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Science and the Shaping of Modernity

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The Scottish writer Adam Smith The Scottish writer Adam Smith

Those living in the 21st century are accustomed to radical climate theories, but one of the most astounding such theories dates from 1733. We learn this from an important book by Stephen Gaukroger in the third volume of his 4-volume opus on the history of science.


Gaukroger, a professor at the University of Sydney, tell us about John Arbuthnot who offered “what is undoubtedly the most radical claim for climatic theories, when he argues that language differences were due to climate ones.” Arbuthnot wrote that people of northern nations caused their language to abound in consonants because they did not open their mouth very far in cold air, while those in southern climates had a language abounding in vowels for the opposite reason!


There is little to criticise in this book, but one point I must mention is that many people who are quoted, such as Arbuthnot, lack any form of identification beyond their names. His lengthy entry on Wikipedia attests to his importance, but aside from historians of 18th century science few will recognise the name (I included one of Arbuthnot's studies in one of my own books on the history of astronomy). Thus, his book of 1733 is not put in a context that would make it more relatable to the reader.


Arbuthnot was Scottish, and he is not alone in these pages, as Gaukroger finds a gold mine of intellectual thought north of the English border. Another he mentions is Lord Kames, who believed racial variations have existed from the beginning of the rise of humans. “He even went so far as to posit a multiplicity of Adam and Eves to account for different racial origins.” This was in a book of 1788. Yet another Scot is Adam Ferguson, who had a more nuanced view of progress than many of his time. In Ferguson's account from 1767, Gaukroger says “from a moral point of view there is not wholly unqualified progress: primitive societies had virtues that may have been lost.” Adam Smith, another great Scottish thinker, had a lot to say about morality in his book of 1759. Due to Smith, says Gaukroger, “Morality is taken out of an abstract realm of intellectual reflection, and becomes a form of sensibility.”


Gaukroger naturally goes far beyond the confines of Scotland. On sensibility, for example, he observes that in France it actually “held a philosophically central position” where thinkers such as Buffon and Diderot believed “our knowledge of the world comes through sensation rather than purely through intellectual reflection.” In England, John Stuart Mill rethought the nature of morality, and developed a philosophical account of it, holding that “the morality of an act depends on its consequences, not on the intrinsic nature of the act, or on the character of the agent.” This was utilitarianism, but it is only one of several "isms" the author examines; others include humanism, mechanism, and sensationalism.

Gaukroger devotes many pages to the work of Bernard Mandeville on the subject of morality: he saw personal rectitude as “merely a ruse whereby ruling elites lay claim to private virtues, in order to disguise their own self-seeking.” Sounds like the description of today's politicians! Gaukroger does not give us the priceless title of the first volume of the Dutch edition of his works (Mandeville's mother tongue was Dutch), but as I enjoy it so much I will share an English translation of it with my readers: The World is Being Ruined by Virtue.


These and hundreds more examples Gaukroger elucidates serve to advance his own broad thematic purpose in this book, which is to look at a fundamental shift in how the tasks of scientific enquiry changed from about 1750 to 1850. He identifies the shift as being one from theological explanations to empirical ones, thus heralding the rise of modern science.

The book has an 8-page index, but it misses some people such as Legendre on page 66 and Capt. Fitzroy on pg. 230. The index also falls short in covering concepts such as morality. Pages 172 and 173 deal largely with that subject, where the Scottish philosopher David Hume is quoted on the difficulty in establishing a fixed standard for morality in comparing barbarians and civilised nations. The index entry for 'moral philosophy' ignores all this.

In the first volume of his series to date (whose publication has spanned the decade 2006 to 2016), the author studied the period from 1210 to 1685, “The Emergence of a Scientific Culture.” His second volume overlapped the first, covering 1680 to 1760, “The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility.” Together, these three books represent one of the landmark achievements in the field of history of science, and represent essential reading for a wide range of disciplines. A tremendous intellectual achievement. We all eagerly await the fourth volume, dealing with science and civilisation from about 1840 to 1940.


The Natural & the Human: Science and the Shaping of Modernity by Oxford University Press (402 pgs) is $63.



Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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