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A true scientific revolution: the triumph of mathematicians over philosophers

The moment it was accepted that Aristotle had not been right about everything was a crucial turning point in the history of science.

The early-modern Scientific Revolution is still in some populist quarters described as a triumph of experimental reason over religious superstition. It is one of the many virtues of David Wootton’s fascinating history that this canard barely merits a mention, let alone a tedious refutation. For, as he shows, many in the vanguard of the emerging order of the 16th and 17th centuries were religious; they took the new science to be a bulwark against atheism; and, as Wootton plausibly argues, Newtonianism would have been inconceivable without the tradition of belief in a creator God.

In Wootton’s telling, the revolution that created the tradition of science we recognise today was instead a victory of a different kind. The core story spans the long century from the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s first identification of a nova (as we would now say, an exploding star) in 1572, to Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity (1687) and Opticks (1704). Wootton describes it, in terrifically rich detail, as a revolt of mathematicians, wielding numbers and experiments, against philosophers, who assumed that Aristotle had been right about everything.

The mathematicians in this story include early scientists such as Galileo (whom we remember mainly for his telescope but who also conducted pedantic experiments on objects floating in water); they also include, more surprisingly, the artists who first codified the rules of perspective in painting. One of the things that Wootton illuminatingly points out is how many disciplinary hats these intellectual heroes wore. Galileo worked on ballistics problems; Brahe and Edmond Halley were cartographers as well as astronomers; Copernicus was “an expert on monetary reform”. And there are intriguing re-emphases. Copernicus was not that revolutionary, since his heliocentric system preserved the idea of fixed heavenly spheres; Brahe’s rival system, though incorrect, was more important since it did away with them.

But was there really a “Scientific Revolution” in the first place? As Wootton concedes, investigations that are recognisably scientific had proceeded here and there since antiquity. Aristotle’s biology, medieval Arab optics and premodern astronomy were all science and so there exists a “continuity view”, according to which nothing totally unprecedented happened in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Wootton insists that this is wrong: his thesis is that “modern science” began in the 17th century. But this statement is automatically true by virtue of the author’s positing of a thing called “modern” science, as opposed to what preceded it. So the argument is possibly circular, although the circle is not necessarily vicious.

Wootton persuasively defends, for example, what is known as “the Eisenstein thesis”, put forward by Elizabeth Eisenstein in 1979, which is that the invention of the printing press made the Scientific Revolution possible. Printed books enabled the reproduction of complex diagrams, and researchers could now get an overview of all that had hitherto been thought about a particular problem: they fostered, as Wootton puts it, “a sort of intellectual arms race”. Natural philosophers of the 17th century also had a new family of glass instruments, a “new, critical attitude to established authority” and “a new language”.

What was this new language? It was the language we still speak of facts, evidence, experiments, hypotheses and theories. At the core of this book is a linguistic argument: that the emergence of these words in the 16th and 17th centuries proves that significantly new ideas had emerged. Wootton puts forward a very strong version of this thesis. Before Columbus discovered the Americas, he argues, the idea of “discovery” literally did not exist. Until then, he writes, it was assumed that all discovery was in reality rediscovery of lost wisdom from the ancients. This claim depends on denying that the Latin invenire (“to find or invent”) could ever mean “discover”, even though it was the word that Columbus used to report his discovery.

Other concepts, Wootton points out, could and did exist before their words were coined. Scientific experiments were performed (by Ptolemy, Galen, Alhazen, and so on) before the term “experiment” became commonplace; but what was new in the 17th century, he suggests, was a new respect for experimentation as a path to knowledge and a new “experimental network” for knowledge-sharing. On the other hand, as Wootton shows, the idea of “laws of nature” really was new and depended on the idea of a law-making God. Scientific notions of facts and evidence are shown to have emerged from the law courts. Overall, Wootton justifies nicely his argument that we “tend to overestimate the importance of new technology and underestimate the rate of production and the impact of new intellectual tools”.

This book is one of those for which the reviewer’s term “magisterial” inevitably suggests itself. It is a splendid object, with beautiful text design and typesetting and generous illustrations. It is tremendously good in its deep investigations into how the moon was mapped by telescope, early experiments in creating near-vacuums, or the invention of the first steam engines. (“In order to understand steam engines,” Wootton advises, “it may be helpful to think about methods of making coffee.” I can report that it was.)

The book is less persuasive, however, when it veers into literary and philosophical territory. Wootton thinks he knows that William Shakespeare had “no sense of history” and, indeed, that the playwright “imagined ancient Rome as just like contemporary London but with sunshine and togas”. (Reviewing A D Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker in 2008, Wootton protested, “We don’t actually know what Shakespeare thought” – a view that required no revision.)

More threatening to the pleasure of the disinterested reader will be the significant proportion of the book that constitutes an extended and aggressive warming-over of the “science wars” of the 1990s. For The Invention of Science is not only a history of science but a revisionist historiography of science, in which Wootton attacks allegedly homogeneous schools called “the sociologists of science” and “the cultural determinists”, expending thousands of testy words situating himself carefully between two implausible views, the extreme versions of which are held by almost no one. (He also tries to nudge rival historians and philosophers of science – particularly Thomas S Kuhn, the author of the seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – towards one or other less defensible end of the spectrum.)

Despite Wootton’s protestations, very few people are still so “relativist” that they believe that scientific knowledge is nothing but socially constructed and that it is therefore impossible to say that quantum physics is superior to the theory of the four bodily humours. As few, or fewer, people imagine that scientific knowledge is a transparent window on the truth about the ultimate nature of reality. Wootton eventually concludes that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Which is, as he would no doubt happily admit, a view that Aristotle would long ago have endorsed.

The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton is published by Allen Lane (769pp, £30)

Steven Poole’s books include Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? (Sceptre)

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon