Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

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.

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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.

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            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

Soul Reaction

marks.good

Steven Marks, How Russia Shaped the Modern World:
From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism 

                   From the autocracy of the Tsars to the totalitarianism of Stalinist communism, and on to the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, over the last two centuries, Russia (and the Soviet Union, when it existed), have charted a path politically well removed from that of the democracies of Western Europe and North America. But if Russia has been depressingly resistant to the democratizing currents of the West, I have always assumed and never doubted for a moment that Russia was a indispensable part of European culture, a huge contributor to its every aspect, literature and art, music and dance and more. Steven Marks’ “How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism,” which first appeared in 2003, did not dispel that assumption but added a new twist to my understanding of Russia’s contribution to both European and world culture.

               Marks, a Russian history specialist at Clemson University, argues that since the late 19th century, Russians have shaped the modern world by leading the reaction to it. Throughout this period, Russian art and literature, as well as its politics, have had the common characteristic of being in opposition to the liberal, individualistic, capitalist ethos of the West. Marks characterizes these tendencies across diverse areas as “rejectionism,” frequently encapsulating them in an elusive notion termed the “soul of Russia.” There was, he writes, a “perception of tsarist Russian and Soviet thought as Eastern and exotic, which made it especially appealing beyond the empire’s borders. This was the strain of ‘Orientalism’ that was embraced as an antidote to modern civilization” (p.4). This theme runs through his analyses of Russian anarchistic 19th century political thought, literature – especially the giants Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – anti-Semitism, dance, visual arts and music. He finishes with the Leninist Bolshevik project. On each topic, Marks shows Russian influence throughout the world; he does not limit his study to Western Europe and North America.

               Marks writes for the general reader. His scope is breathtakingly broad, with a dizzying series of short portraits of Russian luminaries in each of the areas he treats. Experts may contend that he overstates or oversimplifies the extent and nature of Russian influence in some of these areas. But readers wishing to consider a different perspective on the soul of Russia and the Russian contribution to world thinking and artistic expression should find the book highly engaging.

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                Marks starts with the Russian anarchists of the late 19th century and finishes with those pesky Bolsheviks who took the reins of power in 1917 and set Russia off on a nearly 75-year experiment known as the Soviet Union. The opening chapters on Russian anarchism were for me the book’s most captivating. Anarchism was a branch of socialism that arose in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century as a “combined legacy of the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of humankind and the Romantic fervor for noble savages and stormy rebelliousness” (p.7), Marks writes.

          By the 1860s, Russia had become the acknowledged international leader of the anarchist movement and its opposition to state power and bourgeois industrialism, the “ills of which were often . . . more apparent than the benefits” (p.7). Anarchism was the “first Russian intellectual movement to have a significant international impact. Its glorious promises for society’s future electrified followers around the world, and the organizational and killing methods developed by Russian revolutionary adherents to fight the tsarist regime marked the birth of modern terrorism” (p.7).

            The most prominent of the anarchists were Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin.  Although Bakunin and his followers were atheists, Bakunin “worshipped the peasant masses as the vessels of the Absolute” (p.10). Bakunin thus tapped into the soul of Russia cult, infusing his ideas with “spiritual yearning and secular ideological substitutes for religiosity . . . Religious messianism was transferred to the revolutionary movement, a process Bakunin embodied” (p.8). Freedom for Bakunin was a “mystical notion” derived from Russian Orthodox metaphysics which “required not the preservation of individualism bur rather its total dissolution in a collective form of unity that would free humankind from the suffering brought on by the selfish competitiveness of the capitalist bourgeoisie” (p.11).

                Bakuninst anarchism went on to become an important rejectionist force in Italian politics from the 1870s to the 1920s. Gavrilo Princep and his fellow Serbian ultra-nationalists fed on Russian conspiratorial-revolutionary-anarchist literature. Poles, Armenians, Macedonians and Serbs formed the earliest organized terrorist movements outside Russia to serve the cause of national liberation. Political terrorism came to be known as the “Russian method.” Although anarchism sought to shield the individual from the depredations of state power, Bakunin was a “closet authoritarian who thought a dictatorship was necessary to organize the future communal society” (p.11).

          Although less well known than Bakunin, Kropotkin was more eccentric and offered a far softer version of anarchism. Kropotkin challenged the understanding of Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin of competitive relations between and among species. For Kropotkin, nature is not a struggle between individuals, but a “struggle between individuals and the environment.” The fittest are not the strongest, but “those who have learned to live cooperatively” (p.41). Kropotkin’s utopian solution relied on the Russian peasant commune as the “prototype of the ideal form for the future organization of humanity” (p.42). Kropotkin’s slogan was “to every man according to his needs,” and he called his program “anarchist communist” because of its emphasis upon cooperative organization.

                  Kropotkin’s communitarian vision gave rise to certain strains of Western urban planning in the 1920s, such as creation of garden cities and back-to-the-land alternatives to city life, and foreshadowed the contemporary ecological movement. Kropotkin’s radical ideas even account “partially” for the “ancestry of certain features of the modern American suburban landscape” (p.48), Marks asserts. When Kropotkin died, his funeral was the occasion for the “last mass demonstration against Bolshevism” (p.53).

