Fortean Times, October 2006

A People's History of Science
Miners, Midwives and "Low Mechanicks"

Clifford D Conner
Nation Books, 2005
Pb, xiv+554, notes, illos, bibl, index, ISBN 1 56025 748 2, $17.95

As modern historians generally agree (though few have put it as persuasively as Marxist punk legends The Gang of Four), history's not made by great men. But the old encomiastic tradition seems to hold sway in the history of science, which is still too often taught as the works of a succession of uniquely inspired thinkers like Pythagoras, Galileo and Newton.

In this provocative tome, American historian Clifford Conner argues that the development of modern science owes far more to folk wisdom and the artisanal knowledge of the working man than to the insights of a few heroic figures. The approach is borrowed from such books as Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States'  – and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Zinn returns the compliment with some prominent plaudits on this book's cover.

Appropriately enough, Conner tells the story of science from prehistoric times to the present 'scientific-industrial complex' by drawing on a huge amount of previous research, with over 1300 referenced footnotes. Conner takes a broad definition of science as the applied knowledge of nature, putting its roots in the geological, botanical, astronomical and material understanding that the very first human societies needed to survive.

As people settled down to a life of agriculture and trade, they learned to use writing and numbers to help keep stock. Literacy then allowed a greater sharing of knowledge. In the ancient world, the much-lauded achievements of the Greeks were borrowed wholesale from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians – something that most contemporary writers freely acknowledged. The role of a few key thinkers among the elite of Greece, Conner argues, has been hugely exaggerated, initially by 19th century proponents of 'racial science' keen to promote the genius of these 'Aryan' forefathers. Plato, by Conner's account, was a vicious crank with a thoroughly negative influence on science.

The iconoclasm continues with a debunking of Henry the Navigator, the Portuegese prince whose navigational knowledge was bought from or tortured out of seamen. Henry's 'discoveries' were news only to other landbound theorists, not the people who depended on the sea for their lives and livelihoods. The same pattern repeated itself as the European empires expanded around the world.

In the book's longest chapters, Conner asks: who were the scientific revolutionaries? And no less importantly, who were the winners of that period from 1450-1700 that's often described as the most important event in Western history? Again, the advances of the time were largely thanks to the systematisation of craft knowledge. Elite figures like Tycho Brahe and Robert Boyle owed their reputation to the work of their technicians and employees. At best, they played an active role in organising research and designing experiments, but more often acting as hands-off managers and patrons.

Conner links the mindset of these gentleman scientists with the witch craze that seized Europe at the same time. Francis Bacon, widely credited as the father of the scientific revolution, explicitly wrote of the torture of women accused of witchcraft as a metaphor for the way that an inquisitive man should extract the secrets of nature. Many of the victims of the witch craze were simply the possessors of folk knowledge of botany or medicine which challenged the authority of professional physicians, and many leading scientists of the day were far from critical of their persecution.

As for who benefited, it was these gentlemen philosophers who took the glory while the emerging class of industrial capitalists reaped the material benefits. It's a trend that continues with the establishment of science as a tool of industry in the 19th century, and the emergence of 'Big Science' in the 20th. This is less fruitful ground for Conner's argument, and the past 200 years occupy just the last 80 pages of the book.

Obviously a short review can barely scratch the surface of the huge amount of material covered here. The book is fascinating and provocative throughout, surprisingly readable, and stuffed full of the kinds of fact you just have to read out to anyone in the vicinity. Readers of a conservative bent will find Conner's argument an easy one to dismiss as just so much Marxist revisionism, but he freely admits to taking a selective approach to counter the established version of history.

Forteans certainly shouldn't be too challenged by the idea that scientific 'progress' is a product of broader social and economic currents rather the works of a few great men. After all, you don't get steam engines till it's steam-engine-time - and to discover a little about the factors that led to numerous engineers making the same near-simultaneous breakthrough, see page 424.