Cosmos and Giordano Bruno: the problem with scientific heroes

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.


Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de' Fiori in Rome, 1889.
Statue of Giordano Bruno, erected at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, 1889.

Although it’s not as big news in the UK as it has been in the US, readers of the Guardian science pages may have noticed that Carl Sagan’s classic series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is being remade by Fox and presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Broadcast in the US last Sunday, I saw a lot of love being expressed on my Twitter timeline. However, it has also prompted some interesting comments from historians of science. We in the UK can see it for ourselves this Sunday (if we have access to the right channels), but here are some articles and posts that give food for thought.

In The Atlantic, Audra Wolfe looked at the Cold War context in which the original Cosmos succeeded, or could, at least, be credited by many with having kicked off a decade-long “popular science boom”. What the Cosmos effect actually was does not seem to have been measured but, even if real, Wolfe points out that times have changed. She argues that Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science today, particularly if it is “weigh[ed] down with Cold War-era fantasies that confuse the public understanding of science with its appreciation.”

Other historians have been prompted to comment on Cosmos because, as in the original, history of science is part of the package. Much has been said about the importance the remake, as a high-profile broadcast that can reflect the extent to which science has moved on since 1980. History of science has also moved on: is this reflected in the new series?

The answer, it seems, is yes (a bit) and (mostly) no. In the first episode, a rather hefty portion of airtime (11 out of 43 minutes) is devoted to an animation on the life of Giordano Bruno. Burnt at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, he was there to play the role of scientific hero and martyr. It is an ill-fitting part for this idiosyncratic Dominican monk.

Laudably avoiding any temptation to snark, Meg Rosenburg took the sudden interest in this reasonably obscure figure as an opportunity to help those who might Want to Know More About Giordano Bruno. While Bruno’s cosmological poetry and mystical thought included heliocentrism, he was not, of course, a scientist, nor was he sentenced to death for “scientific” ideas or anything like “the nice-mannered, doe-eyed dissenter” that appears on the screen.

In fact, Bruno is so obviously a problematic choice as a scientific martyr that several non-historians have also picked up on the issue. Corey S. Powell in Discover Magazine suggested that Cosmos picked the wrong hero, and that another – even more obscure but significantly more astronomical – early Copernican, Thomas Digges, might have been a better bet. Hank Campbell at The Federalist picked the Bruno problem as the most significant of Five Things that Cosmos Gets Wrong.

Becky Ferreira at Motherboard carefully explained What Cosmos Gets Wrong About Giordano Bruno, the Heretic Scientist, although, as she notes, it was not all bad as the account “did a pretty good job of covering its butt by shoehorning in some of Bruno’s contradictions, like the fact that he was a crappy scientist (and many historians argue he shouldn’t be considered one at all).”

Yet, nevertheless, the overriding message appears to have been about heroic passion for truth against dogma and science versus religion. And, despite the nod the nuance, this is a case of turning history into parable.

This is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t exactly sit well with claims to champion evidence-based knowledge. Another is that hiding parts of Bruno’s story that undermine the image of the scientific martyr plays into the hands of those who are only too pleased to highlight what might appear to be anti-religious propaganda coming from the scientific and media establishment (thanks to Rosenburg for tweeting that link).

Historical figures who lived in a very different world, very differently understood, cannot be turned into heroes who perfectly represent our values and concerns without doing serious damage to the evidence. It reminds me of one of the 19th-century men of science-cum-historians I researched, who learned this lesson the hard way.

In 1831 David Brewster published a short biography of Isaac Newton, portraying him as a hero that represented everything the author wanted to say about the moral status of science and its practitioners, and how they should be supported in late Georgian Britain. A couple of decades later he produced a much expanded biography, this time based in part on the unpublished archive. Lo and behold: Newton was a nasty piece of work, he was unorthodox in his Christian belief and he was a dedicated alchemist.

Poor Brewster! Although, as a reviewer said, he attempted to “do his best” by his hero, he was sufficiently dedicated to the evidence to “admit” the faults in public. It undermined his overriding narrative and seems to have caused him real personal anguish. Let this be a cautionary tale against those who invest too much in their heroes – and a call for some evidence-based history to help us better understand what science has been, is now and could be in the future.



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.