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Victorian Scientific Naturalism

Community, Identity, Continuity

Victorian Scientific Naturalism examines the secular creeds of the generation of intellectuals who, in the wake of The Origin of Species, wrested cultural authority from the old Anglican establishment while installing themselves as a new professional scientific elite. These scientific naturalists—led by biologists, physicists, and mathematicians such as William Kingdon Clifford, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, and John Tyndall—sought to persuade both the state and the public that scientists, not theologians, should be granted cultural authority, since their expertise gave them special insight into society, politics, and even ethics.
In Victorian Scientific Naturalism, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman bring together new essays by leading historians of science and literary critics that recall these scientific naturalists, in light of recent scholarship that has tended to sideline them, and that reevaluate their place in the broader landscape of nineteenth-century Britain. Ranging in topic from daring climbing expeditions in the Alps to the maintenance of aristocratic protocols of conduct at Kew Gardens, these essays offer a series of new perspectives on Victorian scientific naturalism—as well as its subsequent incarnations in the early twentieth century—that together provide an innovative understanding of the movement centering on the issues of community, identity, and continuity.

368 pages | 12 halftones, 2 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2014

History: British and Irish History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"Dawson and Lightman have assembled twelve probative contributions that reveal how scientific naturalism was more (and less) than a label for secular commitments among intellectual elites who seized cultural authority from the Anglican establishment under the aegis of professionalized science. The community of adherents was forged from sublime experiences during Alpine mountaineering, political maneuvering for unfettered science funding, battles over foundational principles in paleontology, and a system of education by standardized examination. . . . These analyses are significant for problematizing scientific naturalism as a historiographical category and showing how variations on the theme illuminate the Victorian period. Recommended."

A. C. Love, University of Minnesota | CHOICE

"Succeeds wonderfully in fleshing out the idea of scientific naturalism. . . . Taken together, this volume's essays provide a valuable overview of scientific naturalism and, even more so, a winning introduction to the movement’s charismatic personalities and their relationships with one another. The book will prove profitable reading for historians of science and for students of Victorian culture."

Miguel DeArce, Trinity College Dublin | Journal of British Studies

“As a rule, books about -isms are boring: bloodless, spectral accounts of impalpable abstractions. Victorian Scientific Naturalism breaks that rule decisively. It lifts the curtain on a cast of hundreds, with their ideas fleshed out in committees, clubs, and ad hoc coalitions. Positivists and theists, agnostics and idealists, Broad Churchmen and Broad Scientists, dissenters and Dissenters, freethinking ladies among them—genial antagonists and cobelligerents, all united in spurring liberal and secular trends. As in good theater, the characters develop through their relationships as well as their beliefs, actors arrayed in shifting tableaux before a noisy popular chorus. Art, politics, literature, and religion are integral to the unfolding drama, not just backdrop. The authors of Victorian Scientific Naturalism, like their subjects, do not always speak with one voice, but for this reason alone, in their multiple fresh perspectives, we have our best guide yet to the roles of the ‘scientific’ in Victorian culture.”

James Moore, Open University, Milton Keynes

“If they are to stay useful, historians’ categories require constant vetting. In this outstanding volume, ‘Victorian scientific naturalism’ gets the probing analysis it has long deserved. The results—sometimes surprising and always engaging—will be obligatory reading for anyone interested in Victorian science, Victorian religion, and their complex interactions and legacies.”

Gregory Radick, University of Leeds

“A sterling set of essays that lifts the lid on T. H. Huxley’s propagandist network in the Victorian afternoon. Out goes the old paradigm of a monolithic group of professionalizers; in its place we have a probing study of disparate characters, for whom nature was the new source of cultural authority. The authors enhance our understanding of ‘scientific naturalism’ as it was pushed into the curriculum, into pulpit-replacing Sunday lectures, and even into the moral bedrock.”

Adrian Desmond, coauthor of Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Table of Contents

Introduction, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman

Forging Friendships

1 “The Great O. versus the Jermyn St. Pet”: Huxley, Falconer, and Owen on Paleontological Method
Gowan Dawson

2 Evolutionary Naturalism on High: The Victorians Sequester the Alps
Michael S. Reidy

3 Paradox: The Art of Scientifi c Naturalism
George Levine

Institutional Politics

4 Huxley and the Devonshire Commission
Bernard Lightman

5 Economies of Scales: Evolutionary Naturalists and the Victorian Examination System
James Elwick

6 Odd Man Out: Was Joseph Hooker an Evolutionary Naturalist?
Jim Endersby

Broader Alliances

7 Sunday Lecture Societies: Naturalistic Scientists, Unitarians, and Secularists Unite against Sabbatarian Legislation
Ruth Barton

8 The Conduct of Belief: Agnosticism, the Metaphysical Society, and the Formation of Intellectual Communities
Paul White

9 Where Naturalism and Theism Met: The Uniformity of Nature
Matthew Stanley

New Generations

10 The Fate of Scientifi c Naturalism: From Public Sphere to Professional Exclusivity
Theodore M. Porter

11 The Successors to the X Club? Late Victorian Naturalists and Nature, 1869–1900
Melinda Baldwin

12 From Agnosticism to Rationalism: Evolutionary Biologists, the Rationalist Press Association, and Early Twentieth-Century Scientific Naturalism
Peter J. Bowler


Bibliography of Major Works on Scientific Naturalism

List of Contributors


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