Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science
Mariner Books, $30 (cloth)
From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World
Pamela H. Smith
University of Chicago Press, $35 (paper)
According to a familiar story, science was born as a pastime of seventeenth-century European gentlemen, who built air pumps, traded telescopes, and measured everything from the size of the earth to the eye of a fly as they sought to uncover the laws of nature. Through careful experimentation and observation of nature, these men—who called themselves natural philosophers—distinguished themselves from the scholastic schoolmen of yore, who had instead busied themselves with writing commentary upon commentary on Aristotle and Aquinas. They also wrote about themselves. They formed societies, took notes at their meetings, compiled their notes into journals, and penned books recording their achievements; it was a mere seven years after the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 that Thomas Sprat published its first history. Reason had finally come into its own, and it arrived with a diligent group of stenographers.
Of course, these men were not actually the first to make observations or perform experiments. But their self-congratulatory narrative provided a powerful resource to explain the economic and political hegemony of Europe in the centuries to follow. By the nineteenth century, steamships, telegraphs, and trains made the world seem more manageable than ever from the metropolitan capitals of European empires, and figures including Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Francis Bacon were recruited to explain the new things that appeared some two or three centuries after their deaths. New words arose, too. Grasping for a term fit to describe himself and his compatriots, Englishman William Whewell drew a blank, so in 1834 he jokingly coined the word “scientist.” The term served to distinguish gentlemen like Whewell himself from the general public but also from the scholars who had come earlier. A new era demanded a new identity.
Both the word and the narrative that came along with it stuck, but “this story,” historian James Poskett declares at the start of his book Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science, “is a myth.” The idea that science is the product of a small number of men living in half a dozen European cities, as they dared to question the knowledge they were handed down, is a “convenient fiction”—one that continues to be told and retold throughout popular culture, from K–12 and college textbooks to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and popular histories such as David Wootton’s The Invention of Science (2015).
Poskett is not the first to challenge this story, but he does so in a particularly forceful manner, synthesizing a range of scholarship published over the last thirty years in a single, comprehensive volume aimed at a general audience. In contrast to comparative studies such as Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective (2010) and H. Floris Cohen’s The Rise of Modern Science Explained: A Comparative Study (2015), which adopt a cross-civilization perspective in order to explain what they see as a distinctive phenomenon in Europe, Horizons demonstrates that it is only by looking at networks spread across the globe that we can understand the creation of modern science. Over nearly 450 pages, spanning the period from 1400 to 2000, the book narrates the global contributions to modern science that the conventional story erases.
Historian Pamela Smith also takes aim at the popular narrative in her latest book, From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World, though she features a different cast of characters: primarily European artisans and craftspeople, who in the fifteenth century began to assert their place in a knowledge hierarchy that had long excluded them. Taken together, these two books advance a wealth of arguments that historians of science have been making for decades, and they ask us to reevaluate the uses, often violent and exclusionary, to which science and the history of science have been put.
As Poskett notes, the popular narrative of the history of science was solidified at the height of the Cold War, when sociologists, philosophers, and historians—increasingly present in public policy circles—invoked the scientific revolution as the dividing line between the West and the rest of the world. The combination of Western science and market economies became a ready-to-hand explanation for why the United States emerged more powerful than both the Soviet Union and the countries that had been colonized. This historical narrative provided justification for the most aggressive policies to reshape the parts of the world labeled “underdeveloped.”
The story of the scientific revolution, in particular, became common sense among a new technocratic Cold War elite, who organized the world along a developmental scale of progress. “With the phrase ‘traditional society’ we are grouping the whole pre-Newtonian world,” economist Walt Rostow wrote at the start of The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), before going on to cluster “the dynasties in China; the civilization of the Middle East and the Mediterranean; the world of medieval Europe.” As Lorraine Daston has shown, Rostow was part of a broader intellectual movement that portrayed regions outside the West as languishing in the waiting room of history. It was the task of the United States, Rostow concluded, to lead the recently decolonized nations through the stages of industrial and intellectual development necessary to secure prosperity. Five years after the Manifesto, Rostow helped orchestrate the carpet bombing of North Vietnam with his advocacy for Operation Rolling Thunder within Lyndon Johnson’s White House. If General Curtis LeMay wanted to “bomb” the North Vietnamese “back to the Stone Age,” Rostow argued that Vietnam—by virtue of not having a Newton—was already there.
