Month: October 2013

Our Pervasive Stories about Science

Shapin - The Scientific RevolutionIn an oft quoted sentence, Steven Shapin opens his The Scientific Revolution (1996) with dramatic flourish: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” He begins his introduction with a brief historical survey, citing the scholarly opinion of generations past. A familiar cast appears. Koyré had judged the scientific revolution as a “profound intellectual transformation” and a “dissolution of an older worldview.” Likewise, Buttefield had said that the scientific revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity,” reducing the Renaissance and Reformation to the “rank of mere episodes.” A. Rupert Hall also claimed that it was “an a piori redefinition of the object of philosophical and scientific inquiry.” These scholars would go on to influence and shape historical scholarship of the next generation. There was something truly “revolutionary,” “cataclysmic,” and “coherent” that occurred in seventeenth-century Europe, something that “irrevocably changed what people knew about the natural world and how they secured proper knowledge of that world.”

But his introduction Shapin also lists reasons why today’s historians of science, himself included, are reluctant to embrace such pronouncements. First, historians are no longer satisfied with treating ideas as if they were autonomous, disembodied, free-floating conceptions, and as a result have insisted on the importance of cultural and social context. Second, and related to the first, ideas ought to be understand in the context of human practices. And finally, it follows that historians now look more closely into the “who” of the scientific revolution, those who wrought such changes.

Claiming to take full account of recent scholarship about the period of the scientific revolution, he posits that science is a “historically situated and social activity and that it is to be understood in relation to the contexts in which it occurs.” He does not consider that there is “anything like an ‘essence’ of seventeenth-century science or indeed of seventeenth-century reforms in science.” He observes that important as developments in mathematical physics were in the seventeenth century, this does not provide a model adequate for explaining developments in every other area of science. For these reasons he rejects the possibility of providing a “single coherent story that could possibly capture all the aspects of science or its changes.”

In short, the historiographic notion of the scientific revolution is mistaken. The development of the modern scientific worldview was a complex process contested by many seventeenth-century practitioners (note that this is an altogether distinct argument than what I. B. Cohen and D. Lindberg have put forward): experimentalism was both advocated and rejected; mathematical methods were both celebrated and treated with doubt; mechanical conceptions of nature were seen both a defining proper science and as limited in their intelligibility and application; and the role of experience in making scientific knowledge was treated in radically different ways.

But like his predecessors, Shapin losses some nerve, claiming that his aim is not a full-scale rejection of the scientific revolution. For starters, many key figures in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw themselves as “modern.” Secondly, and quite simple, historians—like most of people—want to find meaning in history, we “want to know how we got from there to here.” The key, according to Shapin, is recognizing that “intellectual change occurred while at the same time recognizing that change is not necessarily linear or self-evident progress toward our modern way of thinking.” Shapin thus settles for the following understanding of the scientific revolution: “We can say that the seventeenth century witnessed some self-conscious and large-scale attempts to change belief, and ways of securing belief, about the natural world. And a book about the Scientific Revolution can legitimately tell a story about those attempts, whether or not they succeeded, whether or not they were contested in the local culture, whether or not they were wholly coherent.”

Shapin divides his book into three substantive chapters: “What Was Known?” “How Was It Known?” and “What Was the Knowledge For?” In “What Was Known?” Shapin gives an account of some of the major scientific advances , from Galileo to Newton, from cosmology to microscopy, from the mechanical philosophy to the mathematization of nature. It was Copernicus and Galileo who established a new cosmology. Boyle and Descartes popularized the new mechanical philosophy. And Kepler and Newton ushered in a mathematical framework for natural philosophy.

But Shapin also wants to divulge the complexity in what was known. Galileo’s discovery of sunspots, along with a body of other observations and theorizing, “profoundly questioned a fundamental Aristotelian distinction between the physics of the heavens and that of the earth.” According to that tradition, the sun, stars, and planets obeyed different physical principles than did those objects on earth. In their domains there was no change and no imperfection. Galileo was not simply documenting observational data from his telescope, he was undermining the “traditionally accepted belief that the sun was immaculately and immutably perfect.” Thus when some (careless) historians claim that Copernicanism demoted humans from their egocentric center, what heliocentrism actually did was wrest the immutable to the mutable, to an earthly existence which was regarded as miserable and corrupt.

Aristotelian physics also came into question. Aristotle and his followers believed that natural motion had a developmental character. “Bodies naturally moved so as to fulfill their natures, to transform the potential into the actual, to move toward where it was naturally for them to be.” In some sense, Aristotelian physics was modeled on biology and employed explanatory categories similar to those used to comprehend living things. Thus with Copernicus and Galileo the teleological and animistic features of the traditional physics of motion were rejected.

The framework that modern natural philosophers preferred was one that explicitly modeled nature on the characteristics of a machine. Descartes, for instance, announced that “there is no difference between the machines built by artisans in the diverse bodies that nature alone composes.” And of all mechanical constructions whose characteristics might serve as a model for the natural world it was a clock more than any other that appealed to many early modern natural philosophers. Kepler, for instance, described his aim as the attempt to “show that the machine of the universe is not similar to a divine animated being, but similar to a clock.” Boyle likewise wrote that the natural world was “as it were, a great piece of clockwork.” Thus Boyle, Kepler, Descartes and other mechanical philosophers recommended the clock metaphor as a philosophically legitimate way of understanding how the natural world was put together and how it functioned. But this mechanical account of nature was anything but atheistic. In fact, mechanical philosophy was used to defend monotheism, and was explicitly contrasted with the anthropomorphism and animism, or occultism, of much traditional natural philosophy.

The mathematization of reality was just as a complex process has its mechanization. Early modern natural philosophers turned to Pythagoras and especially Plato to legitimate a mathematical treatment of the world, quoting Plato’s dictum that “the world was God’s epistle written to mankind” and that “it was written in mathematical letters.” Thus Shapin concludes in the first chapter that there can be no “facile generalizations” about Copernicanism, mechanical philosophy, or the mathematization of nature.

In “How Was It Known?” Shapin deals with experience, experiment, and authentication. Among the topics covered are Bacon’s advocacy of a new method, Boyle’s pump experiments, observational methods, development of experimentalism, and the formation of the Royal Society. Shapin argues that the seventeenth century’s supposed emphasis on experience and observation over authority was not as clear-cut as banal versions of the scientific revolution have always insisted. Modernist rhetoric embracing a totally new and wholly rejecting the past does not adequately describe historical reality. The very identity and practice of early modern astronomy, for example, depended on observational data compiled by the ancients. Copernicus himself, and many of his followers, liked to argue that heliocentrism was in fact an ancient view, corrupted over the centuries, and only renewed or restored in modern times. Newton likewise believed that natural philosophy had been corrupted over generations, and that his life work would restore it to its original, pristine quality.

But what was said to be overwhelmingly wrong with existing natural philosophical traditions was its dependence on textual authority. “The proper object of natural philosophical examination,” Shapin writes, “was not the traditionally valued books of human authors but the Book of Nature.”

This is the root idea of modern empiricism, the view that proper knowledge of nature is derived from direct sense experience. But as Shapin is careful to note, both the practice of observation and the credibility of observation reports in the early modern period could be intensely problematic. “It is important to understand how precarious experience might be and how much work was required to constitute it as reliable.” Christian theology, for example, proclaimed that the senses of human beings following the Fall were utterly corrupt, and that reliable knowledge could not be trusted by such debased sources.

One way of resolving this problem has already been mentioned: one was to get ahead by going back, progress through restoration. Newton, for example saw his task as recovering the lost wisdom of the ancients, and he undertook painstaking philological studies to support this enterprise.

What kind of experience was to be sought? How was it reliably attained? And how was one to infer from experience to general principles about the natural order? As Shapin points out, “what counted in one practice as reliably constituted experience, and reliable inference, was commonly identified by another as insecure or unphilosophical.” Indisputable and universal conclusions require indisputable and universal premises. The testifying person might be lying or deluded; the instruments used might distort rather than merely observe the natural order of things; the events reported might be not ordinary but anomalous.

According to Shapin, many seventeenth-century practitioners developed a new and quite different approach to experience. Bacon, for example, argued that the condition for a proper natural philosophy was its foundation in a laboriously compiled factual register of natural history — a catalog, compilation, a collection of all the effects one observed in nature. Yet the emblematic feature of modern natural philosophical practice was that it relied for its empirical content not just on naturally available experience but also on experiments artificially and purposefully contrived to produce phenomenon that might not be observed in the normal course of nature.

This brings us to Shapin’s discussion of “controlling experience.” Bacon judged the ills of contemporary natural philosophy, and then proffered a set of rules for “careful and severe” examination. One rule was collection, thus justifying the programmatic “cabinets curiosities” then fashionable in gentlemanly circles throughout Europe. But perhaps most important rule, for Bacon and others, was proper method. Method was what made knowledge about the natural world possible. Despite the stress on direct sensory experience, Bacon argued that uninstructed senses were apt to deceive and that the senses needed to be methodically disciplined if they were to yield proper knowledge. Thus one can only arrive at proper knowledge through a disciplined or instructed mind. What is meant by “discipline” and “instructed”? It depended on the natural philosopher you asked. This is, according to Shapin, the fragmented knowledge-making legacies of the seventeenth century.

In the third and final chapter, “What Was the Knowledge For?” Shapin treats the cultural uses of natural knowledge. In an extended discussion of natural knowledge and state power, he considers Bacon’s views on the ways that natural philosophy could increase such power, which provides the context for his examination of the establishment of the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences. He demonstrates the ways in which natural knowledge was used to reinforce religious belief and theology. He concludes by asserting that this contextualized understanding of early modern science “as the contingent, diverse, and at times deeply problematic product of interested, morally concerned, historically situated people” seems paradoxical, because it was the interests of such people that led to the modern separation between science and religion and between science and society.

In the end, what remains of the scientific revolution? According to Shapin, it was “a diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining, and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change.” Consequently, nothing remains here of the idea the Scientific Revolution. Shapin’s Scientific Revolution is not a critique of science. Rather, it is a critique of “pervasive stories we tend to be told about science.”

