The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
LEVIATHAN: The War of Physics and Biology
Part One


2012 October 22

Scott Westerfeld has written an interesting series of alternate-history novels based on the conceit that Victorian biologists somehow invented advanced techniques of genetic engineering, which the rest of Europe rejected on moral grounds. As a result, the Great War of 1914 in this world was not merely a clash of Great Powers, but a conflict between two separate technological civilisations.

Although it obviously never escalated to the level of an actual war, a similar violent collision between the values of the life sciences and those of the physical and mathematical took place in our Nineteenth Century as well, especially in England. This conflict, when not ignored by historians entirely, has often been mistaken for the famous Victorian struggle between science and religion, a struggle closely related but not identical.

The origins of the conflict, in its peculiarly English aspect, lie in Cambridge. Traditionally the second university of the realm, Cambridge enjoyed a great surge of prestige around 1700, thanks to the fame of Sir Isaac Newton. Mathematics, as Newton's field, became a Cambridge speciality, and by the 1760s the four-day Mathematical Tripos examination in the Senate House had assumed a central role in the life of the University. The unusual, mathematics-oriented culture of Cambridge in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries has been discussed at length in Sheldon Rothblatt's Revolution of the Dons [London: Faber & Faber, 1968], Martha McMackin Garland's Cambridge Before Darwin [Cambridge, 1980], and Andrew Warwick's extraordinary Masters of Theory [University of Chicago, 2003].

The typical recipient of a first-class Cambridge degree was trained as a mathematician, but went on to a career in the Church of England clergy. Although the term "career" is accurate here, it does not preclude the term "vocation"; there is no reason whatever to assume, as some historians of science do, that most of these men were insincere about the religion they professed. It was the heyday of "natural theology", when (at least in England) faith and reason were assumed to be in perfect agreement.

The essence of this theology was Platonism. The natural order reflected the wisdom of God; the wisdom of God was experessed through mathematics. (As Plato allegedly wrote over the door of the Academy: "Let none enter here without Geometry.") Mathematics manifest in matter became theoretical physics. Thus the truths of physics, the laws of nature, were seen as immutable; they were Ideas in the Divine Mind.

Clearly this eternal, orderly creation bore little resemblance to the grubby, emergent world observed by naturalists, and it was this conflict (in its way, a manifestation of the centuries-old struggle between Plato and Aristotle) which became the Great War of Physics and Biology. Future posts will tell the story of that war in more detail.

LEVIATHAN: The Victorian War between Physics and Biology