The History of Science Society's Nathan Reingold Prize (formerly known as the Ida and Henry Schuman Prize) was established in 1955 for an original graduate student essay on the history of science and its cultural influences.
“Wisdom Grunts: Pigs, Philosophers, and Other Demi-Rational Animals in Enlightenment London" is a fascinating and elegantly-written piece that uses a strange episode from the eighteenth-century world of commercial performances to cast new light on key Enlightenment questions about human nature, intelligence, taste, and creativity. The “learned pig” was a creature exhibited to paying spectators in London in 1785; its amazing abilities to tell the time, do mathematics, and answer audience questions by picking out cards marked with the letters of the alphabet caused a sensation and garnered his owner a sizable profit.
The learned pig’s performances took place amid a welter of licit, semi-licit, and illicit shows taking place across the imperial capital, with which they competed for public attention. The paper shows how the “demi-rational” pig straddled the boundary between the human and the non-human, and how, in doing so, it prompted profound -but also ribald -questions about the nature and implications of that boundary. Commentators from Samuel Johnson to Robert Southey descanted on the porcine wonder, and it was invoked at a notorious high-court trial turning on whether a witness who was unable to speak or hear could be said to reason. Others worried about what an apparently reasoning animal might imply for human properties of taste and even creative genius: if learning was associational, as authorities like Locke and Hume claimed, then how sure could anyone be that the pig could not model such properties?
Even beyond that, how secure was the Cartesian boundary between the human and the animal, the intelligent and the mechanical? Both the virtues and the vulnerabilities of Enlightenment were at stake when the pig took to the stage. Based in a wide array of primary and secondary sources, and taking aim at some of the most important questions currently being asked of eighteenth-century public science, this paper exemplifies the contribution that the historian of science can make to major themes of cultural history.