Category Archives: Science

Reading Darwin in Abolitionist New England

 

Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America:

How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Viking)

In mid-December 1859, the first copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species arrived in the United States from England at a wharf in Boston harbor.  Darwin’s book explained how plants and animals had developed and evolved over multiple millennia through a process Darwin termed “natural selection,” a process which distinguished On the Origins of Species from the work of other naturalists of Darwin’s generation.   Although Darwin said little in the book about how humans fit into the natural selection process, the work promised to ignite a battle between science and religion.

In The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, Randall Fuller, professor of American literature at the University of Kansas, contends that what made Darwin’s insight so radical was its “reliance upon a natural mechanism to explain the development of species.  An intelligent Creator was not required for natural selection to operate.  Darwin’s’ vision was of a dynamic, self-generation process of material change.  That process was entirely arbitrary, governed by physical law and chance – and not leading ineluctably . . . toward progress and perfection” (p.24).  Darwin’s work challenged the notion that human beings were a “separate and extraordinary species, differing from every other animal on the planet. Taken to its logical conclusion, it demolished the idea that people had been created in God’s image” (p.24).

On the Origins of Species arrived in the United States at a particularly fraught moment.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown had conducted a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry (then part of Virginia, today West Virginia), with the intention of precipitating a rebellion that would eradicate slavery from American soil.  The raid failed spectacularly: Brown was captured, tried for treason and hung on December 2, 1859.  The raid and its aftermath exacerbated tensions between North and South, further polarizing the already bitterly divided country over the issue of chattel slavery in its southern states.  Notwithstanding the little Darwin had written about how humans fit into the natural selection process, abolitionists seized on hints in the book that all humans were biologically related to buttress their arguments against slavery.  To the abolitionists, Darwin “seemed to refute once and for all the idea that African American slaves were a separate, inferior species” (p.x).

Asa Gray, a respected botanist at Harvard University and a friend of Darwin, received the first copy of On the Origin of Species in the United States.  He passed the copy, which he annotated heavily, to his cousin by marriage  Charles Loring Brace (who was also a distant cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery runaway best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Brace in turn introduced the book to three men: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, a part-time school master and full-time abolitionist activist; Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator and loquacious philosopher, today best remembered as the father of author Louisa May Alcott; and Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s best known philosophers and truth-seekers.  Sanborn, Alcott and Thoreau were residents of Concord, Massachusetts, roughly twenty miles north of Boston, the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle but in the mid-19th century both a leading literary center and a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment.

As luck would have it, Brace, Alcott and Thoreau gathered at Sanborn’s Concord home on New Year’s Day 1860.  Only Gray did not attend. The four men almost certainly shared their initial reactions to Darwin’s work.   This get together constitutes the starting point for Fuller’s engrossing study, centered on how Gray and the four men in Sanborn’s parlor on that New Year’s Day  absorbed Darwin’s book.   Darwin himself is at best a background figure in the study.  Several familiar figures make occasional appearances, among them:  Frederick Douglass, renowned orator and “easily the most famous black man in America” (p.91); Bronson Alcott’s author-daughter Louisa May; and American philosophe Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend.  Emerson, like Louisa May and her father, was a Concord resident, and Fuller’s study takes place mostly there, with occasional forays to nearby Boston and Cambridge.

Fuller’s study is therefore more tightly circumscribed geographically than its title suggests.  He spends little time detailing the reaction to Darwin’s work in other parts of the United States, most conspicuously in the American South, where any work that might seem to support abolitionism and undermine slavery was anathema.   The study is also circumscribed in time; it takes place mostly in 1860, with most of the rest confined to the first half of the 1860s, up to the end of the American Civil War in 1865.  Fuller barely mentions what is sometimes called “Social Darwinism,” a notion that gained traction in the decades after the Civil War that purported to apply Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the competition between individuals in politics and economics, producing an argument for unregulated capitalism.

Rather, Fuller charts out the paths each of his five main characters traversed in absorbing and assimilating into their own worldviews the scientific, religious and political ramifications of Darwin’s work, particularly during the tumultuous year 1860.   All five were fervent abolitionists.   Sunburn was a co-conspirator in John Brown’s raid.  Thoreau gave a series of eloquent, impassioned speeches in support of Brown.  All were convinced that Darwin’s notion of natural selection had provided still another argument against slavery, based on science rather than morality or economics.  But in varying degrees, all five could also be considered adherents of transcendentalism, a mid-19th century philosophical approach that posited a form of human knowledge that goes beyond, or transcends, what can be seen, heard, tasted, touched or felt.

Although transcendentalists were almost by definition highly individualistic, most believed that a special force or intelligence stood behind nature and that prudential design ruled the universe.  Many subscribed to the notion that humans were the products of some sort of “special creation.”   Most saw God everywhere, and considered the human mind “resplendent with powers and insights wholly distinct from the external world” (p.54).  Transcendentalism was both an effort to invoke the divinity within man and, as Fuller puts it, also “cultural attack on a nation that had become too materialistic, too conformist, too smug about its place in history” (p.66).

