The Scandal of the Century: George Eliot and Her Ape

Mary Anne Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London / CC)

This is an excerpt (without footnotes) from The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates by Howard Bloom (Prometheus Books, 2012). Reprinted by permission from the author.

The Scandal of the Century: George Eliot and Her Ape

Herbert Spencer is about to make the most important friends of his life. Friends who will generate a new concept. A concept vital to the mystery of what Hans Driesch will someday call “form production.” The mystery of how new big-picture patterns emerge. The mystery of how the cosmos creates.

It’s the spring of 1850. Herbert Spencer is roughly fifteen months into his job with the Economist. The modern office building has not yet been invented. So business “establishments” are boarding houses, private entertainment centers, and offices all rolled into one. Which is why Spencer’s job comes complete with a bedroom in the Economist’s headquarters on London’s Strand. And across the street is another business “establishment” complete with enough bedrooms to house one big family and many guests, the headquarters of publisher John Chapman. John Chapman is one year younger than Herbert Spencer, with strong political views, “liberal” political views, and a determination to get them across. Thomas Carlyle, the social commentator, a man who Spencer will soon get to know, calls John Chapman a “Publisher of Liberalisms.” John Chapman is also the epitome of setting yourself apart on the stage of attention space. He is the epitome of differentiation.

John Chapman is handsome, energetic, a radical, a rebel, and a renegade. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1847, just before Herbert Spencer gets his job at the Economist, has coined the term “bohemian” in his novel Vanity Fair. And John Chapman is a true bohemian intent on giving a home to other bohemians. Chapman’s “large establishment” includes, says Spencer, his “bookselling and publishing business, his family home, and rooms for literary lodgers.” Oh, and in addition to Chapman’s wife and kids, Chapman’s “establishment” includes a room for his mistress. And space for occasional other women. Liberalism, radicalism, and a philosophy called “free love” go hand in hand among 1840s and 1850s London bohemians.

But it isn’t John Chapman’s women who generate scandal. It is his publishing. In 1846, John Chapman has made a splash by publishing a translation of an outrageous secular German book titled The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, a book that strips Christ of his divinity and makes him into a mere historical figure, a mere normal human being. And that book has raised a ruckus. Says the Earl of Shaftesbury, The Life of Jesus is “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.” Score one for John Chapman! He wants to cut the roots of the normal and force a radical reperception. And he’s done it. But there’s more to come.

John Chapman is a great collector of authors. And a great connector. Once a week, he hosts a soiree for what he feels are some of the brightest young talents of his time. They include two of his houseguests. The American visitor Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers of its age in the United States, and the cofounder of America’s Liberal Republican Party. Greeley is the man who popularizes the saying, “Go West, young man, go West.” And another visitor from the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson, leader of America’s Transcendentalist Movement and one of the greatest essayists and phrase makers in the history of American literature. But these two Americans are only temporary visitors.

The regulars are, if anything, even more smashing: Thomas Henry Huxley, the self-taught comparative anatomist who has recently gone as ship’s surgeon on a voyage of discovery to New Guinea and Australia with the HMS Rattlesnake and who nearly ten years later will become “Darwin’s bulldog”; William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair, who coined the term “Bohemian”; Karl Marx, founder of Marxism; John Stuart Mill, the man who will eventually be heralded by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Science as “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”; and political radicals fleeing repressive regimes after the failed revolutions of 1848, men like Giuseppe Mazzini, “the spiritual father of the Italian political nation,” and “the ‘shining star’ of the democratic revolutions of 1848,” the Italian nationalist who helps reunite his nation and whose work influences revolutionary movements in Latin America, the Middle East, India, and China. Not to mention a host of writers whose names we no longer know. One of these forgotten names is Mary Ann Evans. And her name is forgotten for good reason. She doesn’t use it.

A few years earlier, in 1846, “Miss Evans,” as Spencer calls Mary Ann, has translated the aforesaid scandal-making Life of Jesus from the German. Then, in 1851, Chapman buys the Westminster Review, a crusading, antiestablishment quarterly magazine founded thirty years earlier by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, a magazine that the author of the book 142 Strand—a history of John Chapman’s social circle—says “represented a challenge to conservatism in all its forms.”