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The “Scientific Revolution” as a Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Humanist Invention

Our discussion thus far has focused on the historiographic category of the scientific revolution as the invention of eighteenth-century thinkers. But some years ago David C. Lindberg had argued, in his “Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Butterfield: A preliminary sketch,” D. C. Lindberg and R. S. Westman, Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (1990), that modern conceptions of the scientific revolution are actually an “outgrowth and continuation of historiographic traditions and European self-perceptions rooted in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian humanism.” In works of Petrarch (1304-1374), Boccaccio (1313-1375), and others, for example, we see what would become the “standard humanist account, the decline and fall of Rome introduced a thousand-year period of cultural darkness and stagnation,” during which the classics succumbed to religious dogmatism under the “rude vulgarity of the scholastics.”

Petrarch found solace in the works of the ancients, seeing the return to antiquity among his contemporaries as ushering in the beginning of the new, improved age, a “rebirth.” Indeed, a number of authors saw in their “new” work a return to the “old.” This included Nicholaus of Cusa (1401- 1464), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), his associate Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597), Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Peter Ramus (1515-1572), and many more. “The forward movements of the Renaissance,” once wrote Frances A. Yates, “all derive their vigor, their emotional impulse, from looking-backwards.”

Sixteenth-century Protestant authors were also apt to see a connection between the return to ancient sources and the reformation of Christianity. Criticism of the institutional Catholic Church and an emphasis on the original Christian gospels promoted by sola scriptura called for a quest for “true Christianity,” a return to a pristine religion. For example, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples (1455-1536), John Calvin’s teacher and the man who paved the way for the Reformation in France, was a Christian humanist who advocated not only a reformation of religious life and the dissemination of the Bible in the vernacular, but also a return to the ancient teachings of Hermes Trismegistus and the Hermetic Traditon.

Thus when, in the course of the seventeenth century, the new science came in for appraisal, that appraisal was powerfully shaped by historical categories and terminology devised by Renaissance humanists. According to J. B. Bury (1861-1927) and R. F. Jones (1886-1965), seventeenth-century scholars repudiated antiquity for the “new philosophy,” advanced by the constant invocation of “the new” in their works, such as Kepler’s New Astronomy, Bacon’s New Organon, Galileo’s Two New Sciences and so on.

But Bury and Jones read these titles at face value. “Seventeenth-century attitudes toward antiquity,” writes Lindberg, “looked at as a whole rather than scoured for ‘proof texts,’ are more complex and nuanced, and far more positive in tone.”

In other words, Bury and Jones—and still many today—were deceived by appearances. Dan Edelstein has demonstrated that the seventeenth-century was not a quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns; no, it was the formation of an idea—or more accurately, a narrative—of progress that thinkers like Voltaire, Condorcet and others constructed, and that later scholars took up without question. Voltaire, for example, in his Essay on the Manners and the Spirit of Nations (1747-1751) and his Age of Louis XIV (1752) aimed to “write a history of the human spirit, of manner and customs, based on the premise of indefinite progress.” Although he never offered a connected account of the development of natural philosophy, “his many passing comments added up to an influential interpretation” that saw history as stages of progress.

This optimism of progress reached a crescendo in Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit hamain (1795), where he pronounced the triumph of Christianity as “the signal for the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.” Thus the progress we see in the seventeenth-century, according to Condorcet, was quite dramatic, revolutionary in fact. Key figures in his scheme are, of course, Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes.

What is remarkable about this scheme, says Lindberg, is its “unanimity of opinion.” “Everybody who addressed the question accepted a tripartite division of cultural history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods.” Antiquity was a glorious period of vast learning, only to be followed in the medieval period by total darkness, and now finally, in their own, modern period, the light of the ancients have returned, alongside the new lights of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton.

This same schema of progress and periodization continued in historiographic developments of the nineteenth century. We see it, for example, in Auguste Comte (1798-1857), William Whewell (1794-1866) and others. According to Comte, all sciences pass inevitably through three stages: the theological, or fictitious, in which the human mind seeks essences and ultimate causes; the metaphysical stage, in which nature and abstract forces are substituted for divinity as the causes of phenomena; and finally the stage of “positive” science which the mind gives up the quest for absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena and applies itself to the study of their laws.

For Whewell science proceeds by progressive generalization, from bare facts to general truths. Old truths are never truly overturn but are modified by subsequent discoveries and become a permanent part of the body of knowledge. According to Lindberg, Whewell’s purpose was to “establish his philosophy of science on the basis of historical investigation.” As such Whewell ventured a detailed history of the sciences—from Greek natural philosophy to the achievements of his own era. But predictably in his account the accomplishments of antiquity were followed by the long, stagnate, Middle Ages, a time of darkness, subservience, and dogmatism.

Lindberg then follows with an account of how medieval science was rehabilitated by scholars such as Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), and Lynn Thorndike (1882-1965), and, as a result, for the first time in over three hundred years, the traditional schema and periodization came under serious historical attack.

But this new group of scholars encountered stiff opposition from the outset. The counterattack, led by Burtt, Koyré, and Butterfield, reasserted the significance of the scientific revolution, and thus the schema and periodization of a previous generation of scholars.

Therefore what distinguishes Lindberg’s account of the historiographic history of the scientific revolution from others, including I. Bernard Cohen’s, is his interest in the conceptions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science and natural philosophy. This conception of the progress of knowledge and a shared periodization of history is, according to Lindberg, a remnant of the humanist vision and not simply a creation of Enlightenment philosophes.

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 2)

In 1948 English historian Herbert Butterfield presented a series of lectures for the History of Science Committee at the University of Cambridge. There he argued that historians have overlooked an episode of profound intellectual transformation—one apparently comparable in magnitude to the rise of Christianity and that was deeply implicated in the very formation of the “modern mentality.” This episode was of course the Scientific Revolution. But as we have seen from previous posts, the idea of the “scientific revolution,” or, more precisely, “revolutions in science,” had its origins in eighteenth century thought.

Butterfield’s Cambridge lectures, published as The Origins of Modern Science: 1300-1800 (1949), were limned from a tradition of other twentieth-century historians and philosophers—scholars such as Pierre Duhem, Ernst Cassirer, E.A. Burtt, and, most importantly, Alexandre Koyré, who  regarded history as a special resource for illuminating the evolution and progress of science. In fact, it was Koyré who, in 1943, appraised the conceptual changes at the core of the “scientific revolution,” as “the most profound revolution achieved of suffered by the human mind.” It was so profound that human culture “for centuries did not grasp its bearing or meaning; which, even now, is often misvalued and misunderstood.”

Osler - Rethinking the Scientific RevolutionThese traditional narratives by early twentieth-century scholars have customarily focused on a list of canonical figures. These figures usually include Nicholas Copernicus, Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Margaret J. Osler’s (ed.) Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (2000) problematizes this canonical list. Questioning the canon leads, according to Osler, to inquire why and how it was formed in the first place. Rethinking the Scientific Revolution is in memory to Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Richard S. Westfall, best known for their studies on Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

Osler’s introduction frames and outlines the discussion in this illuminating work. She argues that one must seek balance, recognizing that intellectual change occurred while at the same time recognizing that change is not necessarily linear or self-evident progress toward our modern way of thinking. Historians, then, need to “recognize the role that their own assumptions play in their constructions of the past. There is no escaping them, but consciously acknowledging them staves off the temptations of claiming objectivity and progress.”

This new approach, Osler argues, is at odds with traditional accounts of the scientific revolution. From nineteenth-century positivist Ernst Mach, historians have told a story that stresses radical discontinuity of the scientific revolution from what came before. This is the story Westfall reiterates. This assumption also embodies an “essentialism” about science, according to which science it defined as unchanging and unambiguously identifiable in every historical era. This essentialism creeps into the interpretation of the scientific revolution itself: having defined the nature of the scientific revolution, historians, such as what H. Floris Cohen has done in his The Scientific Revolution, searched this event and explanations of it. Cohen, who undertook the daunting task of examining the entire historiography of the scientific revolution, as we have seen, nevertheless remained committed to both the reality of the revolution and to its historiographical utility.

Following the work of Quentin Skinner, Osler argues that taking agency seriously means using actors’ categories to account for the development of ideas. She means, in other words, to appropriate ideas of historical actors, to work within their particular social, ideological, and intellectual contexts. Osler argues that “future research must address the interests and concerns of subsequent generations, which created the perception that a scientific revolution occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then bequeathed it to us.”

Since historians of science have interpreted Newton’s work as the climax of the narrative they call the scientific revolution, this radical shift in understanding of the meaning of his work forces us to reconsider may of the received opinions about the nature of the scientific revolution.

The first essay by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, presented at the Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society in 1993, opens the discussion by stating her intention “to undermine one of our most followed explanatory frameworks, that of the scientific revolution.” Following I.B. Cohen’s work, Dobbs argues that the narrative of the scientific revolution was constructed in the eighteenth century, when natural philosophers selectively took up Newton’s physics and mathematics while ignoring his alchemical and theological views. Newton, according to Dobbs, is key: “as science accumulated more and more social prestige in the later eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the image of Newton as principal cultural hero of the new science was handed on and further polished by succeeding generations of scientists and historians.” Indeed, Newton is “the hidden end toward which the whole narrative [i.e. the scientific revolution] is inexorably drawn.” Newton is not only the First Mover in historians’ account, he is also the Final Cause of the scientific revolution.

But this is not the Newton of history. Dobbs summarizes the central problem in a long passage, worth quoting at length:

But to my mind the issue of the proper interpretation of our scientific heroes has been the most pressing problem of all, a problem that was at least in part generated by the concept of the Scientific Revolution. I think the problem arises somewhat in this fashion: we choose for praise the thinkers that seem to us to have contributed to modernity, but we unconsciously assumed that their thought patterns were fundamentally just like ours. Then we look at them a little more closely and discover to our astonishment that our intellectual ancestors are not like us at all: they do not see the full implications of their own work; they refuse to believe things that are now so obviously true; they have metaphysical and religious commitments that they should have known were unnecessary for a study of nature; [and] horror of horrors, they take seriously such misbegotten ideas as astrology, alchemy, magic, the music of the spheres, divine providence, in salvation history.

