Science and Religion

The Failed Project of the New Religion

In 1884 Hebert Spencer published his “Religious Retrospect and Prospect” in the Popular Science Monthly, which appeared simultaneously in the Nineteenth Century. In this article Spencer offered an evolutionary account of the “religious consciousness.” By looking at its evolutionary history, Spencer believed he could infer the religious ideas and sentiments of the future. Importantly, he contested the notion that science had replaced religion. Science does not destroy religion, but “transfigures it.” According to Spencer, science had enlarged the sphere of wonder and “religious sentiment.” Primitive man had only a limited understanding of that wonder. The cosmogony of the “savage” is incomparable to the wonder established by the modern astronomer. This deeper insight, wonder, or feeling “is not likely to be decreased but increased by that analysis of knowledge which, while forcing him to agnosticism, yet continually prompts him to imagine some solution of the Great Enigma which he knows can not be solved.” But amid all this mystery, Spencer argued, there remains “the one absolute certainty, that he is ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.”

Spencer’s article elicited strong reactions. Canon George H. Curteis defended Spencer for his “courageous” position. No religious man, he said, should shrink from calling himself a “Christian agnostic.” Indeed, by proclaiming his agnosticism, the Christian follows an esteemed pedigree, one which Curteis traced to the Old Testament prophets. Although Spencer was not a “Christian” philosopher, his “guidance is none the less valuable to those who are approaching the same subject from a different side.” According to Curteis, Spencer had “purified” the idea of God for the believer, “pruned away all kinds of anthropomorphic accretions,” “reminded the country parson of a good many scientific facts,” and “schooled them into the reflection that a power present in innumerable worlds hardly needs our flattery, or indeed any kind of service from us at all.”

Others were not so congenial. Frederic Harrison, for instance, launched a blisteringly attack against Spencer’s ideas. He argued that Spencer’s conception of the Unknowable was really only a “ghost of religion.” “In spite of the capital letters, and the use of theological terms as old as Isaiah or Athanasius,” he wrote, “Mr. Spencer’s Energy has no analogy with God. It is Eternal, Infinite, and Incomprehensible; but still it is not He, but It.” Harrison emphatically declared that “neither goodness, nor wisdom, nor justice, nor consciousness, nor will, nor life, can be ascribed, even by analogy, to this Force.” Spencer’s own attempt to “put a little unction into the Unknowable” by describing it in theological terms, Harrison protested, is, in the final analysis, a “philosophical inaccuracy.”

Spencer responded with his “Retrogressive Religion,” where he charged Harrison with attacking an imaginary doctrine, “demolishing a simulacrum and walking off in triumph as though the reality had been demolished.” He then attacked Harrison’s “alternative doctrine,” his “Religion of Humanity,” as an “incongruity.” Indeed, papal assumptions, he argued, were more modest in comparison to the assumptions of “the founder of the religion of Humanity.” A pope may canonize a saint or two, but Comte, Spencer quipped, “undertook the canonization of all those men recorded in history whom he thought specially worthy of worship.” The new religion should not be a “rehabilitation of the religion with which mankind commenced, and from which they have been insensibly diverging.” Harrison’s Religion of Humanity was, therefore, according to Spencer, “retrogressive.”

The controversy rolled on into the following year with Harrison’s “Agnostic Metaphysics.” In this article Harrison wrote that he had warned Spencer a decade ago that his “Religion of the Unknowable” would find adherents among dubious theologians. He argued that the “Infinite and Eternal Energy,” the “Ultimate Cause,” the “All-Being,” and the “Creative Power,” have all been co-opted by the “Christian World,” renewing all the mystification of the old theology. Moreover, Harrison inveighed that Spencer knew too much about the Unknowable—“If his Unknowable be unknowable, then it is idle to talk of Infinite and Eternal Energy, sole Reality, All-Being, and Creative Power.” This is, at best, “slip-slop” theology and nothing more.

These two agnostics, arguing so passionately about the future of religion, were condemned by believers and unbelievers alike. For instance, James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-94), older brother of Leslie Stephen, thought the liberal attempt at reconciling science and religion was impossible. He found the creeds of both men palpably fantastic pretensions. He argued that Spencer’s theory of religious development was weak, and that his game with words reminded him of “Isaiah’s description of the manufacture of idols.” “Effort and force and energy,” he wrote, “are to Mr. Spencer what the cypress and the oak and the ash were to the artifices described by the prophet. He works his words about this way and that, he accounts with part for ghosts and dreams, and the residue thereof he maketh a god, and saith Aha, I am wise, I have seen the truth.” Spencer’s Unknown was “a castle in the air, uninhabitable and destitute of foundations.” More pointedly, he declared that the Unknowable appeared “to have absolutely no meaning at all. It is so abstract that it asserts nothing. It is like a gigantic soap-bubble not burst but blown thinner and thinner till it has become absolutely imperceptible.” Harrison, according to Stephen, fared no better. “Humanity with a capital H […] is neither better nor worse fitted to be a god than the Unknowable with a capital U.” We cannot worship an “indefinite number of dead people,” and we certainly do not feel “awe and gratitude” to the multitude, “most of whom are utterly unknown to us even by name or reputation.” The men of history are, in the final analysis, “dead and done with.” Harrison’s language of awe and gratitude toward humanity “represents nothing at all, except a yearning after some object of affection, like a childless woman’s love for a lapdog.”

Stephen concluded that “if this is the prospect before religion, it would surely be simply to say that the prospect before it is that of extinction, that men will soon come to see that nothing can be ascertained, or even regarded as moderately probable, about the various questions which are generally described collectively as religious.” Interestingly enough, Stephen argued that the only religion capable of doing what both Spencer and Harrison want their respective new religions to do, “must be founded on a supernatural basis.” But though the “great leading doctrines of theology are noble and glorious,” it now must be acknowledged that their foundations were untrue. Theology, Stephen contended, is essential to religion, “and that to destroy the one is to destroy the other.”

From the other side of the spectrum, essayist and historian Wilfrid Philip Ward (1856-1916) also offered a witty condemnation of both Spencer and Harrison. Ward accused both men of suffering from “monomania.” He agreed with Harrison’s critique of Spencer, calling it “quite unanswerable common sense.” Spencer has no right, logical or otherwise, “to have his cake after he has eaten it.” An otherwise serious and cautious thinker, Spencer could not see that “if the death-knell of the old Theology be indeed sounded, all reasonable religious worship must die with it.” When looking at Harrison’s substitute religion, Ward was “startled beyond description.” Thus, like the starving man who eats a pair of boots, Spencer and Harrison, desperate to satisfy their religious cravings, have each taken a boot. Their religious language is mere dressing. “The truth seems to be,” Ward declared, “that these philosophers having conspired together to kill all real religion—the very essence of which is a really existing personal God, known to exist, and accessible to the prayers of His creatures—and having, as they suppose, accomplished their work of destruction and put religion to death, have proceeded to divide its clothes between them.”

