REVIEW: “Performing Medicine” by Michael Brown

Performing Medicine; Medical Culture and Identity in Provincial England, c.1760-1850 (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2011), 254pp.

I get excited when I receive a new book that so wonderfully engages with some of the major themes covered in my dissertation, and even better, a book that nicely contextualizes the background upon which I will narrate my story of aural surgery. I’ve long been a fan of Michael Brown’s works, particularly his paper “Medicine, Quackery and the Free Market: The ‘War’ against Morison’s Pills and the Construction of the Medical Profession, c.1830-c.1850,” published in Mark Jenner and Patrick Wallis’ Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies, c.1450-1850 (New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2007). Jenner and Wallis’ anthology sought to undertake a critical examination of the term “medical marketplace” and unpack its various ambiguous meanings. Broadly focusing on the nature of the medical provision and its economic, institutional, cultural and political contexts, this work presents a series of essays that evaluate the scale, scope, and boundaries of the internal dynamics of the market for medicine. Some of the key questions addressed are: what emergences in the medical marketplace? Is the term “medical marketplace” in due of a revision, as Margaret Pelling has argued? Is medicine to be viewed as a market or an economy of health care (and is there a difference)? How do we use a model of the marketplace to historicize and analyze the structure of therapeutic practice and its complex internal and external dynamics? Should historians shift their thinking from an abstract and generalized concept as “medical marketplace” towards a more focused concept of medical goods and services? Continue reading REVIEW: “Performing Medicine” by Michael Brown

Historiography of the Market for Health

Parallel to my research on socio-educational institutions for the deaf, I’m hoping to tie together themes of technological progress, entrepreneurialism and consumerism with the broad and diverse medical community and marketplace—what we can aptly call medical pluralism. There’s been a lot of historical scholarship on the complex dynamics that wove together a diverse group of sellers, consumers, and products, and on spatial dimensions for a “market” for health services. I thought I’d introduce a few key readings and themes on the topics for scholars unfamiliar with the historiography of the medical marketplace and charlataninsm.

Harold Cook’s model, as outlined in The Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Stuart London (1986), speaks of the “medical marketplace” as reference to not just the plurality of healers and the primacy of market forces (often directed by the patient’s needs and desires), but also on the emergence of an abstract concept of economic space that is governed by the process of commercialization. In the brilliant and meticulously book, Cook aims to uncover  “how the physician of seventeenth century London tried to maintain the dignity of learned medicine by exercising the juridical authority of the College of Physicians and how they ultimately failed in the face of deeply felt economic, intellectual, and political changes” (19). By setting the micro-history of College as the central focus of his analysis, Cook provides a glimpse of how various medical practitioners responded and reacted to the large-scale changes in seventeenth-century medicine during the time of the ‘scientific revolution’ (or the ‘seventeenth-century crisis’). While arguing that this “old medical regime”—a group of men who legally dominated medicine and tried to shepherd other practitioners intellectually and politically—faced an unraveling of their powers and legal limitations imposed on them by the House of Lords, Cook also demonstrates how the legal, intellectual, and political conflicts within this regime encouraged, if not was directly responsible for, the emergence of innovations in medical practice outside the ranks of the learned physicians of the College. Barber-surgeons, apothecaries, and unlicensed “irregulars” steadfastly tended to the need of ordinary Londoners, forming what Cook refers to as the “medical marketplace.” As the medical marketplace formed complex interconnections in society and politics, the old medical regime ultimately failed in the face of deeply felt economic, intellectual, and political changes in the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Margaret Pelling as well, raises critical questions about how large segments of the population—the common lot—experienced illness, health, and disease in early modern England. The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupation and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (1998) focuses mainly from the archives of Norwich and London. Pelling’s essays cluster around three main topics: the urban environment and experiences of illness by the poor, experiences of health and illness of various types of population groups (disabled, old, women), and the occupational diversity of medical practitioners. Pelling makes it clear that sick people “shuttled” among practitioners in search of relief and did not discriminate between various types of practitioners who chose to specialize. While physicians placed a great deal of effort in creating an acceptable social identity, they were still subjected to the opinions and control of the lay and local populations. One of the most significant arguments made by Pelling was her notion that medicine was an occupation, rather than a vocation. For physicians, the diverse character of the medical occupation was often full of pitfalls and undesirable associations, directing attacks against those deemed as ‘quacks,’ while at the same time helping to shape their definitions of what a profession should be.  Pelling provides a tremendous amount of quantitative and qualitative evidence to argue the complex nature of the social and professional world of medicine, and how concepts of illness as perceived by the populations helped to shape the occupational realms of medicine and their applications of treatment.

