Pat Munday. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The history of science as an academic discipline grew in the post-1945 era along with the development of higher education and the expansion of science and technology. In the United States, Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 article, “Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President,” called for a government-supported national research foundation. Bush’s influence led to the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 and inaugurated an era in which science was a form of “politics by other means” for waging the Cold War. Science came to be combined with technology in ways that often made the two indistinguishable. The program to land men on the moon, the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, the construction of supercomputers, and the war on cancer are just a few examples of technoscience during this era. As the role of science and scientists in society increased, so did the need to understand science and scientists in historical terms.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many universities established history of science programs or related science and technology studies programs, greatly increasing the number of professional scholars in the field. The annual edition of the Isis Current Bibliography is a good indicator of growth and decline in the history of science. Isis is the academic journal of the History of Science Society, the discipline’s largest professional organization. According to the society’s preface to the 2000 edition, “The Isis Current Bibliography is compiled by the systematic search of approximately 600 journals.” Throughout the 1970s, the Isis Current Bibliography typically listed fewer than 3,000 entries comprising books and journal articles. In 1983 the number of entries rose above 3,000, and in 1993 it first surpassed 4,000. After 1999, scholarship in the history of science seemed to decline rapidly in quantitative terms, and since 2000 the number of entries has hovered below 3,000.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, there were two generally opposed schools of thought in the history of science: internalist and externalist. Internalists believe that the history of science should be explained only through the growth and development of science as rational knowledge and methods. For the internalist, social or cultural factors merely hinder or accelerate this growth, but are not intrinsically part of science. Externalists believe that science is a part of culture and society. For the externalist, the explanation of scientific change necessarily must include non-scientific factors. Boris Hessen’s book The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia (1931) helped establish the boundaries of the externalist camp with its emphasis on the social, economic, and political forces that shaped Newton’s science. Alexander Koyré’s work Études Galiléennes (1939; Galileo studies) helped establish the boundaries of the internalist camp with its emphasis on intellectual content, growth of knowledge, metaphysical assumptions, and rational nature of Galileo’s science. In principle this debate between internalist and externalist explanations in the history of science largely ended following the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Though Kuhn had begun historical work as a disciple of Koyré, Kuhn’s book emphasized the role of social factors in revolutionary periods when one paradigm replaces another. Subsequently, though non-historians often fall into the internalism versus externalism debate, historians tend to embrace both explanations as complementary ways of understanding scientific change through time. From the internalist versus externalist debates, the sociology of science emerged as a discipline closely allied to the history of science. Because the sociology of science may use a theoretical method that distinguishes it from history qua history, it is sometimes treated as a special subcategory of the history of science.
Most historians of science focus their work around some combination of chronological period, subject category, and cultural area. Chronological periods include classical antiquity (chiefly Greco-Roman to c. 500 C.E.), the Middle Ages (Latin culture and Europe in general from 500 to c. 1450), the Renaissance and Reformation (1450-1600), and century-by-century from the seventeenth to the twentieth. Subject categories include mathematics, earth sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and medicine and medical sciences. These are further broken down into subcategories—for example, the physical sciences consist of astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Some historians use a biographical focus within the subject approach. Cultural areas include Islamic and related cultures (including Israel, Iran, and the Near East in general; chiefly from c. 500 to c. 1600), India (to c. 1600), and the Far East (to c. 1600). Presumably, global communication and unification in the sciences make these cultural categories unnecessary after 1600. The work of Joseph Needham seems to belie this point, and the history of modern science in non-Western cultures remains a fertile and largely unexplored academic terrain.
The following categories are by no means an exhaustive survey of new themes in the history of science. Rather, they are an effort to identify selected key developments—some in traditional areas such as the scientific revolution, and others in new areas such as feminist history of science—that will help orient scholars who are new to the discipline. Also, in part because of space limitations, history of technology and history of the social sciences are excluded, and only the history of the natural sciences is covered here.