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A Christian Virtuoso: Robert Boyle’s Religious Vocation

Michael Hunter, the leading expert and custodian of Robert Boyle’s (1627-91) legacy, delivered a paper last night at a seminar here at the University, entitled “‘Physica Peregrinans’: Robert Boyle, His Informants and the Role of the Exotic in Late Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy.” Hunter examined Boyle’s records of interviews he conducted with travelers returning from exotic locations throughout the world. Boyle intended to publish these interviews in a book, Physica Peregrinans, or “The Traveling Naturalist: Containing Answers given to Severall Questions propunded by the Author to Navigators & other Travellers in remote Countreys .” During the Q&A, it became apparent that Boyle rejected the scholastic, Aristotelian approach to common experience. According to Hunter, for Boyle “nature was in fact often surprising and exciting in its fecundity and variety, and people’s conception of what was possible needed to be expanded accordingly.” Equally noteworthy, it seems that Boyle used empirical investigation in support of the supernatural in nature—that is, he offered “a natural history of the supernatural,” as Peter Harrison put it during the discussion following the paper.

Robert Boyle

The Shannon Portrait of the Hon. Robert Boyle, F.R.S., by German painter Johann Keresboom (1689)

My knowledge of Hunter’s work on Boyle is limited. I have read Hunter’s “The Social Basis and Changing Fortunes of an Early Scientific Institution: An Analysis of the Membership of the Royal Society, 1660-1685,” a lengthy essay published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London in 1976. Hunter would go on to greatly expand this piece into his well-known The Royal Society and its Fellows, 1660-1700: The Morphology of an Early Scientific Institution (1982). The only other work of Hunter’s I’ve perused was his 2007 article in the British Journal for the History of Science, “Robert Boyle and the Early Royal Society: A Reciprocal Exchange in the Making of Baconian Science.”

So after the talk I paid a visit to the University library and found Hunter’s more recent work on the great English scientist, Robert Boyle: Between God and Science (2009). Boyle, who ranks with Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin as a seminal figure in the history of science, was also a deeply, and resolutely, religious man. As Hunter wrote in his article on Boyle in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), “The central fact of Boyle’s life from his adolescence onwards was his deep piety, and it is impossible to understand him without doing justice to this.”

In his Robert Boyle: Between God and Science, Hunter aims to bring this fact out. As a natural philosopher, Boyle not only dabbled in all branches of physics, he also experimented in alchemy, anatomy, botany, biology, medicine, and mathematics. He wrote on epistemology and moral philosophy, on scientific method and scientific theory, and just as vigorously labored with biblical exegesis and theology. Indeed, his first two published books were Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (1659) and New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects (1660). Natural philosopher and religious apologist, Boyle sought to justify the ways of God to men.

Like most men, however, Boyle did have doubts. Richard S. Westfall, in his Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1958), had made much of these doubts. In answering hypothetical atheists, he argues, Boyle attempted to satisfy his own doubts about the implications of the new science. But as Hunter points out, doubt had a positive role in Boyle’s faith. Boyle once wrote, for instance, that those “whose Fayth hath never had any Doubts, hath some cause to Doubt whether he hath ever had any Fayth.”

Boyle was so committed to his faith that, upon the urging of Archbishop Ussher, he learned Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic in order to read the Bible in its original languages. Hunter even suggests that Boyle’s interest in natural philosophy and experimentation was largely spurred by his concern to combat the rise of atheism and materialism.

Boyle’s religion was central to his vocation and vision of science. “For Boyle,” Hunter writes, “science and theology were truly complementary.” But as with Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and other seminal figures in early modern science, Boyle’s “successors found it easy to adopt his methodological prescriptions and his mechanistic worldview in conjunction with only a vestigial form of his passionate theism.” But that is not the real Robert Boyle. He was, as Stephen D. Snobelen puts it in his clever summary of Hunter’s book, the

Seventh son, gentleman, wealthy landowner, Etonian, visitor to the Continent, Protestant educated, multilinguist, moralist, alchemical adept, forerunner of modern chemistry, champion of experimental philosophy, popularizer of the air-pump, promoter of natural philosophy, early Fellow of the Royal Society, formulator of what came to be called ‘Boyle’s law’, prolific author, citizen of the Republic of Letters, a director of the East India Company, principled lifelong celibate, medical reformer and practitioner, hypochondriac, man of tender conscience, man of charity, pious believer, Bible reader, lay theologian, apologist for reasonable Christianity, high priest of nature, advocate of natural theology, founder of the eponymous lectureship in defence of the faith, backer of foreign Bible translations, supporter of overseas missions and governor of the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England—Boyle was all of these things and more.

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.

The Study of Nature as Devotional Practice

In the Winter issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Peter Harrison considers the “Sentiments of Devotion and Experimental Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century England” (2014). In particular, he focuses on the sentiments of chemist, physicist, and natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In his Disquisition concerning the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), Boyle argued that studying nature will excite “true Sentiments both of Devotion and of particular Vertues.” That is, the study of nature is a religious activity. As Harrison puts it, natural philosophy not only provides arguments for the existence of the Deity, it also induces “moral and religious sentiments in the investigator.”

Recent trends in history of philosophy demonstrate that “philosophy” was always more than mere theoretical argumentation and logical abstractions; it was, according to the late French philosopher Pierra Hadot, “a way of life.” In short, philosophy was a spiritual exercise. This “spiritual” element was present in early studies on nature. We see this not only in Plato, Claudius Ptolemy, and Simplicius, but also in the works of early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even medieval authors.

Harrison quickly moves on to the early modern period, particularly in the work of Francis Bacon. In a number of his treatises, Harrison observes, “Bacon framed his justification for the pursuit of natural philosophy in terms of the biblical narrative of the Creation and Fall.” The aim of natural philosophy was to regain control over nature, which was lost after Adam’s fall. Natural philosophy, in other words, was a restoration project. Experimentation was the labor required after the Adamic Fall. According to Harrison, the Protestant idea of a “universal priesthood” and personal piety were essential components to Bacon’s program.

Harrison then turns to Bacon’s successors, the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. Harrison focuses on Thomas Sprat’s work on the History of the Royal Society (1667). According to Sprat, experimental philosophy undoubtedly reveals useful knowledge, but it also has moral ends. Natural philosophy, in short, purges moral deficiencies from the experimenter. But it also does more than this. Its also “promotes a properly informed worship of God.” Clergyman Joseph Glanvill and others would follow this Baconian program. In his “The Usefulness of Real Philosophy to Religion,” Glanvill affirms that “the Free, experimental Philosophy will do to purpose, by giving the mind another tincture, and introducing a sounder habit, which by degrees will last absolutely repel all the little malignancies, and setle in it a strong and manly temperment, that will master, and cast out idle dotages, and effeminate Fears.”

Returning to Boyle, Harrison observes that he “was also concerned to make an explicit case for the personal piety of the experimentalist.” For Boyle, natural philosophy not only revealed the power and wisdom of God, it also “promoted piety and particular virtues.”

Experimental activity, in other words, was a decidedly religious activity.

 

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.

 

The Age of Scientific Naturalism

John Tyndall died of poisoning. From 1890-93, this enthusiastic mountaineer found himself bedridden, struggling with illness. He was in the habit of taking doses of chloral hydrate at night to help him with his insomnia, and every other day some sulphate of magnesia for his constipation. Near the end, his wife, Louisa, 25 years his junior, administered the dosages to him.

