Polymathy in decline?

J.M.S. Pearce
Emeritus Consultant Nephrologist, Hull Royal Infirmary, United Kingdom (Fall 2103)

Try to know something about everything and everything about something.
—attributed to T H Huxley (1825-95)

Nicolaus Copernicus, 1872
Jan Matejko
Jagiellonian University, Krakow

Polymaths are rare and interesting people. Their fund of learning enlightens conversation, provokes new ideas and excites our imagination and understanding.

The ancient Greeks concentrated on natural philosophy, (which roughly transmutes into “science”) the study of natural phenomena in the sense of “knowledge” as opposed to “belief” or “opinion.” They were polymaths, men of great learning, acquainted with many branches of knowledge. Despite the frenetic pace of scientific and medical advance, its modern exponents, scientists and physicians, are of a different ilk than their forefathers. Grounded in exhaustively, ultra-structured, myopic education, they often appear to be restricted both in attitudes and in their specialised knowledge. So, is polymathy in decline?

Plato and Socrates considered the nature of human knowledge. But it was Aristotle who examined the wider natural world, returned to the school of “empiricism,” and generated ideas of natural and physical mechanisms that persisted through the Middle Ages into modern times. However, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is the first reference (1624) to “polymath” in English usage.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was the supreme polymath and exponent of natural philosophy, anatomy, engineering, invention, and art. In the 16th century the University of Padua appointed Jacopo Zabarella as the first professor of natural philosophy. It was commonplace for the scientists and doctors of the 18th and 19thcenturies and their medieval predecessors to be men (and a very few women) of great and diverse scholarship. A respected academic had to be proficient in both arts and science.

The study of medicine, an applied biological science, was but one branch of natural philosophy. Natural Philosophy included the study of all natural phenomena and an inquiry into their causes and mechanisms. The concepts were widened by Descartes (1596-1650) whose work had a huge influence on Medicine, Mathematics and Philosophy. He formulated mind-body dualism, and crucially, promoted a new science grounded in observation and experiment. Isaac Newton, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, alchemist and philosopher, gave us the laws of gravity and motion. He went further in his famous Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica 1687, known as the Principia. Francis Bacon’s The Advancement and Proficiency of Learning published in 1605 and its sequel De augmentis scientiarum (1623), were classics of natural philosophy, refuting certain Aristotelian dictates and proposing a new methodological approach to philosophy and an empirical scientific inquiry based on inductive reasoning, the Baconian method. Much of this still permeates our ideas of methodology. Newton, and especially Bacon, displayed a search for broader concepts, mixing science, mathematics with more abstract philosophy and art, and relating these to numinous concepts of deity and the observable world.

Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
Francis Bacon’s Of the Advancement and Proficience of Learning

Eighteenth century polymaths

A much-abbreviated selection of some better-known polymaths follows, not with the intention of idle adulation, but to illustrate the remarkable spectrum of expertise and attainments possible in one individual. A recent biography of Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (1731–1802)1 provides a notable example.

Eighteenth century polymaths included Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and von Goethe (1749 –1832), the poet, novelist, mineralogist, morphologist, botanist, and politician. The physician, Edward Jenner (1749–1823) of vaccination fame, studied palaeontology, bird migration, and brood parasitism of the cuckoo. Caleb Parry (1755–1822), a celebrated Bath physician, also produced high-quality merino wool and, with Jenner, was an accomplished fossil hunter. James Parkinson (1755-1824), the general practitioner who described Parkinson’s disease was a pacifist pamphleteer (pseudonym of “Old Hubert”), a campaigner for social welfare, and a palaeontologist. His Organic Remains of a Former World (3 vols 1804-1811), a crinoid Apiocrinuxs parkinsoni, a gastropod Rostellaria parkinsoni, and an ammonite Parkinsonia parkinsoni are other results of his polymathy.

The distinguished Quaker physician John Fothergill MD., F.R.S. (1712-1780) described trigeminal neuralgia, but was also a hugely generous philanthropist.2,3 With Benjamin Franklin, he tried to avert the American War of Independence. In 1777 Fothergill with William Tuke and David Barclay founded Ackworth School. He established a botanical garden at Upton in Essex containing innumerable rare plants procured from all parts of the world, highly praised by Sir Joseph Banks. His important collection of shells, corals and insects was bought by Dr William Hunter (1718-1783) for London’s Hunterian Museum; it was later moved to London University’s Zoology Museum.

