Visions of Science

“Visions of Science” by James A. Secord

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 10, 2015

Science Books That Made Modernity

Darwin’s radical ideas were accepted surprisingly quickly by an English public already steeped in science.

Thomas De Quincey claimed that certain books existed only to teach their readers, while others changed the world by transforming and motivating them. The first he called a “literature of knowledge,” the second, a “literature of power.” In “Visions of Science” James A. Secord, a professor at Cambridge, highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age.

At the time, English society was undergoing radical change. New discoveries were altering the conception of the natural world. New technologies—steamships, railways and telegraphs—were transforming the pace of life. All this was exhilarating, but also frightening.

Many English readers equated scientific innovation with the materialist view promoted by French writers such as Pierre-Simon Laplace, who famously told Napoleon that his conception of nature “had no need of the hypothesis” of God. Mr. Secord’s seven writers insisted that science is not inconsistent with religious faith, but rather an engine to further faith. They promoted this position in different genres, from the science fiction-like book of the chemist and president of the Royal Society of London Humphry Davy, “Consolations in Travel” (1830)—where the narrator is guided by a “spirit” through the entire history of humanity (at the end, the two concur that all science “must begin from a foundation of faith”)—to the more programmatic and influential work of the astronomer and co-inventor of photography, John Herschel, whose “Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy” (1831) showed readers that, rather than leading to atheism, science inoculates us from the “brazen certainty of unbelief.”

In her popular book “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences” (1834), Mary Somerville used the recent unification of electricity and magnetism into “electromagnetism” to contend that science was tending toward what we would call a “theory of everything.” Somerville believed God wrote the laws of nature in the language of mathematics and that the study of mathematics was the “highest form of theology.” This belief was shared by the irascible inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, who suggested that God “programmed in” (as we would put it) future changes to these laws, so alterations in nature could occur without divine intervention. In his “Reflections on the Decline of Science” (1830) Babbage subjected the era’s scientific societies to mathematical analysis, calculating the numbers of non-publishing members and the “cooking” of experimental results.” (The Royal Society did not fare well.)

Charles Lyell, a lawyer-turned-geologist, urged readers to seek evidence of God’s goodness not in scripture but in those laws that He had used in creating the universe. Lyell’s three-volume “Principles of Geology” (1830-1833) replaced the prevailing view that the Earth’s history was punctuated with episodes of violent change—such as the Biblical flood—with a vision of slow processes acting uniformly over a long period of time. In part to avoid the charge of materialism, Lyell omitted human history from his account. He was sickened, Mr. Secord notes, by the notion of a transmutation or evolution of species, believing it a “dirty, disgusting doctrine.”

But mankind would not be left out of the picture for long. “Constitution of Man” (published in a limited edition in 1828, reissued in 1836), by George Combe, a self-educated legal clerk, brought human action into the realm of natural law by popularizing the theory of phrenology, which held that the brain was the organ of thought, and the shape of the skull a guide to a man’s mental character. This troubled those who feared that this materialistic view made human spiritual destiny a predetermined question, removing the need for Christ’s atonement. Combe circumvented this criticism, as Babbage had, by presenting God’s creation as a progressive system.

“Visions of Science” is, as Mr. Secord acknowledges, “a book about books.” We learn more about typeface size, bindery material, print runs and sales figures of the books than about the authors. We would not glean from this account, for example, how intertwined their lives were: They attended the same parties, discussed science together and reviewed one another’s works. Taken together, the books Mr. Secord features tell a fascinating story, and they paved the way to another that is not featured in Mr. Secord’s account but hovers over the others like Davy’s spirit guide.

In “Origin of Species” (1859), Charles Darwin took the central ideas in these books—that there is a connection between the sciences, that the Earth is much older than previously thought, that God created the world to work by uniform natural law, and that He built lawful change into his original creation—and used them to frame his theory of evolution by natural selection in terms his readers could accept. The success of Darwin—and the books that influenced him—is evidenced by the fact that within two decades of its publication most British scientists and much of the public accepted that species evolved.

Although Darwin famously delayed publishing “Origin” for years, some writers in the 1830s could already sense where things were going. Mr. Secord’s final work, Thomas Carlyle’s curmudgeonly “Sartor Resartus” (originally published in magazine installments in 1833) makes mockery of the scientific spirit of his age, lamenting science’s loss of spirituality. But scientific inquiry would not be stopped, and—as Mr. Secord deftly shows—Carlyle’s contemporaries helped to prove there was not so much to fear.

—Ms. Snyder is the author of “Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer,Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing.”