Saturday, August 25, 2018

Some thoughts on Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science

Why did modern science arise in western Europe and nowhere else? If you ever meet a historian of science, for goodness sake, don’t ask them that question. It implies that the West enjoyed some sort of superiority compared to ancient Greece, imperial China or the Islamic Caliphate. In academia today, cultural relativism isn’t edgy postmodern theory, it’s part of the furniture. So no one likes to be reminded that, whereas many civilisations have had scientific cultures, none of them came close to the achievement of western science.

It wasn’t always forbidden to ask the question. In the late-nineteenth century, there were two broad theories of scientific development. One, associated with the positivism of Frenchman Auguste Comte, emphasised reason as the font of modern science. Westerners were supposedly more rational than other races, so it was hardly surprising that they developed science first. This idea was turbocharged by social Darwinism, which seemed to provide a scientific veneer for theories of western mental superiority. At much the same time, the conflict between science and religion was popularised by the American Andrew Dickson White. White suggested that religion had long held science back and the cause of scientific advance was simply the removal of this impediment.

From the mid-twentieth century, as the history of science began to form its own sub-discipline, scholars got to work undermining these grand theories. The myth of western rationality went first. Historians found that when they studied individual scientists, they were usually behaving in a way that wasn’t rational at all. Sir Isaac Newton, the icon of the scientific revolution, turned out to be obsessed with alchemy and biblical chronology. Johannes Kepler developed his model of the solar system by asking, how would God have done it? Scientific pioneers were obsessed with priority disputes and spent as much time burnishing their public image as they did on science. Philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, unpicked the underlying process of scientific discovery and found it didn’t seem to be logical at all.

The conflict between science and religion took a bit longer to fall apart. This was partly because within academia being rude about Christianity is a good deal more acceptable than lauding western rationality. But gradually, historians realised that the likes of Newton and Kepler were even more devout than their contemporaries. And they discovered most of the examples of religion holding back science, such as banning lightening rods or insisting that the earth is flat, were fantasy. Despite spirited attempts by the new atheists to revive it, the conflict between science and religion is wholly defunct among historians of science.

Nowadays, respectable scholars don’t ask why science arose in the West. For instance, Patricia Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) doesn’t engage with the point at all and ignores the concept of the scientific revolution for good measure. In the place of historians, sociologists have attempted to fill the void. This has not always been a great success. For example, the sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has been justifiably criticised for his simplistic books on the Christian roots of western civilisation. In contrast, Toby Huff, whose The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (2017), has now reached its third edition, deserves more serious attention. I read the first edition almost twenty years ago. It was one of the books that alerted me to the importance of science in the medieval world and the unique status of universities as centres of learning. But when I started my PhD, I found academics were less than impressed. For instance, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd was quite dismissive when I asked him about the book and my PhD supervisor assured me that Huff had no idea what he was talking about. Since then, Huff’s reputation has improved to the extent that Fara includes Huff as a key source in the annotated bibliography of Science: A Four Thousand Year History. I featured him in the further reading section of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009).

Reading the third edition of The Rise of Early Modern Science provides a good opportunity to take stock of Huff’s answer to the question ‘why did modern science arise in the west?’ His answer is 'institutions'. He believes that science arose in the West because it had the institutions, primarily universities, in which a scientific culture could develop. Huff calls the comparison of the West with other cultures “comparative civilisational sociology of science” whereby he examines how the institutions in China, Islam and Europe developed and flourished.

Huff is an old school sociologist, so his touchstone is Max Weber, who wrote in 1904 that the belief in scientific truth is “a product of definite cultures”. The scientific ethos was defined by another sociologist, Robert K. Merton, in the 1940s in terms of the four norms of universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism. Huff suggests these norms became embedded in western science alone because the university existed in the West and not elsewhere.

The importance of institutions has become a commonplace among historians in recent years. Daron Acemoglu and James  Robinson used them to explain Why Nations Fail and Dan Hannan thought they were central to How We Invented Freedom. Huff got there long before. Like Acemoglu and Robinson, he knows that institutions have deep historical roots in the culture from which they spring and thus can rarely be successfully transplanted into new soil (a fact that is relevant to the European Unions’s failure to assimilate the UK). And Huff identifies law as a key facet of culture that explains how institutions develop. The European university is a case in point. It owes its origins to a confluence of Roman and Canon law that allowed the creation of a walled garden for scholarship and education. Universities provided lassitude and a semblance of intellectual freedom in which medieval science could flower. Huff contrasts the madrassa, which he says was bound by Islamic law and enjoyed far less flexibility than western universities. The syllabus was constrained by the concerns of the Imams. As far as Huff is concerned, this restricted the study of astronomy and anatomy in the Islamic world. In China, education was entirely geared towards the needs of the imperial civil service, which was a self-perpetuating elite determined to preserve its influence over the emperor. The civil service was an institution that provided no space for science to thrive.

Huff is surely right to note that institutions develop from the implementation of laws, while laws themselves tend to be have religious or political roots. However, his explanation of why science arose in the west is incomplete. He seems to assume that once the necessary institution is in place, science will spring into existence of its own accord. Today’s science is so successful that it is hard to imagine why any civilisation would not develop it given half a chance. The trouble is there is nothing inevitable about modern science. It doesn’t accord with human nature and simply providing scholars with a safe space isn’t enough. Let intellectuals do as they please and you are more likely to end up with astrology and gender studies than physics and chemistry. In another book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, Huff tried to solve the problem by postulating a cultural artefact called ‘curiosity’. Using the reception of the telescope as a case study, he argued that the West was curious and so investigated the implications of the new discoveries telescopes revealed. Not so China and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Huff begs the question of what ‘curiosity’ is and why the West has it. His explanation that western society is relatively open to foreign influences seems like a symptom rather than a cause of ‘curiosity’.

