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System Builders

Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century

by Clarence J. Glacken
California, 763 pp., $15.00

The Royal Society: Concept and Creation

by Margery Purver
M.I.T., 246 pp., $7.00

Science in Utopia: A Mighty Design

by Nell Eurich
Harvard, 332 pp., $8.50

The first of these books traces the history of the answers given to three questions, namely:

Is the earth, which is obviously a fit environment for man and other organic life, a purposefully made creation? Have its climates, its relief, the configuration of its continents influenced the moral and social nature of individuals, and have they had an influence on moulding the character and nature of human culture? In his long tenure of the earth in what manner has man changed it from its hypothetical pristine condition?

An immense amount of solid, firsthand work has gone into this book; it is full of extremely interesting material; apart from a few lapses, it is clearly and intelligently written; and on the whole, unlike some historians of scientific ideas, the author is not contemptuous of now obsolete theories. On the other hand, long stretches of it are very tedious to read, and the whole book gives an impression of shapelessness. Not only is it a very big book, but it is much bigger than it need be. There are, I think, several reasons for these defects of form.

First, there is a lack of selection; this inevitably leads to repetitiousness when one is recounting the history of a fairly rigid tradition of theory, such as, for example, the argument from design for the existence of God. Moreover, what selection there is sometimes seems arbitrary; we have, for instance, several pages of excerpts from Greek and Roman literature (some in ghastly translations) to show the ancients’ awareness of the beauties of Nature (a theme which is anyway barely relevant to the above three questions), but nothing whatever from the early Romantics. Or again, modern writers on medieval thought are frequently quoted verbatim, whereas the sections on Hume, Kant, and Herder are so condensed as to be almost unintelligible.

Secondly, there is a lack of focus, both in the range of the ideas dealt with, and in the period covered. With regard to the former, any one of the above questions would have given quite wide enough scope. With regard to the latter, I feel sure we would have had a more tightly organized, and a much shorter, book if the author had concentrated on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and traced ideas backward in time, as and when necessary. It was in this period that long-lived, standardized theories about environment and design began to break down and be replaced by new, revolutionary ideas. Moreover, the author evidently knows this period more intimately than the huge stretch of preceding time; because of this, the second half of the book is of much higher quality than the first, and here some of the sections, on Montesquieu, Buffon, and Malthus, for example, are excellent. It would perhaps have been even better if, as he had originally intended, the author had focused his book on a somewhat later period, so that Darwin could have been included. The Darwinian revolution was quite as radical for the biological sciences as the Copernican for the physical; and it is even more difficult to think oneself back into the pre- Darwinian world than into the pre- Copernican one. It was a world in which the intricate, plainly purposeful design of plants and animals made the assumption of an intelligent creator, whether transcendent or immanent, inevitable. The argument for the existence of God from the design of living organisms was overwhelmingly convincing.

THIS is a very obvious truth, and I dare say many writers have stated it before, but not to my knowledge. Certainly most historians of natural science and of natural or rational theology write as if they were unaware of it; any thinker of the seventeenth century or later who rejects teleological explanations, in whatever field, is given a good mark, and any thinker who uses them is in danger of being classed among the “altardés et égarés.” Professor Glacken is certainly not guilty of such crude misunderstanding of the past; but he does sometimes fail to realize how strong certain teleological arguments were before Darwin. Voltaire, for example, is reported to have thought it “folly to deny that the eye is made to see, the ear to hear, the stomach to digest,” and this defense of final causes is then dismissed as “pitiful,” because it adds nothing to Xenophon. Voltaire may not here have been very original, but he was absolutely right; without something like Darwinian evolution, it was folly to deny that the eye is made to see (and, by the way, has anyone ever satisfactorily solved Bergson’s difficulties about the evolution of the eye?).

This brings me to the third reason for the lack of shape in this book. The various answers to the first of the above questions naturally make teleology a central theme, and I do not think that the different kinds of teleological explanation have been sharply enough distinguished. The author does make the important distinction between a wholly anthropocentric teleology and systems which, while still preserving man’s place at the top of the ladder, include all living creatures as ends in the divine design; so that, for example, sheep have been created not only because they are useful to man, but also because they are useful to wolves, and because in themselves they are beautiful, or happy, or fill up a gap in the chain of being. The latter, broader teleology is of course very much stronger, since it can meet objections based on the existence of animals and plants which man finds useless or harmful. But there is an equally important distinction which is not made clearly in this book, namely, between large-scale arguments in favor of the earth being designed for living creatures, and arguments based on the creatures themselves, their adaptation to their environment, and the purposeful functioning of their bodies.

