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Off to a Bad Start

The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876

by Robert V. Bruce
Knopf, 446 pp., $30.00

Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology

by Philip J. Pauly
Oxford University Press, 252 pp., $24.95

Enlightenment should be possible anywhere, and sometimes is. Benjamin Franklin in colonial Philadelphia created theories of electricity that excited admiration and fruitful argument in the intellectual centers of Europe. But somehow in the century after Franklin a self-limiting provincialism stifled creative science in America. The exception that appears at the end of the century, Willard Gibbs, accentuates the prevailing dullness. In the late 1870s, when European scientists acclaimed Gibbs’s foundational work in physical chemistry, his colleagues at the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, who published the work, could not understand it. They were provincials in mentality, separated from the creative centers of scientific thought not by the Atlantic Ocean but by their unwillingness to learn the mathematical physics that Gibbs had mastered.

Nineteenth-century Americans were interested in science, of a sort. They filled lecture halls to hear a transplanted European savant disclose the great design in nature’s order, and numerous collectors packed the Smithsonian Institution with dried plants, stuffed animals, rocks, bones, Indian artifacts—to show the abundance designed by God for exploitation by energetic white men. The first centenary of American independence was celebrated in Philadelphia by a great exhibition of engines and implements, which the public supposed to be generated by science, never mind exactly how. And even at that level, where “the mystique of Yankee ingenuity” was commonly accepted, the provincial pattern appeared: the American press paid almost no attention to the exhibit of Bell’s newly invented telephone until a distinguished English visitor celebrated it back in his own country.

I am picking out one theme in Robert Bruce’s magisterial history of “the great scientific awakening,” as a contemporary called it—a more apt title, in my opinion, than The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876. To be sure, Bruce’s abundant account of universities, museums, scientific associations, and other institutions founded or rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century lends itself to the metaphor of shipyards and launchings, but all that busyness is hardly the most interesting theme of his book. It is the most fully developed, with so many little heaps of biographical detail concerning so many forgettable people that the reader must struggle to keep his mind alert for the intermittent passages that connect the institutions and people to Bruce’s more significant concern: the American awakening, from the 1840s through the 1870s, to the authentic spirit of modern science.

That entangles him in fascinating questions about the American mentality: What explains its protracted torpor? What caused its belated awakening—or reawakening if we consider Franklin representative of an original American enlightenment that somehow died out? Underlying those historical, narrowly American issues, is a large philosophical question: What right do we have to make invidious distinctions between creative science and the superficial imitations that prevailed for so long in America? When we locate Franklin and Gibbs at the luminous center of scientific discovery and place the intervening collectors of rocks and bones in provincial dullness, is our account anything more than an indulgence in snobbism? In recent years historians and philosophers of science have become very self-conscious about “Whiggery,” as Herbert Butterfield named the use of history to show how those dummies back then were raised by a succession of geniuses to the wise guys that we now are. Some think that one must choose between smug Whiggery and spineless relativism, between the self-righteous conviction that truth is what we now claim to be true and the mushy concession of equal merit to all who have ever made claims to truth. Bruce does not fall into that cleft. He is gentle with his dull provincials, he offers extenuating explanations, but he does make judgments.

Sometimes distaste for creative inquiry announced its presence without shame. In 1853, when Columbia was increasing its science faculty by 50 percent—from two professors to three—a trustee asked a job candidate “whether he thought the Bible should take precedence over physical science when they conflicted.” The candidate gave the soft answer with which Galileo had tried to turn away his inquisitors: if religion and science are properly understood, conflict between them is impossible. He failed to get the job, though not entirely because of his effort to separate science from religion. There were other reasons why Columbia’s trustees feared the effort to turn a stultified college into a freely inquiring university.

Nevertheless, the one trustee’s impudence in presenting a test of faith suggests that religiosity may have impeded the American awakening to science. Bruce considers that possibility and, like many other recent scholars, rejects it. The impudent trustee was isolated; nearly all the New York newspapers denounced the impropriety of his question, as seeking to discover the particular creed of the candidate. His general belief, that religion and science are inherently compatible, expressed the common faith of most mid-nineteenth-century Americans, scientists included. So on Bruce’s account, religiosity could not have been an impediment to scientific inquiry; most Americans of the time said it was not.

I wonder about that. Religiosity comes in markedly different varieties, some of which may sharpen the urge to inquiry while others dull it. Bruce’s evidence suggests to me that the dominant form of American religiosity encouraged intellectual flabbiness with its facile insistence that the substance of things hoped for cannot possibly be contradicted by the substance of things precisely proved. Less soft soap, more confrontation, as in continental Europe of the time, might have provoked more minds to test themselves in keener inquiry. When Bruce observes, “More than contradicting religion, science already showed signs of replacing it,” I sense that nineteenth-century Americans were avoiding hard thought on both sides of a line they drew too easily.1

