On the bookshelf: Darwin, dinosaurs, and Victorian science


The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!

Alistair Sponsel, Darwin’s Evolving Identity: Adventure, Ambition, and the Sin of Speculation (University of Chicago Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ When I attended (and presented) at the Darwin in the Field conference in Cambridge, England in 2009, I met Alistair Sponsel, then a post-doctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. At this conference, Sponsel re-examined Darwin’s claim that he developed his theory of coral reef formation on the west coast of South America, arguing that Darwin only developed the theory after leaving South America (a “eureka” moment on the island of Tahiti). Almost a decade later, Sponsel has published his book on Darwin’s coral reef theory. From the several chapters I’ve enjoyed so far, this is undoubtedly the most academic of books presented in this post. Sponsel has meticulously surveyed Darwin’s writings to reassess many aspects of Darwin’s coral reef studies during the voyage of HMS Beagle and his subsequent publications on the topic. While it is undoubtedly enough to flesh out a valuable contribution to Darwin studies, Sponsel goes further to give new light on the question of why Darwin delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species. Rather than fear of the religious backlash to a book about evolution keeping Darwin from publishing his theory, Sponsel aims to show that Darwin was concerned with how theories should be presented, and his caution stemmed from the critical response to his geological publications of the 1840s. His efforts to gain as much evidence in support of evolution by natural selection was to avoid the “sin of speculation,” as he felt about his coral reef work.  I look forward to the rest of the chapters in Sponsel’s book. Anyone interested in how Humboldt influenced Darwin will want to check this one out. Order Darwin’s Evolving Identity: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Roland Jackson, The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual (Oxford University Press, 2018, 608 pp.) ~ Later this year the sixth volume of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, for which I was a co-editor, will be published. And this July, I will begin work as a co-editor for the tenth volume with Roland Jackson, who this year published this biography of Tyndall. Having worked on Tyndall’s letters in graduate school and over the last couple of years, as well as writing about Tyndall and Darwin for my graduate paper, I am familiar with the major points of his life and scientific career. Yet I’ve only focused on narrow ranges of his lifetime – there is much more to learn about this towering figure of science in the nineteenth-century that most people have likely not heard of. Almost halfway into this biography, I’ve found Jackson’s narrative style to my liking; and it will be a great resource for information when working on my next volume of Tyndall letters. Order The Ascent of John Tyndall: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us (Anchor Books/Penguin, 2018, 448 pp.) ~ I have not yet delved into this paperback edition of Prum‘s well-received book (Doubleday, 2017), one of the New York Times ten best books of the year, but I certainly will when I have finished other books in this post. Here is the publisher’s description: “In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature? Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin’s own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin’s long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change. Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time. The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature’s splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.” Here are some videos of recent lectures Prum has given on this topic for the Chicago Humanities Festival, Heyman Center for the Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society. It is worth noting that 2017 also saw the publication of Evelleen Richards’ Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (University of Chicago Press), “a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Darwin’s path to its formulation—one that shows the man, rather than the myth, and examines both the social and intellectual roots of Darwin’s theory.” Order The Evolution of Beauty: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Lister, Darwin’s Fossils: The Collection that Shaped the Theory of Evolution (Smithsonian Books, 2018, 160 pp.) ~ Before I had a copy of this book myself, I read a review of it on the website Massive, where it states, “Darwin’s Fossils is overall a dry and dull book. The first chapter or two is lively, pulling together Darwin and a cast of characters, either scientists waiting in Britain for crates filled with samples Darwin mailed back or the crew of the Beagle. That’s just the introduction though, and when Darwin’s Fossils gets to the meat of the text, it’s nothing but data and figures. It’s the worst caricature of science writing made flesh. The illustrations are worthwhile, but little else is.” I am not sure where this reviewer finds that the bulk of the text is just data and figures. Yes, the measurements of the variety of fossils Darwin discovered are included, and the book is chock full of illustrations, photographs, and maps, but what would you expect from a book that’s purpose is to describe “Darwin’s fossils”? But, such data hardly constitutes the bulk of the text. So far, a third of the way into the book, I find the author‘s style to be enjoyable as he not only describes the fossils as Darwin would have found them, but gives the readers an idea of how they fit into Darwin’s developing theory but also what the modern thinking is about the animals these bones came from. The book is split into chapters on how Darwin came to be a naturalist, giant mammal fossils, petrified forests, marine fossils, and coral reefs, with a final chapter on Darwin’s theory development. I look forward to continuing this read (it sits on my nightstand), and think anyone interested in Darwin, paleontology, or travel in the pursuit of science would likewise enjoy it. The author, Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum, London, has also organized the digitization of Darwin’s fossils to be made public online (here). Order Darwin’s Fossils: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (William Morrow, 2018, 416 pp.) ~ My gateway into learning about Darwin and evolution was through books about dinosaur paleontology, my fascination with the prehistoric beasts spurred by seeing the film Jurassic Park (1993) when I was 15 (the film came out 25 years ago this month!).  Two of the first dinosaur books I read were wide-ranging, covering what was known about a variety of dinosaurs by examining recent discoveries and theories, across the globe and with scores of paleontologists. John Noble Wilford’s The Riddle of the Dinosaur (1985) and Don Lessem’s Kings of Creation (1992), copies of which both still sit on my bookshelf, grabbed my attention from cover to cover. Brusatte, a paleontologist with at the University of Edinburgh, likewise brings readers up to date on the current thinking about the lives of that group of vertebrates that ruled the planet for more than 150 million years, why they went extinct, and about the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs (where Darwin gets a mention when Archaeopteryx is discussed). Although I never went on to get a degree in paleontology like I originally intended, I always look forward to a good book about dinosaurs. Order The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & NobleIndiebound.

