Making Modern Science, Second Edition
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Making Modern Science, Second Edition

Peter J. Bowler, Iwan Rhys Morus

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Making Modern Science, Second Edition

Peter J. Bowler, Iwan Rhys Morus

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About This Book

In this new edition of the top-selling coursebook, seasoned historians Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus expand on their authoritative survey of how the development of science has shaped our world. Exploring both the history of science and its influence on modern thought, the authors chronicle the major developments in scientific thinking, from the revolutionary ideas of the seventeenth century to contemporary issues in genetics, physics, and more.Thoroughly revised and expanded, the second edition draws on the latest research and scholarship. It also contains two entirely new chapters: one that explores the impact of computing on the development of science, and another that shows how the West used science and technology as tools for geopolitical expansion. Designed for entry-level college courses and as a single-volume introduction for the general reader, Making Modern Science presents the history of science not as a series of names and dates, but as an interconnected and complex web of relationships joining science and society.

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Introduction: Science, Society, and History

TELL SOMEONE THAT you are reading about the history of science and their first reaction will probably be to ask: “What’s that?” We instinctively associate science with the modern world, not with the past. Yet a moment’s thought resolves the paradox—like any human activity, science has a history, and most people can recall at least a few “great names” associated with key discoveries that have shaped our modern way of thought. Scientists themselves think about the past along similar lines, though they may have a more esoteric list of names at their disposal linked to the major discoveries in their own area. For the scientist, pinpointing a sequence of great advances in our knowledge of the world creates an image of modern science as the continuation of a progressive struggle to drive back the boundaries of ignorance and superstition. But some of the great names familiar to the public evoke images that suggest that the advance of science has not been a smooth process of fact gathering. Almost everyone has heard the story of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition for teaching that the earth goes round the sun, and the controversy sparked by Darwin’s theory of evolution remains active still today. As science has come to play an ever-increasing role in our lives the potential for controversy expands so that it now includes our ability to interfere with the most fundamental aspects of our biological and psychological character and even the biosphere of the earth itself. It would be surprising indeed if the history of these areas of science turned out not to be controversial.
Scientists themselves are relatively comfortable with the fact that some of the great discoveries had consequences that forced everyone to rethink their religious, moral, or philosophical values. Science textbooks often tell stories about the great discoveries that present them as steps in a cumulative process by which our understanding of the natural world has expanded. If the new knowledge challenged existing beliefs, then people simply had to learn to live with it. The history of science certainly gains some of its popular audience by exploring the impact of science on the wider world. But it also likes to evaluate the traditional stories that the scientists tell about the past, and in some cases the results are welcomed less eagerly by the scientists. All too often, it turns out that the conventional stories are vastly oversimplified—they are myths that “tidy up” the messy process of controversy surrounding any new innovation (Waller 2002). These myths present a clear-cut image of heroes (who discover or promote the new theory) and villains (who oppose it, usually because their objectivity is subverted by their existing beliefs). Historians often refer to the stories of the great discoveries as a form of “Whig history,” a term borrowed from those British historians of the Whig or liberal party who retold the nation’s history in terms of the inevitable triumph of their own political values. Nowadays, any history that treats the past as a series of steppingstones toward the present—and assumes that the present is superior to the past—is called Whig history. The conventional stories of the past that appear in the introductory chapters of science textbooks are certainly a form of Whiggism. Historians take great delight in exposing the artificially constructed nature of these stories, and some scientists find the results uncomfortable.
Paralleling the triumphalism of many popular accounts of scientific progress is a tendency to focus on the “heroes of discovery”—big names, such as Newton or Darwin, who became the symbols of major theoretical innovations. Here again, historians often find that the focus on a single individual conceals the complexity of the process by which the scientific community changes its worldview. The danger for academic history is that in challenging the various popular myths, it risks losing sight of the “big picture” that attracts the general public to the field. Scientists, too, like their heroes; and the extent to which the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 2009 was celebrated around the world was seized upon as a means of promoting modern evolutionism, sometimes to the discomfiture of the historians who actually study Darwin. Another area in which academic history has challenged the big picture is science and religion, where the myth of a constant war between the two has been exposed as an oversimplification. Science no longer appears as the unambiguous agent of rationality, and the plethora of individual case studies makes it increasingly difficult to present a simple picture of its activities. Historians of science thus face serious challenges as they seek to gain the attention of the general public and the scientific community.
