A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks”

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Clifford D. Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks is an ambitious five-hundred page book that systematically moves through a broad history of western science and identifies the many ways in which the history of science is improperly taught in the United States by revealing how, in many cases, it was not the “great minds” that made scientific discoveries but rather the cumulative efforts of people cutting across class lines. Conner begins by describing how the history of science is taught by giving students a history that spans long periods of times in which nothing of consequence happens until a “eureka” moment when some “great” man “discovers” a great idea and moves humanity forward. This method of science leaves no room for ordinary people beyond placing them in the debt of those who were great enough to scientific discoveries. Beyond seeking simply to uncover the role of people in science, Conner is also writing for people with his history intended to be read by anyone who has an interest in science and not the narrow audience of academics that frequently discuss the history of science.

If there is one common theme that runs through the hundreds of years covered in Conner’s book, it is that ordinary people—not great men—were at the root of almost every scientific invention. Conner describes how it was merchants who made mathematical innovations, sailors who gathered the knowledge used to expand the science of astronomy, midwives who learned about the female body, and host of other people who made important discoveries as part of their daily struggle to survive. Scientific innovation thus was not handed to people by academics and great inventors, but rather often resembled a pyramid where innovations were made by a large number of people until one person was associated with a particular invention, regardless of whether or not it was indeed an individual contribution. Indeed, Conner describes how medieval academics, the church, and the ancient Greeks often had a stifling effect on scientific innovation with many academics choosing to focus on the purely theoretical rather than the science in practice learned by artisans. In the case of the ancient Greeks, Conner makes a persuasive argument that the failing of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle to really understand the world, and their subsequent idolization by medieval European academics, may have set the course of scienftic progress back by hundreds of years.

Conner ends by taking on the corporatization of science and the notion that all science is good science because science as scientific innovation means technological process and thus is to the benefit of humanity. Conner shatters this myth by examining the green revolution of the twentieth century and explaining how that supposed innovation in agriculture has done little to combat hunger around the world. It is not a coincidence that many of the “benefits” of the green revolution were promised by large corporations who now make up what Conner describes as the “Scientific-Industrial Complex.” To Conner, the Scientific-Industrial Complex is a result of the “intricate entwinement of university, government, and big business” with the benefits of scientific discovery frequently going to a handful of educational institutions and corporations who have come to “own” many scientific innovations. Conner describes the collaboration of scientists on corporate and military projects ranging from the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon (an effort that has resulted in one of the most serious threats to the world) to scientists developing proprietary computers systems that stifle innovation. In his concluding remarks, Conner describes how many critics have charged that science has not improved the quality of most people’s lives and indeed has to respond to social movements calling for socially responsible uses of scientific innovation. For Conner, this is an inevitable consequence of the union of science and capital, with the only solution being a globally planned economy where scientific innovation and discovery will be put to the benefit of all.

Conner’s A People’s History of Science is an engaging and quick read that offers a refreshing re-interpretation of the history of science. Those who suffered through survey history courses in high school or college where they were required to memorize a series of inventions and their inventors will find Conner’s history to be interesting and full of unexpected surprises. Ultimately, Conner presents a portrayal of ordinary people as the ones who can make progress in society, a considerably more inspirational tale than the traditional tale of great white men, their inventions, and their almost god-like status.

Clifford D. Conner, A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks, (Nation Books, 2005).

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