Chapman has brought Mary Ann Evans from her home in Coventry and has given her a room in his office cum household so she can be the Westminster Review’s assistant editor. With the exception of a brief period in which Mary Ann falls in love with Chapman and indulges in a short affair with him, there is no hanky-panky. Rooming at the Chapman establishment is the standard business arrangement of the day. But on the working end of things, Evans becomes more than an assistant. Chapman lets her run the publication. And she is turning the Westminster Review into what Rosemary Ashton in 142 Strand calls “the best journal of the century.” T. H. Huxley has another name for the Westminster Review. He calls it “the wicked Westminster.” Those are words he utters with delight. Later, when he becomes better known, he will confess that he would far rather write for the Westminster than for publications like the tony, conservative Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, a twenty-one-year-old publication that pays him real money.

And T. H. Huxley would rather write for the Westminster Review for good reason. As Spencer puts it, in 1851, “the Rattlesnake had recently returned; and Mr. Huxley was then waiting until there came the needful grant, enabling him to publish the results of his researches.” In other words, Huxley is broke. And Chapman and Evans have rescued him “from poverty and obscurity” and have made him the Westminster Review’s scientific reviewer. With pay.

The Westminster’s wickedness comes in part from its outrageous politics, “its campaign for the extension of the suffrage [for women’s liberation and for women’s rights], its support for European movements for national independence ‘refugee politics’…and its demand for reform in education and central and local government.” Then there is one more wicked little twist: the Westminster Review’s skeptical, heretical, and sometimes atheistic take on religion. Which means something important about its coverage of science, coverage handled largely by T. H. Huxley. The Westminster is challenging creationism and intelligent design—the creationism and intelligent design that Kepler, Galileo, and Newton had believed in—and is pushing a brand-new secular approach: “theories of organic…evolution.” And the Westminster is doing this eight years before Charles Darwin publishes his first book, The Origin of Species.

Herbert Spencer is thrown together with Mary Ann Evans at Chapman’s soirees often. And he confesses that he finds “Miss Evans” absolutely entrancing. She is “the most admirable woman, mentally, I ever met.” Spencer not only thinks that Mary Ann is bright, but his knowledge of the “science” of phrenology—a science that is considered legitimate—tells him that she has a sufficiently large head to handle a brain. As he puts it, during his “frequent” visits to Chapman’s “the greatness of her intellect conjoined with her womanly qualities and manner, generally keep me by her side most of the evening.” But evenings at Chapman’s with Miss Evans are not enough to satisfy Spencer. He grabs at the “opportunities I had for taking her to places of amusement.” What were those opportunities? As a staffer at the Economist, Spencer is offered “free admissions for two to the theatres and to the Royal Italian Opera.” And now that Miss Evans is in the picture, he uses as many of these free admissions as he can get his hands on. What’s more, he walks with Mary Ann along the banks of the Thames, talks with her, and even sings with her. Finally he tries to convince her that she can do something that he says she does not think she can handle. She can go beyond translating and editing and take a giant leap into the dark. She can write novels.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann falls madly in love with Spencer and begs him to marry her. But Spencer is not interested. Perhaps because he finds her mind and her handwriting “masculine” and her body a bit too “strongly built.” He says point blank, “There were reports that I was in love with her, and that we were about to be married. But neither of these reports was true.” Poor Mary Ann. She has been dashed in romance by both John Chapman and Herbert Spencer.

But never fear, there is another romantic candidate waiting in the wings. Or sitting at Chapman’s dining table. And he’s the man who will do the most for the God Problem. Back in the spring of 1850, Chapman introduced someone new to his soirees. He invited a philosopher, a student of physiology, an adventurer, an actor, and a traveler named George Henry Lewes. Lewes has been born into bohemianism. He popped from the womb in London in 1817, when Europe was still recovering from the wars that stopped Napoleon. His mother had done something scandalous. She’d made a statement on behalf of “free love.” She’d given birth to Lewes out of wedlock. Lewes’s father was the poet, actor, and writer John Lee Lewes. And Lewes’s grandfather was a comic actor. But circumstance had made Lewes’s mother even more of a pioneer in single parenthood. Lewes’s father died when he was only one. So his mom raised him on her own until Lewes was six. Then she married someone very unbohemian, a retired captain of the Eighteenth Native Infantry Regiment in Bengal. A man with global experience. Lewes was moved from school to school, including schools in Boulogne and Brittany in France, St. Helier in Jersey, a British island off the French coast of Normandy, and Greenwich in South London. So French was a second language to Lewes. And, says science historian Elizabeth Garber, “Paris had become the social and intellectual center for scientific life in Europe.”

