Monday, February 13, 2012

Dickens, Darwin and Spontaneous Combustion

by Salman Hameed

Last week was Charles Dicken's bicentennial. Nature has an interesting article on Dickens that talks about his views on science and religion:
Science, in Dickens's view, does immense good — moral, social and intellectual — but only when it works hand in hand with imagination and reverence. Relations between science and Christianity in the nineteenth century were often more harmonious than we might imagine, if we focus only on the challenges that natural selection posed to some kinds of religious belief. Dickens is an interesting case study. 
He was a Protestant Christian, but had no strong affiliation to any particular sect, and did not see science as a threat to religious faith. On the contrary, he argued, learning the true nature of forces or objects brings us closer to their creator. In a speech he gave in 1869 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, he speculated that Jesus might have taught scientific truths about the “wonders on every hand”, but chose not to because “the people of that time could not bear them”. 
It is characteristic of Dickens's undogmatic attitude to both science and religion that he was largely unfazed by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (John Murray, 1859). He published a review of the Origin in his magazine, All the Year Round, in 1860. Although not wholly persuaded by Darwin, the author did acknowledge that the theory “entails the vastest consequences”, and quoted Darwin at length. Darwin in turn was a long-time fan of Dickens's novels, and literary critic Gillian Beer has suggested that Darwin drew on Dickens in writing the Origin. In Darwin's Plots (Cambridge University Press; 2000) Beer highlights the shared concerns of these two eminent men — among them, the relationship between the extraordinary profusion of people and things, and the many-layered interconnections between entities.

And then perhaps we can all agree that science without imagination is - well not very good science. After all, imagination is also an essential component of science and this is something that people forget. Newton, Einstein, Bohr - they could not have come up with their ideas without a healthy imagination.
Dickens was appalled by people whose scientific knowledge was not connected to imagination or feelings. As soon as we meet Bradley Headstone, the teacher in Our Mutual Friend (1865), we know that he will prove a villain, because his mind is rule-bound and sterile: “From his earliest childhood up, his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage ... astronomy to the right, political economy to the left — natural history, the physical sciences, figures, music, the lower mathematics, and what not, all in their several places.” The same tidy-mindedness that indicates the barrenness of the little Gradgrinds' natural specimens foretells Headstone's descent into criminal insanity. 
What excited Dickens most about science was its ability to reveal an unimagined world behind ordinary objects. “The facts of science are at least as full of poetry, as the most poetical fancies,” he wrote in an 1848 review of Robert Hunt's The Poetry of Science. By revealing the wonder of everyday things, science compensates us for the beloved but ignorant beliefs it destroys. “When [science] has freed us from a harmless superstition,” Dickens wrote in the same review, “she offers to our contemplation something better and more beautiful, something which, rightly considered, is more elevating to the soul, nobler and more stimulating to the soaring fancy.” Dinosaurs, he went on, are really far more impressive than dragons, and coral reefs more so than mermaids.
 But then here is the bit about spontaneous combustion:

Even though Dickens was happy to endorse contemporary science when he judged it to be supporting religion, feeding the imagination and telling stories, he was not above flouting scientific law for the sake of sensation. In Bleak House (1853), for example, two men in search of a crucial lost bundle of letters visit Krook's rag-and-bottle shop, only to find that “a smouldering suffocating vapour”, “a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling”, and a thing that looks like a small burnt log are all that remain of Krook: he has been the victim of “Spontaneous Combustion”. 
The controversy that followed the publication of this unscientific episode is well known. Reproached in print by science writer George Henry Lewes for perpetuating a “vulgar error ... peculiarly adapted to the avid credulity of unscientific minds”, Dickens responded with a list of apparent real-world cases of spontaneous combustion and a defiant preface defending them as authentic, even though they had been thoroughly discredited by Lewes and others.
Aware that this was not enough to regain credibility, Dickens concluded his preface with an appeal to the imagination: “In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.” 
It was the same argument that he had always made: that everyday things, and ordinary people, contain the potential for astonishing transformation. In the past he had championed science as a way of revealing this “romantic side”, but this time, backed into a corner, he used it to defend a belief that no man of science could countenance. 
For Dickens, science was compelling when it could be domesticated, moralized and made into an updated version of the old fairy tales, a way of telling poetical and magical tales about the world. But when science conflicted with a good story — he combusted it.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the full article).


Asad M said...

two great minds. On a different note, America didn't quite live up to Dicken's great expectations :)

Salman Hameed said...

Ha. Thanks for pointing to this article.