WORKSHOP: Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture

From Situating Science | Science in Human Contexts:

Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture

Node Workshop
May 6 – 7th, 2011
York University, Toronto, Canada

Ever since the 1970’s, when Robert Young and Frank Turner treated T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, and their allies as posing an effective challenge to the authority of the Anglican clergy, scholars have found the term “scientific naturalism,” or “evolutionary naturalism,” to be a useful shorthand for referring to an influential group of like-minded elite intellectuals. But over the years, questions have been raised about the cohesiveness and the cultural status of scientific naturalism. Is the term elastic enough to include both the idealist and romantic Karl Pearson as well as the hard-nosed materialist Charles Bastian? Just how powerful were the scientific naturalists if they disagreed amongst themselves on key issues, and if, as many recent studies have suggested, they were confronted by a host of effective opponents in addition to Anglican clergymen, including North British physicists, Oxbridge trained gentlemen of science, self-trained popularizers of science, philosophical idealists, spiritualists, feminists, anti-vivisectionists, and socialists? Indeed, how far were the practices and writings of scientific naturalists actually shaped by their interchanges with such myriad opponents?

In this workshop we hope to explore new perspectives on the British scientific naturalists, re-examining their interactions with each other and with other groups within the larger culture. Speakers include Ruth Barton, Peter J. Bowler, Gowan Dawson, James Elwick, Jim Endersby, George Levine, Bernard Lightman, Ted Porter, Evelleen Richards, Joan Richards, Michael Reidy, Jonathan Smith, Robert Smith, Matthew Stanley, Michael Taylor, Frank Turner, and Paul White. The workshop will take place at 320 Bethune College, York University, Toronto, Canada on May 6th and 7th, 2011. It is sponsored by York University, SSHRC, and by Situating Science.

Barton, Dawson, Elwick, Lightman, Reidy, and Stanley are all part of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. I’m hoping to attend.

Published in: on September 5, 2010 at 9:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tyndall Session at BSHS Annual Meeting

At this year’s annual meeting of the British Society for the History of Science (PDF programme), there was a session all about John Tyndall: “John Tyndall and his Audiences” (chaired by Efram Sera Shriar). The participants, with the exception of Young, with the exception of Young, with the Tyndall Correspondence Project. Here are the titles and abstracts of their various talks, as well as comments via Twitter from Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and National Maritime Museum:

Panel abstract: The natural philosopher John Tyndall was both one of the most successful and one of the most controversial science lecturers of the Victorian period. This seeming contradiction is easily understood if we consider the highly differentiated audiences that he addressed in locations both within and without his base in London’s Royal Institution. Our session moves beyond such a facile resolution, however, to consider how Tyndall dealt with the problems he encountered in maintaining effective engagement with such diverse audiences – from the mundane difficulties of weekly lecture preparation to the sustained tensions of the science-spirituality nexus. By considering the strategies he adopted in attempting to overcome these challenges, our papers reveal both how closely networked he was to some key contemporaries and the kinds of boundary work that he undertook in his dealings with them. Several papers in this session draw upon letters recently transcribed in the international John Tyndall Correspondence Project co-ordinated from York University, Toronto.

“John Tyndall: Lecturing, Authority and Correspondence in Victorian Public Science,” Graeme Gooday and Jamie Stark:

John Tyndall‘s lecturing was the epitome of Victorian ‘public science’, to use Frank Turner‘s apposite description. Between his humble accession to a professorship at the Royal Institution in 1853 and his final shambolic lecture there in 1886, Tyndall attained large and diverse audiences both for his lectures and the many books published from them. While several historians have studied Tyndall‘s lecturing technique and his relationship with these audiences, this paper sheds new light on this work from hitherto unexamined correspondence with William Thomson, and William & Eliza Spottiswoode. We learn from these that Thomson became increasingly deferential to Tyndall as an authority on lecturing technique over the course of his career – maintaining their cordiality even during the bitter priority dispute between Mayer and Joule over energy conversation, on which they took opposing sides. From correspondence with the Spottiswoodes it transpires that they – perhaps rather more than fellow members of the X-club – served as Tyndall‘s personal confidantes over the enormously demanding schedule he set himself in lecture preparation. As President of the Royal Society, William would regularly recommend lecture opportunities to him to serve irenic political purposes, e.g. working men in Ireland, and offer support to Tyndall when he encountered difficulties with Establishment disapproval of his religious position. Overall we see that whilst Tyndall‘s surviving letters with hundreds of correspondents reveal him to be a central figure in Victorian science, he also evidently relied upon significant numbers of them for successful management of his public career as scientific authority.

“Working Wonder: Tyndall and the Making of Victorian Scientific Performances,” Iwan Morus:

In his lecture at the 1870 British Association meeting at Liverpool, ‘On the Scientific Uses of the Imagination,’ John Tyndall argued that there was more to science than mere logic or empiricism. In fact he rather mischievously characterized the view that this was all science was, as a Tory calumny. Without imagination there would be no science, he averred. In this paper I want to use some of Tyndall‘s arguments about scientific imagination as an entry point into investigating the genre of Victorian scientific performances, of which Tyndall himself was also a celebrated exponent. In particular – and using some of Tyndall‘s own performances – I want to investigate the aesthetics of performance and the Victorian sense of wonder. Accounts of spectacular experimental performances were often couched in this way, often invoking comparisons with magic. Historians of Victorian public science have had relatively little to say about the visual culture of Victorian physics with which performers like Tyndall captured their audiences. I want to follow Tyndall‘s example by looking at how this sense of wonder was practically achieved and what we as historians of physics can hope to gain by making the practices and technologies through which wonder was produced the focus of our narratives.

“John Tyndall and Theology: The Definition and Boundaries of Science,” Ursula DeYoung:

This paper examines the epistemological issues raised by the many sermons, articles, and pamphlets published in response to John Tyndall‘s Presidential Address to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast in 1874. Tyndall‘s Address served as a direct statement of hostility towards the claims of established religion as a cultural authority, and this paper argues that the Address played a crucial role in the developing definitions of ‗science‘ and ‗theology‘ as intellectual disciplines and as forces in society. The paper explores issues ranging from the perceived duties of a President in making his opening address to the BAAS to the division between rationality and emotion and the contested borderline separating science from theology. Its evidence spans the spectrum of participants, from obscure preachers to such well-known figures as James Martineau. Acknowledging the revisionist work done by historians such as Frank Turner, Bernard Lightman, and Robert M. Young on the ‗war‘ between science and theology in the nineteenth century, the paper nevertheless emphasises the military language used by participants in the science/theology debates and argues that the conflict, after Tyndall‘s Address, centred on the epistemology of science: how it could be defined, how much intellectual and philosophical ground it covered as a discipline, and what role it should play in society.

“Following your example at a distance: The Carlylean balancing of John Tyndall and James Crichton-Browne,” Mike Finn:

John Tyndall‘s outlook on the roles of religion and scientific inquiry was a source of debate in his own lifetime, and remains so for modern historians. Whilst espousing strict materialism in scientific study, he viewed the universe as a living thing, elements of which would always remain mysterious and at the root of spiritual beliefs. Frank Turner and Ruth Barton have both suggested that many Victorian men of science, including Tyndall, were deeply influenced in their religious thinking by Thomas Carlyle; a man who held paradoxical views on matters of science and religion himself. This paper will investigate further the practical implications of a Carlylean approach to balancing scientific and religious convictions in a scientific career, by considering events in the lives of two men who were followers and friends of Carlyle: Tyndall, a physicist, and James Crichton-Browne, a psychiatrist. Following his 1874 Belfast address, Tyndall faced criticism for declaring that religious beliefs must hold no weight in any scientific practice. Concurrently Crichton-Browne, an asylum superintendent, led just such an experimental research programme on the brain. However, whilst Tyndall unflinchingly and publicly defended his controversial views until his death, Crichton-Browne later felt impelled to leave the journal Brain, which he had helped to found, because he could not tolerate its materialist tendencies. It is thus seen that the Carlylean trait of maintaining a sharp demarcation between spirituality and scientific practice had rather different kinds of problematic consequences for their professional and personal lives.