In 1893, on a Monday morning, Tyndall asked Louisa for a spoonful of magnesium. It was dark, and his beside table was littered with bottles. Louisa took a bottle a poured a spoonful, serving it to his lips. He took a big gulp and, tasting it, said, “there is a curious sweet taste.” Immediately Louisa realized she had accidentally given him a spoonful of chloral. She turned to him and said, “John, I have given you chloral.” He replied, “yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John” (see account in “Mrs. Tyndall’s Fatal Error,” New York Times, 1893).

The great physicist John Tyndall died that same evening. Stricken with guilt, Louisa spent the rest of her life attempting to resurrect him. She collected his journals, correspondence, and all unfinished writings for the purpose of publishing a massive Life and Letters. No Life and Letter ever came to fruition. She died in 1940 at the age of 95.

Lightman and Reidy - The Age of Scientific NaturalismThe current volume under review is a renewed attempt to resurrect the life and work of John Tyndall. Edited by Bernie Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and his Contemporaries (2014), the essays in this collection originate from two conferences specifically organized around the work of Tyndall, including the “Evolutionary Naturalism Conference” held at York University in 2011 and “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science Workshop and Conference” held at Montana State University in 2012. Publisher Pickering & Chatto (publishers of the current volume) will also begin publishing Tyndall’s correspondence in 16 volumes, beginning in 2015.

The Age of Scientific Naturalism is divided into three parts. Part I, “John Tyndall,” highlights Tyndall’s “unflinching defence of a naturalistic world view” and the role he played “within the contested nature of science in the Victorian era.” Tyndall was known for his “flamboyant lectures, which mixed practised showmanship with extravagant experiments,” presenting “science as an exhilarating spectacle.” The essays in this first part stress Tyndall’s research and the construction of his public persona. Elizabeth Neswald’s opening essay, “Saving the World in the Age of Entropy,” connects Tyndall with philosophical threads and ideological biases of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly German naturaphilosophie. In his work, for example, Tyndall marginalized the law of entropy in “favour of a balanced world of cycles,” in much the same way that German materialists did, proposing a “living nature in an eternal process of becoming.” Tyndall emphasized “the role of the sun in supporting life,” and drew “a picture of a nature embodying organic unity.” This verges on “nature worship,” and Neswald emphasizes that Victorian religious agnosticism “differed little from Christian theology.” According to Neswald, “for Tyndall…god was nature.” Following the work of Ruth Barton, Stephen S. Kim, and Tess Cosslett, Neswald notes that “the use of religious language in works of popular science was widespread in this period,” and that Tyndall’s language was particularly indebted to the “natural supernaturalism” of Thomas Carlyle. “Tyndall’s private writings, his journals and letters, reveal a view of nature and the universe that sees a creative power that could not be fully comprehended through science alone.” In a letter to his close friend Thomas Archer Hirst, for instance, Tyndall writes that “the universe is a body with life within it, and among it, and through it, permeating its every fiber…Everything in nature is in the act of becoming another thing.” These sentiments were due to Tyndall’s reading of “German philosophers,” which he “imbibed them through the interpretations and writings of Thomas Carlyle, who himself was deeply indebted to German idealist and romantic philosophies.” Indeed, Tyndall was very much encrusted within this tradition, so much so that modern interpretations, such as viewing him as a progenitor of global warming, become problematic, as Joshua Howe shows in the following essay, “Getting Past the Greenhouse.” Howe criticizes the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom for co-opting Tyndall as a forefather of modern climate science. Also criticizing recent “histories” of global warming, Howe writes that the “biography of global warming is ahistorical.” Such “presentist biography,” he argues, “has consequences for the way we understand the role of science in the twenty-first-century politics of climate change.” These stories “feed myths and misunderstandings about contemporary and historical issues, both academic and otherwise.” Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton, in the next essay, “Tyndall, Lewes and Popular Representations of Scientific Authority in Victorian Britain,” compare the popular science writings of Tyndall and those of literary critic George Henry Lewes, showing how porous the boundaries between public and private science, the laboratory and the field, and the popularizer and practitioner, were during the mid-Victorian period. Both Tyndall and Lewes, they argue, “pursued scientific research, wrote for the periodical press, addressed topics beyond their specialist expertise, and devoted considerable effort to popularizing a naturalistic version of science.” Indeed, both men used many of the “same tropes in their self-representation as reliable and authoritative expositors of science.”

Part II, “Scientific Naturalism,” examines scientific naturalism itself, demonstrating that science was still in a state of flux in the late-nineteenth century. But this set of essays attempt to move beyond Frank Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Who were the “scientific naturalists” turns out to be an increasingly complex question. Looking at some of the “less obvious scientific naturalists,” these essays go beyond the myopic focus on Huxley and Tyndall, and examine the complex personalities of Herbert Spencer, William Kingdon Clifford, William Huggins, and Alfred Newton. Spencer, for example, planted his philosophical roots in the soil of naturaphilosophie and evolutionary deism. According to Michael Taylor, in his “Herbert Spencer and the Metaphysical Roots of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Spencer underscored the “popular and fluid definitions of scientific naturalism.” Rather than an empiricist and materialist, Taylor argues, Spencer’s philosophical system reveals “elements of transcendentalism and rationalism, as well as an awareness of the limits of knowledge that verged on mysticism.” Spencer undoubtedly had metaphysical sources, such as Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers’ “evolutionary deism,” which “articulated a vision of cosmic evolution that presented a story of progress from the nebulae to human society.” Another metaphysical source was German transcendental biology or naturaphilosophie. Despite his neglect in contemporary works, Spencer’s impact on Victorian intellectual life was immense. Taylor persuasively argues that “Spencer’s evolutionary naturalism had its roots deep in metaphysical theories that were far removed from empiricism and materialism.” Josipa Petrunic follows with an essay on the “Evolutionary Mathematics” of Clifford and his beliefs in the Spencerian process of evolution, which included the search for a foundation for a new morality within scientific naturalism. In the end, according to Petrunic, Clifford became a “more thoroughgoing evolutionary naturalist than either Huxley or Tyndall, as well as many others amongst the older generation who founded the X-Club.” Robert W. Smith’s essay, “The ‘Great Plan of the Visible Universe,'” looks at astronomer Huggins who, although rejecting traditional natural theology, sought a conception of the unity of nature founded upon divine design. A leading pioneer in the development of astrophysics, Huggins’ work, according to Smith, was shaped by deep “religious sensibilities.” However, this was only the Huggins of the mid-1860s. This early Huggins “saw very powerful evidence of design when he viewed the heavens.” Yet by the 1880s and 1890s, Huggins’ opinions had decidedly shifted to something more resembling Turner’s “Scientific Naturalist.” Unfortunately, why this shift occurred, says Smith, is rather obscure. Jonathan Smith, in the final essay in this section, “Alfred Newton: The Scientific Naturalist Who Wasn’t,” shows how Newton applied Darwinism to his own work in ornithology, but was “restrained and cautious in his public endorsement of Darwinism.” Indeed, he did not “share the broader agenda of scientific naturalism.” Newton was a clear example that “one could be a Darwinian without being a scientific naturalist.”

