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 Connor’s A People’s History of Science is a welcome corrective.
Connor 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, Connor 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.
Connor’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, Connor 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, Connor 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.
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