Twitter comments from Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh):

#britsochistsci Tyndall discussion: from drunk lecturing to his flirtation with Quakerism

#britsochistsci Tyndall: Mike Finn on Thomas Carlyle’s influence on & friendship with Tyndall & James Crichton-Browne

#britsochistsci Tyndall discussion: Tyndall & the ladies recurring theme. Representations of materialism & morality, also lecturing persona

#britsochistsci Tyndall: Ursula DeYoung on military language used in 1870s debates on science/religion, or what form science should take

#britsochistsci Tyndall: discussion raises T the opium addict – and Huxley his supplier when he was in the Alps!

#britsochistsci Tyndall: Iwan Morus on the self-conscious, controlled performance of physical science lecture: opposing disembodiment of sci

#britsochistsci Tyndall: G Gooday & J Stark on what T Corresp Project can tell about T’s lecturing, its relation to his writing & authority

#britscihistsci Very hard session choices this am. Tyndall & his Audiences, Nuclear Science & Cold War, Music & Sound or Biomedical Sci?

Published in: on July 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm  Comments (2)  

John Tyndall’s Vertical Physics

A new article in the latest issue of Physics in Perspective by Michael S. Reidy looks at the relationship between science and mountaineering in the nineteenth century, using John Tyndall as a case study (Reidy is currently working on a book-length treatment of this topic, exploring many figures, including Joseph Dalton Hooker):

John Tyndall’s Vertical Physics: From Rock Quarries to Icy Peaks

Michael S. Reidy

Abstract I analyze, through the work of the Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820–1893), the close relationship formed in the mid-nineteenth century between advances in the physical sciences and the rise of mountaineering as a sport. Along with groundbreaking experimental research in the physical sciences, Tyndall worked throughout his career to define and popularize the study of physics. He also was a pioneering mountaineer during the golden age of mountaineering. As he practiced his science, from rock quarries to the study of the blue sky, Tyndall’s interests in the fundamental forces of Nature brought him to the summits of mountains. His sojourns to the mountains, in turn, affected the manner in which he approached his researches. His science and mountaineering were tellingly mixed, and worked in unison to shape public perceptions of what physicists did during a period of increasing specialization and popularization of the field.

Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 7:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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John Tyndall Symposium, Thursday 24th June 2010, University of Leeds

John Tyndall

John Tyndall was a famous physicist, lecturer and prominent public figure in nineteenth-century Britain. This symposium aims to bring together researchers interested in the life, letters and works of John Tyndall, and to discuss the current international project to transcribe his letters of correspondence.

The symposium will be held in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute, on Clarendon Place within the University of Leeds. This is site 25 on the university’s campus map. The ‘Freecitybus‘, which passes through the train and bus stations, stops at Clarendon way, a 5-minute walk away from the Institute.

There will be a registration fee of £5 to help cover costs, which can be paid on the day. If you would like to attend the event please contact Mike Finn by Friday 18th June. Download a poster for the event here.

Time Programme


Arrivals and registration

Introduction by Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds)

Session 1




Chaired by Efram Sera-Shriar (University of Leeds)

Michael Reidy (Montana State University)
“Bringing Science to the Humanities: The John Tyndall Correspondence Project”

James Elwick (York University, Toronto)
“Transcribing Tyndall, or, how to make Collaborative Academic Networks more than just a Buzzphrase”

Tea & Coffee

Session 2





Chaired by Jon Topham (University of Leeds)

Graeme GoodayJamie Stark (University of Leeds)
“John Tyndall: Lecturing, Authority and Correspondence in Victorian Public Science”

Mike Finn (University of Leeds)
“Following Your Example at a Distance: The Carlylean Balancing of John Tyndall & James Crichton-Browne”

Michael Reidy (Montana State University)
“John Tyndall’s Vertical Physics”


Session 3





Chaired by Geoffrey Cantor (Emeritus, University of Leeds / UCL)

Frank James (Royal Institution of Great Britain)
“Father, Son, Brother, Colleagues?: Michael Faraday and John Tyndall”


