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Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity Hardcover – 23 May 2014


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A sterling set of essays that lifts the lid on T. H. Huxley s propagandist network in the Victorian afternoon. Out goes the old paradigm of a monolithic group of professionalizers; in its place we have a probing study of disparate characters, for whom nature was the new source of cultural authority. The authors enhance our understanding of scientific naturalism as it was pushed into the curriculum, into pulpit-replacing Sunday lectures, and even into the moral bedrock. --Adrian Desmond, coauthor of Darwin s Sacred Cause"

About the Author

Gowan Dawson is a senior lecturer in Victorian studies at the University of Leicester, UK, and the author of Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability. He lives in Leicester. Bernard Lightman is professor of humanities at York University in Toronto and the author or editor of numerous books, including Victorian Popularizers of Science, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Thornhill, Ontario.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
British science after Darwin and the development of scientific naturalism 2 Sept. 2014
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This excellent book should be of interest to anyone concerned with Victorian intellectual/scientific history. It is the most recent addition to the outstanding lineup of books on this general topic published by the University of Chicago Press. In addition to a helpful introduction by the editors, which ties themes together and offers a preview of the essays to follow, there are 12 essays collected under four categories. Unlike some collections of essays, here every one is a winner and they tend to complement each other. There is no more knowledgeable a scholar in this area than the co-editor, Bernard Lightman, and his mastery of the field is evident throughout the collection.

The introduction spends several pages in trying to define "scientific naturalism." After reading the essays, it means to me that empirical, secular, sometimes agnostic, often confrontational group of scientists who emerged during the 1850-1900 period, in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, and were determined to free science from any religious constraints and to transform it into a true profession.

The first collection of essays are grouped under "forging friends." How did these scientists come together? Co-editor Gowan Dawson argues that even before Darwin's "Origin" was published in 1859, a small group had unified in order to attack the Cuvier techniques in paleontology. Principally, the group was led by Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker, both of whom were major figures in the scientific naturalism movement. Later, it was natural for this group to join together to defend Darwin (who avoided conflict and confrontation) when his book was vigorously attacked by religionists and more traditional scientists, such as Richard Owen. An interesting essay relates that reliable Victorian hobby of mountain climbing to unifying the scientific group. George Levine focuses upon the literary quality of the group's writings and asks whether these strict empiricists really started from some metaphysical assumptions that took them beyond science.

The second heading is "institutional politics." An important essay focuses upon Huxley and his service on various royal commissions and in institutional positions and how they were utilized to promote scientific naturalism and enhance the teaching of science. Huxley, who is really the giant during this period, used his control over national examinations (the focus of a second essay) and the establishment of a new science school at Kensington to professionalize scientific education and further reduce any influence of religion. In short, the group was effective in utilizing politics to secure their objectives. One secret to the groups success, as discussed in an essay on Joseph Hooker, was that with few exceptions, the scientists conformed to the Victorian idea of a "gentleman." No outright attacks on religion; courteous and moderate to a fault. They were not scary but rather polite, while firm in their views. Only Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," had difficulty in following this "Christian gentleman" approach.

The third grouping of essays is captioned "broader alliances." These essays focus upon allies the scientists developed. One interesting ally was the Sunday Lecture Societies, who sought to put on programs of lectures on Sundays, often meeting firm religionist opposition. Some of these lectures were given by the scientists. An interesting essay discusses the famous "metaphysical society," which presented lectures to its members on many intellectual topics including science and religion. Once again, good manners prevailed in the meetings and in extensive published articles, which further publicized scientific naturalism themes. A final essay in this section deals with the argument that the uniformity of physical laws either proved or disproved the existence of God.

The final set of essays appear under the designation "new generations." The topics here include the alliance of the scientists with modernizing religious writers; the impact of statistical analysis in published articles which tended to turn off many general readers; the role of Nature magazine which became the preferred mechanism for younger scientists to present theses and respond to disputes; and finally the Rationalist Press Association, another device by which the scientists could draw upon radical thinkers.

The book includes notes at the end of each essay; a bibliography of major works on scientific naturalism; a list of contributors; and an index. I find this entire topic extremely interesting, and this book serves as a good introduction to why this is such a fascinating area.
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