Culture, Science, and Pseudo-Science

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Victorian Culture

Along with the enormous economic and political changes that occurred in Europe over the course of the nineteenth century came equally momentous shifts in culture and learning.  The cultural era of this period is known as “Victorianism,” the culture of the dominant bourgeoisie in the second half of the nineteenth century.  That culture was named after the British Queen Victoria, who presided over the zenith of British power and the height of British imperialism.  Victoria’s astonishingly long reign, from 1837 to 1901, coincided with the triumph of bourgeois norms of behavior among self-understood elites.

Family of Queen Victoria
Family of Queen Victoria

Victorianism was the culture of top hats, of dresses that covered every inch of the female body and of rigid gender norms.  Its defining characteristic was the desire for security, especially security from the influence of the lower classes.  Class divisions were made visible in the clothing and manners of individuals, with each class outfitted in distinct “uniforms” – this was a time when one’s hat indicated one’s income and class membership.  It was a time in which the bourgeoisie, increasingly mixed with the old nobility, came to assert a self-confident vision of a single European culture that, they thought, should dominate the world.  Social elites insisted that scientific progress, economic growth, and their own increasing political power were all results of the superiority of European civilization, a civilization that had reached its pinnacle thanks to their own ingenuity.  Particularly by the latter decades of the century, they characterized that superiority in racial terms.

According to the Victorian psychologist Sigmund Freud, Victorianism was fundamentally about the repression of natural instincts. 

Note: There are some mature topics are discussed in the following video:

There were always threats present in the lives of social elites at the time: the threat of sexual impropriety, the threat of financial failure, the threat of immoral behavior being discovered in public, threats which were all tied to shame.  There was clearly a Christian precedent for Victorian obsessions, and Victorianism was certainly tied to Christian piety.  What had changed, however, is that the impulse to tie morality to a code of shame was secularized in the Victorian era to apply to everything, especially in economics.  Simply put, there was a moral connection between virtue and economic success.  The wealthy came to regard their social and economic status as proof of their strong ethical character, not just luck, connections, or hard work.  Thus, Victorian culture included a belief in the existence of good and evil in the moral character of individuals, traits that science, they thought, should be able to identify just as it was now able to identify bacteria.

In turn, the Victorian bourgeoisie accused the working class of inherent weakness and turpitude.  In the minds of the bourgeoisie, as the labor movements and socialist parties grew, the demands of the working class for shortened working days spoke not to their exhaustion and exploitation, but to their laziness and lack of work ethic.  The Victorian bourgeoisie were the champions of the notion that everyone got what they deserved and that science itself would eventually ratify the social order.  What the Victorian elite feared more than anything was that the working class would somehow overwhelm them, through a communist revolution or by simply “breeding” out of control.  They sometimes even imagined that Western Civilization itself had reached its pinnacle and was doomed to degenerate.

There were some remarkable contrasts between the ideology of Victorian life and its lived reality.  Even though much of the fear of social degeneration was exaggerated, it is also true that alcoholism became much more common (both because alcohol was cheaper and because urbanization lent itself to casual drinking), and drug use spread.  Cocaine was regarded as a medicinal pick-me-up, and respectable diners sometimes finished meals with strawberries dipped in ether. 

The effects of ether intoxication are similar to those of alcohol intoxication, but more potent. Also, the user may experience distorted thinking, euphoria, and visual/auditory hallucinations at higher doses.

Many novels written around the turn of the twentieth century critiqued the hypocrisy of social elites and their pretensions to rectitude. Two classics of horror writing, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are both about the monsters that lurked within bourgeois society.  Both were written about Victorian elites who were actually terrible beasts, just under the surface of their respectable exteriors.

Take a look at the gallery for other books published during the Victorian era. You can click on each book to see more information about it on Amazon.

Nowhere was the Victorian obsession with defining and restricting people into carefully-defined categories stronger than in gender roles.  Male writers, theorists, and even scientists claimed that men and women were opposites: rational, forceful, naturally courageous men were contrasted with irrational, but gentle and demure, women.  Men of all social classes dressed increasingly alike, in sensible, comfortable trousers, jackets, and hats (albeit with different hats for different classes).  Women wore wildly impractical dresses with sometimes ludicrously tight corsets underneath, the better to serve their social function as ornaments to beautify the household.  The stifling restrictions on women and their infantilization by men were major factors behind the rise of the feminist movement in the second half of the century.