Transcendentalism thus hovered in the background in 1860 as all but Sanborn wrestled with the implications of Darwinism (Sanborn spent much of the year fleeing federal authorities seeking his arrest for his role in John Brown’s raid).  Alcott never left transcendentalism, rejecting much of Darwinism.  Gray and Brace initially seemed to embrace Darwinian theories wholeheartedly, but in different ways each pulled back once he fully grasped the full implications of those theories.   Thoreau was the only one of the five who accepted wholly Darwinism’s most radical implications, using Darwin’s theories to “redirect his life’s work” (p.ix).

Fuller’s study thus combines a deep dive into the New England abolitionist milieu at a time when the United States was fracturing over the issue of slavery with a medium level dive into the intricacies of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.   But the story Fuller tells is anything but dry and abstract.  With an elegant writing style and an acute sense of detail, Fuller places his five men and their thinking about Darwin in their habitat, the frenetic world of 1860s New England.  In vivid passages, readers can almost feel the chilly January wind whistling through Franklin Sanborn’s parlor that New Year’s Day 1860, or envision the mud accumulating on Henry David Thoreau’s boots as he trudges through the melting snow in the woods on a March afternoon contemplating Darwin.  The result is a lively, easy-to-read narrative that nimbly mixes intellectual and everyday, ground-level history.

* * *

Bronson Alcott, described by Fuller as America’s most radical transcendentalist, never accepted the premises of On the Origins of Species.  Darwin had, in Alcott’s view, “reduced human life to chemistry, to mechanical processes, to vulgar materialism” (p.10).  To Alcott, Darwin seemed “morbidly attached to an amoral struggle of existence, which robbed humans of free will and ignored the promptings of the soul” (p.150). Alcott could not imagine a universe “so perversely cruel as to produce life without meaning.  Nor could he bear to live in a world that was reduced to the most tangible and daily phenomena, to random change and process”(p.188).  Asa Gray, one of America’s most eminent scientists, came to the same realization, but  only after thoroughly digesting Darwin and explaining his theories to a wide swath of the American public.

Gray’s initial reaction to Darwin’s work was one of unbounded enthusiasm.  Gray covered nearly every page of the book with his own annotations.  He admired the book because it “reinforced his conviction that inductive reasoning was the proper approach to science” (p.109).  He also admired the work’s “artfully modulated tone, [and] its modest voice, which softened the more audacious ideas rippling through the text” (p.17). Gray was most impressed with Darwin’s “careful judging and clear-eyed balancing of data” (p.110).  To grapple with Darwin’s ideas, Gray maintained, one had to “follow the evidence wherever it led, ignoring prior convictions and certainties or the narrative one wanted that evidence to confirm” (p.110).  Without saying so explicitly, Gray suggested that readers of Darwin’s book had to be “open to the possibility that everything they had taken for granted was in fact incorrect” (p.110).

Gray reviewed On the Origins of Species for the Atlantic Monthly in three parts, appearing  in the summer and fall of 1860.  Gray’s articles served as the first encounter with Darwin for many American readers.  The articles elicited a steady stream of letters from respectful readers.  Some responded with “unalloyed enthusiasm” for a new idea which “seemed to unlock the mysteries of nature” (p.134).  Others, however, “reacted with anger toward a theory that proposed to unravel . . . their belief in a divine Being who had placed humans at the summit of creation” (p.134).  But as Gray finished the third Atlantic article, he began to realize that he himself was not entirely at ease with the diminution of humanity’s place in the universe that Darwin’s work implied.

The third Atlantic article, appearing in October 1860, revealed Gray’s increasing difficulty in “aligning Darwin’s theory with his own religions convictions” (p.213).   Gray proposed that natural selection might be the “God’s chosen method of creation” (p.214).  This idea seemed to resolve the tension between scientific and religious accounts of origins, making Gray the first to develop a theological case for Darwinian theory.  But the idea that natural selection might be the process by which God had fashioned  the world represented what Fuller describes as a “stunning shift for Gray. Before now, he had always insisted that secondary causes were the only items science was qualified to address.  First, or final causes – the beginning of life, the creation of the universe – were the purview of religion: a matter of faith and metaphysics” (p.214).  Darwin responded to Gray’s conjectures by indicating that, as Fuller summarizes the written exchange, the natural world was “simply too murderous and too cruel to have been created by a just and merciful God” (p.211).

In the Atlantic articles, Fuller argues, Gray leapt “beyond his own rules of science, speculating about something that was untestable” (p.214-15 ).  Gray must have known that his argument “failed to adhere to his own definition of science” (p.216).  But, much like Bronson Alcott, Gray found it “impossible to live in the world Darwin had imagined: a world of chance, a world that did not require a God to operate” (p.216).  Charles Brace, a noted social reformer who founded several institutions for orphans and destitute children, greeted Darwin’s book  with an initial enthusiasm that rivaled that of Gray.

Brace  claimed to have read On the Origins of Species 13 times.  He was most attracted to the book for its implications for human societies, especially for American society, where nearly half the country accepted and defended human slavery.  Darwin’s book “confirmed Brace’s belief that environment played a crucial role in the moral life of humans” (p.11), and demonstrated that every person in the world, black, white, yellow, was related to every one else.  The theory of natural selection was thus for Brace the “latest argument against chattel slavery, a scientific claim that could be used in the most important controversy of his time, a clarion call for abolition” (p.39).

