Culture, Class and Quakers

Last week Melvyn Bragg ran a special series of In Our Time discussing the meaning of culture in both the past and present.  Because of the timing of the programme I rarely listen to it, although it’s great for listening to as a podcast on trains, but on this occasion I took especial care because the second episode in this series of five was trailed to feature EB Tylor (1832-1917). His name is probably not widely known in the scientific (in the modern sense of the word) community. However he was my great great great uncle, if I’ve counted correctly, although his name rarely featured in my childhood. Indeed, I don’t think I’d ever taken his existence in until I was an adult. Nevertheless he was no slouch. He is, according to Britannica Online Encyclopedia, ‘regarded as the founder of cultural anthropology’.

So, it being the holidays and with more time than usual on my hands, the Melvyn Bragg programme prompted me to do a bit of Googling to see what I could learn about the man. There is quite a lot out there; if I went to my University Library I am sure I could dig up a lot more, but that’s not really the point. Looking into his life and background, and then listening to In Our Time, caused me to join a lot of dots – some of them probably incorrectly since I am a rank amateur genealogist, historian and anthropologist – but let me spell out some of the connections. I’ll split this long post up into two, starting with the personal (which any reader can obviously jump over) and then moving on to the ‘cultural’ aspects.

Part I: Personal

First of all I should state I would be ineligible to take part in BBC’s Who do you think you are? because I actually do know a fair bit about some branches of my family, going back quite a long way. This makes it the odder that I have imbibed so little about this particular part of the family. It so happens that as an FRS, I am expected to provide a brief autobiography for their library to help them when it comes to writing up my life for their series of Biographies when I die (sorry to be morbid). They try to prompt you with questions they’d like answers to, one of which is ‘are there any FRS’s in the family?’ to which I had answered ‘no’. My mother had tried to convince me that – in a different part of the family – my great, great grandfather Francis Boott had been an FRS, but the Royal Society records prove her wrong. He was simply the US-born Secretary to the Linnean Society back in 1832-9 and the first use of ether as an anaesthetic in Britain (for a dental procedure) was in his house at 24 Gower Street on 19 December 1846 (so says Wikipedia and I assume they know).

So how did no one seem to know that Sir Edward Burnett Tylor was an FRS? Why is one branch of my family’s genealogy so much better known than another? No doubt that is typical of families, reflecting who remembers what, and who cares about such things and transmits the information down the years (or, in other instances, takes care about thoroughly labelling the photographs).

Another question that the Royal Society wanted an answer to was ‘were there scientist in the family?’ Now you can see that if you were a Darwin/Huxley/Barlow tribe member, you could fill a page or two with details of previous eminent scientists to whom you are related, but I wasn’t entirely sure that EB Tylor counted as a scientist, although I did dutifully mention him (and great great grandpapa Boott). But researching the web for stuff about EB Tylor, I found mention of a certain Alfred Tylor (1824-1884), the older brother of EB, described as a geologist and brassfounder (a goodly combination). Digging around a bit further and it is clear that this guy is certainly another of my great great grandfathers  – his son is described as the ‘engineer and Egyptologist’  JJ Tylor and this man’s portrait most certainly adorned my childhood home, along with some of his own paintings of Egypt and some goodies he had brought back from Egyptian tombs (don’t worry; the British Museum knows about these, but what we have are only second rate spares apparently). So, I am directly descended from a geologist – and indeed an engineer. Again, why did no one ever mention these facts when I started heading off in a scientific direction?

I feel almost cheated that for decades I have believed I was the only scientist in the family; the Tylor’s (EB apart) were always described to me as being of a legal disposition, including a judge and a barrister to my certain knowledge. Now of course I have no idea if Alfred Tylor’s contributions to glaciology are still regarded as useful. These included introducing the word ‘pluvial’ to describe the time when huge rivers filled English valleys (he apparently wrote to Darwin attempting to get him on side with this use, although it isn’t clear that he ever received a reply; on the other hand, the Darwin Correspondence project shows that Darwin certainly exchanged a number of letters with EB Tylor). Alfred Tylor was obviously only an ‘amateur’ geologist, in the sense that his day-job was running the family firm, the brassfoundry, but of course being an ‘amateur’ was practically the norm in those days when few scientists got paid.

So, at the end of my  brief exploration I can confirm that, if I go far enough back in my family tree, there was at least one ‘scientist’ and at least one FRS, and I never knew that before the Bragg programme kick-started my researching.

Part II: Anthropology, culture and class

The Tylor family were Quakers. This is relevant because it meant that they were barred from entering Oxford or Cambridge at the time, and consequently both brothers left school at 16 and any further education was done informally. EB Tylor seems to have fallen into anthropology purely by chance, having been sent to the US because he appeared to be consumptive. There he fell in with a fellow Quaker, Henry Christy, who was heading for Mexico and they set off together. Christy was more of an archaeologist but their travels inspired and informed EB’s interests. About 5 years later he published his first book Anahuac; or, Mexico and the Mexicans Ancient and Modern (1861), which as yet was still not particularly anthropological. That came later in his seminal book Primitive Culture (1871) and it was this book that gave him pride of place in the Melvyn Bragg programme.

