James Elwick, Styles of Reasoning in the British Life Sciences

James Elwick, Styles of Reasoning in the British Life Sciences: Shared assumptions, 1820–1858 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007). 233 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 1851969209.

James Elwick’s book is a fine-grained analysis of the diverse methodologies and philosophies of British ‘life researchers’ in the decades before the Origin of Species. ‘Life researcher’ is his umbrella term for those with an interest in the anatomy and physiology of marine invertebrates, which included naturalists, anatomists, museum workers and medical men of various kinds. According to Elwick, between 1820 and 1858 two rival ‘styles of reasoning’ are apparent among such workers: early in the period, the dominant style was what he calls ‘analysis:synthesis’, which had French roots, in Lavoisier and the French hospital medical tradition. Robert Edmond Grant was a leading proponent of this style, which was characterised by attempts to break living things down into their simplest components and then build them up again to understand living processes. Since the organisms had to be dead to be broken down, the synthesis was necessarily imaginative rather than literal. In this style of reasoning, key features of organisms, such as embryos, coalesced from largely undifferentiated component parts, so Elwick refers to it as centripetal. The key question researchers in this tradition asked was about the nature of the individual: were colonial organisms, like sponges and corals, a single creature or a colony of creatures? What about plants, whose twigs could be planted and develop into new plants? Where were the boundaries of the individual; could every cell in our bodies potentially be considered an autonomous individual? The alternative style was ‘palaetiological’ (one of Whewell’s numerous terms which, perhaps unsurprisingly, never caught on). These workers looked at the historical development of an individual outwards from a single starting point, such as fertilised ovum, and so their style is characterised as centrifugal. The whole question of compound individuality, that preoccupied the analysis:synthesis workers, was fundamentally meaningless when seen from the perspective of the palaetiologists.

Elwick’s  book is largely focussed on the minutiae of zoological work and deals almost exclusively with the scientific publications of its practitioners. He makes it clear in the introduction that he believes that the recent trend towards a fully cultural history of science runs the risk of ‘turning histories of science into histories of just any other kind of culture’ (3). It is not clear to me why this outcome is to be avoided, but Elwick wishes to and so argues that the concept of a style of reasoning provides a useful way of specifying which of the broader factors that shaped a scientific practitioner’s work were in fact relevant to understanding its context.

Styles of reasoning are also, in part, about communities who share common practices, assumptions, problems and frequently organisms. Elwick looks at London-based invertebrate zoologists, particularly Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley, each of whom were largely identified with one of the two contrasting styles of reasoning. Owen remained committed to analysis: synthesis, while Huxley espoused the later palaetiological style and Elwick regards the two men’s later conflicts as a symptom of these shifting styles of reasoning.

As Elwick notes, styles of reasoning are also in part styles of practice, and so are identified with contrasting research sites: analysis:synthesis was largely conducted with dead specimens in museums, while the rise of aquaria allowed research on living creatures that characterised the palaetiological style. Although the contrast between these two material cultures and their practices is touched on occasionally in the book, it never quite develops into a proper theme, partly because issues like access to and funding of these sites, and the audiences for what went on in each, are barely explored.

A more explicit consideration of the audiences for different kinds of science might have strengthened the book. As Elwick notes, the exhibition of Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s aqua-vivariums (aquariums) at the Great Exhibition helped create the aquarium craze. Elwick notes the importance of Philip Henry Gosse’s popular book The Aquarium (1854) in promoting the craze, but appears to have been overlooked Rebecca Stott’s path-breaking work on Anna Thynne and her madrepores (Theatres of Glass, 2003). Although Elwick gives a vivid sense of the infrastructure (such as aquarium shops and professional collectors) that supported the new style of work, this is compressed into a couple of pages and there is no real sense that the fashion created a tension between elite and popular notions of the aquarium’s identity and uses. An analysis of these competing audiences for science would have enriched Elwick’s discussion of GH Lewes’s Sea-side Studies (1858), which collected together a series of articles he had written for Blackwood’s Magazine. Elwick analyses Lewes’s book as an attempt to get himself taken seriously by those like Huxley. The attempt failed, because—in Elwick’s view—Lewes continued to advocate the idea of compound individuality, characteristic of the old analysis:synthesis style that ‘Huxley was trying to erase… from the public memory’ (155). While there is undoubtedly some truth in this argument, it might also have been worth considering the ways in which Sea-Side Studies was a deliberately genre-bending book; Lewes explicitly aimed it at both seaside holidaymakers and men of science.

Considering questions of genre and audience would also have enriched Elwick’s discussion of Huxley and W.B. Carpenter’s successful professionalization of ‘life research’. He argues that they were largely responsible for the eventual triumph of the palaetiological style, which they achieved by excluding the earlier style of reasoning from their increasingly professional science. Elwick argues that for Huxley, the very definition of professionalization was ‘the systematic exclusion of those life researchers identified as outsiders’ (131–2). In Elwick’s view, Huxley’s new terminology made the whole question of compound individuality ‘unreal’ (149). This seems somewhat crude and would have profited from considering the competing audiences more thoroughly; it would have been useful, for example, to learn a little more about how each of these men earned their livings and how this related to the question of what kinds of books they published? Lewes’ desire to develop his own ideas, rather than merely explaining those of others, apparently earned him Huxley and Carpenter’s disapproval. But Owen and Huxley shared considerable financial uncertainty in their early careers; was there no popular market for them to address when they needed it, or was it precisely their creation of an elite life science that created a popular market for writers like Lewes to exploit?

More discussion of science’s diverse audiences and the sites where these audiences were to be found, might also have created a richer context for what are, at present, rather fragmentary references to different style of scientific practice. As Elwick notes, what he calls ‘paradigm animals’ were used to teach cephalisation and embryonic development and these animals reveal ‘the outlines of a community’ (86). He also observes that common practices, often based on common organisms, linked practitioners who were often explicitly suspicious of too much theory or speculation. Perhaps I am merely imposing my own interests on Elwick’s book, but I wanted to know much more about these tantalising links. For example, Elwick includes a fascinating but brief discussion of John Lubbock’s use of the largest kind of water flea, Daphnia schaefferi, to analyse the difference between sexual and asexual reproduction. Daphnia were used in part because they are transparent. However, there are no details of the experiments nor of whether Daphnia were widely used as an experimental organism (and if not, why not?). Similarly, there is a lovely, vivid description of how to vivisect a millipede, which (at the risk of earning me the wrath of millipede lovers) made me want to go out and try it, but this is not followed up with any sense of whether the organism’s career outlasted the shift in styles of reasoning. There are similarly tantalising glimpses of Edward Forbes finding the problem of compound individuality exemplified in a species of starfish he tried to capture but which disintegrated every time he tried to lift one into his boat. The fragments nevertheless seemed to retain life, which illustrated the colonial organism problem rather vividly. I was left wondering how the later palaetiological researchers understood such creatures if, as Elwick argues, the ‘individual or colony’ question eventually became ‘unreal’.

Elwick’s brief excursions into practice are interspersed with much longer sections on ideas, a terrain on which he seems more comfortable. Nevertheless, his shifts back and forth from actor’s categories and perspectives to a broader, historical perspective sometimes lead to confusion, exemplified, perhaps, by his terms for the two styles of reasoning (one of which is clearly not an actor’s category, while the other sort of is, but actually wasn’t in practice). For example, Elwick claims that ‘Carpenter cut through much confusion’ (119); since none of Carpenter’s contemporaries are explicitly credited with this view, one is left wondering whose opinion this is, and who the audiences for Carpenter’s claims were and how were they evaluated?

This year particularly, it is perverse (even ungrateful), to complain about an author’s decision to largely omit Charles Darwin from their story, a decision Elwick has clearly taken for very good reasons, not least to avoid imposing the anachronistic for/against evolution division onto earlier debates. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing Darwin had been discussed a little more. As Elwick notes, Darwin was a product of the analysis:synthesis school; under the influence of Grant’s and John Stevens Henslow’s teaching, he evinced considerable interest in colonial organisms and the question of compound individuality. Elwick thinks that ‘it is possible that Darwin also switched sides’ as palaetiology triumphed (165), since Darwin’s later work was clearly shaped by such characteristically palaetiological questions as historical origins and embryology. However, the spectre at Elwick’s feast is Darwin’s theory of pangenesis, announced in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868). This is, of course, too late for Elwick’s book so he naturally does not discuss it, but it would have been interesting to have had his thoughts on the subject, since pangenesis seems so clearly a product of the supposedly ‘unreal’ questions formulated by the older analysis:synthesis tradition. Darwin’s gemmules are endowed with a degree of autonomy (including, apparently, the ability to compete with each other), and they undoubtedly aggregate, coalescing ‘centripetally’ into the germ cells of the next generation. Does Darwin’s attachment to the older style of reasoning help explain pangenesis’s failure to be accepted, or did the older style not die as abruptly or completely as Elwick argues? Is the fact that neither of these styles of reasoning was recognised and labelled by the historical actors more significant than the apparent similarities among these diverse groups? After all, many ‘life researchers’ continued to work in museums (including Huxley) and used museum specimens in their teaching. Elwick notes that the ideas of cephalisation and recapitulation made useful teaching tools, allowing students to memorise sequences of increasingly complex organisms by their respective levels of nervous complexity. Grant was fond of this technique, which he demonstrated with sequences of specimens, but Elwick does not discuss the fact that Grant would undoubtedly seen the sequence as evolutionary (Grant’s Lamarckianism is barely mentioned, but it would surely put him in the supposedly later historical/developmental camp). Are Huxley’s famous sequences of horses and apes really so different to Grant’s sponges and starfish?

At times Elwick’s book reads too much like a dissertation and not enough like a book. Nevertheless, my criticisms are a measure of how thought-provoking and intelligent it is. We still know far too little about the range and variety of scientific work and thinking in the early nineteenth century (partly, of course, because we know almost too much about post-1859 developments), and Elwick’s book is a valuable contribution to a richer historical understanding of the period. The quality and range of the research is exemplary and I found myself wanting more of his well-written and lucid arguments.

Jim Endersby, University of Sussex