The history of science: The rage of reason

World-changing theories and big breakthroughs are what every scientist yearns for. But the pressure to get results – and glory – means that feuds come thick and fast, says Holly Williams

Monday 13 September 2010 00:00 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The history of science is surely a noble one, full of brave individuals striving after truth and high-minded intellectual endeavour. Right? Well, maybe we need a slightly more complicated hypothesis. All those worldview-shifting theories and life-altering breakthroughs came from mere humans. And, as science itself has shown us, humans evolved from beasts – and are often little better mannered. When it comes to defending their lifetime's research, academic name or just protecting their funding sources, well, it seems scientists are perfectly capable of getting their claws out. Call it survival of the fittest.

That science has seen its fair share of feuding should come as no surprise really, says Joel Levy, author of a new book, Scientific Feuds, that details some of the nastiest spats. He explains that the view of science as a stately march "out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge" is an invention, "a typically Victorian piece of bowdlerized mythmaking."

"Scientists are human, like anyone else, and obviously emotions can run high and tempers can fray when the stakes are so high," Levy says. "You have to be obsessive and driven, and I think a lot of top scientists' interpersonal skills may suffer, because they're so focused on research."

"It was the Victorian era when science really came of age, and the icon of 'the scientist' emerged, along with a version of its history as an orderly procession of progress, of things getting steadily better. Now we realise it never really works out like that."

The Victorians were hardly blameless. Many of the most juicy feuds occurred in the 19th century, when scientific leaps and bounds were also accompanied by scandal and bitterness.

One of the best known showdowns took place on 30 June 1860, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. T H Huxley – aka "Darwin's bulldog" and ardent defender of his theory of evolution – locked horns with Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, son of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce had published a damning review of Darwin's Origin of Species just two weeks earlier, suggesting its arguments were "degrading" and that natural selection was "a dishonouring view of nature ... absolutely incompatible with the word of God". Irate Darwinists leapt at the chance to challenge him in public at the meeting – and none more forcibly than Huxley.

Anticipating, perhaps, that things would get nasty, Wilberforce ended his speech on a defensive, sneery note. While no reliable transcript exists, a magazine account many years later put it as follows: "turning to his antagonist with smiling insolence, [Wilberforce] begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?" Apparently this was pretty sensational for the uptight Victorians and the crowd went wild, students taking up a chant of "monkey, monkey".

While there is much debate over how Huxley responded, the most enduring account has become trumpeted as a classic example of science taking on religion. Huxley is said to have risen from his seat slowly, and with great gravity, to pronounce that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor, but that he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. According to an account by one Isabel Sidgwick, the impact such an anti-religious statement had was huge: "one lady fainted and had to be carried out; I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and ... everyone was eager to congratulate the hero of the day." In that round, it's fair to say Huxley – and science – won the day.

But science feuds can get considerably dirtier than this relatively cerebral spat. One of the nastiest was the "bone war" between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, two fossil hunters who started hunting each other.

This was "the most notorious and damaging feud of its age, a Greek tragedy of hubris and nemesis, of two men locked together by obsession until one of them, goaded beyond endurance, unleashed the furies of public disgrace," says Levy. For 30 years, from the 1860s to the 1890s, these two men sabotaged each others lives and work.

It was a time when the American Midwest, a fossil-collector's treasure trove, was really opening up. Despite there being more than enough to go round, the urge to collect and classify the most dinosaurs became all-consuming for both men. Soon, there were scraps over access to fossil sites and accusations of intentional damage and theft.

The arguments came to a head in 1877, with the discovery of the fossil-rich site of Como Bluff in Wyoming. Marsh is thought to have dynamited pits to stop Cope acquiring specimens, while Cope apparently diverted a trainload of Marsh's findings to the wrong state. Pistols were pulled on at least one occasion.

When the more establishment Marsh also scuppered Cope's chances of publishing his discoveries or getting funding, Cope responded desperately by splashing allegations of Marsh's conduct over the New York Herald on 12 January 1890. Marsh, of course, had his own bones to pick in public with Cope, and after two weeks of highly publicised bickering, both men's reputations were in tatters.

