New York Times Book Review
December 18, 2005
“GIVE thy heart to letters,” an Egyptian father advised his son on a piece of papyrus more than 3,000 years ago, in the hope that his child would choose a life of writing over a life of manual labor. “I have seen the metal worker at his toil before a blazing furnace. . . . His fingers are like the hide of the crocodile, he stinks more than the eggs of fish. And every carpenter who works or chisels, has he any more rest than the plowman?”
Laborers are “generally held in bad repute,” Xenophon wrote about 700 years later, “and with justice.” Manual jobs keep men too busy to be decent companions or good citizens, “so that men engaged in them must ever appear to be both bad friends and poor defenders of their country.”
Clifford D. Conner thinks this kind of snobbery has distorted the writing of history from ancient times to the present, because historians are scribes themselves and it is a clean, soft hand that holds the pen. In writing about science, for instance, historians celebrate a few great names—Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein—and neglect the contributions of common, ordinary people who were not afraid to get their hands dirty. With “A People's History of Science,” Conner tries to help right the balance. The triumphs of science rest on a “massive foundation created by humble laborers,” he writes. “If science is understood in the fundamental sense of knowledge of nature, it should not be surprising to find that it originated with the people closest to nature: hunter-gatherers, peasant farmers, sailors, miners, blacksmiths, folk healers and others.”
It's a good subject for a book of popular science, which is what Conner sets out to give us: “a history not only of the people but for the people as well.” Most science writing really is dominated by the Great Man theory of history. I can see that just by glancing at the books on my own shelves—a few of which I've written. I don't know if we're much worse about this than historians of art, literature, politics or sports, and I don't know if we're snobs, but we do love to honor the great. Even the great scientists honor the great. “If I have seen further,” Newton wrote, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” At the same time, Newton also stood on the backs of “anonymous masses of humble people,” as Conner says, “untold thousands of illiterate artisans.” An accomplished army of the anonymous bequeathed him their tools, data, problems, ideas and even, Conner argues, the scientific method itself.
Conner's book works best in the early chapters. Hunter-gatherers and early farmers domesticated plants and animals and gave us corn, wheat, rice, beef, pork, chicken, almost every kind of food we eat. They changed the world more than modern genetic engineers have done, so far. Pacific islanders navigated not only by the stars but also by wave patterns; lying down in their canoes, they could read the stars with their eyes and the swells with their backs. Anonymous blacksmiths added tin to copper and made an alloy that is much stronger and yet also more malleable than copper—bronze. Since copper and tin are rarely found together in the ground, the invention of bronze probably required a long series of experiments. Generations of experimenters sweated in the mouth of the furnace. Tough, trial-and-error, sometimes live-or-die work like this was gradually refined into the intellectual and rarefied pursuit we call science. The Greeks didn't invent science; they learned from the Egyptians, Babylonians and Phoenicians. And the Industrial Revolution could not have taken place in England without the work of brewers, salt makers, miners and canal diggers. Conner does include one case of poetic justice. A great moment in the history of science was the publication of Andreas Vesalius's anatomy book, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” in 1543. What made the book a triumph wasn't the Latin text Vesalius wrote but the 420 illustrations. He never took the trouble to name the artists he'd hired to draw them. Nobody has ever translated the whole of Vesalius's text into a modern Western language; the illustrations have stayed in print from that year to this.
As science gained prestige, and its leaders joined the elite, artisans and mechanics often had a hard time getting recognized. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the linen draper who founded the science of microbiology, felt inferior because he was not university-trained. John Harrison, the British carpenter and clockmaker who solved the longitude problem, was badly treated by the elites. So was William Smith, who gave geologists their first stratigraphic maps.
By the 20th century, it had become almost impossible for outsiders to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Conner calls this “the downside of a people's history of science.”
Some of the people in this book would make terrific subjects for popular biographies. John Harrison's story has already been celebrated by Dava Sobel in “Longitude,” and Smith's by Simon Winchester in “The Map That Changed the World.” Next someone should tell the story of Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutch alchemist who, according to Conner, plunged a submarine into the Thames in 1620, providing the passengers with bottles of oxygen—more than 150 years before the gas or the very concept of gases had been officially discovered.
Unfortunately, this people's history isn't very good with people. In his acknowledgments, Conner tells us that his book grew out of friendships he made back in the 1960's and 70's in the trade union and antiwar movements. He was also influenced by the periodical Science for the People. The passion for class struggle that led him to his encyclopedic project makes his style as angry and inky as a pamphleteer's: “Magellan's death resulted from his own imperialistic belligerence.” “Widespread malnutrition in poor countries underlies diseases responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every day.” (His italics.)
Conner is too busy counterbalancing the Great Man theory to tell us about, say, Newton's extraordinary mind, because “it does not add much to understanding the root causes of the rise of modern science.” He doesn't tell us about the personalities of other people either, whether they appear in this long, uneven book as victims or aggressors in the class struggle. Even the author's own personality threatens to disappear. He draws heavily on the historians Joseph Needham and J. D. Bernal, inserting hundreds of long quotations in big blocks, often without attribution on the page—to find out who said what, you have to keep turning to the notes. Not only is this a history of the people, for the people, Conner explains; “because I have drawn on the collective efforts of many predecessors, it might not be far-fetched to say that in a sense it is also by the people.” Sometimes even his sentences are collective efforts: “Biologist Jared Diamond's ‘33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies' led him to conclude that ‘modern “Stone Age” peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples.' “
Writing like this doesn't do anybody any favors. The Great Man theory may not make a good history of science, but neither does what you might call the Great Mass theory. Not long ago, Sherwin B. Nuland, the doctor and writer, published an essay titled “The Man or the Moment?” in The American Scholar. Nuland argued that historians of science who write exclusively about the social forces that shape a discovery while leaving individuals out of the equation miss half the story, “because part of the process is the distinctive personality of the discoverer.” To understand each bit of scientific progress, he concluded, we have to examine both social and personal factors. “The punishment for devaluing the significance of any of them is the writing of bad history.”
Jonathan Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “The Beak of the Finch.” He teaches science writing in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Journal of the History of Science Society
Clifford Conner's book takes as its premise that science was not necessarily the product of geniuses asking transcendental questions, but was often the product of knowledge gained by workers, the “low mechanicks” of his title. In a generally chronological fashion, the eight chapters of A People's History of Science take us from our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the birth of the internet. Most of the book is presented as vignettes looking at topics such as Chinese biology or the work of Leeuwenhoek. Readers will find much of interest, but the book must be read with some reservations in mind. Presentism is a concern, since many of the examples work only if the knowledge of the people can be linked to modern ideas.
A number of reviews have compared Conner's work with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (HarperCollins, 2005); and it does bear some relation, with its focus on the largely unacknowledged or even deliberately ignored people in history and its socialist perspective. Yet in many ways it is closer to James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Touchstone, 1996). After briefly establishing in Chapter 1 what he means by “science” and “the people,” Conner attempts to correct the many historical fallacies he sees in the history of science.
He starts with the knowledge base of prehistoric people in Chapter 2, “Prehistory: Were Hunter-Gatherers Stupid?” This is a bit of a straw man, since it would be difficult to find any historian today who would hold that our ancestors were our inferiors. Conner is perhaps arguing with an earlier generation of scholars. In particular, the section on the navigation skills of the people of the South Pacific would make a perfect reply to Jacob Bronowski's argument in The Ascent of Man (Little, Brown, 1973) that most of the people of the ancient world lacked some essential idea that could have led them to “science.”
Conner moves from the prehistoric world to question the idea that the foundation of science came from Greece. In Chapter 3, “What ‘Greek Miracle'?” he points—à la Martin Bernal and Black Athena (Rutgers, 1987), to the pre- and non-Greek origins of “Greek” natural philosophy and mathematics and the importance of contemporary centers of learning that have not received due credit. Chapters 2 and 3 offer some useful information to balance the Eurocentrism that tends to creep into the history of science.
Having established the idea that the people's knowledge was at the heart of the systematic study of nature, Conner then gets to the heart of his work, looking at the early modern era and the scientific revolution in Chapters 4–6. These chapters contain the bulk of his work and his main arguments about the misrepresentation of the history of science. They are also the most controversial of Conner's material because they depend the most on interpretation. Here is Conner on Bacon, for example: “We need not concern ourselves with how typical or aberrant Bacon's willingness to utilize torture was in the context of his time; it is sufficient to note that he viewed ‘mankind' through the lens of the dominant social class. His claim that the new science he advocated would benefit ‘the whole race of man' must be evaluated in this light. The Baconian call for scholars to learn from craftsmen can thus be seen not as a benevolent program of knowledge-sharing, but rather as an appropriation of working people's knowledge in the interest of the ruling class” (p. 363).
