Below is the introduction to my manuscript, Science and the Social Good: Nature, Science, and Community, 1865-1965. I won’t set it up too much as it is an introduction but I am trying to accomplish two things. The first is to introduce two 19th century scientists from Harvard who will reappear in the manuscript later and second, to establish a more general foundation for the project. This essay comes with all the usual caveats. It is a rough draft, heavy grit sandpaper rough. My ideas are still in formation and the writing, complete with excessive passive voice, poor sentence structure, and an abundance of half-baked ideas, reflect that fact. Any and all help and criticism is welcome.
All natural science is nothing
but an attempt to understand man.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy and Truth.
“They will Mexicanize the country,” wailed a despondent Louis Agassiz. Having just heard of the Confederate attack on South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, Agassiz—the most accomplished natural scientist in America—feared the nation was on the verge of race suicide. In April of 1861, with the Civil War finally upon the nation, Agassiz worried the abolitionist demand for social equality would devastate American society.1
On that spring day, Agassiz broke down before Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, then a student at Harvard University’s Lawrence Scientific School. Shaler completed his studies under Agassiz in 1862, fought for the Union, then returned to Cambridge first, as an instructor of zoology, later, professor of geology, and eventually, Dean of Sciences. Now largely forgotten, Shaler was a giant among American naturalists and one of the most influential intellectuals of the late century.2 Writing of the Agassiz encounter in his autobiography, Shaler thought Agassiz misunderstood both the war and the American mind. In a surprisingly upbeat summary of the Civil War, Shaler chided his mentor for not recognizing Americans as an energetic lot, the war merely the growing pains of expansion and modernity. Forever loyal, Shaler never publicly contradicted Agassiz, but he did provide an interesting interpretation of his teacher’s anxiety-laden admission. “All long,” he remembered, Agassiz “had taken the war as an end to his hopes.”3
Today, Agassiz’s emotional outburst seems odd, even eccentric. Of all the issues that could have, and perhaps should have, occupied his thoughts, his first concern was a racist commentary about the nation’s impending cultural collapse. Look closer, however. Agassiz confessed his unease about America’s future in terms of race, but underneath his alarm are significant debates of the age, including the limits of federal authority and the evolving definition of citizenship. In this context, Agassiz’s willingness to speculate on race relations was hardly unusual. In mid-century America, a natural scientist could comment as a scientist on political affairs. This work attempts to understand why.
In this study, I investigate the working world of natural scientists, explore how they used science to influence American life, and most importantly, illuminate the impact of natural science on American culture. I argue that natural scientists, like Louis Agassiz and his professional descendants, understood their work as a cultural activity contributing to social stability. That is, many natural scientists shared the conviction that rather than a technical field apart, their field was a powerful tool to enhance American life. Their shared goal was the betterment of the nation. Nature was more than an object of analytical study, the physical world held answers that mattered to human society.
The belief that natural science could impact the intersection of the human, the natural, and the scientific has a deep history. From the beginning of industrial capitalism with its attendant emphasis on competitive struggle to the rise of evolution and the significance of structure and order, natural science was long part of the effort to define the public good. The social benefits of nature’s scientific study were considered especially profitable for in the physical world were solutions to human problems, support for national goals, even methods to strengthen democracy. In nature, for instance, were found models for proper community organization, workable hierarchies of species, and system stability and cooperation—each of which became a hands-on tutorial in American civics. Disagreements on method would divide the sub-fields of American natural science, but collectively, scientists anchored their work in the belief that human activities could be made comprehensible through scientific investigation. Making that effort understandable remains a primary aim of this study.
Science and the Social Good is environmental history, not history of science; a painfully obvious fact to all who analyze the intersection of science and society. For decades, scholars of science have investigated the social construction of scientific knowledge. With much sophistication, these works detail the relationship between scientific theory and social assumptions and reveal the wide avenue of correspondence between science and culture. As part of that tradition, this work too explores the cultural impact of American natural science. My primary focus, however, remains the physical world. Science and the Social Good examines how the natural world influenced the practices and parameters of science, but also how the scientific interpretation of nature illuminated social concerns. When we become captivated by the majestic, nature becomes the picturesque backdrop for human affairs. Yet Americans are continually attaching (and reattaching) meanings to the natural world that surrounds them. And observations about the structure and function of the physical environment profoundly affect the understanding of our social environment. The role of nature in American life is expository as well as emotional. The natural world has provided our society with a new vocabulary, a portfolio of images, and a location for expansion. But nature also explained and justified social categories and even helped dictate social values. I argue that how Americans apprehend nature marries larger questions about progress and order.