Poskett argues that this story is an empirical failure: it misses how science is actually done, and it does a disservice to practicing scientists. Above all, it misses where science is done. Against the standard narrative of a European scientific revolution, Poskett implores us to see science as a global enterprise, the result of the intermingling of people from different cultures and backgrounds.
As a statement about the state of science today, this should come as news to no one. China has overtaken the United States as the leader in both scientific research output and high-impact studies; if you need genomic sequencing done, you turn not to Chicago but to Shenzhen. The United Arab Emirates has spent billions of dollars on space exploration in the past decade. And the annual list of Nobel Prize recipients in the physical and biological sciences now routinely includes people born and educated outside of the Global North (even if well-funded U.S. universities often end up employing many of these scientists). In short, there can be no question that science now occurs outside the West, and it is clear this will increasingly be the case in the decades to come. The picture Poskett challenges is concerned more with the past. For how long has science occurred outside the West? Is it fundamentally a Western export, a product of distinctly Western attitudes and values?
The question can easily shade into outright, even violent, xenophobia. As my colleague Agathe Keller reminded me, the 1,518-page screed posted online by the white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik the day he murdered seventy-seven people in Norway in 2011 is replete with references to leading historians of science of the twentieth century, including Huff, Edward Grant, and David Lindberg. (These were copied from the blog of the far-right Islamophobe Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen.) The moral Breivik drew from this work is one of European intellectual, cultural, and technological superiority: increasing immigration into Europe from the Global South—coupled with liberal multiculturalism—threatens to destroy modern civilization as we know it.
Breivik is hardly a reputable historian of science, of course, but it’s easy to see how he would draw such a moral from old-fashioned history of science. The classical story is not quite one of white supremacy—after all, if science is to be a universal enterprise, it cannot only be carried out by white people—but it is emphatically a story of European exceptionalism and the supremacy of European thought and values, which it invokes to explain the material prosperity and cultural superiority of Europeans. When Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg took to narrating the history of science in To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science (2015), he depicted Europe as the only place in the world that was able to throw off the shackles of religion and fully embrace science. “When the scientific revolution came,” Weinberg flatly declares, “it took place only in Europe, not in the lands of Islam.”
This benighted tradition of historiography has largely been abandoned by historians of science, but it has found new lives in other disciplinary homes. As Mario Biagioli has put it, the scientific revolution lives on as an “undead” category; it just won’t die. In The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (2002), for example, economic historian Joel Mokyr advances a sort of Rostow thesis, crediting Newton with opening up the possibility of an “industrial enlightenment” in western Europe that was impossible in ancient Greece, Song China, and Renaissance Italy. For Mokyr, the European industrial revolution can be credited to “a small group of at most a few thousand people” who learned to apply the lessons of Newton to practical affairs. Margaret Jacob took the argument a step further in The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy (2014), crediting a scientific culture among entrepreneurs with causing the rise of industrial production in Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester in the UK and arguing that the failure of such a class to develop in other parts of the world led to “industrial retardation,” including in France and the Netherlands. These accounts depart from the work of scholars such as Kenneth Pomeranz, Prasannan Parthasarathi, and Sven Beckert, who argue for the greater explanatory value of other factors such as colonial resource extraction, land expropriation, enslavement, and broken treaties.
The classical narrative has been criticized before, of course. Thirty years ago some historians and sociologists of science began to take aim at the conventional hagiographic tone. “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution,” Steven Shapin wrote in 1996 in the introduction of a widely read textbook before going on to say, “and this is a book about it.” A few years earlier the late sociologist of science Bruno Latour argued that “we have never been modern,” repudiating the notion that scientific rationality marked a decisive break with a pre-modern past. These and other scholars shifted their focus away from explaining how scientists thought about the world—the theories they made—toward what they did in the world: their everyday and professional techniques and practices. This new approach revealed gaps between what scientists did and what they said about themselves. Instead of paragons of modern-day rationalists, the gentlemen of early science were shown to be theologians, courtiers, poets, and alchemists. At the same time, science began to look a lot more mundane—the conceptual breakthroughs of microbiology, for example, coming hand in hand with a whole lot of pipetting.