Part III, “Communicating Science,” looks at the disparate “modes of communication, including public lectures, scientific meetings, personal correspondence, newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and even town-hall meetings and church gatherings” that supported science during the Victorian period. Janet Brown, in the opening essay, “Corresponding Naturalists,”offers an engaging “correspondence-history” of the scientific naturalists, and “how epistolary exchange helped shape the very foundation of modern science, with its emphasis on evaluation, adjudication, authentication, prioritization and distribution of the latest scientific research” (my emphasis). In the same vein, Melinda Baldwin’s essay, “Tyndall and Stokes,” offers a more detailed examination of the epistolary exchange between Tyndall and mathematician and theologian George Gabriel Stokes. Although Tyndall and Strokes “differed radically in upbringing, temperament and religious orientation,” these ideological differences did not prevent them from maintaining a friendship, thus problematizing the notion of an antagonism between science and religion at the time. Baldwin demonstrates the central role their correspondence played in shaping the physical sciences in the Victorian period. The Tyndall Correspondence Project has found some two hundreds letters between Tyndall and Stokes, and it seems that Stokes, Baldwin suggests, “shaped both Tyndall’s papers and Tyndall’s idea about scientific theories.” In other words, Tyndall respected Stokes’ scientific expertise, consulted him on scientific theories, and even called on him to review some of his essays. Stokes was a member of the North British physicists, which have been portrayed as the great antagonists of the scientific naturalists. But the Tyndall-Stokes correspondence suggests a more complex picture. Bernie Lightman concludes with an essay on the “Science at the Metaphysical Society.” Much of what he has to say here depends on the research of Alan Willard Brown’s masterful The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (1947), but Lightman distinguishes himself from Brown’s politically idealistic philosophy. Most importantly, Lightman shows that religious members of the Society were not anti-science; rather, “they simply had their own definition of what it was, the role it should play in society, and the broader ramifications of its findings.”

This set of essays, along with those in Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2014) complicates our conventional understanding of Victorian naturalists. “The contest for cultural authority,” Lightman concludes in The Age of Scientific Naturalism, “was not only between the Anglican clergy and scientific naturalists. Feminists, socialists and others were claiming that they were qualified to provide leadership, and that contemporary science supported their claims.” Furthermore, the scientific naturalists were not mere “agnostics,” in the contemporary sense of the term, as “rationalists.” Their ideas, and ideals, were infused with metaphysics, a romantic sense of nature, and, indeed, a deep reforming spirit, of knowledge, society, and religion.

The Principle of Uniformity and its Theological Foundations

According to John Herschel, Charles Lyell, and William Whewell, the concept of “uniformity” of nature is the defining feature of science. Nature’s “inflexible order,” its “uniform sequences  and laws,” led many nineteenth-century scientists to reject miracles and divine intervention. According to Lyell,

By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and, instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws. The philosopher at last becomes convinced of the undeviating uniformity of secondary causes, and, guided by his faith in this principle, he determines the probability of accounts transmitted to him of former ages, on the ground of their being irreconcilable with the experience of more enlightened ages.

Herschel, Lyell, and Whewell opposed dogmatic restrictions on free scientific inquiry. By mid-century, scientists could envision a uniformity of nature that allowed for progressive development but ruled out divine agency. As Ron Numbers noted in his When Science & Christianity Meet (2003), “by the 1820s virtually all geologists, even those who invoked catastrophic events, were eschewing appeals to the supernatural.”

But this is not the whole story. Matthew Stanley’s paper, “The Uniformity of Natural Laws in Victorian Britain: Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Practice,” published in Zygon in 2011, argues that “uniformity was an important part of both theistic and naturalistic worldviews” (my emphasis). More importantly, “the methodological practices of theistic and naturalistic scientists in the nineteenth century were effectively indistinguishable despite each group’s argument that uniformity was closely dependent on their worldview.”

Stanley’s defines “uniformity” succinctly as the “claim that the laws of nature are the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe” and that “those laws do not break down or lapse anywhere in time or space.” As modern scientists and philosophers argue, the key distinguishing factor of science is its “appeal to and reliance on law: blind, natural regularity.” In short, modern science would be impossible without the assumption of uniformity.

But must uniformity require naturalism—that is, must it necessarily exclude religion, theology, and supernatural considerations? According to Stanley, a historical perspective requires us to say, “No.” In Stanley’s account, here once again encounter Huxley and his acolytes, the Scientific Naturalists. These scientists “preached” the “strict exclusion of religion from scientific matters,” and portrayed themselves as “the vanguard of a truly modern and enlightened science.” They saw the uniformity of nature as warrant of their position. But according to Stanley, “uniformity was not an obvious ally for those hostile to religion.” Theistic scientists also embraced the principle of uniformity. Moreover, they were its original formulators. Indeed, throughout its history, science has been deeply implicated with metaphysical and religious presuppositions. The supposed demarcation between science and religion by the scientific naturalists was, as Stanley and so many other historians of science have shown, was philosophically charged.

In his paper Stanley discusses the significant overlap between “theistic and naturalistic thinking” during the nineteenth century. Beginning with Huxley and Tyndall and the scientific naturalists in general, Stanley shows that the rejection of divine intervention in favor of natural causes is the exact narrative this naturalistic coterie constructed to promote their own authority. From their point of view, “the uniformity of laws left no room for religion in science.”

However, theistic scientists “were in total agreement with the naturalists that uniformity was critical to the advance of science.” Herschel, Lyell, and Whewell, for example, promoted uniformity yet were deeply religious men. According to Herschel, writing when Huxley was still a child, uniformity is the “constant exercise of his [Divine Author] direct power in maintaining the system of nature, or the ultimate emanation of every energy which material agents exert from his immediate will, acting in conformity with his own laws.” Stanley writes (following Peter Harrison): “natural laws were seen as instances of divine fiat, and they were constant because God is consistent in his actions.”

This position was also taken up by Lord Kelvin, James Clerk Maxwell, William Carpenter, Frederick Temple, Baden Powell, and the Duke of Argyll, among others. Quoting scientist Hans Christian Oersted, Powell, for example, nicely summarizes the theistic scientist position on uniformity:

The progress of discovery continually produces fresh evidence that Nature acts according to eternal laws, and that these laws are constituted as the mandates of an infinite perfect reason; so that the friend of Nature lives in a constant rational contemplation of the Omnipresent Divinity…The laws of Nature are the thoughts of Nature; and these are the thoughts of God.

But what about miracles and creation? According to philosopher Micheal Ruse, “a miracle must be a violation of a natural law, and therefore, a violation of uniformity, and therefore, has nothing to do with science” (my emphasis). But Stanley argues that theistic scientists also agreed that “apparent violations of natural law were illusory.” Argyll maintained that “the maker of a miracle is not the presence of supernatural causes, but rather that it has its origin in divine intent.” Similarly, Temple argued that

Science will continue its progress, and as the thoughts of men become clearer it will be perpetually more plainly seen that nothing in Revelation really interferes with that progress. It will be seen that devout believers can observe, can cross-question nature, can look for uniformity and find it, with as keen an eye, with as active an imagination, with as sure a reasoning, as those who deny entirely all possibility of miracles and reject all Revelation on that account. The belief that God can work miracles and has worked them, has never yet obstructed the path of a single student of Science…

Indeed, the ultimate “miracle” was the ultimate violation of the law of uniformity: creation. And here we have both theistic and naturalistic scientists grappled—and mused—over the origin of matter and energy. As Stanley points out, Tyndall himself concluded that the origins of the universe “transcends” scientific understanding. “Both groups agreed,” writes Stanley, “the moment of the creation was not something to be discussed scientifically.”

