Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A new book on the development of science

by Salman Hameed

I don't know how Ron Numbers does it, but it seems that he comes up with his own book or an edited volume every few months. And, since the books are interesting and relevant, we have to then catch-up in reading. The new book is called Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science and it is edited by Peter Harrison, Ron Numbers, and Michael Shank, and it looks like a fantastic collection of essays on how humans have looked at nature. I have already ordered my copy of the book and will have the table of contents at the end of this post. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from its review published in last week's Science:
Academic histories of science on topics before 1800 ritually begin by denying the existence of “science” and “scientists” per se in the premodern period. The study of nature took many forms, had different names, and involved different sorts of practitioners; many of these procedures and concerns, such as astrological divination, alchemy, and natural magic, had to be systematically pruned and excluded to produce modern science. Wrestling with Nature narrates the development of science by focusing on changing categories for describing natural knowledge in the past 3000 years. It tells the history of science through the history of the term “science”; its predecessor categories, such as “natural history” and “natural philosophy”; and categories of exclusion from science, such as “pseudoscience.” The first half of the volume narrates the growth of “Western” (including Islamic) approaches to the study of the natural world from Babylonia to the early 19th century. The next three chapters consider the conflicted relations since 1800 of modern science (especially in the United States) with medicine, engineering, and religion. Two additional essays examine science and the public in Victorian Britain and the geography of science. 
The contributors stress the productive fuzziness of disciplinary and epistemic categories such as natural philosophy, mixed mathematics, scientific medicine, and applied science. The essays collectively illustrate how we learn more about the process of creating the sciences by documenting the polemical uses of claims to the mantle of science than by declaring one or another past approach to be scientific. Laboratory medicine and Christian Science, for example, emerged simultaneously in a clash over the monopoly to scientific medicine. The essays show how creating modern science involved boundary demarcation and its attendant exclusion of other practices and practitioners and restriction of the scope of scientific work to avoid, for example, the study of values. Pseudoscience, for example, “did not simply run afoul of scientific orthodoxy” but helped “to create such orthodoxy.”
And here is specifically more on science & religion, where historians of science, as usual, offer a more nuanced understanding of this interaction: 
The old model of science in eternal conflict with religion—so central to 19th-century battles over secularism and our current struggles to maintain the integrity of scientific inquiry—turns out to be a dismal guide for understanding how many cultures came to develop complex scientific systems and the institutional and education structures for nurturing them. Echoing a growing consensus among historians of science, the authors show how often natural inquiry, into the 19th century, emerged from theological and divinatory motivations, though they take care never to reduce the natural inquiry to such motivations. In ancient Babylonia, for example, “the gods were thought to communicate with humankind through the behavior of physical phenomena, which in turn became intensely significant objects of observation and analysis. The results … were the development of empiricism, mathematical theoretization of astronomical problems, and methods of predicting the phenomena.” In classical antiquity, careful observation of nature was far more important for theologically oriented functionalists like Galen or Aristotle than for materialist Epicureans. “For many in the early-modern period, the pursuit of natural history was an intrinsically theological activity.” Before the late 19th century, conflict tended to be among different sorts of believers, between those who prioritized the study of nature and those who deprioritized it or, more rarely, denounced it as wicked or heretical. If such conflict produced scientific martyrs and systematic censorship of scientific inquiry, it also could produce greater philosophical scrutiny about the nature of causation and human knowledge of the natural world—shown well here in the case of medieval Islamic debates over natural knowledge.
Looks fantastic. Read the full review here. In case you are wondering, here is the table of contents: 

1. Natural Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia
Francesca Rochberg

2. Natural Knowledge in the Classical World
Daryn Lahoux

3. Natural Knowledge in the Arabic Middle Ages
Jon McGinnis

4. Natural Knowledge in the Latin Middle Ages
Michael H. Shank

5. Natural History
Peter Harrison

6. Mixed Mathematics
Peter Dear

7. Natural Philosophy
John L. Heilbron

8. Science and Medicine
Ronald L. Numbers

9. Science and Technology
Ronald Kline

10. Science and Religion
Jon H. Roberts

11. Science, Pseudoscience, and Science Falsely So-Called
Ronald L. Numbers & Daniel P. Thurs

12. Scientific Methods
Daniel P. Thurs

13. Science and the Public
Bernard Lightman

14. Science and Place
David N. Livingstone


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