The Stock in Trade: Writing Science

  • Peter Morton

Abstract

The miserly returns on his first two monographs had persuaded even Allen that writing serious science for a living was impossible. But being thought a “scientist” continued to be important to him. (Not that he ever used that noun; he thought it a vulgar neologism.) Science, for Allen, was the supreme product of the human intelligence. He believed that the three master discoveries of nineteenth-century science—that is to say, the atomic theory of matter, Darwinian evolution, and the laws of thermodynamics—had utterly transformed our understanding of reality. He expresses this creed best in the wonderfully inclusive long essay “The Progress of Science, 1830–1880,” which he wrote for the Fortnightly in 1887 to mark Victoria’s Jubilee year. This essay, a masterpiece of exposition, is a eulogy to the advancing spirit of rationalism, a hymn to the underlying uniformity in nature, a paean to the way naturalistic explanation accommodates all nature. Through his eyes, we see the birth of the cosmos itself as the Victorians understood it, and then the development of the solar system, as explained by the nebular hypothesis. The earth forms, and he shows us Lyell’s geology insisting that uniformitarianism is the most economical theory, and fits the facts; we follow the gradual increasing comprehension and delineation of the geological epochs and eras; the successful grasping, against fevered opposition, of the principles of organic evolution; the growth of paleontology and anthropology and comparative religion and what they have to tell us about human organic and cultural evolution; advances in physics, chemistry, and technology generally: it’s all there, and it all describes a cosmos cut from one cloth:

Keywords

Clay Assimilation Cretaceous Expense Smoke 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    GA, “The Progress of Science from 1836 to 1886,” Fortnightly Review, 47 (June 1887), 883.Google Scholar
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    W.T. Thistleton Dyer, “Deductive Biology,” Nature, 27 (April 12, 1883), 554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The quoted judgments about Spencer are taken from GA, “Personal Reminiscences of Herbert Spencer,” Forum, 35 (April 1904), 610, 628. How the Forum came by the article is unclear, but no U.K. publication is known.Google Scholar
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    Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983 covers the biological aspects of the theory very thoroughly. A.R. Wallace, for instance, set his face against use-inheritance but was credulous about accepting examples of prenatal influence, including an absurd case where a pregnant woman nursed a gamekeeper after his arm was amputated, only to produce a baby with a stump for an arm: Wallace found this very convincing indeed.Google Scholar
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    Children of acrobats: this and similar examples are mentioned quite uncritically in GA, “Second Nature,” Common Sense Science, Boston: D. Lothrop, 1886.Google Scholar
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© Peter Morton 2005

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  • Peter Morton

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