Specialization among historians of science and the sheer volume of publications make it difficult for a historian of science to publish a general overview of the field that pleases most colleagues and is sufficiently comprehensive. With this in mind, two generally successful efforts are Anthony Alioto’s A History of Western Science (1987) and Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers (1983). Alioto’s book serves well as a general introduction for undergraduate students. It is broad and inclusive up through the end of the scientific revolution (c. 1700), and it makes some effort to survey developments in science to the late twentieth century. Alioto emphasizes that science is a way of seeing the world and a way of knowing, rather than a compilation of facts. He also acknowledges the role of metaphysics. Much like Koyré, Alioto regards metaphysics as a commitment to the inherent and knowable order of natural phenomena. Boorstin was a general social historian and not a historian of science per se, but his book is a pleasure to read and is an excellent introduction to the subject for lay readers. It portrays science as human discovery on the frontier of nature and as a progressive method for defeating ignorance. Boorstin is generally weak on the effect of the social and cultural milieu on science, but he is strong in explaining the role of instruments such as the printing press, the telescope, and the microscope. In addition to the general works by Alioto and Boorstin, W. W. Norton and Company has published a series of historical surveys of major disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and the human sciences. The volumes in the Norton series are highly recommended for scholars new to the history of science.
To understand the general scope of the history of science since 1970, two other introductory texts are necessary. One is a work about women in science, and the other is about science as socially constructed knowledge. Margaret Alic’s Hypatia’s Heritage (1992) surveys the role of women in science from antiquity through the nineteenth century. Through a series of chapter-length biographies, Alic helps students and general readers appreciate male biases that created both social hurdles to discourage women who wanted to become scientists and historical filters to render invisible those women who did become scientists. David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery (1981) helped establish “the strong programme” for the social history of science. Bloor’s method hinges on the belief that “knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge.” Thus, according to Bloor’s symmetry principle, there should be no inherent difference between the explanations about what some might regard as true beliefs and what some might regard as false beliefs. Furthermore, Bloor is interested in the form and content of science as knowledge, and not in scientists per se. The strong programme is a theory supporting the social constructionist view and is not to be confused with the social history of science, which seeks merely to explain social influences on science. That said, the origins of the strong programme and social constructionist in the history of science can be traced to “The Merton Thesis.” Robert K. Merton’s Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England (1938) argued for the linked origin of values in science, the English revolution, and the Anglican religion.
Mott Greene’s Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity (1992) displays a time when people lived in an oral culture and were in close contact with their natural surroundings as a daily part of life. Greene argues that this firsthand experience of nature means that mythology should be understood in natural terms as well as through philology. For example, the enigma of the Cyclops might well be explained through the presence of volcanoes—gigantic one-eyed beasts that threatened humans with annihilation.
Ideas such as Greene’s have found their way into standard works of scholarship on human ecology and nature. In The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (1991), Max Oelschlaeger begins by trying to understand the world-view of Paleolithic humans. He writes, “Clearly, the mythology of the Great Hunt and totemism are not stupid responses to the world but mirror the same level of intelligence—albeit one directed to an unmistakably different view of the world—as modern science” (p. 15). Furthermore, in seeking to understand the meaning of wilderness for the modern world, Oelschlaeger considers the poetry of Robinson Jeffers or Gary Snyder to be on equal footing with the environmental science of Aldo Leopold. Understanding science as an integral part of culture rather than as an exceptional activity is characteristic of postmodernism, although this way of thinking is still disputed by many historians of science.
The Middle Ages, from about 500 to about 1600, are in the early twenty-first century recognized as a fertile period marking a transition from the dominance of a handful of ancient authorities to a broad range of theory and experiment. These developments took place throughout Europe, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Asia. For the eventual rise of science in Renaissance Europe, developments in Islamic nations were especially important. For a comprehensive survey of this cultural transfer, see David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science (1992), which traces the development of ideas within cultures and their transfer from one culture to another as well as the cultural contexts that enframed these developments. As an historian who pioneered studies of the close relationship between science and Christianity in the West, Lindberg is especially good at laying the “religion versus science” myth to rest. He does this in a number of ways, including explanations of support for science and medicine in the medieval church and the transfer of Greek science from Islam to Europe through Christian scholars such as St. Thomas Aquinas.
