[Marxism] ISO reviews Cliff Conner's book
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Wed Mar 22 07:06:21 MST 2006
The history of science of, by and for the people
Review by Mary Rapien | March 24, 2006 | Page 13
Clifford D. Conner, A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and
"Low Mechanicks." Nation Books, 2005, 424 pages, $17.95.
WITH A People's History of Science, Clifford D. Conner provides a
long-overdue antidote to the "Great Man Theory of History" as applied to
Conner guides the reader through a fascinating history of science, focusing
not on the few famous theoreticians that we all learned about in grade
school, but on the thousands of workers--miners, brewers, weavers, glass
grinders, healers, merchants, sailors and others--who provided the
empirical basis for the theories.
Conner's basic thesis is "that scientific knowledge production is a
collective social activity, that essential contributions have been made by
working people engaged in earning their daily bread, and that elite
theoreticians are often unjustly awarded all the credit for knowledge
produced by many hands and brains."
He begins by outlining the vast knowledge of nature that prehistoric
peoples possessed--from biological classification systems remarkably
similar to that used by modern science, to knowledge of astronomy and
weather crucial for early foraging and agricultural societies, to the role
of ancient merchants in developing mathematics.
Conner then asks the question, "What Greek Miracle," dispelling the
popularly held myth that science began with the ancient Greeks. In fact, he
points out the ways in which the Greek legacy hindered the development of
science--through a "major shift in basic philosophical outlook from
materialism to idealism" and, accordingly, by embracing the development of
a scientific elite.
In two chapters on the Scientific Revolution, Conner expounds the role of
working people in developing the scientific method of experimentation: "the
experimental method that characterizes modern science originated not in the
minds of a few elite scholars in universities but in the daily practice of
thousands of anonymous craftsmen who were continuously utilizing
trial-and-error procedures with materials and tools in their quest to
perfect their crafts."
For example, Antony van Leeuwenhoek was a draper who was using magnifying
lenses to examine linen threads when he became the first man to see live
protozoa and bacteria. But for every one worker whose name is known to us
today, hundreds more receive no credit for experiments performed in
laboratories of--and credited to--such "great men" as Tycho Brahe and
Throughout his book Conner provides a social and political context for the
development of science, rightly arguing that scientific discoveries and
methodologies are products of specific times and places, and that currents
of scientific thought are consciously manipulated by the ruling elite.
In his final chapters, Conner discusses the privatization of science and
the "master-servant relationship [of capital and science], with capital as
the dominant partner."
To dispel the myth of capitalist science as "objective truth," he points to
studies conducted by the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. For
example, it is common practice for pharmaceutical companies to hire
marketing firms to write articles in medical journals and pay doctors who
may never have seen the raw data, to sign their names to the articles.
The case of evolutionary theory exemplifies the ways in which science can
be manipulated to provide support for a specific ideology. For example,
Darwin's theory of natural selection "could be interpreted as
non-threatening to social hierarchies. 'Darwinism,' one of its leading
proponents crowed, 'is thoroughly aristocratic; it is based upon the
survival of the best.'"
Meanwhile, Karl Marx "saw in Darwin's theory a confirmation of the
dialectical-materialist philosophy that underpinned his own theory of
In more recent times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge theorized that
evolution does not occur gradually over very long periods of time as Darwin
postulated, but occurs in relatively sudden bursts with long periods of
equilibrium in between. This theory of punctuated equilibrium gives the lie
to those who call upon Darwinism "to support the ideological proposition
that social change must proceed slowly."
As Conner rightly concludes, "social meanings attributed to biological
theories are 'not logically inherent in the theories themselves'In
general, attempts to reduce the laws of the science of society to the laws
of biology is bad science that encourages bad social policy."
Tell that to George W. Bush and his cronies at the Discovery Institute who
are anti-Darwin and anti-science!
In a world where the vast majority of scientific research is owned by
corporations, manipulated by governments and directed toward the military
industrial complex, A People's History of Science is a must-read for anyone
wishing to learn how science has at times been of the people, by the people
and for the people. It is a strong testament to the need to create such
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