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Nature's Place in Victorian Culture
Robert M. Young
[ Introduction | Preface | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Notes | Bibliography | Index ]
PREFACE: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
I wonder if the world is full of middle-aged people still waiting for their peers to take in the full range, depth, subtlety, and profundity of their work. The suspicion that I was not unique in this respect was growing upon me when I saw Scorsese's The King of Comedy, where Robert De Niro plays an "undiscovered" comedian with as unswerving a sense of the rightness of his cause as he'd had earlier in Taxi Driver. He goes to lengths as extraordinary, though not as terminal, to get his name known - and succeeds, albeit by an indirect route. The taxi driver's cause was just - rescuing a child prostitute from villains. And Rupert Pupkin did have a sardonic comic talent. Each had a passionate critique of corruption and alienation and took risks to make it known. The public, for its part, acknowledged their merits and even the point of their unconventional methods: mayhem, holding hostage.
I'd probably have waited indefinitely, using as my antidote to De Niro's chutzpah a poem by Emily Dickinson which struck me when I was an undergraduate:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
As I say, I might have continued in this frame of mind but for two processes. The first is that when I had left academic life in
disgust at the corruption, opportunism, and hypocrisy of certain colleagues and patrons, a friend who has been a supportive critic of my work, Jeremy Mulford, suggested that I might make some money by collecting my essays. When I told this to two colleagues whom I admire, Karl Figlio and Ludi Jordanova (both refugees from the same academic context), they communicated it to Richard Zlemacki of Cambridge University Press, who was kind enough to suggest this volume.
The second reason may be of more interest to a readership beyond friends and students of the vicissitudes of egos and followers of the Dallas rule of my youth: "Don't let the bastards get hold of your self-esteem." It is that in the period since these essays were published, very little has happened in Darwin scholarship which takes full account of them. It would be easy to smile and conclude that their true merits have been judged by history, but this would not explain away the pleasing number of citations of them and the compliments they have been paid. My own view of this matter gains some support from an anonymous referee's report on a retrospective essay of mine:
The essay raises the important issue as to why the kind of "externalist," sociological-cum-ideological approach which Young and others were developing ten years ago actually made so little headway in the mainstream of Darwin scholarship. It re-states a case which has never been demolished; which made some ground in certain circles, but which seems to have dropped out of the most fine-toothed Darwinian research. It deserves to be confronted head on.
The essays in this collection make out the case to which the preceding quotation refers. I have reread them in the course of editing them, and I cannot forbear from presenting an easy target: I still think well of them and haven't read anything in the meantime which has led me to feel that they have been significantly superseded. Worse than that, when I was invited to attend the conference commemorating the centenary of Darwin's death and attempted to withdraw from participating out of (believe it or not) genuine diffidence, the organizer of the conference, David Kohn, argued that my work was still "the state of the art."
The truth is that by this time I felt that I no longer had anything to contribute to Darwinian scholarship and wanted to let the matter rest - including reneging on publishing these essays. However,
when I got to the conference I felt rather like Rip van Winkle. Or not like him, actually, since he woke up and found the world very changed. I found it distressingly unchanged. I was treated to some fine scholarship, for example, the work of David Kohn and Silvan Schweber. But I was also struck by the absence of many people who have shed important light on the period and the issues, considered broadly. This significant silence was coupled by a willful - and in some cases spiteful and mean-spirited - narrowing of questions and perspectives.
I have written elsewhere about this (see Kohn, in press). What I want to say here is that I wish again to assert that the history of science matters: that the historical, philosophical, and social studies of science are, in the 1980s and for at least the second time in my writing career, turning away from a role at the center of cultural debate. In 1968 people like Habermas, Marcuse, and Roszak invited us to see the role of scientific rationality in the maintenance of the existing social order and to examine critically whether that was the role which we wished expertise to play. People like Jonathan Beckwith, Ethan Signer, and Steven Rose inside science and others in "science studies" tried to move things. On the whole, we failed. The sort of promise of a reflective and critically self-conscious radical science movement that was apparent at the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science conference on the Social Impact of Modern Biology in 1970 has not been fulfilled.
