Phrases in the history of science that should be abolished, banned, forbidden, eradicated, annihilated, obliterated, eliminated, jettisoned, extirpated…

Patricia Fara has written a new biography of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ paternal grandfather and a significant eighteenth century intellectual figure in his own right. Ms Fara is an excellent historian of science and a skilful and entertaining writer whose books are usually to be recommended. Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt also tells me that she is an excellent teacher but I digress. I for one welcome this publication and look forward, in the fullness of time, to acquiring a copy and reading it. So I was pleased when I stumbled across the article on the Oxford University Press’ blog advertising it. Pleased that is until I read the phrase out of the text used as a header for the article:

Erasmus Darwin’s views on evolution, politics and religion were so controversial that he was written out of history [My emphasis] for nearly two centuries.

I don’t know about you but the phrase “written out of history” evokes in me images of George Orwell’s 1984 and the re-writing of the history books, newspapers etc. every time the countries involved in the global war switched alliances. Or maybe those Stalinist era Politburo Mayday Parade photographs in which prominent politicians have been airbrushed out because they have, in the meantime, been shipped off to the Gulag for some real or imagined offense against the ruling party.

Whatever else might have happened to him in the last two hundred plus years, dear OUP, Erasmus Darwin has at no time been “written out of history”. If you mean that, in your opinion, he has not received the attention that he deserves from historians then say so, but don’t try to express your opinion in some sort of meaningless and completely false hyperbolic bovine excreta.


Filed under Book Reviews

17 responses to “Phrases in the history of science that should be abolished, banned, forbidden, eradicated, annihilated, obliterated, eliminated, jettisoned, extirpated…

  1. Michal Meyer

    Hmm, that OUP bloggy blurb says to me that the intended audience is a general one that knows little to nothing about Erasmus Darwin and his context. It’s the heroic figure approach of one man standing for truth and against the world, etc. Like a book jacket design it’s intended to get people to pick up the book and open it. Doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s inside.

    • Even if, as you correctly surmise, the book is intended for the general, shall we say better educated, reader it still doesn’t alter the fact that the good old Erasmus has never been “written out of history”. Neglected by historian perhaps, although I don’t think that is even true, but definitely not “written out”!

      • Michal Meyer

        True. But “unjustly neglected by historians” is far less dramatic than “written out of history.”. It’s easier to drum up interest in the latter. I wonder if we’ve become more sensationalist as a culture and have lost all interest in subtlety. The only way to get someone’s attention is to metaphorically hit them over the head, leaving accuracy by the wayside. Perhaps I’m channeling the lead up to the US elections, which seems more about drama and spectacle. I think I no longer expect truth in advertising.

      • I lead a quixotic campaign of utter futility against hyperbole in writings on the history of science.

      • Michal Meyer

        Keep the campaign going!

      • I will! I’m like the Ancient Mariner cursed to fight my demons until they or I are no more.

      • Michal Meyer

        I’ve been thinking about this some more, not specifically Patricia Fara’s new book, but more generally about writing for a general audience. (By the way her book on electricity in the 18th century was a huge help to me when I had to quickly put together a survey course.) My assumption is that most people know next to nothing about the history of science so that almost any engaging book about history of science is better than nothing. In a way it’s like learning science – what people learn in high school is, if not exactly wrong, superseded by what they learn at university. The question then becomes how curious they are. Many will be happy with the old model of science or history. Some will want more and these people are your audience.

      • I hope that you noticed that I praised Ms Fara both as a historian of science and as a writer. I find her books very good. It was just the turn of phrase in the publishers blurb that gets up my nose!

  2. Michal Meyer

    Oh, yes. I only meant to say that she is someone who can write for a general audience and also be used in the classroom. It’s not a common combination.

  3. I completely agree with pretty much everything you say here, especially that Erasmus Darwin was never “written out of history” – IMO, to claim so is, at best, lazy or hyperbolic advertising – but in the interests of accuracy, you should probably alter “Ms Fara” to “Dr Fara”. (BTW, I’d hoped at first that it was OUP’s blurb, but it does say “By Patricia Fara” right under that heading!)

