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From Quetelet to Maxwell: Social Statistics and the Origins of Statistical Physics

  • Theodore M. Porter
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 150)

Abstract

The peregrinations of statistics constitute one of the weightiest and most unpredictable chapters in the history of the transmission of ideas between the natural and social sciences. Mathematical statistics has long been idealized as a possible means for capturing the holy grail of the sciences of man, quantification, and probability theory was central to the earliest sustained effort in this direction, Condorcet’s social mathematics. Laplace’s injuction in the Philosophical Essay on Probabilities to “apply to the political and moral sciences the method founded upon observation and upon calculus, the method which has served us so well in the natural sciences,”1 was already a commonplace in 1814, and was frequently invoked throughout the nineteenth century. Yet the migration of mathematics from the hard to the soft sciences is only a part of the career of statistical thinking since the time of Laplace. Equally important, and perhaps more impressive, is the role of that prominent nineteenth-century social science, “statistics”, in facilitating the application of probabilistic mathematics to the biological and physical domains. This aspect of the transmission of ideas is illustrated by James Clerk Maxwell’s observation that “atomists” of his own day had “adopted a method which is, I believe, new in the department of mathematical physics, though it has long been in use in the section of statistics.” The strategy of census-takers, according to Maxwell, had opened a new path in the physical theory of gases.2

Keywords

Statistical Movement Holy Grail Social Body Statistical Thinking Social Correlate 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Pierre Simon de Laplace: Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814), trans. F.W. Truscott and F.L. Emory ( reprint, New York: Dover, 1951 ), pp. 107–108.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    James Clerk Maxwell: “Molecules” (1873), Scientific Papers (2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1890), vol. 2, p. 373.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Theodore M. Porter: “Natural Science and Social Theory”, in G.N. Cantor et al. (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London: Routledge; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990 ): 1024–1043.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This argument is pursued more fully in my The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). A similar point is developed in another context by Sharon Kingsland: Modeling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985 ). The transmission of probabilistic ideas and methods from discipline to discipline is surveyed most comprehensively in Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorraine Daston, Lorenz Krüger, and John Beatty: The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989 ).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Auguste Comte: “Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société” (1822), Opuscules de philosophie sociale, 1819–1828 (Paris: Ernest Laroux, 1883), pp. 159–163, 172.Google Scholar
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    Auguste Comte: Cours de philosophie positive (6 vols., Paris: Bachelier, 1830–1842), vol. 4 (1839), p. 7.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Of course he had eminent predecessors in the effort to quantify social phenomena, though none, not even Laplace, imitated physics so devoutly as he did. See Keith Baker: Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975 ), and Lorraine Daston: Classical Probability in the Enlightenment ( Princeton: Princeton Unviersity Press, 1988 ).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Adolphe Quetelet, letter to Sylvain von de Weyer, 1834, quoted in Académie Royale de Belgique: Adolphe Quetelet, 1796–1874 (Mémorial), 4 vols. (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1974 ), vol. 1, p. 91.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    His physicalist bias was later much criticized, especially in Germany. See articles by Theodore Porter, Ian Hacking, and Norton Wise in Lorenz Krüger, Lorraine Daston, & Michael Heidelberger (eds.): The Probabilistic Revolution, vol. 1: Ideas in History, 2 vols. ( Cambridge, Mass.: A Bradford Book/The MIT Press, 1987 ), 351–425.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    More accurately, he divided the population by sex and assigned l’homme moyen a curve of penchants for those acts according to age. See Quetelet: “Sur la statistique morale et les principles qui doivent en former la base”, Nouveaux mémoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Belgique, 1848, 21 (separate pagination).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Laplace (n. 1 supra), pp. 61–62.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    See Quetelet: Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou essai de physique sociale, 2 vols. (Paris: Bachelier, 1835 ); also Adolph Wagner: Die Gesetzmässigkeit in den scheinbar willkührlichen menschlichen Handlungen vom Standpunkte der Statistik ( Hamburg: Boyes und Geister, 1864 ).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Quetelet (n. 12 supra), vol. 1, pp. 8–11.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See Michael Cullen: The Statistical Movement in Early Victorian Britain: The Foundations of Empirical Social Research (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press Limited; New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975); Victor Hilts: “Aliis exterendum, or, the Origins of the Statistical Society of London”, Isis, 1978, 69: 21–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Lawrence Goldmann: “The Origins of British `Social Science’: Political Economy, Natural Science and Statistics, 1830–1835”, Historical Journal, 1983, 26: 587–616.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    William Newmarch: “Some Observations on the Present Position of Statistical Inquiry with Suggestions for Improving the Organization and Efficiency of the International Statistical Congress”, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 1860, 23 362–369, esp. pp. 362–3.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Letter to Lewis Campbell, 1857, in Lewis Campbell and William Garnett: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882), p. 294. For Darwin see Francis Darwin (ed.): The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (2 vols., New York: Basic Books, 1959), vol. 2, p. 179 and idem: More Letters of Charles Darwin (2 vols., New York: Appleton, 1903), vol. 2, p. 137. Such glowing praise, however, was something of a habit for Darwin.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Henry Thomas Buckle: History of Civilization in England, (1857: 2 vols., New York: reprint by Hearst’s International Library, 1913 ), vol. 1, p. 3.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid., pp. 199–200.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid., p. 23.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Charles Dickens: “A Few Facts about Matrimony”, Household Words, 1850, 1: 374: Dickens: Hard Times (1854; New York: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 300; George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876; New York: Penguin Books, 1967), pp. 582–3. I owe the first and third of these references to I.B. Cohen and Lorraine Daston, respectively.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    James Clerk Maxwell: “Molecules”, Papers (n. 2 supra), vol. 2, pp. 373–274.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See Porter: Statistical Thinking (n. 4 supra), chapters 5, 8–9.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Ludwig Boltzmann: “Über die mechanische Bedeutung des zweiten Hauptsatzes der Wärmetheorie” (1866) Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen (3 vols., Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1909), vol. 1, pp. 4–30; idem.: “Weitere Studien über das Wärmegleichgewicht unter Gasmolekülen” (1872), ibid., pp. 316–317; idem.: “Der zweite Hauptsatz der mechanischen Wärmetheorie” (1886), Populäre Schriften ( Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1905 ), p. 34.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Maxwell: “Illustrations of the Dynamical Theory of Gases”, Papers (n. 2 supra), vol. 1, pp. 380 ff.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    John Herschel: “Quetelet on Probabilities”, Edinburgh Review, 1850, 93: 1–57, p. 23. Charles Gillispie first proposed that Herschel’s essay exemplified an understanding of science conducive to the emergence of statistical theories like Maxwell’s in his “Intellectual Factors in the Background of Analysis by Probabilities”, pp. 431–453 of A.C. Crombie (ed.): Scientific Change (New York: Basic Books, 1963). The identity of these derivations was later pointed out by Stephen Brush; see his The Kind of Motion We Call Heat, 2 vols. ( Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Co., 1977 ).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    On these matters see my “A Statistical Survey of Gases: Maxwell’s Social Physics”, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 1981, 12: 77–116. This essay originated as a public lecture given at the University of Bielefeld, West Germany, while I was a research fellow at the Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung (ZiF) there.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Theodore M. Porter
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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