Science in Low Places: A Review of A People's History of Science

Science in Low Places: A Review of A People’s History of Science

I love to seek out science history books that tell the stories of unsung heroes. Anything that doesn’t begin and end with Newton, that doesn’t praise Darwin’s work of genius, that doesn’t repeat the somber myth of Galileo’s persecution, is what I want. Clifford Conner’s 2005 book A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks” exemplifies this worthy retelling of the story of science better than anything I’ve ever read.

The epigraph in A People's History of Science reads,

"In the beginning was the word." —The Gospel according to St, John

"In the beginning was the word? . . . No, in the beginning was the deed." —Goethe, Faust

Re-balancing history

While the 500-page tome was intimidating, Conner had my deepest appreciation from page 1. He had articulated truths of science that I had always suspected but had never before seen written in a book.

If science is understood in the fundamental sense of knowledge of nature, it should not be surprising to find that it originated with the people closest to nature: hunter-gatherers, peasant farmers, sailors, miners, blacksmiths, folk healers, and others forced by the conditions of their lives to wrest the means of their survival from an encounter with nature on a daily basis.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, p. 2

It might be argued that the approach I have outlined here cannot produce a balanced account of the origins of modern science. But the historical record has long been severely unbalanced by the gentlemen’s historians and by the nature of history’s dependence on written documentation, with power relationships determining who did the writing. No history of science could be less balanced than the traditional romantic narratives of Newtons, Darwins, and Einsteins transforming the world by the force of their unique brainpower. I am deliberately “bending the stick in the other direction,” searching for the voices of the voiceless and sifting the record for very scarce evidence. . . . It is not my contention that the familiar Great Men of Science played no role or were unimportant, but that their achievements were predicated on prior contributions of artisans, merchants, midwives, and tillers of the soil—most of whom have never been thought of as great and many of whom were not men.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, pp. 4-5

Conner’s goal in A People’s History of Science was simple, and he referred back to it throughout the book. Does this idea belong in a people’s history of science? Would that history be complete without this? The many people who were left out, Conner admits, were solely because there is no way to know of their unwritten accomplishments.

A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks" by Clifford Conner

Hacking imperialistic belligerence to pieces

Chapter 1: What Science? What History? What People goes even further to determine exactly what it is that we are here to learn and what we can expect from future chapters. The 91-page-long chapter 2, Were Hunter-Gatherers Stupid? was arguably my favorite chapter, diving into science’s murky origins in prehistory and how much Indigenous and African knowledge was subsequently stolen, and then attributed to, colonizers and enslavers, respectively. There was at least one story of victory, however, in chapter 4: Blue-Water Sailors and the Navigational Sciences:

Magellan’s death resulted from his own imperialistic belligerence. Attempting to conquer Mactan, one of the Philippine islands, he “anticipated a ragged band of nearly naked warriors who would flee the moment he fired his artillery, and whose flimsy bamboo spears would be useless against impenetrable Spanish armor.” The islanders, however, surprised him; their leader, Lapu Lapu, sent fifteen hundred warriors against the Europeans’ force of about fifty. Magellan himself was hacked to pieces in the battle.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, pp. 199-200

Elitism and the Scientific Revolution

Appropriately, the Scientific Revolution marked a stark turning point in A People’s History of Science. It gets two long chapters discussing its “revolutionaries” and its “winners”, which are followed by briefer considerations of how the Scientific Revolution led to the dangerous symbiotic relationship between capitalism and science. Unfortunately, the turning point took Conner toward more intricate and higher-level discussions of the ties between the politics of the French and English Revolutions and how they and the Royal Societies they produced impacted the accessibility of science.

Ironically, Conner’s lengthy discussions of the inaccessibility of elite science and politics in the second half of the book didn’t itself feel very accessible to me as a reader. This inevitably brings me to wonder who this book was actually for. The underappreciated artisans, mechanics, and miners he praises—would their counterparts in today’s world have the means to even read A People’s History? It’s not terribly expensive, but it is very long, and it’s not the easiest read. But perhaps they already know that their forebears were always scientists. Maybe, then, A People’s History is a way for those of us in our proverbial ivory-covered offices, who don’t work with our hands, to know the stories of those who do.

Value-free science?

