The scale of science and history (TIME 100)

TIME has recently published 100 greatest places in the world. The book is a collection of sites that, the editors argue, have had the biggest impact on world history. It’s excellent blog material because hardly anyone has read it (including me), any list will be personal and omit something someone feels is important and, following what the press releases say, at least one of the choices is intentionally trolling for controversy.

The Galapagos Islands, iconic in the history of Evolutionary Theory, but is this the place it was discovered?

The other reason for blogging about it is that it raises some interesting questions about the nature of science and history. I’m opening what will be three blog posts this week with a question about scale. What sort of scale is appropriate for examining the history of science?

The scale might seem obvious and the only real question is to argue whether it’s marked BC/AD or BCE/CE. That’s a scale of time or duration. To flip the question what is the smallest measurable unit of history? Is the action of leaping from a bath and shouting ‘Eureka!’ the shortest possible historical event? At the other end of the scale is the eradication of polio, which hasn’t finished yet, one long historical event?

The idea of scale was something that concerned the Annales school of historians. They divided history into three phases which, very briefly, were: Événements, events that happened in a defined moment. The Long Durée, long generational change that made one era different to another. Conjoncture, a third class of cyclical events that to some extent occupy the middle ground.

These kind of approach to history wasn’t popular with the English-speaking historians who disliked the Annales school’s belief that it was the Long Durée that was the history that mattered and that events were comparatively speaking, froth. The same approach has been welcomed by English-speaking archaeologists who find a lot of depth in this form of history, especially as archaeology is often rubbish at dealing with events or cycles and is best suited to studying long-term change. It also means they tend to skim things like conjonctures, hence my woolly definition above.

The reason I bring it up is that scale is interesting. The idea of a place mattering tends to suit events, but is world-changing science more a long-term trend. TIME chooses the Galapagos Islands as one of their places, because of the connection with Charles Darwin. The study of finches on the islands is one of the iconic moments of Natural Selection, but is it a place that changed the history of the world?

I don’t think it is. The Charles Darwin is the major figure associated with the development of evolutionary theory he wasn’t the only person to find it. He wasn’t even the first. The reason Darwin is so strongly associated with Natural Selection is illustrated by a reply he gave when Patrick Matthew, who said he had preceded Darwin in discovering Natural Selection and published his work in the book Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. (Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 16. 21 April 1860. pp 362-363.)

What makes Darwin’s contribution stand out is that he told people about Natural Selection by writing a whole book about it rather than sticking the idea in an appendix. The book wasn’t simply “Here’s something I saw in the Galapagos Islands” it was a comprehensive exploration of the concept with plenty of examples drawn on. So if a place is connected with Natural Selection, shouldn’t it be Down House, where he wrote the book?

Possibly, but even writing the book is not enough. Lots of people have written books. On the Origin of Species was picked up, read and debated. Huxley was known as Darwin’s bulldog for the way he promoted Natural Selection, is the key place perhaps the Natural History Museum in Oxford where Huxley met Wilberforce? Is it the many places around the world after that found things made much more sense if you accepted Natural Selection?

So is place a sensible concept for a world-changing idea or are we using the wrong scale to look at scientific history? It could simply be a case of looking at the wrong thing. Pat has brought up a question in the office: Is the place more important than the person and, if so, where? That’s the next entry.

Photo: Lonesome George Pinta giant tortoise Santa Cruz by Putneymark licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.