Victorian illustration of the natural vs. the corseted body
Victorian illustration of the natural vs. the corseted body

Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Discoveries and Theories

Science made incredible advances in the Victorian era.  Some of the most important breakthroughs had to do with medicine and biology.  Those genuine advances, however, were accompanied by the growth of scholarship that claimed to be truly scientific, but that violated the tenets of the scientific method, employed sloppy methods, were based on false premises, or were otherwise simply factually inaccurate.  Those fields constitute branches of “pseudo-”, meaning “false,” science.

Disease had always been the greatest threat to humankind before the nineteenth century – of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” it was Pestilence that traditionally delivered the most bodies to Death.  In turn, the link between filth and disease had always been understood, but the rapid urbanization of the nineteenth century lent new urgency to the problem. This led to important advances in municipal planning, like modern sewer systems – London’s was built in 1848 after a terrible epidemic of cholera.  Thus, before the mechanisms of contagion were understood, at least some means to combat it were nevertheless implemented in some European cities.  Likewise, the first practical applications of chemistry to medicine occurred with the invention of anesthesia in the 1840s, allowing the possibility of surgery without horrendous agony for the first time in history. 

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory
Louis Pasteur in his laboratory

By far the most important advance in medicine, however, was in bacteriology, first pioneered by the French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895).  Starting with practical experiments on the process of fermentation in 1854, Pasteur built on his ideas and proved that disease was caused by microscopic organisms.  Pasteur’s subsequent accomplishments are Newtonian in their scope: he definitively proved that the “spontaneous generation” of life was impossible and that microbes were responsible for putrefaction.  He developed the aptly named technique of pasteurization to make foodstuffs safe (originally in service to the French wine industry), and he went on to develop effective vaccines against diseases like anthrax that affected both humans and animals. 

In the course of just a few decades, Pasteur overturned the entire understanding of health itself.  Other scientists followed his lead, and by the end of the century, deaths in Europe by infectious disease dropped by a full sixty percent, primarily through improvements in hygiene (antibiotics would not be developed until the end of the 1920s).

These advances were met with understandable excitement.  At the same time, however, they fed into a newfound obsession with cleanliness.  All of a sudden, people understood that they lived in a dirty world full of invisible enemies – germs.  Good hygiene became both a matter of survival and a badge of class identity for the bourgeoisie, and the inherent dirtiness of manual labor was further cause for bourgeois contempt for the working classes.  For those who could afford the servants to do the work, homes and businesses were regularly scrubbed with caustic soaps, but there was little to be done in the squalor of working-class tenements and urban slums.


Comparable scientific breakthroughs occurred in the fields of natural history and biology.  For centuries, naturalists (the term for what would later be known as biologists) had been puzzled by the fact that the fossils of marine animals could be found on mountaintops.  Likewise, fossils embedded in rock were a conundrum.  By the early nineteenth century, some scientists argued that these phenomena could only occur through stratification of rock, a process that would take millions, not thousands, of years. 

In 1859, the English naturalist Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species.  In it, Darwin argued that lifeforms “evolve” over time thanks to random changes in their physical and mental structure.  Some of these traits are beneficial and increase the likelihood that the individuals with them will survive and propagate, while others are not and tend to disappear as their carriers die off.  Darwin based his arguments on both the fossil record and what he had discovered as the naturalist aboard a British research vessel, the HMS Beagle, that toured the coasts of South America and visited the Galapagos Islands off its west coast.  There, Darwin had encountered numerous species that were uniquely adapted to live only in specific, limited areas.  On returning to Britain, he concluded that only changes over time within species themselves could account for his discoveries. 

Darwin's notes - He wrote "I think" above an evolutionary tree that he drew.
Darwin’s notes – He wrote “I think” above an evolutionary tree that he drew.

Darwin’s arguments shocked most of his contemporaries. His account argued that nature itself was a profoundly hostile place to all living things; even as nature sustains species, it constantly tests individuals and kills off the weak.  He said that evolutionary adaptations are random, not systematic, and are as likely to result in dangerous (for individuals) weaknesses as newfound sources of strength – that there was no plan embedded in evolution, only random adaptation.  Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory was the first to systematically explain the existence of fossils and biological adaptation.  In his Descent of Man, Darwin explicitly tied human evolution to his earlier model and argued that humans are descended from other hominids – the great apes. 

