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  • Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
  • Richard Garver
Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston. By Michael Rawson (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2010) 384 pp. $24.95

In Eden on the Charles, Rawson writes about six largely unrelated events in Boston's history. Their principal connection is that each involved Bostonians altering their environment. Rawson's methodology involves traditional research. He conducts an extensive excavation of what the people involved had to say about the issues in the press, commission reports, and other sources. The resulting stories are well told and insightful; they meet Gaddis' test of a valuable historical narrative, articulating [End Page 475] moments when continuities in the arrangement of human or natural affairs are altered by contingent events to form a new configuration.1

Rawson's stated purpose goes beyond good history to intersect with the realms of psychology and political science. Each chapter of the book is intended to demonstrate how elements of the environment, such as open space or water, acquire meaning through collective constructs that can be altered in transformative ways. Eden of the Charles is not an intellectual history, however; it does not trace the logical development of new ideas. Instead, Rawson shows new conceptions being fashioned from arguments marshaled by activists pursuing their interests in each event. He groups his protagonists along two axes—(1) the elite protecting their wealth and status and those who identified with them versus those promoting wider community well-being, particularly that of the working and lower classes, and (2) those who supported government solutions versus those who wanted to limit government intervention and taxes.

Rawson's picture of his protagonists' civic discourse resonates with Mercier and Sperber's dual-process theory of human thought, which asserts that people's opinions and choices are largely formed intuitively and that analytical reasoning is primarily a social faculty through which they form conscious arguments in support of their preferences and evaluate those of others. Protagonists judge the strength of such arguments on the basis of their consistency with their larger framework of ideas and beliefs. They may also be influenced by the authority attributed to their sources.2

Although Rawson never develops an explicit thesis about how people reach decisions at the civic level, each of his Boston narratives, in which disputants pursue their intuitively perceived interests and their attitudes about government by assembling arguments drawn from Boston's historical memory, social and moral thought, public policy, and science, illustrates a dynamic of argumentative communication identified by Mercier and Sperber. Thus, his story about Boston's 1830 decision to ban cows from the Boston Common demonstrates that, in situations where there is a stronger drive to pursue one's interests than to find the best answer, reason tends to confirm protagonists' biases, to justify actions that would otherwise be considered unfair, and to lead to polarization. His story about the public debate on supplying Boston with fresh water shows how a more evaluative civic dialogue between those who were influenced by the social-reform movement to advocate for a municipal solution and those who advanced a private solution in the interests of limiting government was resolved when it generated new, higher-quality information that was inconsistent with one side's position. [End Page 476] In a third episode, Rawson shows how trust in the information offered by reputable authority—in this case, the nineteenth-century engineers who configured of Boston's Inner Harbor—can influence competing preferences.

Rawson's approach to civic dialogue also resonates with current network science, as explicated in Ogle's Smart World, which attempts to identify the laws by which networks of disparate ideas interact.3 In Ogle's view, innovation has more to do with intuitive, analogical thinking than with logical deduction. The strongest and most fruitful paradigms tend to derive from the intersection of ideas with no previously perceived relationship to each other. Rawson's historical narratives can be seen as descriptions of these laws in action within the civic realm. For instance, arguments for the value of rural life and for the benefits of public services, initially at odds in debates about municipal boundaries, were eventually...


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pp. 475-477
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