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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Revolution or Evolution?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I happened to catch the end of Melvyn Bragg's television series Twelve Books that Changed the World the other day, witnessing him stand on the stage of The Globe quoting Shakespeare and standing in the empty hall of Arkwright's cotton mill discussing his patent for a spinning machine. Like Bragg's excellent, regular Radio 4 series In Our Time, picking on the individual books or people who revolutionised science or culture allows him to discuss historical narratives which happen to fit into the 45 minute slots provided by television or radio executives. It represents history in the style of Thomas Carlyle, who famously quoted that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men."

But it is a version of history which, in its synoptic packaging for the popular media, is not shared by academic historians or philosophers. Typically of the postmodern trend in cultural studies, but in this case with much justification, the Whiggish view of human history as a progression through unique scientific personalities or great individual works from base origins to modern civilisation is being overturned in a relativistic trend, one which emphasises social contexts, continuity and the gradual accumulation of ideas. For example, in his excellent survey The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin challenges the essence of the concept that forms his title, opening with the ironic statement that "There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it." He argues that there was no such thing as one single identifiable revolution, before which science was occult and after which came about the empirical method, only revolutions. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn has had his phrase "paradigm shift" taken up by the media as a synonym for a distinct change in perspective or knowledge; but go back to his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and you will see that he argues that the concept of a paradigm shift as a sea change in attitudes or knowledge is a false construct: like political revolutions, scientific revolutions do not happen spontaneously but are the most visible and radical outcome of an accumulating pressure by increasing numbers of practitioners against conventional structures of interpretation.

In spite of my agreement with the Kuhnian interpretation of scientific discovery, though, it is still very tempting to have a sense of the great works, and the great men, simply because (just as literary generic terms are necessary irritants) they help us to orientate ourselves on the timeline. Nowhere is this impulse more present for me than in The Origin of Species. As well as falling neatly in the mid-ninteenth century, and therefore providing a central landmark between Romanticism, the Victorian period, and modernism, it is politically neat for me to believe that before Origin of Species there were creationists, and after it came biological rationalism (with those creationists who remain today easily dismissable as belonging, petticoats and parsonages and all, to an era before Darwin's book). However, as I am reading James Moore and Adrian Desmond's thrilling biography, Darwin, I am being encouraged to turn away from my outdated, Whiggish sentiments. The Origin of Species mentions the word evolution only once (though tellingly it, or, more accurately, "evolved" is the final word of the book). But rather than that final word being the launchpad for the new science, as the biography makes clear evolutionism was a common linguistic currency of Darwin's day. Lamarck had proposed a mechanism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, through which complex and different life forms could be produced, and in Darwin's circle of educators at Cambridge (he was training for theology, but beetle hunting and geology provided his chief pursuits) were plenty of evolutionists and geologists challenging the idea of natural theology, of God as a divine watchmaker. Even without Darwin, then, it is highly plausible to postulate that a similar evolutionary theory would have been developed – indeed, it was the upstart biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who, writing to Darwin about his comparable but independently developed idea, forced Darwin into publishing the Origin earlier than he had anticipated.

But, since we did get Darwin and the gamut of theories that collectively bear his name, was he a "great man"? As Moore and Desmond make clear, he was certainly human: a typical student, at Edinburgh (from which he dropped out) and then at Cambridge, he preferred hunting to university lectures, and spent cash on new gadgets (entomological rather than electronic) when he had none for food. Rather than being a particularly great man, he was the right man, in the right place, with the right interests, at the right time. Time and again, the biography amazes me by recounting the pragmatic chances without which Darwin the naturalist we know would not have become so: he was born into a wealthy family, so he was able to go to university; at university, he had the gentlemanly connections and interests that enabled him to meet J.S. Henshaw (who taught Darwin how to catalogue and understand the biological system) and Adam Sedgwick (who mentored and inculcated an interest in geology); meeting Henshaw, he was recommended to travel the world as the dining companion to Fitzroy, captain of The Beagle. Even then, he was the third choice for the post; had two of Fitzroy's friends not dropped out, Darwin would have continued on his original plan to travel to the Canaries; never setting eyes on the Galapagos, he would have retired to county life, as curate of a rural parish, and had no more impact on the natural world than to kill dozens of game birds each season. As it was, of course, Darwin was able to travel in a five year epic of rock chipping and notebook-jottings, of specimen jars and cataloguing, tracing changes in species and strata across continents. And, putting Darwin in the social context rather than extracting this "great man" from his time and elevating him as a genius, this would not have been possible without a vast infrastructure, built through imperceptible accruing of technology and political change, which on themselves go unremarked, though they are contained by the term Imperialism. England being at her colonial height, ports on every side of every continent were open to The Beagle; governors' houses provided lodgings from which Darwin could foray into the interiors (as Darwin commented in his journal, all over the world "little embryo England's are hatching"); naval networks allowed Darwin to send back his correspondence and collections to his scientific friends in London.

Which leads me, by a circuitous (though hopefully interesting) route, to my original impulse for this post. Which is that it seems to me that with the advent of the internet – itself heralded as a revolution of the late twentieth century – we have something very akin to those networks which allowed Darwin to travel the globe freely in the nineteenth. Being at a university, I know that there must be a Darwin somewhere in our midst, in the right place to make a difference, as Darwin was at Cambridge; what I don't know, what only time will tell, is what discoveries are going to come about because of the technological context, that could not have come without the web, in any other time.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:31 pm


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