The “scientific revolution” embraces the period between 1500 and 1700. Major biographical figures such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) dominate historiography for this period, although historians have done considerable work on figures such as Paracelsus (1493-1541) or Robert Fludd (1574-1637), whose ideas on occult sciences or mysticism influenced major figures, or those such as Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) or Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), whose ideas on mechanism or metaphysics helped shape the work of others.
Historians of science long acknowledged the importance of published communication and authorship during this period. Yet until Elizabeth Eisenstein’s two-volume The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early Modern Europe (1979), the importance of publication and authorship was a largely untested assumption with knowledge about these phenomena scattered throughout the literature. The second volume of Eisenstein’s work is mainly about communication and science and makes a strong case that, whereas print was not theagent of change in giving rise to the scientific revolution, it was a crucial one. The social power of scientists as authors and the development of print-based academic culture were seen in the importance of prestige and how it came to be defined as a system of social capital. This reward system did not guarantee that publications would bring acclaim from fellow scientists, but it did ensure that an otherwise original scientist who did not publish would not receive acclaim. As an important independent variable in the history of science, publishing helps explain Galileo’s popularity (and his political troubles with the Catholic Church), the obscurity of the Swedish chemist Carl Scheele (who made major chemical discoveries but did not publish in French or English, and hence was unknown to contemporaries), the importance of the priority dispute between Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz (1646-1716), and the covert pleas by Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) friends for him to publish his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).
Although the occasional social constructionist has doubted whether there was any such thing as the scientific revolution, most historians recognize its usefulness as a heuristic term to characterize this amazing era of change. Indeed, Kuhn’s work made revolution—the overthrow of one paradigm by another—the key event in explaining scientific change.
Instead of merely working with “revolution” as a historical tool, I. Bernard Cohen uses the historical method to investigate the very idea of revolution in science. By placing Kuhn’s work in historical context, Cohen explains how scientists used and shaped the idea of revolution from the early modern period, through the Enlightenment, and on to the late twentieth century. During the Enlightenment, revolution became a rhetorical instrument borrowed from politics and heavily laden with connotations of progress. Like Cohen’s earlier biographical histories, his investigation of revolution in science centered on key figures such as Copernicus and Newton.
Social constructionists have also focused on key biographical figures to explain the scientific revolution. By investigating the work of the chemist Robert Boyle, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer sought to explain how faith in the mechanistic approach came to dominate scientific culture and how the mechanistic view came to be constructed as scientific reality. Although often criticized for its focus on Boyle’s having established his legitimacy by emphasizing his own status as a gentleman, Shapin and Schaffer’s work is more nuanced than that, and it does help explain Boyle’s ascendancy over rival mechanists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). As a representative of the conservative traditional social order, Hobbes doubted the ability of experiments to yield knowledge and was a critic to be reckoned with. Boyle’s ability to tie experimental demonstration to his mechanistic views was crucial in gaining public acceptance over Hobbes’s skepticism. Shapin and Schaffer also effectively explain how the English Revolution and Anglican religion shaped the scientific revolution and hence modern science. Just as Hobbes had feared, scientists became the modern priesthood and science a major source of political authority.
In the history of science since the 1970s, Newton has continued to be a key biographical figure. In a series of books published between 1975 and 1995, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs revealed Newton’s passion for alchemy and explained the connections between this passion, Newton’s theological beliefs, and his science. According to Dobbs, Newton’s alchemical quest revolved around “Hunting the Green Lyon”—searching for the vegetable spirit that brought brute matter to life and revealed the divine origins of the world. Phenomena such as fermentation were examples of this vital spirit, which caused alchemical transformation as compared with mere chemical change. Newton also searched for essences through his religion and physics. Through his Bible studies, Newton sought a pure and uncorrupted reading of the Scriptures, a reading that would reveal the mind of God at work. In his physics research, Newton sought the essence of space, time, and physical matter—a research program that would reveal the “sensorium of God.” Dobbs also demonstrated the effect of Newtonian science on industrial developments. Earlier scholars had pointed out Newton’s search for ancient wisdom and alchemical investigation, but it was Dobbs who tied this to Newton’s science in a convincing synthesis. Like Dobbs, Richard Westfall spent much of his life researching and writing about Newton. A paradigm for biographical studies, Westfall’s book is more than 900 pages long, and the reader comes to Newton as a complete person in intellectual, social, and psychological terms. To accomplish this feat, Westfall deciphered Newton’s boyhood journals, understood his private devotion to Bible studies, analyzed his private devotion to alchemy, and sympathized with his psychological challenges. Above all, Westfall explained the intellectual basis of Newton’s science, with heavy emphasis on his mathematical and logical genius. Newton also emerges as a social force in his own right, from his work as warden and master of the mint to his leadership of the Royal Society (1703-1727).