So how did the scientific naturalists win? How was it that their views became orthodoxy? According to Stanley, they won because they “seized the means of production.” In brief, they were better self-promoters, better at putting themselves in the locales of scientific power, better at shaping the next generation of scientists than their predecessors. Although this argument is not entirely convincing, it has merit. The scientific naturalists were indeed relentless self-promoters and popularizers of science. But as Bernie Lightman has shown in his Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), so were the theists.

Where Stanley’s argument rings most true is in the context of education. The scientific naturalists produced textbooks, lab manuals, gave lectures, taught courses, and much more. They inserted themselves in scientific societies and promoted educational reform, to be sure, but as Adrian Desmond has put it, with a “‘distinct ideological faction‘ that clearly marked off acceptable (naturalistic) from unacceptable (theistic) ways of thinking about science” (my emphasis).

They were also very effective at rewriting history. Huxley and his acolytes rewrote “the history of their discipline to erase the long tradition of theistic science,” reimagining the “past in order to support their vision for the future.” This was a slow and gradual process that met little resistance, for, as Stanley observes “the positions of the theistic scientists and the scientific naturalists were actually quite similar in terms of basic concepts such as the uniformity of nature.” Moreover, the scientific naturalists “coopted literary strategies associated with natural theological writings to promote a naturalistic cosmology.” Taking a page from Turner, Stanley concludes that the “victory of the scientific naturalists in removing theism from the expectations and parlance of the scientific community had little to do with how science was done and much more to do with attempting to secure better access to professional positions, resources, and cultural authority.” In the end, however, it is “damaging for scientists to insist on this false dichotomy, as it makes an unnecessary enemy of anyone with religious beliefs.”

Contesting Cultural Authority

Cover TemplateFrank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974) presented a new perspective on the relationship between science and religion. By carefully examining Victorian figures, such as Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic W.H. Myers, George John Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward, Turner demonstrated that the pervading “conflict thesis” was overly simplistic. In that same book Turner examined the influence of the “scientific naturalists,” a phrase employed by T.H. Huxley in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), but which had an earlier history as a pejorative epithet among American evangelicals. For Huxley and others, the phrase came to encapsulate a particular set of assumptions, values, and cosmology (i.e. the three seminal theories found in the atomic theory, the law of the conservation of energy, and evolution).

Turner continued to develop his understanding of the scientific naturalists in a series of articles, most of which are collected in the volume Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (1993).

In 1973, Turner published his article on “Lucretius among the Victorians,” which traced the rising interest on the Roman poet Lucretius in late-Victorian scholarship. In the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875-1889), for example, W.Y. Sellar’s entry on “Lucretius” notes that “physical philosophy in the present day is occupied with the same problems as those which are discussed in the first two books of the De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), and that “the old war between science and theology, which has been revived in the present generation, is fought, though with different weapons, yet in the same ardent and uncompromising spirit throughout the whole poem, as it is in the writings of living thinkers.”

But according to Turner, associating Lucretius with science and the conflict with religion was an Victorian invention. “During this period,” he writes, “classical scholars, men of letters, and philosophers discovered commentaries on Lucretius to be convenient vehicles for attacking scientific naturalism.” In associating naturalistic and scientific thought with philosophical materialism, many authors saw a symbolic target in Lucretius. Liberal Christians in particular sought this connection. As religious philosopher and historian of Unitarianism James Martineau put it: “To get rid of a troublesome discoverer or vigorous thinker, there is no readier way…than to dismiss his new ideas as stale fallacies dug up again out of the discarded rubbish of the past.” The polemical advantage was clear. Huxley et al. modern scientific thought could be discredited as stale fallacies based on Lucretian philosophy.

But first Lucretius had to be transformed from a poet to a natural philosopher. Early Victorian commentators judged Lucretius on his artistic merit. Yet by mid-century, writers were beginning to see him in the spirit of modernity, as a precursor of the modern scientist. What happened? Turner cites Scottish scientist Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin (1833-85) as the earliest to associate Lucretius with atomic theory, thus setting the “precedent for considering the thought of Lucretius in relation to modern ideas and scientific theory and for drawing parallels between the work of the ancient poet and the endeavors of contemporary scientists.”

But according to Turner, it was John Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address of 1874 that solidified the association. In advocating his own naturalistic view of the development of science, Tyndall used Lucretius as giving “posterity the best and most eloquent explication of [atomic] theory.” In short, Lucretius became the “upholder of true science in the ancient world, a noble enemy of superstition, and a pioneer in the struggle to liberate science from the ideals, opinions, cosmology, and institutions of religion and theology.” This view continues to be popular, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s first episode of the rebooted Cosmos so clearly demonstrated.

Victorian writers were quick to pounce on the association, however. From James Martineau, John Veitch, Robert Flint, John Tulloch, W.H. Mallock, and John Masson,  “Lucretius,” Turner writes, “became the pawn in the struggle for cultural domination between the men of science and the men of religion.” According to these writers, Lucretius had anticipated the doctrines of modern scientists. But then they argued that Lucretius’ philosophy was inadequate or incorrect. The implication being that so were the ideas of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and other scientific naturalists. Perhaps most interestingly, these writers then “suggested that Lucretius’ critique of religion had been appropriate and necessary for the development of pure religion. However, his particular argument as resurrected by Huxley [et al.] had in the course of two millenia became inapplicable and invalid. Therefore the anti-religious arguments of the scientific publicists were both irrelevant and anachronistic” (my emphasis). In short, by re-constructing Lucretius as a precursor of modern science, these writers undermined Huxley and company. And whereas Lucretius presented a “high, reverential, moral, and spiritual purpose,” by contrast the scientific naturalists were simply “anti-religious.”

The scientific naturalists were not, of course, without a response. Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford and others were keen to disassociate classical atomic theories with those of the nineteenth century. But they also wanted to emphasize that they, too, “deduce social, philosophical, and religious conclusions from theories of matter and organic evolution,” thus indicating that they too sought to reform religion in ways similar to Lucretius.

The following year Turner came out with an article entitled “Rainfall, Plagues, and the Prince of Wales: A Chapter in the Conflict of Religion and Science,” published in the Journal of British Studies. Here he presented an early formulation of what would become his signature argument:  “Victorian conflict between religion and science,” he writes in his conclusion, “was something more than a dispute over ideas. It manifested the tension arising as the intellectual nation become more highly differentiated in functions, professions, and institutions. It was a clash between established and emerging intellectual and social elites for popular cultural preeminence in a modern industrial society.”

