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A New Book Poses the Question: At the Birth of Modern Science, Was Darwin Present -- or AWOL?

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Laura J. Snyder, who teaches philosophy at St. John's University, offers what amounts to two narratives in one with her new book The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. The first is the story of how four men, Richard Jones, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and William Whewell, established modern science as we now know it.

The term science is a relatively new usage derived from its parent natural philosophy. The call for a new terminology was given on June 24, 1833, at the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There, the famed poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared that the body should abandon the older label of "natural philosopher" as unbefitting men engaged in the practical pursuit of unlocking nature's secrets for the benefit of all. It was Whewell who suggested that if "philosophers" seemed too lofty a term then "by analogy with artist, we may form scientist" (p. 3.). The change was not immediately accepted, but Whewell set in motion a sea change that would become permanent and secure itself within our modern lexicon. More than a mere replacement of words, the change signified deeper and more fundamental transformations, a complex story that Snyder tells with engaging clarity.

The book takes its title from breakfast meetings that occurred from the end of 1812 through the spring of 1813 in which the four Cambridge students discussed Francis Bacon and inductive reasoning, the nature of scientific inquiry, and its appropriate goals and objectives. Their bond would remain life-long. More importantly, in developing their ideas they crafted the modern concept of "the scientist" as one who put his or her investigations to the practical service of human betterment. Given its broad altruistic aims, they saw this new scientific age as one in which the government had an active responsibility to support research and to recognize those who labored on its behalf. In their collective revision the natural philosopher (often an amateur cleric dabbling in astronomy, geology, chemistry, or other field) was transformed into a professional scientist supported by the academy and a collegial network of fellow practitioners.

Each of the four would play his part. Jones turned political economy from what Thomas Carlyle called a study "dreary, stolid, dismal, and without hope for this world or the next" (p. 99) into an inductive "Baconian science" (p. 95). Babbage launched the "age of artificial intelligence" with his "Difference Engine" and in so doing initiated the first major government funded project, by 1830 receiving the modern equivalent of about $1.3 million (p. 129)! Herschel would provide the celestial map of the southern hemisphere, name the moons of Saturn and Uranus, and help develop early experimental photography. Whewell, the leading polymath of his generation, helped globalize science with his international study of tides and his intense interest in scientific methodology that would form the intellectual foundation for much of what this breakfast circle stood for.

But none of these men even collectively could have achieved the transformation from natural philosophy into science without an organized body to help develop and promote it. Thus Babbage, Herschel, and Whewell founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the same one in which Whewell dramatically publicly proposed the adoption of the term science for the first time) largely as a counter to the Royal Society of London. The latter, even by time of the breakfast meetings, was a stodgy, ossified, and elitist institution. As Snyder points out, the significance of this new, forward-looking organization is not to be underestimated:

The British Association changed the way science was done, and not only in Britain. For the first time, science became very much a public activity. Unlike the Royal Society, which held meetings that few of its 740-odd members even bothered to attend, or the Royal Academy of Sciences of France, whose members were forced to attend, but did not number beyond several hundred, the British Association was attended by thousands -- not only men of science, but also local manufacturers and noblemen, and their wives and daughters (p. 154).
Indeed the British Association was the place to see and be seen, expanding the gender boundaries of science and making it a very public -- and social -- endeavor.
Further details of this rich and well-told narrative are best gleaned from the book itself, and its 368 pages are a riveting read. Had Snyder confined herself to this and this alone the book would be a major contribution to the history of science.

The Breakfast that Never Happened

Unfortunately, Snyder offers a second narrative. This one presents a strained and ultimately failed attempt at linking Charles Darwin with the work of the Philosophical Breakfast Club, a "breakfast" meeting of the minds that never happened. There are some hints of this misdirection sprinkled here and there throughout the book, but it comes to the fore in chapter 12, "Nature Decoded."