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.

John Tyndall and 19th Century Science

On Tuesday I head from Portland to Big Sky, Montana for a conference, “John Tyndall and 19th Century Science”:

The conference will bring together some of the past and current participants of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project to discuss issues raised by the NSF-funded project. It will also include a workshop for the editors of the anticipated twelve volumes of Tyndall’s letters, currently under contract with Pickering & Chatto. The conference will be held from at the 320 Ranch in Big Sky, Montana.

I will be presenting the paper I wrote when I was a graduate student at Montana State University, about John Tyndall’s 1872-3 lecture tour in the United States. It’ll be nice to see some familiar faces and some new ones from the project. And I am looking forward to meeting Darwin biographer Janet Browne, who is giving the keynote lecture. And it does not hurt that the conference is being held here:

I’ll fly back on Thursday.

Darwin and Evolution in Cartoons and Caricatures

Visual representation in science is the study of how images can inform an understanding of scientific practice and the production and dissemination of knowledge. There will be at least two worskshops on this topic in the next year (here and here). The description of one describes images as “occupy[ing] a special place… for their power to encapsulate scientific knowledge, their capacity to communicate to various publics, and their flexibility in the production of meanings by the interaction of producers and users.” For this month’s edition of the history of science blog carnival, The Giant’s Shoulders and it’s theme of visuals and representations in science,  I thought I’d share some information about Darwin and evolution in cartoons and caricatures.

Jonathan Smith looked at visual representation within Darwin’s various books in his 2006 book Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture) (you can read the first chapter as a pdf). One could look at Darwin portraiture and photography, maybe Janet Browne has, and how specific images have been used to push a particular way of looking at Darwin. The Darwin year saw many books looking at Darwin and his impact on art. Constance Clark’s 2001 article in The Journal of American History, “Evolution for John Doe: Pictures, the Public, and the Scopes Trial Debate,” is about the “role of visual images of evolutionary ideas published during the [Scopes]debate.” And Heather Brink-Roby’s article “Natural Representation: Diagram and Text in Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,” in Victorian Studies, looks at how Darwin used diagram and text “not simply to argue for, but also as evidence of, his theory.” Also, analyses of the March of Progress imagery of evolution and other representations (like trees of life) would fit into visual representations (see here and here, and of course Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, specifically chapter 1, “Iconography of an Expectation”).

Where do political cartoons and caricatures fit into this? Surely, such images were avenues of knowledge for the public, and how a cartoon represented Darwin or evolution (anti-evolution, pro-evolution, etc.) had an impact on the viewer, and evolution was used as a means to comment on society and culture or whatever was in the news. I know of at least two historians of science who have published on the topic:

Browne, Janet. “Darwin in Caricature: A Study in the Popularisation and Dissemination of Evolution.”Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145:4 (December 2001): 496-509. (also, see my post 19th-Century Caricature Prints with Tyndall, Darwin caricatures at The Primate Diaries, and Darwin caricatures at Genomicron)

Davis, Edward B. “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modern Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era.” In Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, edited by Charles Lloyd Cohen and Paul S. Boyer, 175-98. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Davis presented at the History of Science Society meeting in 2009 on “Demonizing Evolution,” sharing some of the fundamentalist cartoons. Since Google Books won’t let me see the cartoons in the article, I’m not sure if those in his talk are the same as those in his article, but I will share a few from his talk:

Sunday School Times, June 1922

Why be an ape--? (London, 1936)

Sunday School Times, January 1929

no source given for this one

These cartoons in the era of the Scopes trial present evolution as: dangerous to one’s faith (learning about and accepting evolution will creep into one’s religious life), “modern” education is cheating on God and the Bible; evolution is anti-religion; evolution is sacred and religious itself; the theory of evolution is collapsing, full of speculation and not fact-based. Much of these claims are still used today, by many creationists and intelligent design proponents who spend more time trying to discredit evolution than convincing us that their view is scientific. Such cartoons and anti-evolution pamphlets, according to Davis, “provide new insights into the intense debate about the meaning of science and the nature of religion that took place among American Protestants in the 1920s. From popular publications such as these, we see just how the fundamentalists and the modernists both attempted to influence public opnion about the religious image of science in the decade of the Scopes trial” (193).