In this article Turner examines three episodes in the Victorian debate over the nature of prayer. First, the excessive rainfall in the summer of 1860, which Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce attributed to “the national sins of the Divorce Act of 1857, recent riots at St. George’s church in London’s East End, and the war with China,” spurred many in the Anglican church to call for appointed prayers for better weather. But this call was contested among many scientific practitioners, particularly physicist John Tyndall. The scientists were not alone, however. There were also others in the church who called for a new interpretation of nature without recourse to the supernatural. Charles Kingsley, for example, “told his parishioners that praying for fair weather was an act of unwarranted presumption,” and was thus unwilling to abide the call. For his resistance, Kingsley received several congratulatory letters, including one from geologist Charles Lyell. According to Turner, scientists were beginning to claim authority over matters that pertained to natural knowledge, and liberal churchmen were willing to oblige and support their position.

Another clash over prayer came in 1865, when a cattle plague hit English farmers. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a special prayer for those affected. At the same time, a Royal Commission under Lyon Playfair instituted preventive measures and stricter regulations for cattle trade. Many saw the Archbishop’s call to prayer as a retrogression. Tyndall once again entered the scene with an article published by the Pall Mall Gazette, arguing that such prayers were no different than ancient and heathen prayers which called for some divine, spontaneous interference. The debate continued on into the monthly journals, such as the North British Review and Macmillan’s Magazine. Although presented with both scientific and theological arguments against such a conception of prayer, many bishops refused to back down. This led to a number of leading broad churchmen to declare that the “national church must encompass leading intellects of the nation and must not employ its dignity and power to block or discourage intellectual discourse and discovery.”

The final example Turner provides is when the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid in 1871. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with a committee drawn from members of the Cabinet and the Privy Council, issued a telegraph calling for prayers for the recovery of Prince Edward. The Prince eventually recovered and clergymen attested this to the power of prayer. This “vindication” was given further publicity in the Guardian, which saw the event as “a solemn recognition of the direct and personal working of the Hand of God in things of this life.” Without directly criticizing the special prayers offered, the professional and medical periodicals used the event as an opportunity “publicize the necessity for further sanitary reform and legislation.” Things became heated, however, when the “clergy explicitly and the government implicitly credited prayer rather than medical treatment for the recovery of the heir to the throne.” The medical journal Lancet, for example, declared that “while we recognize the hand of Providence, we still claim for modern medical science that she has signally won fresh laurels in the recovery of the Prince of Wales.”

Several months later, surgeon Henry Thompson challenged Christians, in an essay entitled “The Prayer for the Sick,” published in the Contemporary Review in 1872, and what would later be dubbed the “Prayer Gauge Debate,”  to “conduct an experiment to determine the physical efficacy of prayer.” The debate would appear very publicly in the British magazine, Spectator. What is more, eugenicist Francis Galton, in an article published in the Fortnightly Review, used statistical analysis to condemn the efficacy of religious practices and, more importantly, the general “ability of religious men to solve practical problems of society.” This same theme appeared in one of the Spectator articles, signed by a mysterious “Protagoras.” According to Turner, the article argued that “scientists had no intention of abolishing belief in the supernatural or reverence for God. Rather they sought to lead men to an understanding of the results of science and of their application to daily life.”

The removal of such base superstition from public knowledge required, Turner claims, “the recognition of a new intellectual elite who would displace the clergy on all levels of society as the interpreters of natural phenomena.” Once again, liberal religious thinkers were only too willing to oblige the emerging scientific elite. According to Huxley, Tyndall, and other leading scientific naturalists, “the scientist now stood as the mediator between modern man and a nature that could almost be commanded to serve his material needs.” In 1879, historian James Anthony Froude went so far as to argue that those who “observe the rules of health as ascertained and laid down by science…better deserve the name of religious men than those who neglect the means of protecting themselves which God has provided, and try to induce Him by prayers to suspend His ordinances in their favor.” Clearly, this was the “transfer of cultural and intellectual leadership and prestige from the exponents of one faith to those of another.”

Turner continued working on the scientific naturalists in his article, “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” first published by Isis in 1978. The conflict between science and religion was not only a narrative; it was also a by-product of professional elites vying for cultural authority. Writers like G.H. Lewes and Huxley used polemical language to construct a progressionist ideology that juxtaposed a “good progressive science against [an] evil retrogressive metaphysics and theology.” This was not simply a reified “science” against “religion” but a battle between particular spokesmen for science and religion.

Working from statements made by James Clerk Maxwell, A.W. Benn and others, to the effect that there was “a transfer of authority from religious to naturalistic beliefs,” Turner states his thesis clearly: “the primary motivating force behind this shift in social and intellectual authority…was activity within the scientific community that displayed most of the major features associated with nascent professionalism.” This “young guard of science,” to use a phrase employed by Leonard Huxley, consisting of Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, Joseph Dalton Hooker, George Busk, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Herbert Spencer, Henry Cole, Norman Lockyer, Francis Galton, Lyon Playfair, and others, “had established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.” They advocated a positivist epistemology as the exclusive epistemological foundation of legitimate science, which came to “discredit the wider cultural influences of organized religion.”

By the late-nineteenth century, these men held editorships, professorships, and offices in major scientific societies. Indeed, they had “established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.”

Now, this “young guard” agreed among themselves that science should be pursued without recourse to religious dogma, theology, or religious authority. This exclusivity eventually came to serve as a weapon against the cultural influence of religion in general. This was all, of course, a recent phenomena. According to Turner, during the seventeenth century and up to the 1840s, scientists—or more precisely, natural philosophers—saw natural science and natural theology not alone compatible, but complementary. By the 1840s, a “naturalistic bent of theories in geology, biology, and physiological psychology drove deep wedges into existing reconciliation of scientific theory with revelation or theology.” In addition, the “young guard” pushed for the recognition of greater expertise in scientific practice, thus not only excluding the clergy but also women. Then came the rhetorical ploy of accusing clerical scientists of “dual loyalties”; according to Huxley and his acolytes, one could not both serve God and science. Francis Galton, for example, in his well-known English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1872), declared that the “pursuit of science in uncongenial to the priestly character.” Using the veneer of statistical analysis, Galton claimed that clerical scientists had significantly dropped by the mid-nineteenth century. But what Galton left out in his “analysis” was the membership reforms that took place in many scientific societies after 1850. “Had he not so skewed his numbers by choosing the date of 1850,” writes Turner, “more clergymen would have been included.” This would become a commonplace tactic of the “young guard.”

There were also major changes within the religious community of the mid-nineteenth century. Many clergymen—naturally enough—came to have nothing but contempt for the new scientific elite. They wanted to reassert their authority, in matters of religion but also in matters of natural knowledge. Others took the opposite approach, leaving the pursuit of natural knowledge to the scientists and religious matters to the clergy, thus creating two separate spheres of knowledge. As Turner puts it, “within the Church of England a clergymen-scientist confronted the choice of perpetuating traditional natural theology and risking ridicule by scientists or attempting further rationalization of theology in accord with science and encountering persecution by fellow clergymen.” All this gave further credibility to stereotypes on both sides of the debate.

One of the most admirable aspects of Turner’s scholarship—and character—was his willingness to admit his failings. A rare trait among scholars indeed. In his opening essay in Contesting Cultural Authority (1993) , “The Religious and the Secular in Victorian Britain,” Turner reflects on some of the assumptions scholars of Victorian Britain have made—including himself—about the “secular,” “religious,” and “professionalization” of Victorian scientists.

