Late Nineteenth Century Changes in Science and Thought

Urbanization and the Industrial Revolution which gave rise to it contributed to two major changes in thinking during the late nineteenth century. First, scientific knowledge expanded rapidly, and influenced the way Europeans viewed the world; perhaps more profoundly than at any other time in history. Also, in the last half of the nineteenth century, European literature shifted from romanticism to a tough, sometimes gritty realism.

Science: Science suddenly exercised a growing influence on human thought, even more so than during the Scientific Revolution. Breakthroughs in industrial technology stimulated scientific inquiry, as scientific thinkers tried to explain how steam engines and blast furnaces actually worked. As a result, there was an enormous explosion of growth in fundamental science. Unlike the theoretical science of the Scientific Revolution, scientific discoveries of the late nineteenth century were used to make general improvements in the quality of life.

Among the changes:

Solid growth in these sciences promoted solid economic growth and also provided a model for other industries, so called "R and D" industries. (Research and Development.) There were several more significant circumstances.

Social Science and Evolution: By the 1830’s scientific thinkers attempted to apply the principles of science to society; hence were born the "social sciences," of which psychology and sociology are a part. Social scientists attempted to apply statistical methods to test their theories. Their conclusions were more dogmatic and all encompassing than had been those of the philosophes. Karl Marx is a prime example of this type thinking. Marx was a sociologist whose conclusions were based on what he considered a "scientific study of history." Although his conclusions are faulty, his work is an example of the work of social scientists.

Another such thinker was the French philosopher, Auguste Comte, who wrote the six volume System of Political Philosophy. Comte had written in the early nineteenth century, and his work was discounted during the Romantic era; but with the industrial revolution and the shift toward realism, his work gained more prestige. Comte had theorized that all intellectual activity progresses through predictable stages:

The great fundamental law….is this: that each of our leading conceptions—each branch of our knowledge—passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive….The first is the necessary point of departure of human understanding, and the third is the fixed and definitive state. The second is merely a transition.

Comte cited as example that understanding of astronomy and the universe had shifted from the will of God (the Theological stage) to the "will of an orderly nature (the Metaphysical stage) to the rule of the unchanging laws of nature and science. (the Scientific stage.) He hoped to apply this "positivist" strategy to sociology, and thereby discover the eternal laws of human relations. This discovery would then allow scientists and other experts to impose harmony and well being on those less enlightened. Comte was the chief priest of the religion of science.

The most influential thinker along these lines was Charles Darwin who was the official naturalist on a five year scientific cruise to Latin America aboard the Beagle. Darwin collected specimens of animal species he encountered on the voyage, notably those on the Galapagos Islands where he found animals that had significantly different physical attributes than those discovered elsewhere. When he returned to England, he studied fossil evidence and the work of his friend, Charles Lydell, who had concluded that the same geological forces which formed the earth were still at work today (rather than a sudden cataclysmic creation of Biblical proportions). Darwin then came to doubt the idea of a special divine creation of each species of animal; rather he concluded that all life had gradually evolved from a common ancestral origin in an unending "struggle for survival." He was also influenced by the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus that populations grow faster than their food supplies. In Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, he argued that the chance differences among members of a given species helped some survive while others die. Thus the variations that prove useful in the struggle for survival are selected naturally and gradually spread to the entire species through reproduction. Among the elements of the struggle for survival was the ability to attract the opposite sex. Darwin theorized that the male of the species who were most attractive to females would have the most offspring. Thus, through the "natural selection" of mates, species with certain characteristics would multiply while others would not. It was almost an element of chance.

Darwin’s work was hailed in Europe almost as much as it was denigrated in the United States. He was even dubbed the "Newton of Biology." His work seemed to reinforce the work of Comte and Marx, who scorned religious belief in favor of agnostic or atheistic materialism. His work put religious thinkers on the defensive.

It was inevitable that Darwin’s theory would be applied to humans and human relationships. An English disciple of Comte, Herbert Spenser, theorized that the human race was driven forward by a constant specialization and progress by a brutal economic struggle. He further theorized that struggle efficiently (although somewhat brutally) determined the "survival of the fittest." The poor were the weak and the prosperous were the chosen strong; as a result, the prosperous rose to the top, like cream. Spenser’s philosophy became known as Social Darwinism, which was very popular with the upper middle classes. It later became the justification for presumed Anglo-Saxon superiority.

Realism in Literature: Realist writers believed that literature should depict life as it was in fact, rather than a fanciful, romanticized illusion. They wrote prose rather than poetry, and wrote from scientific objectivity rather than an emotional viewpoint. They presumably observed and recorded what they saw, and let the facts speak for themselves. Most focused on contemporary everyday life. Most realists came from the middle classes, and focused on the working class, especially the urban working class. Their work examined subjects that hitherto were off limits for serious literature: sex, strikes, violence, and alcoholism.

Unlike the Romanticists who gloried in individual freedom and an unlimited universe, the realists presented human beings as part of the physical world; and argued that all human actions were determined by natural laws. Heredity and environment determined human behavior; good and evil were simply social inventions.

The Realist movement began in France, and its three greatest writers were all French: Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. Honoré de Balzac wrote The Human Comedy, in which he portrayed over two thousand characters from French society. He pictured French urban society as grasping, amoral, and brutal, and locked in a Darwinian struggle for wealth and power. Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece was Madame Bovary, the story of a frustrated middle class housewife who has an adulterous affair and is betrayed by her lover. Flaubert pictures the middle class as petty, smug, and hypocritical. The novel was prosecuted as an outrage against public morality and religion, but the prosecution failed. Emile Zola was famous for his seamy, animalistic view of working class life. He was sympathetic to socialism, as is evident in his masterwork, Germinal, the story of the trials and tribulations of a working class mining family. (It’s an "R" rated movie, but perhaps we can watch it at my house sometime.) Zola was accused of pornography and the corruption of morals. He claimed that the accusations were meaningless, as he was only a purely objective scientist, using

The modern method, the universal instrument of inquiry of which this age makes such ardent use to open up the future….I chose characters completely dominated by their nerves and their blood, deprived of free-will, pushed to each action of their lives by the fatality of their flesh….I have simply done on living bodies the work of analysis which surgeons perform on corpses.

From France, realism spread to England, where Mary Ann Evans wrote under the pen name George Eliot. A further English writer was Thomas Hardy, who wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and The Return of the Native. Both novels depict human beings frustrated and crushed by fate and bad luck.

The greatest Russian realist was Count Leo Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace, a monumental (and exceptionally LONG) novel of the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812. Tolstoy depicts history as fatalistic, free will is an illusion and the achievements of even the greatest leaders is little more than the channeling of historical necessity.

Realism arrived in the United States with the work of Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie, (discussed in APUSH for those who remember) about a farm girl who moves to Chicago and is thoroughly corrupted there. The book so outraged conventional morality in the U.S. that the publisher withdrew it. As a result, realism in literature entered the United States only after it had faded in Europe.