The scale of science and history (TIME 100)

TIME has recently pub­lished 100 greatest places in the world. The book is a col­lec­tion of sites that, the edit­ors argue, have had the biggest impact on world his­tory. It’s excel­lent blog mater­ial because hardly any­one has read it (includ­ing me), any list will be per­sonal and omit some­thing someone feels is import­ant and, fol­low­ing what the press releases say, at least one of the choices is inten­tion­ally trolling for controversy.

The Galapagos Islands, iconic in the his­tory of Evolutionary Theory, but is this the place it was discovered?

The other reason for blog­ging about it is that it raises some inter­est­ing ques­tions about the nature of sci­ence and his­tory. I’m open­ing what will be three blog posts this week with a ques­tion about scale. What sort of scale is appro­pri­ate for examin­ing the his­tory of science?

The scale might seem obvi­ous and the only real ques­tion is to argue whether it’s marked BC/AD or BCE/CE. That’s a scale of time or dur­a­tion. To flip the ques­tion what is the smal­lest meas­ur­able unit of his­tory? Is the action of leap­ing from a bath and shout­ing ‘Eureka!’ the shortest pos­sible his­tor­ical event? At the other end of the scale is the erad­ic­a­tion of polio, which hasn’t fin­ished yet, one long his­tor­ical event?

The idea of scale was some­thing that con­cerned the Annales school of his­tor­i­ans. They divided his­tory into three phases which, very briefly, were: Événe­ments, events that happened in a defined moment. The Long Durée, long gen­er­a­tional change that made one era dif­fer­ent to another. Conjoncture, a third class of cyc­lical events that to some extent occupy the middle ground.

These kind of approach to his­tory wasn’t pop­u­lar with the English-speaking his­tor­i­ans who dis­liked the Annales school’s belief that it was the Long Durée that was the his­tory that mattered and that events were com­par­at­ively speak­ing, froth. The same approach has been wel­comed by English-speaking archae­olo­gists who find a lot of depth in this form of his­tory, espe­cially as archae­ology is often rub­bish at deal­ing with events or cycles and is best suited to study­ing long-term change. It also means they tend to skim things like con­jonc­tures, hence my woolly defin­i­tion above.

The reason I bring it up is that scale is inter­est­ing. The idea of a place mat­ter­ing tends to suit events, but is world-changing sci­ence more a long-term trend. TIME chooses the Galapagos Islands as one of their places, because of the con­nec­tion with Charles Darwin. The study of finches on the islands is one of the iconic moments of Natural Selection, but is it a place that changed the his­tory of the world?

I don’t think it is. The Charles Darwin is the major fig­ure asso­ci­ated with the devel­op­ment of evol­u­tion­ary the­ory he wasn’t the only per­son to find it. He wasn’t even the first. The reason Darwin is so strongly asso­ci­ated with Natural Selection is illus­trated by a reply he gave when Patrick Matthew, who said he had pre­ceded Darwin in dis­cov­er­ing Natural Selection and pub­lished his work in the book Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

I freely acknow­ledge that Mr. Matthew has anti­cip­ated by many years the explan­a­tion which I have offered of the ori­gin of spe­cies, under the name of nat­ural selec­tion. I think that no one will feel sur­prised that neither I, nor appar­ently any other nat­ur­al­ist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, con­sid­er­ing how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apo­lo­gies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignor­ance of his pub­lic­a­tion. (Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 16. 21 April 1860. pp 362–363.)

What makes Darwin’s con­tri­bu­tion stand out is that he told people about Natural Selection by writ­ing a whole book about it rather than stick­ing the idea in an appendix. The book wasn’t simply “Here’s some­thing I saw in the Galapagos Islands” it was a com­pre­hens­ive explor­a­tion of the concept with plenty of examples drawn on. So if a place is con­nec­ted with Natural Selection, shouldn’t it be Down House, where he wrote the book?

Possibly, but even writ­ing the book is not enough. Lots of people have writ­ten books. On the Origin of Species was picked up, read and debated. Huxley was known as Darwin’s bull­dog for the way he pro­moted Natural Selection, is the key place per­haps the Natural History Museum in Oxford where Huxley met Wilberforce? Is it the many places around the world after that found things made much more sense if you accep­ted Natural Selection?

So is place a sens­ible concept for a world-changing idea or are we using the wrong scale to look at sci­entific his­tory? It could simply be a case of look­ing at the wrong thing. Pat has brought up a ques­tion in the office: Is the place more import­ant than the per­son and, if so, where? That’s the next entry.

Photo: Lonesome George Pinta giant tor­toise Santa Cruz by Putneymark licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?