Like Herbert Spencer, at the age of seventeen Lewes jumped the tracks that led to Oxford and Cambridge. He was an avid self-learner, so he had no question that his education would continue nonstop, with or without school. And he was what one philosopher calls “a renegade” on the track of a “synthesis.” The seventeen-year-old Lewes worked as a notary, moved on to work for a merchant who focused on trade with Russia, then he is said to have done a medical stint—he “walked the wards.” Those were his day jobs. Meanwhile he was writing.

In 1834, when he was only seventeen, Lewes put together a short story and a poem and sent them out to every review and “eminent man of letters” he could think of. Among these eminences was a critic, essayist, and poet who had been close to some of the greatest masters of poetry in the Western canon—Leigh Hunt. Leigh Hunt had founded an unsuccessful magazine with Lord Byron. He had been a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley. And he had introduced Shelley to Keats. On the more practical side, Leigh Hunt had been editing magazines for roughly twenty years—since 1808. And you’ve probably read Leigh Hunt’s poem “Abou Ben Adhem”: “Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!) / Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace.”

George Henry Lewes was about to enter a realm with enough intellectual luminaries to burst the walls of a railroad carriage. He was about to enter a social group in which the arts, the sciences, and philosophy—three of the great fiefdoms of metaphor—propelled each other to greater heights. He was also about to meet Herbert Spencer and Mary Ann Evans. And above all he was about to provide a tool with which to confront the problem of how a cosmos without a god creates.

* * *

It was a hot period for magazines. Leigh Hunt edited the Monthly Repository, and when George Henry Lewes was twenty, Hunt published Lewes’s contributions. So at a mere twenty years old, Lewes was now a published writer. And with apparent help from Hunt, he lectured on one of his obsessions, philosophy, at a Unitarian chapel, a trendy “free thinking” chapel. Yes, without a university diploma, Lewes gave his take on philosophy in the beating heart of England’s intellectual life, the Finsbury district of London.

Then came a book from an unknown twenty-five-year-old author named Charles Dickens. That book was called The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’s first full-length published work of fiction. Lewes landed the assignment of reviewing Pickwick in the National Magazine and Monthly Critic. New authors fall in love with those who pay serious attention to their work. So Lewes and Dickens became friends.

Another of the friends Lewes made in London was a neighbor of Leigh Hunt’s, the brilliant social commentator Thomas Carlyle, the man who first called economics “the dismal science” and the thinker responsible for the “great man” interpretation of history—the approach to history that says that extraordinary individuals drive the historical process. Or, as Carlyle put it in his On Heroes and Hero Worship, “the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.” What, according to Carlyle, allowed one human in a million to ignite fire in the soul of others? A secret weapon: “A great man is ever…possessed with an idea.” And an idea is a recruitment strategy.

Lewes was not an airhead. He was in deadly earnest about two things: philosophy—the field he’d lectured on—and the rapidly developing field of physiology. But the philosophy of the day was really psychology. Philosophy was an attempt to see what makes minds tick. Especially Scottish philosophy. The two major Scottish philosophers—David Hume and the founder of economics, Adam Smith—had probed the human psyche. Now it seemed as if physiology would provide a missing link, helping to understand that psyche with hard science. That was the project Lewes wanted to undertake: the unification of Scottish philosophy—psychology—with physiology. Then he got distracted. Goethe was another of Lewes’s obsessions. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was more than just “the supreme genius of German literature” and the author of works like Faust. Goethe was a towering figure who had loomed over Lewes’s years of youth and had died in 1832 when Lewes was a mere fifteen. And Goethe was a philosopher who had dabbled in science. A poet who had dabbled in something very specific: the mystery of form.

Goethe had written an entire book on the way that form changes, the way it progresses. His Metamorphosis of Plants had revealed that though plants look very different, they are all variations on the same theme and they all share the same organs. How very much like the embryo observations of Karl Ernst von Baer! Goethe’s view, later called “homology,” would prove crucial to a theory being upgraded at that very moment in an apartment on Great Marlborough Street in London by the grandson of one of the very first evolutionists, the grandson of the man who had founded the two organizations that had shaped the intellectual milieu of Herbert Spencer’s youth—the Lunar Society and the Derby Philosophical Society. The man laboring on Great Marlborough Street over a concept he wouldn’t publish for another twenty-two years was the twenty-eight-year-old Charles Darwin. And Charles Darwin had just started a notebook on something he called the “transmutation of species.”