But sometimes, science squabbles barely damage a reputation, and wars don't always seem to play out entirely fairly in our public consciousness. Take, for instance, Edison versus Tesla. As Levy points out, when we think of the inventions of electricity, lightbulbs, and by extension the "Power Age", we think of the American inventor Thomas Edison. But the credit more fairly goes to Serbian "discoverer"

While Edison grabbed headlines in the early 1880s by developing electricity for everyday use, it was Tesla's use of alternating current – rather than Edison's direct current – that became the standard. Hardly surprising, as AC power could travel further, more efficiently and through thinner wires than DC power, and could be transformed into much lower and safer voltages for domestic use. While the two men initially worked together, Edison was already too invested in DC power to consider the younger man's ideas. When businessman and inventor George Westinghouse bought Tesla's patents and began to actively market them, Edison hit back – and the "War of the Currents" began.

"Edison was a master of market and spin," Levy says, outlining how Edison was quick to abuse the public's ignorance and fear of this strange new energy. His campaign was led by electrical engineer Harold P Brown, who called AC a "damnable death current" while insisting on the safety of DC. He conducted a range of grim experiments in an attempt to discredit AC, including electrocuting a dog, a horse and even an elephant in public, and eventually inventing the first, gruesomely inefficient, electric chair in 1890.

But Edison's macabre electrical shows were unsuccessful, and when Westinghouse's system won the contract to light up the Chicago World Fair in 1893, the war of the currents was won by AC.

Many of these grudges go beyond theoretical differences – as Levy points out, "often it is a clash of personalities, and not really about the ideas." One feuds highlights this, with a relationship that went from mutually admiring to mud-slinging.

Freud and Jung: it started as a beautiful friendship. In 1906, psychiatrist Carl Jung was one of Freud's biggest fans, and the two men became pen pals, Jung even writing a year later that his veneration for Freud had "something of the character of a religious 'crush'" with an "undeniable erotic undertone". Freud wasn't unaffected either – twice during their intense meet-ups he fainted.

Then it all went wrong. First, there were differences of opinion in their work, with Freud interpreting Jung's writings, which sought to go beyond the constraints of Freudian psychoanalysis, as an insolent challenge from his protégé. Their professional disputes soon descended into the personal, with Jung mocking Freud's fainting fits and Freud terming Jung a "florid fool and brutal fellow".

As Nazism took hold in Germany, it got even nastier, with Freud suggesting that Jung was guilty of "lies, brutality and anti-Semitic condescension". Jung's followers since have been keen to refute the charges of anti-Semitism, but the two men's relationship was never to recover.

So have scientists mellowed? Nope. "It's definitely not getting better; feuds still rumble on," says Levy. "And we see new feuds building up, in areas like climate change."

However, Levy has become convinced that "the adversarial approach, the contest of ideas, is part of the DNA of science. If there's a race to discover something – like with the genome project – it may push scientists to push themselves harder."

The sequencing of the human genetic code could have been a chance for collaboration on an epic scale. Instead, it was riven by rivalry, and became, as Newsweek termed it, "the biggest scientific grudge match since the space race".

An American scientist, J Craig Venter, broke away from the Human Genome Project in 1991 after he suggested genes should be patented as they were discovered. In 1998, he established Celera Genomics Corporation, a privately funded company which planned to sequence the human genome using faster "cream-skimming" techniques. The scientific community was outraged, particularly at the idea that the human genome might become commercial property. Venter was blasted as an "opportunistic maniac", "Hitler" and "a self-aggrandising pain in the arse".

The feud attracted the attention of President Bill Clinton, who instructed aides to broker peace talks. In 2000, a deal was struck, and Clinton and Tony Blair announced at the White House that Celera and the HGP had sequenced a first draft of the human genome – together.

"There's no question competition can drive scientists on to greater things, as with any human endeavour," says Levy. But, maybe, what we achieve when we play nicely can be even more impressive.

'Scientific Feuds' is published by New Holland Publishers Ltd (£17.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.19 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit

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