[Marxism] ISO reviews Cliff Conner's book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
Robert Boyle.

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 
social revolution."

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'ŠIn 
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 
science again.



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