Books and history of science: my interview on Riffle History

In case anyone is interested, there is an interview with me up at Riffle History, from the Riffle Books site, in which I say a bit about my current and former book projects, and have also recommended five books for people interested in getting into history of science. Anyone who wants more recommendations should check out my earlier posts, and the comments, on Good, popular history of science and Good, popular history of science II.

It’s always a topic I’m interested in, so let me know what good, popular history of science you’ve read since those posts went up way back in 2010.

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Alas, poor Wallace

This guest post by John van Wyhe is the result of my asking him to expand on a point raised on Facebook…

This year is the centenary of the death of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. This has sparked an unprecedented amount of media attention. (Compare with the 2009 Darwin bicentenary) The Wallace “experts” most often interviewed, however, are usually not historians of science, but scientists or enthusiasts. This would be unacceptable for physics, economics or even sports. So why is it so routinely the case for history of science? It is a small field, but there are many departments and scholars in our universities who conduct sophisticated research on science past. If we want to tell the public about Victorian science, surely historians of science should be in the conversation?

In the hands of admiring amateurs, Wallace has evolved into a heroic but forgotten genius – wrongfully obscured by a privileged elite. Conspiracy theorist Roy Davies and comedian Bill Bailey identify with a working-class Wallace who defiantly strove against the obstacles thrown in his path by a snobby Victorian elite. But Wallace – a gentleman’s son who attended a public school – was not working class nor did he suffer from discrimination.

The title of Bailey’s recent BBC2 series – Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero – says it all. And it is a very inaccurate picture of Wallace, Darwin and the science of their time.

For Bailey it seems unfair that Wallace is “forgotten” since evolution by natural selection was “known as a joint theory for decades.” But the theory was associated with Darwin from 1859 when the Origin of Species was published. It was this book, and not the brief 1858 joint papers by Darwin and Wallace, that convinced the international scientific community that evolution was a fact. Wallace suffered no “ethically reprehensible cover-up” and he was not “robbed” of any ideas or credit. Elsewhere Bailey claimed: “Darwin’s paper was read first and he is the one we now remember…Wallace should have got priority, but it was Darwin, the man with the connections, who got the glory.” These accusations are based on hearsay and are not based on the standards of the time.

On the other hand Wallace’s admirers festoon him with unsubstantiated superlatives: “The most prolific collector of the 19th century”, “the greatest naturalist of his era”, “the father of biogeography” and so forth. This mighty but forgotten hero figure is then set against a caricature of mid-19th century science. Bailey claims that “Victorian scientists believed that all creatures were created by God.” No, many if not most believed that natural laws were responsible, just as they did for astronomy and geology. Richard Dawkins tells BBC viewers that before Darwin’s Origin of species was published, scientists believed that all species were created in 6 days and that the world was only 6000 years old. No. Geologists and naturalists had long since abandoned these traditional stories.

Bailey’s series even includes some fabrications such as “an ingenious bamboo cup” supposedly devised by Wallace. More serious is a nicely illustrated sequence in which Wallace’s flying frog is described as inspiring his theory of evolution. But the entire story is invented. Wallace only mentioned the frog in his Malay Archipelago in 1869. Other errors include:

– Wallace published the first description of Orangutan behaviour in the wild.

– Wallace was not afraid to publish his belief in evolution, whereas Darwin was too afraid.

– Wallace’s Sarawak Paper proclaimed a clear theory of evolution.

– Wallace discovered that Australian animal types reached Lombok.

Dawkins and geneticist Steve Jones say that Wallace coined the term ‘Darwinism’. But this was first applied to Darwin’s work by reviewers from 1859 onwards. (See here.) Wallace used it from the 1870s and most prominently as the title of his book Darwinism in 1889.

Jones recently added his own list of errors on the 22 July episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage:

– Wallace proposed that the continents move around.

– Darwin proposed land bridges to explain related species on different lands. (In fact Darwin bitterly opposed land bridge theories!)

– “Someone” has shown that Wallace’s letter and Ternate essay outlining natural selection “got to Darwin as much as two months earlier, before he claimed to receive it. And if you look at his notebook … he outlines the theory which Wallace had sent him as if it’s his own.”