The mechanism of how evolution could have occurred, was not known during Darwin’s lifetime, at least to very many people.  Unknown to anyone at the time, during the 1850s and 1860s an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel carried out a series of experiments with pea plants in his monastery’s garden and, in the process, discovered the basic principles of genetics.  Mendel first presented his work in 1865, but it was entirely forgotten.  It was rediscovered by a number of scholars simultaneously in 1900, and in the process, was linked to Darwin’s evolutionary concepts. 

With the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, it was now believed that in gene mutation that new traits emerge, and genes that favor the survival of offspring tend to dominate those that harm it.

Social Darwinism

Many Europeans regarded Darwinian theory as proof of progress: nature itself ensured that the human species would improve over time.  Very quickly, however, evolutionary theory was taken over as a justification for both rigid class distinctions and racism.  A large number of people, starting with elite male theorists, came to believe that Darwinism implied that a parallel kind of evolutionary process was at work in human society.  In this view, success and power is the result of superior breeding, not just luck and education.  The rich fundamentally deserve to be rich, and the poor (encumbered by their poor biological traits) deserve to be poor.  This set of concepts came to be known as Social Darwinism.  Drawing on the work of Arthur de Gobineau, the great nineteenth-century proponent of racial hierarchy, the British writer and engineer Herbert Spencer emerged as the most significant proponent of Social Darwinism.  He summarized his outlook with the phrase “the survival of the fittest,” a phrase often misattributed to Darwin himself.  Spencer was a fierce proponent of free market economics and also contributed to the process of defining human races in biological terms, rather than cultural or historical ones.

In turn, the new movement led to an explosion of pseudo-scientific apologetics for notions of racial hierarchy.

The word apologetics comes from the Greek apologia, meaning defense.

The term apologetics has Western, primarily Christian origins and is most frequently associated with the defense of Christianity.

 Usually, Social Darwinists claimed that it was not just that non-white races were inherently inferior, it was that they had reached a certain stage of evolution but stopped, while the white race had continued to evolve.  Illustrations of the evolutionary process in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century encyclopedias and dictionaries were replete with an evolutionary chain from small creatures through monkeys and apes and then on to non-white human races, culminating with the supposedly “fully evolved” European “race.”

In addition to non-white races, Social Darwinists targeted elements of their own societies for vilification, often lumping together various identities and behaviors as “unfit.”  For Social Darwinists, the “unfit” included alcoholics, those who were promiscuous, unwed mothers, criminals, the developmentally disabled, and those with congenital disabilities.  Social Darwinism’s prevailing theory was that charity or “artificial” checks on the exploitation of workers like trade unions would lead to the survival of the unfit, which would in turn cause the human species to decline.  Likewise, charity, aid, and rehabilitation were misplaced, since they would supposedly lead to the survival of the unfit and thereby drag down the health of society overall.  Thus, the best policy was to allow the “unfit” to die off if possible, and to try to impose limits on their breeding if not.  Social Darwinism soon led to the field of eugenics, which advocated programs to sterilize the “unfit.”

Ironically, even as Social Darwinism provided a pseudo-scientific foundation for racist and sexist cultural assumptions, these notions of race and culture also fed into the fear of degeneration mentioned above.  In the midst of the squalor of working-class life, or in terms of the increasing rates of drug use and alcoholism, many people came to fear that certain destructive traits were not only flourishing in Europe, but were being passed on.  There was thus a great fear that the masses of the weak and unintelligent could and would spread their weakness through high birth-rates, while the smart and capable were simply overwhelmed.

Not all of the theories to explain behavior were so morally and scientifically questionable, however.  In the late nineteenth century, a Frenchman (Emile Durkheim) and a German (Max Weber) independently began the academic discipline that would become sociology: the systematic study of how people behave in complex societies.  Durkheim treated Christianity like just another set of rituals and beliefs whose real purpose was the regulation of behavior, while Weber provided an enormous number of insights about the operation of governments, religious traditions, and educational institutions.  Another German, Leopold von Ranke, created the first truly systematic forms of historical research, in turn creating the academic discipline of history itself.