To begin, “the secular interpretation of Victorian and general nineteenth-century intellectual life,” he writes, “very much reflected the concerns of mid-twentieth-century American university intellectuals” (my emphasis). In other words, the secularization of the nineteenth-century Victorian mind is a clear example of modern ideas imposed on the past. It was an assumption accepted without question, and thus became an obstacle to real understanding. As Turner observes, it “prevented scholars from confronting in a direct manner the full spectrum of the secular and religious as the latter concretely manifested themselves in nineteenth-century life and crossed over the twentieth-century conceptual boundaries.” The change in Turner’s outlook came when gave his figures of study a closer and more sympathetic reading: “I had begun to reject the conceptual categories then widely accepted in the historical literature because those categories simply could not encompass nineteenth-century intellectual life as I found it.” What had changed, he says, was a new sensibility among social and intellectual historians, ultimately leading to a “rethinking of the character of the secular and the religious in the nineteenth century.”

As Turner’s thought developed, he came to see religion playing an immense role in nineteenth-century Britain, culturally, politically, and scientifically. Here Turner credits the work of Bernie Lightman, Ruth Barton, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray and others for changing his mind. In his “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion” Turner argued against the view that the scientific naturalists were attempting to reform and free religion from dogmatic theology. Scientists sought to “reform religion for the sake not of purifying religious life but of improving the lot of science in Victorian society.” But as Lightman’s study of Victorian agnosticism reveals, “many agnostics [and scientific naturalists] sought to set forth a serious new, non-clerical religious synthesis.” In short, they pursued “genuine religious goals and not merely the substitution of something secular for something religious.”

The changes in scholarship in the last fifty years has revealed “religion” as a “far more many splendoured thing than most of us who pursue intellectual history have tended to recognize.” Turner’s challenge to us is to “recapture that world of concrete social reference that informed both religious and non-religious intellectual life and exchange.” When we do this, he says, our present categories of “secular” and “religious” will dissolve. “Although the words secular and religious, as well as the concept of secularization, remain and intellectual historians, including myself, will continue to employ them, those terms and the often unexamined assumptions that may lie behind them no longer in and of themselves provide an adequate analytic framework for probing the Victorian age.”

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.

Victorian Science in Context

Lightman - Victorian Science in Context“Victorians of every rank, at many sites, in many ways, defined knowledge, ordered nature, and practiced science.” This introductory remark, in Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Science in Context (1997), unveils the aim of the volume as a whole. Presented as a series of connected vignettes, it focuses on the local and the contingent. Situating a range of natural knowledge in their cultural milieu, Victorian Science in Context is a fascinating jaunt through nineteenth-century British science.

Lightman’s introduction is brief, lucid, and pertinent. According to Lightman, science was central to Victorian culture. And whether sensational, ceremonial, or mundane, Victorian science was always political. This is evident in the strong interest in science by literary figures, such as Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), George Eliot (1819-1880), Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and John Ruskin (1819-1900), to name only a few. The political nature of Victorian science is also evident among British scientists themselves, who “were deeply involved with general culture.” The realization that Victorian science was inextricably linked to powerful social and cultural forces drove historians away from intellectual history to contextualism, which sees the local, the context, the situated, or the particularities of historical events and figures as crucially important. Whose “truth,” “rationality,” “science,” “religion,” “ethics,” and so on, are the principle questions asked by contextualist historians. Lightman goes on to chart the development of the contextualist approach, tracing a detailed genealogy beginning with early attempts by Susan Faye (Walter) Cannon, John Greene, and the more recent work of Frank Turner, Robert Young, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, Martin Rudwick, Adrien Desmond, James Moore, Nick Jardine, James Secord, Emma Spary, Robert Stafford, Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Cynthia Russett, Evellen Richards, Gillian Beer, and George Levine.

The contributors of Victorian Science in Context “examine the varied contexts of Victorian “biological thought, astronomy, field theory in physics, probability theory in mathematics, political economy, scientific nomenclature, instruments, laboratories, measurement, fieldwork, and the popularization of science,” including their “imperial, industrial, political, gendered, ideological, racist, literary, and religious nature.” Lightman provides an apt précis of their contents in his Introduction, tying a tremendously diverse collection of essays into a seamless argument—namely, that in defining knowledge, in ordering nature, and in practicing science “we not only find nature but also encounter ourselves as inquisitive, social, and political beings.”

Fittingly, the essays are grouped into three sections: Part 1 deals with “Defining Nature”; Part 2 with “Ordering Nature”; and Part 3 “Practicing Science.” This overview of Victorian Science in Context reflects my particular research interests.

Alison Winter’s essay on “The Construction of Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in the Early Victorian Life Sciences” undermines the traditional image of early Victorian science. Science in the Victorian age was not made up of a homogeneous community; it was indeed “volatile” and “underdetermined,” indeed a “more fluid chaotic state of affairs” than traditionally reckoned. “We now know,” she writes, “that the practices, practitioners, contexts, and audiences that existed for early Victorian science were extremely diverse,” and that by the “late 1830s and 1840s there was a far wider range of specialist journals and societies, and a dizzying variety of other arenas in which science was practiced  and communicated.” This diversity is indicative of the multifarious definitions of “science” proposed during the era.

As already mentioned, recent research has overwhelmingly demonstrated the political significance attached to claims about nature. Winter notes, for example, how “radical artisans adapted evolutionary thought to give a blueprint in natural law for their socialist and cooperative projects.” Indeed, the “life science supplied pedigrees for the conservative, liberal, and radical” alike. What is more, “issues of place, practice, and audience have been central to the construction of scientific authority and orthodoxy.” In the second half of her essay, Winter concentrates on the case of William Benjamin Carpenter (181-1885), who personally sought “to demarcate the legitimate from the illegitimate experiments and phenomena.” His 1839 Principles of General and Comparative Physiology claimed that physiology should become as lawlike as the physical sciences, thus reducing “physiology to a set of naturalist laws.” This claim was just as controversial as what the radical artisans had advocated in their evolutionary project; but unlike the radicals, Winter argues, Carpenter solicited the support of specific elite scientists who were also religiously orthodox. And when his Principles did come under attack, he “took immediate and vigorous action to vindicate himself,” publishing an appendix “to one of the moderate progressive medical periodicals a personal defense of the spiritual respectability of his work.” In this defense Carpenter described a world “run by laws that had themselves been ushered into existence by a single divine act.” But more important than his own defense, Winter  explains, were the “letters of reference” from individuals who embodied orthodoxy in science and religion, defending Carpenter’s work as “theologically sound.” Carpenter’s act of “juxtaposing the names and statement of individually eminent personages” constructed them “as an authoritative and definitive community.” Thus the “specific work that was necessary to secure the status of orthodoxy for himself was the assertion of what counted as an authoritative community for him.” That is, by successfully soliciting the support of respected scientists of orthodox standing, Carpenter constructed his own definitions of what counted as heterodox or orthodox in his scientific work.

Martin Fichman’s “Biology and Politics: Defining the Boundaries” examines the rich interplay between biological and political speculation. Because “evolutionary biology was at an interface between the natural and social science, it was notoriously susceptible to sociopolitical influences and deductions.” T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall’s strategy for advancing the professional status of biologists, by isolating biology from politics and by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science, failed. Evolutionary science become, unsurprisingly, “hostage to pervasive ideological manipulation by the scientific naturalists themselves.”  In this essay Fichman focuses on the work of Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, Huxley, and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Spencer, although one of the “grandest systematizers of evolutionary thought,” never fully embraced Darwinism, his perspective being more principally aligned with Lamarckian views. Spencer’s evolutionary synthesis “lent itself to the most diverse political readings,” mainly because his philosophy was not so much materialistic as it was socially progressive. Galton, Darwin’s cousin, “simply subsumed politics under biology.” Coining the term “eugenics” in 1883, he advocated “societal programs to foster talent, health, and other ‘fit’ traits (positive eugenics) and to suppress feeblemindedness and other ‘unfit’ traits (negative eugenics). In Galton’s mind, eugenics was a scientific “repudiation of conservative, aristocratic privilege; politically, he reflected the middle-class outlook of much of the liberal intelligentsia.” According to Fichman, Galton’s eugenics was “an evolutionary science constructed upon a political infrastructure.”

By the 1870s, science had increasingly gained ascendancy and cultural autonomy, largely at the hands of an influential coterie made up of Huxley, Tyndall, Galton, J.D. Hooker, John Lubbock, and other members of the X-Club. “With a combination of research achievements, polemic wit, and literary eloquence…” this group “helped create a largely secular climate of opinion in which the theories and metaphors of modern science penetrated the institutions of education, industry, and government.” Their “metascientific strategy,” as Fichman phrases it, was the promotion of ideological neutrality. But as Fichman demonstrates, the scientific naturalists, “rather than limiting and depoliticizing the authority of evolutionary science, subtly invoked it to support [their] own political views.” In short, “scientific naturalism had never been ideologically neutral.”

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) attacked any pretext to ideological neutrality. Indeed, for Wallace, evolutionary biology necessitated an ideological context. In his “Human Selection” (1890) and “Human Progress: Past and Future” (1892), Wallace unabashedly declared his socialist convictions, particularly towards sexual selection. “Socialism, by removing inequalities of wealth and rank, would free females from the obligation to marry solely on the grounds of financial necessity.” And as Fichman points out, “Wallace’s social progressionism informed his biological progressionism and reinforced his position that science did not function as a neutral blueprint for political philosophy.” That is, Wallace’s scientific views merged seamlessly with his advocacy of socialism and feminism.

The thought provoking “Satire and Science in Victorian Culture” by James Paradis examines the formation of attitudes towards claims of science and scientists themselves by focusing on the ways in which irony and its “militant” form, satire, was mobilized as a strategy for making sense of new claims about the world. Drawing from Punch (1841-1992), Figaro in London (1831-38), the Comic Almanack (1835-53), as well as Victorian literary pieces such as Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Huxley’s Lay Sermons, Adresses and Reviews (1870), Paradis argues that “literature became an important conduit for conveying scientific ideas of the day to the broad public.” What is more, the scientific elite themselves used cartoons, doodles, caricatures, and humor as “instruments of scientific infighting to contrast reform platforms with orthodox resistance.” This, of course, was stunningly reductive, to the point of irresponsible, incorrectly presenting figures and facts, often reinforcing crude prejudices, falsifying categories, and distorting significant truths. But as Huxley discovered, “irony and satire…could be used to privilege the emergent institutions of science.”

Perhaps more ominous, recent research suggests that at the same time as young adults are abandoning traditional news media, they are more likely to identify with late-night comedy programs, particularly Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, or with humor websites such as BuzzFeed.com and Cracked.com and others, as a destination for learning about current events. This trend towards news as entertainment was pointed out long ago by Neil Postman. According to Fichman, “one who laughs not only directs criticism at the object of his laughter, but also invites his companions to share his sentiments. Irony and satire from the 1840s to the 1860s had increasingly become tools in the scientific community for shaping a minority cultural vision.” Huxley, with his mordant witticism, used his gift “to turn the direction of the irony against received tradition and to seize the moral high ground for a progressive intellectual culture associated with the sciences.”

Bernard Lightman’s “‘The Voices of Nature’: Popularizing Victorian Science” is similar to his more recent essay in Wrestling with Nature (2011). According to Lightman, Huxley and Tyndall “account only for a small portion of the works of Victorian popularizers of science.” Indeed, the popularizers of science played a far greater role in “shaping the understanding of science in the minds of a reading public composed of children, teenagers, women, and nonscientific males” than any of the scientific naturalists. Yet their comparative neglect by historians until most recently is the result of the successful campaign forged by the scientific naturalists, who convinced “future generations that scientists were the authoritative guides to deciphering the meaning of natural things—that they alone gave voice to mute nature.”

It is the contextualist approach that offers a necessary antidote. Recent work by contextualist historians, Lightman notes, reveals the “rich interaction between Victorian science and culture.” The contextualist approach also shows how Victorian popularizers of science experimented with the narrative form and the implicit “storytelling quality of all science.” “Both popularizers and professionals,” writes Lightman, “have continued to tell stories about the ultimate meaning of things as revealed by science, though this characteristic of science has been concealed in the scientific reports and papers of professional scientists.” Lightman then offers an account of Margart Gatty’s (1809-73) The Parables of Nature (1855), which was a series of fictional short stories for children designed to teach them about the natural world; Eliza Brightwen’s (1830-1906) Wild Nature Won by Kindness (1890) and other stories sought to “foster ‘the love of animated nature’ in her audience, especially ‘in the minds of the young'”; and Arabella Buckley’s (1840-1929) The Fairyland of Science (1879), likewise aimed to “awaken ‘a love of nature and of the study of science’ in ‘young people’ who more than likely ‘look upon science as a bundle of dray facts.'” Interestingly, Buckely does not shy away from introducing the story of evolution in The Fairyland of Science. Rather, she “reinterprets the story of evolution in way that emphasizes the moral dimensions of the process. The purpose of evolution was not, as Darwin had argued, merely the preservation of life, it encompassed the development of mutuality as well.” And like Gatty and Brightwen, Buckley “believed that science offered the means for ascertaining the true meaning of God’s works.” According to Lightman, all three authors are “part of the natural theology tradition.”

In the late nineteenth-century, “thousands of members of the public were introduced to astronomy” by the writings of Anthony Proctor (1837-88). His most popular work, Other Worlds Than Ours (1870), cast science into a “teleological framework” and encouraged the reading public to become amateur astronomers—for the astronomer, “imbued with the sense of beauty and perfection which each fresh hour of world-study instills more deeply into his soul, reads a nobler lesson in the skies.” Astronomy, according to Proctor, leads to God. Similar sentiments were shared by the Reverend John George Wood (1827-89) and Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) in their many writings, who both declared that the natural world testified “to the existence and wisdom of God.”  We may draw two important conclusions from the popularization of science during the Victorian era. The first is that “science continued to be contested territory in the latter half of the nineteenth century.” Second, the stories told about nature were also contested. Should stories about nature be told from a teleological, aesthetic, moral, or evolutionary perspective? The scientific naturalists fought for the hearts and minds of the reading public. But so did popularizers of science. Thus we may say that the professional scientist competed against the professional writer. Who won is still an open question, however.