Snyder claims that Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 "can be seen as encoding Whewell and Herschel's philosophy of science" and that his "argument for evolution by natural selection" was modeled upon the methodologies they promoted, especially what they had considered the strongest type of evidence for a scientific theory -- "what Whewell had dubbed consilience" (p. 332). For Snyder, Darwin's theory was "packed with evidence" (p. 334). While she admits that among the group only Babbage was a convert to Darwin's theory (we'll never know Jones's opinion of the Origin, since he died in 1855), oddly enough she claims Whewell and Herschel "laid the foundation for the modern-day notions of the relation between Darwinism and religious faith, a way to reconcile the two" (p. 340). The reason for their reluctance to accept Darwin's theory is dismissed as "prejudice against a chance-driven universe," a reluctance that proved difficult "to loosen its grip on the scientists of the day" (p. 336).

Before launching into the main objections to Snyder's excursion into this historical cul-de-sac, a few words regarding consilience are in order. While it is certainly true that Newton's law of gravitation provided "a causal unification of the forces of the universe" (p. 333) that could be empirically verified, there is nothing to suggest that other "consilient" theories possess equal validity. One counterexample would be humoral pathology, a theory of illness and disease etiology that could rationally explain everything from a person's temperament to one's temperature. Since ancient times and well into the 18th century, the notion that the body was made up of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile and that these balances or imbalances could explain everything from psychology to physiology provided physicians with volumes of analytic material. It was an extremely consilient theory.

It was also wrong. Thus the degree to which Darwin's theory was consilient is irrelevant since the consilience of any given theory is really a neutral factor in deciding whether it is true or not. Some have even suggested that a theory that seeks to explain everything winds up explaining nothing. Writing in 1963, novelist and essayist Osbert Sitwell complained that Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest" provided an ethical foundation for the Victorian era's most "iniquitous proclivities," noting that "for each rival merchant knocked into the workhouse, for each businessman assassinated, for every native murdered or enslaved in order that his land might be appropriated, the person responsible for these results could, when occasionally their consciences stung them, always comfort themselves with the reflection: 'It can't be helped. . . . Survival of the Fittest, and all that. . . .' The theory was applied to everything in the universe" (Pound Wise, p. 101).

Consilience aside, Snyder's efforts at hitching Darwin to the Breakfast Club's coattails are unconvincing for at least four reasons. First, Whewell and Herschel clearly found Darwin's theory unconvincing. Second, Snyder's claim that Babbage was a "convert" to Darwinian theory is questionable. Third, Darwin actually failed to apply Whewell and Herschel's scientific method. Fourth, Snyder's general discussion is impressionistic and selective in its treatment of how Darwin's theory was received by his peers.

Both Whewell and Herschel objected to the randomness of Darwin's evolutionary theory. Herschel famously (or infamously) referred to it as the "law of higgledy-piggledy." Whewell found the Origin problematic as well. It was common knowledge through the Trinity College grapevine that as Master of the school he refused to permit it on the shelves of the library. Whewell further argued that Darwin's "speculations" were "quite unproved by facts." Like Heinrich Bronn, who first translated the Origin into German in 1860, Whewell felt that Darwin's inability to account for "a beginning explicable by natural causes" left his theory incomplete and unconvincing.

Snyder makes much of the fact that neither Herschel nor Whewell publicly denounced Darwin, but Whewell in particular often adopted a minimalist posture with regard to objectionable ideas. For example, when Robert Chambers anonymously published his transmutationist Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844, Whewell refused to review it in any scholarly journal and didn't even mention it by name in his 1845 pamphlet Indications of the Creator even though Vestiges was its main target. Further, his objection that science cannot concern itself with the final causes of biological evolution was his chief issue with Vestiges and Origin.