Perhaps the most original was another Quaker physician, Thomas Young MD., F.R.S. (1773-1829),4 known at Cambridge as “Phenomenon Young.” His Memoir on the Structure of the Lens was contributed to the Royal Society in May 1793, when he was aged 20, and was followed by election to the Royal Society. His breadth of scientific exploration was truly remarkable. In 1801, he demonstrated “Young’s fringes,” explained by an undulatory or wave theory of light. By relating colour to wavelength, he calculated the approximate wavelengths of the seven colours recognized by Newton. He suggested three sets of nerve cells or cones in the retina, each sensitive to a primary colour: red, blue or green—the Young-Helmholtz trichromatic theory. Using mathematics he described elasticity, known as Young’s modulus. Not content with Physics and Medicine he mastered arcane hieroglyphics, enabling him to study Egyptology; this led to his deciphering the Rosetta stone eight years before Jean-François Champollion. Sir John Herschel called him a “truly original genius.” His epitaph in Westminster Abbey describes him as: “a man alike eminent in almost every department of human learning.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were celebrated American politicians, leaders of the Enlightenment, but both well acquainted with natural science, invention, religion and philosophy.5

Let us examine Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) in more detail as one example of the wider exercise of older scientific scholarship. Darwin was born at Elston Hall, near Nottingham, the seventh child of Robert Darwin, a lawyer, and Elizabeth Hill. His son Robert was a medical F.R.S. and father of Charles Darwin.

Erasmus Darwin

In 1750 he studied both classics and mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, a combination that might have contravened the later artificial separation of arts and science. He read medicine in Edinburgh, taking his MB degree from Cambridge in 1755.* His interests were protean and profound, and highly influential.6,7

Although medical practice was his principal job, his natural curiosity diverted him to other explorations in science. In 1757 his first paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society proved that electricity did not affect the physical properties of electrically charged air. Darwin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) in 1761. In the next decade, he experimented on gases, studied geology, meteorology, chemistry, and designed carriages and speaking machines.8 His commonplace book records notes on meteorology and mechanical designs such as spinning machines, water pumps, and canal locks.1

In the late 1770s Darwin cultivated a botanic garden near Lichfield. He discovered and translated the works of Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) (founder of the binomial system of biological classification) in a lengthy and acclaimed poem, “The Loves of the Plants” (1789). Although praised by Wordsworth and Coleridge, others were critical of his flamboyant poetic images and melodramatic style, particularly in his lyrical ballads.

In The Economy of Vegetation he wrote: “philosophers of all ages seem to have imagined, that the great world itself had likewise its infancy and its gradual progress to maturity”—a clear hint of evolution, which was to influence his famous grandson. Darwin was a founder of the famous Lunar Society in Birmingham (c. 1765-1813).9
In this society† Darwin was described as:

a man of extraordinary intellectual insight with his own pioneering ideas on evolution. Other members included the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, the engineer James Watt whose inventions harnessed the power of steam, the radical polymath Joseph Priestley who, among his wide-ranging achievements discovered oxygen, and the innovative potter and social reformer Josiah Wedgwood.10

The “Lunarticks” brought together science and commerce. They managed to discover oxygen, harness the power of steam, and contribute to the theory of evolution. They built canals and factories and influenced international commerce. Their interests in philosophy, art, science, medicine, and fired the technology of the Industrial Revolution. They gathered together each month on the Monday nearest the time of the full moon—hence their name. Their influence was enormous.

One of Darwin’s most important publications was his medico-philosophical work, Zoonomia, (1st volume, 1794).11 It was both a classification and a synopsis of physiology for medical practice. For Darwin, the whole nervous system (“sensorium”) was “a living principle, or spirit of animation, which resides throughout the body, without being cognizable to our senses,” an obvious totem of the Graeco-Roman spiritus animalis.

Drawing on the work of John Locke, Hartley, David Hume, and Priestley, Zoonomia subsumed both mind and bodily functions (cf. Descartes). Opposed to innate ideas, Darwin showed that ideas resulted from mental development through habits, often based on imitation: now described as ‘memes’. A long section entitled “Of generation” stated that generation involved a continuous development process: passed on to the embryo and then developed by a series of interaction with their environment, which integrated body and mind; this concept doubtless influenced Charles Darwin. In 1796, Zoonomia‘s 2nd volume classified diseases by their proximate causes. This was a new and more rational taxonomy than others in his time.

Darwin showed another facet of his polymathy when he studied the precepts of Locke and Rousseau and promoted female education to establish a boarding school in Ashbourne in 1794. Another publication, Phytologia (1880) dealt with plant physiology, the economy of vegetation, and provided methods for improving the production of seeds and fruit, and techniques for growing timber for shipbuilding.

The Origin of Society, published posthumously in 1803 as The Temple of Nature, was his last work, a poetic evocation of nature. It explored the evidence for his vision that the entire natural world evolved over time, doubtless understood by grandson Charles (1809–1882). However, The Temple of Nature was harshly criticised as atheistic and materialistic.

Charles Darwin’s daughter Henrietta underestimated Charles’s admiration and intellectual debt to his grandfather, who had died in 1802 before Charles was born. But, there is little doubt that his reading of Zoonomia was crucial in Charles’s formulation of his theory of evolution.12

 

19th and 20th century polymaths

Wide-ranging experiments, imaginative theories and practical applications extended into the 19th and 20th centuries. They related to many other “renaissance men” such as Alexander Humboldt (1769 –1859 ) and the “German polymath,” Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961).

Walter Russell Brain F.R.S., first Baron Brain (1895–1966), was a highly distinguished neurologist and president of the Royal College of Physicians. A prolific medical writer and editor, his wider scholarship was evident in: Mind, Perception and Science (1951), Some Reflections on Genius and Other Essays (1960), Doctors Past and Present (1964), Science and Man (1966), and Poems and Verses (1961). This was a remarkable literary output for a busy Harley Street physician.

