The History of Science – Individual Genius or Cultural Readiness?

For those of you who have followed this blog over time, you’ve probably noticed that aside from my interests in autism, I’ve also become fascinated by the philosophy and history of science. For some, the topics may at first glance seem boring. –In my school days, I myself could’ve cared less about a bunch of dead guys and a slew of useless dates. What after all did these dead guys mean to me?

Now that I’m a scientist and wish to avoid making scientific assumptions that are a product of my personal and professional cultures, that motivation has led me to a whole new area of research: that of history. It’s prompted me to ask the questions that many other historians and laymen have asked before: how has our shared past influenced, even driven, our modern society and how has that society influenced science? How has science likewise influenced society over time?

To begin to answer those questions, it’s useful to study select periods of history, such as the Enlightenment that spanned approximately from the English Civil War (1642-1651) until the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), which drew the French Revolution to a traumatic close. With the Enlightenment came periods such as the Scientific Revolution and important changes in the way we approached Natural Philosophy (aka science), as well as radical changes to the philosophy of the Common Man.

Henri-de-la-roche-jaquelein

Depiction of the Reign of Terror.

A number of historians in the early 20th century questioned whether the scientific leaps and bounds made during the Enlightenment were a result of a small network of lone geniuses whose disconnect from the cultures of their times allowed them to see things others could not, or whether those cultures were actually integral in producing those geniuses and their methods in the first place. Before then, it had always been assumed that the scientific advances were solely the result of unpredictable genius.

In her book, Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400-1600, the historian, Pamela O. Long, revives theories of these 20th century European historians. Interestingly, these older historians primarily arose from out of the famed Vienna Circle and were largely Jewish in background. Just prior to and during World War II, many in the Circle were pregnant with ideas of Socialism, an ideology that places great importance on influences of the culture on the individual. (In contrast, Capitalistic Western Europe, and especially the United States, stresses the importance of the individual to the culture.)

It’s therefore unsurprising that former members of the Vienna Circle were the first to suggest that the rise in an influential artisanal culture that preceded the Enlightenment, one in which quantitative methods of measurement were developed and perfected for various trades, readied the scene for the Natural Philosophers to follow– especially those whose studies, such as Galileo, involved the development and perfection of tools such as the telescope. The early Natural Philosophers were, after all, often obsessed with the mechanics of life and the universe. Just think of all the machines depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. These were cultures passionate about machine-building and early scientists took this obsession to new and wondrous heights.

Artisan-Practioners

Pamela Long, in particular, proposes that there was not such a distinct division during the 15th and 16th centuries between the arts and sciences as in the time preceding it and that tradesmen were able to communicate with learned men, trading techniques in tool building. In short, obsession with mechanics and improvement in methodology became a cultural phenomenon, begun by artisans but later co-opted by philosophers of the Enlightenment era.

Though we separate the terms “science” and “technology” today as if they are only loosely related, in fact their histories are irreparably intertwined. The computer I type on this evening, the one you read this blog on today, are the products of the same historical events of old, rooted in artisanal trade. Trade prompted changing technological demands, and improvements in technology and changing cultural ideology supported scientific advances.

Interestingly, this scenario is eerily reminiscent of Karl Marx’s theory that economy drives history (and thus science). For example, the money that supports the biological and medical sciences that ultimately pay for my job comes from the demand for health care as a product. We don’t typically think of it in that way, but of course it’s big business.

So, in spite of the west’s distaste for most things “socialism”, perhaps Marx and the Vienna Circle were right: the larger culture drives scientific invention, even though genius takes advantage of cultural readiness and drags it, sometimes kicking and screaming, to new heights.

3 responses to “The History of Science – Individual Genius or Cultural Readiness?

    • As I understand it, engineering overlapped the arts extensively, so the boundaries were very amorphous. Whereas today, we try to abstractly separate the two much moreso. But I’m sure there’s also some cultural similarities to today as well. It’s a fascinating area of study. 🙂

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