Saturday, February 11, 2006

Saturday Forgotten Book Highlight: The Axemaker's Gift

Here at Notes in Samsara, I have decided to start a new feature- a review of books that I have around, in no particular order, because, well, there's huge numbers of books published every year, and therefore huge numbers of books get forgotten every year.

At least a few of 'em are worth remembering.

One such book is The Axemaker's Gift, by James Burke and Robert Ornstein.

It is a fascinating account of human technological and scientific history, meant to be read by a fire. Here's what came into my head as I pondered the book, which I recently found unread after an office move:

  • Lysenkoism in science has been present since its very beginnings. In China, science had to serve society in such a way that it could not develop much meaningful after, say, gunpowder. In Europe, - and this is a key point that our "intelligent" "design" Lysenkoists don't want to talk about- scientific philosophy evolved as a reaction to new discoveries. Though this is not in the book, it is curious to look at how "intelligent" "design" differs from this, and why it will therefore fail: "intelligent" "design" is an attempt to bottle up science by creating a religious philosophy to constrain it. What has happened intead throughout history is that religious philosophy has gradually given ground to science.

  • I'll expand on the above point in a bit, but it's useful to note the following (also not in the book): in Asia, Confucian constrained Buddhism did not prevent the decay of that civilization. In Europe, Augustinian and Thomistic and Calvinistic Christianity did not prevent the destruction of the Roman Empire, the campaigns against the Jews, the Thirty Years' War, the Black Death, and a host of other maladies.

  • However, it was essentially an accident of fate that allowed Nestorian "heretical" monks in the Middle East to preserve much of classical learning enough so that it could be studied by Muslims, so that it could be translated into Latin. The rediscory of Aristotle caused Thomism as a reaction. Bacon's and Descarte's contributions to the scientific method stem from the division in Christendom, coupled with the discovery of the unseen, coupled with the discovery of the Americas.

  • Here is a point that Burke and Ornstein hammer home time and time again: the very nature of specialized knowledge, such as science and technology creates, historically fosters a reaction to alleged elitism. This is exactly the gambit that the "intelligent" "design" crowd, and the "global warming" crowd and the "stem cell" crowd play with abandon. It is invariably an attempt by those playing the gambit (usually in the name of "religion") to maintain their political position in societies. The telescope, the microscope, the printing press, and a host of other inventions have all upset the political power of the clergy and other sectors of society.

  • Science is not therefore conservative. And we can say it's not Communist either, thanks to Lysenko.

  • Almost useless factoid: The Royal Society is the oldest scientific professional organization in the world, and "invented" the professional journal and its excruciatingly exacting requirements on publishing. Now I know why the IEEE is so sadistic. I am also a bit humbled, as I have handled and read publications from the Royal Soceity from the 19th century when I was poking around in the University Library doing research for my Ph.D. I had no idea of the provenance of the ideas therein.

  • The axemakers - that is scientists and engineers- create a double edged sword- just like religion. But one would hope that the scientific method can be used in pursuit of human survival, which is becoming increasingly precarious as the population of the world continues to grow exponentially.

Burke is doing a thing called the Knowledge Web; its blog is here.

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