When the Science Bunnies get Stuck, Society is the Bunny


Science scarcely competes with Religion in the wars it has triggered or the intense emotions it has stirred. Nevertheless, it is no stranger to controversy. Take, for instance, straightforward and unemotional Electricity, and the straight-laced, quintessential scientist, Faraday. To the 21st Century mind, few topics could be more unemotional. Electricity, so far as we know -- and we don't know much -- universally and invariably obeys certain mathematical principles. It doesn't try to subvert society. No-one currently held to be in his right mind is accusing it of motivating putschs and coups. Close the switch, and it turns on the light. And Faraday, a prince of experimental investigators, a commoner who had the audience of the Queen Victoria, a self-effacing gentleman remembered to this day for his example and his conduct -- a disturber of the philosophical peace, a corrupter and an anarchist?

If any explanations drawn from history can be said to be straightforward, the explanation for electricity's moment in the religio-philosophical spotlight is so. In a nutshell, some people - not all of them charlatans - were suggesting that electricity might be the very force of life. One or two people - definitely charlatans - publicly performed pseudo-scientific "experiments", creating lower forms of life from dead matter plus electricity. This was very disturbing to many people, whilst being very gratifying to those who liked the majority to be disturbed. Radical Politics and Militant Atheism jumped on the bandwagon. Faraday, the man who above most others cleared away mists of ignorance and misinformation, momentarily came under suspicion. The story is enlarged by T.R. Morus (2004, pp. 69-72).

Two of Faraday's 19th-Century biographers -- H.B. Jones and J.H. Gladstone -- mention how, at the peak of his career, he found himself outed as an apparent supporter of dangerously radical and heterodox theories about the relationship between electricity and life. Gladstone revealed that he himself had heard the slander propagated by 'an infidel lecturer on Paddington Green'. H.B. Jones, the author of Faraday's Life and Letters, made a similar reference, also to a lecturer, on Paddington Green. The lecturer, a Mr. Wild, had been disputing the Old Testament account of creation and had cited experiments by Faraday as evidence for his claims. The experiments, carried out before audiences at Oxford, Cambridge and London, had demonstrated the electrical nature of life by producing animalcules and maggots by electrical agency. Faraday had underlined his experiments with the remark to his audience that: 'Gentlemen, there is life, and, for aught I can tell, man was so created.' He inferred from his experiments that man could be created, and in all probability was created, in the same way as by his experiments. According to the 'infidel lecturer' Mr. Wild, 'so unpalatable were [Faraday's] views, and contrary to what was received as orthodox, that the authorities under whose auspices the lectures were given...had them discontinued'.

Both biographers mentioned this scurrilous rumor only to dismiss it. The man who was by then widely recognized as the doyen of British, if not European, electricians would never have made such an outrageous suggestion. The episode is very revealing, nevertheless, of some of the sensitivities surrounding the science in which Faraday was to make his reputation. From the late 18th century onwards, electricity was, in many ways, a politically suspect science. It was the science of atheists, materialists, political radicals and revolutionaries. According to some of its critics, electricity was even to blame for the French Revolution. It was relatively common in 18th century electrical circles to argue for some connection between electricity and the vis nervosa- the stuff of life. In some posh salons, a good dose of electricity was widely recognized as the perfect antidote to infertility and impotence. Taking this argument to its extreme, materialists argued that the connection between electricity and the vis nervosa showed that life was just matter in motion after all-- and human beings just machines. This was a dangerous argument. It meant no God, no Church, no divinely ordained social hierarchy. In short, it meant the Rights of Man. When the English radical Joseph Priestley trumpeted that 'the English hierarchy, if there be anything unsound in its constitution, has reason to tremble even at an air-pump or an electrical machine', this is the sort of thing he had in mind.

By the beginning of the 19th century there certainly seemed to be plenty of evidence to support this view. The galvanic, or voltaic, battery -- one of this period's experimenters' main tools of philosophical investigation -- was the product of the dispute between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta over the existence of animal electricity. Volta -- the battery's inventor -- was convinced his instrument showed that animal electricity was nonsense. Not everyone agreed. Giovanni Aldini, Galvani's nephew, visited London in 1803 to defend his uncle's reputation and the doctrine of animal electricity. On 17 January he was given the opportunity of experimenting on a human subject -- Foster -- a murderer executed at Newgate. Aldini connected his subject to the poles of a large galvanic battery. Electricity was passed between the dead man's ears, between his mouth and his ears and between his anus and his ears. The result was a startling exhibition of contractions and convulsions. 'On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the by-standers as if the wretched man were on the eve of being restored to life.' Aldini's experiments were at the time a minor sensation...... .

A man of Faraday's qualities could be unwillingly dragged into controversy over an everyday, natural phenomenon -- electricity! He certainly wasn't the first and he won't be the last.

The ancient Greeks achieved technical ability which in very rare instances was not improved upon until several hundred years ago. The idea of atoms, of a sun-centered solar system, accurate calculations touching sizes and orbits of the earth and moon -- all achieved with primative apparatus, basic mathematics, and intelligent reasoning!

This advanced reasoning by representatives of an ancient People was not embraced by the majority. For instance, in the 5th Century BC, a man named Anaxagoras was banished from Athens for theorizing that the sun and moon consist of materials such as occur on the earth. Classifying imaginative thinking as heresy and persecuting it as such was happenning long before the rise of Christendom. The best Greek and Roman attempts at democracy were exhibitions in some measure featuring the dagger and the poison phial. More than a thousand years went by before scientific thought again began to flourish. It then had to overcome entrenched notions such as a geocentric universe, and five elements only - earth, air, fire, water, and a special fifth element of which the sun, moon and stars were made. Natural phenomena such as blood circulation and disease tended to be explained in terms bordering on the mythical, if not the mystical.

