Making modern science – and discarding the old story

I heard a good talk about science this week – good, that is, except when the presenter touched on history. That part was pretty much a caricature of scientists’ typical take on their predecessors. There was stuff in the past we now think is right (good) and stuff we know is wrong (bad). The notion that it might have looked different at the time was simply absent.

The more thoughtful approaches to past efforts to understand the universe still seem to have made little impression on scientists at large, or on science popularisers. That is in spite of good accounts of what they have produced. I take no pleasure in rediscovering this, but it is pretty much what I suggest in this review.

Historians of science who teach are haunted by their profession’s own past. Their forebears saw science as the road to truth, a counterblast to superstition, an aid to the effecting of all things possible. Science progressed, and science itself was progressive. All those assumptions are now harder to credit. As the academic discipline of history of science mushroomed after World War Two, it found new stories to tell, and new ways of telling. Science remained fascinating, powerful, even admirable. But there were more ways of accounting for its movements in thought and its shifting social and institutional positions than describing an unbroken ascent from darkness into light.

The transformation brought tension between old and new views. This is partly because a history of how we know has implications for what we think about knowledge – epitomised above all by Thomas Kuhn’s argument that understanding the nature of scientific revolutions implies a radical reappraisal of advances in scientific theory. And it is partly because, while that argument is still reverberating through the academy, it has made little impression on the popular conception of science, or its history.

This means first acquaintance with the new approaches is a jolt for anyone whose history of science is still populated by great men making key observations which prompt startling theoretical advances. If the popular texts are anything to go on, that is still most people. The narrative in my old copy of F. Sherwood Taylor’s An Illustrated History of Science – which appeared exactly 50 years ago – is essentially the same as that in John Gribbin’s best-selling Science : A History, from 2002.  One is based on Royal Institution Christmas lectures by the one-time curator of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, the other the work of an experienced and adept science writer. Both are, at heart, celebrations of the human achievement of knowledge of the universe.

But there is almost no hint of this in current academic treatments of the history of science. There is study not of genius, but of the iconography of genius and its institutional setting. Historians now come not to celebrate science, but to contextualize it.

So what is the lecturer to do who wants to introduce the academically reputable version, whether in the survey course which is still the foundation of most degree programmes or the overview which will be the sole exposure to the subject for many students? The task is clear, but difficult. Reports of the death of grand narratives are clearly exaggerated. In this subject, there is a grand narrative still out there of which many people are rather fond. How to bridge the gap between this framing of the subject and contemporary practice in the discipline?

A good book would help. But most of the books on offer were written long ago. Astonishingly, it is still quite common to assign Stephen Mason’s A History of the Sciences, first published in 1953, for introductory courses. Although there are now thousands of historians of science where once there were only a few dozens, somehow none have felt ready to try their hand at a one-volume guide which reflected the modern scholarly outlook.

Making Modern Science is thus a real landmark. Finally two first rate academic historians, one a specialist in biological and earth sciences, one in physical sciences, both firmly committed to sociological, contextual approaches, offer an overview of their discipline for the beginning student. It will also, they fondly hope, interest the general reader.

The book opens with a sketch of this changed outlook in history of science, then proceeds in two distinct halves. The first reviews key episodes in the development of Western science since the 16th century. They are arranged roughly chronologically, but most are demarcated by discipline. So after a consideration of the scientific revolution there follow chapters on chemistry, conservation of energy, the age of the Earth, Darwinism, and the emergence of experimental biology in the 19th century. Then 20th century science is represented by genetics, continental drift, post-classical physics, ecology, cosmology, and the human sciences.

The second half of the book is then devoted to broader themes in the history of modern science, taking in the organization of science, popular science and a list of those “science and…” topics which are labelled by coupling science with another crucial noun – religion, ideology, technology, medicine, and gender.

The chapters are designed as free-standing essays, with copious cross-referencing, so anyone who reads all of them finds quite a bit of repetition. That seems the right way to organise the proceedings. This is not a discipline in which there is a universally agreed menu which students must work through, although it is hard to imagine an introductory course which did not dwell on, say, the scientific revolution, even if only to question whether the term is really warranted. But the tutor will still have to design their own course, and will find well-chosen bibliographies outside their own specialty to help.

The general tone is one of correcting oversimplification. Where others see revolution, Bowler and Morus stress continuity. Where past episodes have been reduced to simple oppositions, they find no goodies or baddies, only actors engaged in complex arguments, each shaped by their own social position and political commitments. There are many small modifications and qualifications of widely accepted views. Myths are debunked. A characteristic promise is the one made at the beginning of Chapter Five: “modern historians have almost completely overturned this simple black and white model”. This is clear, if unstylish (is the model now in white and black?), as a comment on the supposed division of geologists in the nineteenth century into catastrophists – smuggling their religious presuppositions into their theories – and uniformitarians – proper scientists, like us. But it can stand for the treatment of a number of other episodes and themes.

The treatment throughout is economical. Even omitting the Greeks and non-Western histories, there is an extraordinary amount to cover. Topics which have spawned dozens of books – the history of molecular biology, say – are despatched in three or four pages. Given this necessary briskness, there are remarkably few lapses from careful argument or judicious appraisal of positions. It is quite a surprise to note that eugenics is still rather clearly labelled a Bad Thing, or to come across unsupported assertions about “the public’s expectations” of a triumph of genetic determinism.

So here we have a book which needed writing, and which delivers pretty much what it promises. It is genuinely long-awaited and really does fill a gap in the market. Why, then do I have mixed feelings about the result?

Making Modern Science it is very welcome, and it is well done. Suitably augmented, it is absolutely fit to teach from. It is balanced, clear, well-organised, and provides plenty of signposts for further exploration. It is a textbook representation of a mature area of inquiry.

But at the end, I wonder what the motivation for that further exploration would be. There is an implicitly progressive story here about the history of science (of course), but that goes along with a commitment to put any claim that science is progressive – let alone revolutionary – under the closest scrutiny.

The results of that scrutiny are frequently intriguing, but you have to say that they probably lack the appeal of the old narrative. Perhaps this is a necessary price to pay for maintaining an academic study worthy of the name but it is worth registering the losses along with the gains. As Bowler and Morus say at the outset, “those who are looking for a more coherent narrative should remember that the history of science is a complex and often controversial field.” True, but there is a prize still on offer for the author who can craft a coherent narrative which does not fall into all the old assumptions which this book challenges. Their reward will be success in bringing more than isolated episodes from the new history of science to the general reader. Until then, we will have to settle for a very competent textbook. (2005)

(Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey   

Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Morus, University of Chicago Press)

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