But such speculation cannot override the richly informed judgment of historians like Bruce, who find the main source of intellectual torpor in American “democracy,” as opposed to the “elitist” spirit of pure science, and in American “practicality,” as opposed to the “theoretical” focus of creative inquiry. Both explanations echo the comments to be found in the sources. “Alas for America, as I must so often say, the ungirt, the diffuse,…one wide ground juniper, out of which no cedar, no oak will rear up a mast to the clouds! It all runs to leaves, to suckers, to tendrils, to miscellany.” Thus Emerson in 1847, spurring himself to become such a “mast,” among several then rising in American literature. In science lofty aspiration was much slower in appearing, and Bruce’s efforts to explain the protracted crawling about turn repeatedly to the leveling tendencies of “democracy” and to a shortsighted “practicality.” He likes the phrase “oblations to Buncombe,” used in private by Joseph Henry, first president of the Smithsonian, to characterize his public appeals as he tried, unsuccessfully, to make the new institution a major center of research rather than a museum and library. He felt obliged to offer Buncombe because serious appeals for pure science would not be congenial to the American power elite. “The great demand in the United States is for applied science, not theoretical science”—and applied science was perceived in superficial, unimaginative ways.

There must have been good reason for such observations; they seemed self-evident to the observers, whether foreign visitors or struggling pioneers like Joseph Henry. Trying to explain why a country famous for energetic striving was flaccid in science, they noted the careers open to competitive young men in business and politics—and warfare, I would add—which made higher learning seem a mousy alternative. In Europe, Bruce theorizes, a much heavier weight of inherited class distinctions encouraged a keener appreciation of the honor to be gained in science, especially since it still carried some aristocratic cachet, prized over there, largely ignored over here.

Those are important observations, but they seem to me to point to a dominant mentality without entering and illuminating its inner qualities. The preference of Congress for a romantic Gothic castle to house collections of natural history—still standing on the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington obelisk—strikes a twentieth-century mind as far less “practical” than Joseph Henry’s rejected pleas for an inexpensive building and an emphasis on laboratory research, unless a monument to the American wilderness, mastered by classification, was the “practical” end in view.2 Nor can I see how “democracy” outweighed “elitism” in such a preference—unless one specifies provincial democracy, noting the defiant pride that still puts together museums of local collectibles in out-of-the-way towns that forgo claims of intellectual glitter.

I find that same tacit acceptance of provincial status in the nineteenth-century “American style” of doing science, as Bruce dissects and exhibits it. Description without analysis, measurement with little or no theorizing, collecting and cataloging in the hope that concepts would generate themselves—the usual adjective is “Baconian,” which may unfairly dump upon a fine essayist the smallness of spirit that considers “every newly discovered fact a gem,” and puts the name of philosophy on the magpie belief that “our knowledge of nature and her laws is but a number of such facts, brought nigh and placed side by side.” (So said Matthew Maurey, Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, one of the first “barons of bureaucracy” in American science.)

The most puzzling feature of the protracted American provincialism in science is not the part played by congressmen and boards of trustees but the acquiescence of nearly all the pioneering scientists. The young men who went to Europe to learn creative science came home to lay facts side by side. In extenuation Bruce notes the intellectual isolation that engulfed the pioneers when they came home, their chronic lack not only of encouraging colleagues but even of decent libraries or laboratory facilities. But there must also have been some inner self-restrictions at work in most of them. Mathematics or theoretical physics could have been pursued by avid minds even in such difficult circumstances, but those studies were conspicuously absent until the 1870s and after.

In provincial Russia and Hungary of the 1820s and 1830s bold young men created the first non-Euclidean geometries, striving not only against the intellectual barrenness of their localities but also against the dismissive skepticism of the metropolitan luminaries in Germany, to whom they sent their revolutionary creations. Such daring on the part of János Bolyai and Nikolay Lobachevsky, among others, evinced, I would suggest, the emerging self-consciousness of the “intelligentsia,” a new class intensely aware of the cultural gulf between itself and the “uncivilized” (nekul’turnyi) masses of its own nation. Perhaps it is the absence of this separatist self-consciousness among American scientists that explains their acquiescence in cultural provincialism. Maybe that is what Bruce has in mind when he contrasts the “aristocratic” heritage of European science with the “democratic” spirit of American scientists. Philistine might be a more accurate term for thinkers who uncritically share the dominant ethos of a middle-class country.

And their “practicality” had more of self-limitation than of mastery in it. One must wonder why so few of those who made the pilgrimage to European centers were drawn to the mechanistic physiology that was captivating not only specialists but also the European public at large in the mid-nineteenth century. With a vision of biomedical science as a kind of engineering, vivisectionists were picking apart the operative machinery of frogs, dogs, rabbits, and human beings who were too sick or too submissive to refuse the experimental scalpel. In Bruce’s long history no physiologists appear, no American disciples of Claude Bernard or Carl Ludwig. Entomologists, conchologists, and other field biologists abound.

  1. 1

    See William G. McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher: An Essay on the Shifting Values of Mid-Victorian America, 1840–1870 (Knopf, 1970), and Charles E. Rosenberg, No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

  2. 2

    On this matter Bruce notes, for example: “In 1847 Henry insisted that no natural history collections at Washington be dumped on the Smithsonian. In the Senate his ally Jefferson Davis likened any such incubus to the Siamese king’s revenge through the gift of elephants. Yet scientists of stature such as Agassiz, Dana, and Gray urged Henry to accept government collections, especially those of the Wilkes Expedition, and build on them.”

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