Political correctness and the history of science

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will be already aware that the historian David Wootton has written a new book entitled The Invention of Science: A New History of The Scientific Revolution; in The Times (unfortunately behind a pay wall) Gerard DeGroot doesn’t so much review the book as perform a very nasty, vindictive hatchet job on it. DeGroot doesn’t just raise the spectre of eurocentrism in his critic he formally slaps Wootton in the face with it from the very opening paragraph of his review. This raises the question as to whether he is right to do so and whether Wootton is guilty as charged. Before I address these points I would like to briefly review what exactly eurocentrism with respect to the history of science is.

There used to be a brief standard sketch of the history of science, that probably arose some time in the Enlightenment but which owes much of its ethos to Renaissance historiography. This outline usually goes something like this. Science[1] was invented by the ancient Greeks. After the collapse of civilisation in the Dark Ages (a deliberate use of a discredited term here) science was rescued and conserved (but not changed or added to) by the Islamic Empire before being retrieved in the Renaissance by the Europeans, who then went on to create modern science in the Scientific Revolution. This piece of mythology reflected the triumphalist historiography of a colonialist Europe in the throws of dominating and exploiting large parts of the rest of the world.

During the twentieth century historians, many of them Europeans, dismantled this piece of fiction and began to explore and elucidate the histories of science of other cultures such as Egypt, Babylon, China, India and the Islamic Empire, creating in the process a much wider and infinitely more complex picture of the history of science, consisting of transfers of knowledge across space and time throughout the last approximately four thousand years. This newly acquired knowledge exposed anybody who still insisted on propagating part or all of the earlier fairy story to the charge of eurocentrism, a charge that when considering the whole of the history of science is more than justified.

Unfortunately, as I have commented in the past, this also led to an over zealous backlash on behalf of the previously wronged cultures particularly on the Internet. One only needs to state that X (a European) discovered/invented Y (some piece of science, technology, medicine, mathematics…) for some over assiduous commentator (almost always not a historian of science) to pop up saying, that’s not true Z (an Indian, Islamic, Chinese, or whatever scholar) discovered/invented Y long before X was even born. Occasionally these claims are correct but much more often they are inaccurate, exaggerated or just plain false. Any attempt to correct the informant leads inevitably to an accusation of eurocentrism. Eurocentrism has become a sort of universal weapon used indiscriminately whether it is applicable or not.

Wootton’s book deals not with a general universal history of science but as it very clearly states in its subtitle with the Scientific Revolution a historical episode that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period. Whether one is, as a historian, a ‘revolutionary’ or a ‘gradualist’ there is no doubt that following its reintroduction into Europe during the High Middle Ages that which we call science, irrespective of its original sources, underwent a radical change that led to the emergence by, at the latest, the nineteenth century, science as we know it today. The major difference between Wootton and myself is that he thinks this process took place almost entirely within the seventeenth century whereas I see a timeframe stretching from the fourteenth century to at least the middle of the eighteenth.

Wootton is writing about a historical phenomenon that took place exclusively within Europe to accuse him of eurocentrism is to say the least perverse. If this were not a European phenomenon then the so-called Needham question would simply be nonsensical. Joseph Needham (1900-195) was the twentieth century’s greatest historian of Chinese science and instigator of the monumental, on going seven volume Science and Civilisation in China. The question that Needham posed runs as follows “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation or Indian civilisation?” He could have equally well have posed the same question for the Islamic Empire. Many historians have tacked this question respective the three cultures and their answers are as diverse, as they are inconclusive. Some approach the question by trying to address the reasons for the decline of science and technology in China, India or the Islamic Empire whereas others try to isolate the factors that led to the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Although he doesn’t directly address the Needham question Wootton’s can be seen as an example of the latter.

If I were to be charitable to DeGroot it would appear that his main error lies in his interpretation of the word science as used by Wootton in his main title. It is clear that what Wootton intends is ‘modern science’ as used by Needham in the quote of his famous question above. DeGroot, I think disingenuously choses it to mean any form of scientific activity from anywhere and anytime in human history. We can see this conflict of interpretations in the following quotes from DeGroot:

…to assert that science was invented between certain dates in western European history automatically imposes a proprietary right – by defining science in a certain way it becomes, in essence, European.

[…]

A different intellectual climate existed in India, China and the Middle East, [in the Middle Ages] however. Outside Europe, minds were more open to progress and curiosity fired scientific enquiry. For instance great strides were made in pure and applied mathematics, optics, astronomy and medicine in the Middle East long before Columbus set sail [Wootton sees 1492 and Columbus’ first voyage as the starting point of the Scientific Revolution]. As early as the 10th century, brilliant scientists (not exclusively Muslim) were drawn to centres of learning in Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. These scholars considered Europe an intellectual backwater, yet hardly get a mention in this book. In other words, the so-called Scientific Revolution seems like a revolution only if we ignore what was happening outside Europe.

The first quote is a clear accusation of eurocentrism and the second is DeGroot’s attempt to justify his accusation. Nothing he writes in the second quote is wrong but also none of it has any real relevance to the book that David Wootton has written. Interesting is his attempt to deny that the Scientific Revolution ever took place. Whether you think that the very real change in the nature of science that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period did so in the form of a revolution or more gradually over a longer timeframe to deny its very existence is to fly in the face of the historical facts. Whatever happened in the Islamic Empire between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the Golden Age of Islamic science, other than provided some of the foundations on which Kepler, Galileo, Newton et al built their new science, none of it had very much relevance to what took place in Europe in the seventeenth century.

