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Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science October 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Today we have the second guest post by Chris Renwick, who starting in January will be a lecturer in modern British history at the University of York.

In one way or another, most approaches to history of science share a common intellectual assumption: that science can be related to the contexts in which it is produced, even if historians can’t agree about what’s important when talking about those contexts. Indeed, such is the importance of this contextualist point that it is often seen as a crucial moment in moving history of science away from the wholly discredited study of great men and their ideas. When, though, did this shift take place and who was responsible for it?

Ever since I started out as graduate student, I’d assumed, like many others, that the effort to relate science and its contexts was originally the gift of Karl Marx and Marxism. After all, who doesn’t know the story of the letter in which Marx explained how Charles Darwin had transplanted Victorian society onto the natural world (though, for the record, the letter we always attribute to Marx was actually written by Engels) or the legend of Russian physicist Borris Hessen’s presentation on Isaac Newton to the Second International Congress of the History of Science at the Science Museum in London in 1931? However, in considering this issue recently I’ve come to the conclusion that something is missing from our understanding of the history of history of science and that it tells us something important about the intellectual trajectory of the field.

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Part of what sparked my interest in this issue was a 1952 book, entitled Darwinism: Competition and Cooperation, by the British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who played a leading role in the production of the famous 1950 UNESCO statement on race. In that book, Montagu argued that it wasn’t Marx or Marxists who first grasped how to relate science to its socioeconomic contexts but Patrick Geddes—the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner whom I’ve spent a great deal of time studying (see pages 29 to 31 in particular). To illustrate his point, Montagu picked out a passage from Geddes’ late 1880s article on “Biology” for Chamber’s Encyclopaedia:

The substitution of Darwin for Paley as the chief interpreter of the order of nature is currently regarded as the displacement of an anthropomorphic view by a purely scientific one: a little reflection, however, will show that what has actually happened has been merely the replacement of the anthropomorphism of the eighteenth century by that of the nineteenth. For the place vacated by Paley’s theological and metaphysical explanation has simply been occupied by that suggested to Darwin and Wallace by Malthus in terms of the (more…)

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 (more…)

Spotlight: Renwick on Geddes (also Ideas vs Practice) August 12, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Since we’re in the middle of a fairly polemical series of methodological posts, and since a general critique of the professional function of journals fits in with this, I thought it would be a good idea to shine a quick spotlight on a recent exception to the rule: Chris Renwick’s “The Practice of Spencerian Science: Patrick Geddes’s Biosocial Program, 1876-1889” Isis 100 (2009): 36-57.

Renwick’s piece, like Schmitt’s recent piece on Vicq d’Azyr, places itself quite nicely within a literature, as well as its subject matter within history.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the subject matter is Patrick Geddes’ relationship with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, whose work falls within the ambit of the Darwin Industry.  As I have previously noted, localized historiographies—the “industries” in particular—seem to acquire a critical scholarly mass that propels them into a more rigorous problematic.

In this case, Renwick uses his piece as part of an effort to reclaim the influence of Spencer’s ideas.  Traditionally understood as not having made positive contributions to biology, and as a proponent of social Darwinism, Renwick notes that recent literature has begun to chart a more general debt to the ideas present in Spencer’s thinking, many of which had little to do with severe competition in nature or society, and, in fact, stressed cooperation as a higher form of evolutionary development.  Renwick observes Geddes’ debt to Spencer’s thought in (more…)