At first blush Horizons may look like another iteration of science studies à la Shapin and Latour, but it does something quite different—something that will perhaps be easier for many to swallow. Instead of rejecting the language of progress and modernity, Poskett narrates a familiar arc of the rise of modern science but undermines the lessons often drawn from it. A decisive break with the medieval past, Horizons argues, did lead intellectuals to reject scholasticism and turn to observations and experiments, but it was not strictly a European phenomenon. We have in fact been modern—a condition marked by the creation of modern science—but the “we” is far more expansive than typically thought. There was a scientific revolution, in other words, but it wasn’t bounded by the borders of Europe. This is a significant accomplishment. Poskett moves through the major figures that mark the progress of Western science, from Copernicus to Einstein, but he shows that these people and the breakthroughs they represent can only be explained fully by looking beyond the West. The standard narrative of the history of science, Poskett persuasively demonstrates, misses both the diversity of people who actually contributed to modern science and the life of scientific theories and practices beyond the confines of Europe.
Central to Poskett’s argument is the fact that the period covered by the scientific revolution was precisely the period of European colonization of much of the world. This chronology wasn’t mere coincidence, Poskett stresses: science depended in crucial ways on the world colonialism made. Imperialism brought the world into a single circuit, which made new global sciences possible. While the scientific revolution has long been invoked to explain global divergence, Poskett explains modern science through global convergence: it was only when different ways of knowing from across the world were brought together that something like modern science could emerge—for better and for worse. While Horizons often celebrates the possibilities of modern science, it also recognizes and laments the violence that shaped it and the violent uses—atomic bombs, racial nationalism—to which it has been put. On this score, the book is not a simple rehashing of the “many rivers, one sea” history of science that Joseph Needham pioneered in his multivolume treatise Science and Civilization in China, begun in 1954. The interactions through which modern science emerged, Poskett emphasizes, were often violent and exploitative, occurring on unequal ground.
In the 1570s, for instance, the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún compiled a massive description of Mexico on the model of Pliny’s Natural History. This book described hundreds of New World plants and their properties to a European audience for the first time, and it does so along Aztec taxonomic lines. This mixture of classical erudition and new-world experience would become characteristic of early modern botanical and medical inquiries. To produce his natural history of the Americas, Poskett shows, Sahagún worked in collaboration with the recently converted children of Aztec nobles—a relation that was defined by racial and religious tensions. And while Sahagún is little-known outside of specialist circles, similar violent relations with people around the world served to underpin the lives and discoveries of many figures central to the story of modern science. At the start of the eighteenth century, Newton invested (and then lost) the equivalent of millions of dollars in the slave-trading South Sea Company, but the routes of the Middle Passage also shaped his scholarship in other ways. In order to derive his laws of gravitation, Newton relied on calculations produced along global maritime trade routes. These ranged from measurements of the height of tides in Formosa and Tonkin that were made by renegade East India Company captains to measurements of the length of pendulums across the Atlantic that were made alongside slave-ship captains and Jesuit missionaries.
Poskett shows the complex routes new sorts of knowledge took. The new global circulations of people, things, and ideas often led to surprising epistemic assemblages. Take the case of Graman Kwasi, who was born in West Africa in 1692, kidnapped, sold into slavery to a Dutch captain, forced across the Atlantic, and made to work on a sugar plantation in the colony of Surinam, where he came to learn of the medicinal properties of a local shrub. This was not knowledge Kwasi brought with him from West Africa. Instead, synthesizing the insights of indigenous American healers with the healing tradition he was raised in, Kwasi recognized the plant for its potential and brought it to the attention of a European public looking for an antimalarial to circumvent Spanish control over the global Cinchona bark supply. Successfully navigating a world of European naturalists centered around Carl Linnaeus, Kwasi was rewarded for his service by the colonial government with a plantation of his own, including enslaved people. (The plant, now known as Quassia amara after Kwasi, sparked international furor in 2016 after the Institute for Development Research in Marseille, France, patented a compound derived from it. Politicians and activists in French Guiana accused the institute of biopiracy, and eventually the organization agreed to share patent benefits with indigenous populations.)
Poskett thus redistributes scientific credit around the globe, drawing a wide range of neglected actors into the story of modern science. Like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman—who, upon learning the distinction between poetry and prose, revels in the discovery that he has been speaking in prose all his life without realizing it—Poskett wants us to realize that science has been global all along. Horizons offers a powerful argument that an honest and accurate account of the development of modern science must include people from around the world.
