Ghost Hunters, by Deborah Blum

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The Independent Culture

When Samuel Butler, best known for The Way of All Flesh, remarked that the theory of evolution via natural selection had "banished mind from the universe", he formulated the response of many intelligent but troubled Victorians to the new God-less cosmos inaugurated by Darwin's "dangerous" idea. Butler was no Bible-thumping reactionary, but an acute thinker, aware of the shift in humanity's self-image that On the Origin of Species had triggered. Critical of religious and scientific dogma, Butler wrote a brace of brilliant books pointing out that, while evolution seemed to be true, the mechanical version proffered by Darwin and his ferocious bulldog, Thomas Huxley, didn't cover all, or possibly most, of the facts. As he would be today, Butler was labelled a crank, yet criticism of Darwin's mindless universe began very close to home. Alfred Wallace, who independently of Darwin came up with the theory of evolution, soon grew disenchanted with it and spent the remainder of his life trying to let mind back in. That he sought help among the spiritualists is one reason why these days he's often air-brushed out of the evolution debate.

In 1882, three of Butler's contemporaries, Fredrick Myers, Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgwick, were, like Wallace, dissatisfied with the new dispensation, and decided to see if science itself could show the limits of Darwin's argument. As a target, they chose what today is relegated to New Most Haunted: the survival of bodily death. To investigate this they, and other illustrious characters, started the Society for Psychical Research, which is still going strong, and devoted an enormous amount of time, effort and energy to studying the anomalous phenomena making cracks in mechanistic science's allegedly impenetrable edifice.

Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: The Victorians and the Hunt for Proof of Life after Death is a fascinating, moving and, most importantly, paradigm-challenging account of the lives and work of the many scientists and thinkers who championed the cause of psychical research. These included Nobel Prize winners such as Lord Rayleigh; a future prime minister, Arthur Balfour; a poet laureate, Tennyson; a knight of the realm, Oliver Lodge; and other notables like Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Leslie Stephen, the literary critic and father of Virginia Woolf.

Central to the tale is the American philosopher and psychologist William James (the US edition has James's name rather than "The Victorians" in the subtitle). Probably the biggest gun in the pro-psychical arsenal, James argued against reductionist science and philosophy in all its forms, not only psychical research, and his cautious, open-minded and pragmatic approach served the cause better than any number of charismatic mediums.

Although egregiously typecast as gullible, sloppy and derisively un-scientific by their critics, the SPR's style tended toward the painstaking and doubting, as evidenced by Richard Hodgson's celebrated exposure of Madame Blavatsky, the flamboyant Russian Theosophist who claimed to receive etheric instructions from Mahatmas on high. Yet even the hard-nosed Hodgson had to revise his take when meeting the demure but impressive Leonora Piper, a medium who passed every test and came up legitimate. Another impressive, though more volatile character was the Neapolitan Eusapia Palladino, whose frequent cheating didn't obscure her often remarkable powers. Women are main players in this story - including Marie Curie - but not only as mediums. Nora Sidgwick, wife of the philosopher Henry, and statistician for the wonderfully named Census of Hallucinations, had to take time off from phantasms and spooks to attend to her duties as principal of Newnham College.

Scientific curiosity wasn't the only prompt behind the SPR's activities. Given that they were investigating life after death, how could it be: the notion of remaining "disinterested" when considering whether or not you have a soul seems comical. James admitted that he grew "dizzy" at the thought of immortality after the death of his father. And Myers, the most poetic of the crew, and author of the monumental Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, may have "willed" himself to die to escape a failed marriage and reunite with his lost love, his mad cousin's wife, who committed suicide. Strange deaths weren't uncommon within the SPR. Edmund Gurney was found dead in a Brighton hotel room, ostensibly from an accidental overdose of chloroform, although there was suspicion of suicide and homosexual scandal. Yet the deaths of Myers, Sidgwick and Gurney led to what is still the most convincing evidence for survival: the remarkable "cross-correspondence" study, involving several mediums in different countries and detailed and coded communications from the society's three musketeers.

Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and science writer, admits that although she is "anchored in place with the sturdy shoes of common sense", researching the book led her to change her mind and feel "less smug", "less positive of my rightness". This took guts. Not too many scientists heed the spirits these days; in the Dawkins and Dennett-rich atmosphere of dismissive and dogmatic disbelief, who can blame them? Let's hope other adventurous souls (or spirits) follow Blum's lead, and embrace as wide a view of reality as the Victorian ghost hunters did.