The history of science is more complex and collaborative than the traditional heroic narratives of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein suggest. Expanding on Howard Zinn's concept of a people's history, Clifford D. Conner has written his own populist take on the history of science. A People's History of Science offers a broad survey of the history of science “from the bottom up,” covering the entire globe and spanning the Paleolithic to the postmodern eras. His thesis is to demonstrate that science—the knowledge of nature—did not emerge from the brains of “Great Geniuses” with “Great Ideas,” but from the collective experience of working people—artisans, miners, sailors, peasant farmers, and others—whose struggle for survival forced them into close contact with nature on a daily basis.
In A People's History of Science, Conner demystifies science by locating its origins and development in the productive activities of working people. He also persuasively argues that the increasing specialization of the sciences in universities and medical faculties has more often retarded rather than advanced the growth of knowledge.
Conner also establishes that:
- Medical science began with knowledge of plants' therapeutic properties discovered by preliterate ancient people.
- Chemistry and metallurgy originated with ancient miners, smiths, and potters; geology and archaeology were also born in the mines.
- Mathematics owes its existence and a great deal of its development to surveyors, merchants, clerk-accountants, and mechanics of many millennia.
- The experimental method that characterized the Scientific Revolution, as well as the mass of scientific data upon which it built, emerged from the workshops of European artisans.
- The emergence of computer science from the garages and attics of college dropouts demonstrates that even in recent times the most important scientific innovations have not always been produced by a professional scientific elite.
- The mystique of modern science proclaims it to be a superior form of knowledge, but in fact its trustworthiness has been thoroughly undermined by the self-interest of corporations that hire the scientists and manipulate their research findings.
On March 8, 2006, Cliff Conner addressed an audience at Rockefeller
University in Manhattan, an institution devoted to research and
graduate education in the biomedical sciences. After the talk he was interviewed by José F. Morales and Allan Coop for the April issue of the campus newsletter, Natural Selections.
NS: Why this book now?
Clifford Conner: I was motivated to do the book because I felt there was something missing in the way most people understand the history of science. I know from my graduate training that there is a lot of information out there about the history of science that doesn't get to the general reading public. The goal of writing the book was to take this information and try to make it interesting for a general reading audience.
NS: What is your definition of science and why do you use it?
CC: This is a controversial question. I use what I consider to be the simplest possible definition, also used by J.D. Bernal in his wonderful four-volume history of science: “knowledge of nature and the processes we have to go through to get that knowledge.”
NS: What is the relation between the “great man” in science and the people?
CC: One of the reviewers of my book said that I was replacing the “great man” theory with the “great mass” theory. Well, I'm not, really. The central focus of my book — although I tried to at least give an outline of how the knowledge of nature developed throughout the whole scope of tens of thousands of years of human history — is on what is called the Scientific Revolution. That occurred in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What we call modern science today had its origins there. Most books in the past that have been written about the Scientific Revolution only focused on theoretical astronomy and theoretical physics, and therefore only paid attention to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, and how their ideas flowed into each other. But much more important at that time was the transformation of scientific method. For thousands of years, the people who claimed to be the arbiters of knowledge of nature were the elite scholars in the universities. If you went to them with a question, how would they try to answer it? Well, they'd go to the books of Aristotle or Avicenna or some other ancient authority and try to find the answer in the books, and if they couldn't find the answer, they would try to find some general principle that, through deductive Aristotelian logic, they could deduce the answer from. That was what science was until the Scientific Revolution brought about a new method — the empirical method, the experimental method. The important thing that I try to point out is that this did not come from scholars, but from the workshops of artisans. There were a few scholars who recognized this, especially Francis Bacon. There were others — William Gilbert, Robert Boyle, Galileo — who also noticed that things were happening in the workshops of the artisans, and they went there to learn. That's the most important thing about the Scientific Revolution, the thing that changed the way the whole world now looks at nature and investigates nature.
NS: One might observe that there is a parallel between the elite appropriating and systematizing the knowledge of craftsmen and artisans back then and lab heads today appropriating and/or taking credit for the work of technicians, grad students, postdocs. Would you care to comment on that?