The former type of argument, which naturally figures more prominently in this book, is much weaker than the latter. There was no need for God (or Nature) to adapt both the environment and the creatures, and, from the existence of deserts, it is clear that He did not always choose to make the earth fit for the kind of life He had created. But the arguments based on the creatures were, as I have suggested, irrefragable before the nineteenth century; though even here weak spots were already appearing in the eighteenth century—Buffon used against final causes the fact that the bones of a pig’s toes are perfectly formed, but are of no use to the pig. Nevertheless the discovery of useless vestigial organs could not by itself have driven an intelligent creator out of the living world; it merely made him occasionally inefficient. The only hope of excluding teleology from biological science was a theory of evolution founded on random mutation and natural selection, and this required a time-scale expanded enormously beyond any based on Scripture. Now this huge extension of the earth’s history began in the mid-eighteenth century, mainly in the field of geology; it seems to me very odd that Professor Glacken does not even mention this plainly relevant subject—he might at least have referred the reader to the recent book by Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield (The Discovery of Time, Harper & Row, 1965).

THE SURVIVAL of teleology in scientific thought is closely connected with the great gap in method that necessarily separated the biological sciences from sciences investigating inorganic matter, such as physics or chemistry. Professor Glacken is fully aware of this gap, unlike the authors of the other two books, who treat seventeenth-century science as if it were a homogeneous structure, or at least well on the way to becoming one. The distinction between organic and inorganic was not of course the same then as today, and indeed for some thinkers did not exist. But the fact remains that a mathematical-mechanistic method of science, concerned with the “how” and ignoring the “why,” could be, and was, successfully applied to physics, and could not be, and was not, to biology, which, faced with apparently purposeful organisms, could not do without teleological concepts. One could perhaps explain animals as machines, as Descartes tried to do; but this explanation still required a purposeful creator of the machines. The two groups of sciences differed also in another way, especially important for the main theme of the second of these books, namely, Baconian empiricism. Most of the biological sciences, dealing with the endless variety of life, could not advance without a long preliminary period of collecting and ordering reliable observations, a period of description and taxonomy—although in a few fields, such as anatomy and physiology, enough of this work had already been done for a major discovery, such as Harvey’s, to be possible. In the other group of sciences, either such collections of facts were irrelevant, as for Galilean mechanics, or, as in the case of astronomy, they were large and accurate enough to produce great advances, such as Kepler’s discoveries, based largely on Tycho Brahe’s observations. Finally, the Book of Nature was already written in mathematical characters for the physicists; but for the biologists it was still in ordinary language and still colored with the secondary qualities eliminated from physics by Galilei and Descartes.

Miss Purver’s book on the origins of the Royal Society is an important and valuable work of scholarship, though it has, I think, some basic faults. It has the great virtue of being almost entirely based on original sources, and it is clearly and forcefully written; but the clarity is in some measure the consequence of her always dogmatic, and often naïve view of the subjects she deals with, Traditions of thought are cleanly and sharply differentiated one from another, and in consequence many connections which other scholars have seen between these traditions are tidily swept away. But this will do more good than harm; if there are solid grounds for supposing such connections, her challenge will lead scholars to find more evidence for them.

The main argument of the book is that the Royal Society originated in scientific meetings at Oxford in the 1650s, a kind of club centered on John Wilkins, then Warden of Wadham College, and that it had nothing to do with earlier meetings in London, under the leadership of Theodore Haak, described by John Wallis, nor with Gresham College, at which these meetings were often held, as were much later those of the Royal Society, nor with the “invisible college,” referred to by Boyle in the 1640s, which Miss Purver, perhaps rightly, identifies with Samuel Hartlib’s projected Office of Address. This view agrees with that of Thomas Sprat’s official history of the society, as against Wallis’s account and the conjectures of later historians; and she does make a very good case for giving greater authority to Sprat than to Wallis.

