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.
That striking contrast is partly due to Bruce’s deliberate exclusion of medical science, but the contrast would still be apparent if the American students of Bernard and Ludwig were included. There were, I think, very few of them, and they had very little support at home. It was not until 1871 that one of them, Henry Bowditch, managed to establish the first laboratory of experimental physiology in the United States, whose Congress had refused to subsidize William Beaumont’s pioneering study of digestion. The tardiness in launching experimental physiology, the protracted absorption in old-fashioned natural history, were “practical” in the sense that it is always practical for the lowly to acquiesce in their lowliness. American scientists of the mid-nineteenth century were continuing their traditional role as distant agents of European natural history, bringing in data from the new world. A few—Asa Gray most notably—showed the masterful urge “to group all facts under some general laws,” as Darwin described his basic drive, but most were like women scientists, who were also being practical in staying away from such masterful endeavors as the new physiology, in accepting the subordinate roles traditionally assigned to their sex.3
I think Bruce is running ahead of events when he finds “the American eagle full-fledged and screaming, in cultural and intellectual matters as well as political and diplomatic,” already in the 1840s. He shows that resentment was growing against European contempt for American science: the pioneers were preparing to win their country a place in the sun—to borrow a German imperial slogan—by building the necessary institutions of higher education and research. Three decades later, as Bruce leaves off his account, intellectual self-assertion was just beginning to emerge from that determination to accept provincial status no longer.
Bruce notes that the lust for mastery—personal, institutional, national, each reinforcing the other—is a major driving force of scientific inquiry. He also notes the power of the cultural milieu in squelching that lust among certain groups—women, blacks, even white males down south or out west. I wish he had pressed on to seek correlations between types of milieu and types of science, as in the concentration on natural history and neglect of experimental biology in mid-century America. The subsequent turnabout is striking. By 1899, when the eagle really was full-fledged and screaming all the way from Cuba to the Philippines, the Chicago Tribune headlined a fantastic arrogance in the life sciences:
SCIENCE NEARS THE SECRET OF LIFE
Professor Jacques Loeb Develops
Young Sea Urchins by Chemical
—Discovery that Reproduction by
This Means Is Possible a Long
Step Towards Realizing the Dream
“to Create Life in a Test Tube”
That faded claim of power is reproduced in Philip Pauly’s biography of Jacques Loeb, a professor at Chicago, Berkeley, and the Rockefeller Institute who became a celebrity in the early twentieth century—not only in newspapers; Sinclair Lewis made him into the great guru of Arrowsmith—and is now largely forgotten. Pauly believes that his fame deserves revival, because he was a, or even the, major creator of “the engineering (technische) ideal in biology.” Implicit in that ideal Pauly discerns the “artificialization” or even the “trivialization” of nature that is now gathering force in the factory laboratories of genetic engineering. With such big issues in mind he is inclined to play down or explain away the transience of Loeb’s fame, whether in the public at large or among biological scientists, who have scant reason to recall his factual discoveries—concerning tropism in caterpillars, for example, and parthenogenesis in sea urchins—or the theories he attached to them. Even before he died in 1924 their significance was visibly fading by comparison, say, with the contemporaneous work of T.H. Morgan, whose analysis of the chromosome was fundamentally reorganizing the thought of biologists, and was largely ignored by the public that feeds on sensations of power.4
Certainly Pauly does not seek to connect Loeb’s fame with the raw imperialist assertiveness of America in his time. On the contrary, Loeb seems to have won American admiration in defiance of the country’s dominant values. He was a German Jewish immigrant when nativism was still quite unabashed; his militant commitment to atheistic mechanism challenged official piety. He was vaguely socialist and pacifist and generally condescending to American culture. How he felt about America’s imperial expansion Pauly does not say, though he emphasizes Loeb’s revulsion against the European nationalism and militarism that culminated in World War I. But then there was the godlike mastery over life itself that Loeb held out before his adopted country, a vision so dazzling that the odd little professor who presented it could be forgiven his oddity. Indeed, foreignness intensified the aura of pure brainpower in a country just emerging from a provincial sense of native backwardness; a scrubby little figure with a foreign accent is still a common representation of the brilliant scientist.
