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5.2: Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Discoveries and Theories

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  • Science made incredible advances in the the Victorian era. Some of the most important breakthroughs had to do with medicine and biology. Those genuine advances, however, were accompanied by the growth of scholarship that claimed to be truly scientific, but that violated the tenets of the scientific method, employed sloppy methods, were based on false premises, or were otherwise simply factually inaccurate. Those fields constitute branches of “pseudo-”, meaning “false,” science.

    Disease had always been the greatest threat to humankind before the nineteenth century - of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” it was Pestilence that traditionally delivered the most bodies to Death. In turn, the link between filth and disease had always been understood, but the rapid urbanization of the nineteenth century lent new urgency to the problem. This led to important advances in municipal planning, like modern sewer systems - London’s was built in 1848 after a terrible epidemic of cholera. Thus, before the mechanisms of contagion were understood, at least some means to combat it were nevertheless implemented in some European cities. Likewise, the first practical applications of chemistry to medicine occurred with the invention of anesthesia in the 1840s, allowing the possibility of surgery without horrendous agony for the first time in history.

    By far the most important advance in medicine, however, was in bacteriology, first pioneered by the French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822 - 1895). Starting with practical experiments on the process of fermentation in 1854, Pasteur built on his ideas and proved that disease was caused by microscopic organisms. Pasteur’s subsequent accomplishments are Newtonian in their scope: he definitively proved that the “spontaneous generation” of life was impossible and that microbes were responsible for putrefaction. He developed the aptly named technique of pasteurization to make foodstuffs safe (originally in service to the French wine industry), and he went on to develop effective vaccines against diseases like anthrax that affected both humans and animals. In the course of just a few decades, Pasteur overturned the entire understanding of health itself. Other scientists followed his lead, and by the end of the century, deaths in Europe by infectious disease dropped by a full sixty percent, primarily through improvements in hygiene (antibiotics would not be developed until the end of the 1920s).

    Louis Pasteur from a magazine illustration, holding white rabbits.
    Figure 5.2.1: Pasteur, with some of his early experimental subjects.

    These advances were met with understandable excitement. At the same time, however, they fed into a newfound obsession with cleanliness. All of a sudden, people understood that they lived in a dirty world full of invisible enemies - germs. Good hygiene became both a matter of survival and a badge of class identity for the bourgeoisie, and the inherent dirtiness of manual labor was further cause for bourgeois contempt for the working classes. For those who could afford the servants to do the work, homes and businesses were regularly scrubbed with caustic soaps, but there was little to be done in the squalor of working-class tenements and urban slums.

    Comparable scientific breakthroughs occurred in the fields of natural history and biology. For centuries, naturalists (the term for what would later be known as biologists) had been puzzled by the fact that the fossils of marine animals could be found on mountaintops. Likewise, fossils embedded in rock were a conundrum that the biblical story of creation could not explain. By the early nineteenth century, some scientists argued that these phenomena could only occur through stratification of rock, a process that would take millions, not thousands, of years. The most famous geologist at the time was the British naturalist Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology went through eleven editions it was so popular among the reading public. Archeological discoveries in the middle of the century linked human civilization to very long time frames as well, with the discovery of ancient tools and the remains of settlements pushing the existence of human civilization back thousands of years from earlier concepts (all of which had been based on a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible).

    In 1859, the English naturalist Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species. In it, Darwin argued that lifeforms "evolve" over time thanks to random changes in their physical and mental structure. Some of these traits are beneficial and increase the likelihood that the individuals with them will survive and propagate, while others are not and tend to disappear as their carriers die off. Darwin based his arguments on both the fossil record and what he had discovered as the naturalist aboard a British research vessel, the HMS Beagle, that toured the coasts of South America and visited the Galapagos Islands off its west coast. There, Darwin had encountered numerous species that were uniquely adapted to live only in specific, limited areas. On returning to Britain, he concluded that only changes over time within species themselves could account for his discoveries.

    Darwin’s arguments shocked most of his contemporaries. His theory directly contradicted the biblical account of the natural world, in which God’s creation is fundamentally static. In addition, Darwin’s account argued that nature itself was a profoundly hostile place to all living things; even as nature sustains species, it constantly tests individuals and kills off the weak. Evolutionary adaptations are random, not systematic, and are as likely to result in dangerous (for individuals) weaknesses as newfound sources of strength. There was no plan embedded in evolution, only random adaptation.

    Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory was the first to systematically explain the existence of fossils and biological adaptation based on hard evidence. As early as 1870 three-quarters of British scientists believed evolutionary theory to be accurate, even before the mechanism by which evolution occurred, genetics, was understood. In 1871, in his The Descent of Man, Darwin explicitly tied human evolution to his earlier model and argued that humans are descended from other hominids - the great apes. Despite popular backlash prompted by both religious conviction and the simple distaste of being related to apes, Darwinian theory went on to become one of the founding discoveries of modern biological science.

