Proletarian Science

Jonathan Weiner reviews A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks,” by Clifford D. Conner, in the New York Times:

Wein450Laborers 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.”

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.”

More here.