In fact it has recently been demonstrated how Darwin received the letter exactly when he said he did (see here). There are no passages in any of Darwin’s manuscripts which are copied from or based on Wallace’s Ternate essay.

It’s fine to admire scientists from the past, and laudable to try to generate greater interest in their writings, but it is not good enough to repeat myths and legends. At its worst, the result is not a popular history of science but fairy tales.
 John van Wyhe’s book Dispelling the darkness: voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin  is published this month.

Why whiggish won’t do

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The March of Progress image of human evolution 1965
The March of Progress, first published by Rudolph Zallinger in 1965. Its over-simplified presentation of evolution is just as misleading as “whiggish” histories of science.

Two anathemas of academic historians of science have been attracting a certain amount of interest in the history of science blogo-twittersphere lately. One is whiggishness and the other heroes, the two of which often come together in history writing and broadcasting aimed at a broad audience.

Two things kicked this off. One was a piece, Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History, by William Cronon, president of the American Historical Association. The other was the advertising of a lecture on Heroes of Science by Roger Highfield, which took place last week at the Royal Society.

To be clear what we’re talking about, read Cronon’s piece. He offers a great introduction to the concept, and its originator, Herbert Butterfield. He concisely explains that Whig histories tend to “praise revolutions [for history of science, we could read novelties, ideas or individuals] provided they have been successful, emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present”.

Such history tends to be triumphalist, presentist and linear, although also uncomplicated, narrative and with an in-built claim to relevancy. Because it picks winners and weaves its narrative from the threads of winning ideas – as judged from a modern standpoint – it tends to include heroes (forward-thinking folks who, in C P Snow’s wrong-headed phrase, “have the future in their bones”) and their adversaries (obstructive villains, stuck in the past).

Science does not, and did not, happen this way. This is generally agreed, yet a defence of the approach has been offered in several of the recent posts, comments and talks. The view is that heroes and linear, progressive narratives are required if we want a wider public to read our work or to be inspired by history, science or, indeed, history of science.

I find it hard to accept that it is only by distorting the facts that we can be relevant or inspirational. Is it only by feeding children tales of great men and a triumphant march to the present that they will ever take the bait and bother to read more? Can the general public only stomach fairy tales about heroes and villains?

Firstly, particularly for those who see history of science as a vehicle for science engagement, I want to offer an analogy. It is the “March of Progress” illustration of human evolution: linear, progressive, uncomplicated and misleading. It is an iconography that, as Brian Switek put it on Twitter, “needs to be dumped”. Last year, Frank Swain placed it among his list of Five iconic science images, and why they’re wrong, and a few days ago, Glendon Mellow explained that an alternative icon of evolution by natural selection “should totally be a jumble of primates jockeying for position and way more crowded”.

That sounds very familiar to me. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it is emphatically the case that science’s history should be similarly crowded and full of tangents, dead ends and competing approaches. The question is how to capture such complexity in an elegant way, not whether or not we should give up on the task.

Secondly, for those writing or talking about history, I want to question the purpose and motivation of reaching wider audiences. The fact that for most lay readers history is entertainment is used as the excuse that only already-acceptable, rip-roaring yarns will do the job. But if it is history, it is being presented as fact (or our current best knowledge and interpretation of fact) and readers are unfairly being led astray.

I disagree that history necessarily has to commit the sins of presentism by judging events or people by today’s standards, to seem relevant. Rather, I think that one of the most useful things that history can do for us is to demonstrate that today’s (or our national, class or any other kind of) standards are not the only ones by which things can be judged. Just as meeting new people and travelling to distant parts of the world can provide essential perspective on our lifestyles and values, so can travelling to the past. We should be prepared for the fact that things that seem obviously right to us today will not seem so in the future.

Finally, whiggish narratives, strewn with heroes, only hinder understanding of how the world works. As Athene Donald has written, heroes and geniuses are unrealistic and unhelpful for those who might enter scientific careers in the future. They are equally so for those who are not and have no interest in becoming a scientist, but nevertheless live in a world in which understanding the real rather than ideal relationship between science, technology, people, power and politics is hugely important.

It is not good enough to say that we can entice people with simple stories in the hope that, if they enjoyed it, they will read more and understand better. Most will simply be stuck with the first version – hence the continued existence of science textbook-style history. Rather, our job is to find engaging ways to tell the fuller and more meaningful story.