Science: A Four Thousand Year History

Jim Bennett welcomes a history of science that succeeds where many others have failed – most notably in being engaging, fresh and ambitious

Author: Patricia Fara
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: Jim Bennett
Price (RRP): £20

I had been wondering what Patricia Fara’s next move would be. We have become used to her producing a succession of scholarly but accessible books on 18th-century topics, written in a style that is engaging and authoritative and with an approach that is never derivative. But what next?

The answer has arrived in 400 pages covering 4,000 years of ‘science’. It has not been fashionable for academic historians of science to write such books in recent years – in fact in recent decades – which has rather left the field open to general popular writers, who can arrive with either historical or scientific interests.

Perhaps the historians of science have been too concerned with their internal discussions of the nature and legitimacy of their own discipline to risk the compromises inherent in writing a wide-ranging account for a more general public, but it is high time for that to change. Fara’s book could not be more wide-ranging, beginning as she does by sharing with her readers the quest to take the story of science as far back as she possibly can and by ending bang up to date.

The result is to be welcomed for giving general readers the possibility of engaging with the issues current in the academic history of science. For once it is the academic discourse that is more challenging, innovative and fresh.

Too much big-picture popular writing from outside the discipline is a dreary recital of familiar expectations – great minds, great inventors, tortured genius, heroic achievement – and the narrative takes place in an environment curiously lacking in the political, material, social and institutional dimensions of life. There are much more interesting and credible stories to be told but the professional practitioners are greatly troubled by the very concept of science and its limited applicability to the past.

Fara takes on this problem from the start, as she must. If the configuration of actions and ambitions that constitute something close to our understanding of science was shaped in the 19th century, as the academic historians agree, how can they go on claiming to be writing about something that did not exist for most of the period covered by their histories?

As Fara says, the term ‘science’ was in use much earlier but its meaning was profoundly different. Her solution is to write about practices of engaging with the material world and of understanding and explaining it without privileging any particular tradition. One result, of course, is that any distinction between science and pseudo-science is meaningless for most of the period she covers. Another is that this broad view of science, as well as including astrology and alchemy, exists in a world that includes war, politics, manufacture and commerce.

A small but important result of her determination to use categories as they were understood in the past is that her treatment of relationships between science and art and between art and nature avoids persistent misunderstandings that can plague even more scholarly accounts.

If the historiography is much more sophisticated than other big-picture narratives, the content is just as ambitious and the distribution of attention given to the different sciences is judiciously and fairly handled. It is good to see chemistry, for example, which has not been a popular topic of late, given an appropriate treatment.

The narrative moves forward in an engaging way, while the enthusiasm and opinions of the author are never far from the surface – a positive point in a book that treats its own subjects as interested and partial. The coverage is no more Eurocentric than necessary, given the success of western science and the state of our historical knowledge of alternative traditions.

Both China and Islam play their parts. There are also interesting juxtapositions, such as the treatment of Einstein, Freud and Popper together. Having begun with the Babylonians, we end with the uncertainties and political dilemmas of our own time and their intimate entanglement with science.

This is not a book for professional historians of science but one that offers the general reader an insight into the current attitudes and anxieties of the professionals. It is
a book to provoke thought and argument, and not just to provide information. In terms of content, historiography and accessibility it is an impressive achievement.
 

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