A History of the Sciences

I recently finished reading A History of the Sciences by Stephen F. Mason. Despite a publication date in the early 60s, it gives a pretty complete overview of the past 10,000 years in scientific advancement. It’s quite an undertaking, and even the most thoroughly covered advancements receive but the meanest of discussion - but fortunately that’s not really what the book is about.

Rather, Mason gives a history lesson along with the advancements of the eras. In our post-modern world, Science has achieved an almost sacrosanct status. We laud its deep knowledge that has given us real, verifiable ideas of how our universe functions, even as it opens up a seemingly never-ending series of doors, behind which often lie ethical dilemmas and humbling truths that even the most strong-willed of us would rather not face. It was not always so.

Indeed, for most of history, the worldview and religious beliefs of a particular scientist almost always colored their scientific attempts. At the very beginning, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle mis-explained the universe in terms of epicycles and geocentric theory, with angels and gods as prime movers keeping the planets in motion. Their theories, often quite rational from their own point of view, obviously conflicted with even the crude astronomical predictions of the day, and yet their own worldview forced them to accept what was clearly incorrect. Worse, these early philosophers’ prestige as thinkers caused no one to question them, leading millennia of their intellectual scions further down the false paths they beat.

Until recently, the cycle seems to have constantly repeated itself. Only in the last century, it seems, have we as a society begun to allow science to shape our worldview, and the ensuing conflict has been enormous. It can be seen played out in microcosm with the debate over evolution, from the original Scopes trial to the current Intelligent Design debacle. The impact of science on our morals is made amplified by the debates over technological uses of human biological science, such as cloning and abortion and their ilk.

The History of the Sciences does have some flaws. It takes an extremely Euro-centric view of scientific advancement. It hardly discusses the discoveries of the ancient South American civilizations, although it does have some cursory coverage of the Chinese and Muslim worlds. It hardly mentions the United States, despite this nation’s huge advancements in the practical sciences and its non-negligable contributions to raw science. (For example, the invention of the airplane merits but one lonely sentence.

Overall, however, it’s well worth the read. The illumination it gives on the socio-political-religious forces that have shaped science is very worth it.