The Chronicle Review

Vial and Error

Science’s wonders are oft built on blunders

Katy Lemay for The Chronicle Review

January 10, 2016

Does hindsight matter in history? From one perspective, the answer must always be a resounding "yes." We pay more attention to the education of a schoolboy in Switzerland named Albert, even before he himself had performed any calculations of note, than to that of his peers. Without this awareness of future significance, the actual labor of doing history would be frustratingly haphazard: endless errands into the wilderness of the past, searching for meaning amid the flotsam of forgotten lives.

It’s worth noting that advocates of social history have made eloquent cases for precisely this type of labor in the archives of the ordinary and the unremembered. But how should we proceed in a field like the history of science, which by its very nature tends to gravitate around people and concepts that truly did change the world?

In recent decades, historians of science have argued that hindsight isn’t 20/20 after all. When we employ present-day knowledge about what ideas and methods ended up being significant and what fell by the wayside, we risk writing histories that cherry-pick scientists’ triumphs and exclude their numerous — and instructive — wrong turns. Historical actors glide through such "teleological" histories as if set on tracks, moving inexorably from famous event to famous event. We rarely gain insight into what they busied themselves with when not making epochal discoveries that would later be inscribed in history books. They resemble the clockwork automata that so fascinated Descartes, seeming human but never quite being human.

Now two new books, Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science and David Wootton’s The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, mount spirited defenses of teleology in the history of science. They are sure to be popular among both the general public and scientists interested in the genesis of their field. And not undeservedly: Both Weinberg and Wootton demonstrate remarkable erudition, and both achieve the difficult feat of condensing hundreds of years and thousands of players into engaging and readable prose. Weinberg’s To Explain the World is a sprightly and lively effort that revisits the technical achievements of such luminaries as Aristotle and Lavoisier from the ever-curious vantage point of a celebrated physicist. Wootton’s The Invention of Science digs deeper into the critical period between 1572 and 1704, marshaling a tremendous amount of research into primary sources to reframe the history of the Scientific Revolution as a progressive voyage of intellectual discovery.

For all their celebration of innovation, though, these books are markedly intellectually conservative. By emphasizing only those facets of scientists’ lives that resulted in famous discoveries, Weinberg and Wootton allow the eccentric, the outlandish, and the human to drop out of the stories they tell. There is much on Galileo’s cosmology and Newton’s Principia here; far less on the Galileo’s penchant for bawdy Italian humor, or Newton’s lonely obsession with biblical prophecies. Consequently, both books are very long but strangely thin.

As far back as 1931, in his book The Whig Interpretation of History, the English historian Herbert Butterfield challenged the portrayal of history as a triumphal journey from ignorance to progress. The trouble, as he pointed out, is that the poles of progress and ignorance tend to flip depending on what ideological side you happen to be standing on:

It matters very much whether we take the Protestants of the 16th century as men who were fighting to bring about our modern world while the Catholics were struggling to keep the medieval, or whether we take the whole present as the child of the whole past and see rather the modern world emerging from the clash of both Catholic and Protestant.

Taking "the whole present as the child of the whole past" means attempting as far as possible to avoid picking sides after the fact: not to tag one group of historical actors as "modern" and another as "backward," or to assume that history is moving toward this or that ultimate conclusion (after all, when is the present anything but a moving target?).

The goal, Butterfield argued, is not to tally the wins and losses of opposing sides in history, but to document, to understand, to inhabit. Social historians of science took up this mantle with gusto in the 1970s and 1980s, emphasizing the communal construction of scientific "matters of fact" and the larger historical contexts — gender relations, capitalism, European imperialism — that helped shape what intellectual and technical questions were asked, and who answered them.

Wootton, in particular, makes no apologies for disdaining this approach to the history of science. If hard-boiled relativists of the style he reviles were indeed lurking in the 2010s academy — scholars who argue against any notion of progress and believe that even the forces of nature are shaped by cultural relativism — his arguments would be commendable. Alas, his targets here consist primarily of repurposed 1990s straw.