Chapters 7 and 8, on Victorian and twentieth-century science, are brief, mostly just passing notes. Darwinism gets five pages, but Darwin himself gets about five paragraphs. One has the impression that there might be a companion book in the future that looks at science in the age of the lab coat.
The idea of putting class in the forefront of the history of science is not new, but it has rarely been so forcefully done, especially in a book aimed at a mass audience. Conner belatedly tips his hat to the Zilsel thesis: “No contribution to a people's history of science is more important than the one made by Edgar Zilsel” (p. 281). Zilsel should have been introduced at the start, if only to give the reader a theoretical foundation for what was to follow.
Conner's best sections explore the importance of practical skills, such as navigation, as the foundation for the developments of modern science. He argues that such knowledge has been vastly undervalued. And there is certainly reason to accept his position, as the growing number of scholars looking at the significance of skilled workers and mathematical practitioners shows. The less satisfactory sections are the ones that interpret history as class war or part of an antiproletarian conspiracy. Conner's examination of Galileo's tidal theory, for example, is presented as an elitist rejection of mariners' knowledge and gives no hint that any other issue was at stake.
This is a thought-provoking and useful book for any historian of science, but it picks careful examples and does not make a sustained argument other than to elevate the “low mechanicks.” The problem is that for every navigator who linked the moon to the tides, there was a host of people who held ideas that did not survive; and thus, even for Conner, some low mechanicks are more equal than others.
Journal of Economic Issues
William M. Dugger
Science and technology are of central importance to the thought of Thorstein Veblen and Clarence Ayres; therefore, to institutional economics itself. Nevertheless, Veblen’s thoughts on science and technology are scattered throughout the entire corpus of his work and students of Veblen are hard-pressed not to come away with a somewhat sketchy and even rickety view. Veblen knew that science and technology are a joint stock of knowledge used, augmented, and passed on collectively by the community at large. He also knew that predatory individuals in modern business society tried to claim all the credit for advancing science and technology themselves. Veblen did assign an important role to a subset of the community that he called the engineers. Conner refers to them as “miners, midwives, and low mechanicks.” But Veblen still insisted that the process of advance was thoroughly collective in nature. Clarence Ayres emphasized the importance of the tool-combination principle in the advance of science and technology and the resistance of entrenched belief to that advance. Both Veblen and Ayres denigrated the great man theory. They both argued that advance was not made by the creative genius of great men; nor were science and technology the real targets being resisted when the community tried to defend itself against the predatory exploits of great men. Perhaps it makes an exciting story to explain the advance of science and technology as the result of strokes of creative genius exercised individually by great men of science who seemingly pulled rabbits (new ideas) out of their hats while surrounded and resisted by a vast sea of stupid commoners who were afraid of new ideas. Maybe this was an exciting story for some. But Veblen and Ayres pointed out that the imaginary story was not a history of science and technology; it was just the inaccurate history of hacks at best, the triumphalism of successful businessmen at worst. New revolutionary advances came out of pre-existing elements of the joint stock, not out of the individual minds of great thinkers. However, alas for us, neither Veblen nor Ayres left extensive references or citations to help us follow up on their claims and insights. Perhaps they left out most of the footnotes and such because neither one of them were very impressed by signs of academic erudition. Perhaps more importantly, neither one of them had available to them much of the scholarship that Conner’s book brings together. They did not have much in the way of a people’s history of science and technology to work with. Now we do.
Here is Conner’s contribution to institutionalism: He provides numerous discussions, references and citations to help us follow up on and historically flesh out the claims made by Veblen and Ayres about the nature, origin, and advance of science and technology. He also provides a much needed people’s history of science to counterbalance the great man theory. Of course, in writing his book, Conner had his own story to tell. So now, we turn to it and to where it comes from.
Conner’s story is in the people’s history genre, made popular of late by Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States. This genre corrects the over- emphasis of most histories on the rambling and ranting, coming and going, killing and rescuing, advancing and retreating of generals, popes, kings, plutocrats and famous intelligentsia. Unlike orthodox historians, practitioners of this people’s genre of history go back into history and prehistory to discover and explain the roles played by the common people, by the meaner sort who, in the case of science and technology, actually did the work that made the advances possible but received none of the credit. Conner does an excellent job bringing out the numerous and extraordinary contributions to science and technology made by the common folk working in their communities, trying to feed their hungry kids, cure their sick loved ones, and find their way across the vast ocean expanses. He tells the story over and over again, of how common people working together built the foundations of practice-tested knowledge that allowed them to sail the seas, plow the fields, tend the crops, cure the sick, smelt the metal, and do much else. He also explains how most of these contributions of the common people were usurped by the Great Ones either for their own profit or for their own prestige. A few of the Great Ones were able to do so only because they first overcame their own arrogance toward and prejudice against the practical knowledge acquired and passed on by soot-stained blacksmiths, sun-burned sailors, and blood-smeared midwives. Only when the great were willing to get down and dirty did they begin to learn. Think of it this way: you do not have to get your hands dirty to count the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. But to make a pin, you do. Conner has made a significant contribution to the people’s history genre. He has brought science and technology into the fold, brought it to the people willing to get their hands dirty, so to speak.
The findings of this people’s history genre go great with Veblen and Ayres, even though most of the writers in this genre generally seem unaware of the Veblenian and Ayresian traditions. Bringing the two traditions together — the people’s history genre with the Veblen-Ayres treatment of science and technology — would greatly enhance the insights of each. But the bringing together largely remains to be done. People’s history is written largely by Marxists while most of the followers of Veblen and Ayres stay in the American institutionalist tradition. Until the rise of the indigenous radicalism spawned in the Vietnam War Era, the two did little mixing. Now even the Cold War is over. Clearly, the time is ripe to bring together the people’s history of science and technology with the Veblen-Ayres tradition of institutional economics. Institutionalists can take a first step by reading the magisterial People’s History of Science. It is full of wonderful new stories relevant to institutionalism, both its teaching and theoretical application. The stories are not imaginary.
Against the Current
Historical narratives of science tend to be triumphant tales of magnificent men (and an occasional wily woman) who, through brilliant insight and/or dedicated persistence, changed the way we understand the world and, frequently, how we manufacture our space in that world. An opposite tendency is the cautionary tale of mad scientists aiming to invent ice-nine, the technology that will ultimately spell doom for us all.
In A People’s History of Science, Cliff Conner admirably avoids both of these extremes. In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s People’s History series, Conner focuses on the contributions of ordinary people living in ordinary times, and on the social and political context in which they lived. It is a delightful book to read, especially if your interests are like mine, at the interface of science and politics.
If the book has a general fault it is located in the decision to cover everything. It begins with hunter and gatherer societies and ends with the information revolution, an enormous span of time and theme.
Consequently certain facts are surprisingly absent. Nowhere is mention made of DNA or James Watson’s despicable use of Rosalyn Franklin’s work without her knowledge; George Washington Carver’s important contributions to Botany are ignored; and contemporary global popular movements for agroecology and agrarian reform are absent.
As a biologist, I was struck by the absence of these and other topics that I would have expected to see centrally located in such a book, and I suspect that physicists and chemists will likely feel the same about their particular biases. But undoubtedly inclusion of everything is impossible when the theme is so grand, and the book is already long enough, so obviously some things needed to be skipped over.
It could be said that the book is actually three books. Chapters 2-4 are narratives of the years before the so-called Scientific Revolution (when science as most people use the word was actually born). Chapters 5 and 6 are specifically about that Scientific Revolution, and chapters 7 and 8 about its modern consequences.
I found chapters 1-4 fascinating reading, filled with detail that was new to me and appropriately appreciative of the immense work that was, in principle at least, science. However, it is in chapters 5 and 6 that the book reaches its zenith, with chapters 7 and 8 a bit of a letdown, perhaps because of their intended scope. Indeed if pre-science warranted three chapters, the modern period should have gotten at least the same treatment.
It is clear that Conner is strongly influenced by what I would call the Zilsel/Hessen thesis. Edgar Zilsel focused on the importance of empiricism in science and acknowledged that a great deal of input into scientific advances comes from artisans and craftspeople who, by the nature of their work, were the first true empiricists. Boris Hessen emphasized the importance of the socio/political conditions that formed the base on which scientific progress was made.
Hessen’s thesis was roundly rejected by western scientists when it was introduced at the second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, in 1931. Yet when we look at his thesis today, especially the average reader of Against the Current, his words seem utterly without controversy. For example: “the brilliant successes of natural science during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were conditioned by the disintegration of the feudal economy, the development of merchant capital, of international maritime relationships and of heavy (mining) industry.” Disagreement anyone?