CC: Yes, I have a very interesting example of that in the book. Robert Boyle is considered one of the great heroes of science, but it's quite clear if you investigate it, that a lot of the things Boyle is credited with were done by people he hired to be his so-called assistants. Some of them have even gained recognition in the history of science themselves, like Robert Hooke. But in their time, they were subordinate to Boyle because he was an aristocrat and a very wealthy man. So, at the time, they didn't get the credit they deserved, and for the most part still don't. One of the things I mention is that there is a pretty good chance that even Boyle's Law was determined by experimentation by other people that he hired, and they even wrote it up, but we call it Boyle's Law. The question is, why? In those days, especially, you had to be of the class of gentlemen in order to publish something that other people would read and consider to be truth about science. You might have a similar thing happening today with lab heads, but maybe it's not done quite as consciously as in Boyle's day. Back then it went without saying that if Robert Boyle hired you, anything you discovered was his intellectual property. I don't think it would be quite the same today, yet sometimes it works out like that.
NS: We sign a contract which says that The Rockefeller University owns any intellectual property we create while employed by the university [as is now required for federally funded research in US universities]. So things haven't changed that much.
CC: That's right. Maybe we think about it differently, but it works out the same in the end.
NS: What would your ideal high school science textbook look like?
CC: I think the main thing I would stress is that there is more to science than theory. The other thing I would stress in a high school textbook is that the relationship between science and technology is not what we have been led to believe by our modern experience. Our modern experience teaches us that science comes before technology. Today scientists in laboratories theorize and come up with theories that are then applied to create new technologies. But that's a fairly new thing in history. For tens of thousands of years, the relationship was exactly the opposite. Historically, the relationship has always been technology first and then science. The classic example is the steam engine. One might think that it was created by theorists who developed the laws of thermodynamics and then applied those laws to create the steam engine. But it was quite the opposite. The steam engine was created by artisans, tinkerers, and inventors . . . “lower-class” people. Scientists began to study the steam engine, because it was such an important part of the economy, to find out how it worked. By studying and analyzing it, eventually the laws of thermodynamics were formulated. So that is the true relationship historically, almost always, between science and technology. First the technology was created by artisans and people working with their hands, and experimenting, and so forth. Then the scientists, by analyzing the products of the artisans — the technology — developed the theories and laws. You can't speak of the history of science as being only theory because you have to start with where it all comes from: technology and the contributions of the artisans.
NS: So you are suggesting that now things have changed in that regard?
CC: Oh, yes. Let's take the biggest example of all, the Manhattan Project, where a practical result was developed from abstract scientific theories about nuclear physics. Those theories resulted in atomic and hydrogen bombs in the mid-twentieth century. You can actually go back to the late nineteenth century, when the first real examples of technologies created on the basis of theories were probably the ones developed from the theories of electricity. From the modern experience, people falsely generalize that that is the essential relationship between science and technology; that scientific theories come first and technology follows. But historically, at least until the late nineteenth century, it has been the other way around. A good example even in the early twentieth century is the airplane. The airplane wasn't developed from theories of aerodynamics. A couple of bicycle mechanics from North Carolina did what the theoreticians said was impossible and created an airplane. And keep in mind that even though those theoreticians were physicists in the era of quantum theory and relativity theory, aerodynamics developed on the basis of an artisanal contribution, the practical technology of the airplane.
NS: How would you respond to this critique of your position? Artisans are like technicians; they really don't understand what they are doing and they need the scientist to get at what is really going on. They're just hands and they produce useful things, but they don't have a full understanding of what they're doing.
CC: Again, there's a difference between today and most of history. Today there might be some justification for someone saying that. Although I suspect that if they did, what's really going on in their mind is, “I'm smart, I'm superior, I'm better than these people that work with their hands.” But historically it has usually been the other way around. At the time of the Scientific Revolution, the artisans knew what they were doing, knew what they wanted to do. The university-trained intellectuals — calling them “scientists” is a bit anachronistic — were like butterflies, dilettantes. They called themselves the “virtuosi,” and they would go into the artisans' workshops and try to exhibit their knowledge, but they rarely knew what they were talking about. In the nineteenth century and earlier it was typically the case that the artisans were the people who knew things, and the “virtuosi” who were trying to develop theories were just there to pick their brains.
