Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences

March 26, 2008

Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin’s great defender, epitomises our image of the new public face of Victorian science. A self-made professional, researching and politicking furiously, Huxley wrote copiously to boost his income. He also did it rather brilliantly, and his prose sparkled whether he was deep in a technical controversy, penning polemics aimed at critics of natural selection, or inviting an audience of working men to consider the history of the Earth embodied in a piece of chalk. When Huxley is invoked today, it is usually to imply how fine it would be if a few more of our scientists would work as hard at popularisation as their bewhiskered predecessor.

All of this is doubtless true, but it is a very selective picture of the first great expansion of popular science. Understandably, perhaps, a few prominent scientists – Huxley, his fellow zoologist Ray Lankester and the physicist John Tyndall, for instance – are remembered for their books, newspaper articles and essays. And the steam press did bring their cheaply printed words to a new reading public, newly convinced of the importance of science and often uneasy about its place in their fast-changing culture.

But as Bernard Lightman’s detailed excavation shows, there were far more writers feeding the Victorian appetite for science than these few. The second half of the 19th century saw the first appearance of another new profession – not just scientists, but science writers. It is these now largely forgotten figures that Lightman has revisited.

On the whole, their invisibility to posterity is understandable. Their work is out of date, mostly derivative and often repetitious – then, as now, relying entirely on writing was a precarious living and drove some towards quantity, not quality.

But Lightman, who here brings together deeply researched essays published over the past 15 years, makes a strong case for their historical importance. The Victorian explosion of print embraced a diversity of treatments of science and its significance that exhibits many of the tensions that still mark science in public. Who has the right to speak for science, to interpret nature or to have the final word on humans’ place in a universe in which God’s hand in creation is in question?

As he catalogues the many contributors to the new popular scientific literature, and their works, Lightman illuminates how the different answers to these questions played their part in battles over science’s authority and cultural prestige. Early chapters explore the work of two key groups of popularisers he identifies. One set were Anglican parsons, who typically retained religious themes even if they accepted Darwinism. Another, lower-status group were women writers who either adopted or strove to move beyond the earlier “maternal tradition” of popular writing tailored to the allegedly undeveloped minds of women and children.

Then come accounts of more visual approaches to popularisation, of some of the new periodicals, and of the rise of the practitioner as populariser – which is where Huxley comes in. Throughout, Lightman pays detailed attention to publishers and print runs, as well as to the authors’ lives and works. The book is a substantial work of scholarship rather than a casual read, and it offers much for historians of science as well as students of popular writing.

The most striking conclusion for the reader interested in contemporary science writing is the early prominence of the evolutionary epic that dominates so many publishers’ science lists today. The natural history of the universe sensationally depicted in Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, was elaborated as an evolutionary story by Herbert Spencer. He in turn inspired a clutch of writers who delved into cosmic history and amoral nature, fashioning what their most successful member Grant Allen called the “Darwinian Iliad”. It is hard to think of a nicer term for what Richard Dawkins has been doing for the past 30 years.

Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences

By Bernard Lightman
University of Chicago Press
528pp, £23.50
ISBN 9780226481180
Published 20 November 2007

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