There is a wonderful resource for political cartoons that do the opposite of demonizing evolution. Historian of science Joe Cain has brought to our attention the ephemeral journal Evolution: A Journal of Nature, which ran from 1927 through 1938, 21 issue in all, and he provides a publication history for it in a 2003 article for Archives of Natural History. Evolution was “a monthly platform for pro-evolutionist perspectives and as a device for rebutting anti-evolutionists. It also aimed to bolster the resolve of teachers caught in the centre of curriculum debates.” Its purpose was laid out in the first issue:  “This magazine will help bridge that gap by furnishing a forum in which science itself can speak in popular language without fear of the restraints with which fundamentalists are seeking to shackle them.” Among the articles within Evolution were scores of political cartoons. Cain has made all the issues available (also available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library) and a page with some of the cartoons. Here are a few:

Unfortunately, Evolution was not a great success (hence, only 21 issues). By its 12th issue, the journal touted its 5,000 subscribers, and provided a list of how many by state. Interestingly, it had the most subscribers in New York City (675), California (551), New York State (494),  Illinois (486), and Ohio (299). A few others in the 100-200 range (including Pennsylvania), and the rest under 100, including all states in the South.

I will also point out another website, put togteher by Mark Aldrich, called Cartooning Evolution, 1861-1925, broken up into Darwin and EvolutionEvolution as Social CommentVictorian ScienceFundamentalist PublicationsThe Scopes Trial: Northern NewspapersThe Scopes Trial: National Magazines, and The Scopes Trial: Southern Newspapers. Here’s a sampling, but be sure to check out the website itself, there are many more. Enjoy:





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WORKSHOP: Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture

From Situating Science | Science in Human Contexts:

Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture

Node Workshop
May 6 – 7th, 2011
York University, Toronto, Canada

Ever since the 1970’s, when Robert Young and Frank Turner treated T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, and their allies as posing an effective challenge to the authority of the Anglican clergy, scholars have found the term “scientific naturalism,” or “evolutionary naturalism,” to be a useful shorthand for referring to an influential group of like-minded elite intellectuals. But over the years, questions have been raised about the cohesiveness and the cultural status of scientific naturalism. Is the term elastic enough to include both the idealist and romantic Karl Pearson as well as the hard-nosed materialist Charles Bastian? Just how powerful were the scientific naturalists if they disagreed amongst themselves on key issues, and if, as many recent studies have suggested, they were confronted by a host of effective opponents in addition to Anglican clergymen, including North British physicists, Oxbridge trained gentlemen of science, self-trained popularizers of science, philosophical idealists, spiritualists, feminists, anti-vivisectionists, and socialists? Indeed, how far were the practices and writings of scientific naturalists actually shaped by their interchanges with such myriad opponents?

In this workshop we hope to explore new perspectives on the British scientific naturalists, re-examining their interactions with each other and with other groups within the larger culture. Speakers include Ruth Barton, Peter J. Bowler, Gowan Dawson, James Elwick, Jim Endersby, George Levine, Bernard Lightman, Ted Porter, Evelleen Richards, Joan Richards, Michael Reidy, Jonathan Smith, Robert Smith, Matthew Stanley, Michael Taylor, Frank Turner, and Paul White. The workshop will take place at 320 Bethune College, York University, Toronto, Canada on May 6th and 7th, 2011. It is sponsored by York University, SSHRC, and by Situating Science.

Barton, Dawson, Elwick, Lightman, Reidy, and Stanley are all part of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. I’m hoping to attend.