Newton, alleged epitome of austere, scientific, mathematical rationality, pursued alchemy, apocalyptic theology, hermetism, and other occult practices. The problem, then, according to Dobbs, is a historiographic one. Newton’s “system was very quickly co-opted by the very -isms he fought [i.e. mechanism, materialism, deism, atheism], and adjusted to suit them. He came down to us co-opted, an Enlightenment figure without parallel who could not possibly have been concerned with alchemy or with establishing the existence and activity of a providential God.” In the end, Newton was not one of history’s all-time winners; rather, he is one of history’s great losers, “a loser in a titanic battle between the forces of religion and the forces of irreligion.”

In short, Dobbs calls historians of science to understand the presuppositions and assumptions of their historical actors rather than searching for anticipations of modern ideas in their thought.

Richard S. Westfall, on the other hand, wants to defend the traditional historiography. He argues that the historian’s task is not mere antiquarianism, “We are called to help the present understand itself by understanding how it came to be. We strive to find a meaningful order in the multifarious events of the past and thus, explicitly or implicitly, we pass judgment on the relative importance of events.”

In defending the historiography for which he was one of the most distinguished spokesmen, Westfall responds with reasserting the scientific revolution as “our central organizing idea,” because without it “our discipline will lose its coherence and, what is more, the cause of historical understanding take a significant set backward.” Thus Westfall, Osler argues in her introduction, is “fundamentally forward-looking, based on the assumption that what is interesting in the past are those developments that led to our present understanding of the world.” The crucial difference between Westfall and Dobbs, then, is that Westfall assumes that thinkers in the past are similar to us and that what is important for the historian is that aspect of the thinkers works that has survived until the present or that had led to our present way of looking at things.

Peter Barker agrees that Dobbs’ work “not only shifted the boundaries of Newton scholarship, she changed its center.” In his essay Barker wants to reexamine the “role of religion in the Lutheran response to Copernicus.” According to Barker the doctrine of the Real Presence, stipulated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, article 10, that “Christ’s body and blood is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine of the sacrament,” encouraged Lutherans to study any and all aspects of nature, for to do so was coming to know more about God. “For Luther and his followers, the Real Presence was distributed throughout all objects.”  These Lutherans became known as the “Wittenberg Astronomers,” and including Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574), Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553), and Hilderich von Varel (1533-1599). In short, according to Barker, Lutherans expressed an early and strong interest in Copernicus’ work, even arranging for it publication. By the end of the sixteenth century, if you were a Protestant studying almost anywhere in German-speaking Europe, you would have been taught the Copernican system. By the time of Kepler’s education at Tübingen in the 1580s, for example, distinct positions on Copernicus’ work had emerged in northern Europe.

Another compelling essay in Rethinking the Scientific Revolution comes from Jan W. Wojcik’s “pursuing knowledge: Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.” Wojcik is concerned with the different views of Boyle and Newton regarding the power and scope of human reason. “I think that the most important difference between these two natural philosophers is that they had dramatically different conceptions of God’s intentions concerning human understanding…to what can be known in both natural philosophy and theology, and how that knowledge can best be attained, exactly who can attain this knowledge, and when it might be learned.” Boyle, for example, was content to assent to mysteries, and that God never intended any human beings to a complete understanding of either nature or theological truths during this lifetime. Newton, on the other hand, insisted that God had revealed Christian doctrine with the intent that it be understood in a plain and natural sense, and that God in fact intended at least some individuals to achieve a complete understanding during this lifetime. Despite their differences, Wojcik argues, “it is clear that for both men theological concerns was an absolute priority.”

Moving into their more esoteric studies, Lawrence M. Principe discusses “the alchemy of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton: alternate approaches and divergent deployments.” His title already suggests that Newton and Boyle—much like everything else—approached alchemy from different angles. According to Principe, those seeking the secrets of alchemy approach the subject through three kinds of sources: (1) the written record left by past adepti; (2) direct communication with living sources; and (3) laboratory investigation. Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, for example, consists of material not his own. “By far the great part of Newton’s alchemical output is in the form of transcriptions, translations, extracts, collations, and compendia of various alchemical authorities. By contrast, most of Boyle’s alchemical tracts are in fact gifts from their authors or copies made by others, rather than copies made specifically by Boyle.

Principe also examines what specific benefits these two students of alchemy expected to reap from such activity. In the case of Boyle, for example, the rewards were increased natural philosophical knowledge, medicinal preparations, and defense of orthodox Christianity. Boyle also expected to obtain the alchemical summum bonum, the secret of the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone. Newton, on the other hand, expressed doubt in the real existence of the Philosopher’s Stone. Rather, for Newton the study of alchemy was a search for the existence and means of divine activity in the world. Thus an area of relative commonality between Boyle and Newton’s alchemical investigations lies in the service they believed alchemy could render to religion. Indeed, both men “sought alchemy as a corrective to an overly mechanized and potentially atheistic worldview.” Principe shows the ways in which alchemical ideas were important to Boyle and Newton, who are frequently considered to be mechanical philosophers.

By elucidating the similarities between Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) and Isaac Newton, Paula Findlen raises the question why Newton was incorporated into the canon and Kircher was not. “Both were deeply religious men, committed to the study of nature as a sure path toward the revelation of divine wisdom, who began their academic careers as professors of mathematics. Both valued the learning of the ancients, searching ever further into pagan and Christian past in hope of illumination.” And no where is their commonality most clearly evident, says Findlen, than in their alchemical investigations. Thus “it is only the judgment of later generations that forged our distinction between genius and crackpot.”

In an essay by James G. Force, “the nature of Newton’s holy alliance between science and religion: from the scientific revolution to Newton (and back again),” he argues that we must cease to consider Newton as a cause for the final product of the scientific revolution, agreeing with Dobbs in large part in her astute moderation of the extreme generalities of the grand theorists of the scientific revolution. Newton was not some “protodeist who did not realize the paradoxical nature of his own thought”; rather, he is “a far more complex thinker for whom the Lord God of supreme dominion constitutes the key to understanding the nature of his particular ‘holy alliance’ between science and religion.”

J.E. McGuire, known for co-authoring the oft-cited “Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan'” (1966), a fascinating and important study of Newton’s belief in the ancient wisdom of Neoplatonic and Pythagorean traditions, underscores in his essay, “the fate of the date: the theology of Newton’s Principia revisited,” the connection between Newton’s alchemy, theology, and natural philosophy. According to McGuire, “God is the ground of all being,” the “spiritual tonos,” the “structuring structure” of Newton’s cosmos, and therefore the Principia acts as a “conduit through which that structure is disclosed.”

While twentieth-century scientists and historians may value Newton’s contributions to mathematics and physics, religious fundamentalists, as Richard Popkins demonstrates in his “Newton and Spinoza and the Bible scholarship of the day,” are more impressed by his approach to biblical scholarship. But Newton, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Richard Simon (1638-1712) all took seriously the problems that had arisen in the collection, editing, and transmission of Scripture, and that Newton was not committed to claiming the inerrancy of the biblical texts.

Margaret C. Jacob concludes the collection by arguing that the “revolution in science” was constructed in the eighteenth century when natural philosophers selectively took up Newton’s physics and mathematics while ignoring his alchemical and theological views.

At this juncture it is worth mentioning the tireless, and more recent, work of Stephen D. Snobelen, whose main scholarly area of interest is Isaac Newton’s theological and prophetic writings. In several places, beginning with “Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite,” The British Journal for the History of Science 32 (December 1999): 381-419; “‘God of Gods, and Lord of Lords’: the theology of Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia,” Osiris 16 (2001): 169-208; “‘A time and times and the dividing of time’: Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 A.D.,”The Canadian Journal of History 38 (December 2003): 537-551; “To discourse of God: Isaac Newton’s heterodox theology and his natural philosophy,” in Science and dissent in England, 1688-1945, ed. Paul B. Wood (2004), pp. 39-65; “Lust, pride and ambition: Isaac Newton and the devil,” in Newton and Newtonianism: new studies, ed. James E. Force and Sarah Hutton (2004), pp. 155-181; “Isaac Newton, Socinianism and ‘the one supreme God’,” in Socinianism and cultural exchange: the European dimension of Antitrinitarian and Arminian Networks, 1650-1720, ed. Martin Mulsow and Jan Rohls (2005), pp. 241-293; “‘The true frame of Nature’: Isaac Newton, heresy and the reformation of natural philosophy,” in Heterodoxy in early modern science and religion, ed. John Brooke and Ian Maclean (2005), pp. 223-262; “‘Not in the language of Astronomers’: Isaac Newton, Scripture and the hermeneutics of accommodation,” in Interpreting Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions: History of a Dialogue, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer and Scott H. Mandelbrote. Vol. 1 (2008), pp. 491-530; “Isaac Newton, heresy laws and the persecution of religious dissent,” Enlightenment and Dissent 25 (2009): 204–59; “The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia mathematica: a preliminary survey,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 52 (2010): 377–412; “The myth of the clockwork universe: Newton, Newtonianism, the the Enlightenment,” in The persistence of the sacred in modern thought, ed. Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs (2012), pp. 149-84; and “Newton the believer,” in The Isaac Newton Guidebook, ed. Denis R Alexander (2012), pp. 35-44, Snoblelen reveals Newton as a true Renaissance man, who spent decades delving in the secrets of alchemy and even longer studying the Bible, theology and church history. Leaving behind four million words on theology, “Newton was one of the greatest lay theologians of his age.” In his essays, Snobelen’s explores Newton’s theology, prophetic views and the interaction between his science and his religion.

Reading Newton in light of his own preoccupations rather than those of twentieth-century historians forces us, as Dobbs concluded in her essay, to reconsider many of the received opinions about the nature of the “scientific revolution.”

The “Scientific Revolution” as Narratology (Part 1)

Roy Porter’s essay, “The scientific revolution: a spoke in the wheel?” in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.) Revolution in History (1986) led me to I. Bernard Cohen’s “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution” (1976), and then his expanded Revolution in Science (1985). In the next several posts, I want to address Cohen’s argument and compare it to several other recent work on the historiography of the “scientific revolution.”