It was somewhat surprising to me that Conner did not emphasize more the role of Greek materialist thinkers. While he correctly ascribes the amazing intellectual blindness of the Middle Ages to the idealism of Plato and Aristotle and the church which so effectively used it, his treatment of Epicurus is sparser than I would have expected.
After all, Marx’s doctoral dissertation was on Epicurean philosophy; and it was the combination of Epicurus’ materialism and Hegel’s dialectical approach that gave rise to the famous “dialectical materialism,” a development that, I would argue, was perhaps the most important event ever in the history of science.
Furthermore there is, I think, a general thesis that runs through the book but is never articulated up front. For example, Conner cites approvingly of Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World. That narrative clearly accredits a host of influences that went into William Smith’s construction of that famous geological map of England and Wales. He began with the detailed information given to him by the colliers (miners) who had a detailed knowledge of the way in which rock layers changed in a predictable fashion.
But it was Smith himself who generalized those predictions to suggest, contrary to the beliefs of the colliers, that an orderly sequence must exist also in the rocks under the hill that lie on top of those rock strata. And Smith was clearly under the influence, in part, of the writings of James Hutton, who would have been considered a professional geologist at the time.
So what really happened? To suggest that the colliers made the discovery is wrong. They had the data gained from experience, not only personal, but through the oral traditions of however many generations of miners existed at that time. To suggest that Hutton made the discovery is obviously wrong, but he clearly had something to do with it. To suggest that Smith made the discovery is also not quite right since he never could have done it without the knowledge gleaned from both the colliers and Hutton.
To fully understand the map you have to look at the detailed way in which the colliers, Smith, and Hutton interacted with one another. Put another way, the process was a dialectical one in which colliers were unable to understand something that a slightly more general intellect, Smith, could; but Smith himself came to understand the generalities through having read Hutton, who had also been influenced by a previous generation of colliers. To put this in its most simplified form, if we suppose there are two types of knowledge, deep but narrow, versus broad but superficial, science emerges from the synthesis of these two dialectical categories, knowledge that is both general and deep. That is the take home message, for me.
I doubt that Conner would disagree. But there is no place that this thesis is laid out with clarity. He comes closest to doing so in chapter 1, where the analytical framework for the whole book is laid out. There he cites Robert Boyle who apparently said it quite some time ago: “as the naturalist may. . . .derive much knowledge from an inspection into the trades, so by virtue of the knowledge thus acquired. . . .he may be as able to contribute to the improvement of the trades.” This is as important an observation as the famous law (on the pressure and volume of gases) named after him.
But lest the reader think that I insinuate negativity about the book, let me emphasize that it is a great book, well-worth the read. All that I can say of its shortcomings is that I look forward to Conner’s next three books on the people’s history of science.
John Vandermeer is Margaret Davis Collegiate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. He has worked on issues of tropical ecology in both Central America and Mexico.
Science & Society
"What Science? What History? What People?" The heading of the first chapter of this important book sets the tone of what is to follow. Conner acknowledges his indebtedness to A. L. Morton's A People's History of England andto Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (the book has been warmly endorsed by Zinn and is, in its approach, closer to Zinn). Conner sets out to debunk the myth of the great man in the history of science.
The author distinguishes between people's history and social history as overlapping but not identical approaches to understanding the past. People's history emphasizes the collective nature of the production of scientific knowledge, while social history provides the social context. He gives as one example knowledge of the moon and its relation to tides by early fishermen and navigators (collective knowledge), contrasting it with development of the first scientific knowledge by Galileo and other celebrities.
Starting with hunter-gatherers (foragers), Conner cites the incredibly detailed knowledge of nature evinced by modern foragers studied by Marshall Sahlins, Jared Diamond, and others. This knowledge, we may assume, was essential to the survival of their prehistoric forebears. It represents the earliest body of scientific knowledge, and was clearly democratic in nature.
The ending of the last Ice Age, around 13,000 years ago, paved the way for the first agriculture. The enhanced food production that this made possible led to the first class-stratified societies. Among the major scientific advances that ensued were writing and mathematics. These are both now believed to have originated, not only within an elite priestly class, as formerly supposed, but, more democratically, in the needs of trade and artisan workshops. The first symbolic writing (cuneiform) appears, in Sumer, about 3100 BCE at about the same time as early mathematics. However, the most important development was the phonetic alphabet about 1800 BCE in Phoenicia and positional mathematics (essentially with zero) in India around 400 CE.
One of the most amazing accomplishments, however, was in navigation, with the settlement by Polynesian-speaking people (coming from what is now Indonesia starting around 4,000 years ago) of far-flung oceanic islands from Hawaii in the north, to Easter Island in the East, to New Zealand in the south, and to Madagascar in the far west. Only recently a few dedicated anthropologists have undertaken "apprenticeships" with some of the few remaining Polynesian navigators and have begun to understand the profound observational knowledge, especially of the stars, that made these voyages possible.
In his chapter "What 'Greek Miracle'?", Conner offers a debunking of classical Greece as the major source of our modern scientific knowledge. Most of this was, in fact, first discovered by artisans and peasants in the Eastern Mediterranean (including pre-Socratic Greece, Egypt, and the lands of the "Fertile Crescent"), Persia, India, and China — especially China — and only much later adopted in a Europe emerging from feudalism. In particular, he sees Plato and Socrates, and to a lesser extent Aristotle, exerting a thoroughly destructive influence on science through their anti-empirical approach. As is well known, Plato was an aristocrat and a philosophical idealist. The slave society on which he depended had little use for science and this led to the "death of science" in the Greek world.
Nevertheless, science survived elsewhere, including in the Islamic World, until its return to Europe in the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution (the phrase itself dates only from the 1930s) marked the end of the Middle Ages (the 15th through 17th centuries) and the beginning of the modern capitalist era.
But to quote another chapter heading, "Who Were the Revolutionaries in the Scientific Revolution?" Conner concludes that they were not so much the "great names" such as Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, but the craftsmen, miners and humble people from whom they learned — often consciously.
That observation and experiment preceded theory has now been conclusively established in the important case of Galileo for whom the dropped balls experiment (using an inclined plane to slow the balls and permit accurate measurement) was decisive in the refutation of Aristotle and much of classical Greek science.
However, it was also the Scientific Revolution where the struggle of the rising bourgeois class for control of the state was played out. The British Royal Society was founded after the Restoration (of the monarchy) and Newton and its other members were part of the elite. But a glorification of Newton's ideas does not enhance historical understanding; it is the appearance of those ideas at a particular time and in a particular place that requires explanation. That is the question that Soviet philosopher Boris Hessen attempted to answer in a seminal 1931 paper entitled "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia." Hessen contended that "the brilliant successes of natural science during the 16th and 17th centuries were conditioned by the disintegration of the feudal economy, the development of merchant capital, of international maritime relationships, and of heavy (mining) industry." Newton showed, in his correspondence, his own awareness of these connections between his scientific work and the needs of emerging merchant capital.
Recognition of Hessen's contribution has come slowly. Kept alive by British Marxist scientists including J. D. Bernal and Joseph Needham (whose monumental work on science and technology in China is discussed elsewhere by Conner), these ideas were taken up by Edgar Zilsel, a German refugee and Marxist historian. According to the "Zilsel Thesis," modern science rose in early modern Europe through the interaction of artisans and elite intellectuals, both elements being essential to the process. Nevertheless, a "Critical Problems in the History of Science" Conference in 1957 continued to be dominated by attempts to discredit Zilsel. Only recently has the tide begun to turn with a new generation of scholars, such as Pamela Smith. Her work has strengthened the view of the Scientific Revolution as "an intellectual revolution from the bottom up" wherein artisans "laid the foundation for a new epistemology, a new scientia based on nature."
Coming to modern times, Conner surveys the contributions of the environmental, feminist, anti-nuclear and other related progressive movements on one side, and the control over scientific research exercised by the Military-Industrial Complex and "Big Pharma" — in the service of profit — on the other. He finishes with the interesting, though certainly controversial, thesis that the successors to the artisans and craftsmen of the past are the "Scientists in Garages" and the "Artisans of the Information Age" (referring to the programmers) who have created the home computer, the software, and the World Wide Web that is doing so much to transform the world.
Conner's book is over 500 pages, densely packed, but well-researched and documented. It should be widely accessible (requiring no specialist knowledge of science or mathematics) and is likely to become the standard for future study of the origins of science. (It has already been given a cover page review in The New York Times Book Review for December 18, 2005.)
February 27, 2006
Cliff Conner's A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives and “Low Mechanicks” does for science what Howard Zinn did for American history. It is an altogether winning attempt to tell the story of the ordinary working person or peasant's contribution to our knowledge of the natural world. Just as scholars like Zinn remind us that a slave, Crispus Attucks, was the first casualty of the American Revolution, so does Conner show that humble people were on the front lines of the scientific revolution.