Historiography on the medical market—and on quackery—reveal that healers were far from restricted to the old-age pyramid of physicians, barber-surgeons, and apothecaries. These works have questioned and/or modified Cook’s model. In The Medical World of Early Modern France (1997), L.W.B. Brockliss and Colin Jones adopt a Braudelian approach in examining the experience of illness and health in early modern France. Dividing their tremendous text into two phases—before and after the plague as an endemic experience—they investigate the various ways in which medicine was adopted and experienced by a culture dominated by political absolutism in the early 17th century, and scientific optimism in the late 17th century. Building upon the existing historiography of the “medical marketplace,” the authors argue that the model of the medical world consists of two parts: (1) the “corporatist core” consisting of the tripartite ensemble of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries in various legally recognized collective; (2) the core is surrounded by the “medical penumbra,” which is composed of different groups and healers who operated within the core despite not having formal training or corporative status (i.e. the “popular practitioners). The model opposes the analytical dyad of elite/poplar medicine, which Brockliss and Jones argue does nothing but to draw battleground lines and is a misreading of the way medical ideas were diffused. Rather, they argue as the lines between the core and the penumbra became increasingly permeable, the sick found access to all sorts of medical practitioners and did not stigmatize those practicing on “Quack Street.” Furthermore, they point out that the core did not despite charlatans because they were economic competitors, but because charlatans represented an affront to moral and social order—they threatened the dominant social and cultural values held by the population. The enlightenment brought a shift in mentalité—what Brockliss and Jones call “valorization of empiricism”—and provided new egalitarian attitudes for viewing practitioners as social useful, particularly in the provincial press. For instance, a physician’s restraint to newer ideas of therapeutics could actually be harmful for the population, especially if there were more effective “empirical” treatments available. Public opinion, shaped by consumerism and “fashions,” also dictated the medical world, directing the popularity of certain practitioners or certain treatments over others.

A different model is presented in David Gentlicore’s Healers and Healing in Early Modern Italy (1998), a work that is essentially a study of medical pluralism: This book is a study of medical pluralism: the diversity of healers and forms of healing in the kingdom of Naples from 1600 to 1800, particularly from the standpoint of the sick people. Like Cook and Pelling, Gentilcore undermines old myths about early modern medicine, particularly the notion that all healers were neatly categorized accordingly to the pyramid of physicians, barber-surgeons, and apothecaries. Instead, Gentilcore argues that this neat division did not apply to Italy as it did in England; not only were physicians in liberal supply, but many of titles and formal structures they held did not always reveal the practices of healing. Instead, Gentilcore advocates a “medical sphere” model, showing how all types of healers and all explanatory models of illness co-existed, overlapped, competed, and contributed to one another. This model consists of three main divisions that all overlapped with each other—popular, ecclesiastical, and medical—and emphasizes overlapping, but not homogeneous healing communities. Medicine in early modern Italy thus was a complex affair involving physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, official state bodies, quacks, charlatans, magic, religion, and astrology; different kinds of professional boundaries were also created (e.g. “popular healing,” “cunning folk,””midwifery”). On the discussion of irregular practitioners—charlatans, quacks, itinerants, mountebanks—Gentilcore argues that they were far from being automatically labeled as tricksters (e.g. as with the Orivetan case). Even official licensing bodies, such as the Protomedicato, did not aim to impose a unified form of medical practice or eliminate the presence of charlatns; defending the distinctness of each type of healer, official bodies rather aimed to regulate the circulation and growth of charlatans and maintaining professional boundaries. Additionally, Gentilcore argues that patients played as much as of a role in constructing medical pluralism as official bodies and economic concerns: patients were as driven towards their choice of healers as much as by their cultural allegiances to a particular set of healers within their communities. The decline of the medical pluralism in 18th century Naples, Gentilcore argues, was the result of the emergence of a “medical consensus” which strove to create two separate healing cultures (“high” and “low”), a reason he alludes to the enlightenment trends of the period.