    • On a point of old fashioned principle I don’t use titles. After all I don’t refer to my plumber as Master Fixit even if he’s a master craftsman. In the interests of sexual equality I don’t refer to men by their doctor title either.

      • Ah, wasn’t aware you did that – just thought it was a typo. But in that case, why use any title/honorific/whatever you want to call “Ms” and “Mr”? Why not just say “Patricia Fara”? Some people might get offended if titles that represent something they went to quite a lot of effort to achieve aren’t acknowledged (in the context in which they were achieved: personally, I wouldn’t be particularly happy to be introduced as Ms Veneer at a conference, because in the current academic climate it might imply I was a postgrad, which would simply be inaccurate, but I don’t care if that’s what my bank call me), so why risk it?
        Out of curiosity, though it’s totally off topic, what do you call your doctor? And (how) do you deal with the customary honorifics in German? – I’m not sure I know fully what they are anyway – is “Herr Doktor” the normal one for a man with a PhD, or is that really old-fashioned?

      • I grew up with the British university convention that only physicians are referred to as “Doctor” even if they don’t have an MD. Calling academics doctor is Germanic and not good style! Later I became a 17century free thinker and rejected all forms of “hat honour”! I use Mr and Ms for people who are not personal friends or acquaintances and who might not want me as a friend. Sometimes it is used with a certain amount of irony.

        I sometimes explain my attitude with reference to Bertrand Russell. In real life he was Bertrand Arthur William 3rd Earl Russell, to his friends he was Bertie and as an academic he was Mr Russell.

        Living as I do in Germany I have a certain reputation for my refusal to follow the German conventions on forms of address. “Herr Professor Doctor” gets called “Herr” by me and if he don’t like it he can lump it. And yes German academics are still referred to “Herr Doctor”! I’m actually on first name terms with many of the profs that I know so there is very little problem there. One of my neighbours who is a lady friend as well as a high powered academic is Moni for me (short for Monika) but if I meet her in passing with her kids I call her “prof”. Again being ironical.

        On your own personal point, if you are being introduced at a conference then certainly with full academic title. It’s a convention that I accept but outside of that situation insistence on titles is an anathema for me.

  4. Great, thanks for all that context – helps me get the picture more fully. You can get some really complicated situations about people’s preferences and so on, and if someone also has an inherited title, it just gets worse. Of course, as you say, in practice, at least in any disciplines I have frequent contact with, almost everyone is on first name terms, anyway, so there’s not really the question of how to address someone so much now. When I was an undergrad it was still mostly Dr So-and-so and Prof. The-other, with a few vocal exceptions, but I’d say it’s much more first-name basis for lecturers now in that context too.
    Btw, I’ve seen some stuff about how social networking is affecting linguistic conventions in countries with the formal “you” – I think actually it was about Twitter leading to lots of French speakers to only use “tu” (maybe even just because it’s two characters shorter than “vous”!) – is that, or indeed other social changes and communication technologies, having an effect on the German “Sie”, would you say? I once worked as a language assistant in a German school where they only used “du” (or “ihr”) to emphasize equality, and teachers at other schools in the area thought it was really wierd, but that was about ten years ago now. (And apologies that this is now totally off-topic and stream-of-consciousness babbling, though there’s still a tenuous history of science theme!)

  5. Keynyn Brysse

    I’m enjoying the stories of your quest to eradicate misleading exaggerations in HPS. When I finish my book on the history of K-T mass extinction research, I hope you’ll proofread it for me – I tend to get a bit too passionate in my defense of paleontologists against disciplinary invaders, so there may be some inadvertent hyperbole involved. 😉

    I love having earned the right to be called “Dr.”, but it gets me a lot of weird looks from bank tellers and salespeople (when they hear what I do or see my credit card with “Dr.” on it). Apparently my appearance does not fit the preconceived notion of who a doctor is…

    • One of my favourite archaeologists, who was a very good friend, was a distinguished Professor Doctor who looked like a Roman god, black curly hair and an aquiline nose. His standard attire was a black leather motorcycle suit with red silk lining and a gold earring in his left ear and this was in the 1970s! Not exactly what people who didn’t already know him expected to see.

  6. Erasmus Who? Never heard of her.

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