I.B. Cohen - Revolution in ScienceAccording to Cohen, “for some three centuries there has been a more or less unbroken tradition of viewing scientific change as a sequence of revolutions.” But the term “revolution” only came into general use during the eighteenth century to denote a “breach of continuity or a secular change of real magnitude.” It was only after 1789 that a new meaning came to surround the term “revolution,” imbibed with “radical change and a departure from traditional or accepted modes of thought, belief, action, social behavior, or political or social organization.”

This new understanding of “revolution” replaced its older sense, as a cyclical phenomenon, a continuous sequence of ebb and flow. Its origins lie in scientific jargon, as applied to works of astronomy and geometry. This definition would then be applied to a range of social, political, economic, and cultural activities. In this context the term would gain a new definition diametrically opposite to the original, strict etymological sense of “revolution.”

During the eighteenth century, writes Cohen, “the point of view emerged that scientific change is characterized by an analog of revolutions that alter the forms of society and the political affairs of the state.” Understanding the transformation of the term “revolution,” then, from the cyclical, revolving view to a radical, discontinuous breach in history, is crucially important for the historian of science, for it construes our perspective on the development of modern science.

Cohan asks whether or not Galileo, seen by many as a revolutionary figure, considered himself to have been a revolutionary? Did Newton? When did the value of progress become linked to the concept of change by revolution? Such questions shed light on the nature of scientific change by making precise the scientists’ image of himself, which is directly related to the public image of the scientist.

Steven Shapin has discussed the “image of the scientist” in several places and his comments  are worth reviewing. But what makes Cohen’s argument unique, if not prescient, is the question of whether the scientists allegedly participating in such supposed revolutions may or may not have considered themselves to be active in a “revolution.” Newton, for instance, did not see himself so much as a revolutionary as a “reformer,” rediscovering the knowledge of nature that had been known among certain ancient sages. We will return to these images of Newton later.

Cohen sketches out how “revolution” was understood during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In both instances “revolution” was understood to be the “rise and fall of civilizations or culture, as a kind of tidal ebb and flow.”

Those who wrote about revolutions in political affairs in the late seventeenth century most often had in mind some kind of “restoration,” or “reform,” a return to a former or original state, or at least the completion of a cycle. Thus it was during this time that some ambiguity arose with the term “revolution.” As Cohan points out, “revolution” could and did mean a dynastic change or a dynastic restoration, or a change in the actual form or system of government rule, as well as a cyclical change in administration, economics, and the social life of a people. English philosophers and political theorists Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704), for example, used the term “revolution” in this double sense.

Early in the eighteenth century, however, “revolution” gained currency as a radical or significant change. A characteristic revision to “revolution” as a “radical change” occurs, unsurprisingly, among French writers. For example, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) credits Newton (1642-1727) and Leibniz (1646-1716) with ushering in a  “total revolution in mathematics,” emphasizing that this “revolution was progressive or beneficial to mathematical science.” Elsewhere, in his éloge of mathematicians, Fontenelle would continue to use the term in the sense of “radical change.”

Another Frenchmen in the eighteenth century, Alexis Claude de Clairaut (1713-1763), also made reference to Newton as ushering a “revolution” in the sciences, arguing that Newton’s Principia marked an “epoch of great revolution in Physics.”

EncyclopedieThe Encyclopédie (1751-1772) of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) contains a number of notable references to “revolution.” According to d’Alembert, in science Newton brought to fulfillment a revolution that Descartes had prepared but had never actually achieved. D’Alembert makes this even more explicit in the article in the article entitled “experimental.” Here he not only expresses a philosophy of historical development in science according to generation, he also centers the great revolution in science on the work of Newton. Diderot’s own article on “Encyclopédie” leaves no doubt as to the significance of “revolution,” conceiving that the progress of science is marked by a succession of revolutions.

In short, “by the time of the publication of the Encyclopédie, ‘revolution’ had gained currency…in its new meaning of a secular, rather than a cyclical, change of great magnitude.”

The writings of Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), published in the decade before the French Revolution, introduced revolutions of several sorts and magnitudes: they range in scope all the way from revolutionary innovations in the design and use of telescopes to the elaborate Copernican system of the world and the Newtonian natural philosophy. In Bailly’s writings there revolution is often a two-staged process, in which there is first a destruction of an accepted system of concepts, followed by the establishment of a new system. According to Bailly, Copernicus fulfilled these two necessary functions of revolution, as well as Newtonian natural philosophy.

By the 1780s, there is no difficulty in finding French authors who refer explicitly to one or another revolution in the sciences.

Condorcet (1743-1794) uses the concept of revolution in science in his éloges of deceased academicians. The major work of Condorcet in which the term and the concept of revolution figure most prominently is his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, first published in 1795. It is in this work where Condercet spells out the “pre-conditions” of a revolution.

According to Cohen, we also find this concept in the writings of the Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who once compared his “own philosophical revolution with initiated by Copernicus,” and Joseph Priestley, who was among those who transferred the concept of revolution from the political realm to science.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of revolutions in science had become firmly established. The first overall review of the intellectual accomplishments of the eighteenth century, Samuel Miller’s (1769-1850) Brief Retrospect, published in 1803, stated this plainly in its subtitle: a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature. Miller’s use of “revolution” to denote progressive steps is notable, according to Cohen, for he was an American clergyman.

Within a decade of Miller’s book there was a further recognition of the existence of revolutions in science, in the fifth edition of the Dictionaire de l’Academie Francoise, revu, corrigé et augmenté par l’Academie ell-méme, published in 1811. “Thus formally entered into the lexicographic record,” writes Cohen,  “the expression ‘revolution’ in science obtained official recognition as the name of an accepted concept to characterize scientific change.”

Cohen wants to point out the fact that “these earliest references to a revolution in science occur in relation to Newton.” It is also important to note that most of these earliest references come from French authors. This is not mere coincidence. Long ago Butterfield claimed in his The Origins of Modern Science (1949) that the construction of so-called “Newtonianism” was not primarily the work of scientists; rather, the translation of Newton’s scientific achievements into a comprehensive materialistic worldview was wrought primarily by literary men, who wrote for a rapidly expanding educated reading public. The works of popularizers, such as the French Fontenelle, Clairaut, Diderot, d’Alembert and others, more than scientists, constructed a revolutionary image in Newton.

The focus on Newton and Newtonianism is indeed important, but we ought to take into account the claims of Dan Edelstein, particularly in his The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (2010), and J.B. Shank’s The Newton Wars (2008). For example, although it was in the 1720s that Newtonianism emerged as a coherent physical and metaphysical philosophy, and only in the 1730s that one began to find self-identifying French “Newtonians,” none of them were to be found among the académiciens. According to Edelstein, Fontanelle remained throughout his life “the most famous defender of Cartesian physics.”

I have elsewhere commented on Edelstein’s The Enlightenment, so here my comments will be brief. The Enlightenment, Edelstein contends, was first and foremost a “story” that eighteenth-century men told about themselves. Yes, the Enlightenment was a story, a grand “master narrative” and “myth.” Edelstein traces its telling to a specific time and a contingent place. The narrative of the Enlightenment, he contends, was forged in France between roughly 1675 and 1730 in the context of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, which “opened up a period of intense self-reflection in which the present was thoroughly studied and contrasted with the past.” Put another way, the quarrel invoked a new régime de historicité that bid contemporaries to reflect on what it was that distinguished their own time from those that had come before. The present age was “enlightened,” they came to believe, distinguished by a “philosophical spirit” that derived from new methods of critical inquiry elaborated since the “Scientific Revolution.” Crucially, that spirit had taken hold among important segments of the educated elites and was slowly infiltrating civil society at large. The narrative of Enlightenment gave society a starring role, subtly supplanting older accounts that afforded prominence to kings, heroes, Providence, or God in shaping human history.

Given a succinct and early articulation in Jean-Baptiste Dubos’ (1670-1742) Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (1719), this narrative, in Edelstein’s estimation, was no simple tale of the new vanquishing the old. The Ancients and the Moderns shared a good deal in common, he insists, with defenders of the Ancients like Dubos frequently embracing modern science even as they praised the virtues of ancient art. Conversely, defenders of the Moderns took pains to claim their own reverence for the Classical age. The result of this convergence was a unique form of “modern paganism” that allowed eighteenth-century intellectuals to situate themselves in reference to those previous ages in which the philosophical spirit reigned (ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance), while at the same time permitting them to mark their distance from times of barbarism and superstition (Middle Ages).

Enlightenment thinkers’ hero worship of Descartes, Newton, and others is well known. The key French contribution to the genealogy of the Enlightenment, writes Edelstein, “was not epistemological but rather narratological: it simply happened that it was in France that the ramifications of the Scientific Revolution were interpreted as having introduced a philosophical age, defined by a particular esprit, and having a particular impact on society.” “This espirt philosophique,” he goes on, “allowed scholars both to identify a unity among the variegated scientific work and technological breakthroughs of the seventeenth century (a unity that we would come to call the Scientific Revolution) and to describe the transformation caused by the reception and effects of these breakthroughs in contemporary society—a transformation that led them to characterize their own age as enlightened.”

Indeed, what the Enlightenment narrative highlights is how the first theories of the Enlightenment started out as celebratory histories of “the Scientific Revolution.” In other words, these French thinkers needed the narrative, the story, of the “Scientific Revolution” to bolster their own self-fashioning as an “enlightened age.” So they set out to construct one, culminating in the figure of Isaac Newton.

Shank - The Newton WarsThe case of Newton is paradigmatic: often hailed as a founding father of the Enlightenment. In Shank’s The Newton Wars, he argues that the philosophes spun a mythology in promoting Isaac Newton’s theories. The philosophes, notably Voltaire (1694-1778), took far too much credit for having established Newtonianism as a new scientific orthodoxy, and even today some historians are all too ready to accept the philosophes‘ self-congratulations at face value. Shank contends, however, that Newton’s ideas had acquired a strong following within the French academy well before Voltaire and the “party of humanity” undertook to explain and champion them during the 1730s.

Shank teases apart the multiple strands of Newtonian thought to demonstrate how various factions within the French academy came to weave one or more of them into their pre-existing philosophical, scientific, religious, and methodological outlooks. He finds no single Newtonian party in France, but many, each with its own stake in Newton’s victory. Similarly, he shows that far from representing a clear and present danger to established religion, Newtonianism, at least in some of its versions, was perceived as a bulwark against the dangerous, allegedly Spinozist tendencies of the competing philosophy of Leibniz. In that light, Newton’s eventual victory now appears, if anything, overdetermined.

