While the achievements of scientific icons such as Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Mendeleev are incontestible, they are rarely remembered in the context of a global scientific movement that extended beyond Europe. Often, lone western geniuses are credited with the most pivotal moments in the development of modern science, while contributions from scientists in China, Russia, Japan and the Middle East are all too often omitted from the story.
As James Poskett puts it in his book Horizons: A Global History of Science, “the Cold War is over, but the history of science is still stuck in the past.” Poskett, while reexamining the history of science, situates the scientific achievements of history’s favourite geniuses within a wider global context. He also recognises that the development of science frequently relied on some of the worst aspects of history, including the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and war.
With the colonisation of the New World, for example, the deficiencies of ancient knowledge were revealed. But Indigenous parties who helped Europeans to understand the New World were brutally subjugated in return, their contributions overlooked. Similarly, research in the Islamic World, as well as the Far East, fed some of Europe’s greatest scientific breakthroughs, many of which are ascribed to a lone, European ‘genius’.
Here’s why the history of science demands a global perspective, not one centred on Europe.
The colonisation of the New World
According to Poskett, the infancy of modern science lies in the challenges that discoveries in the New World presented to ancient wisdom. Aristotle had said the equatorial region was too hot for any life to survive in, yet by the end of the 15th century, it was clear that life there was abundant. And there were animals and plants utterly unaccounted for by ancient Greek texts that were still relied on for knowledge of the world. If they were wrong about this, what else might they have misunderstood?
Ptolemy’s geography was likewise being exposed as deficient. This led to a drive for experimentation and investigation rather than reliance on dusty old texts for learning, though to some extent this had begun in the 13th century with men like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. Now, the need to question was undeniable.
The age of empire
The world then moved into a period in which scientific advancement was inextricably linked to empire and exploitation. When the conquistadors reached Moctezuma’s Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan they marvelled at his botanic gardens, wildlife and geographical knowledge. They enthusiastically catalogued it, systematically acquiring expert Indigenous knowledge of plants and their properties. Then they burned it to the ground and subjugated the people.
This pattern followed for centuries. As enslaved Africans were transported to a brutal life in the New World, plants from Africa made their way there too. African knowledge of these new species was vital, but extracted and used for profit at their expense. The transatlantic slave trade also fuelled other scientific advancements as a by-product of its horrors. Transport ships, for example, were often used by scientists seeking to measure and discover new things.
Isaac Newton – one of the lone geniuses Poskett warns us against accepting at face value – was aware of, and fully acknowledged, the impact of the work of others around the globe on his discoveries. Newton owned books on travel and astronomy, and never left England, relying on the findings of others to fill gaps in his understanding. When efforts were made to prove the shape of the earth and the effects of gravity in different locations, it was done using slave transports, and Indigenous forced labour. Often, it could not have happened without specialist, Indigenous, scientific knowledge that went back centuries, but the contribution of which has remained unacknowledged. West Indian research, Poskett reminds us, was really African botany.
Could Captain Cook have mapped the Pacific and discovered Australia without the help of Tupaia, who joined HMS Endeavour at Tahiti and shared knowledge of navigation and geography acquired over a lifetime and built on ancient traditions? Would Russia have managed the same in the north, establishing the distance between Russia and Alaska and charting the seas as far south as Japan, without the help of Nikolai Daurkin, a Chukchi navigator whose knowledge was invaluable?
The idea of an Islamic Golden Age of science around the 8th to 13th centuries is, Poskett asserts, a myth created in a later age to diminish Islamic contributions to science that are frequently credited to a single European ‘genius’ figure. In reality, Islamic science was always present, and always strong, feeding advancements that others have been credited with. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the myth is that many Islamic nations bought into it as efforts were made to proclaim a new Golden Age and to reform Islam.
Pushing into the 19th century, science remained inseparable from empire and industrialisation. International cooperation flourished as scientific events drew in contributors from India, Japan, China, Mexico, and more places whose contributions are largely written out of the bigger story of scientific advancement.
International cooperation sat uneasily with nationalistic drivers as many nations pushing back against colonialism saw science as the vehicle that would bring freedom and autonomy. This, Poskett notes, saw many of the world’s leading scientists embroiled in national rebellion or on the wrong side of government attention. Darwin took thinking on evolution that had been going on outside Europe for decades, or even centuries, towards a conclusion, but left many questions that would be answered far from European nations.
Scientific advancement became a side effect of economic drivers and of imperial colonialism. For this reason, it was European names attached to leaps forward that were, in fact, the conclusion of efforts that required input from around the world. Men like Einstein acknowledged this debt and engaged with scientists around the world within their fields. Ernest Rutherford’s work on the atom owed a great deal to the work of Hantaro Nagaoka in Japan.
Cold War rivalries
In the 20th century, decolonisation around the globe further drove investment in science, as did industrial-scale war that made chemicals and munitions important, but better food supplies critical. The Cold War would then dominate the remainder of the 20th century as Soviet ideas vied for supremacy with western notions.
Science and research became the new battlefield of the Cold War. The US, via the Rockefeller Foundation, funded investigations of genetic improvements to crop yields, hoping for a green revolution to counter the Red one in Russia and China. Freedom from hunger was equated with freedom from communism.
The history of modern science became the history of the Cold War. According to America and its allies, the democratic west made all the advances, while the Soviet Union and its allies stagnated. This was never the case, as Poskett skilfully exposes.
The evolution of science since the end of the medieval period has always been wrapped up with political developments and economic forces. The discovery of the New World forced a rethink of ancient wisdom, blindly accepted for centuries. Those who helped Europeans to understand the New World were brutally subjugated to the old in return.
Advances in understanding the shape of the earth and the forces of gravity were only possible because of the horrific transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. Research in the Islamic Middle East, in China, Japan, India and Russia directly fed some of the greatest breakthroughs, yet they are all-too-often ascribed to a lone, European, genius.
Re-examining the global history of science
Modern science has never been about individuals: this is the central theme of Poskett’s book. It has always been a collective effort that relied on great minds from all corners of the world who were forgotten almost as soon as their work bore fruit.
Indigenous botanical knowledge in South America and Africa was taken at the point of a sword and made the property of European powers. Forced labour helped the understanding of the world, and the solar system. Colonialism and empire drove science onwards, with the colonial powers invariably taking the headlines for important discoveries, even if those whose names became attached were well aware of, and acknowledged, the breadth of international input into their work.
Poskett’s book is never a chastisement, merely an explanation, and it warns of a future that must find a way “between the twin forces of globalisation and nationalism”. The challenges facing the world in many quarters are great. Science can provide the answers, but for that to work, Poskett suggests, we need to understand the history of how we arrived where we are. In this, Poskett’s book is invaluable, an important and timely reminder that the world we live in has never been small or unknown, but that sharing knowledge, as well as credit, and working together, is the key to a better future.
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Poskett is an Associate Professor in the History of Science and Technology at the University of Warwick. He has written for the Guardian, Nature and BBC History Magazine, and is the author of the academic book Materials of the Mind.