Brace produced a tract entitled The Races of the Old World, modeled after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which Fuller describes as a “sprawling, ramshackle work” (p.199).  Its central thesis was simple enough: “There is nothing . . . to prove the negro radically different from the other families of man or even mentally inferior to them” (p.199-200).  But much of The Races of the Old World seemed to undercut Brace’s central thesis.  Although the book never defined the term “race,” Brace “apparently believed that though all humans sprang from the same source, some races had degraded over time . . . Human races were not permanent” (p.199-200).  Brace thus struggled to make Darwin’s theory fit his own ideas about race and slavery. “He increasingly bent facts to fit his own speculations” (p.197), as Fuller puts it.

The Races of the Old World revealed Brace’s hesitation in imagining a multi-racial America. He couched in Darwinian terms the difficulty of the races cohabiting,  reverting to what Fuller describes as nonsense about blacks not being conditioned to survive in the colder Northern climate.  Brace “firmly believed in the emancipation of slaves, and he was equally convinced that blacks and white did not differ in their mental capacities” (p.202).  But he nonetheless worried that “race mixing,” or what was then termed race “amalgamation,” might imperil Anglo-Saxon America, the “apex of development. . . God’s favored nation, a place where democracy and Christianity had fused to create the world’s best hope” (p.202).  Brace joined many other leading abolitionists in opposing race “amalgamation.”  His conclusion that “black and brown-skinned people inhabited a lower run on the ladder of civilization” was shared, Fuller indicates, by “even the most enlightened New England abolitionists” (p.57).

No such misgivings visited Thoreau, who  grappled with On the Origins of Species “as thoroughly and as insightfully as any American of the period” (p.11).  As Thoreau first read his copy of the book in late January 1860,  a “new universe took form on the rectangular page before him” (p.75).  Prior to his encounter with Darwin, Thoreau’s thought had often “bordered on the nostalgic.  He longed for the transcendentalist’s confidence in a natural world infused with spirit” (p.157).  But Darwin led Thoreau beyond nostalgia.

Thoreau was struck in particular by Darwin’s portrayal of the struggle among species as an engine of creation.  The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, in constant transformation.  Darwin’s book directed Thoreau’s attention “away from fixed concepts and hierarchies toward movement instead” (p.144-45).  The idea of struggle among species “undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations” (p.137).  Thoreau had “long suspected that people were an intrinsic part of nature – neither separate nor entirely alienated from it” (p.155).  Darwin now enabled Thoreau to see how “people and the environment worked together to fashion the world,” providing a “scientific foundation for Thoreau’s belief that humans and nature were part of the same continuum” (p.155).

Darwin’s natural selection, Thoreau wrote, “implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation” (p.246).  The phrase “constant new creation” in Fuller’s view represents an “epoch in American thought” because it “no longer relies upon divinity to explain the natural world” (p.246).  Darwin thus propelled Thoreau to a radical vision in which there was “no force or intelligence behind Nature, directing its course in a determined and purposeful manner.  Nature just was” (p.246-47).

How far Thoreau would have taken these ideas is impossible to know. He became sick in December 1860, stricken with influenza, exacerbated by tuberculosis, and died in June 1862, with Americans fighting other Americans on the battlefield over the issue of slavery.

* * *

            Fuller compares Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to a Trojan horse.  It entered American culture “using the newly prestigious language of science, only to attack, once inside, the nation’s cherished beliefs. . . With special and desolating force, it combated the idea that God had placed humans at the peak of creation” (p.213).  That the book’s attack did not spare even New England’s best known abolitionists and transcendentalists demonstrates just how unsettling the attack was.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 18, 2020

 

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, History, Political Theory, Religion, Science, United States History

Mid-Life Embrace of Judaism

Einstein.1

Einstein.2

Steven Gimbel, Einstein: His Space and Time 

            In Einstein: His Space and Time, Steven Gimbel, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, offers a highly compact biography of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), well under 200 pages. With numerous Einstein biographies already available, Gimbel’s special angle lies in his emphasis upon Einstein’s Jewish roots – fittingly, since the work is one in the Yale University Press series “Jewish Lives” (and I can’t help wondering whether the editors of the series might be tempted to rename the series “Jewish Lives Matter”). Einstein was born into a Jewish family that Gimbel describes as “anti-observant” rather than simply “non-observant” (p.8). In 1896, as a 17 year old, Einstein repudiated his Jewish heritage at the same time that he renounced his German citizenship. But he embraced Judaism enthusiastically in the 1920s, when he was over 40 years old, realizing that his Jewish heritage was an “inalienable part of who he was and who he was perceived to be” (p.4). As an adult, Einstein lived in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States — along with a short stint in Prague – but disdained the notion of national identity and was never really at home anywhere. In Gimbel’s account, Einstein’s midlife embrace of Judaism provided him with a sense of rootedness he failed to find in national identity or the places he lived.

     Gimbel provides a sharp chronological structure to his overview of Einstein’s life, dividing his book  into four major segments: Einstein’s  early years, from his birth in Ulm, Germany in 1879, to 1905, when he received his PhD degree in physics while working as an examiner in Switzerland’s patent office in Bern; 1905 to 1920, when he rose from the obscurity of a patent officer to international acclaim through his breakthrough theories altering the way we look at space, time, and the universe, to borrow from Gimbel’s subtly clever sub-title; 1920 to 1933, when Einstein embraced Judaism during the Weimar Republic, Germany’s experiment in liberal democracy established after the shock of its defeat in World War I; and 1933-55, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Einstein’s decision to leave Germany for the United States, where he remained until  his death.  Gimbel’s discussion of the major theories in physics that made Einstein a world famous scientist in his own day and a nearly mythological figure today is limited and laudably designed to be understandable to the average reader. Some readers may nonetheless find these portions of this concise volume slow going. But few should experience any such challenges in absorbing Gimbel’s highly readable account of how Einstein’s Jewish heritage shaped his views of the world and the universe.

