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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 566-568
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Science and Technology in World History
Science and Technology in World History. By James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. viii+404; illustrations, notes/references, index. $55 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
This useful and informative textbook follows up on Harold Dorn's admirable Geography of Science, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1991. Dorn's theme in that earlier work, namely that there have been two models of scientific and technological development, Babylonian/ utilitarian/technological and Greek/theoretical/scientific, is elaborated here. Noting how these models merged in the late 1800s to produce the modern amalgam, Dorn and coauthor James McClellan identify the conflation of "science" and "technology" into a single cultural endeavor as something very recent. Historically, technology had to do with the practical application of knowledge, usually in the service of the state (irrigation, crop selection) but also in the service of the individual (medicine). Even astronomy, the purest form of knowledge in such pragmatic knowledge systems, still had a practical role (forecasting seasons), or one that was apparently practical (astrological).
The structure of Science and Technology in World History is inclusive and straightforward. It is refreshing to see historians say what cultural geographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists have long known: that domesticated plants and animals are as much tools as are steam engines and computers. McClellan and Dorn do a respectable job with this literature, but it is easy to quibble when people stray from their own turf. The authors have a tendency to downplay the probable diffusion of many agricultural techniques (if not actual crops and animals) in favor of the rather questionable though oft-repeated Binford/Flannery hypothesis that agriculture came about merely because of population pressure.
From the origins of agriculture the authors move on to the origins of urban life. Here they owe a great debt to the insights of Gordon Childe and [End Page 566] Karl Wittfogel. But where Wittfogel saw the oriental despotic state as having been created by the pragmatic need to manage agricultural production in a very specific flood-prone environment, McClellan and Dorn invert the argument. The pragmatic and, they add, the symbolic application of technology becomes the mechanism for state formation. A symbolic technological activity such as building the pyramids becomes as important for centralizing state power as for controlling Nile floods.
The civilizations of the ancient world all followed a Wittfogelian path until classical Greece. There, adequate rainfall obviated the necessity of irrigating crops. Human knowledge did not need to involve practical application. The Greeks asked, and tried to answer, most of the questions of modern science. In the Greek world we find the first "scientists," individuals we actually know by name as contributing a theorem or a proof. Despite the remarkable flowering of Greek science, however, pragmatic interests returned quickly as Rome succeeded Greece. Greek science simply could not build a better aqueduct than experience and craftsmanship could. The Islamic world shifted the technological landscape a bit, adding concern with veterinary and human medicine to the grandiose building projects of older civilizations. China, despite its remarkable development of just about every technology known to early modern Europe, always had plenty of humans and no need for the laborsaving devices wherein technology excels.
And so we get to the last half of the book and to European development. For folk in the modern academy McClellan and Dorn swim upstream a bit here, not that I fault them. But in today's politically correct world all cultures are supposed to be equally competent, and McClellan and Dorn are crystal clear about what is wrong with this view. They note how a unique series "of interlocked technological innovations" help us understand "how Europe transformed itself from a cultural backwater . . . to a vibrant and unique, albeit aggressive, civilization that came to lead the world in the development of science and industry" (p. 177). After 800 a.d. or so, Europe developed a productive rainfall-based agriculture that supported an increasing scientific endeavor. The...