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The history of science of, by and for the people

Review by Mary Rapien | March 24, 2006 | Page 13

Clifford D. Conner, A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks." Nation Books, 2005, 424 pages, $17.95.

WITH A People's History of Science, Clifford D. Conner provides a long-overdue antidote to the "Great Man Theory of History" as applied to science.

Conner guides the reader through a fascinating history of science, focusing not on the few famous theoreticians that we all learned about in grade school, but on the thousands of workers--miners, brewers, weavers, glass grinders, healers, merchants, sailors and others--who provided the empirical basis for the theories.

Conner's basic thesis is "that scientific knowledge production is a collective social activity, that essential contributions have been made by working people engaged in earning their daily bread, and that elite theoreticians are often unjustly awarded all the credit for knowledge produced by many hands and brains."

He begins by outlining the vast knowledge of nature that prehistoric peoples possessed--from biological classification systems remarkably similar to that used by modern science, to knowledge of astronomy and weather crucial for early foraging and agricultural societies, to the role of ancient merchants in developing mathematics.

Conner then asks the question, "What Greek Miracle," dispelling the popularly held myth that science began with the ancient Greeks. In fact, he points out the ways in which the Greek legacy hindered the development of science--through a "major shift in basic philosophical outlook from materialism to idealism" and, accordingly, by embracing the development of a scientific elite.

In two chapters on the Scientific Revolution, Conner expounds the role of working people in developing the scientific method of experimentation: "the experimental method that characterizes modern science originated not in the minds of a few elite scholars in universities but in the daily practice of thousands of anonymous craftsmen who were continuously utilizing trial-and-error procedures with materials and tools in their quest to perfect their crafts."

For example, Antony van Leeuwenhoek was a draper who was using magnifying lenses to examine linen threads when he became the first man to see live protozoa and bacteria. But for every one worker whose name is known to us today, hundreds more receive no credit for experiments performed in laboratories of--and credited to--such "great men" as Tycho Brahe and Robert Boyle.

Throughout his book Conner provides a social and political context for the development of science, rightly arguing that scientific discoveries and methodologies are products of specific times and places, and that currents of scientific thought are consciously manipulated by the ruling elite.

In his final chapters, Conner discusses the privatization of science and the "master-servant relationship [of capital and science], with capital as the dominant partner."

To dispel the myth of capitalist science as "objective truth," he points to studies conducted by the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. For example, it is common practice for pharmaceutical companies to hire marketing firms to write articles in medical journals and pay doctors who may never have seen the raw data, to sign their names to the articles.

The case of evolutionary theory exemplifies the ways in which science can be manipulated to provide support for a specific ideology. For example, Darwin's theory of natural selection "could be interpreted as non-threatening to social hierarchies. 'Darwinism,' one of its leading proponents crowed, 'is thoroughly aristocratic; it is based upon the survival of the best.'"

Meanwhile, Karl Marx "saw in Darwin's theory a confirmation of the dialectical-materialist philosophy that underpinned his own theory of social revolution."

In more recent times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge theorized that evolution does not occur gradually over very long periods of time as Darwin postulated, but occurs in relatively sudden bursts with long periods of equilibrium in between. This theory of punctuated equilibrium gives the lie to those who call upon Darwinism "to support the ideological proposition that social change must proceed slowly."

As Conner rightly concludes, "social meanings attributed to biological theories are 'not logically inherent in the theories themselves'…In general, attempts to reduce the laws of the science of society to the laws of biology is bad science that encourages bad social policy."

Tell that to George W. Bush and his cronies at the Discovery Institute who are anti-Darwin and anti-science!

In a world where the vast majority of scientific research is owned by corporations, manipulated by governments and directed toward the military industrial complex, A People's History of Science is a must-read for anyone wishing to learn how science has at times been of the people, by the people and for the people. It is a strong testament to the need to create such science again.

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