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  • Alfred Russel Wallace on Science and the Problems of Progress
  • Martin Fichman (bio)

True, it must be owned, we for the present, with our Mammon-Gospel, have come to strange conclusions. We call it Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation, isolation. Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named “fair competition” and so forth, it is mutual hostility. We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man. “My starving workers?” answers the rich mill-owner: “Did I not hire them fairly in the market? Did I not pay them, to the last sixpence, the sum covenanted for? What have I to do with them more?”—Verily Mammon worship is a melancholy creed.

—Thomas Carlyle,
Past and Present (1843)

When the brightness of future ages shall have dimmed the glamour of our material progress, the judgment of history will surely be that the ethical standard of our rulers was a deplorably low one, and that we were unworthy to possess the great and beneficent powers that science had placed in our hands.

—Alfred Russel Wallace,
Wonderful Century (1898)

Alfred russel Wallace’s views on the social, political, and environmental aspects of scientific and technological advance constitute an astute critique of the Victorian concept of progress. To be sure, Wallace was hardly alone among nineteenth-century thinkers in regarding scientific advances ambivalently as markers of human progress. But most critics of scientific progress saw its problems in religious or aesthetic terms. Wallace’s critique was atypical in two respects. First, almost alone among the major scientific giants of the nineteenth (and very early twentieth) century, Wallace had profound misgivings about scientific progress as an end in itself. Second, [End Page 71] he embedded science deeply within both a socio-political and an environmental context and viewed science as both a real and potential exacerbation of tensions in both of those settings.

Wallace challenged the comforting—if sometimes illusory—boundaries that were being constructed to preserve a sense of order in Victorian culture amid powerful and confusing changes. Some of these changes occurred within science and the scientific community. Others resulted from the momentous economic and political transformations of the mid- and late nineteenth century. These transformations were accompanied by a triumph of nascent corporate capitalism that was morally unsettling to, but ultimately accepted by, broad segments of Victorian society (Johnson 228). Within the science community, one influential group—the scientific naturalists—advocated a specific ideal of professionalization predicated upon a definition of ostensibly value-neutral and hence “objective” science. They sought to distance professional science from the pejorative depictions of value-laden and hence “subjective” non-science or pseudoscience (Lyons).

Spearheaded by Thomas Henry Huxley, this group included John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford, E. Ray Lankester, Frederick Harrison, G.H. Lewes and Edward Tylor (Turner). This important faction was not uninterested in political, social, ethical, or religious matters. As Adrian Desmond’s biography of Huxley amply demonstrates, Huxley and his fellow scientific naturalists were deeply involved in such debates. But, as the scientific naturalists recognized, the professional gains to be had by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science were potent. Huxley and his camp could claim that they spoke as objective experts, not political or ideological partisans. This strategy involved erecting an epistemological divide between science, on the one hand, and politics, ethics, religion, and other cultural forces, on the other. It also encouraged a distinction between elite and popular science. The strategy was essentially enunciated by the end of the 1860s and served Huxley, Darwin, and their colleagues well for several decades (Moore). Such a strategy was brilliant but disingenuous. The scientific naturalists invoked an “ideologically pure” science that concealed their own varied socio-political agendas behind the banner of a rigorous professionalism. Largely owing to their successes in securing government and business endorsement and financing, post-Victorian science has flourished under their, and their ideological descendants’, imprimatur. Wallace has, therefore, often been depicted by historians, as well as by some of his contemporaries, as one who departed from...


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pp. 71-89
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