Bernard Lightman (York University, Toronto)
“Tyndall and Patronage”

Wine Reception

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 6:09 pm  Comments (6)  

Tyndall on Prayer

I have a post up on my other blog about Tyndall on prayer. I put it there so it can be viewed by many more people than normally see the blog.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 9:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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More antievolutionism in the New York Times

I came across another piece of antievolutionism in the New York Times, of 19 May 1886, in “What Deaf-Mutes Can Do”:

If Prof. Tyndall had been present yesterday afternoon at the pupils’ exhibition of the New-York Institute for Deaf-Mutes, Washington Heights, he would have been compelled to admit that even when the faculty of articulate speech is gone there are still left distinctive differences between the lowest human being and the highest of the animals, which make the interval separating them impassable.

The article is here.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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“The efficient defender of a fellow scientific man”

I am near finishing my professional paper (not a thesis) for my masters degree, titled “‘The efficient defender of a fellow scientific man’: John Tyndall, Darwin, and Preaching Pure Science in America.” Let me know if you’d like to read a draft, but  it still has some problems to work out.

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 7:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tyndall Project on Twitter

Follow @JohnTyndallCP

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Tyndall Blogged: Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Excerpted from Psychology Today’s blog Cultural Commentary (2 February 2010):

Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Preamble: In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for the first and only time. He journeyed to Worchester, Massachusetts at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, in connection with the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of America’s original graduate student only academic research institution. Speaking in German to a who’s who of psychologists and other social scientists (many of whom would have been multilingual in those days) Freud delivered a series of now famous lectures on psychoanalysis. One hundred years later, on October 3, 2009, Clark University commemorated one of the most significant events in its history with a series of Freud centennial keynote addresses, answering the general question “Does the Mind Still Matter?” My own lecture, originally titled “Cleansing of the Soul: Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later” will appear in Psychology Today over the next few days as a “Cultural Commentary” blog trilogy. Part 1 of the trilogy begins below.


And despite all the attention in recent decades to Freud’s early interests in the brain sciences, and all the contemporary interest in either replacing psychoanalysis with neurology and pharmacology or turning Freud into a crypto-biologist, I read him to be pretty much in sympathy with the following non-reductive (and candidly dualistic) interpretation of the (in my view still unsolved) mind/body problem, as expressed by the famous 19th century British physicist John Tyndall. In 1868 Tyndall, who was one of the great natural scientists of that century and an erstwhile supporter of Charles Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology, had this to say about the connection between mind and body, between soulful realities and physical realities, between the facts of consciousness and the physics of the brain. He said it in his Presidential Address to the Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Quoting Tyndall:

“The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem. How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness? The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.”

Notice that John Tyndall takes it for granted that events in consciousness and events in the brain appear together. Nevertheless, as he suggests, the mere observation of mental and physical event co-occurrence is not the end of the mind-body problem as a problem, but only its puzzling beginning, which must, given that the chasm to which he points is in the nature of things, end in puzzlement.

Of course, Tyndall’s and Freud’s caution about the mysterious and mind-boggling theoretical or intellectual disjunction between the facts of consciousness and our understanding of the nature and workings of the physical world are not heeded very much these days, at least not in the biological, medical and cognitive sciences in the academy. And it is quite fashionable these days to be of the opinion (or at least to confidently assert) that the mind/body problem has been empirically solved by recent work in the brain sciences using new observational technologies which show that thoughts occur simultaneously with physical events in the brain. Yet that observation is not really news, given that it is an empirical fact that John Tyndall was well aware of in 1868 and Descartes was well aware of even earlier. As Tyndall makes crystal clear that fact of temporal contiguity is just one of the reasons for positing of the mind/body problem in the first place and not a theoretical or intellectual solution to the problem at all.

Read the entire post here.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Was Tyndall struck by lightning?

From The Washington Post of June 4, 1886 (p. 2, col. 2):

IF you have firmly resolved to commit suicide despite the anxious expostulations of your friends, take notice that being struck by lightning has been pronounced absolutely painless after a careful chemical analysis at the hands of Professor Tyndall.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  

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