Scientists in Society

Robert Boyle and the English Revolution

by J.R. Jacob
Burt Franklin, 240 pp., $18.95

The Newtonians and the English Revolution: 1689-1720

by Margaret C. Jacob
Cornell University Press, 288 pp., $16.50

One of the more tedious historical controversies of recent years has been over the relationship of Puritanism to the origins of modern science in England, and in particular of the Royal Society, founded in 1662. R. K. Merton, in a brilliant study some forty years ago, suggested a close connection. But “Puritanism” is an elusive word: any statement about it is apt to be predetermined (whether overtly or not) by the definition of the word “Puritan” which is used. Margot Heinemann has neatly shown that the statement “Puritans opposed the theater” usually assumes a definition of “Puritan” as “a man opposed to the theater.” The best-known enemies of the theater in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England were in no usual sense of the word Puritans.

A similar confusion has bedeviled controversies over the Merton thesis. Psephological games have been played with the early Fellows of the Royal Society in order to exaggerate or minimize their “Puritanism.” The exercise is made easier by the circumstances in which the Royal Society was founded. In 1660 Charles II had been restored to the throne of his fathers after the collapse of the republic set up in 1649. With him bishops returned to the Church of England. The “Puritan” Revolution was defeated. The Royal Society was founded in 1662 by a group of scientists from London and Oxford. Most of them had collaborated with the republican and Cromwellian regimes which had ruled England since the execution of Charles I in 1649: some had been enthusiastic supporters.

Science had flourished in Oxford under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, leading scientists having been intruded into the university after the expulsion of royalists. Many of them were ejected in their turn in 1660. One of these was John Wilkins, Cromwell’s brother-in-law, intruded as Warden of Wadham. He was to be Secretary of the Royal Society and became a bishop. One quite conscious object of those who founded the Royal Society was to clear science and scientists of their republican and Cromwellian associations. For this purpose the patronage of Charles II was invaluable. Any peer who was prepared to join the Society was made a Fellow.

The climax of this campaign was the publication in 1667 of the History of the Royal Society. It was written by Thomas Sprat, former panegyrist of Oliver Cromwell, also a future bishop; but it was a semi-official work in which many Fellows had participated. One object of the History was to proclaim not only the total abstention from politics of the Royal Society but also the fundamental opposition between science on the one hand and “fanaticism,” “enthusiasm,” on the other. Science buttressed the monarchical status quo against attempts of extremists to upset it, and defended religion against “mechanic atheism.” Sprat perhaps protested a little too much, but he did a good job.

In these circumstances, psephological analysis of Fellows of the Royal Society becomes a ticklish business. Most of them had a past to cover up. Some had no doubt been half-hearted collaborators …

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