Scientists as historians

This is a repost from my old blog.

Historians have a certain way to pursue their profession – it involves massive use of documentary evidence, a care taken to avoid naming heroes and villains, and in general a strong devotion to the minutae and detail of history, instead of the now-old-fashioned grand sweeps of a Toynbee or Marx. Sure, they disagree how to interpret things, including mindsets of agents in another time, but overall when a historian gives an account, you can be sure they at least tried to be even handed.

Scientists, however, are not historians, and they have a whole different set of interests and goals when they appeal to history. They tell a simplified narrative in which there are good guys (the scientists and their supporters whose ideas can be interpreted to support the modern consensus) and bad guys (their opponents, particularly if they are religious, social conservatives – or, if the author is a conservative, the radical left – or some demonic profession of waste and nonsense like philosophy). These simple narratives are often incorporated into textbooks, lectures and the general mythology. Kuhn called it, rightly,textbook history.

Even when you get a massive tome like The Growth of Biological Thought, full of facts, names, dates and apparent concern for detail, when one looks closely at the quotes and players, one sees that there has been a careful selection of favourable (to the narrative) information, and the quiet exclusion of unfavourable. Mayr even states that he is practising Whig History because in science it’s actually all right, saying that he agreed with an older author who preferred to be subjective (p13).

Polly Winsor, a Canadian historian of science, has published on this. She writes that the use of history by scientists is subordinate to the scientific game itself. The ways in which prior work is characterised depends significantly on the hopes the scientists has for the future of their discipline. Historians notionally (more often honoured in the breach than the observance, one fears) do not. So what I’d like to do is suggest some reasons for the ways scientists use, and abuse, history.

1. It’s easier to teach and discuss straightline history. Famously, Imré Lakatos (1970:120) argued that the reconstructed history was good enough – we can relegate the actual history to a footnote. If you are teaching your students, or arguing about the nature of science, such details are distracting and undercut the propaedeutic or polemic point you are trying to make.

2. It gives the scientists a warm fuzzy feeling about what they are doing. It’s easier to devote your life to a task if you think that task is at the pinnacle of human endeavour, so heroic figures and quantum leaps are the stuff of spin.

3. It engages the public, thus assisting in the getting of funding and future scientists. Simple stories can be told in popular science magazines, or appealed to as the common view. These are often the views that find their way into museum exhibits, popular science books, science articles in the popular media, and of course the portrayal of science in film (which is, marginally, better than the “frankenscience” narrative that is their first choice).

But here’s the major reason scientists use history, I think:

4. It is something one can use politically. Scientists are engaged in a political process of competition for resources, students, reputation and personal reward. Bu appealing to “forerunners”, heroic and successful, one gives one’s own school, program, project or lab kudos. History is, in effect, a rhetorical weapon against one’s competitors, and a way to unify one’s colleagues.

Mind, I don’t think that politicking is somehow unworthy of science. In fact I think it is necessary, as I argued in my cited paper below. It actually acts to drive progress, not only by driving selection, but by preventing socially convenient solutions from being acquiesced in. However, it means that as history politically driven accounts are rarely accurate. Consider the following: “Lamarckism”. Lamarck himself was not guilty of Lamarckism as currently defined. It was formulated as a sin (or as a virtue!) when contrasted with August Weismann’s notion of the germ line. But for over a century since then, people who want to denigrate a view have called it “Lamarckian”, and those who like Ted Steele want to highlight their “radicalness” have called their view “Lamarckian”. It has gotten tied up with molecular notions like the so-called Central Dogma being called “Molecular Weismannism”.

Why should history not subserve science? I think that there is a very simple reason – once you lose the empirical grounding in evidence, history can be made to play any role one requires. In short, it becomes PR and propaganda. And we lose some useful information: often the opposing schools that “lost” had ideas of great utility that need to be preserved. Losing in science is not a once and for all thing. But mostly I dislike textbook history because it just annoys the hell out of me. If someone in the past had something good to say, or even was wrong but not in a simplistic manner, then they should be remembered for saying it they way they actually did, and not the way it suits some modern scientists to put it.

Late note: Bob O’Hara also said something like this a while back. Sorry I forgot to link.


Lakatos, Imre. 1970. Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. InCriticism and the growth of knowledge, edited by I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave. London: Cambridge University Press: 91-196.

Wilkins, John S. 2008. The adaptive landscape of science. Biology and Philosophy 23 (5):659-671.

Winsor, Mary Pickard. 2004. Setting up milestones: Sneath on Adanson and Mayr on Darwin. InMilestones in Systematics: Essays from a symposium held within the 3rd Systematics Association Biennial Meeting, September 2001, edited by D. M. Williams and P. L. Forey. London: Systematics Association: 1-17.


About John S. Wilkins

PhD in HPS - published on species concepts and classification, among other topics. Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. webmaster
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5 Responses to Scientists as historians

  1. Kele says:

    I read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions for the first time this summer and one of the things that struck me the most was the “textbook history.” The Scientific Revolution is always taught as Copernicus -> Galileo -> (sometimes) Kepler -> Newton and it had never occurred to me that this was simplistic (although I became increasingly aware of the Muslim influence through a Muslim history course). I had also known that Darwin wasn’t the first to believe in evolution, but my history of evolutionary thought was basically Lamarck -> Darwin -> Fisher/Wright -> Modern Synthesis. Now due to the blog series at Sandwalk by Arlin Stoltzfus, I am aware of the more complex history of 20th century biology with the Mendelian influences. It’s so much more interesting now!

    This “textbook history” really is a shame though – the history of scientific thought is so much more interesting when you know more of the side details and failed theories. While Copernicus -> Galileo -> Kepler -> Newton is easy to teach, it becomes so damn boring. Then again, a lot of people don’t like history (which is something I never understood) or aren’t even aware of its interesting complexities so maybe knowing/teaching the history just isn’t worth it to them.

    I’m going to check out the book by Mayr though – I’m interested in how he justified the Whiggish history in more detail. Thanks for the citation.

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  4. alicerosebell says:

    Brilliant. Thanks for re-posting.

    The way I got into history of science was due to a clever HPS lecturer playing with a notion of “textbook history”. I’ve noticed the “history of science in 140 characters” tweets this weekend, and I think his point has something to say to that.

    So, in the (probably badly remembered – sorry) words of Hasok Chang c. 1999: “You know when you read a science textbook and there are those little boxes at the side about the lives of the people who came up with the ideas? Have you ever found yourself more interested by them than the main text on the page? If so, try our degree.” I then took his courses and realised that those little side points where the faintest shadow of the real stories. My degree in the history of science wasn’t just the study of those bits shoved to the side of textbooks Hasok advertised it as: it was all the amazing detail behind them (and the way these stories could connect to the scientific narratives).

    For me, history of science (and sociology of science for that matter) is a study of what tends to be left out of the accounts science tells about itself. It is the part of the payoff of all the advantages of a culture built on specialisation. It cannot fit in 140c. Or a textbook. That’s largely the point.

  5. Pingback: Distilling “History of Science” to 140 characters… « The Dispersal of Darwin

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