Tyndall on Prayer

John Tyndall, 1874

Maybe we should do what John Tyndall suggested. From Edward J. Pfeifer’s chapter on the United States in The Comparative Reception of Darwinism:

[Tyndall’s] materialistic inclination was enough to make him notorius in the United States, but shortly before his visit he endorsed a proposal that shocked Americans even moree. This was the prayer test. Since prayers, he argued, are frequently said for a particular purpose, their efficacy could be tested. This might be done by establishing separate hospital wards,one of which would be given over to patients treated medically, while patients in the other ward would receive only the benefit of prayer. Recovery rates could then be established and the efficacy of prayer determined. (1)

The experiment, in response to Bishop Wilberforce‘s call for a national day of prayer to cease the wet weather that threatened harvests in Britain, never took place (2). But prayer meetings were held for Tyndall in Boston and Philadelphia in 1872-3. Albert Jackson wrote to Tyndall on January 13, 1873 that the same stage on which he lectured in New York was the same that a prominent Brooklyn Presbyterian clergyman had given a speech entitled “Tyndall’s Prayer Gauge,” on “the infidelity of science in general.” Jackson noted that the clergyman’s own pulpit burned to the ground, “which science might have prevented, but which prayer certainly did not” (3). Unfortunately, that Tyndall was embroiled in theological controversy during his lecture tour urged Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Tyndall’s sponsor, to question whether he made the right choice in inviting  Tyndall to talk up science in America. Henry, afterall, was a religious man. He wrote to Benjamin Silliman, Jr.:

I regret very much that he got into the Theological controversy as to prayer since this not only involves himself in an apparent antagonism to christianity [sic], but also the cultivators of science generally. The effect has been unfortunate. The subject of the connection of science and Theology is one which requires to be treated with great delicacy. (4)

Perhaps, today being the National Day of Prayer, we can utilize the millions of Americans surely participating to test its efficacy, since Tyndall’s proposed experiment was never carried out.


1. Edward J. Pfeifer, “United States,” in Thomas F. Glick, ed., The Comparative Reception of Darwinism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 168-206, on 196-7.

2. Richard G. Olson, Science and Religion, 1450–1900: From Copernicus to Darwin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,2004), 207.

3. Albert Jackson to John Tyndall, January 13, 1873, letter stuck into Tyndall’s American journal, RI MS JT/2/10, Tyndall Papers, Archives, Royal Institution of Great Britain.

4. Joseph Henry to Benjamin Silliman, Jr., February 28, 1873, in The Papers of Joseph Henry, Vol. 11: January 1866-May 1878 (Sagamore Beach, MA: Watson Publishing/Science History Publications, 2007), 448-51, on 449.

Other sources:

Robert Bruce Mullin, “Science, Miracles, and the Prayer-Gauge Debate,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, eds., When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 203-24.

Rick Ostrander, The Life of Prayer in a World of Science: Protestants, Prayer, and American Culture, 1870-1930 (Religion in America) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 17-34.

John Tyndall, “On Prayer,” Contemporary Review, October 1872, republished in The Prayer-Gauge Debate (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1876), 109-15.

John Tyndall, “Thoughts on Prayer and Natural Law” (1861), in Fragments of Science (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871), 33-40.

Almost done!

Yesterday I passed my oral exams (with the authors of these books: Tides of History: Ocean Science and Her Majesty’s Navy, Mass Destruction the Men and giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet [recently awarded the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best new book in environmental history], and All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916). Now to finish the final draft of my Tyndall/Darwin paper, a paper for the philosophy of science class I am taking this semester, and a bunch of Tyndall letter transcribing, and I’ll be done! I will have an MA in history.

Thence to Portland!

“MSU historian heads international project on 19th century scientist”

From Montana State University News Service (14 October 2009):

MSU historian heads international project on 19th century scientist

BOZEMAN — John Tyndall, one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century, would’ve been better known if his wife hadn’t accidentally poisoned him and demanded control of his letters and journals, says Michael Reidy, a Montana State University historian.

The National Science Foundation is ready to pull Tyndall out of the shadows, however, and Reidy is overseeing the effort.

The NSF recently awarded Reidy $580,000 for a three-year project to finish transcribing 8,000 Tyndall letters, publish them and hold an international conference. The project will involve graduate students and scholars from 12 universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Among those institutions are Harvard University and Cambridge University. Co-principal investigator is Bernard Lightman, professor of humanities at York University in Toronto. He has been studying Tyndall since the mid-1970s and invited Reidy to propose the project to the NSF.

“I couldn’t have picked a better colleague to work with,” Lightman said. “He knew how to articulate the point that we were trying to set up something new, an international collaborative correspondence project.

“For me, this is a project I can really sink my teeth into,” Lightman added. “Tyndall is relatively neglected next to Huxley and the other evolutionary naturalists, yet there is so much fabulous archival material to draw from to get a better picture of who he was.”

Reidy said, “It’s really cool. It reflects very nicely on our department, on our graduate program. It puts us at the center of all these other very well-known programs around the world.”

Tyndall was a contemporary of naturalist Charles Darwin, biologist Thomas Huxley and chemist/physicist Michael Faraday — all renowned British scientists of the 1800s, Reidy said. The letters they sent each other touched on topics still debated today, such as the professionalization of science, government funding of science and the relationship between science and religion.

Tyndall, one of the original agnostics, defended Darwin against his harshest critics and published numerous essays and books on the role of science in the Victorian culture, Reidy continued. Tyndall published significant works in electro-magnetism, thermodynamics, sound, glaciers, global warming and spontaneous generation. He invented the Tyndallization process for sterilizing food. He was the first person to describe why the sky is blue and the first person to describe the natural greenhouse effect. One of the first and greatest mountaineers, he set up research stations in the mountains and studied the movement of glaciers.

“Said simply, Tyndall stood at the intersection of some of the most important developments in science and society, and his correspondence touches on all of them,” Reidy wrote in a project summary.

Tyndall died at age 73 after his wife, Louisa Charlotte, accidentally switched the dosages of medications he took for insomnia and gastrointestinal problems, Reidy said. She was so upset that she demanded control of his letters so she could publish them. She never published any of them, however. The task was too daunting, and she refused to turn it over to anyone else.

“He became rather unknown because of that,” Reidy said.

Lightman said approximately 6,000 of Tyndall’s letters ended up in the Royal Institution of Britain, where Tyndall spent most of his career. The other 2,000 were archived in some 25 other locations around the world.

Graduate students will transcribe the letters by looking at digitalized versions of them, Lightman said. He added that the Royal Institution found a firm to put its Tyndall letters on microfilm. The letters were then digitalized. Letters at the other archives were photocopied and digitalized. When letters didn’t reproduce well, a student went to the Royal Institution to check the originals.

Reidy said Tyndall’s handwriting was “horrible.” Fortunately, in some cases, Tyndall dictated his letters to his wife who had better handwriting. Tyndall’s letters range from one sentence long to 25 pages.

The grad students will turn their transcriptions into Word documents that end up online, Reidy said. The researchers will publish a one-volume calendar of Tyndall’s correspondence and expect to publish 10 volumes in print and online. Sometime in 2012, they will hold an international Tyndall conference at MSU.

Publishing Tyndall’s letters is the main goal of the project, but it also creates a new model of graduate student training and research by placing grad students at the center of the project, Reidy said. At MSU alone, the NSF grant will involve two or three graduate students a year for three years and one postdoctoral researcher. Besides transcribing letters, the grad students will incorporate their findings into master’s theses.

The end result should be an international community of Tyndall scholars, Reidy said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu

Cartooning Evolution, 1861-1925

"The Wasp" (April 28, 1882)

"The Wasp" (April 28, 1882) - "The Late Charles Darwin"

Mark Aldrich of Smith College has collected and put up a website for a bunch of cartoons from newspapers dealing with Darwin, evolution, and the Scopes Monkey Trial. He found these as “a byproduct of searching for old political cartoons on railroads.” I think it’s great that he decided to make them available publicly!

Check out Cartooning Evolution, 1861-1925 here, or head specifically to sections on Darwin and Evolution, Evolution as Social Comment, Victorian Science, The Scopes Trial: Northern Newspapers, The Scopes Trial: National Magazines, and The Scopes Trial: Southern Newspapers. What a resource for historians of science… I was hoping to see a better scan of this cartoon that mentions John Tyndall in the collection, but it’s not:

in Punch, by Charles Keene

in Punch, by Charles Keene, date??

Thanks to Glenn Branch of the NCSE for telling me about this website.

One week and counting…

… until the fall semester starts. I’ve still got some summer reading to finish up. I’ve been spending time at our new apartment in Butte, Montana. Butte is about an hour (or a little more) west of Bozeman. Since July, my wife Catherine has been working her new job as the digital collections librarian at the Butte-Silverbow Public Library. Bozeman did not have much available for the kind of library job she needed. We planned on her communting to and fro, while I finish up my last year at MSU, and Patrick goes to the on-campus-daycare. Well, it turns out we are changing that. Over the next month we will move to the apartment in Butte (which cuts our rent in half), Patrick will attend a daycare in Butte, and I will commute for school.

So, this semester I have 2 graduate courses myself: world history and 3 credits to work on my own research. I am going to be a teaching assistant (my first time) for a religion course that focuses on the history of Jerusalem over four millenia and the intersection of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam there. This requires me to attend the lectures each week, and facilitate discussion in four 50-minute sessions each week, each with from 20-25 students. The class looks at history, and will not, the professor tells me, be about the theology.