* * *

    Einstein’s father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer.  His mother,  Pauline Koch, was a “stay-at-home mom” in today’s parlance whom Gimbel describes as “[s]trong-willed, strong-minded, and sharp tongued” (p.7-8).  In 1880, when Albert was one year old, his parents moved from Ulm to Munich, where young Albert entered a Catholic school a few years later. He began to play the violin at age six and throughout his life considered music “spiritual in the deepest sense” (p.13). When Einstein was in his teens, his family left Munich to pursue business opportunities in Italy. Einstein finished  secondary school in Aarau Switzerland, at the Arovian cantonal gymnasium.

     To avoid military service, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and surrendered his German passport in 1896, ostentatiously renouncing Judaism at that same time.  Later that year, he enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH in German) in Zurich, studying math and physics. Zurich in Einstein’s university days was a “cosmopolitan playground filled with young people from across the Continent,” where radical new ideas were “in the air, and a sense of openness abounded” (p.22).

     Einstein’s future wife, Mileva Marić, a Serbian national, also enrolled at ETH in 1896. Mileva was the only woman in the math and physics section of the school. She was somewhat like Einstein’s mother, Gimbel indicates, “smart, sarcastic and strong willed” (p.23), with a passion for physics that rivaled that of Einstein. Her friendship with Einstein transformed into romance during their four years together at ETH. Unlike Einstein, however, who was awarded his degree in 1900, Mileva, did not achieve a sufficient level in her studies to warrant a degree. Gimbel describes the Einstein who left ETH in 1900 as a “complicated personality,” brimming with self-confidence and a “strange combination of arrogance and empathy” (p.73). But the young physics graduate searched for work for nearly two years before securing a job as an assistant examiner in the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern, where he evaluated patent applications.

     Sometime prior to 1903, Mileva became pregnant and went back to Serbia to have the baby, named Liserl. It is not clear what happened to Liserl. As Gimbel explains:

The custom at that time was for the children of unmarried parents to be adopted, usually by a family member or a close friend.  This seems to have occurred, as news of Liesrl continued in correspondence for a little while.  Mileva moved back to Zurich, where she received word that Liersrl had contracted scarlet fever.  We do not know whether she survived. . . but we do know that Einstein never met his daughter (p.30).

Einstein and Mileva married in 1903, and the couple had two sons, Hans Albert and Edouard.

* * *

     While working in the patent office, Einstein studied at the University of Zurich for the PhD degree, which he earned in 1905. In a chapter entitled “The Miracle Year,” Gimbel explains how, in March, April and May of 1905, Einstein published three groundbreaking papers which provided new, revolutionary ways to view matter, light and space. At that time, Issac Newton’s late 17th century mechanical view of the universe as composed of space, time, motion, mass and energy was the entrenched bedrock of physics upon which to build and expand. Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation had “explained the falling of apples and the orbits of planets, the motion of comets and the rising of the tides” (p.59). His work was considered the “highest expression of the human mind in all recorded history” (p.59).

     Einstein demonstrated in 1905 the centrality of the atom to all of physics. Many physicists in the early 20th century did not accept theories of physics based on the atomic view of matter. Einstein’s work on atoms “got to the basic constituents of matter and accounted for the concepts of heat in thermodynamics” (p.67). In addition, Einstein presented a new picture of light as a force of constant speed. He contended that physics must “take as a starting point that the speed of light in a vacuum is always the same for all observers, no matter their state of motion with regard to the source” (p.54). The speed of light is “not only a constant, it is also a limiting velocity. Nothing can move faster than this speed. . . moving faster than the speed of light would require an infinite amount of energy, and that is not possible. Nothing can move faster than light in a vacuum” (p.57).

     Einstein’s work on light “revolutionized optics” (p.67). It led Einstein to establish the equivalence of mass and energy, as captured in the famous equation E = MC2, where the mass of the body is a measure of its energy content. Einstein’s three 1905 papers, Gimbel writes, left “no single part of the study of physics, the oldest and most established science, which Eistein did not seek to completely overhaul” (p.59).   Yet, the papers of Einstein’s miracle year failed to attract significant attention, in part because they came from an obscure 26-year-old patent examiner, not a recognized academic physicist.

     Einstein spent the succeeding years looking for a teaching position and over the course of the next decade became an academic vagabond. He found positions in Bern, Zurich, and Prague before returning to Germany in 1914, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin.  1914 was also the fateful year when World War I broke out. At the start of the war, Einstein saw his “worst fears regarding the German character coming true. Not only was there a sense that offensive military adventures were justified in the name of German ascendance, but there was near universal support for them” (p.91).

     Yet, the World War I years were among Einstein’s most productive. One hundred years ago this year, in 1916, Einstein published “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity,” in which his signature theory of relativity jelled — a “radical revision of our understanding of the nature of the universe itself” (p.89). At the heart of the theory was the notion that the “laws of physics should be the same for all observers who are moving at a constant speed in a straight line with respect to each other” (p.54). Gimbel terms Einstein’s insight a “triumph of elegance and imagination . . . Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation, space, time, and motion had dominated physics for three hundred years, standing as the single greatest achievement in the history of science. Here was its successor” (p.89).