There was a level, I am suggesting, on which Loeb’s thought as a scientist connected with American fantasies of great power easily acquired. It was not, I am happy to say, a very profound level. A very keen mind was hard at work within the celebrity, but it was excessively eager to avoid deep perplexities. When a student he had absorbed Schopenhauer’s conviction that natural forces oblige us to behave as we foolishly suppose we are choosing to act, but he turned that conviction away from pessimistic brooding by adding to it the imperatives of mechanistic science. Subject natural forces to experimental analysis, make them show how their operative mechanisms work, and then we can oblige them to behave as we choose.
It is pointless for a critic to object that the power of the will has magically reappeared in an argument that began by denying it; the scientific activist abandoned such difficulties to philosophy, which became superfluous chatter once experimental science was enthroned as the model for all inquiry. Until he won fame by his scientific labors, Loeb did not philosophize in public. He expressed his mind in repeated gambles on the crucial experiment that would at one stroke reduce terribly complex problems to simple solutions. And he was far from shy in making public claims of solutions found, complexities blown away.
First he took the gamble in neurophysiology, beginning at the highest level of complexity, the brain, where vivisectionists were divided between partisans of localization and of equipotentiality, between the obvious truth that different parts of the brain perform different functions and the equally obvious truth that the entire brain is an integrated system of interdependent functions. Quickly frustrated at that level, Loeb moved down to brainless caterpillars. He showed that their apparently purposeful motions were actually stereotyped responses to light, and then leaped to the grand picture of all motions in all animals as tropisms, stereotyped responses to be explained by physical chemistry. His sweeping claims were soon set aside by more thoughtful investigators of the extremely diverse animal responses to external stimuli. Loeb would not stay the course, which led back into the fiendish complexities of neurophysiology, and back further to the natural historian’s problem of emergent levels in evolution. Loeb moved down to the unfertilized egg of the sea urchin, altogether away from the pesky problems of nervous systems and of evolution.
At the time, the 1890s, experimental embryologists like T.H. Morgan were moving into the fine structure of the developing cell, seeking, in the classic manner of biological science, to discover the minute structures and their functions that accomplish reproduction and differentiation. Loeb was scornful of such laborious correlations of structure and function; if he obliged the egg of the sea urchin to reproduce without fertilization, by physical or chemical stimulation, he would be avoiding the chromosome and its mysteries, showing the direct way to a physicochemical explanation of reproduction. And he succeeded, or thought he had. He demonstrated artificial parthenogenesis in the sea urchin, and in 1899 newspapers broke into the headlines I have quoted about life created in test tubes.
But the complex realities of cytology, genetics, embryology, and evolutionary levels of organization would not go away. Above the amphibians parthenogenesis proved very difficult or impossible to achieve, and anyhow, at any evolutionary level, what sets off cell division is hardly a sufficient explanation of its further development. For such explanations one must follow Morgan into the cell’s fine structure, as Loeb ruefully perceived within the decade after his “secret-of-life” triumph in the newspapers. So he retreated once again from the central problems of biology. He wound up his life studying the properties of gelatin, and brooding disconsolately on the ephemeral quality of his scientific triumphs.
My sketch of Loeb’s intellectual development has drawn not only on Pauly’s fascinating biography but also on the rather different analysis that Donald Fleming presented some years ago.5 Fleming called attention, as Loeb himself did in a major essay, to the influence of Schopenhauer and the problem of explaining the will. Pauly ignores that, and fastens instead on the influence of Ernst Mach and “the engineering (technische) ideal,” which Loeb attributed to Mach. Fleming stresses Loeb’s derivation from the mechanistic physiology of the mid-nineteenth century, which set his course toward the experimental control of living matter. Pauly labors to disprove that connection, for he perceives within physiology a basic disinction between normal function and pathology, and he is determined to show that Loeb exploded that remnant of anthropomorphism; he plunged toward the “artificialization” of nature, that is, the manipulation of its elements as the engineer chooses, without regard to the physician’s preference for the normal over the pathological. From Loeb’s valedictory essays on philosophical issues Fleming draws evidence of a lifelong tension between the old-fashioned scientist’s yearning for a comprehensive understanding of nature and the constricted style of the twentieth-century specialist, who is content to master a fragment or two and shrugs off the large questions. Pauly belittles the essays as an old man’s retreat from the significant pattern of his active life. I have rarely seen a neater demonstration of the historian’s imaginative power to make the past fit divergent concerns.