What was just about escapable then seems inescapable now. We have before us and upon us microelectronics, biotechnology, spare-part surgery. They bring to working lives new techniques for pacing, surveillance, and control. They create technological unemployment and the Taylorization of the office. They transform whole industries, e.g., drugs, agriculture, chemicals, husbandry. They are redefining life, work, and leisure.
Among my reasons for leaving the academic discipline of the history and philosophy of science (which is not the same as leaving intellectual life) was the urgency of these questions and the need to develop perspectives and activities with respect to them that are not blinkered. How does the Popper/Kuhn/Lakatos debate in the academic philosophy of science bear on this? How do epistemological relativisms of the Edinburgh or Mulkay/Knorr-Cetina persuasions point ways forward? The Darwin industry has reverted to the norms of scientists and scholars rebuilding the very
boundaries which the nineteenth-century debate showed were not arbitrary but were in the service of ideological forces which place the role of the professional expert at the service of culture (as ornament) rather than aligning expertise with forces for democracy and progressive social change.
I have tried to do my bit since the last of the essays in the present volume was written - in my work with the Radical Science Journal, the establishment of a nationwide publications distribution co-op, in attempting to broaden the perspective of both the scientists and the socialists. Complementing these activities among academics and intellectuals, I have attempted to reach a broader public through the "Crucible: Science in Society" television and book series. Particularly relevant are the films made about the scientist ("Portraits of Newton"), about ideas of nature ("A History of Nature"), about ideas of human nature ("Behaving Ourselves"), and in the intentions behind the film on biotechnology ("The Gene Business"). I have also attempted in essays (listed in the Bibliography) to broaden and deepen my critical work on the role of knowledge in culture. I have tried to think about science as part of the pursuit of values through their embodiment in theories, therapies, and things, as well as to think about science as social relations and as a labor process like other forms of work. More recently, I have become involved in a publishing project - Free Association Books - which is developing these perspectives. All of these activities have been aimed at stimulating wider discussion on the role of expertise in society - to reach beyond academic debates.
But this trajectory does not mean that I would argue that the essays in this volume should be sequestered. On the contrary, I want to know from my erstwhile colleagues what on earth they are doing making obscure the very theory which, in conceptual terms as well as in its own historical relations, makes the study of humanity and nature part of a single topic. In doing so the theory of evolution also makes the study of science and society a single domain of investigation. What possible moral and intellectual reasons could they have for putting blinkers on? This is a very real question, as well as a rhetorical one. That is, the history of science emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s from being a relatively narrow study to being part of a wider set of issues in the history of ideas, the history of culture, the history of society and civiliza-
tion. Since the late 1970s it appears to have reverted, and I cannot think of a single justification for this. This is not to say that I cannot think of good reasons for doing meticulous scholarship, but surely one needs to emerge from meticulous work to assess its broader articulations and relations. This second moment - the justification of the first - seems to be being forgotten.
As I look at the historical trajectory from the work of Malthus to that of Darwin, to the fragmentation of a common intellectual context, and on to the Progressive Era and to the development of functionalist and managerial thinking, to more recent developments of scientific agenda setting and patronage at the hands of the Rockefeller charities, and on again to molecular biology, genetic engineering, and the broad scope of biotechnology - I remain certain that it is not right to separate the Darwinian debate from broader cultural, ideological, political, and economic issues. Darwinism provides the unifying thread and themes from Malthus to the commodification of the smallest elements of living nature in genetic engineering.
With this set of interrelations go the social forms of technocracy, information processing, and the disciplines that are recasting how we think of humanity in terms of cybernetics, information theory, systems theory, and "communication and control." There is a concomitant return to deeply conservative biological analogies that have been eagerly taken up by Thatcherites, Reaganites, other monetarists, and believers in various neo-Darwinian models of society.
