Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science October 21, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Ashley Montagu, Charles Darwin, Chris Renwick, Patrick Geddes, Peter Dear, Steve Fuller
Today we have the second guest post by Chris Renwick, who starting in January will be a lecturer in modern British history at the University of York.
In one way or another, most approaches to history of science share a common intellectual assumption: that science can be related to the contexts in which it is produced, even if historians can’t agree about what’s important when talking about those contexts. Indeed, such is the importance of this contextualist point that it is often seen as a crucial moment in moving history of science away from the wholly discredited study of great men and their ideas. When, though, did this shift take place and who was responsible for it?
Ever since I started out as graduate student, I’d assumed, like many others, that the effort to relate science and its contexts was originally the gift of Karl Marx and Marxism. After all, who doesn’t know the story of the letter in which Marx explained how Charles Darwin had transplanted Victorian society onto the natural world (though, for the record, the letter we always attribute to Marx was actually written by Engels) or the legend of Russian physicist Borris Hessen’s presentation on Isaac Newton to the Second International Congress of the History of Science at the Science Museum in London in 1931? However, in considering this issue recently I’ve come to the conclusion that something is missing from our understanding of the history of history of science and that it tells us something important about the intellectual trajectory of the field.
Part of what sparked my interest in this issue was a 1952 book, entitled Darwinism: Competition and Cooperation, by the British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who played a leading role in the production of the famous 1950 UNESCO statement on race. In that book, Montagu argued that it wasn’t Marx or Marxists who first grasped how to relate science to its socioeconomic contexts but Patrick Geddes—the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner whom I’ve spent a great deal of time studying (see pages 29 to 31 in particular). To illustrate his point, Montagu picked out a passage from Geddes’ late 1880s article on “Biology” for Chamber’s Encyclopaedia:
The substitution of Darwin for Paley as the chief interpreter of the order of nature is currently regarded as the displacement of an anthropomorphic view by a purely scientific one: a little reflection, however, will show that what has actually happened has been merely the replacement of the anthropomorphism of the eighteenth century by that of the nineteenth. For the place vacated by Paley’s theological and metaphysical explanation has simply been occupied by that suggested to Darwin and Wallace by Malthus in terms of the prevalent severity of industrial competition, and these phenomena of the struggle for existence which the light of contemporary economic theory has enabled us to discern, have thus come to be temporarily exalted into a complete explanation of organic progress.
There are many points that can be made about this passage but there a couple that have always struck me as particularly interesting with respect to history of science scholarship. The first relates to questions about the relationship between science and history of science, which was also addressed by Peter Dear in the focus section of the 100th volume of Isis (full text). In his article on George Sarton and the context in which Isis was founded, Dear points out that up until around a century ago it was quite conventional for scientists to situate their work in a much bigger picture than they—and, we might suggest here, many historians of science—do now. Geddes’s take on biology, which comes from a general interest encyclopaedia article, surprises most people—it certainly surprised me when I first encountered his work—because his comments challenge our expectations about who can and does say particular things about science. Historians aren’t accustomed to entertaining the idea that practising scientists can and did talk about themselves and their work in such a reflective way. The question, though, is why? For my money, the surprise that writings such as Geddes’ generate comes from the fact that much history of science scholarship has lost sight of important aspects of the intellectual context in which science was once practiced.
This issue leads me to the second point that that I think is highlighted by Geddes’ efforts to relate science and its contexts: how changes in history of science scholarship have altered our view of science and the nature of scientific activity. The shift (charted on this blog) towards seeing the context of scientific activity as including almost everything but philosophical ideas has had a range of impacts on history of science. To be sure, we’ve now got a better sense of how the material culture of science, for example, has helped shape various aspects of its identity. However, we’ve also reached the point where we don’t automatically see thinking and reflection as a driving force behind scientific practices and theorising (see Jim Endersby’s recent book on Joseph Hooker for a good example of this point). The point here is that even for those historians who acknowledge that scientists engaged in philosophical debate, the conclusion is seldom that those discussions actually had much impact on how science has actually been done. However, for Geddes and others like him, it was obvious that they should position themselves in terms of the bigger intellectual picture. Indeed, an understanding of the history of science was an essential part of scientific activity.
Now, I don’t have a tidy conclusion with respect to the question of when exactly this separation between science and history of science took place—though I do think that much of what Steve Fuller wrote about these kinds of issues in Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times rings true. However, I do think that the question is particularly important for a number of reasons. First, it would seem strange if historians weren’t interested in the history of their own field. Second, as I’ve mentioned, the answer to the question has important implications for how we write history of science. Finally, though, the question seems to relate to a bigger question about the purpose of history of science. If history of science was once an important part of science then what does that say about the discipline now? Indeed, can the answer to that question be used as part of a case for returning history of science to scientific debate? As I’ve said, I don’t have a tidy conclusion to present on this issue but it seems worth raising the question.