Of course I am imposing my own twist upon the dead man’s life and times. The picture of Loeb retreating down the evolutionary scale from brains to gelatin is mine, not Pauly’s or Fleming’s. The psychological explanation of that lifelong retreat—excessive impatience for mastery of life—is also my harsh reading of what they gently imply. Loeb justified that impatience with vulgarized notions of philosophy, whether Schopenhauer’s tragic concept of the mind or Mach’s analysis of the concept “experience” or—most importantly—the evolving epistemology that is implicit in the ceaseless toil of biologists. Both Fleming and Pauly find Loeb’s greatest significance in revealing that implicit epistemology when biology was coming indoors, shifting its vision from nature at large to the microcosm of the laboratory. I think that Loeb oversimplified the transition, and pointed the science toward a stultifying combination of big talk and small accomplishments.
Fleming’s summation is an elegant tribute: “At the moment of closing with the organism in an experiment—of coming alive as an investigator—every biologist recovers the posture of Loeb. It is the only posture that will make biology go at the moment of truth.” That is not only more elegant than anything I find in Loeb, it is also more sensitive to the problems raised by the experimentalist’s combative attitude. To what extent do his demonstrations of power over the organism within the lab win something more than kudos from other experimenters and possible applications in lablike medicine or lablike agriculture? To what extent does such a discipline gain understanding of living nature in its evolving reality? Fleming acknowledges that Loeb did not have a good answer to such questions. Pauly’s major theme is that Loeb at the height of his powers disdained to ask them. Understanding nature was not his goal; technical power to rearrange its elements at will—that was his object, and also the future of biological science. Hence Pauly’s concluding comments on the “artificialization” or “trivialization” of nature.
I hope that Pauly has misread the progress of biological science. I have not noticed experimental biologists taking the side of those who would strip the land of trees and the oceans of fish on the calculation that plastic building materials and synthetic food will suffice. I have not seen them doubt that the biosphere is a reality demanding the greatest respect, since the human capacity to alter it could prove as self-destructive as the capacity of microbes to poison themselves within a petri dish. Robert Frost summed up that humbling discovery when he pronounced us “a brief race of microbes that stains the patina of this, the least of globes.” That insight derives from experimental biology, and its adepts have taken the lead in organizing elaborate restraints on genetic engineering, the latest phase of willful human interference in evolutionary change. (For a disturbing argument against such confidence in the self-restraint of experimental biologists, see Erwin Chargoff, “Engineering a Molecular Nightmare,” Nature, May 21, 1987.)
Maybe Pauly did not have such practical issues in mind when he pictured Loeb as the prophet of experimental biology. Maybe he was pointing only toward the microcosm of the laboratory, within which men of limited vision can, if they wish, prove their power to “artificialize” or even “trivialize” nature. If that was Pauly’s object, I wish he had been as keenly critical as Donna Haraway was in exposing the ideology of power that generates data in the Sequestered world of scientific experiment.6 To be sure, her example was the study of monkeys and apes, which are so similar to the humans studying them that an outside observer can hardly miss the scientists’ construction of a hierarchy, self-limiting no less than self-assertive, as they put themselves and the other primates through routines for producing data. In the far more numerous labs where micro-organisms or molecules are at issue the self-limiting ideology is far less obvious.
That ideology begins to appear, I would suggest, when the experimenters set aside problems that they consider premature or of secondary importance, such as patterns of evolution in the world outside or the old unsolved puzzles of embryology. When they retreat in this way, perhaps they do follow Loeb’s example rather than T.H. Morgan’s. Morgan was the type of experimental biologist who never lost sight of the extramural issues; he shaped his inquiry not only with an eye to experimental feasibility but also with a vision of biology as a long-term effort to understand an enormous world outside the lab. Perhaps his type of researcher is dying out, increasingly replaced by industrious producers of data concerning segments of living matter that are manipulable within the lab. If that is the drift of biological science in our century, I sense an ironic return to provincialism, to the self-limiting dullness of facts laid side by side, accumulating now in great heaps at the molecular level rather than the morphological. If Loeb was the prophetic model of the new type, I fear the trivialization not of nature but of science.
November 19, 1987
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). ↩
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.” ↩
See Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). ↩
See Garland E. Allen, Thomas Hunt Morgan, The Man and His Science (Princeton University Press, 1978), and Ian Shine and Sylvia Wrobel, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Pioneer of Genetics (University Press of Kentucky, 1976). ↩
See his “Introduction,” in Jacques Loeb, The Mechanistic Conception of Life (Harvard University Press, 1964). ↩
“Signs of Dominance: From Physiology to a Cybernetics of Primate Society,” in Studies in the History of Biology, Vol. Vl (1983), pp. 129–219. ↩