17 March 2016

Review: Science and Culture and Other Essays by Thomas Henry Huxley

PDF eBook, 349 pages
Published 1882 (contents: 1874-81)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Science and Culture and Other Essays
by Thomas Henry Huxley

This 1882 volume collects thirteen lectures by Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," most of which aren't about scientific subjects, but about science as a discipline or epistemology. The most famous and most significant one is the first one, the title piece: "Science and Culture" was originally an address Huxley gave in October 1880, at the opening of Mason Science College in Birmingham; it was printed that same month in Nature. Huxley, a big advocate for scientific education in general, thought that the school had an "excellent scheme," but proposed one alteration:
[I]n this country, practically governed as it is now by universal suffrage, every man who does his duty must exercise political functions. And if… the perpetual oscillation of nations between anarchy and despotism is to be replaced by the steady march of self-restraining freedom; it will be because men will gradually bring themselves to deal with the political, as they now deal with scientific questions …and to believe that the machinery of society is at least as delicate as that of a spinning-jenny, and not more likely to be improved by the meddling of those who have not taken the trouble to master the principles of its action.
In other words, you wouldn't trust a layman untrained in mechanics to fix your machinery, so why should a layman untrained in the science of society work on your society? And in the democratic age, every man already is working on society! Seeing like a scientist is essential for social progress. (This inspired Matthew Arnold's July 1882 lecture, "Literature and Science," where he said that science only gives knowledge without context, that has nothing to do with the "sense for beauty" or the "sense for conduct.") Similarly, in his lecture "On Elementary Instruction in Physiology" (1877), Huxley argues everyone who has a body would benefit from physiology. Much of Huxley's work rails against the idea that a classical education is the only useful education, and that scientific thinking is narrow or restrictive.

Huxley is a pretty big scientific optimist, but more nuanced than many who shared his views, like Herbert Spencer, and these writings capture a moment in the cultural rise of science as an epistemology: a moment where it seemed like science might dominate the very way we run our government and society. Though Huxley definitely won the scientific education debate, as evidenced by the contemporary perspective that going to college for anything other than STEM is fundamentally worthless, contemporary politics clearly show you don't have to know anything about science to run a society, so he didn't quite win to the extent he wished.

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