         Many leftist intellectuals projected their anarchist, pro-peasant soul-of-Russia views onto the Bolshevik Revolution. Few “understood that Lenin and Trotsky were autocratic. Most believed that the Bolshevik leaders were implementing the decentralizing, anarchist agenda that had long been recognized as the hallmark of Russian radicalism” (p.284). With good reason, then, those on the outside often saw little difference between Russian anarchism and Bolshevism. Marks shows how Lenin used ideas drawn from the anarchists when useful to him. Stalin, for his part, added a “theocratic and Russian chauvinist imprint to Soviet official culture” (p.279).

               Marks treats the familiar and always fascinating theme of the early Western attraction to the Soviet experiment. Carrying forward prerevolutionary stereotypes of “soulful Russia as a repository of Eastern wisdom and collectivism” (p.282), Western intellectuals were surprisingly “prone to messianic delusions,” with an “astonishing capacity for fooling themselves” (p.285-86). Upon reviewing Stalin’s industrialization efforts, John Dewey commented that he felt, “as if for the first time the moving spirit and force of primitive Christianity” (p.285). British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb lauded the “entirely ‘new civilization’’ which Stalin was in the process of creating, with a “truly democratic system of representation” (p.285), while George Bernard Shaw insisted that Stalin was “simply secretary of the supreme controlling organ of the hierarchy, subject to dismissal at ten minutes’ notice if he does not give satisfaction” (p.286).

         Marks finishes with a chapter on the influence of Russian Bolshevism outside the Soviet Union, mostly a discussion of the degree to which lesser developed countries adopted the Russian model of socialism. In the years immediately following the Bolshevik revolution, intellectuals from what came to be known as “Third World,” “reacting to their own countries’ trauma in the throes of modernization or imperialism, were similarly attracted to Russian culture and ideology. They, too, perceived Russia, despite a thin European veneer, as being non-Western, and thus close in spirit to their own experiences” (p.4-5).

                The chapter on Russian anti-Semitism is extremely dark. To a surprising degree, Marks argues, 20th century European anti-Semitism was a Russian import. By the end of the 19th century, Russia had the world’s largest Jewish population, and anti-Semitism was stronger in Russia than in the West. Tsarist Russia maintained an apartheid-like regime, buttressed by Jim Crow legislation and recurrently violent anti-Jewish pogroms in the years leading up to the 1917 Revolution. In late 19th century Russia, Jews were perceived as the “quintessentially evil representatives of modernity, whether as financiers, traders or revolutionaries” (p.140). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the basic text in anti-Semitism, was a Russian product. The Protocols, whose precise origins are still uncertain, were “purportedly the secret resolutions of international Jewish leaders, a game plan for the domination of the world and enslavement of the goyim – Yiddish for Gentiles” (p.149). The Protocols were at the foundation of “all Nazi anti-Semitic belief and rhetoric,” helping to “extinguish lingering good will toward the Jews, and . . . to rationalize their annihilation” (p.170).

             Militantly anti-capitalist and rabidly anti-Semitic Russian organizations came to be known at the Black Hundreds. Marks characterizes the rise of the Black Hundreds as a “transitional phase in the history of the European right between old-fashioned reactionary movements and dynamic modern fascism” (p.148). The Russian extreme right formulated major strains of Nazism and fascism at least a decade before these phenomena appeared in Western Europe, Marks contends, forging an “alliance of old elites and resentful masses” (p.148). Its “radical rejectionism; its reliance on violence as its chief political tool; and its demagogic anti-Semitism all anticipated the future fascist movements of France, Germany and Romania” (p.148).

              Marks’ chapters on Fydor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy provide good comparisons between the two, and demonstrate the enormous influence of each beyond Russia’s borders. Dostoevsky’s focus on the complexity of human psychology and man’s irrationality established him as one of the 19th century’s deepest but darkest thinkers. Dostoevsky’s world view was based on what Marks terms a “holy trinity” of individual freedom, orthodox Christianity, and Russian nationalism. For Dostoevsky, Western rationalism had produced a “cold, unloving kind of devotion to humanity that often concealed an abhorrence of human beings as individuals” (p.62). Freedom for Dostoevsky was an inner, spiritual matter, not a “juridical or constitutional problem,” embracing a “Christ like spirituality that overcomes man’s fractured and wounded personality, through love, brotherhood, and community” (p.65). Dostoevsky transformed the soul-of-Russia sense of uniqueness into a “strident and hostile anti-Western credo — despite his intellectual engagement with European philosophy and literature” (p.65).

             Dostoevsky’s work fit well with the late 19th century European interest in individual psychology and the irrational. He had a huge impact upon Sigmund Freud, whose ancestors had migrated to Austria from Russia. Freud found that Dostoevsky had captured the psyche if not the soul of Russians, who, as Freud saw them, were inclined to “ascetic mysticism, chauvinism, fanaticism, violence, and other ‘compromise[s] with morality’” (p.72). In the first decades of the 20th century, Dostoevsky’s popularity in Europe soared, nowhere more than in Germany, where he gained the dubious distinction of being the Nazis’ favorite non-German writer.

