The Age of Wonder: Science as a Means to Emancipation

Richard Holmes’ 2009 tome is aptly titled. It’s a wonder, and it takes an age to read it. Right. I wanted to get that out of the way, as the fact of its lengthiness weighs on me as I consider penning a reaction to its substance. It feels really long.

But, as with many efforts, it is worth it. The Age of Wonder is an exhaustive chronicle of the Romantic era of science — indeed, the dawn of the very term. It focuses primarily on a small cluster of main “characters,” beginning with the intrepid Joseph Banks (and his utterly fascinating adventures in Tahiti) all the way through the Herschel lineage (William, his sister Caroline, and William’s son John) — and just before Charles Darwin takes his voyage on the Beagle. It is a tale of presumptions shattered, egos inflated and exploded, and orthodoxies forever upended — and not just those of stodgy religionists, but of even the most open-minded of explorers and philosophers. As Humphrey Davy, perhaps the most prominent of Holmes’ subjects, said, “The first step towards the attainment of real discovery was the humiliating confession of ignorance.” There is a lot of that documented here.

Perhaps the most prominent theme throughout the book, with all of its detailed (often to a fault) recountings of experiments, arguments, and internal struggles, is that of the development of a professional discipline whose aim is more than the sum of its parts. What would eventually be known as science would become a practice not simply of confirming or denying the veracity of hypotheses, but it would perhaps be the one great force that ushers humanity beyond its terrestrial and provincial understanding of itself. Holmes summarizes the thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge on this subject:

… Coleridge was defending the intellectual discipline of science as a force for clarity and good. He then added one of his most inspired perceptions. He thought that science, as a human activity, ‘being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical’. Science, like poetry, was not merely ‘progressive’. It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world.

This was not so simple, of course. Even the previously noted Davy faced his own crisis on conscience as reason as a force behind a moral, and not just practical, philosophy challenged even the least superstitious of minds. In 1828 Davy wrote,

The art of living happy is, I believe, the art of being agreeably deluded; and faith in all things is superior to Reason, which, after all, is but a dead weight in advanced life, though as the pendulum to the clock in youth.

But “living happy” is not the same as living well, not the same as progress, not the same as advancing overall well-being.

There were those of this time who began to see something more than a happy illusion being stripped away, but rather a means to liberation of the species, a new reigniting of the the Enlightenment’s flame. Holmes offers the words of Percy Shelley as the technology of ballooning had become the center of international awe and controversy.

Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa? — Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate slavery forever.

This did not happen literally, of course, but it reminds us that within genuine understanding of all things lies the potential to transcend them.

Side note:

Also rife within The Age of Wonder are examples of the seemingly timeless wars between religion and science, and science’s struggle to be seen as something other than raw atheism. Holmes tells of the profession’s coming to terms, as it were, with its own moniker, and the old demons are ever-present:

There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.
‘Philosophers’ was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity as philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentleman [in fact Whewell himself] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’ — and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’ — but this was not generally palatable.

The analogy with ‘atheist’ was of course fatal. Adam Sedgwick exploded: ‘Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism.’ But in fact ‘scientist’ came rapidly into general use from this date, and was recognised in the OED by 1840. Sedgwick later reflected more calmly, and made up for his outburst by producing a memorable image. ‘Such a coinage has always taken place at the great epochs of discovery: like the medals that are struck at the beginning of a new reign.’

This argument over a single word — ‘scientists’ — gave a clue to the much larger debate that was steadily surfacing in Britain at this crucial period of transition 1830-34. Lurking beneath the semantics lay the whole question of whether the new generation of professional ‘scientists’ would promote safe religious belief or a dangerous secular materialism.

Same as it ever was.

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