Science, Ideology, and World View

Greene - Science, Ideology, and World ViewI made brief mention of John C. Greene’s Science, Ideology, and World View (1981) in an earlier post. Greene’s volume is composed of six essays with an introduction. He argues that the essays collectively “constitute a fairly unified interpretation of the interaction of science, ideology, and world view in the development of evolutionary biology in the last two centuries.”

Greene maintains that science—as well as philosophy and theology—cannot pretend to be “insulated from the social, economic, psychological, and cultural contexts in which intellectual endeavor takes place.” In an oft-cited passage, Greene claims that “the lines between science, ideology, and world view are seldom tightly drawn.” Indeed, that modern science has a powerful ideological component is now clear to most historians today. But when it comes to evolutionary theory, admirers of Darwin find “it difficult to believe that he could have given credence to a social philosophy so repugnant to the mid-twentieth-century mind.” Greene hopes to “lay to rest the naive idea that Darwin was a ‘pure scientist’ uncontaminated y the preconceptions of his age and culture.” In the course of the six essays, he convincingly shows that Spencer, Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley all shared a particular “worldview,” one that he terms as “Spencerian-Darwinism.” Despite different intellectual temperaments, intellectual histories, and general opinions, these men, according to Greene, all shared a common outlook in the early 1860s. These essays in the history of evolutionary ideas “dispel, or at least should dispel, the dream of a purely scientific view of reality. Science is but a part, though an important one, of man’s effort to understand himself, his culture, his universe.”

In “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History,” Greene argues that “the primary function of intellectual historiography is to delineate the presuppositions of thought in given historical epochs and to explain the changes that those presuppositions undergo from epoch to epoch.” Here he admits his intellectual debt to a previous generation of historians of ideas, including Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Max Weber (1864-1920), Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962), and Perry Miller (1905-1963). Greene is careful to note, however, that presuppositions are never fixed, that there are often “several, some dominant, others subdominant, incipient, or vestigial” is readily recognized. As a case example, Greene examines the views of nature in the eighteenth century. The historian of ideas must first concern herself with texts, for example, from Galileo, Descartes, Huyghens, Newton, Laplace and others. From these works we may draw the conclusion, says Greene, that nature was conceived as a “law-bound system of matter in motion.”

Once we have “marked out the movement of thought,” one must seek to “explain how and why it took place,” and here the “problem becomes infinitely more complicated.” For the “men of genius are only single strands in the complicated web of causes that produces a movement of thought.” The thought movement from, for example, John Ray’s The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Worlds of the Creation (1691) to Spencer’s First Principles (1862) is a case in point. According to Greene, the “drawing out of the implications of the seventeenth-century cosmology undermined many traditional conceptions…but it could not in itself suggest the idea of evolution, or progressive improvement, in nature.” While the growth of empirical knowledge certainly played its role, “an earlier and more pervasive influence on biological thought was the general sense of progressive improvement in society; and this in turn had economic and technological, as well as intellectual roots.” There was a growing sense of social and historical optimism, and this itself developed into a historical narrative of progressive growth.

The following essay, “The Kuhnian Paradigm and the Darwinian Revolution in Natural History,” is a critique of Thomas Kuhn’s model for understanding changes in scientific thought. Greene argues that

scientists share the general preconceptions of their time; that these preconceptions change not simply because of new scientific discoveries…but more through the influence of alternative views of nature coexisting with the dominant view; that crises generated by the discovery of anomalous facts are not prerequisite to the elaboration of counterparadigms; that anomalous facts challenge world views as well as specific scientific theories and encounter opposition, even among scientists, for that reason; that the typical response to the challenge to anomalous facts is a compromise theory that minimizes the damage to traditional assumptions; that a challenge to a reigning paradigm may develop largely outside the relevant scientific community; that  national intellectual and cultural conditions may predispose the scientists of a given nation to push their speculations in one direction rather than another; and, more particularly, that British political economy played a significant role in the emergence of theories of natural selection in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The following two chapters trace some interactions between biology and social theory, revealing a continual interplay of science, ideology, and worldview.

In “Biology and Social Theory in the Nineteenth Century,” Greene observes that evolutionary theories in biology and sociology emerged simultaneously in the nineteenth century. Why? What was the particularly relationship between biological and social theory? Here Greene focuses on the writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

“[E]volutionary speculations in modern social theory appeared at approximately the same time as the first transformist ideas in biology,” says Greene. This is evident in mid-eighteenth-century writers such as Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In these works we find the idea that “the development of society, language, and the arts and sciences followed necessarily…that both nature and history were inherently progressive.” According to Greene, “nineteenth-century social science took its general character from these events and aspirations.” Indeed, nineteenth-century writers often took progress as a given, setting out to “discover the laws of historical development.” But to assume progress one had to not only assume what was modern (i.e. “science”) but had to assume what was primitive (i.e. “religion”), “whether of man or of the earth,” and thus one had to establish (i.e. construct) principles of development.

The construction of such principles of development are found in the writings of Comte.

In “Darwin as a Social Evolutionist,” Greene focuses on Darwin’s role in the development of a particularly British ideology of progress through relentless competition of individuals, tribes, nations, and races.

*  *  *

In a book review for The British Journal for the History of Science (1983), Mark Ridley, provides a helpful summary:

In the eighteenth century natural history was a science of static, ordered classifications. Towards the end of the century a competing, more dynamic, causal paradigm of ‘matter in motion’ was applied to natural history, particularly by Lamarck, to produce theories of evolution. In the next century the ‘matter in motion’ paradigm triumphed with Charles Darwin at the wheel. The ‘matter in motion paradigm was also applied to human society, producing Spencerism or social Darwinism (or Darwinism, for short). It became a world view. In the twentieth century, evolutionary biologists continued to try to apply their theories to humans, and begot much nonsense in the attempt.

By using the tools of intellectual history, one can see in the writings of great scientists the interplay of science, ideology, and worldview. And by applying those tools specifically to the works of Darwin and his contemporaries, it dispels, or at least should dispel, “the dream of a purely scientific view of reality. Science is but a part, though an important one, of man’s effort to understand himself, his culture, his universe.”

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