Travel Far and Take Good Notes
Reviewing ‘Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science’ by James Poskett
When we think about the origins of science, we’re likely to imagine figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton. We could just as easily throw our gaze before the modern era; plenty of scientific advancements emerged in the Middle Ages, as historian Seb Falk shows in The Light Ages.
Along with looking back to broaden our view, we could also look out—decentering the story from Europe and encompassing the globe. Without the contributions of Aztec naturalists, Arab astronomers, Indian physicists, Russian biologists, and others, the scientific revolution and its subsequent achievements would have never occurred.
The rise of modern science, as historian James Poskett argues in Horizons, is a global phenomenon and arose precisely because of the encounter of old world’s encounter with the new.
Ancient and medieval science tended to focus on written sources—that is, books which could be consulted. In the preface to his Natural History, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder explains,
I have included . . . 20,000 topics, all worthy of attention . . . gained by the perusal of about 2000 volumes, of which a few only are in the hands of the studious, on account of the obscurity of the subjects, procured by the careful perusal of 100 select authors; and to these I have made considerable additions of things, which were either not known to my predecessors, or which have been lately discovered.
For Pliny science was compiling data from prior publications and filling out the portrait with colorful rumor.
Aristotle followed a similar method, though he was less gullible than Pliny and supplemented his literary scouring with genuine investigation. In his books on biology, for instance, Aristotle describes the internal anatomy of more than a hundred animals. “For about thirty-five of them,” as one scholar notes, “his information is so extensive or accurate that he must have dissected them himself.” But Aristotle was mostly an outlier.
What changed this limited trajectory of western science? Venturing abroad at at time when communication technologies were sufficient to rapidly and indiscriminately spread novelties and conjectures about them.
The New World brimmed with species never encountered in the classical sources. An authoritative ancient collection of herbal treatments by Dioscorides, for instance, covered 500 plants. But when Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Philip II of Spain, documented the natural history of the king’s new lands in 1570, he listed six times that number.
“This,” says Poskett, “really was a complete challenge to the idea that the ancient authors knew everything.” And that trend only accelerated. “At the beginning of the sevententh century, European naturalists had identified around 6,000 different species of plant,” says Poskett. “By the end of the eighteenth century, they had identified over 50,000 species, the majority of which originated outside of Europe.”
Instead of reshuffling known items and preexisting categories, European naturalists found themselves having to directly experience—and experiment with—the novelties they encountered. And, in lieu of ancient authorities, they often did so by cooperating with native authorities who already possessed tremendous store of knowledge of this or that animal, vegetable, and mineral.
“Scientists today are quick to acknowledge the international nature of their work,” says Poskett. “But they tend to think of this as a relatively recent phenomenon, a product of the big science of the twentieth century, rather than something with a history stretching back more than 500 years.” Hernandez, for instance, not only relied on Aztec physicians and herbalists for information but Aztec illustrators to paint the plants and animals he encountered.
In some cases, this meant not abandoning books as a source of information, just trading one library for another. Spaniards translated Aztec codices, and while many of the originals were subsequently destroyed by overly zealous missionaries, these Aztec books persisted in translation, as Poskett says, “form[ing] the basis of of some of the most important works of early modern science produced in Europe between 1500 and 1700.”
Something similar happened as Europeans ventured East as well. Expanding trade brought Europeans into contact with mathematicians, astronomers, and naturalists in the Ottoman, Mughal, and Ming empires. Working with their own traditions and tools of observation and discovery, these scholars contributed to the store of European knowledge.
By emphasizing these far-flung connections and dependencies, Poskett recasts the history of science. Rather than something studied and storied by itself, modern science becomes a subset of global history.
Poskett treats science as a subject within a wider narrative of expansion, trade, colonialism, even war. How else could Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gather his specimens except through global trade networks? This also ties scientific discovery to unsavory realities. Newton’s insights were, for instance, informed by data gathered aboard both trading and slave ships.
As these networks expanded and inquiries progressed, the traffic in ideas became multidirectional. Poskett follows an international trail of discovery, spotting the influence of Darwin in Russia, British physicist Paul Dirac in Japan, Einstein in China. In fact, Einstein’s first foray into English came in 1920 when a pair of Bengali scientists translated his original papers on special and general relativity. “Students in Britain and the United States later purchased copies,” says Poskett, “learning about Einstein via India.”
As even Pliny and Aristotle show, science is incremental. It grows piecemeal. One observation serves as foundation for the next. This subsequent work is usually advanced by someone other than the original inquirer. The building blocks of future discovery spread through networks of personal interaction, letters, books, and papers. What Poskett shows is that these networks are, and have always been, global.
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