Which is more unenterprising, art that imitates life or arts that imitate science? From impoverished departments in the humanities, we eye scientific colleagues across our campuses, envying the cost of their labs, the prices of their patents, the prestige of their prizes and the size of their grants. Their intellectual certainty is enviable, too: the regularity of their laws, the verifiability of their experiments, the palpability of their observations, the heights to which their generalisations soar. The first great age of such envy was the 19th century, when Auguste Comte proposed reducing the study of society to a science and Herbert Spencer seemed to turn the aspiration into an achievement, making culture a by-product of relentless evolution.
Among the supposed certainties of the time was that the struggle for survival shuffled people, like species, into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ categories. The world was sorted and stacked in order of race, with groups ranged like crania on phrenologists’ shelves. Imperialists congratulated themselves on the stewardship of savage