19 October 2015

Review: Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara

I have a review up at USF, of The Avengers: The Lost Episodes, Volume 4. This volume brings the series into new territory: audio adaptations of episodes where the scripts no longer exist, and thus have to be reconstructed from circumstantial evidence!

Trade paperback, 482 pages
Published 2010 (originally 2009)
Acquired December 2014
Read October 2015
Science: A Four Thousand Year History
by Patricia Fara

This book has an ambitious title and an ambitious project: it's here to cover the development of "science" from 2000 B.C.E. to 2000 C.E. (more or less). It's not a history of scientific discoveries, or scientific biographies, but a history of science as a process, a history of what it has meant throughout history to do science, to think like a scientist, to see like a scientist. Patricia Fara begins with the ancient Chinese, Babylonians, and Greeks, and works her way forward, pointing out how many people we now retroactively think of as scientists were not really doing anything in accord with the modern scientific process. Or indeed, how modern science is usually not as dispassionate as we think it ought to be, pointing out the sexist, capitalist, or imperialist pressures that move and warp the direction of science throughout time.

Perhaps predictably, for me the book really came alive when it got to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when institutionalized and professionalized and disciplinarized science really comes into existence, all important to what we modern folk think of when we think of "science." She talks about that Enlightenment drive to systematize (which we see in things like Linnaeus's taxonomy, or the various racial classification schemes, or fictionally, in Causabon's Key to All Mythologies), and then that Victorian drive to discover underlying laws that explain the systems: "the goal of nineteenth-century scientists was to unify and discipline the world by finding simple laws that described the behaviour of everything-- people as well as things, minds as well as bodies" (233). And, of course, this all has dark implications, as the "numerical concept of normality enabled subjective judgements to creep right back in again. It was only a short step from describing to prescribing, from social mapping to social engineering. [Francis] Galton was just one of many Victorian scientists who believed that measuring physical characteristics would yield unbiased knowledge of people's mental abilities, psychological tendencies, and racial origins" (262-3). Though Fara can, perhaps, over-emphasize the unsavory and negative aspects of science, I think she does so with thoroughness and fairness; despite its wide span, this is a well-researched and detailed book, and I think it is hard to argue with the conclusions she draws.

This is one of those books where one's biggest complaint upon reading it is that one didn't read it before! It sounds like damning with faint praise, but in addition to being intellectual thorough, it's just very readable. Mimicking the way the ancients tried to arrange the universe, Fara divides her book into seven sections of seven chapters apiece, which means that at 8 pages apiece, each chapter is short and focused, which makes it easy to move through, and also easy to go back to and cite; I am sure this book will find its way into my dissertation. It would also make pieces of it easy to assign to students-- in that far off day when I get to teach a "science and literature" class, I am sure a couple chapters of this book will be in it. And you can't say that about very many academic books!

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