Just as Newton endures as a primary biographical subject for the history of the scientific revolution, Charles Darwin endures in the history of biology. As a biography, Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin stands in stark contrast to Westfall’s study of Newton. Desmond and Moore consider Darwin’s life and science almost solely on their own terms. The book is about how Darwin comes to be Darwin and not about how Darwin’s work comes to influence science. Throughout, the emphasis is on creating a narrative from primary sources, not on evaluating these sources through the lens of a century’s worth of historiography. Desmond and Moore do explain the economic, political, and social factors that shaped Darwin, and they discuss the role of Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and other contemporary ideas. The leitmotif that binds this biography together is Darwin’s frequent illnesses, but even this is treated strictly in terms of how the illnesses were understood by Darwin and his contemporaries with no allusion to the various later historical explanations for it.
As if to demonstrate the importance of Darwin to the history of biology and the attraction of such major figures for historians, Janet Browne’s two-volume biography may prove to be the definitive work on Darwin. Both volumes, Charles Darwin: A Biography: Voyaging (volume 1, 1995) and Power of Peace (volume 2, 2002), successfully integrate the wealth of primary and secondary sources. Browne is especially adept at explaining the social context of Victorian England, where Darwin lived a privileged life as a member of the leisured class. The pivotal member within a network of actors including friends and family, Darwin was both taken care of by others and in a position to manipulate them. Browne’s biography is by no means a one-dimensional sociological study, but also explains Darwin’s involvement with and interest in the natural world.
Two other works are important for an understanding of Darwin’s role in the history of biology: Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (1982) for the significance of Darwin’s work to later science, and Stephen Jan Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977) for the clash of ideas (and their political significance) in Darwinian biology. The history of twentieth-century biology is of special interest because the discipline has been largely defined by historians who actively participated as scientists in the synthesis of fields such as cytology, genetics, and embryology. Ernst Mayr is a biologist who participated in the evolutionary synthesis and became a well-respected historian, and his 1982 book is a central text for understanding twentieth-century biology.
Like other historians who have written about the evolutionary synthesis, Mayr explains how diverse scientific streams converged to form the river of contemporary biology. He focuses mainly on the streams of taxonomy, evolution, and genetics and traces their origins to sources as diverse as Aristotle’s classification, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744-1829) theory of adaptation, and the cell theory of Theodor Schwann (1810-1882) and Matthias Schleiden (1804-1881). Although Mayr’s work is anything but social history, he does emphasize the cultural environment surrounding biologists and their ideas. And the emphasis on the role of individual biologists is so strong that one reviewer called Mayr’s book “an intellectual biography in disguise.”
Mayr is inclusive in considering the sources of modern evolutionary theory, but he also occasionally plays the role of historical judge in assessing the value of certain ideas to the history of biology. He is especially harsh regarding the “straight jacket of Plato’s essentialism,” which Mayr believes held back the development of biology for more than two thousand years. Mayr’s disdain for Platonism helps explain his appreciation for the Enlightenment-era naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788), who argued that there are no species but only individuals. Mayr also judged more contemporary aspects of history, as with his criticism of Gould’s work regarding punctuated equilibrium as a driving force in evolution and as an alternative to the gradual adaptation favored by Mayr.