By emphasizing only those facets of scientists' lives that resulted in discoveries, historians allow the human to drop out of their stories.
Most notably, Wootton takes great pains to portray the Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin as a feckless relativist who denies any notion of scientific progress. What, then, are we to make of Shapin’s review of Wootton’s previous book, Bad Medicine (2007), in which Shapin acknowledges "genuine and substantial medical progress" in recent centuries? Shapin’s point — as with many of the other scholars whom Wootton sets up as so many one-dimensional targets to be shot down — is not that scientific or medical progress does not exist. It is that understanding the historical trajectory of progress depends upon an awareness of its gaps, its uneven distribution, and the lived experiences of those who participated in it. "If you want to understand the past in its own terms," Shapin points out, echoing Butterfield, "it’s not very constructive to start out by awarding prizes and assigning blame." Yet it doesn’t suit Wootton’s rhetorical style to acknowledge any common ground with this perspective. By framing his narrative as a righteous condemnation of history of science as a field, Wootton fails to do justice to the work of the scholars whose shoulders he stands on.

These forays into academic squabbling are, thankfully, mainly restricted to the book’s final chapter. The reader of The Invention of Science will first encounter an excellent overview of the classical intellectual legacy in the 15th and 16th centuries, then a series of thematically grouped chapters dealing with the upheaval of Greco-Roman intellectual conformity that Wootton argues flowed inexorably from the voyages of Columbus and their revelation of worlds undreamed of by the ancients. Etymologically inflected chapters dealing with the emergence of important concepts like "fact" and "evidence" are particularly original. Stylistically, Wootton is sure-footed throughout, a witty counterweight to the occasionally leaden Weinberg. Every few pages, one comes across a memorable construction like the following: "Ingrassia could keep the stirrup bone; Falloppio had discovered the clitoris."

Yet what does it mean to write, in 2015, of the discovery of the clitoris — or of the Americas, for that matter? These are, after all, things that were surely rather well known, in their basic particulars, to a sizable portion of humanity before they made their way into Wootton’s pantheon. Throughout The Invention of Science, Wootton conflates the revelation of phenomena (like cells or Jovian satellites) that were demonstrably unknown to any human being before their scientific description, with a far more debatable notion of discovery as the act of Western European men who, in his words, "got there first" — even when these discoveries were surely not entirely unknown to (for instance) women or pre-Columbian Americans. (To make matters worse, considering the central role he plays in Wootton’s argument, Columbus was not even the first European male to reach the New World, and, regardless, he steadfastly maintained that his voyages had brought him to the East Indies rather than to unknown lands.)

Lest this seem like mere pedantry, it’s worth pointing out that politics has always stood at the core of the "Whig interpretation" that both Wootton and Weinberg now champion. In a recent New York Review of Books essay, Weinberg essentially equated Whig history with the belief that historians ought to include moral judgments in their analyses of the past. He argued further that the fear of adopting this supposedly unfashionable intellectual posture has made historians of science afraid of the big picture and oriented toward "small episodes, tightly focused in time and space." Yet it is not moral judgment or narrative sweep that makes Whig history potentially misleading. Rather, the core danger of the Whig interpretation is its tendency to produce simplified and celebratory interpretations of a complex past that has been rewritten to favor history’s victors.

When he coined the term "Whig history," Butterfield described it as "the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present." If we are to grapple honestly with the legacy of early modern Europeans rather than to simplify them into heralds of a shining modernity, we need to do more than assert (as Wootton does) that Columbus searching for gold dust in the Caribbean or Diogo Cão erecting a pillar at the mouth of the Congo was part the same "celebration of innovation" that motivated early scientists. The early Iberian mariners were intrepid seamen, to be sure — yet many of them were also religious fanatics, murderers, and slave traders, a fact that Wootton’s triumphalist vision of their "discovery" of already- occupied lands elides.

Science involves not only a commitment to innovation but an appreciation of mystery.
Although he is unrepentant about offering up a history of science in its most heroic mode, Steven Weinberg makes it clear from the outset that he is striving not to refute existing scholarly narratives, but simply to offer an idiosyncratic personal angle on a familiar topic. To Explain the World is, in his words, "an irreverent history." And as a result, it is in many ways a more successful and more readable effort than The Invention of Science. Weinberg acknowledges throughout that science constantly evolves and that scientists "may today be repeating some of the errors of the past." He writes that, in contrast to what he regards as the unmerited certitude of many classical authorities, "scientific research is more honestly reported as a tangle of deduction, induction and guesswork." He also notes that the modern notions of "science" and "experiment" are anachronistic in discussions of Greek and medieval natural philosophy. This is all to his credit.