There are two important consequences of this simplification of the Royal Society’s origins. The first of these follows from the exclusion of Haak’s group. Now Haak was a friend of Mersenne, with whom he corresponded about his London meetings. Mersenne had started a small scientific academy in Paris in about 1635, and he was extremely active in trying to establish a scientific society on a national scale; by his enormous correspondence he was almost a society in himself. Thus a possible connection between the Royal Society and Mersenne’s mathematical and mechanistic Cartesianism is cut off. Miss Purver points out, rightly, that Haak’s group was not primarily occupied with carrying out experiments but with discussing the major scientific achievements of the previous fifty years (heliocentricity, Galilei’s mechanics, the circulation of the blood, Torricelli’s experiment, etc.), and claims that this shows that it was “quite different from the Royal Society in nature and purpose.” It seems to me that if a group of intelligent Englishmen were intending to start a society for the practice of experimental science, what they would do, before they began experimenting, would be to review and discuss recent scientific advances, especially those not included in Bacon’s De Augmentis; and it is these advances that Wallis lists in his account of Haak’s group. It must also be remembered that three members of this group, including Wilkins, were later members of the Oxford club, and that four more, including Haak, later became members of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, Miss Purver has demonstrated that Wallis is an unreliable witness, and that Sprat’s History represents the views of the Society as a whole; we must therefore accept that a majority of its members did not consider Haak’s group to be important in the history of their society.

As regards Mersenne, Miss Purver states, again rightly, that his conception of science differed from that of the early Royal Society by being strictly mathematical and mechanistic, and that his scientific interests were “virtually limited to mathematics, physics and astronomy” (one might surely add music). She goes on to argue that this “indicated a failure to realize the fundamental importance of developing and relating all the branches of science, and not least, the biological sciences.” Here is an example of the unfortunate results of forgetting the above-mentioned difference of method between the biological sciences and physics (in the broadest sense). In the seventeenth century “all the branches of science” could not be related together, and, given Mersenne’s philosophy of science, he was wise to confine himself to physics, wiser than his more famous contemporary, Descartes. Bacon’s and the Royal Society’s collections of observations and experiments were perhaps a necessary preliminary to the development of the biological sciences; but they had nothing to do with the staggering advances in physics, which were achieved on mathematical and mechanistic principles such as Mersenne’s, and which had begun in Bacon’s time, and culminated in Newton’s work. Miss Purver may be right in denying any direct connection between the Royal Society and Mersenne’s academy and academic projects; but, in so far as the Royal Society had any share in these advances in physics, one cannot cut it off completely from the mathematically oriented stream of science, from the tradition of Kepler, Galilei, Descartes, Mersenne, and Newton, its most illustrious member.

The second important result of this new account of the Royal Society’s origins is to free it from any association with kinds of science of which Miss Purver disapproves, and to make it a faithful realization of “the real Baconianism, the Baconianism of Francis Bacon” (I quote from Professor Trevor-Roper’s Introduction to this book). The undesirable associations thus eliminated are, on the one hand, a purely utilitarian kind of applied science, which was all, we are told, that went on at Gresham College, and, on the other hand, religiously oriented, “visionary” schemes for encyclopaedic education and study, the pansophia of Hartlib, Commenius, Bengt Skytte, and Johann Valentin Andreae, whose conception of science was also narrowly utilitarian, according to Miss Purver, while at the same time being “medieval.”

I do not know enough about Gresham College to refute the exclusion of it from the origins of the Royal Society; but a total exclusion is very difficult to accept when one remembers that in the 1650s three members of the Oxford group held posts there (Wren, Rooke, and Goddard), and that from 1658 this group, having moved to London, held its meetings there and continued to do so when it became the Royal Society.

The pansophists all believed that they were trying to carry out Bacon’s great restoration of knowledge, the Instauratio Magna. But, according to Miss Purver, their understanding of Bacon was “aberrant” (and, according to Professor Trevor-Roper, “vulgar”); it is for this reason that they cannot have had anything to do with the origins of the Royal Society, which was putting into practice the “real Baconianism.” What this real Baconianism is we find in the second chapter of this book. It begins, to our surprise, with a critique of Macaulay’s essay on Bacon, which is said to have influenced Bacon’s nineteenth-century editors, Spedding and Ellis, and, through them, still to dominate present-day historians. More recent interpretations of Bacon are not mentioned—no Benjamin Farrington, no Paolo Rossi.

