Questionable Minds and Victorian pseudo-science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorians is the way they combined major scientific and technological breakthroughs with crackpot pseudoscience.Not that they saw it this way themselves, of course. The theories they embraced seemed just as rational and scientific as evolution, which was one of those breakthroughs. For example, criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso developed a theory that criminals were atavistic throwbacks to a lower level of evolution — i.e., black or Native American. Savages with minds too primitive to grasp the principles of law that came relatively easily to white dudes. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote (I forget in which of his books) that this had a real impact on criminal sentencing: obviously a superior man who, say, killed his wife in a fit of jealousy shouldn’t be sentenced the same way as a career criminal who killed routinely.

Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science shows how Victorian scientists studying gender differences though they were being perfectly rational in exploring the roots of women’s inferiority. Was it their smaller brains? Their immaturity (obviously the lack of beards showed women were like immature men)? The way reproduction drained energy from their brains? The fatal flaw in all their theories was that they started from the assumption women were self-evidently less intelligent than men; that assumption warped all their supposedly objective science (I get into this and later sexual-difference theories a lot in Undead Sexist Cliches).

Victorians believed in spiritualism, phrenology, aether and that masturbation could reduce you to idiocy (draining too much bodily energy to think). They believed in a variety of psychic powers loosely classed as “mesmerism,” as Alison Winter details in her book Mesmerism.

Mesmeric theories are the ones most relevant to Questionable Minds, though by the time the novel begins, they’re looked on as crude, clumsy efforts to tap vril, the psychic energy that fuels mentalists’ powers. Lombroso comes up when someone describes Edward Hyde (yes, the Mr. Hyde) as looking like one of Lombroso’s evolutionary throwbacks. And Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky helped work out the current system for developing mental powers (as I posted about before) — so perhaps her mysticism isn’t as much mumb0-jumbo as in our world.

If/when I write the sequel (let’s see how well this book does), it’ll be interesting to explore more of the Victorians’ odd beliefs.

#SFWApro. Covers by Samantha Collins (top) and Kemp Ward (bottom).

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