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.

Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior

Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, Robert Richards

The three chapters of Robert Richards’s work we were to focus on for class dealt with how a few prominent Victorian thinkers — with a decided emphasis on Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer — integrated the theory of evolution with human morality and ethics. Richards attempts to analyze the theories put forth by his chosen actors within the context of their own intellectual climate; instead of looking for the roots of modern-day scientific understandings by searching for pieces of old theories that “glow,” he advocates an approach that assesses the validity or value of work by “those standards actually employed by contemporaries in the scientific community of the time.”[1] In this way, he hopes to escape the dubious reputation often ascribed to Herbert Spencer by scholars who fail to recognize his contemporary success as an intellectual and also to avoid the hagiographical tendencies that tend to be characteristic of writing on Charles Darwin.

The main men addressed in Richards’s work had different reasons for embarking on their journeys to provide a natural explanation for human moral development, and their backgrounds and methods were also quite varied. Darwin’s interest in morality came as a consequence and extension of his work on evolution. Conversely, Spencer constructed his ethical framework first and then attempted to explain its conception in terms of long-term biological change.[2] Thus, the two were interested in the evolution of human morality for quite different reasons, and this was reflected in their similar but distinct theories.

Spencer was out to prove that his ethics were grounded in the natural world and placed much more emphasis on acquired inheritance, which was important in his argument for the end goal of evolution being a perfect, socialist society. Darwin’s motivations for entering the discussion about human morality lay in defending his theory of evolution by natural selection after the publication and subsequent critiques of The Origin. He was far more hesitant about teleological understandings of evolution and thought natural selection played a more important role in evolutionary change. He needed to prove that all aspects of humanity were the result of evolution and not divine intervention. Both men integrated their unique goals in constructing their theories into the theories themselves, a testament to how important the cultural and intellectual climate surrounding historical figures is to their lives and work.


  • As I was reading, I noticed how frequently the main actors relied on analogy as a way to understand evolution and morality. Analogies between human and animal intelligence and emotion are common in Chapter 5, along with the interesting discussion of linguistic and biological evolution sharing important similarities. Spencer’s idea of society as a living organism is another example. Is this analogous reasoning particularly characteristic of mid-19th century theorizing about evolution, was it a broader trend in 19th century science, and do we still employ similar strategies for understanding the natural world? Is this a valid, scientifically-sound strategy?
  • What is the difference between morality and ethics, as Richards and those he writes about define them?

[1] Robert Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 244.

[2] Ibid., 247.