Mary Shelley’s unforgettable creation of Frankenstein’s monster. Her book, first published in 1818, was however profoundly critical of the amoral character of science and scientists; she saw the horrors committed by the monster as arising not from his physical appearance but because his creator denied him love – a criticism better recognised by feminists than by mainstream science-fiction analysts. These materialist accounts of nature and human nature produced by natural philosophers (renamed scientists in the 1840s by the Oxford philosopher William Whewell, an inveterate spinner of neologisms) found a receptive audience.
Shelley’s Frankenstein became a best-seller, but could not hold back the fully reductive materialism that was taking a firm hold within the life sciences. In 1845, four rising German and French physiologists, von Helmholtz, Ludwig, du Bois-Reymond and Brucke, swore a mutual oath to prove that all bodily processes could be accounted for in physical and chemical terms. The Dutch physiologist Jacob Moleschott defended the position most strongly, claiming that ‘the brain secretes thought like the kidney secretes urine ’, while ‘genius is a matter of phosphorus.‘ For the zoologist Thomas Huxley, mind was an epiphenomenon, like ‘the whistle to the steam train’.
But it was above all Charles Darwin who provided the intellectual and empirical bedrock for a materialist account of human origins and human nature. Although evolutionary ideas were far from uncommon, it was The Origin that, by providing an intellectually satisfying and coherent secular origin-story of life itself, was recognised as precipitating and symbolising a transformation in Western culture. While an outspoken minority, like his cousin Galton or disciple Huxley, embraced atheism, many, like Darwin himself, though a materialist in his outlook, continued to accompany his wife Emma and their children to church (although after the death of their beloved daughter Annie, he went no further than the church door). Darwin’s radical secularity was confined to his intellectual life; socially he was entirely conventional. Odd though it may seem to today’s sensibilities, his burial in Westminster Abbey was of a piece with the contradictory currents of nineteenth-century England.