Katalin Straner: Science as Entertainment? Public Lecturing, Scientific Controversy, and the Urban Press in 19th Century Hungary

May 15, 2015

Katalin Straner: Science as Entertainment? Public Lecturing, Scientific Controversy, and the Urban Press in 19th Century Hungary

Katalin Stráner’s lecture presented an exciting aspect of the “urban turn” in the history of science. She set into focus a public lecture series given in Budapest in December 1869. The presenter was Karl Vogt, the enfant terrible of German natural science, who earned his fame as the main representative of a rather controversial branch of Darwinism. Vogt was the proponent of polygenist evolution arguing that each race had evolved from different types of ape. According to his theory, the ancestors of whites were chimpanzees, the blacks were successors of gorillas, and orientals evolved from the orangutan.

The evolutionary connection between human beings and animals generated heated discussions already in the early 1860’s and Vogt’s theory fed into these debates. The controversies about the “ape theory” surpassed the boundaries of traditional scientific sites and entered into the public sphere mainly in the form of popular lecture series and scientific soirées, as they provided an excellent subject for events that turned scientific knowledge into  popular entertainment.

Before going into the details of Karl Vogt’s visit in Pest, Katalin Stráner sketched up a social and institutional “topography” of the Hungarian capital in order to present where and how laic audience could access scientific lectures. Thanks to the versatile scientific interest of the Hungarian novelist, Mór Jókai, his journalistic and literary works could serve as excellent reports about the local practices of generating and satisfying the demand for popularized scientific knowledge. Jókai’s figure simultaneously represented a regular attendee of scientific lectures all around the city and the powerful agent of the extensive press coverage that accompanied the events.

The series of talks Vogt gave on the prehistory of men in several European cities in 1868-69 were presented in Hungary in the framework of a popular lecture series organized by the Royal Hungarian Society for Natural Science. The society regularly invited leading Hungarian scientists and, occasionally, renowned foreign scholars also came to lecture. Consequently, Karl Vogt could expect to meet an audience in Pest that had developed its own culture of attending similar events and showed some familiarity with the presented topic. The content of the Vogt lectures overlapped with his already published works and the tour was organized with the clear aim of reaching out to this well prepared ‘target group’ that was also ready to pay the pricey entrance fees. However, the intense attention paid to science thanks to the public lectures also created a forum for scientists to exchange ideas and an occasion for academic and professional networking.

Katalin Stráner finally presented the crucial role of the press in the popularization and dissemination of knowledge related to the lectures. The journals prepared the arrival of Vogt in each city well in advance with articles, pamphlets, caricatures, anecdotes and with direct advertisements of the visit. His arrival in Budapest directly followed his lectures in Vienna from where the reports about his strongly divisive talks directly reached Buda and Pest, too. His lectures in Pest were reported by the monthly gazette of the Natural History Society (Természettudományi Közlöny) in a fragmented way, while Jókai’s newspaper (Hon) and other Pest and Vienna newspapers provided detailed reports not only about the lectures, but also about the social events that Vogt attended during his stay in Hungary: meetings with students, a visit to the zoo and the farewell soiree in the Redout.

The main popular journals mirrored contradicting perceptions of the events. The Hon – it was generally in line with the politics of Kálmán Tisza – reported about Vogt enthusiastically, while the conservative ultramontane paper Magyar Állam presented the same events in a much more critical manner. The Catholic press was clearly hostile - just like in Vienna. The scientific controversy was exploited in the most diverse ways in Borsszem Jankó, a satyrical weekly. It made fun of and played upon the reports of the aforementioned newspapers, while an anecdote reflected the politicization of the “ape theory” that enjoyed the sympathies of the opposition vis-á-vis Ferenc Deák’s still governing party.

Though the diverse echoes of the famous scholar’s visit in satire and caricature are remarkable, they were not unusual, as these genres became increasingly popular forms of social and cultural commentary by the 19th century. While – concluded the lecturer - satyric reports and anecdotes made fun of popularized science in an entertaining way, they also expressed uncertainty with the rapidly growing body of new scientific and technical knowledge.