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  • Is History a Science?
  • Eugene Goodheart

This is an old, but persistent, question. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond, the distinguished physiologist and geographer, chastises historians for their failure to think of their profession as a science, the consequence of which is that they "receive little training in acknowledged sciences and their methodologies." It follows from this deficiency in training that, according to Diamond, much history writing is nothing more than a mass of details . . ." or "just one more damn fact after another," or "more or less bunk."1 (The last phrase is, of course, an unfortunate echo of Henry Ford's notorious dismissal of history.) Scientific history, for Diamond, is the search for "ultimate explanation," in the instance of Guns, Germs, and Steel, of why certain societies triumphed at the expense of others (European at the expense of African and Asian). His answer, offered as a result of empirical investigation, lies in geography, that is, in the relative fertility of the land and the availability of animals that can be domesticated. The secret of success is food production, which frees people for a variety of other activities, for example the crafts.

Diamond is a geographical determinist. In his long thirteen thousand year view of history, culture, ideology, personal agency and luck play negligible roles. Impressive as he is as an empirical historian, he offers very little in the way of guidance to an understanding of the proximate as opposed to ultimate causes that make up the smaller, though by no means insignificant, time frames of human history, for instance, the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution and its [End Page 477] aftermath. Indeed, even Diamond's large-scale vision does not exclude exceptions to his geographical determinism, which he simply glosses over. Consider, for example, his attempt to explain why China "lost its huge early lead to Europe," given its "undoubted advantages: a rise of food production nearly as early as in the Fertile Crescent; ecological diversity from North to South China and from the coast to the Tibetan plateau, giving rise to a diverse set of crops, animals and technology." Diamond explains it as "a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions at the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents)" (GGS, p. 411). The eunuchs favored "the sending and captaining of fleets," their opponents, prevailing in the power struggle "dismantled the shipyards . . . and forbade oceangoing shipping" (GGS, p. 412). The first thing to remark is that politics not geography is the decisive factor here. "Typical aberration" is an oxymoron. If the factional struggle were an aberration, that is something exceptional, what would make it typical? Diamond neither raises nor addresses the question. One can only speculate that exceptional or aberrant actions that may proceed from human agency are an embarrassment to the scientific enterprise, which seeks out what is recurrent, inevitable or probable. The effect of "typical" is to neutralize aberration, which cannot be explained scientifically.

In speaking of non-scientific history as bunk, Diamond brings to mind those who are surely his adversaries, the radical skeptics who will settle for nothing less than absolute truth. Since the whole (or absolute) truth is an impossibility, the very idea of truth and objectivity is under suspicion. Diamond too has the all or nothing mindset, but unlike the radical skeptics he believes that he has it all.

I begin with Diamond not because he has much to contribute to a theoretical discussion or debate about the scientific status of history writing, but because he represents what I would call an insurgent scientism that we find especially and egregiously in the biological sciences. Natural scientists (of scientistic persuasion), in particular sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, promise, or should I say threaten, to extend their domain to the disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences. For them there is no longer a question: history is or should be a science.

The title of E. H. Carr's provocative book on the subject, in contrast, takes an interrogative form: What is History? (1961). He defends history as a scientific enterprise by responding, unlike Diamond, to objections [End Page 478] in...