     Einstein’s theory of relativity attracted world attention in a way that his 1905 papers had not quite done. With the European powers at war with one another, Einstein’s theories of space, time and the universe “caught the fancy of a world tired of thinking about mankind as barbarians and eager to celebrate its creativity and insight. And at the center of it was this curious, unkempt, wisecracking figure who seemed to stand for a different side of humanity” (p.100).

* * *

     As the European powers fought World War I, Einstein began an affair with his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, a divorced mother of two daughters. Mileva returned to Zurich with the couple’s two sons after discovering the affair, and she and Einstein divorced in 1919. Months later, Einstein married Elsa. In Elsa, Einstein saw the opposite of Mileva. Whereas Mileva sought to be a gender-barrier-breaking pioneer and Einstein’s intellectual partner, Elsa, with her “simple charm” and “sunny disposition” put her cousin on a pedestal, “never invading his work but instead caring for his more basic needs” (p.95). Until her death in 1936, Elsa assumed a role which Gimbel describes as Einstein’s “business manager,” serving as his gatekeeper and screening the many people “clamoring to have face time, interviews, and collaboration”with  her husband (p.95).

     In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, Einstein became what Gimbel describes as a symbol of “scientific cosmopolitanism. He was adored, inspiring poems and architecturally bizarre buildings. His science, combined with his politics during the war, gave him the status of the wise elder statesman among young rebels. The fact that people did not understand his theory of relativity did not diminish his social capital; to the contrary, it increased it. By being the keeper of the mystery, he was considered the high priest of modernism” (p.113). But a toxic anti-Semitism plagued Weimar Germany from the beginning, from which even non-observant Jews like Einstein were not immune.

* * *

     During the Weimar years, Einstein began to “view his Jewishness in a new light” (p.109). He was able, as Gimbel puts it, to “become Jewish again in his own mind without having to surrender the scientific world view, the personal ethic, or the metaphysical foundations upon which he rested his physical theories. Being Jewish became . . . an inalienable aspect of his being” (p.109). Weimar anti-Semitism no doubt played a role in leading Einstein to the view that the experiences of Jews everywhere had “core commonalities that united them into a nation” (p.121). Einstein’s rediscovery of his Jewish roots in the early 1920s thus awakened his interest in Zionism, with its aspiration for a Jewish community in Palestine, an aspiration which Einstein had previously resisted.

     Zionism was “not a natural fit for Einstein, who, to the core of his being, opposed every form of nationalism” (p.121). Einstein worried that Zionism would “rob Judaism of its moral core. . . If Zionism became a movement that was focused on the idolatry of a particular piece of land, then the emergence of all of the evils that have plagued Jews across the globe for thousands of years would find a new source in Jews themselves” (p.124). But Einstein seemed to modify his views after a trip to Tel Aviv in the 1920s.  The “accomplishments by the Jews in but a few years” in Tel Aviv, Einstein wrote, elicited his “highest admiration. A modern Hebrew city with busy economic and intellectual life shoots up from the bare ground. What an incredibly lively people our Jews are!” (p.137). Unlike many Zionists of the day, however, Einstein emphasized the importance of achieving parity between the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine.

       Einstein’s first trip to the United States took place in 1921, where he traveled with Chaim Weizmann, the famed Zionist leader who later became the first President of the State of Israel.  Unbeknownst to Einstein, Weizmann was using Einstein not only to raise money for the Zionist cause but also to ward off a challenge from American Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis for leadership in the worldwide Zionist movement. Einstein’s trip to America failed to raise anywhere near the amount of money that Weizmann had hoped, but an “unintended result” of the trip was to “strengthen Einstein’s identity as a Jew” (p.130). Einstein wrote that it was in America that he “first discovered the Jewish people. . . [coming] from Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe generally. . . I found these people extraordinarily ready for self-sacrifice and practically creative” (p.130).

      Einstein visited the United States frequently during the Weimar years and took part time positions at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, in the early 1930s. Teaching at Cal Tech when Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein chose to remain in the United States. In 1935, he obtained a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained until his death in 1955.

* * *

    Einstein’s years at Princeton are treated cursorily in this short volume, almost as an epilogue.  Gimbal discusses how Einstein’s concern that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb prompted him to co-sign a letter to President Roosevelt, urging Roosevelt to pre-empt the German effort. This led to the Manhattan Project, in which Einstein was not directly involved. Horrified by the actual use of nuclear weaponry in Japan in 1945, Einstein came to regret his limited role in unleashing this awesome force. Supposedly, he remarked, “I could burn my fingers that I wrote that letter to Roosevelt” (p172), although this quotation has not been verified. Gimbal also notes that Einstein became an ardent supporter of civil rights, seeing similarities between the treatment of African Americans in the United States and Jews in Europe. His support for civil rights prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to open a file on him.

* * *

     Einstein’s last years at Princeton were spent writing and speaking for pacifistic causes, working to help Jewish refugees flee Europe, and continuing to work on a grand unified theory of the universe.  On his deathbed, Einstein uttered a single sentence in German, his native tongue, before he passed away.  An American nurse heard his words but could not understand them.  “In death  as in life,” Gimbel concludes, “Albert Einstein left us a mystery” (p.177).