On top of my classes and TAing, in October I am headed to London for a research trip to archives – to the Royal Institution for John Tyndall material (my master’s research), and Kew Gardens for Joseph Dalton Hooker material (for more work on my paper about Darwin’s seed dispersal experiments, which, having presented it at the conference in Cambridge in July, may get published as part of a volume from the Geological Society of London). November sees me attending my first meeting of the History of Science Society, in Phoenix. I will be giving a talk about my experience with blogging about the history of science (the student’s perspective). Another presenter in my session will discuss using blogs for teaching, and another about online image collections and teaching. I think someone was to present on teaching and history of science podcasts, but backed out. I am looking forward to this meeting because I will get to meet yet more science bloggers, and folks connected with the John Tyndall Correspondence Project.

A busy semester, but one I am excited about!


Yellowstone National Park, 1 Aug 2009

Evolution Quote Mining in the 19th-Century

Charles Darwin and two supporters, Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall

Charles Darwin and two supporters, Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall

Searching historical databases for material on John Tyndall (for my MA research), I came across an article in The New York Times of November 25, 1884, “Turn in the Tide of Thought: Thomas Kimber’s Lecture on Science in Relation to Divine Truths.” It is an account of a lecture by Kimber about a return to Biblical teachings and harmony between scientific discoveries and Scriptural statements. From the article:

As an illustration of the change of thought, the lecturer spoke of evolution’s failure as a strong theory and the downfall of Darwinism. When the theory came out it was seized upon with avidity, and most of the great scholars examined it and accepted it. Now they had given it up. Prof. Virchow in the Edinburgh celebration said evolution had no scientific basis. No skull had yet been found differing to any extent from the general type. Prof. Tyndall had lately said that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture.” Prof. Huxley, at first one of its strongest advocates, said the link between the living and the not living had not been found. It must be found to prove the evolution theory.

The New York Times, Nov. 25, 1884, p. 8

The New York Times, Nov. 25, 1884, p. 8

Tyndall, an Irish physicist and science popularizer, is known as an ardent supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution, showing this support most famously in his 1874 Belfast Address and in an earlier lecture on the scientific use of the imagination. He was a member of the X Club, along with Thomas Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Herbert Spencer, and five others. This was a dining club and social network started in 1864 that supported the theory of natural selection and campaigned for the authority of science in British society. So when I read “Prof. Tyndall had lately said that ‘evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,'” I immediately questioned the quote. I popped it into Google Book Search.

In 1878, Tyndall published an article in The Nineteenth Century titled “Virchow and Evolution.” Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), a German doctor and biologist, opposed the theory of evolution (openly in an 1877 speech in Munich) based on the lack of fossil evidence, and he had an opponent in Ernst Haeckel.

Tyndall’s article addresses Virchow’s 1877 speech:

The keynote of his position is struck in the preface to the excellent English translation of his lecture—a preface written expressly by himself. Nothing, he says, was farther from his intention than any wish to disparage the great services rendered by Mr. Darwin to the advancement of biological science, of which no one has expressed more admiration than himself. On the other hand, it seemed high time to him to enter an energetic protest against the attempts that are made to proclaim the problems of research as actual facts, and the opinions of scientists as established science. On the ground, among others, that it promotes the pernicious delusions of the Socialist, Virchow considers the theory of evolution dangerous; but his fidelity to truth is so great that he would brave the danger and teach the theory, if it were only proved. The burden indeed of this celebrated lecture is a warning that a marked distinction ought to be made between that which is experimentally established, and that which is still in the region of speculation. (p. 822)

Two pages later:

In a discourse delivered before the British Association at Liverpool, after speaking of the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter as belonging to ‘the dim twilight of conjecture,’ and affirming that ‘ the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out,’ I sketch the nebular theory as enunciated by Kant and Laplace… (p. 824, emphasis mine)

Clearly Tyndall does not reject the theory of evolution. He is making a distinction between what can be known about evolution through experimental inquiry and what cannot. The New York Times piece takes Tyndall’s quote out of context and skews Tyndall’s intentions. This is a perfect example of quote mining. Tyndall did not state that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,” but rather that “the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter” belongs to “the dim twilight of conjecture.” Surely two different meanings. Darwin explained how species evolved, but not how life first originated. This is what Tyndall is getting at. “Virchow and Evolution” was also published in Popular Science in January 1879.

We cannot be sure of the intention of he who wrote the piece in The New York Times. The article is neither critical nor laudatory toward Kimber’s lecture. What is certain is that Tyndall is not presented accurately in this piece. Nor elsewhere.