MISS PURVER’S interpretation, put very briefly, is that Bacon was not advocating any particular methods of scientific procedure, but “the creation, from the foundations, of a completely new system of sciences, an organized body of related inductive knowledge capable of continuous, unlimited development.” This is a quite acceptable statement of Bacon’s importance in the history of experimental science, except that Baconian induction is nowhere explained, nor the question discussed whether it could work; but it is inadequate and misleading as a summary of the “real Baconianism,” if by that expression is meant the sum of what Bacon said in his published writings. Moreover, this reduction of the whole of Bacon’s thought to this one insight is accompanied by anxious attempts to explain away everything in Bacon that might justify the “aberrant” interpretation of the pansophists, or might spoil the picture of him as a forerunner of modern science, attempts which involve distortion, evasion, and omission. Bacon’s attitude to astrology, for example, is settled in a footnote by a reference to the Novum Organon, I, Aph. XLVI, where he makes a passing derogatory reference to it, whereas the detailed proposal for a reformed “astrologia sana” in the De Augmentis Scientiarum (III, 4) is not mentioned. A more serious omission is that of Bacon’s doctrine of medical and alchemical spirits, which he took, overtly, from Telesio, and which plays a major role in his philosophy of nature. A still more important evasion is the dismissal of the Sylva Sylvarum in a footnote; this huge, fascinating collection of suggestions for experiments, many of them random and leading in no particular direction, was clearly a strong influence on the young Royal Society, as one can see from Sprat’s justification of its members’ “immethodical Collections and indigested Experiments.” (I can well understand that Miss Purver would not like Bacon’s interesting proposals for experiments in telepathy and faith-healing.) Finally, there is the omission of Bacon’s encyclopaedic aims—his was a restoration not only of empirical science, but of all learning, including history (in the modern sense), logic, rhetoric, natural theology (including the nature of angels and devils), and mythology (the De Sapientia Veterum is not of course mentioned).

Now the “aberrant” pansophists do of course differ from Bacon in their conceptions of a new, or revived, universal system of knowledge, and from the aims and practices of the Royal Society as described by Sprat; and Miss Purver has done valuable work in pointing out some of these differences; but surely one expects the influence of a rich and often original thinker like Bacon to produce a great variety of progeny, especially in an age when it interacted with so many other related streams of thought, scientific, philosophical, and religious. It is true that the projects of the pansophists, from Andreae’s Utopias of 1619-20, through the Universal College of Hartlib and Commenius, to Skytte’s proposal in 1660-1 for a royal institution based on these, which would have had the virtuosi as members, gave a greater place to religious, eirenically Protestant activities, and a lesser one to experimental science, than either Bacon or the Royal Society. But Miss Purver’s sharp, black-and-white separation of the two traditions can be achieved only at the cost of oversimplifying not only Bacon, but also, though to a lesser degree, the early Royal Society. A society, after all, does consist of its members as well as of its rules and publicly expressed aims. Robert Boyle, the greatest scientist and the most prolific writer of the Society during its early years, was strongly in sympathy with Hartlib’s and Skytte’s projects, as Miss Purver has to admit; but she does not mention his theological publications, nor the active support, both financial and as governor of the Corporation for Propagating the Gospel in New England, that he gave to Protestant missions in Ireland, America, and India.

Another significant omission is that of John Wilkins’s Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). This work, dedicated to the President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society, and printed by the Society’s printer, had its origin in conversations at Oxford between Wilkins and Seth Ward, and its publication was eagerly awaited by the other members, to whom Wilkins expressed his regrets for the delay of its appearance caused by the Fire of London. As is well known, this Essay is an impressive attempt to construct a universal language on a vast, logically arranged scheme of basic ideas, ranging from the most abstract notions down to kinds of animals, from God down to stones, all presented in a series of Ramist bracketed tables. (When dealing with animals, he gives a six-page demonstration—with a nice picture—that the dimensions of Noah’s ark, as given in Scripture, were sufficient to accommodate all kinds of animals, and their fodder.) In his dedication, Wilkins claims that his new language will be invaluable not only for scientific communications but also for the spreading of Christianity and for clearing up religious disputes. Is this really very far from the “visionary” schemes of the pansophists? Readers of Paolo Rossi’s Clavis Universalis and Frances Yates’s Art of Memory will know the answer to this question.

The last of these three, Science in Utopia, is a pleasantly written, unassuming book, which, like Professor Glacken’s would have been better if it had been more sharply focused on the modern period, in this case the seventeenth century. But it also has a more serious defect: the author’s first-hand knowledge of her sources is too limited; she therefore has to rely far too much on secondary authorities, and even here there are bad gaps. It is quite evident, for example, that of Campanella she has read little or nothing but the Città del Sole; nor has she read any competent modern work on him, such as Blanchet’s monograph. In consequence, one would never guess from her account that Campanella was a hermetic magician whose whole life and thought were dominated by the belief that the millennium was imminent, and that this would consist in the world-wide establishment of his City of the Sun. The general result of this excessive reliance on modern works is that this book adds very little to what is already known; whereas the other two books, whatever their faults, are genuine contributions to scholarship.

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