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 5, 2016

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, Religion, Science

Dummy for Science

Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature 

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

I revere science.  Those who know me know there is much irony in that simple sentence.  Here’s the sorry record: I struggled with high school chemistry, knowing throughout that I was in way over my head.  I dropped out of high school physics, realizing early on that I was even further over my head and headed toward a failing grade.  In an overall lackluster undergraduate academic career, by far my worst grade came in fulfilling the science requirement during my sophomore year in introductory geology, affectionately known as Rocks I — a science course deliberately tailored to the scientifically challenged.  I never again came close to a science course.  Yet, I revere science.  So I was drawn to Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature,” and Steven Shapin’s “The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.”   Although both are about science, these are very different books: Ferris treats how the scientific spirit influences democratic governance; Shapin addresses how the scientist fits into our society.

A professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, Ferris contends that the rise of modern science and the scientific spirit are linked to democratic governance.  The democratic revolution, Ferris argues, was “sparked – caused is perhaps not too strong a word – by the scientific revolution.”  Science “continues to foster political freedom today. . . [S]cientific skepticism is corrosive to authoritarianism and . . .scientific experimentation provides a better model for governance than any of the systems that preceded it”  (p.2).

Shapin, a professor at Harvard specializing in the history of science, describes the role and perception of the scientist in Western societies, particularly the United States, from the mid-19th century to the present day.  During this time, a career in science transformed from a calling to a job.  Scientists enjoyed an exalted role in the 19th century, when they were likened to philosophers whose calling was to discover the laws of nature.  This role gradually yielded to one more in keeping with modern democratic sensibilities, where scientists began to work in large corporations and government, advancing corporate and governmental interests rather than simply pursuing scientific knowledge for its own sake.  In the process, the scientist came to be perceived as being on the same moral plane as the engineer, insurance salesman and automobile mechanic.  Shapin terms this the “moral ordinariness” of the scientist.

I

It is important to note what Timothy Ferris’ book is not about.  It is not an argument for utilizing the scientific method to resolve the problems democracies must confront.  Nor is it an argument for government by technocrats.  It does not emphasize technical expertise as the key to democratic governance.  Rather, to be successful, democracies need the same open-minded, open-to-change spirit which characterizes scientific inquiry.  Both science and democracy “start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof” (p.13).  Like scientific experiments, democracies tend to be “untidy, patched up affairs that seldom work out as expected.” Although repellent perhaps to the perfectionist, democracy has proven to be “tougher, more resilient, and better able to answer the needs of its citizens than any other.” And that is because democracy, like science, is “not built on hopes of human perfection but on an acknowledgement of human fallibility” (p.103).  Indeed, claims of perfection are anti-scientific and anti-democratic.  “The scientist who claims his theory is perfect is a crank; the politician who claims his administration is perfect is a tyrant” (p.14).

Although written well before the outbreak of democratic sentiment in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere during the “Arab spring,” Ferris’ view of science leads him emphatically to the conclusion that democracy is not inherently Western.   Just as science is “practiced by persons of all races and religious beliefs, speaks a universal language, and evaluates results on the basis of merits rather than place of origin,” democracy is the province of “no particular culture but belongs to everyone willing to plant and cultivate it” (p.13).

Democracy first appeared in states where science and technology were most advanced, Ferris argues, in England, America and the Netherlands (and “more fitfully” in France, Italy and Germany) because “science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in turn rewarded them with knowledge, wealth and power” (p.7). The notion of democracy gained strength in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when philosophers turned away from traditional beliefs and toward the  values of inquiry, invention and improvement.  Although other forces were at work, the Enlightenment without science would have been a ”steamship without steam” (p.57).

Ferris addresses what might appear to be an obstacle standing in the way of showing how science is integrally linked to the 18th century Enlightenment and its democratic revolution: the huge influence that France had on the Enlightenment, and the undemocratic character of much of what passed under the banner of the French Revolution.  Ferris sees the French Revolution as profoundly anti-scientific, the progenitor of modern totalitarianism at least as much as of modern democracy.  French revolutionaries “neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism – that the key to success is to experiment and abide by the results – assuming instead that the point of a revolution was to implement a particular philosophy” (p.113).   The French philosophes  were inclined to regard science as subordinate to philosophy, “bounded by the rules laid down by philosophers past,” thereby downplaying science’s “creativity and its political implications” (p.114).

At the forefront of this anti-scientific philosophy was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who all but dominated French thought from 1760 on and, more than anyone else, invented Romanticism – a “Manichean world view that champions sentiment over logic, caprice over common sense, instinct over civilization, and mysticism over clarity” (p. 115-116).  Ferris’ indictment of Rousseau is scathing.  Rousseau’s “fact-free thought” created a “new and pernicious style of philosophizing – one that consists of basing real world arguments on bald fictions, then retreating into a wounded obscurantism should anyone question the legitimacy of the enterprise” (p.125). The fascist ideal of an “all-powerful ruler who embodies the spirit of the people came straight from Rousseau,” Ferris argues (p.126).  This is a controversial view which many experts reject, but one with which I agree.