Voltaire was not the only French anglophile of this period, and Shank singles out as his major comrade-in-arms the mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759). None was a match for the ideological vigor brought to the dispute in the 1730s by Maupertuis and Voltaire. Maupertuis used a genteel skepticism to avoid the issue of pantheism and mathematics to validate the Principia, while Voltaire became satirical and openly anti-church, a deist. According to Shank, Voltaire turned Newtonianism into “a creed or an intellectual identity…more than a scientific or philosophical position.” And the philosophe, “a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual” was born in the French version of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques.

Newtonianism, in other words, is conceived of by Shank as a “discourse”; what mattered was the manner in which such ideas were deployed by Voltaire and “the particular self-fashioning he accomplished with them, a self-fashioning that led to the definition of a new kind of critical, libertarian intellectual in France.”

In short, the engrained notion that Newton’s genius can account for the advent of scientific modernity and the subsequent French Enlightenment is seriously misguided. Shank rejects the narrative of self-serving philosophes, whose version of events was accepted de facto and then perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Cohen, Edelstein, and Shank reveal that the transformation of the scientific movement of the eighteenth century into a comprehensive materialistic philosophy was largely achieved by literary men, who “invented and exploited a whole technique of popularisation.”  As Butterfield concluded, “the great movement of the eighteenth century was a literary one—it was not the new discoveries of science in that epoch but, rather, the French philosophe movement that decided the next turn in the story and determined the course Western civilisation was to take.”

Historiographies of the History of the Scientific Revolution

At the beginning of my research, I decided to start where I started many years ago, before I even began my time as an undergraduate.

I cannot now remember how I came across it, but when I encountered John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002) in my early twenties, I was floored. In the first few pages of the book Henry notes that historians now argue that the very concept of the “scientific revolution” is “misplaced or misconceived”? This was stirring stuff.

I found Henry’s revised, third edition (2008) at the university library some weeks back. Picking it up mostly to reminisce, I was pleasantly surprised to find expansions of some very important sections. Having a little more experience in the academe now, I can better utilize this highly accessible and indispensable research guide, particularly its wonderful bibliography.

For example, in discussing the historian’s notion of the “scientific revolution,” Henry cites Roy Porter’s “The scientific revolution: a spoke in the wheel?” found in R. Porter and M. Teich’s (eds.) Revolution in History (1986), a text I had never read.

In this essay Porter argues, and I think quite correctly, that the idea that “science advances by revolutionary leaps has long been with us, ever since the eighteenth century in fact.” It was the Enlightenment propagandists, he goes on, “from Fontanelle and the Encyclopédistes to Condorcet who first began to depict the transformations in astronomy and physics wrought by Copernicus, Newton and others as revolutionary breaks with the past, creating new eras in thought.” Such a reading of scientific development rejects any notion of cumulative effort; it is, rather, punctuated by creative discontinuities.

But as Porter explains, under closer inspection, the scientific revolution is like the “Cheshire cat, its features dissolve before the eyes.” Dating the scientific revolution poses interpretive problems: does it stretch broadly over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? or can it be restricted to the seventeenth century? or did it really begin n the fifteenth century and carried on to the end of the sixteenth? or can it be traced as far back as the thirteenth century?

There are also interpretive problems with content. Was the scientific revolution a “revolution” in the astrophysical sciences? or should the life science also be included? Indeed, was the sine qua non, the core of the scientific revolution, a question of transformations in facts and theories, in scientific method, or in man’s relations to nature?

Faced with these confusions, Porter proclaims that “the idea of the scientific revolution, so often taken for granted, is in fact highly loaded.” Indeed, the idea was the “brain child and shibboleth of a specific cluster of scholars emerging during the 1940s.” Porter calls this the “classical interpretation,” a view that presents the scientific revolution not simply as a revolution in science but a revolution in thought. “For these historians, science was essentially thought—profound, bold, logical, abstract—and thought was ultimately philosophy.” This “idealism” become pervasive among historians; an ideal reading of the scientific revolution as disembodied thought; a romantic image of the scientist, typified by Newton the iconoclast. But as Porter puts it, the romantic view “that science proceeds by heroes making discoveries through Eureka moments, that the great scientist himself is an autonomous agent, and that science is value free, is historically question begging,” and played—and continues to play—a “polemical part within today’s politics of knowledge.”

The political agenda is clear: the scientific revolution ushered in the modern age. “It was…Europe’s intellectual ans spiritual coming of age, when western civilization grew out of traditional infantilizing pathologies and faced up to the stark realities of nature…it was the great divide between the traditional or primitive Ancients and the mature rationality of the Moderns.”

But in reality, as Porter correctly points out, the “classical interpretation” is a twentieth-century construction, one that has produced its own myths about progress and modernity.

Porter does not want to reject the scientific revolution tout court. He proposes that revolutions in science require (1) the overthrow of entrenched orthodoxy, with challenge, resistance, struggle, and conquest as essential; (2) grandeur of scale and urgency of tempo; and (3) the dawning of a new consciousness, a new worldview.

With this criteria in hand, Porter argues that core transformation in science occurred during the seventeenth century, when protagonists clearly cast themselves as crusaders for a “radically New Science.” These “standard-bearers” struggled against tradition, and their work forced the sciences to undergo fundamental reorientation.

Porter measures his argument, however, by admitting that the “New Science” was both “unscientific in its origins and ideological in its functions.” Religion, metaphysics, ideology continued to play key roles within science. Indeed, Porter wants to reserve the term “revolution” only for really fundamental transformations, as in the case, he argues, of the chemical revolution in the late eighteenth century and in the case of Darwinian evolution in the nineteenth.

But again Porter is careful to measure his argument, noting that the “crisis of the European mind” was precipitated not by scientists but by philologists and biblical critics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Essentially Porter does not want historians to retreat into an evolutionary metaphor of scientific development, all continuity and no discontinuity. He concludes that the “danger of facile demythologizations is that they all too readily induce myopia about the wider attractions, power and role of science in shaping the modern world.”

Now, I am in agreement with Porter’s claims that the scientific revolution is value laden and constructed by certain political and radical thinkers of the eighteenth century. But I contend that he does not go far enough in tracing this development. The idea of “revolutions in science” may have had its start in the eighteenth century, but it was the nineteenth century where it was solidified and made popular or more widespread, and in relation to the debate about the relationship between science and religion.

Also, Porter’s notions of the “chemical revolution” and the “Darwinian revolution” are, of course, a bit dated. Lavoisier’s contributions were not as revolutionary as he claims, and many historians of chemistry today are far less likely to regard Lavoisier’s contributions in themselves as having decisively inaugurated a new era. The same is true of the so-called “Darwinian revolution.” In particular, Porter’s claims that Darwinism “lobbed a bomb into the sacred temple of Nature’s divine order and man’s place in it” is not only exaggerated, it is also not true (See e.g. Jon Robert’s “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology,” in Galileo goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion [2009]).

But Porter is an important source. His essay is a good example of getting-it-half-right. His own discovery of I.B. Cohen’s essay, “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution,” written a decade earlier, shows that scholars are becoming increasingly perceptive of the seductive narrative of the scientific revolution. Both Porter’s essay and Cohen’s work, including his Revolution in Science (1985), and a slew of more recent scholarship, provide a helpful framework to imitate in tracing the tendentious narratology of the scientific revolution. I will be discussing more of these works in upcoming posts.

Stephen Gaukroger, H. Floris Cohen, and the Scientific Revolution (Part Two)

Of all the prominent historians responding to Gaukroger’s essay in Historically Speaking (April, 2013), H. Floris Cohen’s is the most interesting.

Cohen, a professor of comparative history of science and chairman of the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, adheres to the idea, first made popular by the influential Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, that the scientific revolution of the early modern period “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.”

According to Cohen, historians of science hold a  “secret treasure,” a key to understanding the rise of the west in world history. Without this “secret treasure” general historians, sociologists, economists, and virtually all other students of human thought and activity, can never make sense of the rise of western Europe to world-wide cultural domination.

Cohen- The Scientific RevolutionBut before writing his own over-arching interpretation of the scientific revolution, Cohen decided that it was necessary to consider what has already been said about it. Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, first published in 1994, is his attempt at accounting the historiographical history of the scientific revolution from the late eighteenth century to the 1990s.

According to Cohen, the scientific revolution is by no means a term of convenience for historians. No, for Cohen the scientific revolution was a real historical event. Indeed, he laments the fact that the way a number of historians of science have treated the subject now threatens to undermine it: “it is at least conceivable,” Cohen writes, “that the concept of the Scientific Revolution may evaporate entirely.” If this were to happen it would be, Cohen believes, “a major intellectual disaster,” and part of his aim in writing the book was to restore the concept to its previous “robust health.”

In dealing with the historiographical thesis that the history of science is best understood as a continuity with no revolutionary breaks, for example, Cohen refers to Butterfield’s notion of “relative discontinuity.” It is possible to accept the continuous development of science through the ages while still acknowledging that there are periods of crucial transition.

Cohen has put a career’s worth of thought into this framework for interpreting the scientific revolution. A Chinese translation of The Scientific Revolution appeared in 2012 with an appended postscript, surveying fourteen books on the scientific revolution that have appeared since (Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution [1996]; John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science [1997]; Rienk Vermij’s De wetenschappelike revolutie [1999]; James R. Jacob’s The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Achievements, 1500-1700 [1999]; Michel Blay’s La naissance de la science classique au  XVII e  siècle [1999]; Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science [2000]; Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 [2001]; Wilbur Applebaum’s Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton [2000] and his The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science [2005]; Marcus Hellyer’s The Scientific Revolution: The Essential Readings [2003]; Margaret J. Osler’s Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe [2010]; and finally Lawrence M. Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction [2011]).