Gentlicore’s Medical Charlatanism in Early Modern Italy (2006), on the other hand, is a book about charlatans in early modern Italy: how they were represented, how they saw themselves, and how they were placed within their societies. Charlatans were more than “people who appear in the square and sell a few things with entertainment and buffoonery” (2) or curiosities on the fringes of medicine. Instead, Gentilcore defines “charlatan” as a definable identity—less than a term of abuse and more like a generic, bureaucratic label identifying a category of healer that participated in a trade or occupation. Taking upon an empathetic view of charlatans, Gentilcore argues that they offered health care to an extraordinary wide sector of the population, arguably even wider than physicians. He makes that the multi-faceted nature of Italian charlatanry was also motivated by economic concerns; needing to set themselves apart in an already overcrowded medical marketplace, charlatans often used spectacle and performance to draw attention to their goods and services—but, Gentilcore warns us, we should not use these theatrics as a reason to dismiss the charlatan. Furthermore, Gentilcore questions why the Protomedicato licensed charlatans or tolerated their “behavior,” concluding that the authorities aimed to regulate, rather than dismiss, the variety of healers. In presenting a revisionist correction of the negative role of the charlatan, Gentilcore also emphasizes that charlatans often used the same pharmaceutical ingredients in their treatments, a feature that limited the role of the authorities, who could not prohibit the sale of officially approved medicine. Charlatans, he concludes, also portrayed an important social function by providing a demand within the medical marketplace—e.g. cheaper treatment options, more accessible treatment, etc.—that were limited to patients being treated by “regular” practitioners.

Speaking of quacks and charlatans, Roy Porter’s seminal social history of proprietary medicine and quackery was first published in 1989 as Health for Sale: Quackery in England 1650-1850. In a new edition re-titled as Quacks: Fakers and Charlatans in Medicine (2003), Porter acknowledges that there has been little work published on British quack medicine in the long eighteenth century and that there was a need for a more precise history of quackery apart from its categorical opposition to a  more scientific correct ‘regular’ medicine.  Upon evaluating the changing status and identity of those who were labeled as quacks, Porter makes it clear that his definition of “quack” will not be a timeless, moralizing definition, but rather a historic one that evaluates the behavioral characteristics of certain medical operators; he also avoids any absolute, Platonic, or essential meaning for the application of the term, but takes quacks as ‘the broad spectrum of those operators who were typically pilloried as such.’ Instead of conveying blame or praise, Porter evaluates the varieties of practitioners who peddled quack medicine, contending to Margaret Pelling’s notion that medicine was an occupation and not a vocation. In addition to providing a comprehensive overview of the various ‘types’ of quack medicine, Porter also evaluates the history of medicine as a profession, looking at how market forces, the cash nexus, advertising, and print cultures played a significant role in constructing the medical marketplace.

