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Science, Sociology, Geology, Evolution and Darwinism

Science was contributing advances in medicine and dentistry, including narcotics to reduce pain. In 1846 the first amputation of a limb – a leg – was performed under anesthesia. In Britain in 1848 the Public Health Act became law. Public health as policy spread to the United States, to France and Germany. And the work of Louis Pasteur (1822-95) extended the understanding of microbiology and the benefits of vaccination and pasteurization.

It was a new age of empirical data, consulting charts and statistics, but not all of it was sound. In France, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) believed he could connect all that was knowable into a comprehensive study of society. He called it Sociology. He was a colleague of the utopian thinker Saint-Simon, and like him Compte was optimistic. Measuring social phenomena would produce no blueprint for action accepted widely enough to be politically effective. Sociologists into the 20th century would view Compte as having entertained ideas that were eccentric and unscientific.

There was more respect for the down-to-earth study called geology — although it too stirred up controversy. In 1785, James Hutton had presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh that theorized the Earth as old enough for mountains to have eroded, sediments to have formed new rocks at the bottom of the sea and for these rocks to have risen to dry land. In conflict with those who held to Genesis as a source of literal truth, he suggested that the earth might be something like a million years old.

Hutton was to be referred to as the Father of Modern Geology. He was followed by Charles Lyell, whose book Elements of Geology, was published in 1838. Contrary to Genesis, Lyell mentioned that it took 6,000 years for just one inch of limestone to build.

Charles Darwin

Biologists (then called naturalists) noticed Lyell's work, and one of them was a 21-year-old Englishman collecting beetles in the Americas: Charles Darwin. Darwin was thinking about species in accordance with their environment. The great lengths of time considered by Lyell's work helped Darwin trying to make sense of his observations concerning biology. Darwin was trying to make sense of mockingbirds on one island in the Galapagos differing from the mockingbirds on another island and his awareness that South America had only one species of mockingbird. He thought maybe the different species of mockingbird had a common ancestor and that maybe as a single species mockingbirds had undergone changes (transmutations), producing another species.

Darwin wondered about the variations in plants and creatures he had been observing on the Galapagos Islands. Biological evolution as an idea had been around at least since the mid-1700s. There was the idea that all warm-blooded animals might have descended from a single microorganism. And there was speculation that creatures had been reproducing without making perfect copies of themselves, creating new groups that could interbreed only with itself — the definition of a species.

From 1809 there had been the theory by a French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck that connected biological evolution with environmental influences, as in botany, with trees that developed in association with climate (broadleaves in the tropics and needles where winters were icy).

A young naturalist, Charles Darwin, was aware of Lamarck's theory. Darwin added to Lamark's evolution what he called "natural selection." He built on the fact that individuals within a species vary significantly from one another and that individuals more suited to an environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their heritable traits to future generations.

After a couple of decades, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin his work, and it was close to Darwin's. Darwin published the following year, his book's full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Public debates followed, with ridicule from people whose easily made associations pictured Darwin's theory as humans evolving from monkeys or apes. For some people it was easier to imagine the creation of species as sudden and miraculous than it was to imagine biological developments across millions of years. Traditionalists wanted to think of humanity as having been created directly by God. (Some other persons of faith would instead opt for the view of God's intentions behind evolution's processes.)

There was the well-known exchange in 1860 between an Anglican bishop, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, a student of natural history. It was Huxley who began using the term agnostic, meaning not having knowledge in spiritual matters, and some of Darwin’s critics believed that Huxley's self-characterization was appropriate. Some anti-Darwinists complained that they knew that humans had not developed from monkeys, while Darwinists made no such claim, arguing instead that monkeys and humans had a common ancestor.

Some who were not interested in Biblical stories but uncomfortable with the mystery of humanity's origins, were now more aware of the evolution argument against those might ask "how do you account for man, the variety of animals and the miracles of nature?" The publicity of Darwin's theory was a boost for atheism. But for many people it was easier to imagine the creation of species as sudden and miraculous than it was to imagine biological developments across millions of years.

Much information was to become available regarding evolution after Darwin passed. The word "genetics" would not be coined until 1905 — 23 years after Darwin's death. Darwin could not have known the depth of information that the study of genetics was to expand our understanding of evolution. But Darwin would be remembered for his contribution.

Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer

Meanwhile, there was the English philosopher, biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). He had been an evolutionist in agreement with Lamarck (without Darwin's theory of natural selection) and he wrote of organisms progressing from simple to more complex forms, describing this as progressive. After reading Darwin's book he coined the expression "survival of the fittest." (Darwin has been described as employing Spencer's phrase in later editions of his book.)

Although the word "sociology" was created by Compte, Spencer was the first to use the word in the title of a book. He too believed that science could uncover laws that explained social life. And he aimed to show that natural laws led inexorably to progress. He claimed the physical world, including the biological world and human society, was a progressive development connected to evolution.

Although he considered himself a scientist, like Compte he held ideas that could not be defended scientifically. According to Spencer there were two kinds of knowledge: knowledge gained by the individual and knowledge gained by one's race. The latter he described as intuition, as unconscious inherited experience.

Spencer believed that human behavior was primarily organized toward self-preservation. Unlike Proudhon, he saw competition as a part of nature — as in "red in tooth and claw" — a line by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1850. Spencer believed in competition unfettered by government interference. He was opposed to any interference in economic matters by the state. He was anti-regulation (It was for the buyer to be wary and to inquire but without benefit of information from regulators.) He was opposed to factory inspections. He opposed various labor laws or the state providing any kind of welfare. And the state, he believed, should not be involved in education. Spencer held to an extreme individualism that carried the assumption that people should be considered unfit if they were unable to rise from poverty by themselves alone.

Spencer viewed his political beliefs as conforming to nature, human freedom, and as morality. Why the brutal competition across the ages had not produced more or a better progress in the development of humans was not explained. But he would be described by more than one observer as "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the 1800s". Wikipedia attempts a summary:

The basis for Spencer's appeal to many of his generation was that he appeared to offer a ready-made system of belief which could substitute for conventional religious faith at a time when orthodox creeds were crumbling under the advances of modern science.

CONTINUE READING: Britain in India (the Raj) to 1900

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