In principle, though, there is no reason why scientists (of all people) should shrink from exposing their ideas to scrutiny, even if the evidence used is based on old books and papers, rather than laboratory tests. If the results paint a more complex and realistic picture of how science works, anyone engaged in modern scientific research ought to recognize the value of portraying past developments in the same terms as the present. Instead of cardboard cut-out figures, they can have real heroes, warts and all.
Scientists are understandably less happy when detailed studies of past or present controversies lead people to challenge the actual process by which science claims to advance our knowledge of the world. The modern “science wars”—in which scientists have responded bitterly when the objectivity of science itself has been challenged by sociological critics—illustrate that there is more at stake here than a simple conflict between scientific fact and subjective values. Those who do not like the consequences of science are increasingly inclined to argue that a process that generates potentially dangerous techniques cannot be seen as the mere acquisition of factual knowledge. The history of science has inevitably been sucked into the science wars since some of the ammunition used by those who attack science comes from the reevaluation of key areas where science has generated controversy in the past. The critics argue that the very foundations of scientific “knowledge” are contaminated by values. Science constructs a view of the world that sees it through tinted glasses—so we should hardly be surprised when it turns out that what is offered to us as knowledge tends to reinforce the value system of the military-industrial complex that funds it. Scientists respond with fury when confronted with this line of argument. If science is just another value system no more privileged than anyone else’s, why does it work so well when we apply it to manipulate the world via technology and medicine? Those who pay are at least paying for results, not fairy stories. There is a genuine tension here, and the history of science is sucked into the debate as one of the prime sources of information about how science actually works.
Anyone turning to this survey of the history of modern science expecting an uncontroversial list of great discoveries is thus in for a shock. Virtually all the topics and themes we discuss are the subject of intense debate, often sustained by differing perspectives derived from historians’ attitudes toward modern science as a whole or toward particular theories and their applications. Teaching as we used to do in Northern Ireland, we are used to the idea that history can become a battleground on which people with rival opinions seek to validate their beliefs. Irish history can be told from two very different perspectives, depending on whether you approach it from a Nationalist or a Unionist perspective. Was Oliver Cromwell a hero who made British civilization safe in Ireland, or the villain who massacred the inhabitants of Drogheda? It depends on your point of view—each side has constructed its myths of the past, and each may be discomfited when the academic historian uses hard evidence to probe those myths. The history of science certainly challenges many of the myths created by those who pre-sent science as a disembodied search for the truth—but does it necessarily support those who claim that science is no more than the expression of a particular value system? Perhaps a middle way is possible, presenting a vision of science as a human activity, albeit one that has more concrete achievements to its credit than most others. In a sense, the very dangers the critics warn about arise from the fact that science performs work, in the sense that it can be applied to change the world we live in.
What we hope you will learn from this book is a willingness to see history as something more than a list of names and dates—it is something that people argue about because the evidence can be interpreted in different ways and they care passionately about the interpretation they support. You will see how historians use evidence to challenge myths, but you should also be cautious and critical in your evaluation of any alternative stories they offer (including our own). It may be hard work, but it will force you to confront important issues—and it will be a lot more fun than learning names and dates.
The rest of this introduction will put flesh on the bare bones of the conflicts outlined above, beginning with a brief survey of how the history of science became the professional field of study it is today. This is important, because many of the older books listed in the readings below—still used because they are classics in their field—were written when the discipline worked very differently from the way it does now. We then outline the more recent developments that have created the modern approach to the subject, including the more sociological techniques that generate the controversies mentioned above. Knowing something about the history of the history of science will help you to understand why the issues discussed in the rest of this book are often so controversial.

The Origins of the History of Science

Something like a history of science in the modern tradition began to emerge in the eighteenth century. This was the Age of Enlightenment, when radical thinkers proclaimed the power of human reason to throw off ancient superstition and provide a better foundation for society. Many of these Enlightenment thinkers were hostile to the Church, which they saw as an agent for the old social hierarchy derived from feudal times. The medieval period was portrayed as one of stagnation, imposed by the Church’s rigid endorsement of the traditional worldview. The radicals saw the New Science of the previous century as the first manifestation of a renewed flowering of rational thought and hailed the chief contributors to the modern worldview, including Galileo and Newton, as its heroes. The fact that Galileo had gotten into trouble with the Church for proclaiming Copernican astronomy merely fueled their suspicion of that institution. They carefully suppressed any hint that Newton had dabbled in magic and alchemy. From the Enlightenment’s view of its own immediate past we have inherited the assumption that the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century was a turning point in the progress of Western thought, and a pantheon of heroes identified with the key steps in the foundation of modern cosmology and physical science.
In 1837 the British scientist and philosopher William Whewell published a massive History of the Inductive Sciences. It was Whewell who actually coined the term “scientist,” and he had a very specific agenda that in some respects modified the Enlightenment program. He certainly agreed that science was a progressive force, but he had a new vision of how it should set about building an understanding of nature, derived from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. For Kant and Whewell, knowledge was not simply derived passively from the observation of nature—it was imposed by the human mind via the theories we use to describe the world. The scientific approach rested on the rigorous testing of new hypotheses by observation and experimentation. Whewell subsequently published a Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences in which it became clear that his purpose was to use history as a means of illustrating how his vision of the methodology of science was applied in practice. In this respect he contributed to what would become a principal motivation for the creation of the modern discipline of the history of science.
Whewell was more conservative than the Enlightenment thinkers in that he defended the possibility that the scientist might find phenomena that could only be explained as the result of divine intervention. Later on he would refuse to allow a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species into the library at Trinity College, Cambridge, because it replaced divine miracle with natural evolution. But to a new generation of radical thinkers in the late nineteenth century, Darwinism confirmed that science was continuing its assault on ancient superstitions, renewing the campaign begun by Galileo. A new generation of histories emerged stressing the inevitability of a “war” between science and religion, a war that science would inevitably win. J. W. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Science and Religion of 1875 was a pioneering effort in this revival of the Enlightenment program. The metaphor of conflict continues to dominate popular discussion of the relationship, although it has been extensively challenged by later historians.
To those who (like Whewell) retained the hope that science and religion could work in harmony, the materialist program of the Enlightenment was a positive danger to science. It encouraged scientists to abandon their objectivity in favor of the arrogant claim that the laws of nature could explain everything. Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1926) urged the scientific community to turn its back on this materialist program and return to an earlier vision in which nature was studied on the assumption that it would reveal evidence of divine purpose. This model of science’s history dismisses episodes such as the trial of Galileo as aberrations and portrays the Scientific Revolution as founded on the hope that nature could be seen as the handiwork of a rational and benevolent Creator. For Whitehead and others of his generation, evolution itself could be seen as the unfolding of a divine purpose. This debate between two rival views of science—and hence of its history—is still active today.
In the early twentieth century, the legacy of the rationalist program was transformed in the work of Marxists such as J. D. Bernal. Bernal, an eminent crystallographer, berated the scientific community for selling out to the industrialists. In his Social Function of Science (1939) he called for a renewed commitment to use science for the good of all. His 1954 Science in History was a monumental attempt to depict science as a potential force for good (as in the Enlightenment program) that had been perverted by its absorption into the military-industrial complex. In one important respect, then, the Marxists challenged the assumption that the rise of science represented the progress of human rationality. For them, science had emerged as a by-product of the search for technical mastery over nature, not a disinterested search for knowledge, and the information it accumulated tended to reflect the interests of the society within which the scientist functioned. The aim of the Marxists was not to create a purely objective science but to reshape society so that the science that was done would benefit everyone, not just the capitalists. They dismissed the program advocated by Whitehead as a smokescreen for covering up science’s involvement in the rise of capitalism. Similarly, many intellectual historians reacted furiously to what they regarded as the denigration of science implicit in works such as the Soviet historian Boris Hessen’s “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s ‘Principia’” from 1931. The outbreak of World War II highlighted two conflicting visions of science’s history, both of which linked it to the dangers revealed in Nazi Germany. The optimistic vision of the Enlightenment had vanished along with the idea of inevitable progress in the calamities that the Western world had now experienced. Science must either turn its back on materialism and renew its links with religion or turn its back on capitalism and begin fighting for the common good.
It was at this time that the history of science began to achieve recognition as a distinct academic specialization. There had been earlier efforts, but these had enjoyed limited success. The Belgian scholar George Sarton founded the journal Isis in 1912—it continues today as the organ of the History of Science Society—but on moving to America he found it impossible to persuade Harvard University to create a history of science department at that time. The first specialist departments only began to flourish after World War II, reflecting a concern that the technological consequences of science were now so powerful that broader analysis of its history was essential to understand how it had come to play this dominant role in society. But with the outbreak of the Cold War against Soviet Russia, it was inevitable that Bernal’s Marxist outlook would be marginalized. Despite the obvious links with technology, the image of science as a by-product of social and economic forces was unacceptable. The alternative was a return to the idea that science represented an important intellectual force in Western culture, paving the way for progress not by its subservience to industry but by its independence and innovation, which had given us a better understanding of nature at a theoretical level. It was the practical applications of this new knowledge that were the by-product—the Marxists had got it the wrong way round. Those applications could be studied quite separately from the development of pure science, which now became, in effect a part of Western culture to be studied by the techniques of intellectual history or the history of ideas. What counted was theoretical innovation at the conceptual level and the process by which theories were tested against the evidence.
This approach to historiography followed the Enlightenment program to the extent that it saw the emergence of the scientific method, and the main steps in the creation of the modern worldview, as major contributions to human progress. Much attention thus focused on the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and the associated developments in astronomy and physics. Later steps were also highlighted and used to define the main line of advance in scientific thought. The advent of Darwinism was seen as a key step forward, and developments in associated sciences such as geology were defined as good or bad depending on whether they seemed to promote the search for natural processes of change. To some extent, the field thus continued and extended the Whiggish approach favored by the scientists themselves, because progress was defined in terms of steps toward what were perceived to be the main components of our modern worldview. In another respect, however, the new historiography of science did go beyond Whiggism: it was willing to admit that scientists were deeply involved with philosophical and religious concerns and often shaped their theories in accordance with their views on these wider questions. A leading influence here was the Russian émigré Alexandre Koyré, working in France and America, who used close textual analysis of classic works in science to demonstrate this wider dimension. Koyré (1978) argued that Galileo was deeply influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato, who had taught that the world of appearances hides an underlying reality structured along mathematical lines. Newton, too, turned out to be a far more complex figure than the old Enlightenment hero, deeply concerned wi...

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