The leaders of the Royal Society believed that by banning ideological discussion they had thereby exorcised ideology from science, but what they had actually accomplished was to assure the monopoly of their own elitist ideology. The neutrality they promoted as the ideal of scientific objectivity was a fine-sounding abstraction, but in practice some people and some viewpoints were always “more equal” than others.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, pp. 361-362

Essentially, as Conner drives home with a quote from English Revolution historian Christopher Hill, “The Society wanted science henceforth to be apolitical—which then as now meant conservative.”

The elitist Royal Societies of the seventeenth century were not the end of scientists believing their biases to be objective truth, but just the beginning. Today,

Giving physics a privileged place among the sciences reinforces the idea that science must be “value-free,” especially with respect to social problems. In physics, the ideal of objectivity is equated with neutrality; by that definition, scientists are expected to be neutral and dispassionate with regard to the subject of their inquiry. Neutrality may be a workable stance for physicists to adopt, but in sciences that are closer to social concerns—such as medicine, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and political economy—the appeal to neutrality operates in support of the status quo, which is underpinned by racist, sexist, or bourgeois assumptions of which the scientists themselves are often unaware.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, p. 12

Why do we admire scientists?

Especially when contrasting themselves with dogmatic religious believers, today’s scientists and science enthusiasts like to see themselves as “value-free” reason machines. Therefore, it’s crucial that their predecessors, too, are seen as unyielding geniuses.

Part of the problem is that although the public understanding of history in general has been strongly influenced by professional historians, the way most people conceive of the history of science has been shaped not by historians of science but by scientists themselves, who often hold and propagate distorted conceptions of their predecessors’ practices. Scientists have a guild interest in portraying their forerunners as heroes, because it adds to the heroic stature of their profession and enhances their view of their own place in the scheme of things.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, pp. 17-18

This explanation also applies perfectly to today’s r/atheism obsession with the myths that the Christian Inquisition abused scientists like Galileo and Giordano Bruno. After leaving religion, many atheists see themselves in Galileo: a genius who perceives the world clearly while everyone around them is blinded by religion, literally stuck in the Dark Ages. The genius is persecuted by the Church, which is too backward and too proud to change their ways. They’ll see one day that the genius skeptic was right all along.

If these internet atheists admit that Galileo, Darwin, and Newton were all building off of the foundation built not only by the technology of skilled artisans but by social and political change stirring in the world around them, then what does that mean for them? Are the r/atheism Galileo fans not heroic geniuses either? Is their atheist awakening due more to the fact that there is an abundance of information debunking the Bible out there than it is to their raw knowledge and superior intellect? If Galileo wasn’t persecuted, then are they not either?

The dependence of science on technology

You can see this insistence of science’s objective superiority start to falter when you consider how doggedly science historians have arbitrarily asserted that technology is not science.

Science is a more sophisticated activity than technology. With technology, one knows how to do something, or when something will occur. With science, one has a theory and an explanation of why such a thing should happen. A good example is the production of iron tools. One can mine iron ore and go through the processes of refining and forging iron without having any idea of the nature of those processes or why they work. If so, one has only technology. Or one might have a theory which allows one to explain each step of the process, and so understand what is going on. One might then be said to have science. Many ancient societies clearly had technology. . . . All societies have had some form of technology. We might even say that some animals have a rudimentary technology, since they use tools (e.g., birds using stones to break open snail shells). We would not say, though, that they have science. Science is a step beyond technology, requiring at least the attempt to explain and understand.

Andrew Gregory, Eureka!, pp. 6-7

Why not?

Without technology, science can’t do much at all. Modern physics and astronomy would be practically impossible. And while Aristotle and Galileo are both worshipped by most science historians, Aristotle is known to have produced scores of ideas that were almost all wrong and kept science shackled for centuries. Galileo, while not a lone genius, got a lot more right than Aristotle did. The difference? The telescope, invented by an unnamed “simple maker of ordinary spectacles.”

Rigidly separating the histories of science and technology serves to reinforce the fallacious notion that science arose from the realm of pure thought, floating in the clouds above the world of mundane human pursuits. An undistorted picture of the development of modern science requires recognition and acceptance of its entwinement with technology, often to the point of their not being recognizable as distinct entities.

Clifford Conner, A People’s History of Science, p. 15

If you think you know the “true” history of science, even if you know Nicholas of Cusa, Bi Sheng, Onesimus, and al-Khwarizmi, A People’s History of Science will blow your view of science history wide open. I know it did for me.

What do you think?