From the Archives: David N. Livingstone

Science, Southern-Style

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Editor's note: Science in Focus is on vacation in July, so we're going to archives for science-related pieces from the pages of Books & Culture. This week we're featuring a piece by David Livingstone from the September/October 2000 issue.

The idea that science displays regional characteristics runs against the grain of much conventional wisdom. Science, so the standard story goes, is a transcendental undertaking, devoid of parochial particulars. It stands above the messiness of social life and objectively pursues truth unsullied by the murky affairs of this world. After all, science is carried out in much the same way everywhere from Boston to Beijing; experimentalists replicate each other's results in Moscow and Melbourne; scientific conferences bring together researchers from Paris and Prague. The same depictions of the geological column and the periodic table of elements are to be found in London, Lima, and Lisbon. Besides, the very existence of such cultural merchandise as the Nobel Prize plainly attests to some sense of shared criteria of excellence. Of all the human projects devoted to getting at the truth of how things are, to laying aside prejudices and presuppositions, or to putting in place mechanisms to guarantee objectivity, has that venture we call science not been the most assiduous in prosecuting its ideals?

And yet. In a myriad different ways scientific inquiry does bear the stamp of local circumstance, so much so that it makes sense to append historical and geographical modifiers when speaking of that "imagined singularity" called "Science." Indeed the very idea that there is some unified entity called "Science" is the product of an Enlightenment project to present "Science" as standing transcendent and incorporeal above the untidy clutter of human affairs. But science is not above culture; it is part of culture. Science does not transcend our particularities; it discloses them. Science is not a disembodied entity; it is incarnated in human beings. Science, therefore, is always an ancient Chinese, a medieval Islamic, a Renaissance French, a Jeffersonian American, an Enlightenment Scottish, a Victorian English thing—or some other modifying variant. For all the Enlightenment-inspired rhetoric that science is independent of class, gender, race, region, religion, and much else, we are now discovering the extent to which science has borne the marks of these very particularities. A scientist does not shed his ethnicity when he en gages in botanical fieldwork; a scientist does not shed her gender when she walks into a bio technology lab. As Nick Wolterstorff puts it, "Science is not an eternal form slowly manifested in history"; rather it is a social practice earthed in concrete historical circumstances.1

In Science, Race, and Religion in the American South, Lester D. Stephens succeeds in demonstrating the extent to which scientific inquiry in nineteenth-century Charleston was domesticated to the needs of the Old South. By this I do not mean to imply that he considers scientific knowledge a mere epiphenomenon of social conditions, a sort of cognitive regional reflex. As we shall presently see, he is careful to avoid that kind of topographical reductionism. But what does become clear is that, just as it makes sense to speak, say, of Edinburgh science during the Scottish Enlightenment, or London science in the early Victorian period, it is no less coherent to make reference to the scientific culture of Charleston in the Civil War era.

Stephens, of course, is extraordinarily well equipped to undertake this task. Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Georgia, he has already provided us with an authoritative scientific biography of Joseph Le Conte, and published numerous studies of natural history in the American South. Here he turns specifically to Charleston and particularly, though certainly not exclusively, to the contributions of the Lutheran clergyman-naturalist, the Rev. John Bachman.

Stephens's first task is to establish that the South had a bona fide scientific culture throughout the nineteenth century. To do so he must challenge the conventional historiography that dismisses the South's scientific accomplishments as either meager or amateurish on account of a regional romanticism more in keeping with medievalism than modernity. So intent is Stephens on retrieving southern science from the obscurity of the archive or the biases of scholarship that he goes so far as to claim that by mid-century only Philadelphia, Boston, and New York outstripped Charleston in excellence for research on natural history. Indeed a distinctive "circle" of scientific practitioners—comprising John Bachman, Edmund Ravenel, John Edwards Holbrook, Lewis Gibbes, Francis Holmes, and John McCrady—rotated around the Charleston museum of natural history. Convinced that nature disclosed the attributes of the Creator, members of this circle by and large restricted themselves to descriptive natural history rather than to pursuing experimental inquiries or mathematical applications.

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