Over the course of this 500 page encyclopedic but lively effort, we learn about unsung heroes and heroines, like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, a seventeenth century Dutch linen draper who began using magnifying lenses to examine fabrics but went on to pioneer the use of microscopy in the scientific laboratory. He was looked down upon by the scientific establishment as "neither a philosopher, a medical man, nor a gentleman . . . He had been to no university, knew no Latin, French, or English, and little relevant natural history or philosophy."
In addition to telling their stories, Conner challenges conventional thinking about how science is done. At an early age, we are indoctrinated into thinking that science starts with pure ideas and then descends into the practical world. In reality, many of the greatest breakthroughs in our knowledge of the world were a result of the practical need to solve a pressing problem, some of which were related to mundane matters of trade and bookkeeping.
Perhaps no other example in Conner's book dramatizes this as perfectly as the rise of numeric symbols, which came out of the "routine economic activities of farmers, artisans and traders." Specifically, Sumerians devised symbols to keep track of grain. Rather than repeating the symbol for each grain multiple times, they devised a shortcut where the grain symbol would be drawn once, and prefixed with a numeric symbol. This technique was developed in lowly counting rooms rather than in the court hierarchy.
The next big breakthrough, positional numeration, also had common traders as midwives. This technique makes a digit's value dependent on its relative position in a number. For example, "9" in the number 2,945 means nine hundred but it indicates "90" in 2,495. Imagine how difficult it would be to do simple calculations without such a system. Try adding the Roman numerals MMCMXLV to MMCDXCV without cheating (converting to positional numbers) and you will see how difficult it is. This is not to speak of the daunting task of multiplying them!
The introduction of the place-value system (together with the symbol of zero to hold "empty" columns) is particularly relevant to Conner's mission in creating a people's history of science. To begin with, it democratized arithmetic by making it accessible to all levels of society. Secondly, it did not originate with elite mathematicians but with anonymous clerks—perhaps ordinary accounting clerks—in India between the third and fifth centuries AD. Finally, this revolutionary innovation relied not on mathematics journals or other scholarly venues, but was transmitted by merchants pursuing their trade on routes between India and the rest of the world.
It should be noted that in addition to telling the story of how ordinary people contributed to science, Conner's book is also a valuable contribution to correcting Eurocentric bias. Eurocentric historiography tends to identify civilization as a unique product of Western Europe that diffused around the world, particularly through the colonization of supposedly backward societies like India. Since science is considered one of the major achievements of Western Civilization, it is most helpful to discover that many of its vaunted contributions originated elsewhere. As such, Conner's history belongs on the bookshelf next to James Blaut's Colonizer's Model of the World, Janet L. Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, and a number of works by Jack Weatherford, the anthropologist who has written about the contributions of Native Americans and, more recently, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. In such works, our understanding of who makes history is radically challenged—for the better.
There is another dimension to the story of positional numeration that keeps getting repeated throughout Conner's book, namely the resistance of elites to such breakthroughs despite their reputation for welcoming new knowledge and ways of understanding the natural world. There was a struggle to suppress the "Algorists" who advocated positional numbering—in Europe and in some places Arabic numbers were banned from official documents.
The reputation that elite scientists have for being impartial and above superstition is often belied by their conduct during times of great stress, especially as the old order is being challenged by the lower classes. In such times, they tend often to rally around the status quo, even if that means throwing standards of objectivity out the window. One of the more interesting examples is the great European witch-hunting craze of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Despite popular views of scientists resisting beliefs in the supernatural, a wholly new "science" of demonology grew up under the auspices of the same elites who were promoting the scientific revolution. King James VI of Scotland was a leading theorist of demonological science but he was also Francis Bacon's royal patron. According to Conner, some of the most prominent spokesmen of the Royal Academy, an official scientific society, defended witch-hunting, among them the court scientist Robert Boyle.
What explains this anomaly? As it turns out, elite doctors were in a bitter rivalry with female folk healers at this time. As Francis Bacon put it, "In all times, witches and old women and impostors have had a competition with physicians." There was a need to stamp out "evil witches" but good witches as well. These included midwives and any other women who were prevented by law from entering medical school in those days.
The aforementioned Robert Boyle, who is considered an exemplar of Baconian science, is a prime example of how "heroes" of the scientific revolution are celebrated at the expense of the commoners who made their work possible.
Robert Boyle was an aristocrat, who inherited a fortune from his landlord father Sir Richard Boyle. The father relied on his aristocratic position to defraud Irish landowners. Boyle was honest about how he gained scientific knowledge: "I freely confess that I learned more of the kinds, distinctions, properties, and consequently of the nature of stones, by conversing with two or three masons, and stone-cutters, than I did from Pliny, or Aristotle and his commentators."
With his vast fortune, Boyle was able to set up workshops and staffed them with all sorts of craftsmen, from machinists and glassblowers to lens grinders and alchemists (yes, alchemists!). Although Boyle took credit for what happened in his laboratories, recent scholarship concludes that very little of the work was done by Boyle himself. One of the most important inventions was an air pump that was almost certainly constructed by his assistants, despite bearing his name (machine Boyleana).
The presence of an alchemist in Boyle's laboratory might raise eyebrows for a modern reader who is accustomed to thinking of this in terms of astrology, witchcraft and the other "black arts." It is to Conner's credit that he not only puts alchemy into its proper context, but has some positive words to say. Although alchemy is understood today mostly as a means of turning base metals into gold, it originally meant working with metals in general. The roots of both chemistry and alchemy in early metal crafts are evident from historians of science. Arab alchemists discovered sal ammoniac and prepared caustic alkalis. (The word alkali is a variant of al-qili, the Arabic term for sodium carbonate.)
In the spirit of giving credit to those who came before us, Conner makes sure to acknowledge the influence of a number of radical scientists and historians of science who blazed the trail for his study. Some of these men and women were either in or around the Communist Party in the 1930s, when "science for the people" was the watchword of the movement.
One of the most remarkable of these figures was a Soviet physicist named Boris Hessen, who was responsible for challenging the "Great Men of Science" approach in the same manner that Marxist historians of his time would highlight the efforts of working people and peasants in changing society throughout history. One of the major figures that Hessen reevaluated was Isaac Newton, the author of Principia, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a work that would seem to embody the idea-descending-from-above paradigm.
Hessen argued that the preconditions of Newton's theory were not "in the empyrean of abstract thought" (Conner quoting Hessen), but in his social environment, which was shaped by "the disintegration of the feudal economy, the development of merchant capital, of international maritime and of heavy (mining) industry." Newton was challenged to come up with practical solutions to the pressing commercial problems of the day, including the need to measure longitude at sea. Indeed, the third section of Principia is devoted to the problems of the planet's movements, gravity and other forces that could help to solve the problem of maritime navigation. As it turned out, it was not Newton's theory that came to the rescue, but a timepiece produced by an ordinary watchmaker.
It is important to stress that Conner does not discount the obvious importance of a Newton or an Einstein, but simply wants to restore some balance in understanding how knowledge of the natural world has developed. It is a product both of the intellect and of experimentation by practical people. It is also obvious that modern science has become much more shaped by mathematics and abstract theory than was the case in earlier times.
Science has become much more a specialist's discipline as capitalism has consolidated its rule. When the search for profit becomes the driving force of society, it is only natural that the academy is shaped to satisfy that requirement. Advanced degrees and professional societies become the norm, as does the tendency to give ethics the short shrift. Scientists become all too happy to produce scientific studies showing that tobacco will not cause cancer or that atomic energy is the safest source of electricity.
Conner covers these questions in depth in the final chapter, titled The Scientific-Industrial Complex. In July of 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote that science will usher in a kind of New Millennium in which jobs will be plentiful, a higher standard of living universal and disease conquered. But a month later Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be leveled to the ground. The Cold War would soon be initiated and a Defense Industry would become joined by an umbilical cord to research institutes like MIT, Stanford, and Cornell.
As a long-time socialist, Conner remains undaunted. If capitalism is threatening the world with global warming, toxic pollution of the air, ground and water, and weapons of mass destruction—all facilitated by scientific "advances"—then it will generate oppositional forces as it always has. In Marx's words, capitalism creates its own gravediggers.
The movement has many constituents. At least one of them is rooted in science itself, namely environmentalism. Using the tools of science (biology, soil chemistry, etc.), people such as Rachel Carsons and Barry Commoner have explained how the forces of production are threatening the survival of humanity and the natural world alike.