Some of the topics of research, neglected while science was sidelined and stultified, were non-trivial.

Consider, as an example, Medicine. (This brief account relies heavily on J.H.Tiner, referenced below.) As recently as the Sixteenth Century, it was seemingly under the thumb of confidence-men and quacks. In 1543, Andreas Vesalius published the first recorded book of accurate medical illustrations of the human body. Much of his work was accomplished in France. At least partly because of vindicitive opposition by so-called physicians he eventually left that country and died abroad. About this same time, in France, a poor, untrained, brilliant surgeon, Ambroise Pare, was pioneering humane methods such as tying off veins rather than sealing them with a hot iron. He was vehemently opposed by the medical establishment, but his popularity with his patients saved him and he rose to become a surgeon to kings. Later in the same century (and before the microscope), an englishman, William Harvey, helped pioneer blood circulation and heart function. No-one could see the tiny veins (capilliaries) he proposed as the then invisible factor in blood circulation. He was ridiculed by many "professionals". As recently as the mid-19th Century, a medical supervisor named Semmelweis was persecuted and all but professionally ruined over his insistence that practitioners in a hospital in Vienna keep themselves and their wards clean! Thousands of patients were needlessly dying from doctor-borne infection. Edward Jenner, late 18th Century pioneer of smallpox injection, was obliged to suppress his life-saving research for several years because of vehement and even violent opposition from members of the public and especially members of the medical hierarchy.

We sympathize with the poor, unenlightened masses from the past. Or should they sympathize with us? In 1925, a London medical student, Alexander Fleming, accidentally saw the powerfull effect of a certain bread mould in killing dangerous bacteria. The efficacy of bread mould in treating infection had been known for at least a century; the cost of researching it was minor; people were regularly dying from mere scratches; Fleming did his best to notify the relevant people. It took 15 years and the outbreak of war to get penicillin up and running. The whole of history is littered with such cases. We may expect them to recur in our times. The wonder of history is not that men made omissions and mistakes, but that it has been given to Man to advance technologically and politically to his present status. Personally, if it had been given to the author of this page to develop an anti-septic, we would yet be employing iodine and hot water. It is no credit to him that we have penicillin! And resistance to a new idea or product can have a place, if it obliges those promoting the new to go back to the drawing-board and improve it. Some of the most valuable technological advances were achieved despite strong resistance. Referring to the development of various radio-related technologies, British senior Intelligence officer Peter Wright (1987, p.11) observed, "As with so many achievements, it was done against the opposition of the Government and the top scientists of the day". Technology under Western Democracy does have a tendency to get into cul-de-sacs. It also displays a refreshing tendency to self-correct.

The real problems set in when the dividing lines are crossed and people for various reasons get involved outside their rightful sphere. Tertiary students this day are learning the facts of plants, animals, and fossils, whilst simultaneously receiving an input from some sort of quasi-religious philosophy. The facts are the province of those devising the learning materials: the philosophy is not. Hindsight may ultimately enable human society to decide whether any damage followed the indoctrination. If young people especially are fed something over a prolonged time , some of it will be absorbed. We need not deceive ourselves. Twentieth Century German attitudes to certain minorities in their midst are a stark lesson on the effects of prolonged indoctrination. Apparently, some of the intellectual and moral undesirables that failed to get a foothold with staid and steady Electricity, found a suitable carrier in Darwinism. There were sufficient unknowns and sufficient gaps for them to get a toehold. Some people failed to apply the rigorous scentific requirements, thus allowing the undesirables to become embedded. The divide between science and religion was crossed in some measure. It would perhaps be fair to suggest it was crossed in both directions -- people sometimes crossed it merely as a natural reaction to obvious absurdities and excesses, and these were not restricted to one camp. Whether or not any of the tale of woe of the various 20th Century totalitarian regimes with their intense racial and religious persecutions has any source or motivation in Darwinism, who could say? If the multiplied millions who suffered and died, who are still suffering and dying, were disadvantaged because of the speculations of a group of European scientists, the matter is not trivial. We can say that religion and science, like religion and politics, if mixed in the wrong way, are dynamite. We can also say that philosophical side-tracks have hampered technology in the past and therefore could be doing so now.

Anaxagoras was exiled from Athens at least partly because he said something about matter and the sun and moon. Galileo, like Anaxagoras, said even more on those topics, and was fortunate to escape with his life. Others were not so fortunate. A man named Bruno was executed by the Inquisition at Rome in 1600 -- whether this was the total accusation or not, he was accused of suggesting the existence of multiplied worlds other than our own, and of pointing to the likelihood of alien life thereon.

Techno-religious power, like high explosive, must be kept away from the hands of men. Are the sun and moon comprised of earthly elements? Put it to objective test. Does the sun move about the earth or vice-versa? Put it to objective test. Are the universe, the solar system, and ourselves, the outcome of natural blind processes? Put Neo-Darwinism and its accoutrements to the test. What part have man-made inventions to play in such matters? Whenever Science became side-tracked into empty philosophies, the public was the loser.

Morus, T.R. 2004, Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century, Icon Books, Cambridge, U.K.

Tiner, J.H. n.d., When Science Fails, Accelerated Christian Education, Inc., Lewisville, U.S.A.

Wright, P. 1987, SpyCatcher, Heinemann Australia.

Published June 2005

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