Thursday, February 27, 2014

In the Beginning Was the Deed

"Peoples’ History of Science – Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks,’” by Clifford D Conner, 2005

The ‘great man of history’ theory has been taking a beating lately, as historians chip away at this method of describing events.  While high-school history textbooks are for the most part still elitist propaganda, especially describing science – this is also changing.  This book is the perfect antidote to that.  It is clearly written and promotes the idea that sailors, artisans, mechanics, potters, merchants, farmers, women, miners and others made many of the discoveries that we credit only to scientific ‘geniuses.’  Many early ‘name’ scientists were merely collecting the knowledge of the practical ‘commoners’ around them.  Not all of these people were Europeans, as many discoveries came from China, India and the Middle-East.  It shows science to be, not a study of solely individual effort, but a collective enterprise involving a good chunk of the human race. 

This should not be news, but of course if you told this story on the national news, you’d be hounded as a socialistic heretic and ignoramus by our talking heads, whose positions are dependent on elite ‘experts.’ 

Conner understands the issue of class and of the debate between materialism and idealism, and these underlie his extensive research.  He was friends with Howard Zinn and also Jeff Mackler, and is a former history teacher at CUNY. 

The empirical method, which every human is familiar with, consists of testing against reality, otherwise known as trial and error.  Eventually enough knowledge is gained so that ‘trial and error’ includes less errors and more successes.  The progression of empirical work goes from there dialectically.  This is the human basis of science, and much present material science is not much different.  Conner points out that it was the original hunter-gatherers of prehistory – which he calls foragers – that discovered some of the most important facts about plants and animals leading to agriculture.  There were no official ‘scientists’ then, nor written histories - this is the only way it could have come about.  He cites Jared Diamond on the intelligence of these peoples, which Diamond rates as above those of present-day humans.  (Read reviews of Diamond’s books “Guns, Germans & Steel” and “Collapse,” both below.  Use blog search box, above.)

Conner points out that it is writing that many times defines ‘who’ and ‘when’ something happened.  Many events are not recorded, are recorded incorrectly, or are recorded in Latin or Greek, not vernacular tongues, attributing actions to people who adopted them from unknown others.  The written bias is many times towards the ruling class and its academic representatives of the time.  Conner deliciously takes apart the classist Platonic approach to science, which basically shut down real science to replace it with ideas and theory.  He also picks apart Aristotle, who while actually paying more attention to material tests, still favored elite scientists and the teleological thought that every thing has a built-in ‘plan.’  Aristotle eventually became the Catholic Church’s favorite scientist during the European dark ages.  Conner calls this false reliance on the ‘genius’ of the most well-known Greeks, the ‘Greek Miracle.’  He shows that many of the more important Greek materialists hailed not from Greece itself, but its colony in Turkey, called Miletus. 

For instance, Vasco De Gama, credited with being the first person to circumvent Africa, was a criminal plunderer who kidnapped navigators (a common practice) and whose only credential as a sailor was that he was appointed by the Portuguese King to stand on a ship’s deck.  Magellan never circumnavigated the globe – his navigator did, as Magellan was killed in the Philippines for invading one of its islands. 

Conner gives plenty of evidence to back up his claims, citing earlier historians of science, especially Edger Zilsel and the Soviet physicist Boris Hessen.  Modern mathematics was developed by traders and businessmen who visited China, India and the Middle-East, and substituted Indian numbers for bulky and incomplete Roman numerals.  Medical procedures that actually worked came from mid-wives, ‘old woman’ and nurses, not from ‘doctors’ who prescribed bleeding, cauterizations and other brutal forms of ‘medicine.’  Perspective was developed by artist/engineers like Michaelangelo, who was looked down on for being common, as he worked with his hands. Latitude and longitude came from the work of many navigators.  Etc. Conner links the ‘witch burning’ slaughter to a class war by the medical academics against women who knew more about healing than they did.  (See review of “Dark Side of Christian History” – use blog search box)

The development of printing (not invented by Gutenberg but by the Chinese) allowed empirical science to spread among the classes of people not thought to know anything.  Books in vernacular languages, not elite Greek or Latin, allowed early people’s scientists to spread their practical ideas and results. The most well know of these was Paracelsus, a former miner, who intentionally led a movement to undermine the ignorant scholastics of the 1500s with actual experimental work, not ancient theories with no proof.  Hans Lippershey, a spectacle-maker, invented the telescope.  Leeuwenhoek, a fabric seller, invented the microscope, and was the first to look at bacteria & protozoa.  While Robert Boyle & Tyco Brahe are well-known, they were wealthy, government-supported gentlemen scientists who employed dozens of practical specialists that carried out experiments, many of whom worked on their own. 

