January 11, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Nature’s first article: Huxley on Goethe

I have blogged before about science popularisation during the 19th century and the role of periodicals in this process, as they “played a far greater role than books in shaping understanding of new discoveries and theories in science, technology and medicine”. My interest in popular science magazines was rekindled when I saw an announcement that the journal Nature is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Nature at 150

The journal was founded when astrophysicist J. Norman Lockyer and biologist Thomas Henry Huxley encouraged Alexander Macmillan to publish weekly ‘a general scientific journal’. Its first issue appeared in November 1869 – a bit of a late-comer to the then booming popular science market.

As a recent editorial, announcing the anniversary, has pointed out, Nature was initially “intended to be more like the Scientific American or New Scientist of today”, but it soon morphed into a journal that served the increasingly professionalised scientific community. This meant that it was quite different to journals like Science GossipRecreative Science and The Intellectual Observer for example (if you are up for a bit of citizen science sorting the drawings in these 19th-century journals, have a look here).

During this anniversary year, Nature will look back at some of the most influential papers it has published, but also forward to how best to evolve in these changing political and scientific times. (If you want to know more about the history of Nature and the ‘making of a scientific community’, have a look at Melinda Baldwin’s work here and here)

Having read the editorial, I got curious and looked back at the very first issue of Nature from 1869 – and I was really surprised.

Goethe and Huxley

When you open the issue, the first thing you see is Nature‘s ‘masthead’, that is, an image representing half a globe, with Britain visible in the middle, emerging from the ocean and/or clouds (see featured image). The engraving, in a style typical for that period, is overlaid with the artistically rendered word Nature.

Underneath this image is the subtitle of the journal written in capital letters: “A WEEKLY ILLUSTRATED JOURNAL OF SCIENCE”. Underneath that in small italics we find a quote from William Wordsworth: “To the solid ground of nature trust the mind which builds for aye.” ‘Aye’ is an archaic word meaning ‘always’. The line is taken from Sonnet 36, Poetical Works (1827), Vol. 2, 290.

But the surprises do not end there. The journal’s first article was entitled “Goethe: Aphorisms on Nature”. It was written by Thomas Huxley who translated Goethe’s aphorisms.

These aphorisms were generally attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the greatest poets and scientists of the 19th century (in the article Huxley points in particular to his interest in comparative anatomy). However, Huxley notes that Goethe himself wasn’t totally sure whether he had actually written the aphorisms or not. Goethe had been sent the text in 1828 because the sender thought it was his sort of writing, and Goethe, looking at it, thought that it was indeed the sort of stuff he could have written in 1786.

It is now thought that the writer of the aphorisms was Georg Christoph Tobler and that they were “first published in 1783 in the Tiefurt Journal. Tobler wrote the essay after repeated conversations with Goethe.” (Wikipedia)

Huxley himself alludes to this disputed authorship in 1894 when he wrote in Nature: “A better translation than mine and an interesting account of the very curious obscurity which hangs about the parentage of Die Natur are to be found in Mr. J. Bailey Saunders’ recently published ‘Goethe’s Aphorisms and Reflections’.” Saunders’ himself stressed that “we are not entitled to infer that Tobler did more than report or at most arrange the words and phrases used by the poet himself”. There you go!

Aphorisms on Nature

Now what are these aphorisms about? They are about Nature. Nature personified as a woman, a depiction of nature not uncommon for that time and rooted in representations of Mother Nature in Greco-Roman mythology. The aphorisms are written in an effusive, indeed ‘rhapsodic’ style which modern readers might find somewhat irritating – but not only modern readers.

Unlike Ernst Haeckel, who used the German version of the aphorisms to start off his Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte of 1868, and Sigmund Freud who, apparently, was inspired by them to study medicine, T. S. Eliot proclaimed, for example, that “To me this falls as dismal as a rural sermon.” (For more information on the reception of these aphorisms before and after Huxley’s translation, see here)

Oma Stanley wrote in 1957, expressing my own thoughts: “The piece is indeed an extravaganza of poetic prose in which Nature parades as a living, breathing matron, active, purposeful, wise, and beneficent.” He quotes some passages such as: “Mankind dwell in her and she in them. With all men she plays a game for love, and rejoices the more they win. With many her moves are so hidden that the game is over before they know” That’s not so bad.