Return to Agassiz and his Civil War distress to see how the many strands of his scientific thought connect to American society. In 1861, the Swiss-born Agassiz was at the height of his American fame and influence. He was a minor national celebrity with interests and connections—including friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—extending beyond natural science to politics, social reform, and high culture.4 A protégé of two of Europe’s brightest scientific stars, French paleontologist Georges Cuvier and German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Agassiz was, by the 1840s, internationally recognized as an embryologist, glaciologist, paleontologist, and most notably, proponent of the Ice Age theory.5 But as his professional accomplishments mounted, his personal life deteriorated. He was in an unhappy marriage and, thanks to an ill-advised investment strategy, losing money. To boost his sagging savings, Agassiz asked his friends and patrons, including the noted English geologist Charles Lyell, to inquire about a possible American speaking tour. In 1846, the invitation came. Aided by a research grant from the Prussian monarchy, Agassiz took leave from his natural history professorship at Neuchâtel and arrived in America to deliver the Lowell Lectures, a year-long public lecture series held in Boston.6 Both the natural science lectures and the very personable Agassiz were a hit, returning to Europe suddenly became less attractive. Harvard’s governing board thought so too. University administrators, already planning to build a college of science, capitalized on Agassiz’s warm reception to raise an endowment for the new institution and secure him a position on the Harvard faculty. In 1848, just two years after his arrival in Massachusetts, Agassiz—who was as enamored with Boston as its citizens were of him—was a fixture on the American scene.7
Harvard’s new Lawrence Scientific School became Agassiz’s fiefdom.8 The school was originally envisioned as program of applied engineering, a school to produce technicians for New England’s many textile mills.9 Agassiz had a better idea: build an institution for modern scientific research. It was an ambitious goal. In an age when American students of science went abroad for advanced training, few American universities had the resources or inclination to build a liberal and autonomous school of science. Agassiz, however, believed it could be done and once established in Cambridge, he worked at a frenetic pace to advance American natural science. He spent much of the next decade building a national network of collaborators, expanding Harvard’s scientific offerings, and modernizing the curriculum with the latest standards of rigor. He also published a popular zoology textbook, a compendium of American fish, a multi-volume series on natural history, and in 1860, opened a national zoological museum.10
It is not the quantity (or quality) of Agassiz’s work that remains significant, but what he thought his science could accomplish within an expansive social context. In method and application, Agassiz’s science, explains historian Philip Pauly, was “nationalistic in its intent.”11 Agassiz’s determined support for natural science reflected his belief that science could influence and inform American politics. Properly directed, he insisted, the study of the natural world could provide direction for society, even become a source of national inspiration. Science could, for example, amaze and enlighten as in nature’s bounty was found confirmation of a divine order. More significantly, since the strength of nations hinged on their scientific knowledge, natural science could bolster national identity and prestige.12 “The time has come,” Agassiz wrote, “when American scientific men should aim at establishing their respective standing without reference to the opinion of Europeans.” He would have to wait for American scientific independence, but ever the confident promoter, he continually referred to his work as “an American contribution to science” and advertised his museum as an institution “to serve America.”13 Many of his appreciative countrymen applauded the effort. Agassiz’s work “exalt[s] the character of America,” proclaimed one Boston newspaper. Because of Agassiz, trumpeted another, the “Science of the New World sits side by side with the Science of the Old.” His achievements were no “less honorable to the country than to its author,” gushed a third.14 Such praise exaggerates Agassiz’s contribution to national standing and illuminates more of America’s cultural insecurities than it does a national appreciation for science. But still, this commentary frames Agassiz’s high ambitions for natural science. Throughout his long career, Agassiz directed his work—whether on fish, frogs, or fossils—to understanding species relationships and especially, interactions. His intent was to reveal foundational laws shaping kinship among and between natural communities—moral laws he believed held as much application in the human world as the non-human.
Agassiz, of course, was not alone in his desire to use science to promote larger national aims. Indeed, he only had to look down the hall to his see his Harvard associate, Asa Gray, doing much the same.15 Gray began his professional career as a physician in the early 1830s, but medicine never held his focus. Botany, a subject he discovered in medical school, did. As his interest deepened, Gray started to collect and study the plants of his native New York. From there, he taught the summer botany courses at his former medical school. In a move suggestive of the open nature of the field, Gray initiated a correspondence with John Torrey, the foremost botanist of the era, offering an exchange of botanical samples.16 The expert Torrey was so impressed with the amateur’s early work that in 1833, he asked the twenty-three year old Gray to collaborate on his Flora of North America, a massive chronicle of American plants. The association with Torrey put Gray’s career on the fast track. The multi-volume Flora was a success and Gray became the botanical editor for the American Journal of Science. Offers of university appointments followed. In 1842, the largely self-taught Gray became the Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard.17
When Agassiz arrived in Cambridge a few years later, the duo transformed the school into a leading institution of American natural science. Together, Agassiz and Gray embarked on a similar project, a goal modern observers might interpret as odd: both insisted it was possible to understand American culture through the study of its flora and fauna. Scientific knowledge, especially ecological knowledge, they asserted, was critical to the creation and ownership of national culture. Agassiz and Gray argued that understanding the nation’s biological foundations were as vital to American heritage as celebrating the republic’s political origins. From this shared foundation, the two also built a quick friendship. Gray thought Agassiz a “capital fellow” as “excellent and pleasant a man as he is a superb naturalist.”18 For his part, Agassiz praised Gray’s “indefatigable zeal” for science and returned his personal and professional admiration.19 Their alliance, however, was short-lived. In the 1850s, their relationship began a slow dissolve and, by the end of the decade, a rapid collapse. At the occasion of Agassiz’s tearful complaint to Shaler, he and Gray were bitter rivals.
In this case, timing really was everything. The Agassiz-Gray relationship broke at the same moment—and for much the same reason—that the crisis of war threatened the promise of American unity.20 As Agassiz and Gray expanded the natural science program at Harvard, the rest of the nation grappled with the political and cultural implications of slavery and its westward expansion. From the 1820s forward, national leaders cobbled together one ineffective compromise measure after another. Each stopgap kept the fragile republic together but failed to solve the deeper sectional differences dividing the Union. The 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act increased the intensity of these debates as most citizens surmised the grave threat slavery posed to the nation and its future. Within this context, the friendship and feud between Agassiz and Gray takes on a larger significance.
Agassiz arrived in America a pious, although not necessarily a fundamental, scientist.21 As part of his desire to enhance the professional status and international reputation of American natural science, he demanded his students pursue their research free from religious beliefs and biases. Yet in a pre-Darwinian world, Agassiz still found in nature ample evidence of creation and creator. His Lowell Lectures, for instance, Agassiz’s American coming out party, were entitled “On the Plan of Creation in the Animal Kingdom.” Individual lectures ranged from glaciation to embryology and ichthyology, but the organizing theme of his presentation—natural order—remained constant. In his public lectures, he explained his complex taxonomy of animal classification. Agassiz divided the animal kingdom into distinct branches and within those branches ranked all species low to high depending on development, age, or structure. Agassiz’s extensive classification schemes were an attempt to first enumerate and then organize the planet’s animal species. His structure also revealed a high degree of species similarity; animals in one branch could often be linked to those on another.22 Many future scientists would take this as proof of adaptation and natural selection, but Agassiz, part of the German tradition of romantic philosophy, saw only design and premeditation. The many patterns amid nature’s diversity could not be arbitrary, he insisted. Rather such order was the product of “Divine workmanship.” The complexity of the physical world was enduring evidence of God’s investment in the creation and care of the natural world.23
Agassiz set up the conflict with Gray by using his understanding of the natural order of animal species to interpret American social dynamics. His science was, as one scholar noted, part of a tradition “more about culture than nature, more about manipulation and improvement than understanding.”24 As Philip Pauly again explains, Agassiz grew up “in a part of Europe in which ethnic, religious, and political distinctions were fine-grained and enduring.” The result was an easy acceptance of hierarchies and differences within the physical world. When he became a scientist, his personal past reinforced his professional work leading Agassiz to “the idea that the earth contained numerous well-defined ‘zoological provinces.’”25 Within these various ecological zones, different species developed at different rates with different biological missions. Agassiz took natural symmetries within his taxonomy as proof of providential interest in natural order, but to explain differences within nature, he advanced an understanding of the creation process that included separate zones of origins.26 Agassiz’s early European work contained elements of this thinking, but during his American tenure, he refined the argument that God formed each species in separate moments of creation, allowed them to thrive in specific environments, and then maintained this balance in “majestic permanence.”27
Agassiz’s theories provided a framework to understand the obviously unobservable process of creation, but they also held serious political implications for mid-century America. In a world marked by a dazzling diversity of species, Agassiz tried to provide a tangible link to God, but his support for separate origins led him into contemporary controversy. Agassiz believed in an overall unity of human life, but he reconciled such a position with support for polygenesism. Polygenesism was (and to a limited extent, still is) a highly debated theory of racial divergence. As the name implies, polygenesism is an anthropological theory of multiple origins. Polygenesists posit that different human races are of distinct lineages originating in separate creations. Relying on an unusual mixture of evidence, including skull measurements, mortality and fertility rates, even Egyptian statuary, polygenesists separated human “types,” including most controversially blacks and whites, based on what they understood as ingrained racial differences.28
Today such thinking is dismissed as racist and biologically determined, but less so in 1850. Speculation about race, physical anthropology and the connection of each to national identity has a complex history, especially in European politics.29 In the nineteenth century, these ideas took hold in America. Many citizens accepted the link between physical traits, cultural behavior, and racial characteristics. Against the backdrop of continued developing world colonization, European nationalism of mid-century, and American slavery, polygenesism significantly influenced western thought. The appeal was clear: racial difference was “scientifically” explainable. Racial inequality was not an accident of nature or the fault of the dominant culture, but a product of divine planning and intelligence. Polygenesists could argue that racial differences always existed as various attributes complete with unequal aptitudes were endowed within separate species from the very beginning.30
In America, even as it was absorbed into the moral controversy surrounding slavery, polygenesism found considerable support. Although their evidence and methods were suspect, Samuel George Morton, a Philadelphia craniologist, southern physician Josiah Nott, and British-born author George Gliddon became popular polygenesist spokesmen. Morton’s work stressed the separation of human races, Nott linked slavery to the prevention of African-American degeneration, and Gliddon, a well-known Egyptologist, popularized the notion of fixed racial difference in a series of best-selling texts.31 Their work influenced the racial tone of American political debates—Compromise of 1850, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott decision—surrounding sectionalism. Agassiz’s insistence of ancient species not as the ancestors of present life but as the immutable creation of God made him famous and Morton and the rest of the American polygenesists gladly welcomed his celebrity into their camp.32
Agassiz’s connection to polygenesism is critical to the discussion of science and society because it was his understanding of race and biology that contributed to his Fort Sumter crisis. He cried at the outbreak of war because he interpreted the conflict as a scientist who understood the consequences of species amalgamation in nature. The mixing of separate human races, like interbreeding of different animal species, was a biological mistake and he insisted, a political disaster. If the Civil War led to national racial equality, rather than a “manly population descended from cognate nations,” America would be “inhabited by the effeminate progeny of the mixed races.” Agassiz’s science suggested that this “unnatural” behavior was trouble for animals and it would be trouble for humans.33
Agassiz’s position was, to say the least, problematic for his colleague Gray. As a faithful Presbyterian, Gray saw Agassiz’s support of polygenesis, a contradiction of the Adam and Eve creation, wrongheaded. As a moralist, he found Agassiz’s position, frequently cited as scientific justification for slavery, unsettling.34 More importantly, as a scientist, Gray took issue with Agassiz’s characterization of an America divided by nature. Gray’s views on race reflected the opinions of his era, but his understanding of natural science and American society led to a different interpretation of social purpose and national destiny. The overarching theme of Gray’s botanical studies, for example, was connectivity. His work suggested that America was not defined by fragmentation, ecological or otherwise, but was best understood as a single domain where topographical and species boundaries meant little. Like Agassiz, Gray recognized great diversity within the physical world, but his understanding of this variety was encompassed within a bioregional unit. America was marked by an abundance of flora, but an overall similarity of species bound the nation together.35
Gray’s investigation of biological harmony came with its own political dimension. Long before places like Texas, California, and Oregon were officially incorporated into America’s political orbit, they were part of his national organic system. His botanical sketch of the nation was nearly identical to a modern map of the continental United States.36 The principle of Manifest Destiny was as imbedded in his “peculiarly American” botany as it was nineteenth century American politics. 37 The nationalistic Gray was just as shaken by the Civil War as Agassiz, not because of similar fears of racial unrest, but because the war clouded the nation’s political future. His understanding of natural science illustrated that natural communities, like political states, were healthiest when linked together. Gray the natural scientist recognized the success of the American enterprise required union.
On the eve of the war, Gray finally broke with Agassiz over, of all things, Japanese botany. In reviewing monographs on Asian plants, Gray discovered a number of similarities between Japanese species and those he knew well from his earliest studies of northeastern America.38 His breakthrough moment was not the recognition of related species, but his inability to find evidence of shared botanical traits in the vast spaces between continents. His conclusion was these plants descended from common ancestors in an age before extensive glacial activity but were cut off by an expanding ice sheet.39 Faced with explaining a similar situation, Agassiz, as expected, countered that God planned separate creations of each species in each locale. Earlier in his career, Agassiz’s willingness to identify new types enhanced his scientific reputation as after every discovery he was credited with expanding “human knowledge of the range of species in the animal kingdom.” By the late 1850s, however, his insistence to continually celebrate new discoveries grew increasingly “absurd as he became inundated with new species.”40 Gray’s claim of an original seed pair spreading successive generations across the globe was unproven, but anchored in scientific theory. Agassiz’s description of double creation was an act of faith.41
In the face of this challenge, Agassiz, the epitomization of dogmatic certainty, did not merely roll over. He marshaled evidence and rallied his allies to affirm the veracity of his biological work. A very public debate ensued. Their disagreement would reach a high point of acrimony in 1864 when, after a heated verbal exchange, Agassiz apparently challenged Gray to a duel; by most standards, an excessive response to a scientific dispute. But of course their quarrel was not just scientific. In a rapidly developing field like nineteenth century American natural science, theoretical and procedural debates were frequent, part of the ever-changing paradigm of science. This episode, even with the added star power of Agassiz and Gray, might have remained a skirmish between competing applications of natural science. That did not happen. Their feud gathered a rolling momentum and expanded to include the reception of Charles Darwin, the escalating friction between religion and science, the definition of scientific authority, the place of nature within a human order, even the notion of certainty and truth.42 Above all, it was a political debate. Their science and their conflict cannot be separated from the contemporary crises facing America.43 Their work paralleled the key issues of the age, including the shape and future of the American nation.
The outcome of this dispute, however, is less significant than the nature of the debate itself, a high relief display of intersecting cultural and scientific objectives. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, their natural science was absorbed into the struggle for Union as well as into the larger questions about the moral significance of science. At the heart of their disagreement stood differing conceptions of the role of science within national life. Embedded in their work was an understanding of the profound impact of natural science on the problems and conditions of American society.44 Neither scientist questioned whether the study of plants or fossils was applicable to human affairs. The issue was how was it applicable.45
Building off the example of the Agassiz-Gray controversy, Science and the Social Good continues the inquiry into natural science as a bridge between the social and the scientific. Beginning with the Civil War and the creation of a recognizably modern America and continuing forward to the emergence of environmentalism as a political force a century later, this work attempts to understand the evolving internal paradigms and external political forces that impacted the design of purpose of American natural science.
This project is not intended to be encyclopedic. In fact, the narrative is framed by cultural biographies of just three scientists—geologist Clarence King (1842-1901), forester Robert Marshall (1901-1939), and biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964). I do not suggest that these three are the perfect representations of the age, other equally viable scientists—John Muir, Frederick Clemens, Alice Hamilton, Barry Commoner—could have appeared in these pages, but like Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray, this trio is significant as they directed their professional careers to finding a social application for their scientific work. Each achieved a marked level of achievement in the process. King, explorer, author, and founding director of the United States Geological Survey, was celebrated by his contemporaries, including Henry Adams and William Dean Howells, as the most able man of his generation. The youngest man elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, King was as comfortable in the royal courts of Europe as he was the geological field camps of the American West. Marshall had the wealth and education to move in similar circles, but chose another path. In the mid-1930s, he organized the powerful environmental advocacy group, The Wilderness Society, and transformed the face of natural preservation in America. With a commitment to social justice, Marshall blended forest ecology and pragmatic philosophy to craft a natural science ethic that influenced the contours of early twentieth century American political life. Rachel Carson deservedly gets credit for launching the modern environmental movement with her 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Her books sold millions of copies and made a generation of Americans aware of the social costs inherent in the human manipulation of the natural world. What follows is an environmental history of the social context of their natural science.
Natural science is a slippery term. Often confused with natural history, sometimes synonymous with life science, it includes a range of scientific disciplines including physics, chemistry, and biology and more specialized disciplines like population ecology, neurobiology, and climatology. The research interests of the chosen three narrow the range of natural sciences considered in this study and here too other natural sciences could have informed this work. But within this limited definition of natural science, their fields are as significant as their biography. In the late nineteenth century, interwar period, and post-World War II era, King’s geology, Marshall’s forest ecology, and Carson’s biology engaged large social issues of the day. Many of the central scientific debates of Victorian America, for example, involved evolution. Questions about evolution occupied the practices of many fields, but few as directly as geology. With a collective research emphasis on revealing the age and formation of the earth, nineteenth century geology was critical to unraveling the scientific puzzle of evolution. Similarly, Carson worked as a biologist in an age of atomic science. The dawn of the nuclear age and the easy manipulation of the physical world brought questions of life and purpose to the foreground, issues that held real traction within the biological sciences. Even Marshall’s forestry, hardly a field brimming with social appeal, involved fundamental questions about state responsibility and care of natural resources in an era of economic collapse and social upheaval.
Collectively, their fields also inform this investigation into the social role and authority of science. King, Marshall, and Carson were, for instance, “outdoor” scientists. That is, none of the three worked within a laboratory culture. For much of the history of science, laboratory work with its standards, controls, and emphasis on explaining cause and effect, carried the heavy stamp of authority. Laboratories are restricted places, the field is, obviously, open. Natural scientists share their investigative space with tourists and sportsmen. Knowledge acquired in a laboratory was standardized, contained, and above all, trusted.46 Field science, by contrast, was a less credible, more amateur mode of investigation. That rocks, trees, and animals were not “just neutral stages for measuring and experiment” but were themselves “objects of study… actively alter[ing] their environments,” forced natural scientists to invent new analytical methodologies to frame their work—a condition that makes field science appropriate for this study.47 King, Marshall, and Carson would employ various strategies to deal with nature’s vagaries and importantly, find an audience for their work. One result of this search for credibility and application was a softening of the divide between science and society. Equally significant is that this trio investigated nature on its own terms. In the laboratory, nature is a specimen, simplified, socialized, and detached from larger significance.48 But for King, Marshall, and Carson, nature’s placedness was the key to its authenticity as a guide for human affairs.
Just as important as the social context of their work is their position as federal scientists. Much of King’s scientific work was completed as a government surveyor, Marshall’s career was spent with the United States Department of Agriculture, and Carson began her work as one of the first women hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service. As state scientists, they influenced national science policy as well as the shape of the bureaucratic relationship with nature. To follow their combined career trajectory is to chart the rise of the federal government as the prime agent supporting natural science. While no member of this trio was a bureaucrat in the contemporary sense, their government careers dovetailed with the increasing federal investment in science. Agassiz and Gray could play a central role in national scientific affairs based on the influence of their personal connections at Harvard and beyond. For King, and especially for Marshall and Carson, federal monies supporting national objectives operating within a federal system determined the path of their careers and ultimately, the outcome and application of their science.49
At base, however, even given the importance of the federal government to the work of King, Marshall, and Carson, is their understanding of science, nature, and society as individuals. They continually reevaluated their views on nature and science in response to a changing social climate. I do not follow their careers then just as scientists. Technical papers, for instance, play a lesser role in this study. Instead, I investigate how these scientists as thinking individuals understood their work within the broad spectrum of American culture. The best framework for this methodology is cultural biography. Cultural biography permits historians to blend different avenues of cultural study, what anthropologists often label emic and etic. Emic studies investigate distant cultures as experienced by its members, etic studies uncover a more fundamental organization within society that transcends perceived structures. In an “actor-orientated approach” scholars can reconstruct and analyze individual ideas even as those ideas operate within a larger cultural framework.50 Any scholar investigating the intersection of ideas and practices must consider how knowledge and power are intimately connected. And in Science and the Social Good, I explore the practice of “doing” natural science and the setting in which these activities occurred. The evolution of scientific traditions and interpretations of nature are understood within an equally active social setting. This simultaneous focus enables this study to analyze historical factors that include localized forces, such as individual agency, as well as larger factors, such as cultural mores and institutional structures. The result is necessarily social, intellectual, and institutional.
This study investigates three very different historical figures. They did not know each other and their lives remain unconnected, yet each scientist acts as a touchstone into an important period of adjustment in American life. In the Victorian era of the 1870s and 1880s, interwar America of the 1920s and 1930s, and post-war America of the 1950s and 1960s, massive social change, economic collapse and recovery, and the crisis of war and its aftermath prompted many Americans to look to the non-human world for answers to contemporary problems. As part of this dynamic, these scientists were part of a larger effort to redefine the role of science and use of nature within society. Amid an evolving social and political landscape, King, Marshall, and Carson are representative of the community of natural scientists who attempted to blend their work, understanding of politics, and concern for social welfare into a vision of a scientifically informed and hopefully, liberal, secular, and cooperative America. but in this trio is a consideration of the effort to reveal the cultural assumptions about the connection between science, nature, and society. As part of the continuing inquiry into the relationship between theories of natural science and social assumptions, Science and the Social Good traces the evolution of scientific beliefs about civic responsibility, individualism, and the ideal political order for the nation. Following the life course of these groups tracks the flexible discourse of natural science and its impact on national life. King, Marshall, and Carson each maintained a different political agenda and a different understanding of how to best use their field to promote broader aims. Yet together they illustrate how they tapped into a similar set of assumptions about the relationship of natural science to American society. Their positions were ever changing, reflecting popular opinion at times, conflicting with the majority at others, but their lives and work suggest how integral the role of science is to American life.
1 The original Agassiz quote appears in Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler: With A Supplementary Memoir by his Wife (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909), 170-71. I found the reference in Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), 102.
2 Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 312 and 318. Among his scientific accomplishments, Shaler directed the Kentucky Geological Survey, contributed to the U.S. Coast Survey, and studied glacier activity in the Alps. Beyond his science, Shaler is well known for a public debate with Harvard philosopher William James on the political and theological implications of evolution.
3 Shaler, Autobiography, 170.
4 Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 301. See also Lurie, Nature and the American Mind: Louis Agassiz and the Culture of Science (New York: Science History Publications, 1974) and James David Teller, Louis Agassiz, Scientist and Teacher (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1947).
5 Although written later in his career
, see as one representative work, Louis Agassiz, Geological Sketches
(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1876).
6 Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 97-8.
7 Lurie, Louis Agassiz, 114-21, 135-37.
8 A. Hunter Dupree, Asa Gray, 1810-1888 (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959), 224.
9 Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 99 and Dupree, Asa Gray, 153-4, 199.
10 Lurie, Agassiz,
11 Phillip J. Pauly, Biologists and the Promise of American Life: From Meriwether Lewis to Alfred Kinsey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 35. This entire section is heavily indebted to Pauly’s work.
12 Mary P. Windsor, Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 2.
14 Lurie, Agassiz, 196, 301, and Christoph Irmscher, The Poetics of Natural History: From John Bartram to William James (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 234-5.
15 For biographical information on Gray, the best source is still Dupree, Asa Gray: 1810-1888.
16 For biographical information on Torrey, see Andrew Denny Rodgers, John Torrey: A Story of North American Botany (New York: Hafner, 1964).
17 Dupree, Asa Gray, 108-14. See also Elizabeth B. Keeney, The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 32-7.
18 Lurie, Agassiz, 125.
19 Dupree, Gray, 151.
20 Pauly, Promise of American Life, 33.
22 Louis Agassiz, “Essay on Classification,” in Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1857). See also Mary P. Windsor, Starfish, Jellyfish, and the Order of Life: Issues in Nineteenth-Century Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 128-41.
23 Windsor, Reading the Shape of Nature, 7-9.
24 Ronald Rainger, “Essay Review: Improving Americans,” Journal of the History of Biology 34 (2001): 561.
25 Pauly, Promise of American Life, 37.
26 See Louis Agassiz, Methods of Study in Natural History (Boston: Fields and Osgood, 1873).
27 Paul Jerome Croce, “Probabilistic Darwinism: Louis Agassiz vs. Asa Gray on Science, Religion, and Certainty,” Journal of Religious History 22 (February 1998): 38.
28 Works on polygenesism are extremely varied. Scholars in languages, anthropology, theology, archaeology, and ethnic studies have all approached the topic from equally varied perspectives. As a small sampling of the literature, consider Robert Bernasconi
, ed., American Theories of Polygenesis
(London: Bristol, 2002); Lester D. Stephens. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate over Afro-American Character and Destiny
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987): Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man
(New York: Norton, 1981); Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1995); Sandra Harding, ed., The ‘Racial’ Economy of Sex: Toward a Democratic Future
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); and Dana D. Nelson, “No Cold or Empty Heart”: Polygenesis, Scientific Professionalization and the Unfinished Business of Male Sentimentalism,” in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
11 (1999/2000): 29-56.
29 George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987), 62-9.
30 Menand, Metaphysical Club, 104.
31 See Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon, eds., Types of Mankind, or Ethnological Researches Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races
(Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Company, 1854) and Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana: or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America
(Philadelphia: John Pennington, 1839). For more information on these individuals, see Gould, Mismeasure of Man
; Reginald Horsman, Josiah Nott of Mobile: Southerner, Physician, and Racial Theorist
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987); and William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-1859
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
32 When Agassiz arrived in America, he was a confirmed “orthodox monogenesist,” but was “converted” to the polygenesist position once exposed to the work of Morton and other racial theorists. See Lurie, Agassiz, 257.
33 Croce, Probabilistic Darwinism, 115.
34 Dupree, Asa Gray, 228-9.
35 Pauly, Promise of American Life, 41.
36 Pauly, Promise of American Life, 28.
37 Dupree, Asa Gray, 263.
38 Gray had discovered these similarities much earlier. See his review of Flora Japonica
in the American Journal of Science
39 (1840): 175-6. A second essay six years later expanded his ideas, see “Analogy between the Flora of Japan and That of the United States,” American Journal of Science
(1846): 135-6. See also, Dupree, Asa Gray
39 Croce, Probabilistic Darwinism, 52.
40 Ibid., 48.
41 Menand, Metaphysical Club, 141.
42 Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism
43 Pauly, 26ish
44 Dupree, Asa Gray, 254.
45 Greg Mitman, State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought, 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 4.
46 See Stephen Shapin, “Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology,” Social Studies in Science 14 (1984): 481-520.
47 Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 6-7.
48 Ibid, 3.
49 Pauly, Promise of American Life, 44-7.
50 Charles Rosenberg, “Woods or Trees?: Ideas and Actors in the History of Science,” Isis 79 (1988): 565-7.