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Science and Modernity

Science is a defining characteristic of modernity. It separates us from an earlier world of superstition and religious orthodoxy. Or does it? In this seminar, we challenge such a simplistic understanding of the relationship between science and modernity. By reading Robert Young’s classic Marxist work, Darwin’s Metaphor (1985), we examine how scientific thought was produced as part of a wider social and cultural world. New understandings of man’s place in nature – particularly following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) – were not simply the product of a more modern and rational mind. Instead, evolutionary thought, like science more generally, was closely connected to Victorian religion and political economy. This session also provides an opportunity to reflect on the strengths, weaknesses and consequences of Young’s Marxist analysis. After all, if science is just a part of wider culture, then what makes it so powerful?

Core Reading:

Young, Robert, Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Complete text available online at: http://human-nature.com/dm/dar.html

Seminar Questions:

  • How should we understand the relationship between Victorian culture and science?
  • Were science and religion antagonistic in the nineteenth century?
  • Does social and cultural history undermine the sciences’ claim to truth?
  • In what ways has Marxism influenced the historiography of science?

Further Readings:

Beer, Gillian, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Brooke, John Hedley, ‘Darwin and Victorian Christianity’, in Gregory Radick and Jonathan Hodge (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Cooter, Roger, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Desmond, Adrian, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine and Reform in Radical London (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989).

Gregory Radick and Jonathan Hodge (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Radick, Gregory, ‘Is the Theory of Natural Selection Independent of its History?’ in Gregory Radick and Jonathan Hodge (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Secord, James, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000).