Sociology and academic history were part of a larger innovation in human learning: the social sciences.  These were disciplines that tried to deduce facts about human behavior that were equally valid to natural science’s various insights about the operations of the natural world.  The dream of the social sciences was to arrive at rules of behavior, politics, and historical development that were as certain and unshakable as biology or geology.  Unfortunately, as academic disciplines proliferated and scholars proposed theories to explain politics, social organization, and economics it was often difficult to distinguish between sound theories based on empirical evidence and pseudo-scientific or pseudo-scholarly theories (like those surrounding racial hierarchy) based instead on ideology and sloppy methodology.

Mass Culture

The Victorian era saw the emergence of the first modern, industrialized, “mass” societies.  One of the characteristics of industrial societies, above and beyond industrial technology and the use of fossil fuels themselves, is the fact that culture itself becomes mass-produced.  Written material went from the form of books, which had been expensive and treated with great care in the early centuries of printing, to mass-market periodicals, newspapers, and cheap print.  People went from inhabitants of villages and regions that were fiercely proud of their identities to inhabitants of larger and larger, and hence more anonymous and alienating, cities.  Material goods, mass-produced, became much cheaper over the course of the nineteenth century thanks to industrialization, and in the process they could be used up and thrown away with a much more casual attitude by more and more people.  Two examples of this phenomenon were the spread of literacy and the rise of consumerism.

The nineteenth century was the century of mass literacy.  In France, male literacy was just below 50% as of the French Revolution, but it was almost 80% in 1870 and almost 100% just thirty years later.  Female literacy was close behind.  This had everything to do with the spread of printing in vernacular languages, as well as mass education.  In France, mass secular free education happened in 1882.  Free, public primary school did more to bind together the French in a shared national culture than anything before or since, as every child in France was taught in standard French and studied the same subjects.

Paper became vastly cheaper as well.  Paper had long been made from rags, which were shredded, compressed together, and reconstituted.  The resulting paper was durable but expensive.  In the late nineteenth century printers began to make paper out of wood pulp, which dropped it to about a quarter of the former price.  As of 1880, the linotype machine was invented, which also made printing much cheaper and more simple than it had been.  Thus, it became vastly cheaper and easier to publish newspapers by the late nineteenth century.

There was also a positive change in the buying power of the average person.  From 1850 to 1900, the average French person saw their real purchasing power increase by 165%.  Comparable increases occurred in the other dynamic, commercial, and industrial economies of western Europe (and, eventually, the United States). This increase in the ability of average people to afford commodities above and beyond those they needed to survive was ultimately based on the energy unleashed by the Industrial Revolution.  Even with the struggles over the quality of life of working people, by the late nineteenth century goods were simply so cheap to produce that the average person actually did enjoy a better quality of life and could buy things like consumables and periodicals.

One result of the cheapening of print and the rise in buying power was “yellow” journalism, sensationalized accounts of political events that stretched the truth to sell copies.  In France, the first major paper of this type was called Le Petit Journal, an extremely inexpensive and sensationalistic paper which avoided political commentary in favor of banal, mainstream expressions of popular opinion.

"The Yellow Press" portrays William Randolph Hearst as a jester distributing sensational stories.
“The Yellow Press” portrays William Randolph Hearst as a jester distributing sensational stories.

 Rival papers soon sprang up, but what they had in common was that they did not try to change or influence opinion so much as they reinforced it – each political persuasion was now served by at least one newspaper that “preached to the choir,” reinforcing pre-existing ideological outlooks rather than confronting them with inconvenient facts. 

Overall, the kind of journalism that exploded in the late nineteenth century lent itself to the cultivation of scandals.  Important events and trends were tied to the sensationalizing journalism of the day.  For instance, a naval arms race between Britain and Germany that was one of the causes of World War I had much to do with the press of both countries playing up the threat of being outpaced by their national rival.  The Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason, spun to the point that some people were predicting civil war thanks largely to the massive amount of press on both sides of the scandal (the Dreyfus Affair is considered later).  Likewise, imperialism, the practice of invading other parts of the world to establish and expand global empires, received much of its popular support from articles praising the civilizing mission involved in occupying a couple of thousand square miles in Africa that the reader had never heard of before.

