(The Human Side of) the History of Science

This is a comment that I sent to author Joy Hakim who is noted for her compelling history books for children. She recently came out with a new book series, the Story of Science.


Joy, I want to tell you that I have been reading the first book in your new Story of Science series and I find it to be absorbing, thought-provoking, wonderfully playful at times, as well as compelling. I think it is fantastic. I love all the sidebars jam-packed with information.

I have been an afficionado of the history of science space since the mid-1970’s when I first began inquiring in to development of of scientific thought; thought that I often found to be excessively logical and at times inflexible and increasingly blind to larger imperatives, especially as we focus on modern day science.

My theoretical premise was then and is now a simple one: that we cannot adequately understand the world around us when looking only at its parts. We must learn to look at the parts within the context of the larger dynamic whole from which the part evolves.

I remember reading the phrase, ‘The whole is more than the mere sum of its parts’ and I was instantly intrigued.

Science evolved, as I understand it, in reaction to the largely philosophical imaginations of the day. For centuries philosophical thinkers predominated and their thoughts were intermingled with religiously driven notions of WHO AM I, WHY AM I HERE, WHY THIS WORLD, THE MEANING OF LIFE and so on; and in all of those theoretical meanderings the human as a whole was kept in focus.

But as Western thought drifted in time towards more logical sensibilities, we somehow lost track of those holistic notions; so much so that today a field as vital as modern medicine views everything through the lens of the brain’s neurology. The scientific focus has clearly become more and more myopic over time, and increasingly fragmented. The brain is now thought to be responsible for everything that plagues the human being and an entire drug industry has grown up around it to support and encourage it.

As a result, students today are focusing on parts. They are being taught that numbers serve a purpose, which is to quantify everything that we need to quantify. They are being told that logic prevails and logical outcomes will always somehow be found. They are learning, as well, that the smallest building blocks of scientific inquiry are the most important, that the others will fall into place once the core elements are in place. They are memorizing data because somehow that data is supposed to help them advance; yet the data itself changes drastically even as it is being created.

What I was taught in the 60’s and 70’s is no longer dogma, nor is anything that we taught kids in the 80’s and 90’s. Indeed, the data itself is flawed as we always come to realize in hindsight.

But data still prevails. That is what kids today are in school to learn, regardless of the fact that short-term memory capacity is sorely limited and that concepts wrapped in meaning is what is carried forward in time. Schools have become fact-feeding machines par excellence.

Children see science as a means to an end, and it is science that has led them there. Science is less concerned with meaning and more with fixing, and about overcoming.

And in the process we are indirectly (and sometimes directly) teaching children how to extract the resources of the world to serve their ends.

In the name of logic

The Moon Don’t get me wrong, science is doing thrilling things in the name of logic, and many of those things enrich our human lives. But at the same time science is killing our planet, and maybe us, for lack of a wholeness lens.

Our children need to understand the history of science as the history of our human ability to think reflectively, which is what separates us from other species. Sometimes we are collectively more reflective, and sometimes less reflective. The triumphs of science since the days of Descartes have serious reflective flaws and we must recognize them if we are to ever come to terms with our place in this world.

Yet we only teach SCIENCE, rarely do we teach them about the HISTORY OF SCIENCE and the lessons that history affords. This is something that has been relegated to post-doctoral musings at best.

Take the issue of stem cell research. We are at a critical juncture here. Will we collectively let science take the lead and tell us what new vistas lie ahead of us, and then take us there? Or will we take collective responsibility and decide for ourselves, as humans, how far and in what directions we want this new science to take on our behalf?

The argument leads us all the way back to the discontents of Descartes’ day and, in so doing, gives us an opportunity to change lenses again.

Science should serve us, not the other way around.

Science, however, including physics which sits happily at the apex of power today, is controlling us. It is increasingly chopping our world up into deparate parts as it hones in, ever more deeply, on Nature’s primary structure. Scientists, engineers, accountants, neurologists, corporate heads – they are all falling into the trap of myopic thinking because that is largely how they are being taught to think.

But I want tomorrow’s children to be more balanced in their outlook than the last 300 years of scientific thinkers have been.

Music, the arts, human emotion, interpersonal communications and imagination also need to be factored into the human equation of learning; so, too, the health of the planet.

The rush to science has left these things in the dust because, after all, you cannot Chi Square an emotion.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

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