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Primer: Patrick Geddes September 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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About a month ago, we spotlighted University of Leeds history research student Chris Renwick’s recent Isis article on the Spencerian influence on Patrick Geddes as a piece of writing that both nicely situates itself in the literature and in historical context, and highlights the importance of the history of ideas in science history.  Word got back to Chris, and he has graciously agreed to do a couple of guest posts for us.  The first kicks off the return of our “Primer” (formerly “hump-day history”) series.

Guest post by Chris Renwick

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Encompassing natural and social sciences, as well as social reform projects that left their mark on cities including Edinburgh and Bombay, Patrick Geddes’ career was wide-ranging, long, and—some might say—characterised by a failure to make the most of his ability to unify seemingly disparate fields with evolutionary theorising.

After leaving Scotland to train as a biologist under “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, in the mid-1870s, Geddes first made his name with a series of experiments, conducted in France, Italy, and England in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Like many biologists of his generation, Geddes was unconvinced by the case Darwin had made for natural selection as the prime mover in evolution.  Instead, Geddes—inspired by a range of thinkers, including the much-maligned Herbert Spencer—emphasised the importance of cooperation and mutually dependent relationships in evolutionary development.  To support these views, Geddes examined relationships in the natural world that biologists  often called parasitic. On separating “parasites” from their hosts—in particular, algae that lived in the tissue of flatworms—Geddes found that neither was able to live as effectively as they could together. He therefore concluded that what biologists often thought were exploitative relationships were in fact cooperative and he coined the term “Reciprocal Accommodation” to describe them.

Although this work earned him the praise of August Weismann and Charles Darwin, amongst others, Geddes was forced to abandon laboratory-based biological research in the mid-1880s when a problem with his eyesight curtailed his use of microscopes. However, inspired by the idea of cooperative evolution he had observed in laboratories and marine stations, Geddes began to carve out a new identity as a social thinker and activist. Whilst branching out into the social sciences—in particular, economics and sociology—with the aim of developing a new evolutionary theory of society, he also became involved in a number of social reform projects. Most notably, Geddes moved with his wife, Anna, into a dilapidated tenement building in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Inspired by what he had learned in his biological research about the relationship between organisms and their environment, Geddes aimed to rejuvenate the surrounding slums by helping to improve the area’s appearance and restoring a sense of community amongst its residents.

Outlook TowerThis first stage of Geddes’ career culminated at the end of the 1880s with the publication of his first book, The Evolution of Sex (1889), which he co-wrote with his former student J. Arthur Thomson, and his appointment as Professor of Botany at the University of Dundee. During the 1890s, however, Geddes became more involved with the social sciences and, in particular, with what we would now call urban sociology. This interest was encapsulated in what he called “civics”: a full-blown evolutionary theory of social development that explained how cities (understood as social complexes, rather than a collection of buildings) are shaped by social, economic, biological, and geographical forces. The focus for civics was the “Outlook Tower”—a building on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile that Geddes purchased in 1892 (it’s still there as the Camera Obscura tourist attraction)—which the Chicago-based sociologist Charles Zueblin called “the world’s first sociological laboratory.” Utilising the panoramic views of Edinburgh that were on offer from the top of the building, Geddes organised a series of interlinked exhibitions over the tower’s five floors. After first being rushed to the top, visitors made their way down through exhibits of increasingly broad scope. Geddes’ aim was for visitors to leave with an understanding of how Edinburgh was the product of processes that stretched beyond what they could immediately see.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Geddes focused his energy on systematising and promoting these ideas. His first opportunity to do so came in 1903 when he was commissioned to write a planning report for Dunfermline, which was being redesigned with the aid of a substantial grant from Andrew Carnegie, who had been born in the city. However, whilst it is now a highly sought after classic of town planning, Geddes’ report, which he published as City Development in 1904, was rejected by the Dunfermline Carnegie Trust as an overly elaborate and theoretical work. This judgement was the first of a series of disappointments for Geddes as he attempted to secure employment as a social scientist. Most significant in this respect was his failed candidacy in 1907 for the first British chair of sociology, which was awarded to the political and social theorist L. T. Hobhouse.

During the 1910s Geddes wrote a number of popular science books, which he co-authored with his long-term collaborator J. Arthur Thomson, and published what is perhaps his most enduring and best known work: Cities in Evolution (1915). Then, in 1919, Geddes left the UK to become Professor of Sociology and Civics at the University of Bombay, where he stayed until 1924. Although the job fulfilled his ambition of becoming a full-time social scientist and gave him opportunities to put his town planning ideas into practice, it also left Geddes feeling marginalised from developments in Europe and the USA. In an unexpected turn of events, though, he was contacted by a young American writer called Lewis Mumford, who initiated a deep but complex relationship between them. Mumford—who helped found the Regional Planning Association of America in 1929—became the most high profile promoter of Geddes’ ideas. Indeed, Mumford’s work, including The Culture of Cities, which won the American National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1962, was immersed in Geddes’ evolutionary sociology.

Geddes’ final years were spent in Montpellier in France where he tried to establish an institution that would train students in his ideas about sociology and town planning. However, his final act was completing a mammoth, two-volume book, co-authored with Thomson and entitled Life: Outlines of General Biology (1931), which symbolically brought his career full-circle.

There is a wide range of literature on Geddes’ life and work, though most focuses on his sociology and town planning rather than his biology. The best recent book-length studies are Helen Meller’s Patrick Geddes: Social Evolutionist and City Planner (1990) and Volker Welker’s Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (2002). Lewis Mumford’s autobiography Sketches from Life (1982) and Frank G. Novock Jr’s edited collection: Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence (1995) both contain a wealth of insights into Geddes’ work and difficult personality. Recent focus sections in The Sociological Review (2007) have hosted fascinating debates, including contributions from Steve Fuller, on the relationship between biology and sociology in Geddes’ work. I also humbly recommend my own articles: “The Practice of Spencerian Science: Patrick Geddes’ Biosocial Programme, 1876-1889,” in Isis (2009) and (with Richard C. Gunn) “Demythologizing the Machine: Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and Classical Sociological Theory,” in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (2008).


1. Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) - December 20, 2009

[…] le très bon blog d’historiographie des sciences, “Ether Wave Propaganda”, je découvre la biographie de Patrick Geddes. Né à Ballater, dans l’Aberdeenshire en Écosse, il a étudié à Londres avec Thomas H. Huxley […]

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