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The myth of the white male scientific genius – and why its time is up

Darwin and Newton acknowledged their debt to other cultures. Why don’t we?

By Will Dunn

“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote to his fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1675, “it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Long seen as our greatest scientist’s greatest line, it may have been a sarcastic joke: Hooke, a rival who had claimed credit for Newton’s discoveries and whom Newton came to dislike intensely, was a short man.

It was true, however, that Newton was supported by people who remained unseen. This was very much the case with his finances: Newton was an investor in the slave trade. He bought thousands of shares in the South Sea Company, the principal enterprise of which was to transport people from Africa to the Americas. Newton invested in this business for over a decade, making a significant profit (and then losing it in the crash of 1720).

Art cannot exist without its creator, whatever else they may have thought or done. But knowledge – especially the natural laws of physics and mathematics – is discovered. Why mark it with the personal lives or beliefs of the individuals who found it? As the historian James Poskett points out in Horizons, which tells the story of the global roots of modern science, there are many good reasons to do just that. The call to “decolonise” subjects by acknowledging their cultural context is seen by some as needlessly political, but Poskett argues that science was already politicised. The idea that scientific revolutions are the preserve of the European male genius – Newton, Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein – is, he argues, a political project to reinforce the idea that people who support a particular system of government, or live on one side of a border, are more curious, inventive and adept than others.

[See also: The rise and fall of the literary bloke]

The scientific revolutions of the last four centuries took place not just at the same time as political and religious conflict, invasion and enslavement, but because of these things. Newton’s understanding of celestial mechanics did not pop into his head with the falling of an apple, but was made possible by the expanding world of empire. Travellers such as the French astronomer Jean Richer were brought by the ships of slave-trading companies to “new” lands, where they made observations of the sky and the movements of pendulums upon which Newton – who never left England – was able to form his theories. The same was true of evolution, a theory that was not simply arrived at by Charles Darwin but formed over decades by scientists across the world, and which Poskett links to shifts in global power such as the decline of Spain’s empire in South America and the expansion of Russia’s empire in central Europe.

Like Newton – who wrote, “all the world knows that I make no observations myself” – Darwin readily acknowledged that he was drawing conclusions based on work from around the planet. “The principle of selection I find distinctly given in an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia,” he wrote in On the Origin of Species (1859). Copernicus, too, cited the Islamic astronomers whose work was essential to the heliocentric model of the universe he described in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). The independent genius is a modern invention.

[See also: How Sergei Magnitsky paid with his life for exposing Vladimir Putin’s financial corruption]

What purpose does this myth serve? Science has always been an instrument of power – as Poskett explains, the ability to create a calendar or understand the pharmacology of a certain plant can have far-reaching implications. In the 20th century the power of science became increasingly evident, as ever more technical learning allowed for ever more destructive weapons. With the arrival of the Cold War it became necessary to pretend there was such a thing as Soviet science, or that Islamic science belonged to some past “golden age”, or that Europe was the only place where a renaissance of knowledge happened in the 17th century (it happened everywhere from Timbuktu to Tibet, and the “renaissance” wasn’t named until everyone involved had been dead for 200 years). The truth was far more complex, international and diverse, but the myth was easier to understand. The story of the apple tree is easier to explain than the inverse square law.

But if science is now constrained by a reverence for the past, it’s not the first time this has happened. During the medieval period, studying science or medicine meant reading ancient texts in Latin and Greek; it was the breaking of these traditions that enabled a new age of discovery. An honest conversation about the history of science is therefore not just of moral importance – it is part of what makes discovery possible.

[See also: The infinite art of John Donne]

Horizons: A Global History of Science
James Poskett
Viking, 464pp, £25

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control