Wrestling with Nature – Science and the Public

The other essay I found particularly interesting is Bernard Lightman’s “Science and the Public.” It was in reviewing Mary Somerville’s popular work, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), when English polymath William Whewell (1794-1866) first coined the word “scientist,” used as a umbrella term to avoid the “endless subdivision of the physical sciences.” In reviewing Somerville, Whewell hoped that her work, and others like it, would help “counteract the growing fragmentation of the physical sciences.”

Although concerned over its growing fragmentation, Whewell nevertheless took comfort that the Anglican clergy guaranteed a “strong religious framework unified science.” But by the middle of the nineteenth century, a new cult of science had emerged, represented by such names as Renan, Taine, Tyndall, Bernard, Büchner, Huxley, and Haeckel, vying for cultural authority. “Whoever determined the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate scientific knowledge, between valid and invalid ways of doing science, and between the professional scientist and the mere amateur controlled the definition of science and could dominate the intellectual, social, and political agenda of the day.” According to Lightman, both groups, the Anglican establishment and the scientific naturalists, attempted to enroll the support of the British public. This was made possible by mechanized printing presses, railway distribution, improved education, and the penny post. While Huxley and his allies dominated the world of scientific journalism, popularizers of science, claims Lightman, “proposed a more egalitarian relationship between scientist and layman.”

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, such figures as Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), Charles Babbage (1791-1871), Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871), Richard Owen (1804-1892), Humphry Davy (1778-1829), John Herschel (1792-1871), and William Whewell “adhered to an ideal of gentlemanly science based on a conception of a hierarchical society, masculine authority, and government by an Anglican, aristocratic elite.” From this group, natural theology was used to preserve the political and social status quo, presenting experimental science as a genteel, theologically safe, and socially conservative activity. “Science teaching at the ancient universities,” writes Lightman, “was not intended to institute modern, professional education, but instead to educate Christian gentlemen.” The science of gentlemen, then, leads to the recognition of a divine, static and hierarchical order behind nature.

Young Thomas Henry Huxley

A young, and dashing, Thomas Henry Huxley at 32 in 1857

By the mid-nineteenth century, the circulation of knowledge was no longer limited to the wealthy and to the aristocracy. Born into a low-middle-class family, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was deeply affected by the poverty he saw in the East End slums. “It was a grim reminder,” writes Lightman, “of how the Anglican-aristocratic establishment had failed to provide for many members of English society.” “Huxley never forgot his early struggles to establish a scientific career for himself,” he continues, “and throughout his life he set as one of his main goals the redefinition of both the meaning and institutional infrastructure of British science.” Sharing many aspects of Huxley’s lower-middle-class roots, John Tyndall (1820-1893), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879), Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), Edward Tylor (1832-1917), E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), Henry Maudsley (1835-1918) formed an alliance, promoting, according to the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb (1858-1945), the notion that the scientific method solves all problems and the “transference of the emotion of self-sacrificing service from God to man.”

Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer would in the latter half of the nineteenth century found the “X-Club,” a private, informal society where the member could exchange ideas on literature, politics, and science over dinner. Most important here is that members and supporters of the X-Club engaged the Anglican Church in the pages of the periodical press and in public debate. In these forums, members, and particularly Huxley, “presented a seemingly more democratic science, which emphasized how a scientific education could discipline the mind and teach the public to resist” unscientific practices and beliefs.

But in attempting to crush the authority of the Anglican establishment, Huxley revealed an increased commitment to the “professionalization” of science from the public domain. In his “On the Study of Biology” (1876), for example, Huxley argued that natural history was an outmoded term, “old” and “confusing,” in need of a replacement with a new term that would “characterize the study of the totality of living phenomena.” Huxley promoted “biology,” which, interestingly enough, did not “involve the analysis of exquisitely designed organs of perfection and it could be conducted without having to deal with any questions concerning the wisdom, power, and benevolence of a divine being”; that is, stripped of all religious content (Peter Harrison gives a detailed account of the origins, rise, and fall of “Natural History” in the same volume). Biology, moreover, must be “analogous to the study of the other physical sciences; it must be performed, in other words, in the laboratory by “men of science.” “The democratic nature of science,” writes Lightman, “became lost in Huxley’s stress on expertise developed only in the laboratory.”