Anne Digby’s Making a Medical Living: Doctors and Patients in the English Market for Medicine, 1720-1911 (1994) examines the market for medical in 19th century England, examining the interactions between doctors and patients at a time when self-dosing was prevalent. Emphasizing the neglected field of the economic history of medicine, Digby argues doctors’ entrepreneurial activities and their working lives helped to shape English medicine into a distinctive pattern of general and specialist practice. She aims to look at the longer-term dynamics of economic change for practitioners and patients starting from the inception of the first voluntary hospital in 1720 to the National Insurance act of 1911. With much qualitative and quantitative data, Digby examines all aspects of the economic perspective of medicine, from the incomes doctors generated, to patients’ ability to pay for medical goods and services, to the competition for patients and the lack of legislative medical monopoly, and how doctors showed marked commercial flair and versatility in their attempts to expand the medical market. She also provides rich insight into the changing relations between the urban poor and medicine, especially in outlining why and how quacks were more attractive to patients in terms of cheaper costs (e.g. nostrums were popular for their quick and economic means of self-help). Digby also makes the point that the growth of a secular and consumer society that viewed health as a commodity provided a dynamic to sustain and encourage a vigorous commercialism in the medical marketplace; this not only allowed charlatans and quacks to flourish, but also encouraged professionalization as a drive towards a particular ideal or self image that practitioners desired to construct (26). Although concern about quackery waxed and waned accordingly to the state of the medical market, by the 19th century, growing pressure from regular practitioners to create an exclusive medical profession became insufficiently powerful and aimed to create a monopoly for the College of Physicians. Thus, control of the medical marketplace by practitioners became crucial in the process of medicalization as spas, dispensaries, medical charities, and voluntary hospitals became essential to English society.

Colin Jones’ article, “The Great Chain of Buying: Medical Advertisement, the Bourgeois Public Sphere, and the Origins of the French Revolution” (The American Historical Review vol.101 (1996): 13-40)is my absolute favourite essay ever; I read it every time I’m in need of some inspiration. The Great Chain of Buying (a pun on Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being) is a horizontal concept grounded in human sociability and exchange and posits an open and relatively egalitarian social organization undergirding a commercial society. The article aims to build a historiographical consensus intersecting three areas: the economic origins of the French Revolution, the medical profession, and the provincial press. Jones also attempts to restore credibility to a historical approach emphasizing an economized version of capitalism, particularly Habermas’ bourgeois public sphere; it is from this sphere, Jones argues, in which political and revolutionary actions emerges. Jones focuses his historical examination to the archives of the Affiches, the provincial newspapers of France that specialized in advertising while still carrying news and commentary. According to Jones, the Affiches confirm the presence of Habermas’ public sphere and the role of the public in constructing an ideology based on public opinion: as the Affiches were directed to merchants, traders, businessmen and the like, not only was the public sphere bourgeois, but since the editors wouldn’t publish anything to offend their readers, there also existed an ideology implicit in the press viewed as “public opinion.” Furthermore, Jones argues that the Affiches also contained a particular ideology implicit in their advertisement, that is, the notion that commerce would lead to a higher level of civilization and a greater degree of human happiness. Jones analyzes this point by focusing on medical advertisements in the Affiches, arguing that they are relevant for three reasons: 1) advertisements for medical products and services provide historical evidence for a growing medical entrepreneurialism; 2) medical advertisements reflect the growing demand for medical goods and services as well as a growing consumer base; 3) preoccupation with health and the body also had important political implications (e.g. health of the body = health of the nation). As complex as Jones’ argument is, his primary goal in emphasizing the role of the bourgeoisie in participating in the political and social fervor of the nation is important for constructing a historical examination of the lives and thoughts of a large section of the population.

Finally, Mark S.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis’s Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies, c.1450-1850 (2007)seeks to undertake a critical examination of the term “medical marketplace” and unpack its various ambiguous meanings. Broadly focusing on the nature of the medical provision and its economic, institutional, cultural and political contexts, this work presents a series of essays that evaluate the scale, scope, and boundaries of the internal dynamics of the market for medicine. Some of the key questions addressed are: what emergences in the medical marketplace? Is the term “medical marketplace” in due of a revision, as Margaret Pelling has argued? Is medicine to be viewed as a market or an economy of health care (and is there a difference)? How do we use a model of the marketplace to historicize and analyze the structure of therapeutic practice and its complex internal and external dynamics? Should historians shift their thinking from an abstract and generalized concept as “medical marketplace” towards a more focused concept of medical goods and services?

