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Where Did Science Come From? Where is it Going?

Clifford Conner’s A People’s History of Science appears at a most useful moment. The ice sheets are melting, biodiversity is shrinking at an unprecedented rate, climate change is altering weather patterns and shorelines and might even shift our sense of the future itself. Pandemic disease is lurking in the vortex of urbanized humanity and industrialized food production, while sexually transmitted diseases have helped a rapacious pharmaceutical industry consolidate its ability to define and manage illness. We collectively consume more energy and natural resources than ever and Big Science assures us that there is nothing to worry about” that abyss we’re hurtling towards is just another in a long line of challenges that cleverly and profitably have been solved by science in the service of Capital.

Radical critiques of science have developed, to be sure. Environmentalism emerged with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the consequent proliferation of campaigns against the hegemony of an unquestioned science has been prodigious. Scientistic medicine has been forcefully challenged first by feminism and the rise of the women’s health movement, and then more broadly by a range of other approaches from preventive care to Chinese medicine to homeopathy and many more. Political fights over nuclear power, petrochemicals and organic foods, urban sprawl and automobilism, solar and wind power, and more have challenged a univocal science that is now widely perceived to be the paid servant of multinational capital.

Unfortunately for radical politics in North America, the theoretical critique of science and technology that developed over the past generation led many into a cul-de-sac. Whether adopting the anti-civilization absolutism of John Zerzan, David Watson or Derrick Jensen, or simply the more prosaic “anti-technology” position that preceded the totalizing critique of “civilization,” radical critics of this ilk have turned away from an engagement with the real choices and political fights we face. The “deep ecology” shift to biocentrism, in which all species are “equal” to humanity (at least in moral terms) seems to have reinforced either a simplistic embrace of direct action property destruction, or a quiescence verging on paralysis while waiting for Gaia, or Nature, to undo the mess made by humans. The categorical rejection of “civilization” is ultimately a rejection of human freedom and creative potential, as though the existence of a social order admittedly ecocidal precluded all possibility of change, of taking control over our lives and pointing our collective existence in new directions. Such categorical approaches also gloss over the many crossroads human have passed already, in which radically different choices might have led us to a remarkably different present.

Conner’s book carefully re-examines the myths that shape our sense of the history of science and technology, and in so doing, brings to life the largely anonymous and countless thousands of people whose work over centuries are the real foundations of science. His history also illuminates the contentious battles over scientific truth and technological knowledge that were deeply intertwined with broad political struggles. Repeatedly artisanal skills and knowledge were exploited by those in power to reinforce a society based on elite control. The self-serving stories of Great Men with ingenious insights are debunked with detailed research backed up by over 1,300 footnotes, showing even the “greatest ideas,” such as Isaac Newton’s “discovery” of terrestrial gravity were historically determined. It seems tautologically obvious that scientific discoveries arise from complex social contexts, but traditional histories of science ignore or downplay this in favor of a focus on individual “genius.” The socio-economic system and a broad culture of exploration and inquiry create an historic atmosphere in which “great ideas” are already in the air. If one smart person didn’t articulate it, another one would.

Ultimately Connor’s underlying theme, which he returns to throughout the well-written and engaging book, 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.” (p. 336) In fact, Conner recognizes the same dynamic at work in his own book which is also a product of many people working together across time and space, and gives credit to his own predecessors in producing this “people’s history.” Two key predecessors are Edgar Zilsel and a Soviet science historian who was killed in Stalin’s purges, Boris Hessen. Connor makes good use of Zilsel’s 1942 The Social Origins of Modern Science:

“More than a half-century ago”¦ Zilsel offered an alternative point of view: “˜The experimental method did not and could not have developed from the metaphysical ideas of the natural philosophers.'”¦ Experimentalism, Zilsel argued, had been developing for a long time before a few scholars took note of it and began adopting it for their own purposes. The writings of Galileo, Bacon and Gilbert themselves clearly reveal their inspiration came from miners, sailors, blacksmiths, foundrymen, mechanics, lens-grinders, glass blowers, clockmakers, and shipwrights” manual workers of that era.” (p. 276)

Neo-primitivists might be happily surprised by Connor’s second chapter “Were Hunter-Gatherers Stupid?” in which he examines the millennia of observation and practical knowledge that developed before recorded history. Connor approvingly cites Marshall Sahlins’ declaration that prehistoric foragers were “the original affluent society,” and notes that Sahlins helped shift anthropology and archaeology away from the 16th century Hobbesian notion that prehistoric life was “nasty, brutal and short.” Decades of work done with contemporary “stone age” people in New Guinea led renowned author Jared Diamond, e.g,, to conclude that they are “on average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples”¦ Such peoples are a walking encyclopedia of natural history with individual names for as many as a thousand or more plant species, and with detailed knowledge of those species’ biological characteristics, distribution and potential uses.” Connor cites prehistoric scientific knowledge in the Polynesian ability to navigate the Pacific among far-flung islands through remarkable memorization of star positions and ability to interpret ocean swells. Ethnobotanists have concluded that so-called “wilderness areas” (so characterized by the first European arrivals) have often been carefully managed landscapes, where indigenous populations have planted useful trees and bushes as food sources for both humans and game, and used fire to suppress excess underbrush (which makes both hunting and gathering easier too). The San Francisco Bay Area is a great example of the “original affluent society” where some 45-odd language groups lived around one of the most richly abundant and comfortable natural environments imaginable, and used annual fires to promote a food-oriented landscape.

A chapter dedicated to asking “What Greek “˜Miracle’?” builds on previous scholars’ work, especially Martin Bernal and David Pingree, debunking the claim that it was in ancient Greece that scientific thinking got its start. The Greeks themselves didn’t think so, and attributed much of their knowledge to even older Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The claim was first made in the 19th century by German historians who were as motivated by their racist ideology as anything else. Connor traces how much white racism shaped scientific discourse from the early stages of the Industrial Revolution all the way to 1990’s The Bell Curve.

Perhaps the best thing about a book like this, besides its impressive compilation of facts, sources and quotes, is its ability to shift how we see our own moment in history. Recasting the history of science as a collective endeavor over millennia is a sharp reminder that science is still contested, but by recasting it in terms of practical skills and knowledge, a window opens on current activities that tend to get ignored. Movements that don’t yet get recognized as movements, or as political challenges to Big Science, are nevertheless percolating and spreading at the base of society.

Bicycling has exploded in the past fifteen years as Critical Mass rides have spread throughout the world and do-it-yourself bike repair has emerged in most major cities. Recreational cycling has also enjoyed a boom, but what’s particularly interesting about this is the extent to which embracing bicycling also represents an exodus from transportation technology choices imposed by Capital and infrastructure decisions taken by the state (e.g., the destruction of intra- and interurban rail in favor of freeways and sprawl). Tinkering drives the logic of this grassroots transit shift.

Home brewing of biodiesel fuel, along with the experimental conversion of diesel engines to run on vegetable oil and various blends of biodiesel has helped to launch a grassroots movement away from petroleum. A cottage industry approach might be slowly giving way to corporate co-optation, but clearly without the push from below the range of choices would be narrower.

Tinkering, or experimenting in practical ways with accessible and useful technologies, can be seen in many other areas of modern life too. Urban gardening is thriving in many cities, as people embrace local production, healthy foods, and a relationship to local land and water. Permaculture, growing outside of academia and corporate agriculture, is a more thoroughgoing scientific methodology to integrating human life with local ecology. Connor himself points to the rise of the personal computer and the open source movement as a contemporary example of grassroots tinkering reshaping technology and science from below. He concedes that the embrace of free software by IBM and other corporate behemoths has co-opted to some extent the oppositional impulse. But the open source/free software story is actually far more complicated, and the ongoing free labor that has created and continues to expand the world wide web is unprecedented. In any case, it’s a story that’s far from complete. The rise of indymedia and blogs and new technology-driven grassroots media has yet to fully alter the media landscape, but old media forms are suffering falling audiences while the new ones are expanding. In this case the challenge goes beyond technology and science to the creation of news and knowledge more broadly.

Clifford Connor’s “A People’s History of Science“ is a fantastic resource, well-written, exhaustively researched, and like the best histories, sheds important light on the lives we’re living now. Most importantly, his framing of history properly elevates the role of people whose work is usually overlooked or downgraded, while contextualizing the work of the so-called “great thinkers,” showing how dependent their breakthroughs were on the broad social world in which they worked. Just like all of us!

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4 Responses to “Where Did Science Come From? Where is it Going?”

  1. 1
    James Aach:

    A great deal of the public’s perception of science is influenced by fiction – from Star Trek to The Simpsons to Jurassic Park. This was the topic of a recent commentary in Nature Magazine, at . The entire site is dedicated to this issue. (I also have an essay on the site).

  2. 2
    Axel Ztangi:

    This history of science will join my, too long, list of books to read. Thanks for bringing it to my (our) attention. I have one reflection and a serendipitous comment.

    While it is obvious that knowledge is an historic and collective quest, we would be amiss ignoring those leaps in understanding

  3. 3

    In what way does Conner dicuss the validity of scientific method, beyond the ways in which it has been manipulated by ideology? I mean, among those challenges to dominant science that you mentioned are a lot of arguments against the possibility for any sort of “real” reason or logic, (and therefore normative science) and I’m wondering if Conner, in the context of a People’s History of Science, makes any statements on the plausibility of there being a “true” or “pure” (for lack of a better word) logic on which science can be based (even if it gets it mistaken sometimes).

    (…thinking in relation to Gorz’s book on economic reason, where he asserts determinedly that there IS reason and logic but that ideology – economic, particularly – is what skews science away from it.)

  4. 4
    yer host:

    This is fun! I can talk to my daughter via the blog… who’d a thunk it? Anyhoo… I don’t recall any particular spot where Conner takes up the question of whether or not the scientific method is valid. He does spend a good deal of effort on showing how it arose from empirical breakthroughs that in turn emerged from the work of the forgotten “mechanicks”, artisans, etc. In particular he shows how Francis Bacon sent people out to glean info from local workshops that he later codified into some kind of methodology…So to answer your query, he ducks the whole post-structuralist, post-modernist discussion and never engages with questions of a ‘normative science’. Rather to my relief actually!