Cohen - How Modern Science Came Into the WorldIn this postscript Cohen also explains how he first gained new insights that helped him “reconceptualize” the scientific revolution, leading him to his most recent work, How Modern Science Came Into the World (2010). In this work Cohen utilizes his skills as a comparative historian to identify six transformations that, taken together, answers the perennial questions: How did modern science begin? Why did it begin in Europe? How was its development in the seventeenth century able to be sustained? According to Cohen, the transformations began with separate advents of “realist-mathematical” science and “kinetic-corpuscularian” natural philosophy, culminating in the Newtonian synthesis.

What Cohen attempts to account for is not simply the unique circumstances that brought about the scientific revolution, but why an event sufficiently like the scientific revolution did not happen in other cultures that seem to him to have been likely candidates: Han and then Sung China, Medieval Islam, high Medieval Europe, and Renaissance Europe.

Cohen’s general thesis is that the potential for the scientific revolution existed in Greek antiquity but was not realized until the seventeenth century when two traditions came together with a third to produce what we call modern science. Two traditions in classical antiquity existed side by side but did not interact. The first tradition reflects the speculative natural philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicurean skepticism. The second was based in “mixed and pure mathematics,” such as mechanics, astronomy, and conic sections. This tradition consisted of the mathematical studies of nature that developed slightly later within the Hellenistic realm: Euclid’s geometry, Archimedes’ statics, Hipparchus’s and Ptolemy’s astronomy. Cohen knits these complex traditions into two board categories: “Athens” and the latter “Alexandria,” after their place of origin and cultural locus.

Cohen weaves a story of these two traditions, recounting the failures of Athens, Alexandria, early medieval China, early medieval Islam, and medieval and Renaissance Europe to realize the potential scientific revolution latent in these intellectual traditions. Each cultural transplantation produced an initial flourishing of intellectual activity and innovation that was slowly replaced by a reversion to traditional authorities. This he labels the “boom-bust” pattern, first coined in Joseph Ben-David’s The Scientist’s Role in Society: A Comparative Study (1971).

But in a series of cultural transformations occurring in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe, a way was finally paved for the proper scientific revolution. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, Cohen contends, is the result of the successful merging of the two traditions. It also required the rise of a new, peculiarly European, “fact-finding experimentalism” whose origins lie in exploration, mining, and commerce. As it was more “interventionist,” and “oriented toward control and domination,” Cohen terms this intellectual trend “coercive empiricism.” Together these produced the type of mathematical-empirical “nature knowledge” that we recognize today as modern science.

This truncated description of Cohen’s work cannot do justice to his subtle comparative analysis and complexly layered inquiry dispersed throughout his work. His massive text—much like Gaukroger’s—must be read slowly, patiently and sympathetically, to fully appreciate the narrative he constructs. Be that as it may, I briefly turn to some difficulties with Cohen’s narrative, his comments to Gaukroger’s essay, and Gaukroger’s reply in turn.

Gaukroger’s work certainly handles more detail than even Cohen does, including more on contextual issues in intellectual history. They also display an unremitting brilliance of conceptual analysis, unfolding a profound explanatory narrative about the shifting tenor and ultimate fate of holistic natural philosophy and the modes of emergence of more narrow mathematicised, experimental or natural historical fields of natural inquiry. But unlike Cohen, Gaukroger does not undertake the examination of seventeenth century natural philosophy and sciences in structured comparison to the regimes of natural knowledge of classical Athens, Hellenistic Alexandria, early medieval China, early medieval Islam, and medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Huff - The Rise of Early Modern ScienceIn that sense Cohen’s work is better compared to Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (1993) or his more recent Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective (2011). Both of Huff’s books are informed by neo-Weberian comparative macro-history and sociology. Cohen, in contrast, eschews such explicit conceptual framing from, or direct application of social science, especially from any species of micro-sociology of science dynamics, despite the rich heuristic services they can provide. However, Cohen makes excellent use of a controlled, historically sensitive application of Weber’s comparative sociology of religion (rather than the more narrow thesis on the rise of capitalism and the spirit of Protestantism). He does this in dealing with differences in the goals of nature-knowledge traditions and the values informing them in Islamic, Chinese and European civilization. In this regard Cohen’s work derives from the style and methods of the sort of large scale European social history in which he was trained and which he rightly admires—a history that deals with comparative revolutions, the broad history of European capitalism or the formation of states and the state system.

But Cohen demonstrates that he is a supremely equipped historian of science. Bringing these two disciplines together, Cohen stands apart from his competitors in his effort to both broadly and thickly narrate the course of the scientific revolution. Hence, in the end, he is more concerned than either Gaukroger or Huff with a tight, definitive explanation of the process of change in European structures of nature–knowledge between 1550 and 1750.

But perhaps this is also his greatest apparent pitfall. Some critics have argued that Cohen’s narrative is teleological—the suspicion that the original Athens and Alexandria somehow contained in potential the essence of later modern science, awaiting only suitable socio-cognitive conditions in which to be actualized through unfolding of a foreordained process.

The assumption that modern science lay in potential within Greek thought, waiting for the proper conditions to unfurl, Gaukorger argues in his reply, “simply does not make for good historiography.” The reduction of the complex—and extremely contingent—way in which the concept of universal gravitation was formed in the late seventeenth century to a “derivation” from Kepler and Galileo is one particular example of its futility. A more general example is Cohen’s analyses of other cultures’ failure to produce or maintain a “realist-mathematical science.”

Although Cohen underscores the contingency that ultimately resulted in Newton’s synthesis, he is not advancing a historicist argument. “He does not seek to understand what scholars in the ancient world, medieval China, medieval Islam, or medieval Europe were trying to do when they investigated the natural world using the tools they had developed. Instead, he treats science as perennial project aimed at articulating a mathematical-physical theory of the natural world.” Consequently, Cohen’s book is structured around a genealogical narrative that identifies the key characteristics of modern science and searches back in time to find their immature antecedents.

Each of his cultures—Athens, Alexandria, medieval China, medieval Islam, and medieval Europe—perhaps tried but ultimately failed to cultivate the seeds of science. Thus it is legitimate to ask: To what extent were these different cultures interested in the same intellectual activity that ultimately developed in the seventeenth century? “Can we assume,” Gaukroger asks, “that when an ancient Greek observed the stars, a Muslim scholar mapped the constellations, a Chinese scholar recorded sun spots, and a medieval European scholar witnessed a comet they were all engaged in a similar project to understand that natural world?” “To what extent,” he goes on, “were scholars in the seventeenth century merely reviving or extending the intellectual traditions they inherited?” In other words, how and why did the sets of questions, the resources used to answer those questions, and the criteria by which the answers were assessed change in each period and culture?

Cohen ultimately concludes that what served to legitimate the new modes of investigating nature rested not an actual, practical accomplishments, but in a leap of faith in the power of a newly emerging science, which became embodied in what he terms “the Baconian ideology.” By “faith” Cohen means a “confidence in what practitioners of the new science could do to improve human destiny” and—and this is where he is in agreement with Gaukroger—”as a Christian conviction that in doing so they were fulfilling a divine calling.”

Gaukroger concludes that he is not a “continuist.” The key for him is not to uncover some underlying story but to bring together two different sets of issues— the emergence of a scientific culture in the development of a viable physical theory— and explore how they interact. This exploration led him to develop an account of the “persona of the natural philosopher,” something that has no place in the kind of linear account that Cohen offers. In his account changes in the self-image of the natural philosopher in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are crucial. Indeed, Guakroger argues that his reading is more discontinuous than that offered by Cohen. He rejects Cohen’s account because it “implies a kind of teleology that strikes one as question begging: as if everyone, from antiquity onward, were ultimately aiming at the same thing.”

Gaukroger agrees that there is a need for big history but “you can’t do it without having done a significant amount of detailed micro-history; both need to be combined in a work.” Ultimately, however, “if you don’t think explicitly about big history, you are condemned to making all kinds of assumptions that may be unfruitful, counterproductive, or just plain ignorant.”

Stephen Gaukroger, H. Floris Cohen, and the Scientific Revolution (Part One)

Gaukroger - The Emergence of a Scientific Culture

The Emergence of a Scientific Culture (2005)

In the recent April 2013 issue of Historically Speaking, there is a fascinating forum about Stephen Gaukroger’s massively ambitious, multivolume historical project on the emergence and consolidation of a “scientific culture” in the West in the modern era. A total of four historians participated in the discussion, but the most important contributions came from Gaukroger himself and another “big history” scholar, H. Floris Cohen.

The two volumes under consideration here is Gaukroger’s The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (2005) and The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1682-1760 (2010).

Gaukroger begins the discussion by noting that one of the “most distinctive features of Western culture since the 17th century is the gradual assimilation of all cognitive values to scientific ones.” In short, “science has come to serve as a model for all forms of purposive behavior, providing cognitive norms for everything from morality to philosophical dispute, from political organization to religion.”

Science made the modern world, and it’s science that shapes modern culture. The drastic change that occurred during the early modern period, whatever names we want to give it—globalization, the networked society, the knowledge economy—it’s science that’s understood to be their motive force. It’s science that drives the economy and, more pervasively, it’s science that shapes our culture. We think in scientific terms. This is what Gaukroger seeks to explain, how the scientific revolution came permanently to change Western society, transforming it into a scientific society.

In saying this Gaukroger seems to have followed Alfred North Whitehead’s claims in his Lowell Lectures in 1925, Science and the Modern World. But do we live in a scientific world? Assuming that we could agree on what such a statement might mean, suffice it to say there is much evidence that we do not now and never have lived in such a world. But let us assume for the sake of argument that Gaukroger is correct. All cognitive values have assimilated to scientific ones.

So, how did this happen? Gaukroger makes a crucial distinction in his project: “that between the emergence of theoretical and experimental developments that initiate scientific programs and cultural consolidation of these programs.” The former applies to other cultures at other times outside the west. But in typical case, so Gaukroger argues, “science was just one of a number of charities in the culture,” and one that had no special place: “Science was just one of a number of activities in the culture, and attention devoted to it changed the same way that attention devoted to other features change, so that there was competition for intellectual resources within an overall balance of interests within the culture.” Thus interest in the sciences waxed and waned, as science competed with other aspects of the culture for attention and resources.

