The Science of Sympathy

The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilization, Rob Boddice

Rob Boddice makes the argument in The Science of Sympathy that a new, scientific sympathy was developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century by Charles Darwin and his (mostly) like-minded contemporaries, that this sympathy was at odds with what he terms “common compassion,” or vernacular understandings of sympathy, and that the harbingers of this novel morality employed it to justify research practices, to campaign for political and social action, and even attempted to live by it through their personal belief systems and actions. His goals in advancing such an argument are many, one of the principle ones being that histories of emotion are both valid and informative, offering insight into topics, like eugenics and vaccination, that already have well-developed historiographies. Emotions, Boddice argues, are accessible to the historian through “measur[ing] feelings by actions, by the practices they produce.”[1] By looking at how historical actors internalized ideas about what was sympathetic and what was not, we can “trace… backward, the sympathetic impulse.”[2] In this way, historians can analyze emotional change over time, throwing out the assumption that emotions are static historical actors.

The author often references public interference via the subjection of scientific theories to public opinion, but very rarely does he provide evidence of this outside of the second chapter. The absence of these sources is particularly evident in the chapters on vaccination and eugenics. Boddice’s analysis is thus lopsided; he only considers works written by the scientific actors in his history, citing and analyzing the counter-narratives of public advocates relatively rarely. Instead, he reads between the lines in the sources he does offer an in-depth handling of in order to uncover the strands of common compassion/sympathy he places in opposition to those of the Darwinians. While this is an interesting strategy and is no doubt useful, a fuller portrait in which the lay perspective is more fleshed out would have rendered his argument more complete. The very structure of the book should have reflected this; instead of relegating the discussion of common compassion to a single chapter, it should have been a component of all of them. This would have both provided evidence that this scientific brand of sympathy was indeed new and would also have lent credence to his claim that it was largely unintelligible to the general population.


  • What is the connection between morality, sympathy, and emotion? Why can someone write a history of sympathy and call his approach one of history of emotions? What does it mean to write a history of emotions? Does morality (or ethics) have to be based on or associated with emotion? The book seems to be making that assumption, and I’m not sure if I agree. Perhaps my understanding of “emotion” is at odds with Boddice’s? I realize that these topics are discussed at length in the first chapter, but I could use a little clarification.
  • What is evolution’s relationship with socialism? A fair number of Darwinists (Spencer, Wallance, and Pearson, for example) would have identified as socialists, seeing it as the next step in the evolution of morality. In other works I have read, however, it has been argued that evolution by natural selection has very capitalistic undertones of cutthroat, uncaring competition. How can these differing perspectives be reconciled?

[1] Rob Boddice, The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilization (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 5.

[2] Ibid., 6.


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