But the upshot—indigenous knowledge is valuable, and it is valuable because it provided contributions to modern science—is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this approach usefully corrects the errors of Eurocentric historiography and popular consciousness. On the other hand, it does not question what counts as “modern science” in the first place. European gentlemen implicitly remain the arbiters of what counts as science: it is only through interactions with Europeans that people from the rest of the world can be said to participate in science, and it is only the parts of their knowledge that contribute to our thinking today that can be said to be scientific. What are we to make of everything else—all the other knowledge of the natural world that does not fall under this narrow rubric, including knowledge that was not universalizable beyond the localities in which it was produced? Can we tell a history of science that treats the boundaries of knowledge as changing and that includes those ways of knowing dismissed as lowly, non-modern, manual, and non-theoretical? As historian Peter Dear has asked, “What is the history of science the history of?”
Smith’s From Lived Experience to the Written Word confronts these questions head on. Focused on ground zero of the scientific revolution—early modern Europe—Smith seeks to “jolt” us into reassessing our basic categories of knowledge “in order to understand better the historical formation of the knowledge system we know today as ‘modern science.’” Her main aim is “to make an imaginative leap back into the past and take seriously the worldviews of earlier eras.” In place of aristocratic gentlemen, Smith centers skilled craftspeople: carpenters, metalworkers, painters, masons, sailors, engineers, and painters. These people worked with their hands, but Smith argues that they did a lot more: they philosophized with their hands, and in doing so taught the world an “artisanal epistemology” that valued experience, observation, experiment, and manipulation. Their distinctive form of knowing was taken up by natural philosophers at the end of the seventeenth century and turned into what we now call modern science, she argues, but its artisan lineage was also erased in the new narratives of scientific revolution. Smith seeks to recover the artisan worldview on its own terms.
Take the Nuremberg-based goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer, whose intricate creations were sought after by sixteenth-century European nobility. Jamnitzer specialized in a type of metalwork known as casting from life, in which an organic lifeform—marigold, grasshopper, lizard, beetle, or snake—is used to form a mold. The organism is then incinerated and replaced with a precious metal, and the mold is broken. The images created by this process are halfway between nature and art. Casting from life requires extensive knowledge of the natural world; each specimen must be captured, kept alive, and carefully prepared for the mold. Jamnitzer’s casts, Smith argues, are philosophic meditations on nature, human artifice, and the transformations matter undergoes in the world. This is perhaps best seen in Jamnitzer’s statuette of the nymph Daphne, which depicts the moment of her transformation into a tree, with branches of coral—each tipped by a leaf cast from life and painted green—appearing to grow out of her head and upraised arms.
Artisans did not merely think through their material creations, Smith shows: they also started writing about how they made them. Plenty of technical information was collected and recorded before the fifteenth century, but by and large it was transcribed by elite scholars; it was only around 1400, Smith argues, that artisans themselves began to write down what they did. After all, there did not seem to be a need for it: trades are learned primarily through example and practice, not through reading. “Paper has the property to produce lazy and sleepy people, who are haughty and learn to persuade themselves and to fly without wings,” the Swiss medical and religious reformer known as Paracelsus wrote in 1534. “Therefore, the most fundamental thing is to hasten to experience.” As urban artisans became increasingly literate, however, and princely rulers founded academies to support their professions, a significant body of writing emerged from craftspeople themselves.
By the sixteenth century, Jamnitzer was among a new cohort of artisan writers who strove to put their practice into words—and, increasingly, into numbers. Together with the artist Jost Amman, Jamnitzer published a book on the geometry of polyhedra. Later the two penned a two-volume manuscript book describing how to use a specialized collection of luxury measuring instruments. This illustrated manual covered everything from surveying land, assaying metals, measuring the bores of canons, and measuring time. Artisans had newly found a voice in the written word, and with the rise of vernacular print economies by the turn of the seventeenth century, recipe collections and pharmacopeia were regularly reprinted and easily available across Europe.
Smith brings these diverse actors together under the German word Kunst, now usually translated as “art.” The period that Smith traces is the period when “art” began to be separated from “science,” and when certain artists began to assert their difference from artisans by claiming to practice a liberal art rather than a mechanical art. As craftspeople began to ally their trades with the liberal arts—and some groups, who increasingly called themselves engineers and architects were quite successful—they met resistance from scholars who denigrated manual craft. Smith returns to a moment when these divisions were not so clear cut, inviting us to reassess how we assign value to different sorts of knowledge. For the artisans and craftspeople Smith studies, knowledge came from bodily experiences and a practical ability to intervene in nature.