This kind of science followed a boom/bust pattern. Thus what happened in the west in the 17th century was quite unique: “traditional balance of interest was replaced by a dominance of scientific concerns.” But we should reject traditional accounts of the scientific revolution, as if what was unique about it was that its practioners hit upon the only really successful way of doing “science.” “A moment’s reflection,” says Gaukroger, “shows that such developments could not possibly explain how the scientific revolution subsequently came to be consolidated, if only the sheer contingency involved in consolidation.”

The key concept in Gaukroger’s argument is consolidation: “what distinguishes these earlier cultures is there apparent failure to consolidate scientific gains.” Gaukroger characterizes consolidation as the aim to “promote the cognitive claims of science and build a legitimate scientific culture around,” or “to establish science as a model of cognitive activity.” He argues that the idea of a large-scale consolidation is not something inherent in the scientific enterprise; yet it is inherent in western scientific enterprise after the scientific revolution. Thus his project with respect to consolidation is to understand why it became attached to the scientific enterprise, how it became attached to the scientific enterprise, and how it succeeded in its goal of establishing science as a model of cognitive activity over a wide domain of western culture.

In The Emergence, Gaukroger concentrates on the period between late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but emphasizes a crucial series of events that occurred in the thirteenth century, when theologians decided that Aristotelianism provided far more useful philosophical resources than anything else available. Aristotelianism made sense perception the sole source of knowledge, so that, in contrast to the Platonism that had dominated theological philosophical thought to that time. In short, it was in the thirteenth century that there first emerged scientific culture, in the sense of a culture in which scientific values take center stage.

Gaukroger interestingly enough criticizes the assumption that western science lay in its ability to disassociate itself from religion. Rather than being inimical to religion it was in many respects a turn toward it. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were intensely religious and thus “a good part of the distinctive success of the consolidation of the scientific enterprise derived not from a separation of religion and natural philosophy, but rather from the fact that natural philosophy could be accommodated to projects in natural theology…far from breaking free of religion in the early modern era, its consolidation depended crucially on religion being in the driving seat.”

The union of natural philosophy in Christian theology meant that the former took on aspirations of the latter, as it became part of a project not just of understanding the world but also understanding our place in. This legitimation of science was unique the early modern west and it provided science with a role that its technical successes could never secure for it.

But this partnership, according to Gaukroger, came under threat of mechanism, a model of a systematic natural philosophy reducing all physical phenomenon to mechanically characterized behavior of microscopic corpuscles. Thus the mechanical philosophy offered an exhaustive account of the natural world that made it the only serious competitor to Aristotelian natural philosophy.

But the promises of a mechanistic philosophy turned out to be empty, according to Gaukroger, failing in crucial areas such as chemistry, electricity, and physiology. Those working in these areas gradually turned away from mechanism to pursue “experimental natural philosophy.”

I take issue with Gaukroger’s characterization of mechanism, as if it threatened the partnership between natural philosophy and theology. For Newton, Boyle, Descartes, and Gassendi, for example, all subscribed to some version of the mechanical philosophy. But they also believed in an all-wise, all-powerful God who had created and continued to sustain this universe of matter in motion. None of these natural philosophers saw any difficulty between the two beliefs; in fact, one might go as far as to say that they found both Christianity and mechanical philosophy as inseparable and equally necessary.

Gaukroger - The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility

The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility (2010)

At any event, in his The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility, Gaukroger explores the consequences of the collapse of mechanism. According to his account, by the eighteenth century natural philosophy had lost much of the systematic coherence it once had, providing it as a model for knowledge and understanding the world more generally. In addition to the undoing of the union of theology and natural philosophy by Hume and the other skeptics,  there was concern that the whole enterprise would face ruin. But it remained standing not because of the authority of the physical science, says Gaukroger, but because of the emergence of human sciences. It was Diderot, during the so-called “Enlightenment,” who claimed that sensibility underlay our understanding of the world, not reason. “The fundamental role that sensibility took on meant that understanding our place in the world now came to be seen on a par with—and in some cases prior to—understanding the world.” It is in this context that the emergence of the human sciences, from the second half of the eighteenth century onward, should be considered. This is the core question Gaukroger will pursue in the third volume of his series, on the naturalization of the human and the humanization of nature. In both cases science took on a new legitimacy, as a means of understanding our relation to the natural realm, and above all as a route to self-understanding.

Gaukroger concludes that the consolidation of a scientific culture, although not in a linear fashion, was the transformation of natural philosophy from a set of technical problem-solving disciplines to something that could be allied with theology to form a comprehensive understanding of our place in nature. This was accomplished, he says, “via the relations established between it and a Christian understanding of the world.” But in the eighteenth century, a whole new area of empirical inquiry was opened up, in the form of the human science. But this too would not last, as systematic thought was revived with a vengeance in the early decades of the nineteenth century, with a new form of legitimacy established through an intimate association with technology. But even this was to be questioned in the wake of World War I, as science became compromised by its association with weaponry.

Myths about Science and Religion – That Modern Science has Secularized Western Culture (Final)

My last review of Galileo goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion comes from the pioneering historian of science, John Hedley Brooke, who wrote an entry on the myth that modern science has secularized western culture.

Once upon a time, social scientists commonly asserted that scientific progress has been the principal cause of secularization. There is some truth in this assertion. The content of scientific theories has sometimes clashed with conventional readings of sacred texts. This was true, for example, in explanations of the earth’s motion in Galileo’s day and of evolutionary accounts of human origins in Darwin’s. Moreover, the introduction of Western education, philosophy, and technology in nineteenth-century India had consequences described by some as a “massive and thoroughgoing secularization.”

But this claim ultimately “belongs to a category of obviously true propositions that, on closer examination, turn out to be largely false.” Brooke correctly points out that many social scientists now reject what was once known as a “secularization thesis.” Second, whereas some science-based technologies may have replaced or distracted from religious life, others have definitely facilitated religious observance; for example, in some Jewish and Muslim communities smartphone apps are used to measure fasting times, Sabbat or Ramadan.

Brooke also wants to make a distinction between “secularization of science and secularization by science.” Although religious language had largely disappeared from technical scientific literature by the end of the nineteenth century, it does not follow that religious beliefs were no longer to be found among scientists. Indeed, scientists with religious convictions have often found confirmation of their faith in the beauty and elegance of the mechanisms of the natural world. Brooke points to seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler and, more recently, former director of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, who sees his work as the unraveling of a God-given code.

Many more examples are available. But all the evidence suggests, writes Brooke, that “scientific theories have usually been susceptible to both theistic and naturalistic readings.” Brooke gives the example of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. For Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s theory made it possible “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But Brooke reminds us that we shouldn’t forget some of Darwin’s earliest sympathizers in Britain were Christian clergyman such as Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple.

A central point Brooke wants to make is that instead of seeing science as intrinsically and inextricably secular, it is more correct to see it as neutral with respect to questions concerning God’s existence. This was the position taken by, for example, Thomas Henry Huxley, who saw science as neither Christian nor anti-Christian but “extra-Christian,” meaning that it had a scope and autonomy independent of religious interests. Darwin’s own agnosticism, moreover, derived not from his scientific discoveries  but a strong reaction against evangelical Christian preaching on heaven and hell.

The central problem with this myth then, according to Brooke, consists in the view that science, more than any other factor, is the sole agent of secularization.

Numerous sociological studies have demonstrated that conversions to unbelief are often associated with the change from conservative to radical politics, with religion being rejected as part of established, privileged society. What’s more, historical research, such as higher criticism of the Bible, more than scientific research, proved far more subversive and fatal to conservative belief, as “biblical writers came to be seen not as timeless authorities but as unreliable products of their own culture.”

All these factors leads Brooke to conclude that it is “wiser to look to long-term changes in social structure and to changes in religion itself if one wishes to understand the momentum of secularity.” Indeed, in modern times, the expansion of secularism can be correlated with social, political, and economic transformations having little direct connection with science. Brooke points to social and geographical mobility; growth in capitalism, commerce, and consumerism; secular values promoted in the sphere of education and by the media; and the growth of national solidarity and ideology of political parties have all attempted to replace traditional religious beliefs in one way or another. Because different countries and cultures have experienced the tension between secular and religious values in contrasting ways, “there is no one, universal process of secularization that can be ascribed to science or to any other factor.”

Myths about Science and Religion – That Creationism is a Uniquely American Phenomenon

Continuing the discussion from the previous post, Cohen’s tenacious assumptions about creationism and the Scopes trial undoubtedly arises from the notion that the movement is geographically contained. His examples of Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas are no accident, and the underlying political assumptions are plain. But as Ron Numbers has made quite clear in a number of works, creationism has spread—and is spreading—beyond the confines of the United States.

According to Numbers, during the century or so following the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) most conservative Christian antievolutionists accepted the evidence of the antiquity of life on earth while rejecting the transmutation of species. Only a small minority, founded largely among the Seventh-Day Adventist followers of the prophet Ellen G. White (1897-1915), insisted on the special creation of all life forms 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and on a universal flood at the time of Noah that buried most of the fossils.

In the 1960s, there was something of a “creationist revival” taking place in America, led largely by the Texas engineer Henry M Morris (1918- ). A thorough study of the Bible following graduation from college convinced him of its absolute truth and prompted him to reevaluate his belief in evolution. In the late 1950s, he began collaborating with theologian John C. Whitecomb Jr. (1924- ). While working on a book project together, Morris had earned a PhD in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota and began chairing the Civil Engineering department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

In 1961 they published The Genesis Flood, the most comprehensive contribution to strict creationism since the 1920s. 1963 they established the Creation Research Society (CRS). Of the 10 founding members, five possessed doctorates in biology; a sixth had earned a PhD degree in biochemistry; and a seventh held a master’s degree in biology.

New societies would continue to spring up in the 1970s, in the form of Creation Science Research Center (CSRC) and the Institute of Creation Research (ICR), which, according to Morris, would be “controlled and operated by scientists” and would engage in research and education.

This new brand of creationist did not appeal to the authority of the Bible. Rather, they consciously downplayed the Genesis story in favor of what they called “scientific creationism.” In short, they competed for equal scientific status. And unlike the anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s, which remain confined mainly to North America, the revival of the 1960s rapidly spread overseas. By 1980, Morris’s books alone had been translated into Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Russian. Strict creationism was becoming an international phenomenon.