There has always been a need to fight for a broader perspective. The division of labor is first and foremost the prevention of access to the totality. This means fighting for posts and funding for the historical, philosophical, and social studies of science as disciplines. It means fighting for vistas which are not in themselves opposed to meticulous scholarship but which should always be in the service of a wider vision of humanity - of science as part of civilization. There are many tendencies today which urge that it is more prudent to cultivate one's own garden. I am absolutely certain that this is a shortsighted perspective and have been persuaded to reissue these essays in the hope of generating some interest that goes against the narrowing and blinkering of our understanding of Darwinism.
Some of my remarks - in this preface, in the final chapter, and
in the notes and postscripts - may be taken as inappropriate, too personal, gossip (merely "a personal perspective" - not my phrase). They have not been written idly. It is part of my position that the social relations of scholarship include the social relations in scholarship. I think Darwin would agree (see vol. II, chap. 7 of his Life and Letters, especially pp. 296ff.). The substance of knowledge is the work that gets written, published, and taken up.
This is determined by all sorts of processes in the culture: those that shape the questions which it occurs to people to ask; those that determine what research to fund; those that decide to whom posts are given and whom to invite to attend conferences and to give papers; those that constrain what people feel able to write up and submit to (what is too uncomprehendingly called) "peer review"; those that result in refereeing, revision, and - finally - publication.
All of these processes, in turn, consist of complex resolutions of interpersonal and social forces. (I sketch here only half of the story: the other half is about reception, reviews, etc.) Scholars tend to keep them obscure and to present a smooth facade to their own generation, leaving the rest of the story to gossip columns, memoirs, biographies, and future doctoral candidates. It is part of what I am about, to assert that writers should be reflexive with respect to these matters, insofar as they have access to them and can get round editors, publishers, the laws of libel and their own inhibitions, careerism, and fear of retribution. I have heard all of this called gossip and "tittle-tattle" by some of the very people who most successfully trade on the apparent separation of public knowledge from tacit and secret power relations and the negotiations of power brokers and patronage networks. The trick, of course, is to lift the veil without being overwhelmed by all of the matters that are thereby exposed - to keep one's head, consider the doubters, and make allowance for their doubting, too.
It's my impression that more and more people want the substance of knowledge, its social relations and the social relations it mediates to be treated as part of a single account. Yet our nerve falters and our motives are suspected. It's still worth trying, I think, even though there will be flak, and different readers will have different thresholds, different criteria, and different versions of events. Let them tell their stories in their own ways.
In these essays I have consistently broken with the historians' tradition of narrative naturalism - the smooth storytellers' surface which doesn't let the works show. As one reads through the chapters, historical and historiographic matters are more and more boldly intermingled, until the last two, where the texts take the form of thinking on paper about knowledge of the period and how we - and I - have come to treat them as we do. Toward the end, the point of doing so is more and more to the fore. This stylistic trajectory is also a part of what I am about.
As I turn to the question of the text of these essays and their revision, I want to mention that just as much meticulous work can go into the understanding of broad issues as goes into the understanding of narrow ones. Whatever else may be wrong with these writings, they have been carefully researched. However, I won't pretend to have kept up with the scholarship on anything like the broad front that I did when research on these matters was my full-time academic vocation.
This is, of course, never quite true, since all academics have other jobs, often including heavy administrative duties. I have tried to keep in touch with the literature on the nineteenth-century debate for a number of reasons, including the forgivable one that I was interested in how my own work had fared. Once again, my main point - a sign of the times - is that the issues raised here have not been forgotten, but neither have they been taken up by the mainstream of the history of science or by social and political historians.
I am glad to say that my study of the published materials in the last decade - complemented by extensive reading of contemporary review articles - tells me that my essays have suffered relatively little when tested against the careful sifting of the manuscript archives which has become the exclusive preoccupation of many scholars. Put another way, I am relieved that my having chosen to look into cultural resonances and broader issues has not meant that I have had to pay a high price in accuracy and precision.