Although each essay in the anthology holds its own merit, Michael Brown’s “Medicine, Quackery and the Free Market: The ‘War’ against Morison’s Pills and the Construction of the Medical Profession, c.1830-c.1850” best closely relates to my own research interests. Making the point that while the 18th century has been characterized by a fluidity and plurality of knowledge and practice as well as a cultural of commercial individualism, Brown notes that the 19th century rather saw a hardening of boundaries and the elaboration of more antagonistic cultures within health care (239). He accounts for this shift by building upon Roy Porter’s explanation of the two factors governing the 19th century: the emergence of medical professionalization and medical reform. Within this historiographical context, Brown sets out to explore the mechanisms of the transformation of the mid-19th century English medical marketplace and evaluate how the anti-quackery campaigns of the 1830s and 1840s sought to radically restructure the commercial states of medicine and its relationship to the public (240); he does so by examining the (ideological) “war” against Morison’s Pills, which was a part of a wider attempt to establish the social, legal, and intellectual authority of “orthodox” medicine. He also emphasizes in this paper that the movement for medical reform is essential for understanding the changing perceptions of “quackery” within the 19th century.

There’s lots more scholarship on the topic, more than I can ever write in a blog post, but I hope this is a good beginning  for those interested.

Book Review: Janet Browne, “Charles Darwin: Voyaging” (1995)

I just recommended this book for a student who was interested in comparing another Darwin biography with Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1994). I then remembered writing a review of Browne’s book for a class on ‘Historiography in History and Philosophy of Science’ a few years ago and how much I liked her writing; I then thought I’d share my review with you, Dear Reader!

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), xiii + 547pp.

Janet Browne is currently the Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and editor of the British Journal for the History of Science. After receiving her PhD in the history of science from Imperial College London, much of her research has been focused on Charles Darwin and his work. For eight years, she was formerly the associate editor of the multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin, which allowed her to study more than 14,000 letters from Darwin and his networks. This project builds the foundation for Browne’s biography of Darwin.

Voyaging is the first volume of Browne’s two-part biography on Darwin, following him from his birth to the 1850s, as he develops and tunes his scientific ideas on species adaptation and natural selection. The second volume, The Power of Place, traces Darwin’s struggle to finish the Origin of Species, the resulting revolution and controversy that followed its publication, and Darwin’s eventual status as a celebrity scientist.

Like other biographies that followed the centenary of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, Browne combines biography and cultural history to weave a profile of Darwin within the ethos of Victorian England; she even states that her book might as well been called Darwin: Another Biography. Drawing upon her work with the Darwin correspondence, including rare archival material, Browne constructs a collective biography that merges the social, intellectual, and political networks of the Victorian scientific community, and Darwin’s place in it. This biography does more than just outline the development of Darwin’s scientific ideas and the resulting fame. In order to provide a full assessment of Darwin’s profile, Browne declares that Darwin’s story is the story of the era: “of the different ways in which a man could emerge as a profound thinker in Victorian Britain, of the way that someone could take up and turn around the assumptions of the age and become a hero for doing so. It is the story of the transformation, in a particular time and place, of an amiable but rather aimless young man into a scientific giant whose intellectual heights have scarcely ever been rivaled” (xiii)” In short, Browne wants to argue that the science known as Darwinism—that is, evolution by means of natural selection—was made by Darwin and Victorian society.

The book is divided into three main parts:

(1)   Collector, which chronicles Darwin’s early years as a student, his relationship with his family and their influence, and his budding love for collecting and natural science. We also get a full picture of Darwin’s relationship with his professors at Edinburgh and Cambridge—especially Robert Grant, John Henslow, and Adam Sedgwick—and how these relationships contributed to his understanding of natural science.

(2)   Traveller, the largest section which follows Darwin on his five-year voyage on Captain FitzRoy’s H.M.S. Beagle. Much of Browne’s detail and research is reserved for this section, and she shows how Darwin grows from a passionate collector to a meticulous observer of the natural world.

(3)   Naturalist, recaptures Darwin’s return to England and his growing fame as a scientist as his observations and ideas spread through scientific circles. We are able to see how Darwin applied the knowledge gained from his voyage into constructing a theory that could explain some of the variances he observed in species population and geographical distribution. In addition, we see how Darwin became a family man and struggled with an intellectual isolation as he developed his theory.

