The following is a review of a great book that I have recently written for my PhD supervisor, it is a fantastic book that I would encourage everyone to read. As I read it many parallels between the history of science and the history of Mormonism seemed to stand out to me. I don’t want to force the analogy upon you but leave you to consider the way in which you think, or do not think (as the case may be) the history of science echoes the way in which we tell our own history.

Patricia Fara – Science: A four thousand year history (Oxford University Press, 2010)

geek_preview.pngThe history of science has for several decades been written as the story of the inevitable domination of science. It is the tale of a series of great men who stood up against superstition and religion in order to help science take its rightful place as the king of knowledge. As the writer Jim Bennet laments:

Too much big-picture popular writing from outside the discipline is a recital of familiar expectations – great minds, great inventors, tortured genius, heroic achievement – and the narrative takes place in an environment curiously lacking in the political, material, social and institutional dimensions of life.[1]

This big picture narrative (known in academia as the Whig interpretation of history) has been attacked over the past 20 years by revisionists who have attempted to dismantle its heroic tale. This revisionist phase of history has for a long time cast its shadow over the history of science. A result of this has been a paralysis of confidence in big narratives of history by historians. As notions such as the scientific revolution have been dismantled by revisionists, historians have been left unable to say much more than the past is more complicated than the historians of the early 20th century portrayed it as. As Steven Shapin in his review of Science said ‘For a very long time reputable historians of science have lacked the desire, the knowledge, or the nerve to undertake a book like this.’

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Patricia Fara has rectified this unfortunate state of affairs in her recent book Science: A four thousand year history. The book is expansive in its coverage but also brings decades of neglected scholarship into the narrative she tells. In the book she dismantles the myths of the history of science, myths that historians have long rejected but which have been preserved in the academic ivory towers, and transfers them into a popular history book that exposes them without condemning them.  Fara points out that history is not the accumulation and sequencing of facts; history is a way to interpret the past. History redefines our world and gives us new perspectives on the stories we tell.  Historians select the stories that they deem worth telling and exclude the stories that don’t fit their narrative.  In changing how we view the past, historians also alter how we act in the future.

The book’s central theme is that science has not progressed simply on merit.  As she says:  “being right is not always enough; if an idea is to prevail, people must say that it is right.” (p.xv) Fara explores the social and political contexts behind prevailing opinions. She also seeks to correct the Eurocentricism that has plagued scientific history books, and look at the way in which knowledge and skills were imported from other cultures and geographies in order to comprise what we call science. She reminds us that “scientific knowledge has not travelled neutrally from one environment to another, but is constantly adapted and absorbed in different ways.” (p. xvi)

Early in the book, Fara treats the iconography of science in a section entitled “Heroes.” She juxtaposes the early Greek writers with the historians who have written science’s history.   She then looks at the construction of narratives to make sense of the past. In the process of writing history we incorporate plotlines and focus on the climatic moments such as the intellectual battles, the discovery of a new chemical or a ideological revolution.  These imposed narrative structures inevitably incorporate fictional elements, blurring myth with fact and converting humans “into intellectual equivalents of mythical gods endowed with superhuman brains, [who] float above worldly affairs as they think great thoughts.” (p.21) In their original context, these “heroes” were viewed in a much less favourable light.  “By examining heroic thinkers in their context it becomes clear that great geniuses are made, not born.” (p.22)

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Fara also attempts to deconstruct a European focused story. European historians have written to reinforce their perceived superiority over other nations. These accounts ignore or minimize Chinese and Islamic influence.  Fara looks at the work of Joseph Needham and the history of China, exposing that many supposed European inventions originated in China. She also evaluates the impact of Arabic scholarship and the translation of Greek and Roman documents into Arabic. Fara reminds us that the Renaissance was enabled by the influx of Greek texts from the Arabic world into Europe. These texts stimulated new ideas. She debunks the notion that the western world has a monopoly on the genesis of modernity.

As Fara says in the postscript “the system that you are brought up with is the one that seems obvious – any others seem intuitively wrong, however rationally they may have been constructed.” (p.429)  This then is her aim: to cause us to question the system that we are raised in, and not to assume that the one that we have is superior.  All human schemes are provisional, including science.  There is no guarantee that the science of today will be the discredited alchemy of tomorrow.

Thoughts:

  1. Did you see any similarites between the history of Mormonism and Science?
  2. What narratives have been created by deliberately including some stories and excluding others?
  3. What heroes have been created that were viewed differently in their own time and context?
  4. What influences from outside Mormonism have influenced it without credit?
  5. How do we maintain objectivity about our own traditions?

Discuss.


[1] http://www.historyextra.com/book-review/science-four-thousand-year-history