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. . . And Still We Evolve
A Handbook on the History of Modern Science

[This handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, for Liberal Studies students, is in the public domain and may be used without charge and without permission, released May 2000]

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Introductory Comments

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small. (Robert Frost)

 

The purpose of this text, a slightly revised version of an earlier 1993 edition, is to serve as a brief and useful introduction to some of the issues we deal with in science in Liberal Studies at Malaspina University-College. It may also help other students who wish a quick review of some major issues in the development of modern science, particularly in biology. The contents here are not meant to offer anything like a comprehensive or always balanced introduction to all aspects of science from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Since much of the work in Liberal Studies courses concentrates on geology, biology, and genetics (and on some of the wider arguments arising from developments in these areas), most of the attention in the following pages falls on general issues directly related to those three areas. Thus, there is virtually no detail here about major developments in certain other areas of science during the same time period (e.g., in electricity, medicine, physiology, chemistry, and so on).

One main purpose of this handbook is to illustrate how this great classical scientific period was essentially a time of exploration, a search for methods of understanding the natural world which might reasonably cooperate with or replace traditional religion and authority as a basis for human society and, in some quarters, provide useful measures for dealing with the increasingly severe political problems of a rapidly changing society. The story in almost all branches of science involves initially high hopes, fierce arguments about competing theories, and constant adjustment as particular theories had to be qualified in the face of new problems and of the shifts in human understanding of the world. By the mid-nineteenth century many of those initially great hopes had had to be abandoned or radically transformed, for the natural world (and especially human nature) turned out to be much more complex than many originally imagined. But the process of testing the human powers of the new scientific reasoning against the natural world had by that time laid a magnificent groundwork for our modern scientific enterprise and had committed Western culture irrevocably to carrying on that scientific tradition.

Given the complex dynamics of European society during this period and the close relationship between many elements of society and science, it is no doubt rash to offer easy historical generalizations. However, if there is a theme coordinating the chapters in this book, it is an attempt to call attention to some of the ways in which those areas of science we are considering changed in a comparatively short space of time from a relatively simple (and often reassuring) concept of permanent, static, mechanically structured models as the basis for understanding nature to more complex dynamic concepts in which the forces generating change were of primary importance. This trend in science obviously was connected in many important ways to the major transformations of European society going on during the 18th and 19th centuries. Simply put, that major change was demographic. Europe in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century was undergoing an enormous population explosion. The problems this created were compounded by a population shift away from the land and into the huge new cities and overseas to North America. Europe was in the process of changing itself irrevocably beyond recognition, and without proper statistics (or even the ability to think statistically) most people had no clear idea what was happening. Even today, historians are still arguing about the causes.

This extraordinary transformation destroyed forever the traditionally small organic agricultural community structure of European society which had lasted for centuries and which, for most Europeans, was the only reality they or their ancestors had ever known or could possible imagine. Not surprisingly, given the rapidity and the dislocating power of the shifts in the population, the attempts to hang on to that traditional structure and to use the new science's models of perfectly working divinely created mechanical structures to reinforce traditional belief failed. Thus, in science, as in other intellectual areas, models emphasizing the dynamics of process began to take over. The apparently eternal stability of Newton's model of the cosmos gave way before the new historical science of geology; that, in turn, helped to foster a historical understanding of plants and animals and, eventually, of the human species itself. The early promise of ordering individual human conduct under the firm guidance of mathematics gradually retreated in the face of statistical studies of the public at large. All of these influences helped to shape the great revolution in our thinking which we call Darwinian biology.

The material here is organized into five sections. Section One provides some general background details about the new science and about the political and religious historical context in the period from the 17th to the 19th century. The aim here is chiefly to encourage students to recognize, first, the diversity of opinions and methods in science in an age of accelerating and often uncoordinated inquiry and, second, some of the philosophical, political, and religious issues raised by the various scientific theories and methods. Section Two focuses on the early story of modern geology, which played a vital role in the development of a historical approach to science and which thus altered dramatically the way people thought about the earth. Section Three provides some information about pre-Darwinian biology, and Section Four offers a condensed review of some of the main issues in the classical age of probability. Finally, Section Five discusses some of the historical developments in the study of heredity, including the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

For the most part (with the exception of Section Five) the material here covers some aspects of the history of science between the years 1660 (the date of the Restoration in England) and 1859 (the year of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species). The information in the following pages is very largely an eclectic summary of ideas and facts (in some places little more than a condensed borrowing) taken from the texts listed in the bibliography. To avoid filling the text with footnotes after every sentence, most borrowed material is not specifically acknowledged, although I have tried to inform the reader about major debts to other writers. The notes at the end of each section should provide some help to those who would like to explore particular issues more thoroughly.

 

 


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