NS: You talk about how social elites have appropriated science as a source of authority and have commodified it. It's these same forces that Chris Mooney identifies in his book The Republican War on Science as anti-science and for whom new knowledge may be a threat. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction?
CC: Well, the corporate elite needs the new knowledge. They need it because their economic system depends on it. It's like the man on the bicycle: if he stops, he falls over. They have to keep growing and growing and growing. They need new products, new science, new technology, but at the same time they fear some of the science as damaging to their profit interests. The best example is global warming. So it's more than an apparent contradiction; it's a real contradiction. But it's their contradiction.
NS: You contend that the undermining of science's authority stems from “whoever pays the piper, calls the tune,” and you point out that a lot of science is conducted by corporations. However, the vast majority of basic research in biomedicine, for example, is in fact funded by the social wealth represented by taxes. So would you say that tax-funded research is people's science?
CC: No, but I certainly agree that that's the way it should be. Unfortunately, the government has defaulted on its responsibilities in this regard, and tax-funded research has become just another facet of the “scientific-industrial complex.” In most biomedical research, “Big Pharma” calls the tune, directly or indirectly, and that's the piper that has to be paid.
NS: Do you think that ordinary people can still make discoveries in an era of heavily funded science? If not, what prevents them?
CC: Well I think there's a lot that tends to prevent that — the great rise of specialization, the immense amount of money it takes to do research these days — but the answer to your first question is, yes, I think it's still possible for scientific outsiders to make momentous contributions to science. It's not likely, and it's not going to happen often, but it can happen and we shouldn't be shocked when it does. The best example I can think of is the personal computer revolution. “Big Science” had developed the electronic digital computer, but at first they were huge machines used by the military-industrial complex to crunch numbers. But then some kids got interested in it and formed computer clubs all around the country. It was a social movement, and these high-school kids and college dropouts developed an alternative that democratized computer science. This is one of the greatest scientific innovations that's happened in our lifetime. It just goes to show that “Big Science” is very dominant and very powerful, which makes it very unlikely that many scientific advances will come from the outside, but . . . you can't write-off the possibility.
NS: You have mentioned a variety of instances in history where social elites in fact inhibited the development of science (e.g., the introduction of Arabic numerals in Europe). Is the current corporate integration into science, with prohibitively expensive technologies, a parallel to the elite inhibition of access to tools that could advance science?
CC: Yes, that's one of the reasons that I focus on this so much in the book, because I think there's an important lesson in it for today. When people set themselves up as authorities and say, “I speak in the name of science,” it's worth remembering that historically a lot of scientific authorities actually retarded the development of science. The two biggest examples I cite in the book — and there are thousands, big and little — are, first, the retardation of science by the scientific elite of ancient Greece as institutionalized in Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. The kind of science they started became solidified and ossified, and led science into a blind alley for two thousand years, until the Scientific Revolution. And the other example I cite is the intellectual elite of China, the mandarins who were the administrators of the imperial bureaucracy. They did everything they could to prevent the development of science and most technology, which is why science was slow to develop in China. I give some cogent examples of that, especially in maritime technology and the navigational sciences. China's naval superiority in the fourteenth century put it in a position to rule the world, but the Emperor arbitrarily drew back, because the mandarins decided that it was a threat to their social stability and put the kibosh on it.
NS: Do you think that the process of democratization of science is going on or is it actually being retarded at the moment by the attack on science?
CC: To use a Hegelian phrase, it's a dialectic. It is going on and at the same time it's being pushed back. A good example is the rise of the Internet in China. I read in today's paper that there are now something like 110 million people on the Internet in China, doing all kinds of things. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is trying its best to keep what's called “the Great Firewall of China” in place, to try to keep dissidents from linking up with each other, you know, in a democratic way. So there's this great surge of democratization through the Internet and at the same time there's a tremendous police power pushing back against them. Right now it seems the government is still a step ahead of the dissidents in China.
by Clifford D. Conner
ISBN # 1-5602-5748-2