But there are other passages which are more cringe-worthy, at first glance at least: “She envelops man in darkness, and urges him constantly to the light. She makes him dependent on the earth, heavy and sluggish, and always rouses him up afresh.” Or: “Man obeys her laws even in opposing them: he works with her even when he wants to work against her.”

Until one realises that in the first instance ‘man’ is a translation of ‘Mensch’ (human being) and in the second of ‘man’ (one): “Sie hüllt den Menschen in Dumpfheit ein und spornt ihn ewig zum Lichte. Sie macht ihn abhängig zur Erde, träg und schwer, und schüttelt ihn immer wieder auf. ”Man gehorcht ihren Gesetzen, auch wenn man ihnen widerstrebt; man wirkt mit ihr, auch wenn man gegen sie wirken will.” However, ‘Mensch’ is still ‘ihn’, that is masculine….

Nature, romance and science

But how did the original readers of the first issue of Nature react to these aphorisms chosen to celebrate the first issue of a scientific journal and translated by Huxley? Their reaction were interesting! In an article published in Nature in 1932 we find out the following, which made me smile:

“As originally printed, a casual reader might easily conclude that this lyrical composition was the work of Huxley himself, and in a letter to Dohrn [a prominent German Darwinist], written shortly afterwards, he says: ‘It astonishes the British Philistines not a little. When they began to read it they thought it was mine, and that I had suddenly gone mad.’ Darwin himself was stirred to admiration, and wrote to Hooker [a founder of geographical botany and Charles Darwin’s closest friend] as follows: ‘Lord, what a rhapsody that was of Goethe, but how well translated; it seemed to me, as I told Huxley, as if written by the maddest English scholar. It is poetry, and can I say anything more severe?’”

Even more interestingly, Stanley speculated that Huxley, shortly after his translation of the aphorisms, changed his conception of ‘Nature’ from romantic to scientific, after having read and digested John Stuart Mill’s essay “Nature” published posthumously in 1874 (have a look!). Instead of engaging in rhapsodic effusions about Nature as a woman, Huxley would henceforth, it seems, write about nature as a system, as a sum of phenomena, as order. This view of nature, unlike the aphorisms, is still with us, especially in the journal Nature. (Interestingly, the periodic table is also celebrating its 150th anniversary this year – that’s order for you, at least an appearance of order!)

Huxley’s reflections on the aphorisms

Now, Huxley did not only translate and publish the aphorisms in the first Nature article, he also commented on them and how they came about. Most importantly he pointed out what they meant for him with relation to science:

He wrote: “When my friend, the Editor of Nature, asked me to write an opening article for his first number, there came into my mind this wonderful rhapsody on ‘Nature,’ which has been a delight to me from my youth up. It seemed to me that no more fitting preface could be put before a Journal, which aims to mirror the progress of that fashioning by Nature of a picture of herself, in the mind of man, which we call the progress of Science.” (Unlike in the phrase ‘men of science’, ‘man’ is here used, I hope, in the sense of ‘human being (irrespective of sex or age)’ (Oxford English Dictionary)

In his comments overall, he focused on the fact that the aphorisms made Goethe ‘smile’ and made him smile too. Both Goethe himself and Huxley were aware of how these aphorisms went ‘over the top’, so to speak;they were hyperbolic, expansive (even pantheistic) and “superlative”. There translation was, I suppose, intended to transport the readers of Nature on a scientific journey, a science that, at the time, was seen as progress. Modern readers of Nature witnessing ‘Nature’s’ gradual destruction might no longer agree with this conceptualisation of nature and science!

Huxley ends his article by saying: “When another half-century has passed, curious readers of the back numbers of Nature will probably look on our best, ‘not without a smile;’ and, it may be, that long after the theories of the philosophers whose achievements are recorded in these pages, are obsolete, the vision of the poet will remain as a truthful and efficient symbol of the wonder and the mystery of Nature.”

While the metaphor of science’s journey as progress can nowadays be disputed, and while we no longer personify Nature as a woman, nature certainly still hides many mysteries that poets and scientists try to fathom. In the process, many more scientific achievements will become obsolete, but recorded for future inspection in the journal Nature.

PS Richard Holliman @science_engage just alerted me to this fantastically informative interview with Ian Flintoff, who did his PhD on the history of the journal Nature. Listen to it!!!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Science Communication