Just as was the case during the rise of science in the 16th and 17th centuries, "outsiders" were treated with hostility by the elites, most especially women. In some ways, the antagonism toward Rachel Carsons evokes the witch-hunting of an earlier epoch:
Because "in postwar America, science was god, and science was male," it was inevitable that the author's gender would be a conspicuous element of the campaign against Silent Spring. The chemical industry's flacks portrayed Carson as a hysterical woman whose alarming view of the future could be ignored or, if necessary, suppressed. She was a "bird and bunny lover," a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a romantic "spinster" who was simply overwrought about genetics. In short, Carson was a woman out of control. She had overstepped the bounds of her gender and her science.
Scientists on the payroll of the polluting corporations believed they could dismiss her arguments on the grounds that she was "an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment. ... Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice." Most damning in their eyes was that "she deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience." But in spite of the scientific elite's attempts to marginalize her, this "people's author" ignited a momentous social movement in defiance of Big Science. "We live in a scientific age," she declared, "yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself."
Carson put forward "her own, alternative scientific method: people's observations and interpretations were as important as those of scientists, and community ethics served as the standard for making decisions about environmental risks." As for her influence on the practice of science itself, by redirecting interest toward ecology and away from traditional mechanistic and reductionist approaches, Silent Spring had a major impact on the way biological knowledge would henceforth be pursued.
A People's History of Science is a singular achievement. Not only does it inform the reader about the role of the common man and woman in scientific innovation over the ages, it is also an important guide to further research in the area. With a 25-page bibliography, it invites us to become fellow researchers in an area of vital interest to the left. With the daily challenges to a proper scientific understanding of the world—ranging from nonsense about Intelligent Design to global warming denial—it is incumbent upon us to develop and strengthen our knowledge of the world in the spirit of the words in Bukharin's introduction to Philosophical Arabesques (reviewed on swans.com recently):
Today's working-class hero is totally unlike the young ignoramus in Fonvizin, who asked, "Why do I need to know geography, when carriage drivers exist?" [A reference to an 18th century play.] It is the workers' enemies who are playing the role of ignoramus. It is they who are increasingly turning their backs on the intellect, which refuses to serve their ends. It is they who snatch up stone axes, the swastika, the horoscope. It is they who are starting to read haltingly from the book of history, sounding it out syllable by syllable. It is they who pray to stone goddesses and idols. It is they who have turned their backs on the future, and like Heine's dog, to which they have fitted a historical muzzle, they now bark with their backsides, while history in turn shows them only its a posteriori. Fine battles are now breaking out amid the grandiose festivities, and conflict envelops all areas.
As modern historians generally agree (though few have put it as persuasively as Marxist punk legends The Gang of Four), history's not made by great men. But the old encomiastic tradition seems to hold sway in the history of science, which is still too often taught as the works of a succession of uniquely inspired thinkers like Pythagoras, Galileo and Newton.
In this provocative tome, American historian Clifford Conner argues that the development of modern science owes far more to folk wisdom and the artisanal knowledge of the working man than to the insights of a few heroic figures. The approach is borrowed from such books as Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States' – and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Zinn returns the compliment with some prominent plaudits on this book's cover.
Appropriately enough, Conner tells the story of science from prehistoric times to the present 'scientific-industrial complex' by drawing on a huge amount of previous research, with over 1300 referenced footnotes. Conner takes a broad definition of science as the applied knowledge of nature, putting its roots in the geological, botanical, astronomical and material understanding that the very first human societies needed to survive.
As people settled down to a life of agriculture and trade, they learned to use writing and numbers to help keep stock. Literacy then allowed a greater sharing of knowledge. In the ancient world, the much-lauded achievements of the Greeks were borrowed wholesale from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians – something that most contemporary writers freely acknowledged. The role of a few key thinkers among the elite of Greece, Conner argues, has been hugely exaggerated, initially by 19th century proponents of 'racial science' keen to promote the genius of these 'Aryan' forefathers. Plato, by Conner's account, was a vicious crank with a thoroughly negative influence on science.
The iconoclasm continues with a debunking of Henry the Navigator, the Portuegese prince whose navigational knowledge was bought from or tortured out of seamen. Henry's 'discoveries' were news only to other landbound theorists, not the people who depended on the sea for their lives and livelihoods. The same pattern repeated itself as the European empires expanded around the world.
In the book's longest chapters, Conner asks: who were the scientific revolutionaries? And no less importantly, who were the winners of that period from 1450-1700 that's often described as the most important event in Western history? Again, the advances of the time were largely thanks to the systematisation of craft knowledge. Elite figures like Tycho Brahe and Robert Boyle owed their reputation to the work of their technicians and employees. At best, they played an active role in organising research and designing experiments, but more often acting as hands-off managers and patrons.
Conner links the mindset of these gentleman scientists with the witch craze that seized Europe at the same time. Francis Bacon, widely credited as the father of the scientific revolution, explicitly wrote of the torture of women accused of witchcraft as a metaphor for the way that an inquisitive man should extract the secrets of nature. Many of the victims of the witch craze were simply the possessors of folk knowledge of botany or medicine which challenged the authority of professional physicians, and many leading scientists of the day were far from critical of their persecution.
As for who benefited, it was these gentlemen philosophers who took the glory while the emerging class of industrial capitalists reaped the material benefits. It's a trend that continues with the establishment of science as a tool of industry in the 19th century, and the emergence of 'Big Science' in the 20th. This is less fruitful ground for Conner's argument, and the past 200 years occupy just the last 80 pages of the book.
Obviously a short review can barely scratch the surface of the huge amount of material covered here. The book is fascinating and provocative throughout, surprisingly readable, and stuffed full of the kinds of fact you just have to read out to anyone in the vicinity. Readers of a conservative bent will find Conner's argument an easy one to dismiss as just so much Marxist revisionism, but he freely admits to taking a selective approach to counter the established version of history.
Forteans certainly shouldn't be too challenged by the idea that scientific 'progress' is a product of broader social and economic currents rather the works of a few great men. After all, you don't get steam engines till it's steam-engine-time - and to discover a little about the factors that led to numerous engineers making the same near-simultaneous breakthrough, see page 424.
A People's History of Science by Clifford D. Conner is an important book. For those interested in the history of science, it is an essential read. For those interested in social transformation but not science, it is a wonderful introduction to the political importance of science.
For those of you who, like me, went through high school and college feeling like you came in at the middle of the play, this book will clarify much of your experience.
Some of the most important political issues today are also scientific matters—global warming and all of the problems of the environment, evolution vs. creationism, stem cell research, genetic engineering. Medical science alone has a wide range of problems to be addressed, from the so-called war on cancer to the causes and treatment of AIDS.
But science education, at least in the U.S., is of poor quality, and scientific knowledge is popularly viewed as inaccessible—even inscrutable—to those without formal training. It is presented as an elitist pursuit requiring genius.
Of all the sciences, physics and mathematics have been particularly subject to mystification. Popular presentations of physics like the film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” boldly present a religious interpretation of physics relying on this pervasive and widespread ignorance of science. In fact, many physicists (notably but not only Fritjof Capra, in “The Tao of Physics”) have written books directly tying physics to a metaphysical view of life.
During the l960s and l970s radical scholars coming out of the newly established Black and women's studies departments began to challenge the orthodoxies and the Authorized Version of history. Their criticisms had more influence because of the tremendous weight of the social movements behind them. This book is of that genre of radical social critique but focusing on some of the most basic concepts of our view of science.
As Conner's bibliography (which is a gold mine for those interested in the subject) shows, he is not the first or alone in challenging the orthodoxies of science—but his is one of the best-argued books. A People's History centers on the canonical concepts in scientific knowledge that we have been raised on—particularly elitism and the cult of genius, philosophical idealism, the counterposition of theory and practice, and Eurocentrism.
It comprehensively, beginning with forager societies and moving to the present day, disputes the fictitious and alienating tradition we have been bred on. (We have all been taught the cult of genius, i.e., every scientific advance has been introduced by some luminary figure—Aristotle, Bacon, Newton, Einstein—thinking great thoughts.)
A People's History examines the central (not peripheral) role of artisans in the acquisition of scientific knowledge and in developing the empirical method itself. Science is depicted not as the work of an individual superstar but as “a social activity by emphasizing the collective nature of the production of scientific knowledge.”
The elitist caricature has intellectual implications that have been an impediment in scientific education and achievement for the past several hundred years. This is most evident in the exalting of theory over practice. “A People's History” shows quite convincingly that the dichotomy between elite and popular knowledge is based on contempt for manual labor originating in class differentiation.
These distinctions, particularly destructive in mathematics, and so conducive to Platonist idealism, are at last finally being challenged.
Much of A People's History focuses on the Eurocentrism of the history of science we have been taught and discusses the actual Afro-Asiatic origins of scientific knowledge. The touted classical curriculum has now degenerated into some elective Latin courses, but the general Eurocentric notion that the only body of science and literature worth knowing is that of European culture is as strong as when it was first propagated in the Renaissance.
Correcting the historical record by presenting the Afro-Asiatic roots of scientific knowledge has now generated a few decades of vitriolic debate. A People's History does a good job of showing how the classical curriculum is really a fictitious tradition with a hidden agenda of not just ethnocentrism but white supremacy.
One of the parts I most liked about this book is the explication of Plato's ideas. Ironically, although Aristotle and Plato are still held up as the greatest classical thinkers, there is no place outside of a few philosophy courses where one studies their writings or gets introduced to their ideas. We read that so-and-so was an Aristotelian, or so-and-so a Platonist but we aren't offered a clue as to what that means.
We are certainly not taught the distinctions between philosophical idealism and materialism. The discussion here of Plato's ideology—its elitism, antidemocratic nature, and metaphysical character—clarifies a central problem plaguing science and especially mathematics up to today.
Another of my favorite sections is the two chapters dealing with the Scientific Revolution. In these chapters the Zilsel Thesis is presented.
According to Edgar Zilsel, modern science arose in Europe as a result of collaboration between artisans and scholars. The experimental method that characterizes modern science originated not from individual geniuses but in the collective efforts of anonymous workers. Modern science was born when academics adopted the methods of craftsmen, not when craftsmen followed the theories of abstract theorists.
So many of today's political problems require scientific knowledge. Cafés Scientifiques originated in England several years back and have proliferated in U.S. cities. This is a salon concept, where those interested in scientific issues gather to educate themselves. Their continued growth indicates the interest and concern thoughtful people have about scientific issues.
A People's History will not make you a physicist or a mathematician, but it is an essential guide in understanding the conceptual framework of these sciences. I loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.
March 24, 2006
With A People's History of Science, Clifford D. Conner provides a long-overdue antidote to the "Great Man Theory of History" as applied to science.
Conner guides the reader through a fascinating history of science, focusing not on the few famous theoreticians that we all learned about in grade school, but on the thousands of workers—miners, brewers, weavers, glass grinders, healers, merchants, sailors and others—who provided the empirical basis for the theories.
Conner's basic thesis is "that scientific knowledge production is a collective social activity, that essential contributions have been made by working people engaged in earning their daily bread, and that elite theoreticians are often unjustly awarded all the credit for knowledge produced by many hands and brains."
He begins by outlining the vast knowledge of nature that prehistoric peoples possessed—from biological classification systems remarkably similar to that used by modern science, to knowledge of astronomy and weather crucial for early foraging and agricultural societies, to the role of ancient merchants in developing mathematics.
Conner then asks the question, "What Greek Miracle," dispelling the popularly held myth that science began with the ancient Greeks. In fact, he points out the ways in which the Greek legacy hindered the development of science—through a "major shift in basic philosophical outlook from materialism to idealism" and, accordingly, by embracing the development of a scientific elite.
In two chapters on the Scientific Revolution, Conner expounds the role of working people in developing the scientific method of experimentation: "the experimental method that characterizes modern science originated not in the minds of a few elite scholars in universities but in the daily practice of thousands of anonymous craftsmen who were continuously utilizing trial-and-error procedures with materials and tools in their quest to perfect their crafts."
For example, Antony van Leeuwenhoek was a draper who was using magnifying lenses to examine linen threads when he became the first man to see live protozoa and bacteria. But for every one worker whose name is known to us today, hundreds more receive no credit for experiments performed in laboratories of—and credited to—such "great men" as Tycho Brahe and Robert Boyle.
Throughout his book Conner provides a social and political context for the development of science, rightly arguing that scientific discoveries and methodologies are products of specific times and places, and that currents of scientific thought are consciously manipulated by the ruling elite.
In his final chapters, Conner discusses the privatization of science and the "master-servant relationship [of capital and science], with capital as the dominant partner."
To dispel the myth of capitalist science as "objective truth," he points to studies conducted by the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. For example, it is common practice for pharmaceutical companies to hire marketing firms to write articles in medical journals and pay doctors who may never have seen the raw data, to sign their names to the articles.
The case of evolutionary theory exemplifies the ways in which science can be manipulated to provide support for a specific ideology. For example, Darwin's theory of natural selection "could be interpreted as non-threatening to social hierarchies. 'Darwinism,' one of its leading proponents crowed, 'is thoroughly aristocratic; it is based upon the survival of the best.'"
Meanwhile, Karl Marx "saw in Darwin's theory a confirmation of the dialectical-materialist philosophy that underpinned his own theory of social revolution."
In more recent times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge theorized that evolution does not occur gradually over very long periods of time as Darwin postulated, but occurs in relatively sudden bursts with long periods of equilibrium in between. This theory of punctuated equilibrium gives the lie to those who call upon Darwinism "to support the ideological proposition that social change must proceed slowly."
As Conner rightly concludes, "social meanings attributed to biological theories are 'not logically inherent in the theories themselves.' In general, attempts to reduce the laws of the science of society to the laws of biology is bad science that encourages bad social policy."
Tell that to George W. Bush and his cronies at the Discovery Institute who are anti-Darwin and anti-science!
In a world where the vast majority of scientific research is owned by corporations, manipulated by governments and directed toward the military industrial complex, A People's History of Science is a must-read for anyone wishing to learn how science has at times been of the people, by the people and for the people. It is a strong testament to the need to create such science again.
Socialist Review (UK)
Biologist Stephen Jay Gould once argued, "I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near-certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."
In a climate of public ignorance, attempts to explain the history of human scientific achievement are to be welcomed. Unfortunately, most attempts have been heavily influenced by the bourgeois "big men/women" approach. Thus the history of science becomes a list of scientists who have laboured independently to establish their particular theories.
There's no doubting the historical significance of renowned scientists such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Marie Curie and Charles Darwin, but the social context in which they worked — and more especially their interactions with other groups in society — is neglected. In this respect, Clifford D Conner's A People's History of Science is a welcome corrective.
Conner traces the major scientific breakthroughs of history with the aim of showing "how ordinary humans participated in creating science in profound ways". He starts by outlining how early human societies, especially hunter-gatherers, used interpretive methods that were analogous to science to maintain their livelihoods.
He then assesses the contribution of ancient Greek scholars, especially Plato and Aristotle, to our view of science as an elite, theoretical body of knowledge — the property of a specialised group within society. In contrast to this approach, Conner goes on to highlight the significant impact of sailors, miners, merchants, midwives, craft workers and artisans in scientific developments during the mathematic and scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. He concludes by discussing the rise and dominance of capitalism over science.
The book's materialist and class conscious approach makes a valuable contribution to the history and public understanding of science. However, there are a number of serious problems.
Conner's fleeting treatment of the modern era is particularly frustrating. The most significant scientific achievements, from the point of view of how people's lives have been altered for better or for worse, have been facilitated by the expansion of capitalism since the 19th century.
The book runs to an impressive 505 written pages. However, Conner dedicates only 22 pages to the "Union of Capital and Science" of the 19th century, with a further 70 pages dedicated to a somewhat generalised discussion of the "20th Century and Beyond". The reader is left with an impression that the scientific contributions of hunter-gatherers and artisans run into the sand during the 19th century. From then on, after the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the input of the people into science has been restricted to occasional explosive contributions from IT hardware and software engineers from their garages.
By explicitly playing down the role of working class organisation in the class struggle and its ability to extract compromises from capital, Conner has failed to identify the defining role of people in some very important scientific developments, especially in areas of public health and welfare.
He has, however, made a good start to correcting dominant explanations of top-down science, and the book should be read for its fascinating insights into the important and neglected role of people in shaping the world around us.
History, as an academic discipline, offers the serious student a vast array of nuanced approaches to understanding and making sense of the past. Among modern historians, there is seldom a single final word or authoritative account for most historical questions. Objective facts obviously don't change. Still, the highlighting of specific facts and the specific meanings ascribed to events of the past (historical interpretation) remains a highly subjective process. As a result, some observers rather cynically charge that the contemporary “revisionist history” is little more than “a lie that has been agreed upon.” More sober analysts, on the other hand, are likely to counter that history is constantly subject to reinterpretation based on the values and life experiences of the historian.
Cliff Conner is part of the generation of historians who have artfully worked to move beyond the so-called “Great Man” theory of history. He quickly clarifies that his intent in this monograph is to contribute to the ongoing efforts to refute the traditional notion that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” While teaching and researching the history of science at the John Jay College and the Lehman College branches of CUNY, the author noted that science “seems tied to its heroes more closely than any other branch of learning.” A key current of that historical paradigm insists that the “Scientific Revolution was the creation of a few extremely talented geniuses.”
In his quest to avoid the “Great Man Theory of History” (which he labels the encomiastic tradition), Conner rather gingerly avoids the standard historical paradigms. The author does concede that “social historians for many years now have presented their pictures of the past from the ‘bottom up' rather than from the ‘top down'.” Conner further insightfully observes that social historians “have described the activities of the common people” and have in important ways “broadened the social context in which historical events have been understood.” Still the author rejects the use of the social history paradigm in this study because, he contends, it has not abandoned the point of view of the dominant classes.
Conner insists that, rather than a social history, this monograph is a “people's history”—which he champions as a qualitative improvement over all other earlier historical approaches. In the author's words, this book is intended to be “of, for, and by the people.” If the contributions of scientific elites are slighted in the process, Conner explains, it's because he is simply “bending the stick in the other direction.” His efforts are said to be crafted as a corrective to the vast array of “hero-worshiping” tributes to the Great Men of Science that have been routinely force-fed to the typical American student.
As the title implies, the author's scope is encyclopedic. Conner begins his chronology with prehistory by provocatively asking whether the hunter-gatherers, the ancestors of us all, were stupid. The final chapter appropriately emphasizes the threats to the survival of humanity and the global environment itself posed in the age of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy by the “Scientific-Industrial Complex.” The author's primary thesis, however, is found in the middle where he suggests that ordinary people, not the educated elite, were the genuine “Revolutionaries in the Scientific Revolution.”
Conner struggles a bit to come up with an exact phrase for the “common people” appropriate to his expansive scope. He quickly dismisses the use of obvious terms such as “the masses, the working class, and the proletariat,” as “overworked.” At one point, Conner muses that perhaps “the subordinate or dominated classes—though somewhat awkward expressions—best convey” the subjects of this book. On the other hand, the people that this book is not about is crystal clear in his mind—the “dominant class, the ruling class, the privileged orders, the elite.”
From the uncontroversial proposition that “ordinary people participated in creating science,” the author's claims become ever more expansive. In what Conner identifies as his “central theme,” he contends that “artisans contributed not only the mass of the empirical knowledge that furnished the raw material of the Scientific Revolution but the empirical method itself.”
The author further insists that the very essence of the scientific method—the movement away from reliance on “a priori reasoning” to the “habit of experimentation . . . was the product of the craftsmen's shops.” Conner's antipathy toward the “Great Men of Science” perspective is cogently stated with his observation that: “In a nutshell, the birth of modern science occurred when gentlemen began to appropriate (emphasis added) artisans' knowledge and to systematize it.”
In order to substantiate his thesis, Conner links contributions of artisans to the development of a strong mathematical emphasis in the hard sciences. Instead of the math component trickling “down from university sources,” Conner argues that the relationship was “quite the opposite.” Craftsmen who had a need for “exactitude and a concern for the measurements” such as “merchants, surveyors, engineers and architects and graphic artists” were pioneers in the endeavor. In the process, these nonscientists “elevated mere computation to the status of an empirical science, well before” the vaunted great men of science.
To be sure, mathematics was taught at the university level. Conner argues, however, that “teaching” at the elite levels of society “was often theoretical and devoid of practical applications.” Someone seeking insights in “practical mathematics,” therefore, avoided the university setting and instead “sought out a reckoning master, a man skilled in the arts of commercial computation.” The first math textbooks available, as a matter of record, were not published in Latin, the language of the educated elites; but in the vernacular languages of the commoners—Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English. In addition, Conner credits artisan-based mathematics with contributing to “thinking in three dimensions” in order to solve “practical problems, rather than the two-dimensional terms that characterized the theorems” taught to the educated elites.
Conner rather quickly moves beyond the contributions of the largely anonymous artisans and craftsmen and does some name-dropping of his own. Though these figures are often confused with great men, as is appropriate for the “people's history” paradigm, they were looked down upon as part of the subordinate or dominated classes during their lifetimes. First and foremost among them was Leonardo da Vinci. Modern historians rightly praise da Vinci as the “supreme example of a Renaissance man who mastered many fields of knowledge and combined achievement in the beaux arts to a degree attained by no individuals before or since.”
Odd as it may seem, da Vinci's contemporaries “denied” him “the prestige of a fully learned man because he lacked a classical education and was not literate in Latin.” Educated elites of da Vinci's era frequently denigrated his many accomplishments as being “partly due to ignorance and his lack of academic inhibitions.” Artisan painters, sculptors, and architects were similarly disrespected. The renaissance artists Donatello and Brunelleschi, too, were dismissed as simply “two distinguished craftsmen.” Even Michelangelo was damned by faint praise as merely “the wisest of all the craftsmen.”
Conner's efforts to bend the stick in the opposite direction by reversing the distortions of elite-oriented historians are not original. The author freely admits that much of his narrative simply elaborates and builds upon the interpretative efforts of another “dissenting historian, Edgar Zilsel,” of nearly 50 years ago. Zilsel, an early critic of the “great thinkers' story,” stands out as the first historian to emphasize the contributions of the “manual workers of the era.”
Zilsel rather bluntly contended that the “experimental method did not and could not have descended from the metaphysical ideals of the natural philosophers.” The experimentalism so integral to the modern scientific method, Zilsel postulated, “had been developing for a long time before a few scholars took note of it and began adopting it for their own purposes.” In the end, Zilsel insisted that it was the “quantitative rules of the artisans of early capitalism” that constituted “the forerunners of modern physical laws.”
What Conner labels the “Zilsel thesis,” then, was the first attempt by historians to indicate the “indispensable part played by artisans in the creation of modern science.” Still, the “Zilsel thesis did not exalt the craftsman to the detriment of the scholar; it was not a counterposition of ‘scholars versus (emphasis in original) craftsmen'.” The author notes that Zilsel likely would have agreed with his critics that the roles of the scientists and the artisans “were complementary.”
The most glaring weakness in this massive effort is the lack of social context. Conner openly concedes that this “people's history” slights the science scholars' role in this ongoing and dynamic interaction. Yet, Conner defends this methodology by claiming that the “traditional histories of science have done more than an adequate job of explicating” the contributions of the educated elites. That rationalization rings hollow—especially when compared with the earlier efforts of Edgar Zilsel.
Zilsel fled Europe to escape Nazi persecution and was a “self-professed Marxist historian.” Conner notes that Zilsel's view of the evolution of the scientific method could be nicely summed up with the observation that “scientific knowledge production is a collective activity (emphasis in original)”. That larger context is exactly what is missing in this monograph. Zilsel's scholarship emphasized the dialectic nature of the relationship between elite scientists and working class laborers; Conner tends to simply list the contributions of the dominated classes. In the process, Conner's use of the people's history paradigm tends to obscure the dynamic process inherent in the interaction and frequent clashes between classes.
Media Mouse (Grand Rapids, MI)
June 25, 2006
Clifford D. Conner’s A People’s History of Science is an ambitious five-hundred page book that systematically moves through a broad history of western science and identifies the many ways in which the history of science is improperly taught in the United States by revealing how, in many cases, it was not the “great minds” that made scientific discoveries but rather the cumulative efforts of people cutting across class lines. Conner begins by describing how the history of science is taught by giving students a history that spans long periods of times in which nothing of consequence happens until a “eureka” moment when some “great” man “discovers” a great idea and moves humanity forward. This method of science leaves no room for ordinary people beyond placing them in the debt of those who were great enough to make scientific discoveries. Beyond seeking simply to uncover the role of people in science, Conner is also writing for people, with his history intended to be read by anyone who has an interest in science and not the narrow audience of academics that frequently discuss the history of science.
If there is one common theme that runs through the hundreds of years covered in Conner’s book, it is that ordinary people--not great men--were at the root of almost every scientific invention. Conner describes how it was merchants who made mathematical innovations, sailors who gathered the knowledge used to expand the science of astronomy, midwives who learned about the female body, and a host of other people who made important discoveries as part of their daily struggle to survive. Scientific innovation thus was not handed to people by academics and great inventors, but rather often resembled a pyramid where innovations were made by a large number of people until one person was associated with a particular invention, regardless of whether or not it was indeed an individual contribution. Indeed, Conner describes how medieval academics, the church, and the ancient Greeks often had a stifling effect on scientific innovation with many academics choosing to focus on the purely theoretical rather than the science in practice learned by artisans. In the case of the ancient Greeks, Conner makes a persuasive argument that the failing of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle to really understand the world, and their subsequent idolization by medieval European academics, may have set the course of scientific progress back by hundreds of years.
Conner ends by taking on the corporatization of science and the notion that all science is good science because science as scientific innovation means technological process and thus is to the benefit of humanity. Conner shatters this myth by examining the green revolution of the twentieth century and explaining how that supposed innovation in agriculture has done little to combat hunger around the world. It is not a coincidence that many of the “benefits” of the green revolution were promised by large corporations who now make up what Conner describes as the “Scientific-Industrial Complex.” To Conner, the Scientific-Industrial Complex is a result of the “intricate entwinement of university, government, and big business” with the benefits of scientific discovery frequently going to a handful of educational institutions and corporations who have come to “own” many scientific innovations. Conner describes the collaboration of scientists on corporate and military projects ranging from the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon (an effort that has resulted in one of the most serious threats to the world) to scientists developing proprietary computers systems that stifle innovation. In his concluding remarks, Conner describes how many critics have charged that science has not improved the quality of most people’s lives and indeed has to respond to social movements calling for socially responsible uses of scientific innovation. For Conner, this is an inevitable consequence of the union of science and capital, with the only solution being a globally planned economy where scientific innovation and discovery will be put to the benefit of all.
Conner’s A People’s History of Science is an engaging and quick read that offers a refreshing re-interpretation of the history of science. Those who suffered through survey history courses in high school or college where they were required to memorize a series of inventions and their inventors will find Conner’s history to be interesting and full of unexpected surprises. Ultimately, Conner presents a portrayal of ordinary people as the ones who can make progress in society, a considerably more inspirational tale than the traditional tale of great white men, their inventions, and their almost god-like status.
November 14, 2005
In this persuasive history, Conner aggressively pursues evidence of how, since the earliest civilizations, elite scientists have suppressed and excluded lower class innovators while learning from and using their discoveries, often without giving them credit. As Conner notes, many of the “Great Man” myths about people like Galileo and Columbus, once believed to have made their contributions to science out of their own genius, have been debunked, but even those persist in the popular imagination, and others have never been addressed. The pages are dense with information and quotes from both primary sources and modern revisionist historians, and Conner tries to cover too much in too little space, but he writes clearly and skillfully shows connections as he ranges across time periods and disciplines from medicine to art to astronomy. However, despite promising to highlight women's important role in the sciences, they are mostly absent, and the brief chapter on modern times mostly concerns itself with corruption in the pharmaceuticals and atomic weaponry industries. Nonetheless, this book is a valuable synthesis of previously spotty attempts to show science's reliance on the anonymous multitudes for many important advances. (Nov.)
Michael D. Cramer
October 1, 2005
Moving chronologically from the science of the ancients to the science of the present, former history teacher Conner follows in the footsteps of Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States by seeking to illuminate the contributions of “anonymous masses of humble people” to the origins of scientific knowledge, something he believes has seldom been explored or appreciated by historians, scientists, and the public. To this end, the first seven chapters are successful. By concisely covering cultures around the world and multiple areas of science—not just theoretical science, like mathematics or chemistry, but practical, useful areas such as ceramics, telescopes, and architecture—Conner makes his point. He underscores how a particular piece of scientific knowledge (e.g., navigation from eastern Africa to China and the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines) was the creation of generations of ordinary sailors. Less successful are the final chapters, in which Conner moves away from the history of science to his own view of science and its connections to politics, economics, and society. Despite this flaw, his eloquently written book is accessible to lay readers and equally valuable for scholars. Highly recommended for all history of science collections.
Explicitly emulating Howard Zinn's enduringly popular A People's History of the United States (1979), Conner applies an anti-elitist point of view in his survey of science from prehistory to the present. Conner is not as occupied with scientific ideas and discoveries as he is with the sociology and historiography of science. He is keen to oppose the inculcation of admiration for the Great Men of Science--words he capitalizes in disparagement--but since science historians of socialist bent have preceded him in this iconoclastic project, Conner acknowledges that his work is something of a synthesis. That will be valuable for bringing specialist literature to general readers, who will imbibe Conner's contention that manual workers, tradesmen, and craftsmen, through a trial-and-error process, created the empirical basis for the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. In Conner's collectivist framework, names associated with the experimental method, such as Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, are like copyright pirates; and the notion of the individual genius-scientist is illusory. With a stout left-wing attitude, Conner's tome will instigate debate.
Revisionist history with a strong proletarian bent. Conner is out to dethrone the Great Men of science (Galileo, Newton, Darwin) and replace them with a cast of men (and women), often anonymous, who fueled advances in science largely through their technological prowess. Thus are celebrated the Polynesian star-gazing navigators of prehistory and the pre-Socratics, as well as the bricklayers, potters, miners, midwives, weavers, dyers, glassblowers, clockmakers and other artisans of medieval and modern times. The voyages of discovery? Made possible by crafty crews and kidnapped native guides. Star maps? Local folk were drafted to do the meticulous work, while the likes of Tycho Brahe took credit. The elite of the Royal Societies and Academies hardly ever credited their loyal assistants, fostering the Great Men approach adopted by most historians of science. Clearly there is a lot to be said for the unsung, and we can be grateful to Conner for providing context and technical details for discoveries and inventions that fueled the scientific and industrial revolutions. But the frequent inveighing against Western imperialism and capitalism is tiresome. By the time Conner reaches the modern era, he has much to say about the military industrial complex, Big Pharma and his growing distrust of science. His solution, to bring science, technology and industry under democratic control in the context of a global planned economy, seems pure wishful thinking. Lots of useful technology history here, but the volume shouldn't stand alone.
American Library Association
Combining the history of science with social commentary and a distinct socialist slant makes this an unusual book, best read with some background in both standard scientific history and sociological approaches to that telling. The author tries to demystify science by locating its origins and development within the activities of people actively engaged in various work situations. He also notes that the increasing narrowing or specialization of science in academic settings has held back the growth of knowledge rather than advancing it. Conner includes fascinating vignettes of the common people’s role in invention, technological advances, and scientific discoveries that denigrate the “great thinker” role. The heated commentary on recent political debates, in the midst of early historical eras in the book, is jarring and may well put off many readers. The book is definitely useful in clarifying that science is indeed for everyone and not the realm of a chosen few. Summing up: Recommended. General readers: lower division undergraduates through faculty. D. H. Gifford, Pima Community College
La Nación (Argentina)
April 1, 2006
Por Nora Bär
Hace un par de meses, un recorrido a vista de pájaro por una de las librerías del MIT me deparó un hallazgo inesperado y provocativo: la obra de casi seiscientas páginas escrita por el historiador norteamericano Clifford D. Conner, A people's history of science. Miners, midwives and low mechanicks (Algo así como Una historia popular de la ciencia. Mineros, comadronas y mecánicos, Nation Books, 2005), que postula una hipótesis heterodoxa sobre la ciencia: la concibe como producto de una empresa colectiva más que de la inspiración de un minúsculo grupo de genios iluminados.
Conner intenta desplazar el centro de gravedad de la evolución del saber científico otorgando el protagonismo a cazadores y recolectores, marinos, agricultores, curanderos, herreros y artesanos de toda clase que desarrollaron un conocimiento empírico de la naturaleza para sobrevivir.
“La habilidad de Isaac Newton de ver «más lejos» no debería ser atribuida, como él sostenía, a estar sentado «en hombros de gigantes», sino a estar parado en las espaldas de miles de artesanos iletrados (entre otros)”, escribe.
Conner destaca las contribuciones de los pueblos antiguos, que domesticaron especies animales y vegetales, e iniciaron la ingeniería genética de hecho; de los aborígenes precolombinos, que descubrieron las propiedades terapéuticas de las plantas; y de navegantes indígenas y marineros anónimos que trazaron los primeros mapas y cartas de mareas y corrientes oceánicas. Incluso la matemática, afirma, es más el resultado de las tareas de comerciantes, hombres de mar, carpinteros, y terratenientes que de los estudios académicos.
Ya sobre el siglo XX, la complejidad del trabajo científico hizo prácticamente imposible la participación del individuo no entrenado. Tal vez por eso resulta tan sorprendente y gratificante el fenómeno de la enciclopedia libre de Internet Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), una empresa fundada en 2001 y mantenida con donaciones públicas que ya alcanza los casi cuatro millones de artículos en 200 lenguas surgidos de contribuciones espontáneas. Según una investigación realizada por la revista científica británica Nature, el contenido de este sitio es casi tan preciso como la Enciclopedia Británica.
A partir de su estudio, Nature desafía a sus lectores a participar en este gran experimento para ver si se puede mejorar: propone seleccionar un tópico relacionado con el área en que se trabaja, ver si contiene errores u omisiones, y tratar de arreglarlos. La recompensa sería, nada más y nada menos, que convertirse en protagonista de una monumental fuente de referencia, precisa y actualizada, a la que puede accederse libremente desde Buenos Aires hasta Mongolia. Y volver a hacer de la ciencia una empresa colectiva?