In The Medical Record (Dec. 1, 1883):

In other quarters there are indications that the doctrine of Darwin is losing some of its charms for scientists. Some tell us that they accept it as a step to something else. Others find its demands on their credence too great. Your readers know pretty well the opposition it has encountered by such men as St. J. Mivart, Virchow, Wharton Jones, F.R.S., and others. A further indication of uncertainty in scientific minds is afforded by the statements of Prof. Tyndall, who, in the Popular Science Review, says that “Evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture. . . Those who hold the doctrine are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. . . . Long antecedent to his advice I did exactly what Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be, not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not belong to it. … I agree with him that the proofs of it are wanting. I hold with Virchow that the failures of proof are lamentable, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is utterly discredited.” (p. 611)

In Friends’ Review (March 22, 1884):

Probably the following quotations from Prof. Tyndall’s utterances on Evolution, taken from The Popular Science Monthly, will surprise some of those who have hastily accepted the theory, and based assumptions upon it. “Evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture, and the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out. . . . Those who hold the doctrine of Evolution are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. . . . Long antecedent to his advice I did exactly what Prof. Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be, not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not be long to it. … I agree with him that the proofs of it are wanting. I hold with Virchow that the failures of proof have been lamentable, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is utterly discredited.” (p. 524)

In the Autobiography of Samuel D. Gross, M.D. (1887):

If we believe in a great First Cause, as all rational men must, why not assume that all things, visible and invisible, were the product of a special creation instead of a gradual evolution, as asserted by Darwin and his followers ? If God could create the earth, the stars, and the mighty planets, of which our world forms only an insignificant part, could He not also, by a special act, have created all the dwellers therein, from the most minute microcosm up to the most complicated form of animal life? I agree with Professor Tyndall that the whole subject of evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture. (p. 186)

VIDEO: Piers Hale on Charles Darwin

Piers Hale, who teaches the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, is currently studying Charles Kinglsey’s The Water Babies:

The controversial nineteenth-century Anglican Priest, Charles Kingsley, who is today best remembered for his charming children’s story Water Babies (1863), arguably deserves a prominent place in the history of Darwinism in England. Kingsley, an amateur naturalist and geologist of some repute, was a correspondent and friend of Darwin and his closest circle. Kingsley gave Darwin his unreserved support from the first, and in doing so significantly advanced Darwinian science in England in ways and among people that Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s agnostic Bulldog could not. Importantly, although it is usually to the Harvard botanist Asa Gray that historians have turned in their consideration of the philosophical and metaphysical implications of Darwinian selection, it was Kingsley who accepted the thoroughly contingent nature of evolution by natural selection.

See his recent article, “Water Babies: an evolutionary parable,” in the December 2008 issue of Endeavour. Hale is also part of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project.

BBC Darwin Season Launch in January

Back in October I was contacted by BBC Marketing for my mailing address. They added me to the list of invitees to the launch of the BBC Darwin Season in London on January 20, 2009. Today I received the neat little invitation in the mail. Of course, sadly, I am not able to go, but it was nice to be invited!

Did any of my fellow Darwin bloggers receive an invitation?

By the way, in the fall of 2009, I may get to go to London. Talking with my advisor today, we decided that my research on Tyndall will necessitate a research trip to the archive of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, which holds a large collection of Tyndall material. Although we have access to the letters, I will need to see Tyndall’s journals… What else could I possibly want to see in London or the outskirts of?

The New Scriptures According to Tyndall, Darwin, Etc.

I found this in the Times and Register of March 26, 1892, but I’ve seen it in other periodicals from at least 1875, one year after Tyndall’s call for the authority of science and materialism – his address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast:




PRIMARILY, the Unknowable, moved upon cosmos, and evolved protoplasm.

2. And protoplasm was inorganic and indifferentiated, containing all things in potential energy; and a spirit of evolution moved upon the fluid mass.

3. And the Unknowable said, Let atoms attract; and their contact begat light, heat and electricity.

4. And the Unconditional differentiated the atoms, each after its kind, and their combinations begat rock, air and water.

5. And there went out a spirit of evolution from the Unconditioned, and, working in protoplasm by accretion and absorption, produced the organic cell.

6. And cell by nutrition, evolved by primordial germ, and germ developed protogene, and protogene begat eozoön, and eozoön begat monad, and monad begat animalcule.

7. And animalcule begat ephemera; then began creeping things to multiply on the face of the earth.

8. And earthy atom in vegetable protoplasm begat the molecule, and thence came all grass and
every herb in the earth.

9. And animalculæ in the water evolved fins, tails, claws and scales; and in the air, wings and beaks; and on the land there sprouted such organs as were necessary, as played upon by the

10. And by accretion and absorption came the radiata and mollusca, and mollusca begat articulata, and articulata begat vertebrata.

11. Now these are the generations of the higher vertebrata, in the cosmic period that the Unknowable evoluted the bipedal mammalia.

12. And every man of the earth, while he was yet a monkey, and the horse, while he was a hipparion, and the hipparion, before he was an oredon.