Snyder claims that Babbage's view of God as a divine programmer (allowing natural laws to do His work through front-loading) made him an easy convert to Darwinism. But this is weak. Citing his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), she concludes "that 'the continual accumulation of evidence' had convinced him that it [Darwin's theory] was probably true" (p. 335). However an actual examination of this passage shows that Babbage wasn't referring to Darwin's evolutionary theory as a whole, something he says "I shall pass over." Instead he was conceding the antiquity of human origins as opposed to his former support of the "Mosaic date of the creation of man." He further hedges by saying "in this single instance, the writings of Moses may have been misapprehended." If this is supposed to be Babbage's conversion to Darwin it is certainly a modest one. Even Darwin's otherwise sympathetic biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore admit that "Babbage's programmed nature took a battering as Darwin resorted to haphazard variations. Contingency and unpredictability became the norm" (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, p. 276). This was hardly a view in keeping with Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise.

Third is Darwin's methodology. That Darwin made a conscious effort to associate himself with Baconian principles of induction is obvious from his Autobiography: "I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domesticated productions . . . ." There is also no doubt that Darwin wanted to consciously connect his work to the scientific methodology of Whewell. Darwin quoted Whewell in the epigram to his Origin, which tried to suggest a God working through a law-based universe instead by direct intervention. This was a self-conscious effort that even Janet Browne says Darwin took "audaciously out of context" (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 80).

Despite Darwin's "Baconian" claims, the Breakfast Club seemed unpersuaded. Whewhell particularly objected to what he called Darwin's "mere possibility of imagining a series of steps of transition from one condition of organs to another." Gertrude Himmelfarb would recognize in Whewell's observation that "What Darwin was doing, in effect, was creating a 'logic of possibility.' Unlike conventional logic, where the compound of possibilities results not in a greater possibility, or probability, but in a lesser one, the logic of the Origin was one in which possibilities were assumed to add up to probability" (Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, pp. 333-334).

Many others were unimpressed as well. Adam Sedgwick, leading geologist and Fellow of Trinity College, was particularly outspoken. "Darwin's theory is not inductive," he declared, "not based on a series of acknowledged facts pointing to a general conclusion, -- not a proposition evolved out of the facts, logically, and of course including them. . . The only facts he pretends to adduce, as true elements of proof, are the varieties produced by domestication, or the human artifice of cross-breeding. We all admit the varieties, and the very wide limits of variation, among domestic animals. How very unlike are poodles and greyhounds. Yet they are of one species" ("Objections to Mr. Darwin's Theory of the Origin of Species," The Spectator, March 24, 1860, 285-286).

One modern analyst, Howard E. Gruber, agrees. "He [Darwin] did not work on 'Baconian principle,' if that means collecting facts and then drawing conclusions; nor did he work in a 'deductive spirit' . . . . Nor did he carry out these steps in some other sequence that might be deemed scientifically or logically prudent" (Darwin on Man, p. 23). Gruber goes on to admit that an examination of Darwin's private notebooks makes it clear that "his actual way of working . . . would never have passed muster in a methodological court of inquiry among Darwin's scientific contemporaries" (p. 122). The above statements from Herschel, Whewell, and Sedgwick bear this out.

Finally, Snyder's association of Darwin with these leaders of Victorian science seems selective and at best impressionistic. A deeper investigation reveals that none of the Philosophical Breakfast Club members are a comfortable fit with Darwin's theory or his methodology. Even Jones would likely have balked at Darwin's reliance upon Malthusian economics. Jones rejected a key Malthusian notion -- that an increase in food supply automatically is followed by an increase in population and now under keener survival pressures -- because it fails to account for technological innovations. The very history of England, he insisted, disproved Malthus's idea that the population grows geometrically while food increases only arithmetically. The plough, the seed drill, the threshing machine, improved fertilization methods, and better land use through crop rotation all increased food production.

Darwin's view of nature as "red in tooth and claw" was based in part upon the dismal predictions of Malthus, arithmetic food supply ineluctably weeding a geometric population growth. Jones rejected this blind, law-like political economy. He suggested that the very intelligent agency of the population could -- indeed would -- break such a Malthusian cycle. Given this fact, it's hard to imagine Jones swept away by Darwin's blind processes of nature.