So how does the scientific sprit animate democratic governance in, to choose one example randomly, the 21st century United States?  What can that spirit tell us about whether we should surtax billionaires, discontinue tax breaks for oil companies, turn Medicare into a voucher program, or cut the Defense Department budget?  Ferris’ scientific spirit provides a means to answer these and broader questions about the proper role of government regulation in a democratic economy.  Ferris quotes approvingly John Stuart Mill, whose mixed feelings about government intervention in economic matters plainly parallel his own.  “There are some things with which government ought not to meddle, and other things with which they ought,” all the while conceding that the question of which is which “does not . . . admit of any universal solution.” (p.181).  Ferris suggests that democratic societies must find the right balance between Hayek and Keynes, through a utilitarian trial-and-error process.

Portions of Ferris’ argument seem libertarian in nature, compatible with the current Republican vision of a smaller state, with less government regulation and a relatively weak social safety system.  He extols Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was one of the very rare works which “actually, substantially, and almost immediately started improving the quality of human life and thought,” (174) to the point that its precepts now strike us as “largely self-evident.” (p.175).  Smith advocated regulations and other legal restrictions on economic activity “only insofar as they are required to keep the market fair and free” (p.177).  The beauty of the Smith’s free market, Ferris argues, is that it “benefits society as a whole without requiring its participants to act out of any loftier motive than self interest.” (p.177).  Free markets, “provided that they are kept aboveboard, are more efficient, and grow economies faster, than do markets that are excessively regulated, controlled, or shielded from competition” (p.187).   He emphasizes that in many developing nations, “needless government regulation has driven the majority of economic activity off the radar screens and tax rolls” (p.165).

Although tempted by libertarianism, the scientific spirit leads Ferris away from a dogmatic adherence to unfettered markets as the key to democratic success.  He cites polls that indicate that “those living in nations that distribute their income the most equitably report themselves happiest: The inhabitants of relatively socialistic nations like Iceland, Holland, Finland and Sweden show up happier than Americans, although Americans make more money” (p.155).  Further, “over the past half century the American economy has performed better under Democratic than Republican administrations” (p.185).  Ferris concludes, as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill anticipated, that there is “no one right solution for all peoples when it comes to the proper economic role of government.”  Liberal democracies may and should vacillate between Hayek and Keynes as they seek to reach the most effective degree of government involvement in the economy and extent of their social safety nets.

There are good discussions here of why real science cannot thrive in totalitarian environments, Nazi or Soviet.  (p.199-203).  There is “no socialist science, no Western or Eastern science, no capitalist or communist or feminist or ethnic science.  There’s just science and while one scientist may do it better or worse than the next, nobody can simply invent a different science and expect it to complete successfully with the real thing” (p.209).

Ferris launches an effective assault on anti-science attitudes which one finds in some academic circles, “deconstructionism, multiculturalism, cultural studies,” which Ferris lumps together as “postmodernism.”  These approaches “became so popular that generations of educators came to believe, and continue to teach their students today, that science is culturally conditioned and politically suspect – the oppressive tool of white Western males, in one formulation.”  (p.237).  This is strong stuff, but I found myself in agreement.  However, I left this discussion thinking that Ferris was also going to hammer the anti-science attitudes that pervade wide swaths of today’s Republican party, those who believe that evolution is just another theory of the origins of life, to be considered on equal grounds with Biblical and semi-religious accounts; or that global warming and climate change are matters stirred up by Al Gore and a band of conspiring, self-aggrandizing environmental extremists.  Although he discusses the climate change controversy, he barely touches on the widespread denial of evolution within much of today’s Republican base.  I would have preferred a little more punching here.

II

Stephen Shapin’s book starts in the mid-19th century, when the scientist was a lonely outsider, working individually on “pure” science, with little expectation of pecuniary reward for his labor (almost all scientists were male in the mid-19th century, a situation which has changed some but not all that much since that time).  Charles Darwin, the century’s most famous scientist, embodied the notion of the “gentleman-amateur.”  Darwin was “never employed to produce scientific knowledge, nor was the knowledge he produced designed to be of use to the contemporary structures of power and profit” (p.42).  The scientist’s role was likened to that of a philosopher whose calling was to discover the Laws of Nature — a higher calling than simply applying those laws.

This exalted role and perception of the scientist changed in the late 19th and early  20th centuries, as industrialization transformed western societies and scientists began to work first for major corporations like Bell Telephone, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak, and then government.  In the corporate world, scientists usually worked in teams rather than individually, applying their expertise to advance the corporation’s interest in greater profits.  Gradually, scientists lost their affinity to philosophers and became more like engineers and technicians, “morally no different from anyone else”  (p.23).  Knowing about nature was, Shapin writes, “no longer like knowing a divinely written book, but like knowing how a car engine worked” (p.25).  This “moral ordinariness” of the scientist is a projection of modern “democratic sensibilities,” suited to “both the quantitative expansions of the scientific role and to changing institutional circumstances in which scientists increasingly found themselves – handmaids to the creation of wealth and enhancement of power” (p.127).

The mobilization of science during World War II –especially the Manhattan project — proved to be a definitive turning point in altering the role and perception of the scientist, bringing about “massive changes in the social and cultural realities of American science, in understandings of what science was and who the scientist was” (p.64).  The war:

propelled a generation of academic scientists into a world that was generally unfamiliar to them: the experience of large-scale organization; of teamwork; of interdisciplinary research; of unlimited resources and severely limited time; of close contact with the sorts of people – especially the military and the commercial worlds – they had not known much about; and, after the end of the war and the beginning of the Cold War, the experience – for some of them – of political power (p.64-65).

