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  • Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity ed. by Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman
  • Will Abberley (bio)
Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity edited by Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman; pp. 353. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014. $45.66 cloth.

This subtle and stimulating collection illustrates how far scholarship on Victorian science and religion has advanced from Whiggish narratives of inevitable “conflict” ending in the triumph of secular science. Since the 1970s, scholars such as Frank Turner and James Moore have instead argued for a model of complexity in which science and religion often overlap and intersect across fuzzy institutional, disciplinary, and ideological boundaries. Bernard Lightman, Adrian Desmond, Anne Secord, and others have explored the multiplicity of groups vying for authority on scientific questions, discovering tensions not only between the Anglican Church and scientific professionals (a hazy category in itself) but also along the lines of gender, class, and different print cultures. The essays here further complicate the picture by problematizing the seemingly straightforward category of scientific naturalism. Like Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s work on objectivity or Thomas Dixon’s study of altruism, the collection explores how a single term became the locus of a disparate set of ideas, values, and practices. Further, it asks how scientific naturalism became a banner under which various researchers and public intellectuals sought to legitimize their work and words. There was nothing natural about scientific naturalism. On the contrary, its emergence was bound up with acts of cultural appropriation, self-fashioning, and contestation of cultural authority.

Dawson and Lightman’s introduction excavates the complex history of the term scientific naturalism, tracing its changing meanings through the nineteenth century. The term was first used pejoratively by religious writers to signify the materialist removal of the divine from nature. In was only toward the end of the century that Thomas Henry Huxley began to speak of scientific naturalism in a positive sense as opposed to the “supernaturalism” of theology or spiritualism, which mixed empirical inquiry with a priori faith. In Huxley’s hands, the term became a way of asserting the authority and integrity of secular science as the highest form of truthfulness. The scientific naturalist was self-renunciating, perpetually skeptical of his own preconceptions, and accepting nothing on faith. What had once been a mark of shame thus became a self-applied label of respectability. In this way, scientific naturalism was more often used to denote certain personal characteristics and habits than any particular activity. It was a means of fashioning a secular identity that sought to appropriate intellectual and moral authority previously dominated by the church. This complex etymology demonstrates Dawson and Lightman’s observation that “the relation between words and concepts is never simply neutral, and the changing fortunes of a term have significant implications for the construction and communication of the various ideas it might entail” (2). [End Page 188]

Much of this collection examines how scientific naturalism became associated with group identity, from individual friendships to institutional communities and alliances. Dawson’s essay traces the tight network of researchers who would support Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory to a dispute in the 1850s between the young Huxley and the palaeontologist Hugh Falconer. Darwin and Joseph Dalton Hooker were long-standing friends with Falconer, yet they quietly sided with the pugnacious young surgeon. Dawson’s detailed study of the correspondence between these men during the dispute highlights how a sense of community cohesion was established by “informal ties like friendship, domestic visits, humour, and gossip” as well as by common intellectual principles (32). Michael S. Reidy’s essay examines the private experiences of the men who became scientific naturalists as they spent their leisure time mountaineering. Reidy suggests the sublime landscapes, physical challenges, and isolation of this activity provided a space for these men to work through their religious doubts and ultimately find a new kind of spiritual value in nature’s eternal laws. Further, for daredevils like John Tyndall and Leslie Stephen, the fatal dangers of climbing offered a sobering experience of humans’ subservience to nature.

Aside from these stories of personal bonding, the collection also addresses the institutional changes that empowered scientific naturalists to promote...


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pp. 188-190
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