It seems clear that every one of these founders of modern science did not ultimately share Darwin's philosophical adherence to methodological naturalism or his materialistic worldview. The awkward inclusion of Darwin among them in a chapter titled "Nature Decoded" is ironic for a man who insisted that nature was blind. How could one "decode" such a world? For the Philosophical Breakfast Club members, a nature that was blind was also mute. Snyder includes an interesting discussion of ciphers and the Philosophical Breakfast Club's fascination with them, especially Babbage. No wonder they all resisted Darwin's randomness and chance; for them, nature (like ciphers) was encoded by an intelligent agent, thus decoding nature was like deciphering. For these men it was oxymoronic to speak of decoding that which was never encoded in the first place. Far from being a "prejudice" of the time, their belief was based upon reason and experience. Given our current understanding of DNA, it was perhaps more prescient than they realized.

History as Parable

Why did Snyder go out of her way to tie Darwin to these founders of modern science? The question, of course, almost answers itself. If these Victorian creationists (in a broad historical and philosophical sense, not our modern one) are indeed the founders of modern science -- which is, after all, her central thesis -- then she had to make them Darwin-friendly.

This goes to a much deeper and more fundamental issue of how history serves to support the cultural paradigms of any age. Phillip Johnson has made a significant point:

Darwinist evolution is an imaginative story about who we are and where we came from, which is to say it is a creation myth. . . . A creationist [like each Philosophical Breakfast Club member] appropriately starts with God's creation and God's will for man. A scientific naturalist [like Darwin] just as appropriately starts with evolution and with man as a product of nature. (Darwin on Trial, 20th anniversary edition, p. 163)
Snyder's heroes of modern science were worlds apart from Darwin and yet she was obliged to obscure this fact in order to sustain the rank and standing of the creation myth's high priest Charles Darwin and, in turn, to bring her subjects in line with current cultural orthodoxy. Without the chapter "Nature Decoded," her book would have been regarded as tending toward heresy. In this respect Snyder has served as dutiful scribe for a historical parable supportive of the Darwinian creation myth, and thus "all is well."

"When we try to do scientific history," asks Claude Lévi-Strauss, "do we really do something scientific, or do we too remain astride our own mythology in what we are trying to make as pure history?" For The Philosophical Breakfast Club the question is rhetorical. Snyder's effort to make Darwin compatible with these founders of modern science shows exactly how astride her own mythology she really is. In this sense her work confirms a lesson drawn from Thomas Kuhn's insistence that history serves as handmaiden to the reigning scientific paradigm. It constructs a narrative of the past that ratifies and consolidates its own present hegemonic authority. In this particular case Darwin is made lineal collaborator with the very founders of modern science itself, thus strengthening the claims of both. The Philosophical Breakfast Club becomes a textbook example of providing the requisite historical imprimatur for Darwinism as science. It achieves this through selection and distortion, showing the dramatis personae in presentist contexts.

History and Science Reclaimed

Of course reality is different. Snyder has told the story so well that a counter thesis (though unintended) does emerge. The thesis is this: Modern science emerged from four men who were at once creationists and design theorists eschewing the hidebound materialism of Darwin. In their hands science became a vast and diverse inquiry that yielded rich discoveries in astronomy, oceanography, information theory, chemistry, and photography to name a few. Darwin's evolutionary theory was in this sense sui generis. It triumphed and wedded itself to the new modern scientific project because it fit the rising tide of secularism amidst the collapse of natural theology and an increasingly emaciated church. Nothing could have been more at odds: The Philosophical Breakfast Club sought to decode an intelligent nature; Darwin pictured nature as blind and dumb. Victorian elites, for reasons too complex to relate here, preferred Darwin's portrayal.

Perhaps Snyder herself provides the best epilogue, in the form of Whewell's 1864 letter to David Forbes. "It is true," he wrote, "that a reconciliation of the scientific and religious view is still possible, but it is not so clear and striking as it once was. But it is weakness to regret this; and no doubt another generation will find some way of looking at the matter which will satisfy religious men. I should be glad to see my way to this view, and am hoping to do so soon" (p. 339). That generation is now; intelligent design is heir to this hope; and modern science is being reclaimed. Surely, somewhere Whewell's spirit smiles.