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Posted December 18, 2005
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Proletarian Science
Clifford D. Conner finds the fingerprints of the common
man on humanity's great advances.
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Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanics."
By Clifford D. Connor.
Illustrated. 554 pp.
Nation Books. Paper, $17.95

"GIVE thy heart to letters," an Egyptian father advised his son on a piece of papyrus more than 3,000 years ago, in the hope that his child would choose a life of writing over a life of manual labor. "I have seen the metal worker at his toil before a blazing furnace. . . . His fingers are like the hide of the crocodile, he stinks more than the eggs of fish. And every carpenter who works or chisels, has he any more rest than the plowman?"

Laborers are "generally held in bad repute," Xenophon wrote about 700 years later, "and with justice." Manual jobs keep men too busy to be decent companions or good citizens, "so that men engaged in them must ever appear to be both bad friends and poor defenders of their country."

Clifford D. Conner thinks this kind of snobbery has distorted the writing of history from ancient times to the present, because historians are scribes themselves and it is a clean, soft hand that holds the pen. In writing about science, for instance, historians celebrate a few great names - Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein - and neglect the contributions of common, ordinary people who were not afraid to get their hands dirty. With "A People's History of Science," Conner tries to help right the balance. The triumphs of science rest on a "massive foundation created by humble laborers," he writes. "If science is understood in the fundamental sense of knowledge of nature, it should not be surprising to find that it originated with the people closest to nature: hunter-gatherers, peasant farmers, sailors, miners, blacksmiths, folk healers and others."

As science gained prestige, and its leaders joined the elite, artisans and mechanics often had a hard time getting recognized.

It's a good subject for a book of popular science, which is what Conner sets out to give us: "a history not only of the people but for the people as well." Most science writing really is dominated by the Great Man theory of history. I can see that just by glancing at the books on my own shelves - a few of which I've written. I don't know if we're much worse about this than historians of art, literature, politics or sports, and I don't know if we're snobs, but we do love to honor the great. Even the great scientists honor the great. "If I have seen further," Newton wrote, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." At the same time, Newton also stood on the backs of "anonymous masses of humble people," as Conner says, "untold thousands of illiterate artisans." An accomplished army of the anonymous bequeathed him their tools, data, problems, ideas and even, Conner argues, the scientific method itself.

Conner's book works best in the early chapters. Hunter-gatherers and early farmers domesticated plants and animals and gave us corn, wheat, rice, beef, pork, chicken, almost every kind of food we eat. They changed the world more than modern genetic engineers have done, so far. Pacific islanders navigated not only by the stars but also by wave patterns; lying down in their canoes, they could read the stars with their eyes and the swells with their backs. Anonymous blacksmiths added tin to copper and made an alloy that is much stronger and yet also more malleable than copper - bronze. Since copper and tin are rarely found together in the ground, the invention of bronze probably required a long series of experiments. Generations of experimenters sweated in the mouth of the furnace. Tough, trial-and-error, sometimes live-or-die work like this was gradually refined into the intellectual and rarefied pursuit we call science. The Greeks didn't invent science; they learned from the Egyptians, Babylonians and Phoenicians. And the Industrial Revolution could not have taken place in England without the work of brewers, salt makers, miners and canal diggers. Conner does include one case of poetic justice. A great moment in the history of science was the publication of Andreas Vesalius's anatomy book, "De Humani Corporis Fabrica," in 1543. What made the book a triumph wasn't the Latin text Vesalius wrote but the 420 illustrations. He never took the trouble to name the artists he'd hired to draw them. Nobody has ever translated the whole of Vesalius's text into a modern Western language; the illustrations have stayed in print from that year to this.

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As science gained prestige, and its leaders joined the elite, artisans and mechanics often had a hard time getting recognized. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the linen draper who founded the science of microbiology, felt inferior because he was not university-trained. John Harrison, the British carpenter and clockmaker who solved the longitude problem, was badly treated by the elites. So was William Smith, who gave geologists their first stratigraphic maps.

By the 20th century, it had become almost impossible for outsiders to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Conner calls this "the downside of a people's history of science."

Some of the people in this book would make terrific subjects for popular biographies. John Harrison's story has already been celebrated by Dava Sobel in "Longitude," and Smith's by Simon Winchester in "The Map That Changed the World." Next someone should tell the story of Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutch alchemist who, according to Conner, plunged a submarine into the Thames in 1620, providing the passengers with bottles of oxygen - more than 150 years before the gas or the very concept of gases had been officially discovered.

Unfortunately, this people's history isn't very good with people. In his acknowledgments, Conner tells us that his book grew out of friendships he made back in the 1960's and 70's in the trade union and antiwar movements. He was also influenced by the periodical Science for the People. The passion for class struggle that led him to his encyclopedic project makes his style as angry and inky as a pamphleteer's: "Magellan's death resulted from his own imperialistic belligerence." "Widespread malnutrition in poor countries underlies diseases responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every day." (His italics.)

Conner is too busy counterbalancing the Great Man theory to tell us about, say, Newton's extraordinary mind, because "it does not add much to understanding the root causes of the rise of modern science." He doesn't tell us about the personalities of other people either, whether they appear in this long, uneven book as victims or aggressors in the class struggle. Even the author's own personality threatens to disappear. He draws heavily on the historians Joseph Needham and J. D. Bernal, inserting hundreds of long quotations in big blocks, often without attribution on the page - to find out who said what, you have to keep turning to the notes. Not only is this a history of the people, for the people, Conner explains; "because I have drawn on the collective efforts of many predecessors, it might not be far-fetched to say that in a sense it is also by the people." Sometimes even his sentences are collective efforts: "Biologist Jared Diamond's '33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies' led him to conclude that 'modern "Stone Age" peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples.' "

Writing like this doesn't do anybody any favors. The Great Man theory may not make a good history of science, but neither does what you might call the Great Mass theory. Not long ago, Sherwin B. Nuland, the doctor and writer, published an essay titled "The Man or the Moment?" in The American Scholar. Nuland argued that historians of science who write exclusively about the social forces that shape a discovery while leaving individuals out of the equation miss half the story, "because part of the process is the distinctive personality of the discoverer." To understand each bit of scientific progress, he concluded, we have to examine both social and personal factors. "The punishment for devaluing the significance of any of them is the writing of bad history."

Jonathan Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for "The Beak of the Finch." He teaches science writing in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, December 18, 2005., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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