    Satirical cartoon of Darwin as a monkey.
    Figure 5.2.2: Caricatures of Darwin as a monkey appeared almost as soon as the Descent of Man was published.

    The mechanism of how evolution occurred, was not known during Darwin’s lifetime, at least to very many people. Unknown to anyone at the time, during the 1850s and 1860s an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel carried out a series of experiments with pea plants in his monastery’s garden and, in the process, discovered the basic principles of genetics. Mendel first presented his work in 1865, but it was entirely forgotten. It was rediscovered by a number of scholars simultaneously in 1900, and in the process, was linked to Darwin’s evolutionary concepts. With the rediscovery of Mendel's work, the mechanisms by which evolution occurs were revealed: it is in gene mutation that new traits emerge, and genes that favor the survival of offspring tend to dominate those that harm it.

    Social Science and Pseudo-Science

    Many Europeans regarded Darwinian theory as a proof of progress: nature itself ensured that the human species would improve over time. Very quickly, however, evolutionary theory was taken over as a justification for both rigid class distinctions and racism. A large number of people, starting with elite male theorists, came to believe that Darwinism implied that a parallel kind of evolutionary process was at work in human society. In this view, success and power is the result of superior breeding, not just luck and education. The rich fundamentally deserve to be rich, and the poor (encumbered by their poor biological traits) deserve to be poor. This set of concepts came to be known as Social Darwinism. The British writer and engineer Herbert Spencer was the most significant proponent of Social Darwinism. He summarized his outlook with the phrase “the survival of the fittest,” a phrase often misattributed to Darwin himself. Spencer was a fierce proponent of free market economics and also began the process of defining human races in biological terms, rather than cultural or historical ones.

    In turn, the new movement led an explosion of pseudo-scientific apologetics for notions of racial hierarchy. Usually, Social Darwinists claimed that it was not just that non-white races were inherently inferior, it was that they had reached a certain stage of evolution but stopped, while the white race had continued to evolve. Illustrations of the evolutionary process in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century encyclopedias and dictionaries were replete with an evolutionary chain from small creatures through monkeys and apes and then on to non-white human races, culminating with the supposedly “fully evolved” European “race.”

    Pseudo-scientific depiction of the heads of a chimpanzee, an African, and the head of a Greek statue, with corresponding skulls.  It inaccurately depicts the skull of the African as being more similar to that of the chimp than the human being.
    Figure 5.2.3: A typical pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy. (In fact, all human races have skulls of identical dimensions and shapes, not to mention identical intellectual and moral capacities.)

    In addition to non-white races, Social Darwinists targeted elements of their own societies for vilification, often lumping together various identities and behaviors as “unfit.” For Social Darwinists, the "unfit" included alcoholics, those who were promiscuous, unwed mothers, criminals, the developmentally disabled, and those with congenital disabilities. Social Darwinism's prevailing theory was that charity or “artificial” checks on the exploitation of workers like trade unions would lead to the survival of the unfit, which would in turn cause the human species to decline. Likewise, charity, aid, and rehabilitation were misplaced, since they would supposedly lead to the survival of the unfit and thereby drag down the health of society overall. Thus, the best policy was to allow the "unfit" to die off if possible, and to try to impose limits on their breeding if not. Social Darwinism soon led to the field of eugenics, which advocated programs to sterilize the "unfit."

    Ironically, even as Social Darwinism provided a pseudo-scientific foundation for racist and sexist cultural assumptions, these notions of race and culture also fed into the fear of degeneration mentioned above. In the midst of the squalor of working-class life, or in terms of the increasing rates of drug use and alcoholism, many people came to fear that certain destructive traits were not only flourishing in Europe, but were being passed on. There was thus a great fear that the masses of the weak and unintelligent could and would spread their weakness through high birth-rates, while the smart and capable were simply overwhelmed.

    Not all of the theories to explain behavior were so morally and scientifically questionable, however. In the late nineteenth century, a Frenchman (Emile Durkheim) and a German (Max Weber) independently began the academic discipline that would become sociology: the systematic study of how people behave in complex societies. Durkheim treated Christianity like just another set of rituals and beliefs whose real purpose was the regulation of behavior, while Weber provided an enormous number of insights about the operation of governments, religious traditions, and educational institutions. Another German, Leopold von Ranke, created the first truly systematic forms of historical research, in turn creating the academic discipline of history itself.

    Sociology and academic history were part of a larger innovation in human learning: the social sciences. These were disciplines that tried to deduce facts about human behavior that were equally valid to natural science’s various insights about the operations of the natural world. The dream of the social sciences was to arrive at rules of behavior, politics, and historical development that were as certain and unshakable as biology or geology

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