Though Smith’s account is centered on Europe, it has the potential to reach out to the rest of the world. For one thing, the ingenious creations at the heart of From Lived Experience were appreciated well beyond the borders of Europe. Around 1620, for instance, the South Asian artist Abu’l Hasan painted an imagined scene of Mughal emperor Jahangir receiving the Safavid Shah ‘Abbas I. In the foreground stands the Mughal royal falconer and ambassador to the Safavid court, with a falcon in one hand and a curious golden statuette in the other; as Jessica Keating has shown, the statuette is in fact an automaton of the sort then produced in Augsburg. Like Jamnitzer’s Daphne, this statuette brings to life the metamorphoses described by Ovid, and like the Daphne, its head can be removed to serve as a cup for an early modern drinking game.
Abu’l Hasan’s painting also features brown-glaze teacups with flowering plum branches and black lacquerware trays from East Asia supporting New World pineapples and other exotic fruit—a reminder of the connections created by artisan crafts and practical knowledge. The Mughal court brought together the products of these different knowledges from around the globe, and Mughal art in turn found its way around the world; miniatures such as the one by Abu’l Hasan, collected into albums, quickly found their way to European markets. Rembrandt executed a series of sketches based on a Mughal album that had arrived in Amsterdam in the 1650s before the album was sold, deconstructed, and turned into wallpaper in the Hapsburg’s Schönbrunn palace outside of Vienna. (Not everyone was impressed by European crafts. When Lord Macartney set out to negotiate a trade deal with the Qianlong Emperor in 1793, he brought along clocks, telescopes, a planetarium and other artisanal and technological pieces that he thought would exhibit the ingenuity of Britain’s “national character.” No trade deal was reached, though an artist in Beijing depicted the astronomical instruments in a stunning tapestry.)
Such evidence makes clear that embodied, practical knowledge traveled in many pathways. There are no heroes in Smith’s account—she is more concerned with anonymous compilers than named inventors—but if one person best encapsulates the artisan epistemology she describes, it is Paracelsus. Driven from Basel and Nuremburg, he taught a self-consciously new philosophy and new medicine, criticizing the ancients and those who relied on them. Instead he urged his followers to “hasten to experience” and to redeem humanity in its postlapsarian state through intimate knowledge of the natural world, wherever it could be found—from “not only doctors, but also barbers, bath attendants, learned physicians, old wives, magicians.”
Paracelsus’s appeal to “experience” might call to mind the motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba (roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”), which meant that received knowledge had to be confirmed through observation and experiment. But Paracelsus was no Bacon; he would not come to be celebrated as a “scientist.” Regarded by some as a prophet, Paracelsus often wrote in riddles and allusions; he sought to explain all chemical action through the interactions of sulfur, mercury, and salt, and he thought that God had placed remedies in the world in the shape of the affliction they were meant to heal. He may be a difficult figure for some: so close to the ideals of modern science, and yet so far from its practice. But he was not a difficult figure for physicians working in seventeenth-century Istanbul, where his writings were taken up and used as the impetus for a “new medicine,” a tibb-i cedid, which attacked the Galenic theory of the humors while introducing new drugs into pharmacological practice and new cosmologies into medical theory. Artisan epistemologies of the sort Smith explores thus traveled across the globe in the early modern moment as well as in the centuries before the rise of European empires.
Paracelsus was wrong: the world does not run on sulfur, mercury, and salt. But it is the work of people like him who made the practical knowledge of experienced artisans and craftspeople legible to an early modern scholarly elite as well as to present-day historians. Making space for them in our histories of science forces us to rethink what knowledge is, where it is located, and how it moves.
Above all, Smith enriches our sense of what the history of science might look like without treating it as one damned discovery after another. In place of a steady sequence of revolutions and breakthroughs, Smith sees knowledge of the natural world in a more dynamic and complex light, with humble techniques and practices circulating for centuries only to be “discovered” by a latter-day scholar, to whom accrues the credit. This is certainly not to say that discoveries don’t happen. It was not possible to know that Saturn had moons and rings before a certain date, although some British scholars in the eighteenth century thought that people in India knew that fact much earlier than Europeans did. But the choice to identify a discrete advance—and to attribute it to a particular person and place—says more about the emerging intellectual property laws of early modern Europe than about the complex, diverse ways our knowledge of the world develops.
The history of science has now gone global, and for good reason. In this endeavor, Poskett has provided a path forward by attending carefully to where science happens. Reading his book alongside Smith’s makes clear why it is also essential to trace what counts as science to begin with. Putting the two questions together—studying both the conceptual and geographic boundaries of science—is central to understanding how people across the earth made and continue to make sense of the natural world and our place within it.
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