Bertrand Russell, third Earl Russell (1872–1970) was a philosopher, mathematician, and political campaigner who was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. With A. N. Whitehead he wrote the revered Principia Mathematica, showing that notions of continuity, infinity, space, time, matter, and motion could all be understood arithmetically. His work influenced social reform, logic, mathematics, linguistics, computer science, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was a professor of biochemistry who penned more than 200 books and thousands of letters. They included autobiographies, histories, satires, companions to Shakespeare, books on science, and science fiction. A lifelong atheist, he nevertheless wrote several books on the Bible. In an account of his tête-à-têtes we are told: “While most prolific writers concentrate on a single subject, Asimov was a polymath who wrote widely on a variety of subjects.”13

The Nobel prizewinner, Richard P. Feynman (1918-88) assisted in the atomic bomb, expanded quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as providing a pictorial scheme for the mathematics of subatomic particle behaviour, known as Feynman diagrams. Feynman translated Mayan hieroglyphics and was a fine painter and musician.

Jonathan Miller (born 1934) is a medically-trained British theatre and opera director, author, television presenter, and satirical humourist. He expounded widely on human physiology for the layman, and on the polemics of atheism. He is sometimes called “The polite polymath.”

Several other polymaths continued this tradition into the 20th century, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that their number is diminishing.

 

Conclusion

The era of scientific polymaths has not entirely passed. John Von Nuemann, Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, William Shockley, Russell Brain, and Alan Turing stand out in recent times. However, as technology has advanced, their number seems in decline. Many modern scientists and doctors, grounded in ultra-structured myopic education both at school and university, can be seen as narrow both in outlook and in their specialised knowledge. Technology seems to have subjugated contemplative ideas, conjectural thinking, even visionary dreams. The tools of learning14 and originality in science, its history and the wider arts are now less evident. One consequence is apparent in the opaque jargon, otiose acronyms, and ignorance of plain language in many publications. A more important deficiency may be a restricted capacity for imaginative inventiveness.

It may be argued that the extant knowledge within their chosen disciplines was for the ancients so limited that they sought other fields in which to exercise their curiosity. Some contend that the polymath is outdated: that in past generations, polymaths could contribute to many fields now impossible because of the sheer expansion of specialised knowledge. The modern would-be polymath appears thus as no more than a dilettante. The breadth of knowledge of past generations has been claimed (inaccurately in my view) to be illusory because the great thinkers were never held accountable for the originality of their ideas; it was sufficient that they were just recorded, proliferated, and perpetuated by contemporary and later scholars.

But discoveries and inventions continue, predicated on new ideas and observations drawn from different areas. This reflects creativity. Creativity is inherently inventive; it often results from the fusion of ideas or concepts from quite different areas: a process impossible for those of narrow outlook and knowledge. Our current education system is discordant with creative teaching. It follows the mass-produced curricular model started in the 19th century rather than meeting present needs.

Students reared in our over-structured education systems often face rejection in society and industry. The educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson noted: “The education system is one of the most prescriptive in educating out of creativity … We are being dumbed down through a serial form of programming.”15 Reviewing Robinson’s book, Howard Gardner, (professor in cognition and education, Harvard) highlights the implications, stating: “There is a disjunction between the kinds of intelligence that we have traditionally honored in schools and the kinds of creativity that we need today in our organizations and our society.”

Carl Djerassi (1923-), chemist, novelist, and playwright observed: “We really preach intellectual monogamy more and more in this day and age.”
A glut of papers, many worthless, have become a necessity for preferment, overvalued by universities and driven by commercial publishers. Original concepts expressed in plain language have become a scarce commodity.

Crucially, there is often a restricted capacity for an informed, inspired, and imaginative facility that is the foundation of the greatest scientific and medical innovations for the benefit of mankind. We can conclude with Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

 

Notes

*There is no record of Erasmus Darwin’s taking his BA at Cambridge (although Charles Darwin claimed that he did), nor of the award of an MD., although this appears on some of his books and papers.[DNB]

†In 1794 Priestley emigrated to America, dedicating his last British work to the society. After this the society declined and last met about 1800. It was resurrected c. 1990 by Dame Rachel Waterhouse, and is active.

 

References

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  10. Uglow Jenny. “The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future”. Faber & Faber. (2002).
  11. Brown T. “Observations on the Zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin, M.D.” Edinburgh: Mundell. (1798).
  12. Colp R. “The Relationship of Charles Darwin to the Ideas of his Grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin”. Biography (1986);9:1-24.
  13. Freedman C. (ed). “Conversations with Isaac Asimov (Literary Conversations)”. University of Mississippi (2005).
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  15. Robinson K. “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.” Wiley-Capstone, (2001).

 


 

J.M.S. PEARCE, MD, FRCP (London) is emeritus consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the Hull Royal Infirmary, England. All correspondence to: 304 Beverley Road, Anlaby, East Yorkshire, HU10 7BG, England.

 

Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 4