Of course, such claims of scientific naturalism were met with resistance by the intellectual elite. The most effective opposition came from a reformed group of scientists known as the “North British,” composed of William Thomson (1824-1907), James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), Henry Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), William Macquorn Rankine (1820-1872), who “found the perceived anti-Christian materialism of the metropolitan scientific naturalists quite distasteful and they prepared to enter into an alliance with Cambridge Anglicans to undermine the authority of Huxley and his allies.” Thomson and Maxwell were particularly public in their disagreements with Huxley and Tyndall, for example. “While Huxley trained his biology students…to see a fully secularized material world through the lens of the microscope, Maxwell and the other North British Physicists were prepared to admit God into their laboratory as the creator who had given purpose to nature and to all scientific activity.”

More importantly, Huxley’s claims were also resisted by popularizers of science, who belonged to groups that Huxley and his colleagues were trying to edge out of science; namely women and Christian ministers. Mary Somerville but also Rosina Zornlin (1795-1859), Jane Loudon (1807-1858), Anne Pratt (1806-1893), Elizabeth Twining (1805-1889), Lydia Becker (1827-1890), Margaret Gatty (1809-1873), Mary Ward (1827-1869), Agnes Giberne (1845-1939), Agnes Clarke (1842-1907), and Eliza Brightwen (1830-1906) published widely on physical geography and geology, on botany, on evolutionary theory and natural history, on scientific instruments such as the microscope and telescope, on astronomy, and, more generally, on “short stories designed to teach children scientific, as well as moral, lessons.” John George Wood (1827-1889), Ebenezer Brewer (1810-1897), Charles Alexander Johns (1811-1874), Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) George Henslow (1835-1925), Henry Neville Hutchinson (1856-1927), moreover, sold a staggering amount of work on popular science. Richard Proctor (1837-1888) in particular authored “over sixty books, mostly on astronomy” and “wrote at least five hundred essays that appeared in a wide variety of periodicals such as Popular Science Monthly, Cornhill Magazine, Contemporary Review, Fortnightly Review, Fraser’s Magazine, and Nineteenth Century.” Indeed, Proctor “founded his journal Knowledge in order to challenge Nature for control of the popular science periodical market.”

It did not take long for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer and friends to try their hands at writing popular works. Perhaps the most well known is the International Scientific Series, its aim to “disseminate an authoritative and collective image of science as stable, secular, and comprehensive.” Indeed, in its early years in England it was directed by an advisory committee composed of Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer. And least we forget, John William Draper’s The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science was among the most popular works in the entire series.

During the nineteenth century, increased contact with scientific ideas was made possible by the communications revolution.”Driven by the twin engines of empire and industrialization, science became a cultural and social force to be reckon with.” One consequence of this nineteenth-century revolution was that “scientists gained unprecedented cultural authority at the expense of the Christian clergy, as science came to be seen as providing a model for obtaining truth.” Lightman warns us about drawing overarching conclusions that the scientific naturalists won the contest in determining the meaning of science. Granted. However, although the meaning of science may still be debated amongst historians, philosophers, and even  scientists—in other words, amongst intellectuals—popular perceptions convey a meaning of science as secular, mechanistic, and independent of theology. Indeed, it is often said that it was this “science” that made the modern world. In this sense, the Anglican establishment may have won the battle against Huxley and his coterie, but they clearly lost the war for the hearts and minds of the people.

1 Comments on “Wrestling with Nature – Science and the Public”

  1. Pingback: Victorian Science in Context | jamescungureanu

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