BOOK REVIEW: The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and His Contemporaries

Bernard Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, eds. The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and His Contemporaries (Brookfield, VT: Pickering & Chatto, 2014), 272 pp.

Ask someone relatively versed in the history of science to name some influential Victorian scientists, and you might get Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin, or William Whewell. Perhaps Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and maybe, if they’re familiar with natural history, Joseph Dalton Hooker or Alfred Russel Wallace. A name not familiar-sounding would be, until about six years ago maybe, John Tyndall. He was an Irish physicist in England, mountaineer among the Alps, expounder of science through popular books and lectures at home and abroad, and a vocal critic of established religion’s role in science and society. While well-known among historians of science that study the period, John Tyndall’s name has gained more wide recognition since 2008, when the Tyndall Correspondence Project began. Like for Charles Darwin, scholars have collected, transcribed, and will publish all the letters to and from Tyndall in an estimated sixteen volumes (the first two will be published in 2015). A new academic volume – The Age of Scientific Naturalism – brings together papers on Tyndall from students and historians working on the project, and adds significantly to the ways in which Tyndall’s life and work can be viewed within the history of science. Essentially, a close look at Tyndall and his contemporaries upsets several standard views in the history of Victorian science – that of boundary making (who gets to study science and how), the professionalization of science, the focus on clear-cut scientific naturalists, and where science is conducted (public versus private space, the laboratory versus the field). The editors have split the chapters into three sections: “John Tyndall,” “Scientific Naturalism,” and “Communicating Science.” They admit, however, that the sections are not absolute, for the themes behind each section run through all.

In their introduction, Bernard Lightman and Michael Reidy give Tyndall some modern day relevance. The current conflicts of evolution and creationism and climate change denial that seem to push society back a century or two, have in their history work by Tyndall, for one scientific and the other more cultural. Tyndall is well-known for being among Darwin’s defenders, often utilizing Darwin’s work on transmutation to push his own goals, namely claiming the authority of science and secular values over organized religion in British society. Critics regularly lambasted Tyndall in the periodical press for his strong views on religion. So, in Darwin Tyndall found support for his own agenda rather than any objective effort to reveal the secrets of biology. As for science, Tyndall is remembered for his work on testing the greenhouse effect experimentally. This line of research in Tyndall’s career has led to him being held up as a founding father of sorts in the discovery of global warming. Yet, as Joshua Howe shows in his paper in the first section of the book, this is misleading and presentist. Tyndall, and others studying climatic science in the nineteenth century were not interested in global warming as we know it (there was no concept of anthropogenic climate change nor concern with humanity’s impact on the global atmosphere). Rather, interest in energy and heat (a hot topic in the nineteenth century) led to interest in the greenhouse effect.

In another chapter in the first section, Elizabeth Neswald shows how Tyndall’s views on cosmology were related to his being uncomfortable with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Intrigued by why Tyndall did not discuss the second law, or law of entropy, Neswald shows that Tyndall was uneasy about its consequences: that of a universe leading toward decay and disorder. Preferring a materialist cosmology of order and harmony, “Tyndall’s vision of nature was incompatible with the idea of a world running out of fuel,” especially considering that a “beginning of the thermodynamically defined world seemed to imply a necessary act of creation.” Newald notes, however, Tyndall’s use of religious language in his writings, common for Victorian scientists. The third chapter in the first section, from Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton, looks at the nature of scientific authority in Victorian Britain through the work of Tyndall and George Henry Lewes. Tyndall was a scientific expert turned popularizer, while Lewes was a writer who tried to gain scientific credentials. For both, it was difficult to claim to be both a scientist and popularizer through their careers. Rankin and Barton show how Tyndall and Lewes claimed authority as scientists through their writings, whether similarly or in different ways.

Several chapters form the basis of the section entitled “Scientific Naturalism.” Here the authors challenge the narrow view that scientific naturalism can be summarized by the life and work of Tyndall, Darwin, and Thomas Huxley. Scientific naturalism was much more complex than professing a commitment to the study of science within a secular worldview. While not theological, various scientists developed worldviews that differed from the general materialism of scientific naturalism. These chapters look at work in the physical sciences, a departure from the mostly natural history-dominated studies of scientific naturalism. Michael Taylor shows that Herbert Spencer’s worldview included “elements of transcendentalism and rationalism, as well as an awareness of the limits of knowledge that verged on mysticism.” Josipa Petrunic shows that through attention to observation and science, the mathematician William Kingdon Clifford sought to “find the foundation for morality within scientific naturalism itself” and popularized the role of evolutional in mathematical thinking. Robert Smith shows how religious sensibilities affected the work of astronomer William Huggins early in his career, putting divine design in the origin of nebulae. And in the final chapter of this section, Jonathan Smith shows that the zoologist Alfred Newton, while utilizing Darwinian evolution in his own work on birds, was not a scientific naturalist and kept from promoting Darwin beyond his specific ornithological questions – he “did not regard this as seeking a secularizing revolution in ornithology, let alone in science and society.”

The third and last section of the book focuses on modes of communication, the ways in which scientific practitioners communicated their thoughts. The first chapter from Janet Browne looks broadly at correspondence and the varied ways in which it was used by scientific naturalists. Browne is all too familiar with correspondence networks – she worked on the Darwin Correspondence Project and penned a two-volume biography of Darwin based on his letters. (Bernard Lightman is writing a biography of Tyndall as well, essentially the impetus for the Tyndall Correspondence Project.) Next, Melinda Baldwin looks at the correspondence between Tyndall and mathematician George Gabriel Stokes, showing that while they differed in a variety of ways (notably their religious orientation) they had a respectful relationship, with Stokes influencing Tyndall on scientific matters. Finally, Bernard Lightman closes the volume with a paper that focuses on communication in the Metaphysical Society, and how conflicting sides in its membership defined what science was and who had the authority to decide.

As the editors describe, John Tyndall died both an actual death – from poison at the hand of his younger wife, an accidental overdose of medication – and a death of legacy – he never received a Life and Letters publication shortly after his death like other prominent Victorian scientists. Tyndall’s wife Louisa worked the rest of her life to collect and organize his letters and papers, but never published before her death. The Tyndall Correspondence Project, and the academic research stemming from it (such as The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and His Contemporaries), return Tyndall to a prominent subject of study in the history of science in the nineteenth century.

NOTE: Most of the papers are from a conference, held in Big Sky, Montana in June 2012, that brought together historians and students working on the Tyndall Correspondence Project to present their research. I attended, and presented my MA paper. Unfortunately, for the publication, I did not have the resources necessary to do continued research for my paper. But I am happy to see the publication out, and delighted to see my paper in the book’s very first footnote. If anyone wishes to see my paper – “The ‘efficient defender of a fellow-scientific man’: John Tyndall, Darwin, and Preaching Pure Science in Nineteenth-Century America” – let me know, and I can send you a copy.

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