Like Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, in Ontogeny and Phylogeny, combines history with arguments regarding contemporary evolutionary theory. Instead of a historiography that looks for the synthesis of diverse ideas through time, Gould focuses more on history of science as a battle of ideas. Gould’s scientific roots were in paleontology as contrasted with Mayr’s roots in the systematics of extant species. Paleontologists must confront the enigma of sudden widespread extinctions and the dramatic rise of newly dominant taxa. Gould’s historiographic and scientific interests led him to examine different sources than those studied by Mayr and to interpret sources in alternate ways. Thus, Gould uses history to argue that an overemphasis on gradualism and “the evolutionary synthesis” unfairly obscured other historical developments such as the alteration of regulatory genes and the role of stochastic cataclysmic events. Moreover, as he did in numerous other publications, Gould critically examines science as a problem when it is taken as an “objective” frame for politics. For Gould, moral and humanistic concerns outweigh any easy tendency to reduce complex social problems to easy scientific solutions.
Historically, Gould’s fears regarding the political misuse of biological science were well founded. Although historians such as Robert Young have pointed out the implicit class prejudice inherent in Darwin’s science, it was not until after Darwin’s death that Darwinian biology began to shape politics in this way. Daniel J. Kevles in his In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (1985) explains the origins of this desire to breed better humans. Starting with the work of Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century, Kevles tracks this program through the twentieth century, explaining the success of eugenics legislation in the United States versus its failure in Britain. In Britain, legislation failed because of a deeper appreciation by politicians of the scientific complexity or heredity, resistance from the Labour party, and arguments for individual reproductive rights. Before World War II, the American genetics program sought to prevent inferior people from reproducing. After the war and the dark image created by the Nazis for human selective breeding, American scientists shifted their program to a “reform eugenics” based on genetic testing and counseling to screen out inherited disabilities. In Kevles’s historiography, science as a process for creating and developing ideas is replaced by a science that shapes law, feeds powerful political coalitions, gets tested in the courts, and becomes an economic commodity.
The American obsession with understanding and controlling genetics through inheritance has, in recent years, turned toward manipulating the genes themselves. Sheldon Krimsky was original in looking at an episode of contemporary history as a narrative about the politics of science and science policy. America’s war on cancer began in the late 1960s and helped generate interest in and funding for research on the viral causes of cancer. This led to the discovery of SV40, a monkey virus that transformed healthy cells into tumor cells and could also be used to insert new genes into cells. As scientists learned more about synthesizing and manipulating SV40, some of them—such as David Baltimore at MIT—raised ethical concerns over the creation of human health hazards. Although scientists tried to control such biohazards through voluntary agreements, their meetings and public communication attracted public scrutiny and political attention. When federal legislation threatened commercial prospects for recombinant DNA, scientists made every effort in their public communications to black box the issue and to emphasize its potential health benefits. As a black box, scientists could sell the public on the attractive applications of recombinant DNA applications without educating the public to understand either the scientific aspects or the potential disbenefits. This rhetorical strategy was largely successful, both in the 1970s and in more recent politics of genetic engineering.
Feminist History of Science
Since 1970, the feminist history of women in science has become an important field within the larger discipline. The term feminist history means more than simply the history of women in science. As an explicitly ideological perspective, feminist history seeks to explain the oppression of women and to offer strategies for overcoming that oppression. Unlike historians in other fields, who are frequently loath to consider themselves personally as agents of historical change, feminist historians of science often admit their personal biases and draw practical political implications from their work.
Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980) considers mechanistic natural science between 1500 and 1700 as an object of criticism. In defining the harm to women and ecology stemming from the scientific revolution, Merchant examines the controversy between mechanistic and organic views of nature, the social construction of a female-gendered nature, and the struggle of some women against dominant culture. For example, instead of dismissing the persecution of witches as a fundamentally irrational practice, Merchant sees it as an integral part of the mechanistic program of control over nature. Francis Bacon, René Descartes (1596-1650), and other architects of the scientific revolution promoted this program. Merchant’s criticism of the scientific revolution fits closely with the work of other postmodernists such as Albert Borgmann and Max Oelschlaeger, who identify historical developments such as Locke’s political and economic individualism, Descartes’s universal reductivism, and Bacon’s mechanistic control as key features of the modernist period.
Margaret Rossiter takes a very different yet equally original tack in Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies (1982). By collecting biographical information on thousands of women who earned a listing between 1906 and 1938 in the directory American Men of Science, Rossiter identified systemic barriers to women’s advancement in science and common strategies by which women overcame or sidestepped these barriers. As factors to further explain these barriers and strategies, she examined more than a dozen variables such as education and marital status. Rossiter found clear patterns in the factors that were associated with professional success in science. This work deflated the myth of science as a meritocracy and also helped feminists develop strategies to promote inclusion in contemporary science. Furthermore, Rossiter’s work encouraged historians to look more closely at the connections between gender and contemporary social institutions.
