William Benjamin Carpenter

William Benjamin Carpenter

William Benjamin Carpenter CB FRS (October 29, 1813–November 10 or 19th [an online version of Encyc Brit 11 gives 19th as day of death] 1885) was an English physiologist and naturalist.


Carpenter was born at Exeter, the eldest son of Dr Lant Carpenter. His father was an important Unitarian preacher who influenced a "rising generation of Unitarian intellectuals, including James Martineau and the "Westminster Review"'s John Bowring." [Desmond A. 1989. "The politics of evolution". Chicago. p210] From his father, Carpenter inherited a belief in the essential lawfulness of the creation: this meant that natural causes were the explanation of the world as we find it. William embraced this "naturalistic cosmogeny" as his starting point.

Lawrence was apprenticed to the eye surgeon John Bishop Estlin, who was also the son of a Unitarian minister, and accompanied him to the West Indies in 1833. He attended medical classes at University College London (1834-35), and then went to the University of Edinburgh (1835-39), where he received his MD in 1839.

On his resignation in 1879, Carpenter was appointed CB in recognition of his services to education. He died in London, from injuries occasioned by the accidental upsetting of a spirit-lamp.


His graduation thesis on the nervous system of invertebrates won a prize, and led to his first books. [Carpenter W.B. 1839. "The physiological inferences to be deduced from the structure of the nervous system of invertebrated animals". Dissertation, Edinburgh.] [Carpenter W.B. 1839. "Principles of general and comparative physiology". Churchill, London. [went through four editions to 1854] ] [Carpenter W.B. 1843. "Animal physiology". Orr, London. ] This work in comparative neurology was recognized in 1844 by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His appointment as Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution in 1845 enabled him to exhibit his powers as a teacher and lecturer. His gift of ready speech and luminous interpretation placing him in the front rank of exponents, at a time when the popularization of science was in its infancy.

He worked hard as investigator, author, editor, demonstrator and lecturer throughout his life; but it was his researches in marine zoology, notably in the "lower" organisms, as Foraminifera and Crinoids, that were most valuable. [Carpenter W.B. 1845. "Zoology: being a systematic account of the general structure, habits, instincts and uses of the principal families of the animal kingdom". 2 vols: Orr, London.] These researches gave an impetus to deep-sea exploration, an outcome of which was in 1868 the oceanographic survey with HMS "Lightning" and later the more famous "Challenger" Expedition. He took a keen and laborious interest in the evidence adduced by Canadian geologists as to the organic nature of the so-called "Eozoon canadense", discovered in the Laurentian strata, and at the time of his death had nearly finished a monograph on the subject, defending the now discredited theory of its animal origin. He was an adept in the use of the microscope, and his popular treatise on it stimulated many to explore this new aid. [Carpenter W.B. 1856. "The microscope and its revelations".] He was awarded the Royal Medal in 1861.

In 1856 Carpenter became Registrar of the University of London, and held the office for twenty-three years. Carpenter gave qualified support to Darwin but he had reservations as to the application of evolution to man's intellectual and spiritual nature. [Desmond A. 1989. "The politics of evolution" p419. Chicago.]

Adaptive unconscious

Carpenter is considered as one of the founders of the modern theory of the adaptive unconscious. Together with William Hamilton and Thomas Laycock they provided the foundations on which adaptive unconscious is based today. They observed that the human perceptual system almost completely operates outside of conscious awareness. These same observations have been made by Hermann Helmholtz. Because these views were in conflict with the theories of Descartes, they were largely neglected, until the cognitive revolution of the 1950s. in 1874 Carpenter noticed that the more he studied the mechanism of thought, the more clear it became that it operates largely outside awareness. He noticed that the unconscious prejudices can be stronger than conscious thought and that they are more dangerous since they happen outside of conscious.

He also noticed that emotional reactions can occur outside of conscious until attention is drawn to them: :"Our feelings towards persons and objects may undergo most important changes, without our being in the least degree aware, until we have our attention directed to our own mental state, of the alteration which has taken place in them." [Carpenter W.B. 1875. "Principles of mental physiology". 2nd ed. King, London. p24-8, 516-7, 519-20, 539-41.]

He also asserted both the freedom of the will and the existence of the Ego. See also Sigmund Freud, William James, Unconscious mind.


*1. [http://www.johnmadjackfuller.homestead.com/fullerianprofessors.html Fullerian Professorships]


* Carpenter W.B. 1852. On the influence of suggestion in modifying and directing muscular movement, independently of volition. "Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain", p147-153.

* Carpenter W.B. 1888. "Nature and man: essays scientific and philosophical". Kegan Paul & Trench, London. [posthumous collection of his writings in periodicals]

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