In my opinion, nearly all 547 pages of this book are well justified as Browne beautifully matches the intellectual setting of Victorian England with her voluminous sources on Darwin and his social circle. She makes use of an abundance of primary source material, everything from manuscripts, correspondence and private letters, journals, scientific papers—not only from Darwin, but also from his family, his scientific circle, those alongside the Beagle voyage, and even from other students during Darwin’s days in Cambridge. I was incredibly impressed with not only the richness of the sources, but also the way she supported them in the text and made use of minor protagonists. For instance, she narrates how John Maurice Herbert, a lame acquaintance of Darwin in Cambridge, once gave Darwin a microscope as a gift; yet their friendship—if we can call it that—didn’t appear to be mutual, since Darwin was more amused by Herbert’s attention and appeared to treat him shabbily: he occasionally forgot Herbert’s first name and his lameness despite the fact Herbert followed Darwin on 10-mile walks across the hills. This minor story is well-used by Browne to humanize Darwin’s character.

The notes in the book have been kept as brief as possible to supply only the material she integrates with in the text; Browne also provides a few pages of secondary sources, but she makes it clear that it was impossible to mention all the detailed studies provided by Darwin scholars, and limits her listing only those recent and relevant to her work. In addition, she provides a family tree of the Darwin and Wedgwood clans, a few maps of the Beagle voyage, and several pages of rich images which support the text and provide a visualization of the history Browne narrates.

As Voyaging generally focuses on Darwin’s growth as an individual and his development as a scientist, several major themes arise throughout the work:

Family Influences

Browne argues family support was immensely important throughout Darwin’s life and influenced the development of his ideas just as much as his fellow scientists did. As Darwin’s family liberal sentiment influenced his politics—for instance, his stance on slavery—he also relied on their support and encouragement into social and scientific circles: his Uncle Jos granted permission to board the Beagle, his brother Erasmus introduced him to a wide variety of social networks, and his wife Emma provided him with moral and emotional support when he struggled with his work.

An interesting relationship that emerges is that of Darwin and his father, Robert Waring Darwin. While other biographies on Darwin have explored Robert’s overwhelming influence on Darwin’s studies and career choices, Browne explains that there was nothing to suggest that Robert Darwin was an oppressive father. Rather, Browne ties his patient (and often frustrating) attitude with Charles’ idleness with Robert’s own experience with a pushing and disappointing father who eventually abandoned him. I found that Browne brilliantly explores this psychological angle by giving minute details of Robert’s financial support for, and during, Darwin’s voyage: 1200 pounds, a colossal sum at the time, and nearly twice the cost of Darwin’s studies at Christ College Cambridge.

Darwin’s Geological Lens

A biography on Darwin surely must explore the scientific foundations of Darwin’s theories, and Browne brilliantly does so by giving a thorough examination of his five-year expedition on the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836. In doing so, Browne shows how Darwin transformed from a sea-sick, Cambridge-educated scientist, who was overwhelmed with the opportunity, into a keen observer of nature. By following Darwin’s explorations within South America’s coastal lines, Browne shows how Darwin’s mind was dominated more so by geology and anthropology than biology; in fact, she states that Darwin initially approached the species question as a way for explaining geological discrepancies. As Darwin’s explorations taught him to think big and think differently from those who had taught him, Browne also cautiously points out that it would be wrong “to suggest that Darwin came to his conclusions unaided or that his future progress was always so briskly positive” (186). Darwin’s understanding of natural history, in particular, the formation of geological rocks, was drawn from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and Browne explicitly states that it was Lyell’s book that taught Darwin how to think about nature. “Without Lyell, there would have been no Darwin: no intellectual journey, no voyage of the Beagle as commonly understood.” Armed with Lyell’s principles, Darwin viewed his natural surroundings through geologically-tinted goggles, a point Browne readily emphasizes even influenced Darwin’s experiences on the Galapagos: ‘it is often forgotten just how intently he looked forward to investigating the geology of the island” (298). Geography and geology thus became an integral part on Darwin’s ideas of transmutation.


