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How the Global South fuelled the Scientific Revolution

Horizons—A Global History of Science is a powerful rejoinder to the view that scientific progress was down to great European individuals, writes Martin Empson
A picture of Isaac Newton to illustrate a review of Horizons—A Global History of Science by James Poskett

Sir Isaac Newton

The mainstream view of science says that scientific progress is the result of gifted individuals. These scientists—usually white European men—are responsible for the insights that allowed it to break free from the “Dark Ages” and finally liberated the world from ignorance. But this depiction is a fantasy. 

In his splendid new history, Horizons—The Global Origins of Modern Science, James Poskett argues something very different to this mainstream view. Scientific advancement did not, and does not happen just because a clever man has a flash of insight in a laboratory. 

Instead, Poskett argues that scientific advances were the consequence of a global “cultural exchange”. This process saw European scientists’ ideas shaped and challenged by insights that arrived from around the world. They came from the knowledge and experiences—as well as the blood, sweat and tears— of people from across the Global South in regions that became European colonies. 

Indigenous people, African slaves, forced labourers, writers, scientists and explorers all contributed to a body of knowledge that transformed how Europeans understood the universe. Their contributions to the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries are forgotten, ignored and rarely cited by the European scientists credited with so many discoveries today. To understand scientific development, we can’t look at the work of individual theorists in isolation. We need to look at a global picture, and in particular Poskett argues, the “ships and caravans which connected the early modern world”.

But this “cultural exchange” was in no way benign. It was violent, repressive and “deeply exploitative”. Poskett shows how the story of Isaac Newton, the most celebrated British scientist, is a superb example of this. 

Newton is known for his extensive scientific breakthroughs, which still form the basis of much of modern physics and mathematics. Generations of students have learnt Newton’s laws of motions. But none have been told how he bought £20,000 worth of shares in the South Sea Company, a company that made enormous profits from the slave trade. Newton’s £20,000—worth about £2 million today—in the South Sea company was just one of his investments. 

Others, including in the British East India Company, also reflected Britain’s growing colonial ambitions. As Poskett points out, the era of the scientific enlightenment epitomised by Newton’s work, was also “the age of empire”. Newton was very much part of that and his discoveries relied, in no small part on the slave trade itself. 

Newton is supposed to have discovered his theory of gravitation by watching an apple fall, but this myth hides a shocking truth. Newton actually acknowledges that key experimental evidence for his discovery came from the observations of a French astronomer Jean Richer. In a series of experiments in the late 1600s, Richer noted how the period of a pendulum varied at different places on the Earth’s surface. Or rather, on different places on the surface of the ocean—for Richer made many of his observations travelling back and forth on ships in the slave trade. Newton also relied on tidal measurements made by East India Company officers and “observations of comets made by slave owners in Maryland”. 

This example highlights a central argument of Poskett’s book. Scientific advancement took place in a world shaped by colonial expansion and the growth of Western commercial interests. The rise of capitalism transformed the globe, sucking in people and resources, and new sources of knowledge to help drive the further development of European wealth and power.

European arrival in the “New World” was one of the key moments in global history that Poskett argues shaped the Scientific revolution. The experience of settlers, traders, colonists and soldiers in the Americas meant a break with the established scientific truths of the time. 

Up until that point, most science—from astronomy to medicine—was based on ancient Greek texts. But the work of Aristotle and other such thinkers had nothing to say about the flora, fauna and geography of the Americas. The simple fact that things existed, which were not mentioned in Greek texts, threw the European worldview into confusion. Out of this confusion new scientific understandings developed. 

But they did not come just out of the shock of the new. They arose, in large part, from local, non-European knowledge itself. Everything from mapping the New World to identifying plants and animals depended on the knowledge of Indigenous societies—and the European colonial powers understood this. Modern science first became “institutionalised”, Poskett makes clear, “not in universities or academic societies”. “But as part of a Spanish project to know, and to conquer the Americas,” he says. Science became a method of helping colonial expansion, but the ideas and knowledge that were gained from that expansion in turn fuelled further developments. 

While simultaneously relying on scientific knowledge and insights from around the globe, European science also downplayed those contributions. Poskett points out the remarkable scientific knowledge that we have from Muslim scientists—insights in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and chemistry. Scientific historians usually describe these as coming from an Islamic “golden age”. 

But this term “relies on the false notion that Islamic science—along with Islamic civilisation in general—went into a period of decline immediately after the medieval period”. This allowed European historians to separate the “Muslim world from the story of the scientific revolution” and portray the Middle East as backward. And this helped to justify Western expansion into the region. 

So it is impossible to separate the Enlightenment from colonial and imperial rule. Without empire, Newton could not have developed his insights into gravity and motion. Nor could the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus have come up with his system of biological classification of plants and animals. He relied on the samples sent back to Europe by the new trading empires. 

The process that began in the 16th and 17th century accelerated with the modern era. Poskett shows that scientists in countries such as India, Japan, Russia and China frequently made key scientific breakthroughs. But the work of these men and women has been ignored or neglected. Often, the Western scientists who relied on this work, like their predecessors centuries before, are celebrated and the contributions of others forgotten. 

As the imperialist era developed, war encouraged scientific development on a number of fronts. Poskett explores how nuclear weapon programmes drew in many scientists, despite their misgivings. But Poskett also shows how revolution led to new ways of looking at science. He notes the way that the Russian Revolution of 1917 led to new scientific insights. 

Leading revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky read Charles Darwin as well as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. And in countries such as India, independence movements inspired students and scientists. In China, many scientists found themselves breaking free of moribund scientific views as radical social change opened up new vistas.

Disappointingly, Poskett fails to grasp the break that took place between these revolutionary beginnings and the Stalinist states that came after 1928. They continued to rule in the name of “socialism” while suppressing any real democratic participation from below. So Poskett notes how revolutionary Russia under the Bolsheviks  encouraged the development of new scientific approaches. But he tends to see a continuity with Russia in the 1930s when scientific development actually became subordinated to the interests of Stalin’s bureaucracy and capital accumulation. 

Poskett argues that modern science was the “product of global cultural exchange”. This is an exchange that took place in the “context of deeply uneven power relations”, such as slavery, colonialism and the development of empire. He is right to argue that we need to engage with this legacy in order to better understand the role of science today and to address how science has been used in the past. 

However, he also sees modern science as being trapped by “globalisation and nationalism”. This subordinates science to the development of major, showpiece, national programmes—for instance, around artificial intelligence and space exploration. The growth of far right politicians, who use nationalism and racism, can also see science being misused to further these agendas.

But I think Poskett is wrong to see “globalisation and nationalism” as the defining aspects of the 21st century that shape how science is used. Scientific research takes place in the context of a system geared towards maximising profits through capital accumulation. 

In many ways, this is similar to how the scientific revolution developed out of the era of colonial expansion. Then science was shaped by the experience and interests of European expansion. Under capitalism, science is also shaped by the economic and ideological interests of the society within which scientists work. 

This means it takes place in the context of a society organised around maximising profit. The competition between companies that drives forward capitalism is replicated in the competition between nation states. In turn, this means that rival states have scientists working on similar projects. Scientific achievement under capitalism has never been about solely solving scientific issues, but rather furthering the interests of national capital accumulation.

This is why the all too brief sections of Poskett’s book on science in revolutionary periods are so important. They show how people, who are living in periods when the whole of society is being turned upside-down, find themselves thinking about things in very different ways. It gives us an idea of how scientific research might be freed up in a society where people and planet are  priorities, not profit.

Poskett’s book is a superb history of science. It places scientific development in a global context, rescuing the forgotten labour, knowledge and sacrifices of thousands of people who helped transform our understanding of the universe. It is clearly influenced by anti-racist and decolonising movements, such as Black Lives Matter, which have forced many institutions to address their historical role and legacy. It is inspiring that this is beginning to take place within science—and this book will be a powerful factor in encouraging the process.

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