But back to the twenty-year-old George Henry Lewes. Lewes was so intense about Goethe that he would someday write a Goethe biography. And it would become his best-known book. But that was in the future. Meanwhile, a leading Goethe biographer in Berlin, the diplomat and intellectual salon leader Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, was a pen pal of Carlyle’s. And Carlyle offered to introduce Lewes to von Ense. Lewes jumped at the chance. So in 1837 Lewes took off for Berlin. He was probably pursuing what he called “the spirit of Faust.” The spirit of Goethe’s Faust. Here’s how Lewes expressed that spirit: Some of us, he said, refuse to think about the future and work only for today’s pleasures. We work for ourselves, not for others. And that damns us. Only those who set aside immediate gratification and work on behalf of our fellow humans are blessed. Wrote Lewes many years later, “The solution of the Faust problem is embodied in his dying speech: the toiling soul, after trying in various directions of individual effort and individual gratification, and finding therein no peace, is finally conducted to the recognition of the vital truth that man lives for man, and that only in as far as he is working for humanity, can his efforts bring permanent happiness.” Shades of group selection. Goethe’s idea that all men and women must work on behalf of all mankind was one essential thread of political liberalism and political radicalism. And it galvanized Lewes.

However, it’s unlikely that Lewes got the sort of enthusiastic response he would have liked when he reached Germany and met Varnhagen. Here’s one report on what Varnhagen thought of this twenty-year-old with the professional writing credentials and a bit of philosophy on his resume: “In his diary, Varnhagen made a note of Lewes’s ‘harsh and often rash judgements,’ and, while acknowledging the man’s extraordinary versatility, courage and determination, he also insisted, unfairly, on a lack of perseverance in Lewes which prevented him from excelling at anything.” In this verdict, Varnhagen would prove to be both right and wrong. None of Lewes’s books would stand the test of time. But one of Lewes’s words would. That word? Emergence.

Excerpted from The God Problem by Howard Bloom. Copyright © Howard Bloom, 2012. All rights reserved.

Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel4 TV, “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing” – The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering” – The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich), How I Accidentally Started the Sixties (“a monumental, epic, glorious literary achievement.” Timothy Leary), and The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Gave You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram – or How Muhammad Invented Jihad (“a terrifying book… the best book I’ve read on Islam,” David Swindle, PJ Media).

Bloom explains that his field is “mass behaviour, from the mass behaviour of quarks to the mass behaviour of human beings.” That specialisation gives him a wide scope. His scientific work has been published in:, the leading pre-print site in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics; PhysicaPlus, another physics journal; Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology; New Ideas in Psychology; The Journal of Space Philosophy; and in the book series: Research in Biopolitics. In 2005, Bloom lectured an international conference of quantum physicists in Moscow – Quantum Informatics 2006 – on why everything they know about Schrodinger’s Equation is wrong, and the concepts Bloom introduced were later used in a book proposing a new approach to quantum physics, Constructive Physics, by Moscow University’s Yuri Ozhigov.

Bloom’s second book Global Brain was the subject of an Office of the Secretary of Defense symposium in 2010, with participants from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. Bloom is founder and head of the Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell (the sixth man on the moon), and members from the National Science Foundation and NASA. He has debated one-on-one with senior officials from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Gaza’s Hamas on Iran’s global Arab-language Alalam TV News Network. He has also dissected headline issues on Saudi Arabia’s KSA2-TV and on Iran’s global English language Press-TV. And he has probed the untold story of the Syrian Civil War with Nancy Kissinger.

In addition, Bloom’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Knight-Ridder Financial News Service, the Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. He has appeared 199 times for up to five hours on 500 radio stations on the highest-rated overnight talk radio station in North America, Clear Channel’s Coast to Coast AM, discussing everything from the biome in the gut and the evolution of the stars to the mechanism of the Great Recession of 2008 and North Korea’s rocket programme.

Bloom has his own YouTube series, Howard the Humongous, which gets up to 790,000 views per installment. His website,, has had between four and five million hits. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardxBloom.

The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates
By Howard Bloom
Prometheus Books; New edition (February 2, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1633881423
ISBN-13: 978-1633881426

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