Few countries outside the United States gave creation science a warmer reception than Australia. Morris had visited Australia in 1973, inspiring Ken A. Ham to organize the Creation Science Foundation (CSF) in Brisbane, quickly becoming the center of antievolutionism in the South Pacific.

Similar developments occurred in New Zealand. In 1992 New Zealand creationists set up an “NZ arm” of the CSF, called Creation Science. In 1995 the New Zealand Listener announced that “God and Darwin are still battling it out in New Zealand schools.”

The same can be said for Canada. In 2000 it was claimed that “there are possibly more creationists per capita in Canada than in any other Western country apart from the US.” A public-opinion poll revealed that “even though less than a third of Canadians attend a religious service regularly…53% of all adults reject the theory of scientific evolution.”

Before 2002 few people in Great Britain except evangelicals gave much thought to creationism. That year, however, the British press drew attention to a creationist “scandal” in Gateshead, where, as one reporter put it, “fundamentalist Christians who do not believe in evolution have taken control of a state-funded secondary school in England.” By late 2005 antievolutionism in the United Kingdom had grown to such proportions that the retiring president of the Royal Society devoted his farewell address to warning that the “core values of modern science are under serious threat from fundamentalism.”

Elsewhere in Western Europe creationists were making similar inroads. A poll of adult Europeans revealed that only 40% believed in naturalistic evolution, 21% in theistic evolution, and 20% in a recent special creation, while 19% remained undecided or ignorant. The highest concentrations of young earth creationists were found, remarkably, in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.

In Italy antievolutionists formed a society in the early 1990s dedicated to introducing “into both public and private schools the biblical message of creationism and the scientific studies that confirm it.” Most Italian academics ignored the threat until early in 2004, when the right wing political party began dismissing evolution as a fairytale unlinking Darwinism to Marxism.

Almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, conservative Christians began to flood the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe. Within a few years creationist missionaries had successfully planted new societies in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Russia, and the Ukraine.

After a very slow start in Latin America, creationists witnessed an explosion of interest, paralleling that of evangelical Christianity generally. According to a survey taken in Brazil in 2004, 31% of the population believed that “the first humans were created no more than 10,000 years ago” and the overwhelming majority favored teaching creationism.

In Asia, Koreans emerged as a creationist powerhouse, propagating the message at home and abroad. In the 1980s creationists established the Korea Association of Creation Research (KACR), and by 2000 its membership stood at 1,365, giving Korea claim to being the creationist capital of the world.

But it’s not merely Christians who are creationists. According to Numbers, in the mid-1980s the ICR received the call from the Muslim minister of education in Turkey, saying that “he wanted to eliminate the secular-based, evolution only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with the curriculum teaching the two models evolution and creation.” In 1990 a small group of young Turks in Istanbul formed the Science Research Foundation (BAV), dedicated to promoting “immaterial cosmology and opposing evolution.” Also, in 2000 a group of Jewish antievolutionists in Israel and United States formed the Torah Science Foundation (TSF), whose head member, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, advocates “Kosher evolution,” that is, accepting microevolution while rejecting macroevolution.

Contrary to almost all expectations, geographical, theological, and political, “civilized opinion” has failed to contain what had begun as a distinctively American phenomena. Evidently, creationism is not merely a Southern predilection.

Climate Change the New Scopes?

THE "MONKEY TRIAL"Andrew Cohen, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, argues that the forces that initiated the Scopes Trial (1925) are still present today in the dogged renewal of the fight to teach creationism and in the rancor over the truth about the human causes of global warming.

In his article, What the Scopes Trial Teaches us about Climate Change, Cohen suggests that these forces are not merely “anti-science,” but something wider and broader. What he says is heavily dependent on Ray Ginger’s 1958 book, Six Days or Forever. Ginger was a mid-twentieth-century historian from Harvard. His Six Days was a colorful and popular account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Indeed, Cohen is so enamored by Ginger’s account that he likens it to the “Book of Revelations [sic],” in the sense that it presaged “how the forces that animated the run-up to the Scopes trial…are still present today.”

According to Ginger, recent immigration reanimated fear-based practices and policies. Next came a sense of alienation, of betrayal, of losing one’s birthright, all brought on by the Great War. This combination of “fear” and “alienation” was followed by the inculcation and promotion of “received truth”—that is, “a good man does not drink, or smoke, or gamble, or commit adultery, or contravene the Word of the Bible, and who punishes the sins of others”—thus resulting in hard-lined resistance to change.

This attitude eventually became a political force, argued Ginger, giving rise to nativism and xenophobia. And according to Cohen, the same thing is happening today: “We have a new generation of fear and prejudice wrought by a new wave of immigration…bloody conflicts…skepticism about science.”

From here Cohen goes into a general account of creationsim, discussing things like the Butler Act in Tennessee in 1925, to more recent events in Alabama, Florida, and Oklahoma, which in recent years have presented anti-evolution measures, and a Texas education panel responsible for reviewing submissions from biology textbook publishers who, according to Cohen,  adhere to “creation science.”

This same panel, says Cohen, are also skeptical of climate change as scientific truth. Accordingly, the Scopes trial foreshadowed the claims made today by climate change deniers. They argue, Cohen writes, relating Ginger’s claims about creationists, the “truth revealed in the Bible could not conflict with the truth discovered by science. All truth was from God. But what if they seemed to conflict? The answer was easy: The truth that science claimed to discover had not been discovered at all. It was not truth, but wild guesses.” According to Cohen, this is the same argument made today by climate change skeptics. And just as the fight against evolution in the 1920s took place in the context of the classroom, that’s where a big part of the fight over climate change is taking place today.

Here is where Cohen shows his greatest debt. His argument is essentially taken from Sara  Reardon’s early 2012 article in Science magazine, who suggested that “climate change education” is the “new evolution.” And it is here where Cohen also reveals the occasion for his piece: the release of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which concluded, says Cohen, with “unequivocal” evidence of climate change and that humans are “extremely likely” to be the cause of global warming.

Cohen ends with the postscript: “Fear is the great underlying theme of Ginger’s work, and it seems to me that fear helps explains the forces at work today, in Texas and elsewhere. Fear of great social change animates a longing for the “old certainty” of creationism. Fear of the great economic change it will take to combat global warming animates the denial of global warming. And fear of the new truths, as expressed in science, animates the suspicion of it. This is part of the fundamental conservatism that has almost always marked America’s political profile.” He concludes with suggesting some “helpful” resources for understanding the Scopes trial, including Ginger’s Six Days or Forever, John Aloyious Farrell’s Attorney for the Dammed, Randall Tietjen’s collection of Clarence Darrow’s letters, In the Clutches of the Law. Cohen even suggests the film Inherit the Wind for those who are “lazy and do not want to read.”

I am not a scientist, but I do have a major interest in the history of science. History, or the stories we tell about history, enables us to understand the present. In constructing our position in society, in religion, in the family, as well as our manner and social norms, we turn to history—real or imagined. Cohen’s article illustrates how stories, that is, as master-narrative, can be employed for apologetic purposes. Cohen tells a simple, straightforward, and striking story about how science challenges the prevailing cultural norms; or, alternatively, how prevailing cultural norms stifle progress in science.

But Cohen’s story, told for obvious partisan purposes, is best described not as history but as fitting history into an ahistorical mold. The mold is shaped by the assumption that there is an inherent conflict between “science” and “religion,” arising from competing sources of authority, competing methodologies, or competing criteria for truth. This view, that there is something essential to science and something essential to religion that keeps them perpetually at war, provides a ready-made interpretation of the Scopes trial, the rise of global creationism, and skepticism toward man-made climate change.

Edward Larson’s essay in Galileo goes to Jail is a helpful corrective to this all too common narrative. Larson relates how the Scopes trial was from the beginning was a publicity stunt, and not the confluence of nativism and xenophobia. “Responding to the invitation of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the statute on free-speech grounds, town leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, decided to test that new statute in court by arranging  a friendly indictment of a local science teacher named John Scopes. Come what may, they wanted publicity for their community.” It wasn’t just the town leaders who orchestrated the ordeal; Scopes himself was in on the scheme.

William Jennings Bryan was a three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee and former Secretary of State, and while he was known for his “fundamentalist” views on the Bible, he never insisted on a strict six-day, twenty-four hour creation account. Indeed, Bryan was quite the leftist democratic, known for his oratorical skills and support of not only religious conservatism but political liberalism.

H.L. Mencken set the journalistic tone of the trial, but he embellished events as they unfolded. Mencken had fabricated a victimized Scopes as a model of scientific progress quashed by religious dissent from an ignorant townspeople.  But according to Larson, “the people of Dayton had no part” in the trial, and “Scopes was not their hapless victim.” Indeed, neither Mencken nor Cohen inform their readers that Scope’s favored biology textbook of choice was George William Hunter’s 1914 A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, a book that espoused not only evolutionary theory but racism and eugenics.

But images of heroes and villains are hard to eradicate. In 1931 Frederick Lewis Allen published a best-seller, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, describing Darrow’s interrogation of Bryan as a “savage encounter, and a tragic one for the ex-Secretary of State. He was defending what he held most dear…and he was being covered with humiliation.” Lewis goes on to say that “civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from Fundamentalist certainty continued.”

By the 1960s, Larson tells us, the myth of the Scopes trial had reached mainstream American history textbooks, repeating Mencken, Ginger, and Lewis’ story of heroes and villains. Then came the 1960 movie Inherent the Wind, crystallizing the Scopes myth. The movie depicted the town officials being led by a fanatical fundamentalist minister, calling for the arrest and prosecution of Scopes. The trial itself is portrayed as a religious inquisition, but nothing of the sort ever happened at the actual trial, says Larson.

For those seeking a better understanding of the Scopes trial, the best advice is to avoid all the resources Cohen recommends. Larson’s Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion is a fine place to start. And for those who are “lazy and do not want to read,” avoid popular accounts at all costs. There are a series of videos on YouTube with Larson discussing his book that might prove useful for this latter category.

Now, since Cohen’s understanding of the Scopes trial is so grossly inaccurate, relying as it does on popular, partisan accounts, how trustworthy is his understanding of the climate change debate?