Yet, as scientists began to fit ever more easily into corporate and government molds, an “emotionally charged” debate took place throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s over the role of the scientist, with many looking nostalgically at the lost role of the pure, 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist.  According to one “classical trope,” the capacity to produce “genuine scientific knowledge” was only compatible with the “virtues of the free-acting individual” (p.173).  Organized research was said to be a “prostitution of the very idea of science and a visible index of how modernity was going disastrously wrong” (p.96).

The best expression of this mid-century angst was William White’s The Organization Man, published in 1956Whyte saw the “individualism of the Protestant Ethic” being “systematically subverted” by the “deadening hand of corporate collectivism” (p.175).  Whyte’s book came out in the midst of the Cold War, and was one of several works that contended that attempts to transform the making of scientific knowledge into a formally organized endeavor “could succeed only by sacrificing Truth, Progress and ultimately Power” (p.173).  Were Galileo and Einstein alive in the mid-1950s, biochemist Erwin Chargaff wrote wistfully, they “might never get themselves funded by a Federal grant: too individualistic” (p.173).

In the Cold War and McCarthyite context, the scientist was seen as being at the heart of a struggle between “authentic American individualism and the dark forces of conformity and collectivism” (p.120).  The “defense of scientific individualism became a powerful way of reminding American society how much its security and welfare depended upon some of its least sociable and least conforming members” (p.177).  In 1953, Fortune Magazine wrote that the scientist, “particularly the most gifted is, by almost any definition, a maverick. His endowments, drives, interests, political opinions, and even religious beliefs are not, in most cases, those of the majority of society” (p.182).

While Big Science, as it was called, was “celebrated, condemned, and recurrently treated either as a major achievement or a major problem” (p.95), it continued to flourish unabated in major corporations, government, and academic research laboratories.  In 1965, one commentator wrote that the scientist of the day was “typically an ‘organization man’” (p.197).  A corporate science research section touted its virtues:  “No geniuses here; just a bunch of average Americans working together” (p.177). A GE research manager wrote that, as a general rule, “no laboratory can afford to hire men who lack the generous spirit of cooperation” (p.184).   By the mid-1970s, the debate was over: Big Science had won and America had come to terms with the scientific profession as a “route to a comfortably bourgeois style of living” (p.209).

In the last section, Shapin treats the more recent alignment between venture capitalists and scientists, particularly those involved in information and biotechnology.  In what might be termed a new paradigm, the scientist is no longer part of a gigantic corporation.  He or she seeks to help launch a small to medium size business and, often, to run or have a major role in running the enterprise.  This section reads in part like a manual on how to convince the venture capitalist to underwrite and market scientists’ innovative ideas.   The key is to sell oneself as much as one’s ideas.  “Bet on the jockey, not the horse,” is a famous proverb of the venture capitalist world.  “Jockeys live longer than horses, and they’re the ones that have got to steer the horse, to correct the errors of its ways, and to make adaptations to course conditions and the behavior of rival horses” (p.291).  And, especially, avoid the term “new paradigm.”  As one venture capitalist put it, “[I]f I had a dime for every company that has told me it was the new paradigm, I would be rich enough to pay Bill Gates’s legal bill” (p. 290).

III

If there is a link between these otherwise very different books, it probably lies in Shapin’s notion of the moral ordinariness of the scientist and the compatibility of this notion with modern democratic sensibilities.  There is a rough parallel between the demise of the 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist and the expansion of the right to vote beyond its 18th and early 19th century restriction to white male property holders.  As scientists became less like philosopher kings and more like insurance salesmen, so too the expanding franchise brought the property-less, blacks and women to the ballot box.  Today, no one would question the factory worker having the same access to the ballot as the factory owner.  There is a moral ordinariness to all of us in the voting booth.

Nonetheless, Shapin would likely agree with Gary Rosen, who argued in his perceptive review of Ferris’ book that science remains a sort of an aristocracy. “Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded,” Rosen wrote (New York Times Book Review, February 10, 2010).  Thankfully, he concluded, “participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a PhD, nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.”

Ideally, rationality and an empirical weighing of choices, roughly analogous to the scientific method, should drive the functioning of our democracy.  But it is difficult to see this degree of rationality at work in today’s cantankerous democratic processes, whether at the ballot boxes or in the halls of Congress.  It is easy to agree with Ferris that science and democratic evolution have historically been mutually re-enforcing.  But science’s influence on contemporary democratic practice seems more suspect.  Further, there is universality to science — as Ferris says, no Eastern or Western science, “just science.”  Democracy, however, is shaped by profoundly idiosyncratic factors, such as history, culture, and tradition.  India, Sweden and the United States are all democracies, yet are far from carbon copies of one another.

Ferris’ interpretation nonetheless provides us with plenty to think about, and I hope his book will prove to be a major contribution to our understanding of how democracy evolved.  Shapin candidly states that his book is primarily for academic historians and social scientists, unlikely to be of interest to the general reader.  But this general reader was pleased to have taken the plunge, finding his work surprisingly engrossing.  Both works enhance a reverence not only for science but also for creative thinking.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 20, 2012

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