In one review of this biography, the writer states that Browne’s book might as well have been called Darwin: Networking. Browne explicitly states: “Darwin’s greatest gift [during the time at Cambridge] was not so much the ability to understand nature’s secrets, if he had it to any degree as an undergraduate, but a capacity to identify the people capable of giving and inspiring him in the loyal affection he desired. On such affections his ultimate success as a naturalist depended” (124). Clearly, Browne discredits the picture of Darwin as a lonely figure working within an intellectual vacuum, arguing instead that his social and scientific networks were necessary for establishing his reputation as a man of science. The “Cambridge Network” which included Henslow, Sedgwick, and Francis Beaufort, was essential in getting Darwin on board the Beagle. The same network was also responsible for publishing and advertising Darwin’s writing even before he returned to England.

Browne also constructs Darwin as a man who forged relationships and relied on them, though at times took them for granted. She hints, for instance, that Darwin’s experience of betrayal and scientific jealously at the hands of Robert Grant, might have influenced Darwin’s lifelong habit of guarding his scientific discoveries from others. It also made him wary of who to trust. When Darwin felt ready to reveal his “secret” to others, he deliberated carefully who to include, smartly going for younger men …who he know were skeptical or detached from the relationship between science and religion, including Lyell, Hugh Strickland and Joseph Dalton Hooker. In addition, Browne also provides several occasions when Darwin’s relationship with his networks border upon ingratitude; nowhere is this more evident than in FitzRoy’s anger over Darwin’s failure to acknowledge the support of the Beagle’s crew in Darwin’s preface to his account of the voyage.

Other minor themes that occur: Victorian Class Arrangements, Scientific Culture and Correspondence, Science and Morality, Process of Scientific Discovery

Our readings this week raise the question whether biographies are books about the scientist or books about the science. In my opinion, Browne nicely weaves in the science without distracting or overwhelming the reader; she provides enough scientific explanation for the reader to understand the context of Darwin’s ideas, and in construction Darwin’s thinking, she shows the reader how Darwin came to the conclusion he did. I found this to be one of the finest biographies of Darwin, meticulous in scope and research. I admire the depth of Browne’s scholarly analysis, her interpretation of the significant events in Darwin’s life and his relationships with others and his society, and her use of a massive amount of primary sources.

I feel like she masterfully creates not only the cultural and intellectual matrix surrounding Darwin, but she personalizes him, in a sense grounding him from his scientific legend and presenting to us a complex, and multidimensional individual who was more than just a scientist or a family man: he was an individual with a fierce personality, a child who lied and created stories and games for attention, an idle student, a fantastic hunter, a drinker, and a man who was enthusiastic about life. As Browne explains, the robust side to Darwin’s character during the voyage was an important feature of his day-to-day mode of living, and facilitated his integration into the Beagle’s company: “With my pistols in my belt & geological hammer in hand, shall I not look like a grand barbarian?” (222)

Balancing Value Systems

A short book review:

Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (Yale University Press, 1997)

In this  book, Stephen Bocking (Trent University) presents the history of ecology and its role in society by looking at the discipline’s respective emergence in Britain, United States, and Canada. Although at times Bocking’s writing style becomes tedious, his arguments nevertheless are consistent, and he does a thorough job raising key issues regarding the relationship between the role of science (ecology) and political demands (environmental politics) by analyzing how institutions can steer the direction of scientific research. Through his case studies—the Nature Conservancy, Oak Ridge Laboratory, the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, and the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory—Bocking provides not only a history of the growth of an institution, but also the way in which ecology itself was transformed with the institutions’ growth. Research agendas, funding sources, and political issues all played a central role in developing the field of ecology.

One key theme that emerges is the idea that scientific agendas are established for social and economical priorities. Throughout our history, this claim is apparent: from Nazi holocaust, to the Manhattan Project, and even to cancer research. Developing on these notions, Bocking invokes a central political question: should ecology contribute to environmental politics? Through his examples, Bocking argues that historically, specific environmental concerns has affected ecology’s place in society and its status as a discipline—such as Britain’s need to preserve its historic countryside after devastating ruins following WWII; the iron triangle of the Joint Commission of Atomic Energy, the Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear industry that governed available research projects for ecologists; and the decline of the Great Lakes fisheries. However, if science is under the control—or at least governed by—political and social institutions, where does the autonomy of science lie, if at all? Does science always need to be planned in order to be of maximum benefit to society? Is there any freedom in science?