                  Tolstoy, described as “genius and crank” (p.102) by Ivan Turgenev, another 19th century Russian literary giant, sought to simplify Christianity and reduce it to what he considered its core values. He promulgated a version of Christianity that didn’t have much to do with Russian Orthodoxy or any other institutional form of Christianity. Marks characterizes Tolstoy’s religious outlook as “Christian anarchism,” another strain of Russian rejectionism that attracted a global following at the turn of the century. Tolstoy’s entire body of writing “reeks of contempt for Western capitalism, materialism, parliamentary democracy, law and constitutionalism” (p.105), Marks writes. Through his fictional and theological portrayals of the peasant, Tolstoy “contributed to the international image of the Russian soul as the antipode of the rationalizing, industrializing West” (p.109).

             Tolstoy fashioned a lifestyle that foreshadowed 1960s hippies. He became one of the first advocates of vegetarianism. Among those attracted to his views and life style was an obscure Indian lawyer practicing law in Durban, South Africa, Mahatmas Gandhi. Gandhi’s reading of Tolstoy was a critical step in his transformation as liberator of the Indian people. By 1900, Tolstoy was a recognized voice against American racism. He was one of the first international mass-media celebrities, a role he relished, curiously enough, and one that befitted a man who helped usher in the modern world even as he struggled against it.

                   In his chapters on music, dance and painting, Marks shows how in each domain, the major Russian artists were in some sense reacting to Western modernism. Marks starts with Sergei Diaghilev, publisher of The World of Art, a journal which, with its initial appearance in 1898, marked the beginning of the Russian Modernist movement. Diaghilev and his associates fostered a “discriminating love of music, dance, and painting alongside scorn for what they saw as the stagnant Russian art of the day. They yearned for the revival of Russian art as a bulwark against the dominance of western European, bourgeois culture” (p.177). Diaghilev combined ambivalence toward the West with “massive expectations of Russian culture. He was at bottom a Russian nationalist whose purpose was not to Europeanize domestic art but to remedy its effects through exposure to contemporary trends” (p.179).

                Diaghilev created the dance company “Ballets Russes.” Ballet for Diaghilev and his followers was a “non-descriptive and suggestive means of means of expressing pure emotion” (p.180). The essence of Ballets Russes, according to Diaghilev, was its “elemental spontaneity. We wished to find an art through which all the complexity of life, all feelings and passions, could be expressed apart from words and ideas – not rationally but elementally” (p.181). The Ballets Russes “opened the door to the embrace of an array of exotic, lower class and foreign music and dance impulses” (p.200). Ballets Russes never performed in Russia owing to official ostracism of Diaghliev before 1917 and Diaghilev’s hatred of communism afterwards.

                    Meanwhile, Russian artists “ceaselessly pushed the limits of artistic firmament” (p.228). Vasily Kandinsky was Russia’s primary “practitioner and theorist of abstractionism,” which reflected a common view among avant garde Russian artists that painting could replicate the psychological effect of music or poetry and vice-versa. Russian abstractionism shared with Russian antecedents an “anti-modern sense that Western Civilization had gone tragically awry. Humanity required radical aesthetic and political measures to reduce it, namely their brand of abstract painting plus socialism or anarchism” (p.270).

               Marks emphasizes the “global adaptability” of the Russian avant-garde forms of artistic expression. Like Russian anarchists, writers, visionaries and anti-Semites, the Russian avant-garde “appeared as wise men of the East offering access to higher truth” (p.274). Rooted in mysticism, messianism, and anti-Westernism, Russian visual arts, dance and theatre “rejected industrial-bourgeois existence and sought to remake society anew” (p.274). But the obvious irony was that these artists’ legacy was to be found in “realms of mass culture such as Hollywood movies, fascist propaganda, and Western commercial advertising” (p.176), with individualistic and capitalist audiences avidly pursuing their works.

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                 Marks indicates at the outset of his sweeping and exuberantly written work that Russian intellectual and artistic life has always had a “close and symbiotic relationship with the West” (p.6), with the Russian thinkers and artists he discusses influenced in differing degrees by European counterparts as well as influencing them. Nonetheless, his book could be criticized for its “one way street” effect, the sense that there was little cross-fertilization, little positive absorption of Western lines of thought and artistic expression in Russia – only reaction to decadent capitalist and individualistic Western models.  Specialists might also criticize the book for trying to pack too much into the notion of Russian rejectionism and the soul of Russia. The American suburban landscape would likely have taken its present form even had Peter Kropotkin died in early childhood, for example; and Fascism and anti-Semitism hardly needed Russian models to thrive in Germany, France, and Italy. But Marks deserves credit for creative thinking across a wide range, bringing highly diverse subject matters together into an intriguing conceptual framework.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 22, 2014

3 Comments

Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Soviet Union

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

5 Comments

Filed under Politics, Science