In Search of Sir Thomas Browne, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, reviewed.

The Greatest 17th-Century Genius You’ve Never Heard Of

The Greatest 17th-Century Genius You’ve Never Heard Of

Reading between the lines.
July 8 2015 12:20 PM

What Can Browne Do For You?

Lessons on science writing from a 17th-century know-it-all.

Thomas Browne

Illustration by Ethan Rilly

Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th-century English physician and man of letters, has always been too varied a writer to achieve lasting literary fame. Nowadays, we’d call him an essayist—but the name just barely fits the bewildering range of topics touched by his pen. Among other things, he wrote one book on funerary practices through the ages (Urn Burial), one on gardening and mathematics (The Garden of Cyrus), one profession of faith (Religio Medici), a catalog for an imaginary museum of conjectural works of art and literature (Musaeum Clausum), and an enormous proto-encyclopedia of popular misconceptions, extravagantly titled the Pseudodoxia Epidemica. (All are available online through the University of Chicago.) His omnivorous curiosity has exiled him to a minor place in the history of literature and ideas; you can’t tell where to put him. He wrote no single masterpiece and made no major discovery.

But his prose was sumptuous and his sensibility simultaneously wry, warm, and skeptical—and these qualities make him still delightful to read. He reveled in the natural world and was one of the first great English writers to drape nature and science in the fabric of beauty and awe. In the Religio Medici, he muses, “I hold there is a generall beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind of species of creature whatsoever: I cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly, they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes.” He also had the good fortune to write when English was still young and pliable: the Oxford English Dictionary concludes that he gave the language 784 new words outright—including hallucination, medical, and prairie—and cites him as the first exemplary source for another 1,616.

He wrote near the dawn of science as we know it, when contemporaries like Robert Boyle practiced both chemistry and alchemy and barely conceived of a difference between the two. In an age of nascent rationality, Browne—trained as a doctor at the best European universities of his day—took it upon himself to speak against wrongness of all sorts: chicanery, old wives’ tales, received ideas. He turned the prose of debunking into the stuff of art. The Pseudodoxia Epidemica is a kind of Stuart-era Snopes.com, if Snopes were also a stylistic tour de force. In arguing, for example, that the unicorn of myth doesn’t really exist, he gleefully transforms the horned white horse into the lowly beetle with gentle irony:

[B]eside the several places of Scripture mentioning this Animal (which some may well contend to be only meant of the Rhinoceros) we are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirm there are many kinds thereof. In the number of Quadrupedes, we will concede no less then five; that is, the Indian Ox, the Indian Ass, the Rhinoceros, the Oryx, and that which is more eminently termed Monoceros, or Unicornis. Some in the list of fishes; as that described by Olaus, Albertus and others: and some Unicorns we will allow even among Insects; as those four kinds of nasicornous Beetles described by Muffetus.
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Browne himself was right about so much that it’s riveting when he’s wrong. He denied that salamanders live in fire, that almonds prevent drunkenness; with his own observations, he showed that earwigs have wings and flies don’t hum with their mouths. He was rationally tolerant in ways that seem a century or two ahead of his time: He emphatically refuted claims that that the left-handed are wicked and Jews are cursed. And yet the same man also rejected heliocentrism and believed in witches. How could such a generally reasonable, learned, broadly tolerant person be so wrong in a few fatal ways?

That’s the question with which the science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams opens In Search of Sir Thomas Browne, a miscellaneous book about a miscellaneous man. It’s not really a biography about Browne (whose life was too quiet to make a good story) so much as a reader’s memoir—kin to books like William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education, Harry Eyres’ Horace and Me, and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. But everyone knows who Jane Austen is. Aldersey-Williams’ peculiar problem is that the people most likely to read his book are the vanishingly small number who already know and like Browne.

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It’s too bad, because Search is really a book about science, nature, faith, toleration, humility, and public debate—the modern world seen through the lens of Browne. (The British title, The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, better captures its interests; presumably Norton, the U.S. publisher, changed it on the theory that too few Americans would have any clue who Browne was.) Aldersey-Williams’ main argument—spread over a number of chatty chapters loosely organized around Browne’s own major interests—is that Browne’s gentle civility in confronting unreason offers a better alternative to the haughtiness of so much modern science writing and myth-busting. He sees an unhelpful condescension in the books (and tweets) of writers like the biologist Richard Dawkins and the science journalist Mark Henderson (author of The Geek Manifesto). Their style is “arrogant yet embattled, pious yet aggrieved, seeking to sound authoritative yet coming out so shrill.”

Aldersey-Williams Hugh
Hugh Aldersey-Williams.

Photo by Helen May Photography

In contrast, Browne’s playfulness and warmth, his willingness to talk through his evidence, and most of all his admissions that he might be wrong—“Where I cannot satisfie my reason, I love to humour my fancy,” he confessed—provide a better model for scientists wanting to engage the public. Aldersey-Williams reads Browne’s debunkings as a kind of public service, driven by an egoless, compassionate love of truth. The author writes as an evangelist: You get the sense that he would be perfectly happy if every reader of his book were inspired to set it aside after 50 pages in order to pick up the man himself. And he tries to practice what he preaches. He finds some sympathy for even the silliest of modern science denial—anti-vaxxers, creationists, homeopathy: “Credulousness is surely a natural human behavior, an expression of empathy at the moment when a myth is passed from one person to another.” He’s a kind writer straining hard to emulate the kindness he finds in Browne.

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But is he right? Aldersey-Williams is justified in criticizing the self-righteous smirk of Dawkins’s meaner tweets and the like. (He disapprovingly quotes one Nature editor’s sanctimonious Twitter bio: “Back off. I’m a scientist.”) Yet he seems far too optimistic, at least to an American reader, when he claims, “Science is in fact winning all down the line.” More than half of Congress has expressed skepticism about climate change, and the History Channel spews theories about Bigfoot and alien landings. More than 40 percent of Americans think that God created humans less than 10,000 years ago. In the face of all that, it’s hard to maintain the Brownean civility that Aldersey-Williams counsels, even if, as he wanly notes, “ ‘Popular science’ is a thriving genre in book publishing” and “science festivals are proliferating.”

Search nevertheless insists on humility in the awareness that the best of our science and our ethics might someday be superseded, just as Browne’s were—and that the proper response is to admit (as Browne did) that we are all fallible even at our most rational. In doing so, Aldersey-Williams advances the claim—unusual even among great lovers of Browne—that we should read him not just for his literary or historical value but also for his contributions in manner and mindset to the conduct of the world of ideas. “I intend no Monopoly, but a Community in learning,” Browne once wrote. It’s still an idealist’s vision of what the love of knowledge, professed in public, might be.

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