “that the greatest symbolic achievement of the X-Club was not the separation of theology from science, but the conflation of science, church and state in Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey.”

In the second paper, Barton rehearses some of the material found in the previews paper. What is new, and deeply intriguing, is her emphasis that X-Club members formed “alliances…beyond professional science.” They formed alliances with “germanizing theologians, Christian socialists, humanitarian ethnologists, and liberals associated with John Stuart Mill aligned “Science” with liberal forms in theology and in social policy.” Indeed, “commitments to naturalistic explanation and to melioristic social reform linked them to these groups.”

Several books in this area I have been recently paging through include Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003). This is more than another biography of Huxley. It is an account of the way that a particular cultural identity—the Victorian ‘man of science’—was constructed through processes of negotiation and collaboration between naturalists such as Huxley and their families, colleagues, friends, and adversaries. Through a close reading of private correspondences, White builds up a portrait of Huxley and his relationships, with his wife, fellow men of science, educational reformers, clergymen, and so on. White provocatively depicts Huxley as a defender of high culture, even as an elitist.

Another is Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004). Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian is among several recently published books on Wallace, and this book acts as an important synthesis, a thematic study bringing together aspects of Wallace’s career. Why Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, became “elusive” is difficult to say. Perhaps it is because Wallace is “difficult to pigeonhole…into any neat category. Many labels have been applied to him: field naturalist, biological theorist, socialist, spiritualist, theist, land nationalizationist, philosopher and ethicist.” In finding a more satisfactory answer, Fichman examines Wallace’s range of social contacts (including North American psychologist William James), his marginal annotations in his books, as well as his copious publications (he continued to publish in his old age, including three books written in his eighties). According to Fichman, Wallace was actively marginalized by a circle of practitioners who wielded great influence in scientific affairs from the 1860s and who promoted a naturalistic model of science. That circle were members of the X-Club.

More recently, Nicolaas A. Rupke’s Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin (2009) tells an engaging tale of how Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist and early chum of Charles Darwin, became the talented, twisted, vindictive, and ultimate loser of the Darwinian Revolution. Owen is somewhat of a tragic figure in narratives of science. All good stories need an evil person to balance the virtues and fortunes of a hero, and unfortunately Owen took up (or portrayed as taking up) the role. Rupke’s Richard Owen, however, problematizes this simplistic narrative.

Rupke situates Owen’s work within the social, institutional, and political context, and how it affected and constrained both his work and its reception. Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from Rupke’s study is how Owen’s reputation had been systematically distorted and degraded by Darwin, his scientific followers, and several generations of historians. This theme becomes prominent in Owen’s bitter conflict with Huxley, who “in spite of Owen’s generosity…began chipping away at his patron’s work and reputation,” using as much duplicity, malice, and dishonesty as possible.

In these works, and others, we get a better sense of the “climate of opinion” of these nineteenth-century debates. If there was ever conflict between science and religion, it was neither created by science nor religion. Rather, it was clearly orchestrated by “men of science” the likes of Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, William Spottiswoode, John Tyndall, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, George Busk, John Lubbock, and Herbert Spencer. Such imagined conflict is still fabricated today, from something of a reincarnated X-Club, in the Brights Movement, which membership includes biologists Richard Dawkins and Richard J. Roberts, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett, stage magicians and James Randi and Penn & Teller, among others.