An exemplary scientific biography of a woman scientist is Evelyn Fox Keller’s 1983 A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her research in corn genetics and her discovery of transposable genes. Keller focuses on McClintock’s struggle against patriarchy, her perseverance in getting other scientists to examine her unorthodox research, and her way of knowing nature through connection and relationship rather than through abstract analytical power. By identifying particular masculine and feminine gender characteristics, Keller explains McClintock’s scientific insight based on her sympathy for and involvement with the objects of her research. Thus Keller criticizes cultural limitations on scientific knowledge and also suggests ways in which those limitations might be transcended.
In identifying barriers to knowledge and imagining ways to overcome them, Donna Haraway is a distinctively original and inspirational thinker. Her Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989) is a good example of her ability to build a historical narrative and use critical analysis to shift the reader’s point of view. Haraway began this narrative by reading exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as primary sources. These exhibits told a story of cultural politics and “a logic of appropriation and domination” by white male European culture in the postcolonial era. The book is in three parts, beginning with the pre-World War II emphasis on the balance of nature and the need for hierarchy, shifting after the war to a “man the Hunter” trope emphasizing cooperation and the integration of individuals into society, and ending with the “Politics of Being Female”—a new feminist primatology rooted in historical conditions. For Haraway, history of science matters because of the way it shapes society, defines our ideology, and limits our imagination. History matters because it can always be contested and revised, taking on a new narrative form to explore ontological possibilities.
In a brief entry such as this, it is necessary to emphasize a few popular themes at the expense of the great diversity comprising the field. Alas, much of the history of science since 1970 has revolved around telling and retelling narratives about the great men of physics and biology. It is a process that Mott Greene once called “toting bones from one graveyard to another.” In his 1992 work on preclassical antiquity, Greene shows what interesting bones are yet to be discovered. In
Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World (1982), Greene demonstrates how a new way of looking at the world—the discovery of plate tectonics in the 1960s—could be a reason to rescue obscure geologists from historical oblivion. It is good history and also a good example of self-reflexivity in the post-Kuhnian age, where the historian becomes a self-conscious shaper of the social fabric, and not a mere narrator of historical truth.
Similarly—although it seems to have been a case of toting bones back and forth—the discovery of the importance of magic and mysticism to Newton, Bacon, and other major biographical figures of the scientific revolution helped open the door to another recovery project—this one centered around “wonders” and how scientists, physicians, and other adherents of natural philosophy experienced them. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park researched accounts regarding objects of wonder such as monstrous births, extraordinary mushrooms, and urine stones that glowed in the dark. In addition to giving readers a richer sense of ontology from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, they also widened historical understanding of how empiricism related to society, morality, and aesthetics. Daston and Park argue that objects of wonder did not fall out of favor because empirical science excluded them as objects of popular fascination, but rather were driven to the pages of X-Men comics and supermarket tabloids by changing social fashions and etiquette.
Considered from a historiographic point of view, Greene, Dalton, and Park might have much to show about the future of the history of science. From Herodotus to Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) to the postmodernist deconstructionists, the methods of researching, writing, and interpreting history have changed greatly. History is always subject to revision and reinterpretation based upon the questions one asks and how one seeks to answer them.
As a history of historiography, Telling the Truth about History by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob is a comprehensive survey from the scientific revolution to the end of the twentieth century. By tracing history from the hagiography that made Newton into a cultural hero to the “crisis of modernity” that sees truth and objectivity as “dissimulations advanced by those who have power,” Appleby et al. seek to fashion a reconstruction project. They argue that history is rooted in the human psychological experience of memory and the personal craving for meaning. This is an optimistic project. Although we must give up naïve notions of truth and objectivity, we may embrace a democratic truth that “celebrates a multiplicity of actors” (p. 283) and encourages “open-ended scholarly inquiry that can trample on cherished illusions” (p. 289).