This kind of science later got christened “Baconism” after its most prominent adopter, Francis Bacon.  Bacon only recognized what was going on ‘below.’  He put his own elitist spin on it, by choosing to focus on the need for gentleman scientists to control everything.  Bacon himself supported the English ruling powers and advocated torture against those who challenged it, like the Diggers and Levelers.  The period of the Scientific Revolution allowed the ‘educated scientists’ to meet the empirical scientists, and this is what created a cultural explosion.  But the bottom-line is that the European working-classes laid the basis for the ‘scientific revolution’ and developed many of its precepts from the ground up. 

The history of science is not separated from the history of society – much as bourgeois attitudes claim that the two are separate, and science is a ‘pure’ discipline living in its own rarified air.  The bourgeois revolutions, especially in France, upended the religious and scholastic authorities of the feudalists – only to eventually replace them with similar scientific bodies connected to capitalism.  Conner describes the contributions of revolutionary Jacobin scientists like Bernardin and Bergasse that were ignored for years.  The former developed a holistic approach to studying the environment – one at odds with the official divisive approach to the various environmental sciences.  However Bernardin's approach is now standard for environmental scientists.  He said, “Everything in Nature is linked in a single chain.”

Most historians admit that it was the work of mechanics, brewers and others that powered the scientific developments during the Industrial Revolution – not the theories of ‘great men,’ which trailed afterwards.  For instance, Conner explores the contributions of Abraham Darby, a proprietor of an ironworks, who discovered how to smelt iron with coke.  Blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and plumber John Calley invented a steam machine pump.  James Watt, who built on this work, was an instrument maker.  A brewer discovered how to produce and bottle oxygen. These were key inventions in the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism and later led to theoretical advances by others.  Etc.  

An epic meeting between capitalist and Soviet scientists was held in 1931.  The Soviet delegation was led by Nicolai Bukharin and included Boris Hessen, who presented an explosive paper on Issac Newton’s “Principia” that shocked the conference.  It basically linked the development of science to the development of societies and their economic systems.  This led to a split between the two groups – not unpredictable.  However this view has become more and more accepted.

Eventually, however, nearly all science was corralled into control by capitalist forces, to the point where government, industry and academe are all one ‘scientific-industrial’ complex, and as a consequence, the pronouncements of beholden scientists are not trusted.  This is seen in medicine, in agriculture, in chemistry, in genetics, in nuclear warfare, in Taylorism, in internet surveillance.  Even the half-assed right-populist distrust of environmental science can be a result of the corporate angle taken by so many ‘experts.’  They have polluted science's purposes for the use of profit.

Conner describes the challenge of the non-specialist Rachel Carson to pesticides and the chemical industry in the 1950s and later feminism’s challenge to corporate health care in the 1960s.  He shows how the 1970s ‘Green Revolution” basically benefitted large farmers, created dependencies on corporate seeds and artificial fertilizers and still could not solve the problem of hunger.  Hunger cannot be solved by ‘more food’ but by eliminating food as a commodity.  After all, huge amounts of food are thrown away, mostly by capitalist supermarkets..  Just look at the shelves in American supermarkets and compare that to the penniless American hungry.  This is true across the world.

You may think this process has completely stopped.  Not true.  For instance, the growth of the computer industry and software, especially the latter, was done by many non-specialist 'artisans' who built many of the software and hardware systems we all use today, many quitting college.  This was long before anyone was being trained in coding and other skills by experts.  It is a commonplace to meet people employed in the computer industry with no college, who learned their skills on their own.  As to the present-day Platonists?  You might include many positions of theoretical physics and abstract math as newer forms of idealism.  

This is a nice primer and history lesson for the non-specialist.  It revives an attitude of ‘science for the people’ – not science for the elite, which is sorely missing in today’s frightened corporate climate. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 27, 2014 

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