Wallace on Science the Problems of Progress

Network Node: 
Wed., Oct. 23, 2013, 3:30pm

Wallace on Science the Problems of Progress
Edmonton, University of Alberta: Oct. 23, 2013

The Alberta node is pleased to support this event as part of More than Natural Selection: A Lecture Series on Alfred Russel Wallace at the University of Alberta, October 2013.

Until quite recently most Wallace scholarship, past and present, focused on his scientific achievements and either conveniently ignored his "other" concerns--political, social, philosophic, and theistic--or marginalized them as unimportant, bizarre, or retrograde. The conventional historiography thus presents Wallace as a brilliant nineteenth-century evolutionary naturalist who lapsed unfortunately into socialism, spiritualism, antivaccinationism, and theistic cosmology. This enduring portrait of Wallace has its origins in the intense Victorian debates on how best to characterize the emerging scientific profession. One of the more potent legacies of these debates, especially as championed by T.H. Huxley, John Tyndall, W.K. Clifford, and G.H. Lewes, among others--the so-called scientific naturalists--was an increasingly dominant view of science as a value-free and ostensibly 'objective' domain of knowledge.  Science was situated thus in contrast to 'subjective' nonscience or pseudoscience. Wallace never accepted this ideologically potent but epistemologically flawed view of science.  Instead, Wallace devoted his long and extraordinary career to forging a fundamental link between science and its cultural concerns. In this lecture, I reject the view that Wallace departed from the norms of professionalized science precisely because the definition of professional science was highly contested in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and remains so today. Wallace's career seems eccentric or paradoxical only if we cling to the scientific naturalists' model of professional science. In contrast, if Wallace is understood as someone who saw science and its profession as indelibly, and properly, bound to the more general culture then many of his so-called paradoxes dissolve. Wallace emerges as more representative of the rich intellectual landscape of his own era and a scientist whose multifaceted approach to knowledge speaks cogently to us in an age of scientific, technological, and environmental uncertainties.

Speaker:  Martin Fichman is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and History of Science atYork University, Toronto, and the author of four books and numerous articles onAlfred Russel Wallace and the cultural context of Victorian science. His mostrecent publications include 'Alfred Russel Wallace' in: Oxford Bibliographiesin Evolutionary Biology. Ed. Jonathan Losos. New York: Oxford University Press,forthcoming, and 'Alfred Russel Wallace and Anti-vaccinationism in the lateVictorian context, 1870-1907' in Natural Selection & Beyond: The IntellectualLegacy of Alfred Russel Wallace. Eds. Charles H. Smith & George Beccaloni, pp.305-319. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lecture series description: Alfred Russel Wallace was a great natural historian and a leading figure in the debates that swirled around the questions of evolution and the origins of humans in the nineteenth century. He and Charles Darwin are often paired as co-discoverers of evolution by natural selection. But Wallace’s interests were very wide ranging. One hundred years after his death, we will remember in this lecture series Wallace the natural historian and evolutionist, but we will also explore lesser known aspects of Wallace’s life, including Wallace’s involvement with spiritualism, his political sympathies, and even Wallace the protagonist in controversies around the existence of extra-terrestrial life.   These multiple idiosyncrasies are usually described as paradoxical departures from, even diminishments of, Wallace’s scientific competence.  We find in them a different sort of paradox.  They simultaneously attest to Wallace’s profound intellectual originality and independence while also being inextricable from the culturally and historically specific milieu of Victorian science.   Each of the talks in the series will explore a different aspect of this paradox and the interesting problems it poses for the study of science.

For information on other events in this series, see here:http://www.situsci.ca/event/alfred-russel-wallace-lecture-series-more-natural-selection