13. Out of the ascidian came the amphibian and begat the pentadactyle, and the pentadactyle by inheritance and selection produced the hylobate, from which are the simiadæ in all their tribe.

14. And out of the simiadæ the lemur prevailed above his fellows and produced the platyrrhine monkey.

15. And the platyrrhine begat the catarrhine, and the catarrhine monkey begat the anthropoid ape, and the ape begat the longimanous ourang, and the ourang begat the chimpanzee, and the chimpanzee evoluted the what-is-it.

16. And the what-is-it went into the land of Nod and took him a wife of the longimanous gibbons.

17. And in the process of the cosmic period were born unto them and their children the anthropomorphic primordial types.

18. The homunculus, the prognathus, the troglodytes, the autochthon, the terragen – these are the generations of primeval man.

19. And primeval man was naked and not ashamed, but lived in quadrumanous innocence, and struggled mightily to harmonize with the environment.

20. And by inheritance and natural selection did he progress from the stable and homogeneous to the complex and heterogeneous; for the weakest died, and the strongest grew and multiplied.

21. And man grew a thumb, for that he had need of it, and developed capacities for prey.

22. For behold, the swiftes men caught the most animals, and the swifest animals got away from the most men; wherefore, the slow animals were eaten, and the slow men starved to death.

23. And as types were differentiated, the weaker types continually disappeared.

24. And the earth was filled with violence; for man strove with man and tribe with tribe, whereby they killed off the weak and foolish, and secured the survival of the fittest.


Cross-posted at Transcribing Tyndall.

Oh no, terrible twos… and grad life.


Originally uploaded by darwinsbulldog

Patrick has got an attitude all his own. Here he is upset because he does not want to get into pajamas. Being on campus 6 days a week, I miss him. And I know he misses me, but sometimes he doesn’t act like it…

So far graduate school is good. Busy, but good. All classes have a tremendous amount of reading, but what is doing history without having to read alot? I enjoy my Early America class, particularly because of the professor. So far we’ve read Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Studies in Environment and History) by Alfred Crosby and a book about the Indian conquest of Europe, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Historical Methods is fine; the reading assigned by Campbell is very dry so far, but the books are not meant to entertain, but to teach us how different historians through time have constructed their histories (all our readings focus on French history, and I am looking forward to reading The Pasteurization of France by Bruno Latour in November). Our semester project is to prepare an annotated bibliography and prospectus (proposal) for a research paper, but we are not actually writing the paper (I am hoping to relate thi to Tyndall); maybe that will come in the spring in Historical Writing. My Public History class is different (taught by a philosopher of science) – we are learning about oral histories, museology, among other things. We have to pick a public policy issue, research it historically, relate it to that issue as it has happened regionally (in Montana or northern Rocky Mountain region), and attempt to provide a solution within a 10-15 page paper. I think I have decided to tackle the creation/evolution issue, and to relate it to the eruption in Darby, Montana in 2004. David Quammen, as the Stegner Chair at MSU, also does a reading seminar each semester with history graduate students. Three books, three meetings (with dinner at his home). The theme this semester is whether or not memoirs can be taking seriously by historians. First up is a memoir about McCarthyism, called Scoundrel Time, then James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, and finally Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his time spent in Paris (can you guess which of the three I am looking forward to reading?). As for the Tyndall project, see here.

Okay, back to reading Fernand Braudel’s On History. Just thought I would give an update…

And so it begins…

Back to classes this week as I begin my life as a graduate student. My first class is not until tomorrow (historical methodologies), but today I will begin reading up on John Tyndall for the project (I won’t start transcribing letters for a couple of weeks). I sort of set up my desk in the history graduate student office this morning. It will be nice to have a place to work from for the Tyndall project, and where I can leave books and not have to cart them home everyday. My sister blog, Transcribing Tyndall, has been given the green light from my advisor and another historian of science working on the project. I figured it was best to ask about doing the blog along with the project. The only thing really important for me to remember is not to quote directly from Tyndall’s letters in any of my posts, because that information is intended for publication.

So, for anyone heading back to the routine, good luck and have a great semester!

Today in Science History: John Tyndall born

From Today in Science History:

John Tyndall (Born 2 Aug 1820; died 4 Dec 1893). Irish physicist who became known to the scientific world in 1848 as the author of a substantial work on Crystals. In 1856 he traveled with Professor Huxley to Switzerland, after which he co-authored On the Structure and Motion of Glaciers. He also published Heat as a Mode of Motion (1863), On Radiation (1865), followed by Sound, then in 1870 he published Light. Included in these works were studies of acoustic properties of the atmosphere and the blue colour of the sky, which he suggested was due to the scattering of light by small particles of water.