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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 (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…)