This point is spelled out very clearly by A. Mark Smith in his recently published book, From Sight to Light, an essential volume for anybody interested in the history of optics. Smith’s book is a counter argument to David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Lindberg had argued that Kepler was, so to speak, the crowning glory of the European perspectivist tradition of optics that begins with the introduction of the work of Ibn al-Haytham into Europe in the thirteenth century. Following the same path, starting with ancient Greek optics, Smith, an expert on al-Haytham and Arabic optics, wants to show that Kepler is in fact a break with the perspectivist tradition and a new beginning in the theory of optics, a revolution if you will. Well aware that he might face charges of eurocentrism Smith devotes several pages of his introductions to explaining why such a charge would not be justified. He closes his explanation with the following paragraph:

The same holds for the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It may well be that certain key ideas, laws and concepts that contributed to that evolution were anticipated by Arabic or, for that matter, Indian, Chinese or Mesoamerican thinkers. And it is certainly the case that there was a lively cross-cultural marketplace of commodities and ideas between the Latin “West” and Arabic “East” throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fact remains, though, that it was in Europe that those ideas, laws, concepts were eventually assimilated, refined, channelled, and combined in such a way as to form the basis of what most of us today would characterize as modern optics. Any claim to the contrary strikes me as historically perverse. Furthermore, to contend that the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries happened in Europe is not to give Europe proprietary rights to that science or to accord Europe cultural exceptionalism or superiority for having developed it. I therefore strongly resist any charge of being trapped, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in some grand, master narrative or of engaging in hegemonic discourse.

If we substitute modern science for modern optics in Smith’s eloquent speech for the defence I think we can safely reject as baseless the accusations of eurocentrism that DeGroot makes against Wootton.

 

[1] Throughout this post I shall be using the word science as a collective noun for science, technology, medicine and mathematics to save time and effort whilst writing.

15 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Myths of Science

15 responses to “Political correctness and the history of science

  1. Baerista

    Is this the same Gerard De Groot who teaches 20th century British and American history at St Andrews? If so, The Times are putzes for soliciting a review for this book from him and he’s a putz for accepting the invitation. When was the last time David Lindberg or A. Mark Smith reviewed a book on twentieth-century history in a major national newspaper?

  2. theofloinn

    science, technology, medicine and mathematics

    It may well be that these four things are also distinct enough that their development proceeded differently in different times and places. Needham’s Question might then, regarding China, be how did China develop an advanced technology without an advanced science?

    • In that respect, China developed an advanced technology the same way Europe did. Advanced science came much later for both of them. Sure, China had blast furnaces earlier than Europe, that counts as technology. The advanced science came much later in Europe.

    • araybold

      There is a certain level of technology that can be reached without science (or, at least, without any science that goes beyond observation). Interestingly, the steam engine (in its basic form) may fall into that category, but the telephone (to give but one example) clearly does not.

      Similarly, a certain level of science can be reached without mathematics beyond counting and measuring. That boundary falls, for example, between Faraday’s and Maxwell’s understanding of electromagnetism.

  3. Walter Hehl

    I think there is also a negatively-active component in explaining Needham’s paradox. Both in China and in Islamic countries, there was a strong political and social influence and trend of wrong Ego-Centricity (nice to compare to the notion Eurocentricity).

    In China, there were several political reasons, probably explainable by the shear size of China, leading to the destruction of the naval fleet:
    “Zhu Gaochi, as soon as he was enthroned as the Hongxi Emperor in September 1424, cancelled Zheng He’s maritime expeditions permanently, burned down the fleet, and abolished frontier trade …”

    In Islam, as in early-mediaval-Christianity, there is the basic feeling that “we have everything important in Couran and Hadiths”, winning against the softer attitude “we will learn how God made the world”.
    A “nice” proof of negative action was the destruction of the observatory of Istanbul at about the same time as Tycho Brahe’s observatory delivered the foundation for Kepler’s math:
    “Taqi ad-Din was able to carry on his observations for a few more years but eventually opponents of the observatory and prognostication from the heavens prevailed and the observatory was destroyed in 1580. Other sources give the “rise of a clerical faction,” which opposed or at least was indifferent to science, and specifically to “the recommendation of the Chief Mufti” of the Ottomans, as the explanation for the destruction of the observatory.”
    The quotes are from the respective Wikipedia articles.

    • Walter, thanks for the passages on Taqi ad-Din; I hadn’t heard of him before. Regarding the wiki pages, here’s a different account (it’s written clearly by a writer with English as a second language, but suffice to say that Taqi comes across in this account as something of a Galileo persona, a prickly pear of a man). The “bad religious man destroyed the observatory story” sounds dodgy, from what I can glean from this:

      http://www.dailysabah.com/features/2015/06/12/legends-about-taqi-al-din-and-the-demolished-ottoman-observatory

      Thanks again for the mention of the man though (I have a specific interest in late Islamic scholars who had a (possible) lingering influence on Europeans.)

      Dermot.

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  6. James

    Toby Huff in his The Rise of Early Modern Science (1993) makes a similar argument, focusing on the institutional developments in Europe, particularly the legal system, that paved the way for the medieval university and the subsequent rise of modern scientific thought.

  7. Chris Mannering

    Lies, damn lies and…..a disappointing 10th century Chinese firecracker leads inexorably to the 1969 Apollo 5 and the Moon landing.

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