Many of the criticisms of Huff’s project have been based on the mistakes he inevitably makes in ranging so widely. Even though it has reached its third edition, a few of these persist in The Rise of Early Modern Science. For example, a list of Greek texts translated into Arabic includes writings on mathematics by Pythagoras and sun-centred theory by Aristarchus, despite the fact that neither of these are extant in any language. In the case of Pythagoras’s maths, it probably never existed at all. But Huff has successfully seen off his critics on more substantial questions, most notably on the prohibition of human dissection in the Islamic world and the uniqueness of western universities.
Sadly, as is so common with academic books nowadays, Cambridge University Press apparently decided not to employ the services of an editor for this third edition, leaving too much repetition and infelicitous phrasing in the final book. But overall, Huff’s sociological look at the big unanswered question in the history of science is a successful example of interdisciplinary work. That it does not provide a complete solution should not detract from its value.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

A tribute to my grandmother

My grandmother, Nana, died at the age of 101 late last year. Here's my tribute from her funeral.

Nineteen sixteen seems a very long time ago. It was the year of the Battle of the Somme in the midst of the Great War. But in June that year, just a week before that great battle started, there was another event, less remarked by historians: the birth of Mary Marjorie in Liphook in Hampshire. Although her first name was Mary, she was always called Marjorie as there were, she told me, already a sufficiency of Marys in the family. That her given name was not her first name would continue to confuse officials and bureaucrats right up to her dying day.

Nana was the middle child of three, the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer from Glasgow and that was where she was brought up. Her time there left her with an abiding suspicion of those two most powerful Glaswegian institutions, the Roman Catholic Church and the British Labour Party. That said, and although she was a woman of firm opinions, Nana was not above changing her mind. Meeting the late Cardinal Basil Hume late in life, she was extremely impressed by his obvious holiness, and since then I never heard her utter another word against the Church of Rome. For the Labour Party, however, there would be no such redemption.

When Nana was eleven, the family moved down to Barnet in North London, and the Second World War saw her working in the West Country, as a member of the Timber Corp. One day, she took her dog to the vet in Sherborne. Dogs were always an important part of Nana’s life. Perhaps it’s not surprising in a vet’s family, but the last thing that Nana said to me was ‘Isn’t it odd that we have all always had dogs’. And, both daughters, grandson and granddaughter, we all do. The line of succession for Nana’s dogs included Bill and Merry, Doodle (named after the V1 rockets crashing onto London), Dusty, Jingle, Kelpie, Bonnie, Sadie, Dougal, and finally Shadow.

The vet on duty in Sherborne that day, when Nana arrived with her dog, was Robert Brown, also from Glasgow. They married in early 1944 and the honeymoon was a week in St Ives. The time was not wasted and my mother Lesley was born nine months later.  The birth was complicated and Nana’s life only saved by some military grade penicillin, then not officially available to civilians. Nana didn’t fight in the war: I can’t help thinking it might have been a bit shorter had she done so. But hers was the quieter and less celebrated burden of waiting at home with a young baby not knowing if her husband would ever come back. In contrast, by all accounts, husband Robert was having a lovely time as an army vet, gallivanting around Italy on a horse.

After the war, the family lived in Yeovil at Grove Dene where Robert had his veterinary practice. Ten years later, my Mum was joined by a little sister Heather. But simply being a wife and mother was not enough for Nana, important though those things are. She threw herself into the Girl Guides rising to President for Somerset and was awarded the Laurel Award for Exceptional Service by Lady Baden Powell herself. Her dedication to the guides certainly went above and beyond. One night, at a huge guide camp in Jersey, she found the site was being invaded by a group of boys. Nana pulled on her wellington boots, donned a sou’ wester and black oilskin, then charged across the campground in this battle dress, swinging a mallet around her head. The intruders were put to flight, and no more trouble was had from the local youth.

However, Nana still needed other outlets for her drive and talent. Today, thank goodness, women have many more opportunities and she might have made a fine litigation partner in a solicitors’ firm. Instead, she had to content herself with becoming a magistrate, quite a radical step back then when most justices of the peace were men.

In the late 1960s, Mum moved out, met Dad and settled down in London. Nana, Papa and Heather moved out of Grove Dene to a lovely little house in an orchard called Virgin’s Living. My sister and I loved to scamper around the garden there, walk the dogs on Ham Hill and play with Mum and Heather’s old toys. But Grove Dene was always THE family home of which I heard so much as I was growing up, despite never having set foot there.

But in 1978, tragedy struck when Robert died suddenly in the garden of Virgin’s Living. Heather had already left home and Nana was on her own. She moved to The Quest in Over Stratton where she lived for the rest of her life. Then she began to spread her wings. Mum used to complain that when she was a girl, holidays involved a long drive to Scotland. Nana now went much further afield. She visited Mexico, Canada, Australia, went on several safaris, cruised up the Amazon and visited the Soviet Union, which was born the year after she was and didn’t last nearly as long. She flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter and rode off on a camel in India.

It took a long time for her to slow down. When she did, it was because her eyesight was failing. But there were still dogs to be walked and visits to be made. No one was surprised that she reached her century last year.

“I go a long way back, you know” she told us just before she died. Longer than anyone else I’ve met in fact. It has been a privilege to have known this remarkable woman for so many years. I am thankful for that and will always miss her.

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