I have adopted a middle course on the question of how far to update references. As I've said, it was out of the question to be as thorough in the 1980s as I was in 1973. On the other hand, I have included almost all the references I know about, and I have con-
sulted the leading scholars in the field and all of the work to which they have referred me. If I am silent about work published in the decade since the first versions of these essays were completed, it is either because I am ignorant of it, because I have not found it useful, or because I have done all I can in the light of my other preoccupations. I have also taken care to refer to publications, for example in the Radical Science Journal, which have carried further the arguments in the concluding essay. That is the chapter where my problems are most acute. While the Darwin industry was burying its head in "the texts," the literature to which I refer in the last essay and other related social perspectives on science have developed apace. While I do not insist that they have "progressed," I am sure that it would be foolish to try to provide anything like a complete update. Similarly, I have deleted some references, added others, and have tried to mention ones which offer ways into the subsequent literature.
In providing full notation, I am saying: here is access to my raw materials; see for yourself; check it out; interpret it differently if you like. This is messy and demanding, but it is also open and accessible. Compare this approach to the complete lack of notation, for example, in a new left review (which I have been asked not to name). What that says to me is: we are learned and wise; we have distilled an essence; no need to look further; trust us; we are the elite, and there are no grubby bits and pieces. Elegant; arrogant. I was once mocked for my footnotes but I have been thanked for them many times. I hope they are helpful, not least because they represent a lot of work.
I hope that readers will find my notation system more helpful than irritating or daunting. I have tried to accommodate three sorts of readers - people who want to read through an uncluttered text, people who want to track down a particular quotation or claim, and people who want a fairly comprehensive bibliography on these issues. I expect to be cursed by anyone who wants all three at once but hope that they are used to bibliographical inconvenience and will forgive my decision to put the highest priority on being able to read straight through the arguments.
In the notes section there is a guide to the word or phrase where a superscript would have been in a more conventional arrangement. This leads directly to the bibliography. The system overcomes duplication of reference as well as the problem of trying to
track down the first time an article is mentioned. I very much hope that the bibliography is useful.
Finally, I need to make some heartfelt acknowledgements. The people who have helped me in this work - as inspiration, critic, assistant, or in other ways. Each knows her or his own role, and it would be invidious to try to spell them out. I am grateful to Tamsin Braidwood, Gerd Buchdahl, John Burrow, Mary Byers, Sarah Cartwright, Jutta Chambers, John Dunn, John Durant, Steve Eddy, Sydney Eisen, Sheila Ernst, John Fekete, Karl Figlio, Ruth and Eddy Frow, Diana Guyon, Russell Hahn, Mary Hesse, Judy Hill, Colin James, Ludi Jordanova, David Kohn, Les Levidow, Jim Moore, Jeremy Mulford, A. N. L. Munby, Carol Naughton, Joseph Needham, Roy Porter, P. M. Rattansi, Pat Reay, Martin Rudwick, Roger Smith, Mikulás Teich, Brian Turner, Ingrid Turner, Sandra Sedgbeer, Rita van der Straeten, Margot Waddell, Charles Webster, Gary Werskey, Helen Wheeler, Oliver Zangwill, and Richard Ziemacki.
Two last points: I cannot resolve the question of gender in these essays: "man's place in nature" was the rhetoric of the period, and "he" had characteristic resonances which it would be anachronistic to expunge, and this set the style.
Second, before reading my essays, please read the beginning passages in the Bible. Before I went to university it was the only book I'd read carefully and more than once. When I had finished my revisions of these essays, I reread the Genesis account for the first time in decades. I think it provides a coherent frame of reference for the issues addressed in this book - origins, human frailty, temptation, the birth of knowledge, sin, pain, evil, suffering, and the beginning of the sort of social order to which I wish to relate scientific knowledge - living and doing our best on the east of Eden.
Robert M. Young
Free Association Books
26 Freegrove Road
9 March 1984
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM