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Victorian Sensation

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online ISSN 1646-7752
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James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago / London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000)

By Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent*

Although it came out in 2000, James Secord's Victorian Sensation still deserves a review because it is a case study written as a manifesto for a different kind of history, comparable to the publication of Leviathan and the Air-Pump published in 1986. Whereas Shapin and Schaffer promoted the social studies of science in describing a connection between scientific knowledge and political thought, Secord advocates the history of the book and reading.

Victorian Sensation is a kind of biographical account of a book, which was one of the most controversial best-sellers of the nineteenth century.

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was anonymously published in 1844 and went through eleven of its twelve editions before the author's name was unveiled. It has been translated in German, Dutch and went through twenty editions in the United States. Vestiges caused a great commotion in the Victorian society as it raised intense public debates in the 1840s. Secord argues that the controversy about creation versus natural laws was not raised by Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Rather Darwin's Origin was dropped "into a saturated solution like a crystal around which all diverse elements coalesced" (p. 522). The so-called Darwinian revolution was prepared by the anonymous Vestiges.

Despite this strong claim, Secord's study is not meant to provide an additional account of the controversies around Darwinism. Historians exclusively interested in scientific doctrines were extremely disappointed because they learnt nothing about the contents of Vestiges. For instance the review by Arianne Chernock in the New York Times (May 20, 2001) concluded: "Unfortunately, another book on ''Vestiges'' itself rather than this intelligent analysis of its production and reception is needed to determine whether Secord's argument here is well founded". Had Secord's main goal been to demonstrate that Vestiges should be taken into account as a precursor of Darwin, he would have followed the usual pattern: describing its contents and context of publication, then its reception. Instead the only information provided by Secord is that Vestiges was an ambitious narrative tackling the big questions, from the formation of the solar system to the formation of the human species as descendent of apes. So if Victorian Sensation is not a book about evolutionary doctrines, what is it about?

Secord takes Vestiges as a field to experiment a new approach to the history of science. His aim is "to see what happens when a major episode is approached from the perspective of reading" (p. 518). For this purpose he explored a considerable volume of sources ranging from book reviews, diaries, correspondence, publisher's archives, conversations at the Geological Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.... He borrowed methods and concepts from literary critics, cultural history and the history of book pioneered by Roger Chartier. The result is fascinating since the ‘exercise' opens promising avenues of research and demonstrates how our standard practices of history of science distort the past. Let me retain here three major historiographical lessons:

The first one concerns the materiality of books. Secord convincingly argues that the material form of books greatly determines its meaning. The paper used, the number of illustrations, the binding and the prize of the book, as well as the railways network available for their distribution are integral to its reception. The book is the product of the publisher as much as of its author. The present case study is extremely relevant to make the point since the anonymous writer proved to be Robert Chambers, a famous publisher of popular books.

The second lesson concerns the creative role of reading. As he approaches Vestiges through the eyes of its readers and displays its various interpretations, Secord argues that the meaning of a book is not given by its author. The printed matters never carry stable and fixed messages that would be delivered everywhere. Readers are free to make what they want out of books. The interpretive role of reading has been usually emphasized for literary texts, fictions and poetry. Secord argues that even the meaning of scientific books, which are supposed to objectively reflect nature is also constructed by their readers. Furthermore Secord argues that not only readers create the meaning of the book, but their reading is not "socially constructed". Readers of texts are not just reflecting the local context of reading nor are they just reinforcing existing attitudes. Reading is a subversive activity, raising questions and crossing all conventional boundaries. This is a daunting conclusion with far reaching consequences. In particular authors are not fully responsible for their writings since books can be the ferment of revolutions despite their own intentions. Secord also emphasizes that historians should not use the notion of Victorian society or Victorian mentality because there is no uniform view or stereotype. It is misleading because in various contexts people built up very different views of the progress of mankind out of the same book. In this respect the various interpretations of a best seller could be used as indicators or ideological markers of social groups.

The third lesson that I would like to emphasize concerns the attention to genres in scientific literature. Historians of Darwinism usually mention Vestiges as a popular book advocating evolutionary views on a vague and week basis, whereas Darwin's Origin belongs to technical scientific literature. As a consequence Darwin is the revolutionary hero while Chambers's Vestiges is mentioned as a failed attempt to establish a law-bound view of the evolution. One major merit of Secord's case study is to demonstrate that this standard view has been shaped by Darwin himself and feeds the cult of the revolutionary hero. It is only when the identity of the author of Vestiges was known that the book has been dismissed as "popular" and "amateurish". Rather than taking for granted that Vestiges belongs to the genre of popular science and The origins of species to academic publications, Secord argues that this divide was the outcome of the debates about evolution. Huxley's and Darwin's dismissive evaluations of Vestiges helped establish the divide between professional and amateur practices of science. In Secord's view, Darwin's Origin of Species was not the origin of a crisis, rather it resolved the tensions raised by the impressive amount of scientific literature that flooded the market during the controversy raised by Vestiges." The triumph of Darwinism was not one of doctrine - there was no consensus, neither about the meaning of evolution nor of the truth of natural selection. Rather, Darwinism was a convenient label for an arena of public discussion, structured by new relations between professional science and professional journalism". (p. 514) In my view, the phrase "professional journalism" may be a bit anachronistic since professional science journalism only emerged in the 1920s. However it does not affect the relevance of Secord's argument. As historians of science, we should pay more attention to the whole spectrum of scientific literature without adopting the hierarchical categories that came to prevail. Popular narratives and elementary textbooks are as important sources as research articles for understanding scientific revolutions. As the construction of a hierarchy of publications plays a key role in the validation of scientific claims it should be integral part in the history of scientific discoveries. Finally, Secord's emphasis on the construction of literary genres in scientific publications sheds new light on the mechanisms at work in the manufacture of scientific heroes. To be sure there are many contributions on the construction of founder myths in science and the heroic images of famous scientists - such as Descartes, Newton, Lavoisier, Faraday, Pasteur... However such studies at the borderline between the history of science and the history of ideas would greatly benefit from Secord's attention to the construction of a hierarchy of values embodied in the materiality of books.


*Université Paris X. France

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