Bocking subtly answers these questions, glazing over them as he invokes his argument for the growth of ecology as reflective of social and political agendas. His arguments are presented within the context of the Science Wars, as science and society are often viewed as antithetical, especially on epistemological grounds. The source of the battle resides on the role of value systems in science, since an absence from values is required in order to maintain a pure epistemological stance; for science to require an absence, if not complete disregard from values, it needs to live beyond the borders of society, an approach that is riddled with hostile criticism, especially towards a secularized, authoritative nature of science. Through ecology’s history, there were instances of conflict that centered on competing value systems. I was particularly astounded and amused by Bocking’s brief review of the Hudson River dispute, a conflict between environmentalists and utilities: “The clash of values and interests—between those wishing to preserve fish populations and those aiming to minimize the cost of power generation facilities—became redefined as a technical dispute” (111). This dispute while demonstrating the demand for environmental research, also demonstrates how scientific values can so easily be shifted and manipulated for political goals.

Max Weber once declared that all science—even the social sciences—needs to be “value-free,” a notion apparently lost in the blurring of boundary lines between science and society since Weber’s heyday. Ideological applications of science or at least the extreme exploitation of scientific claims for social agendas—especially in biology—have apparently raised nothing more than perversions of science: Social Darwinism, crainometery, the hereditary principle of IQ, Sociobiology, and other intellectual disasters. If scientific values are framed for social and political goals, can science be “value-free” in order to maintain its pure Baconian pursuits of knowledge? The militarized, institutionalized approach of post-WWII eras traditionally supported the grand scale funding for what is perceived as “mission-based” science, a contrary shift from the rationalization and noble pursuit of science, and a long way from what Derek de Solla Price calls Little Science as the image of “the lone long-haired genius, mouldering in an attic or basement workshop, despised by society as a nonconformist, existing in a state of near poverty, motivated by the flame burning within him” (Price, 1963). Bocking’s book is an excellent addition for providing a balance between science, society, and values.

Summer Treats

Last February, during my first solo trip to London, I brought Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth to accompany my 8-hour flight. With its golden cover and “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker on the front, I brought the book thinking I’ll be engrossed into a great historical novel for the entire duration of my flight.

Unfortunately, I never opened the book. After returning home, the book found a place on my bookshelf, where it stayed until a month ago, when I was searching for a great summer read for those lazy days on the deck steps (I used to have a hammock but it got destroyed during a summer storm). My verdict? What a book. What a story. I got so absorbed into the plot and characters that in a book of 900+ pages, I read about 500 in one day. I just couldn’t put the book down.

If you haven’t read it or heard of it (impossible, I say!), The Pillars of the Earth tells the tale of a Tom Builder and his family as they struggle to survive during the harsh realities of life in twelfth century England, mainly in a fictional town of Kingsbridge. Tom Builder’s dream is to become the master builder of a cathedral, a dream that more often than not leads him to disappointed and tragedy. The epic story also follows the ambitions and greed of several monks and bishops, including the Prior Phillip, who eventually employs Tom, the earls of Shiring and their lust for power, and the general struggles for survival faced by many of the main characters. It is a story of dreams, hopes, greed, love, ambition, and tragedy. And it includes many accurate historical details, including the development of Gothic architecture in England and the assassination of Thomas Becket.

I enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth so much that before even reaching the halfway point, I ran out to Indigo to buy the sequel, World Without End.

It doesn’t have the same captivation of its predecessor, but Follett brings the same brilliance to the table. I’m still reading it, but so far, so good!

Additionally, I was overjoyed to discover that there’s a 8-part mini-series based on The Pillars of the Earth airing on July 23! Fantastic news–and just in time when I finished the massive novel too! In the United States, the worldwide premiere is airing on Starz network and in Canada, on The Movie Network. Check out the trailer: