How Not to Tell the History of Science

Eric Moses Gurevitch

Two recent books force us to rethink what knowledge is, where it is located, and how it moves.

Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science – James Poskett

From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World – Pamela H. Smith

According to a familiar story, science was born as a pastime of seventeenth-century European gentlemen, who built air pumps, traded telescopes, and measured everything from the size of the earth to the eye of a fly as they sought to uncover the laws of nature. Through careful experimentation and observation of nature, these men—who called themselves natural philosophers—distinguished themselves from the scholastic schoolmen of yore, who had instead busied themselves with writing commentary upon commentary on Aristotle and Aquinas. They also wrote about themselves. They formed societies, took notes at their meetings, compiled their notes into journals, and penned books recording their achievements; it was a mere seven years after the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 that Thomas Sprat published its first history. Reason had finally come into its own, and it arrived with a diligent group of stenographers.

Of course, these men were not actually the first to make observations or perform experiments. But their self-congratulatory narrative provided a powerful resource to explain the economic and political hegemony of Europe in the centuries to follow. By the nineteenth century, steamships, telegraphs, and trains made the world seem more manageable than ever from the metropolitan capitals of European empires, and figures including Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Francis Bacon were recruited to explain the new things that appeared some two or three centuries after their deaths. New words arose, too. Grasping for a term fit to describe himself and his compatriots, Englishman William Whewell drew a blank, so in 1834 he jokingly coined the word “scientist.” The term served to distinguish gentlemen like Whewell himself from the general public but also from the scholars who had come earlier. A new era demanded a new identity….