- The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins by Devin Griffiths
by Devin Griffiths; pp. 339.
Johns Hopkins UP, 2016. $63.54 cloth.
Late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British scientific writing abounds with analogies. William Herschel compares the stellar universe to a garden in which plants can be observed in a range of life stages. Many stages of star formation are likewise visible in the sky (77). Mary Somerville uses the movements of waves of corn to explain how sound propagates through air. And John Herschel notes that the shape of swirling discs is such a common form in the natural world that the galactic “system includes within itself miniatures of itself on an almost infinitely reduced scale.” At the same time, analogy has often had an uncertain status in scientific thought, poised between empiricism and the speculative imagination. In a British philosophical tradition that characterized itself as empirical, the validity of analogies was often hard to evaluate; they made people nervous. Are analogies real or imaginary? Do they reveal something ontologically true about the world? Or do they distort reality, by offering “an infinite range of tempting similarities” (82)?
It is clarifying and invigorating to have a scholar as searching and well-read as Devin Griffiths address the problem of analogy head on. He ambitiously tracks analogy as an evolving mode of thought during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on analogy as a method central to the emerging field of comparative historicism. Griffiths is particularly interested in analogies that work across social history and natural history, and do conceptual work in both directions.
With chapters on Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot and Charles Darwin, The Age of Analogy offers fresh readings of familiar and less familiar texts: Griffiths’s analysis of Eliot’s essay “Notes on Form,” for example, is revelatory. But perhaps the book’s greatest contribution to Victorian studies is its shedding light on a major shift in thinking. Earlier instances of analogy tend to be embedded in theological and philosophical discourse; they are viewed as “evidence of transcendental order,” and a singular order at that (56).
Griffiths argues convincingly that, by picking up on many of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s realizations about evolution, Charles Darwin and later thinkers “free analogy from its commitment to providential order and develop new strategies for analyzing the discontinuities of social and natural history” (52). These new strategies of analogy involve the “comparative method: an analytic mode that coordinated similarity and contrast” (14; italics in original). One idea that particularly interests Griffiths is comparative historicism, a form of analogy that involves many contingent histories—a play of narratives rather than a singular master narrative. He calls this type of analogy harmonic, to describe a dialectical unfolding process that enables new conceptual models and ways of thinking. He distinguishes harmonic analogy from formal analogy, the one-way mapping of a static model onto another conceptual [End Page 147] object (as when the structure of the solar system is mapped onto the structure of an atom) (34). Harmonic analogy, by contrast, is a two-directional, reverberating process that unfolds over time (like the complex analogy that Charles Darwin explores between the domestic selection of ducks bred by humans and the natural selection of ducks in the wild [225–26]).
One of the book’s strengths is its well-reasoned insistence that imagination actually produces scientific knowledge by providing science with “new kinds of stories”: “At their most vital, analogies produce singular instances of pattern that break with the given framework of understanding” (81). This claim pushes back against a view of science as based on empirical discovery; the literary imaginings of writers like Erasmus Darwin or George Eliot make certain thoughts, certain models of change newly thinkable. Griffiths argues that across his career, the older Darwin brought together contradictory models of history in an “effort to reformulate the static Linnaean system as evidence of an epic evolutionary process” (56). The word process is key— harmonic analogy is best understood as an unfolding method of thinking.
The speculative and imaginative work that analogy requires...