What did Tylor mean by ‘culture’? – just about everything! But for other people at the time the generally accepted meaning was pretty narrow. I have written previously about the arguments between Matthew Arnold and Thomas Huxley; these took place at around the time Primitive Culture was published. Arnold was in large part the subject of the first programme in the Melvyn Bragg series, in which his book Culture and Anarchy was discussed. For Arnold, culture referred almost exclusively to literature and philosophy. Huxley disagreed, because he felt science belonged in there, for instance stating in 1880:

From the time that the first suggestion to introduce physical science into ordinary education was timidly whispered, until now, the advocates of scientific education have met with opposition of two kinds. On the one hand, they have been pooh-poohed by the men of business who pride themselves on being the representatives of practicality; while, on the other hand, they have been excommunicated by the classical scholars, in their capacity of Levites in charge of the ark of culture and monopolists of liberal education.

But as this quote makes clear, much of this debate was centred on what a cultured gentleman should gather from his education. Tylor changed the context and meaning radically when he introduced the idea that customs and beliefs belonged to culture just as much as literature and philosophy. His whole thesis was that there was an appropriate, essentially evolutionary approach to societies. ‘Savages’ were just at the beginning of this process (and ‘barbarians’ in the middle) but he deemed them equally able to reach the heights of civilisation in principle.

This was not attractive to people like Arnold, who saw culture as ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ conducive to ‘to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light’ (from Culture and Anarchy) – sentiments that have strong theological overtones, as well as indicating the goal should be a state of human perfection rather than a more mechanical/scientific sense of simply knowing.  Tylor was much more in agreement with Huxley than with Arnold, and his introduction of a much broader meaning of culture changed the dynamics of the debate and, by implication, what an appropriate education should include.

Neither Huxley nor Tylor were ‘university men’ and that, I suspect, is highly relevant to this debate. Indeed, I was very struck by a statement I found in a somewhat undigested write-up of Tylor’s life on the Pitt Rivers Museum website, which quoted Edmund Leach as saying

despite the honors accorded to Tylor in his old age, anthropology remained a non-subject. Tylor was not a gentleman.

I assume he could not be regarded as a gentleman because he came from a manufacturing background (that brassfoundry) and hadn’t attended Oxford or Cambridge (although he became the first Oxford professor of Anthropology and also was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University). Leach was writing about the effect of class on social anthropology, so his qualification of ‘not being a gentleman’ is perhaps less pejorative than it sounds; I don’t think it meant he was a cad! Class, I think, is equally relevant to the ideas of culture and to the place of science (in its broadest sense and so including anthropology) within it. For a public school boy like Arnold, who was of course the son of Rugby’s famous and reforming headmaster Thomas Arnold, young gentleman studied the Classics and that was indeed, in his view ‘the best that had been thought and said’. Science was more the preserve of the Mechanics Institutes ie for the ‘rude mechanics’ of the lower classes whom he would no doubt have encouraged to better themselves, but whom it would have been natural for him to consider would ever remain outside the purlieus of the truly civilised and ‘cultured’ male society he moved in.

Returning to the Melvyn Bragg programmes, Paul Nurse took a rather similar line in the 3rd of the series, by implying the 20th century Snow-Leavis debate (very similar to the Arnold-Huxley disagreement, although conducted in much less polite terms; indeed, one could almost say ungentlemanly terms) belonged in an Oxbridge SCR rather than the real world. Nevertheless, it most certainly spilled out far beyond such a closeted ivory tower. For Nurse, also outside the Oxbridge firmament and identifying himself on the programme as coming from the artisan class, the arguments seemed artificial and didn’t make much real sense. Of course by the 20th century, culture (1, 2 or however many ‘cultures’ one wants to identify) had taken on other meanings again. Leavis may have chosen to make his rebuttal in large part a personal attack on Snow, but more broadly speaking there was undoubtedly a different split from simply classics/humanities versus science, but – for instance – also intellectual versus mass culture. (I use my terms here rather loosely as I am not a cultural historian, so I expect to be pulled up.)

It is perhaps inevitable that within the English system (Scotland would of course have been different), class is inherently so central to such a debate. Class also tied in with religious beliefs, and these of course also had strong implications for university education because non-conformists were banned from Oxford and Cambridge Universities until 1854 and 1856 respectively. So, when discussing the meaning of culture, it is unsurprising that a Quaker– Tylor – might have taken a different position from an Anglican – Arnold –  quite apart from the Quaker having visited and considered non-Christian societies and so gained a very different perspective on many fronts.

The Melvyn Bragg programmes were very stimulating. As will be obvious, I learned a lot on several different fronts and it makes me look at the Victorian and 20th century debates on culture with fresh eyes. The fact that I managed to glean so much so rapidly from the web about my own personal antecedents is just a very pleasant extra.

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1 Response to Culture, Class and Quakers

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    I seem to recall reading that one of the debates among the founders of the colleges for women at Oxbridge was whether to focus on the sciences, as they were clearly the coming thing, or to stick with the traditional classics. The classics won, on the grounds that the new colleges wanted to be taken seriously by the establishment, and they would not be if they focussed on science.

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