A People's Science

— John Vandermeer

A People’s History of Science
by Clifford D. Conner
New York: Nation Books, 2005
554 pages. $17.95.

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.

Dialectics of Discovery

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.

ATC 122, May-June 2006