As one would expect from a Nobel-winning physicist, Weinberg displays an easy mastery of the mathematical and scientific material he grapples with. My wife (trained as an electrical engineer) found the formula-laden "Technical Notes" at the end of Weinberg’s book to be fascinating and unexpected, as I suspect other readers with a STEM background will. Even those with a less technical bent will still appreciate Weinberg’s clear elucidation of the mathematical reasoning of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and other canonical names whose actual works, too often, are summarized into simplistic aphorisms by popular histories.

Elsewhere, however, Weinberg seems not to have fully thought through the implications of his pro-teleology stance. This is especially evident in his own critique of Aristotle’s teleological view of nature. Weinberg describes Aristotle’s belief that "things are what they are because of the purpose they serve" as a perspective that "became an obstacle for the history of science." When, a few pages later, Weinberg quotes the historian of science David Lindberg regarding the question of whether we should "judge Aristotle’s successes by the degree to which he anticipated modern science" (Lindberg says no), our author demurs: "I don’t buy it." Judging history of science from a "presentist" perspective is, in Weinberg’s view, "indispensable if what one wants is to understand how science progressed from its past to its present." Yet if it is problematic to frame the natural world as following an internal logic that pushes it toward a certain end goal, then shouldn’t we pause to reflect when we apply a similar understanding to human history? Weinberg here marshals a teleological argument to refute Aristotle’s teleology. A mind like Aristotle’s would have enjoyed the irony.

Among the most engaging aspects of Weinberg’s book is that it offers a window into the mental life of one of the 20th century’s leading scientists: Weinberg himself. Even as he paints a history of science that is largely devoid of individual personalities, he gives insights into his own lived experience as a physicist — for instance, when he casually adds, after quoting the most prominent historian of science of all, Thomas Kuhn, that "I heard Kuhn make these remarks when we both received honorary degrees from the University of Padua, and later asked him to explain." This doubling effect — the layering of Weinberg’s personal intellectual trajectory over the rather impersonal tale he tells — is one of the unexpected strengths of his book.

At their core, both To Explain the World and The Invention of Science seek to reaffirm the significance of the scientific revolution as a force in world history. Few would disagree that something fundamentally important happened in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, and that this something had to do with technological tinkering, natural philosophical experimentation, and an emerging Republic of Letters. More recently, historians such as Neil Safier, Daniela Bleichmar, and Simon Schaffer have pointed to another component of the scientific revolution: the worldwide circulation of knowledge and naturalia via print and sail. This global dimension of early science fails to figure much in either book, as does the turn toward the materiality of science championed by historians of alchemy and commerce like Pamela Smith. Neither book digs into the rich scholarship involving investigations of nature outside the borders of France, England, Germany, and Italy, or the close links between the trade networks of Indies merchants and European natural philosophers. It may be true that modern science is a Western phenomenon, but that is not the same as saying that it is European.

While reading both books, I found myself missing Carl Sagan. Though arguably a proponent of the Whig interpretation himself, Sagan was also committed to thinking about science in an eccentric, sympathetic, and big-hearted way that managed to bridge ideological divides. One definition of science offered up by Sagan was that it is "a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility." It is Sagan’s emphasis on wayward paths, human frailty, and the capacity for wonder that is missing from the neo-teleological narrative of science.

The eureka moments of humanity, from Archimedes to the present, can always be stacked in new configurations — but if all we see is a record of triumphs leading inexorably to a glorious present, these histories will fail to capture something essential about science. It involves not only a commitment to innovation, but also, perhaps even more important, an appreciation of the mysterious, the marvelous, and the enigmatic. It not only contains error — it welcomes it. It is never expected, ever restless, ever changing.

Shouldn’t its history be the same?


Benjamin Breen is an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows of Columbia University. He is writing a book on the globalization of drugs in the early modern world.