In the excellent satire on the traditional teaching of history, 1066 and All That, kings are mercilessly divided up into the good and the bad, while historical events are either a good thing or a bad thing. Among other targets, Sellar and Yeatman were aiming at whiggish history where everything that had happened was judged by how much it had advanced us towards the present. It was called whiggish history because the Whigs were the closest that nineteenth-century England had had to a progressive political party. The greatest exponent of this kind of history was Lord Macaulay who strongly supported the Whigs.
We get a very similar picture from most popular history of science, where individuals from the past are marked against a 2007 exam script. Those who get high marks are the ones who anticipated the modern science the most clearly. The flaws in this way of doing history hardly need restating. Simply totting up how closely the past reflects the present does not help us understand why things happened. But we must be careful not to swing too far the other way. Like it or not, the present is the best time in history for anyone to be alive. This is not just the case in the rich West. The poor of the third world now have far higher life expectancy and better health than ever before. They also have the best chance in history of being lifted out of poverty. Developments that got us to where we are today are surely good things.
Health is a case in point. History of medicine is largely a blind alley until the mid-nineteenth century. There is a lot of medicine happening, but not much is doing any good. The reason that homeopathy, which attracted the wrath of Dawkins last week, is so well entrenched in the UK is because when it was founded, it was considerably less dangerous than the conventional alternatives. By being less likely to kill you, it gave the illusion of being better at curing you.
David Wootton’s latest book Bad Medicine documents the appalling failures of doctors through most of history and throws into sharp relief just how far we have progressed in the last century and a half. And it was progress. Needless to say, historians like Steven Shapin were not happy about Wootton’s thesis at all. In God’s Philosophers, my own history of medieval science, I am firmly in the Wootton camp. While I am full of admiration for the achievements of the Middle Ages, I have no illusions that life in those days was very tough and no sane person would want to live then rather than now. It is precisely because they did so much to help us reach our present condition that we owe them a debt of gratitude. However, we must also understand their achievements in their own terms and not judge people for failing to conform to our ideas. The balancing act of the historian is often a very difficult one.
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.
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