In short, the politics of the latter part of the nineteenth century were embedded in journalism.  Leaders were often shocked by the fact that they had to cultivate public opinion in order to pass the laws they supported.  Journals became the mouthpieces of political positions, which both broadened the public sphere to an unprecedented extent and, in a way, sometimes cheapened political opinions to the level of banal slogans.

Another seismic shift occurred in the sphere of acquisition.  In the early modern era, luxury goods were basically reserved for the nobility and the upper bourgeoisie.  There simply was not enough social wealth for the vast majority of Europeans to buy many things they did not need.  The average peasant or shopkeeper, even fairly prosperous ones, owned only a few sets of clothes, which were repaired rather than replaced over time.  More to the point, most people did not think of money as something to “save” – in good years in which the average person somehow had “extra” money, he or she would simply spend it on more food or, especially for men, alcohol, because it was impossible to anticipate having a surplus again in the future. 

Perhaps the iconic example of a shift in patterns of acquisition and consumerism was the advent of department stores.  Department stores represented the shift into recognizably modern patterns of buying, in which people shopped not just for necessities, but for small luxuries.  The former patterns of consumption had been of small, family-run shops and traveling peddlers, a system in which bargaining was common and there was next to no advertising to speak of.  With department stores, prices were fixed and a wide variety of goods of different genres were on display together.  Advertising became ubiquitous and branded products could be found across the length and breadth of a given country – just as print and primary education inculcated national identity, so did the fact that consumer goods were increasingly standardized.  

The first area to be affected by these shifts was textiles, both in terms of clothing and housewares like sheets and curtains.  Manufacturing and semi-skilled labor dramatically decreased the price of textiles, and department stores carried large selections that many people could afford.  People below the level of the rich came not only to own many different items of clothing, but they voluntarily replaced clothing due to shifts in fashion, not just because it was worn out. 

The first real department store was the Bon Marché in Paris.  It was built in the 1840s but underwent a series of expansions until it occupied an entire city block. 

Bon Marché
Bon Marché

By 1906 it had 4,500 employees.  During the 1880s it had 10,000 clients a day, up to 70,000 a day during its February “white sales” in which it sold linens for reduced prices.  The 1860s were the birth of the seaside holiday, which the Bon Marché helped invent by selling a whole range of holiday goods.  By the 1870s there were mail-order catalogs and tourists considered a visit to the Bon Marché to be on the same level as one to the Arc de Triomphe built by Napoleon to commemorate his victories.

Ultimately, the Victorian Era saw the birth of modern consumerism, in which economies became dependent on the consumption of non-essential goods by ordinary people.  The “mass society” inaugurated by the industrial revolution came of age in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a century after it had begun in the coal mines and textile mills of Northern England.  That society, with its bourgeois standards, its triumphant self-confidence, and its deep-seated “scientific” social and racial attitudes, was in the process of taking over much of the world at precisely the same time.

Below is a Sears Catalog from this time period. You can zoom in on the pages via the magnifying glass icon, or click here to see it on the original website, which will allow you to view it full screen.


The growth of science, the pernicious development of pseudo-science, and the culture struggles that raged in European society all occurred simultaneously, lending to an overall sense of disruption and uncertainty as the twentieth century dawned.  Lives were transformed for the better by consumerism and medical advances, but many Europeans still found the sheer velocity of change overwhelming and threatening.  At least some of the virulence of the culture struggles of the era was due to this sense of fear and displacement, fears that spilled over to the growing rivalries between nations.  In turn, the world itself provided the stage on which those rivalries played out as European nations set themselves the task of conquering and controlling vast new empires overseas.

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Pasteur: By Albert Edelfelt – Photograph originally posted on Flickr as Albert EDELFELT, Louis Pasteur, en 1885. Date of generation: 27 August 2009. Photographed by Ondra Havala. Modifications by the uploader: perspective corrected to fit a rectangle (the painting was possibly distorted during this operation), frame cropped out., Public Domain,


Bon Marche: By hiro449944, CC BY 3.0,

Yellow press: By L. M. Glackens – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID ppmsca.27675.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,

Darwin’s notes: By Charles Darwin – Page 36 of Notebook B: [Transmutation of species (1837-1838)]. ‘commenced. . . July 1837’; from Darwin Online, Public Domain,

Ether addiction:,thinking%2C%20euphoria%2C%20and%20visual%2Fauditory%20hallucinations%20at%20higher%20doses.

Corset illustration: Public Domain,

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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