Horizons: A Global History of Science by James Poskett - review by Dmitri Levitin

Dmitri Levitin

The G Word

Horizons: A Global History of Science


Viking 464pp £25 order from our bookshop

For some time, Anglo-American historians have been obsessed with the G word. The word is not ‘God’ but ‘global’. Using it, we have learned to tell a self-comforting story. Until recently, we begin, we were all narrow-minded Eurocentricists who thought that the history of the ‘West’ (best left undefined) was the only history there was to recall. Thankfully, the story goes on, our neo-imperialist eyes have been opened. Now we write ‘global history’, which takes into account the past of all of humanity. The triumphalism of the historians who tell this story has often been deafening. A decade ago, one head of a leading history department thundered, ‘If you are not doing an explicitly … global project, you now have to explain why you are not.’ (Pity the poor young scholar who wants to write a new history of witch-burnings in rural France.)

Who could possibly disagree with such an exultant narrative? After all, it is a priori obvious that the more we know about the whole world, the better our histories will be. Of course, there is the small problem that knowing about the whole world is rather difficult. First and foremost, one needs to learn a lot of languages. Then one needs to absorb the many rich national historiographical traditions of the places one studies, ideally in collaboration with historians from those places. One would therefore expect to find that the Anglo-American historians who have been most vocal about the need for global histories have been busy learning Akkadian, Mandarin and Swahili, or initiating collaborations with historians from Japan, Peru and Nigeria.

Alas, here is where the problems begin. Since doing all this takes a very long time – far longer than the most ambitious historians can wait before advancing in their academic careers – short cuts have had to be adopted. The most common is simply to pontificate about the need for global history without actually doing it. The second is to (re)write the history of the British Empire as ‘global history’. In this way, one can talk about a world outside of the ‘West’ without straying from the easily ploughed soil of English-language sources, often readily available in British and American libraries or online.

Accordingly, global history has often turned out to be more Anglophone than its supposedly ‘Eurocentric’ counterpart, where the expectation is that one knows at least some French, German and Italian, and is familiar with sources in those languages. No less worryingly, the practitioners of global history have been suspiciously clustered in elite Anglo-American universities. In response, some brave souls have dared to suggest that global history could do with a little more self-reflection lest it become ‘merely a buzzword among historians, more a label than a practice … more a fashion of the moment than a durable approach to the serious study of history’ (words written as early as 2006). Such legitimate concerns have often been met with howls of indignation, implied or open accusations of racism and everything else that we have come to expect in an age of social media and hyper-polarisation.

One might think that the history of science would be relatively immune to such polemics. After all, anyone with even a basic knowledge of the subject must be aware that science has never been solely a Western enterprise. An ancient Mesopotamian astronomer contributed more to ‘science’ (in its modern meaning) than twenty Greek philosophers. China had an Astronomical Bureau that lasted for two millennia (nothing comparable existed in Europe). Medieval Islamic mathematicians, astronomers and physicians were producing spectacularly advanced ideas at a time when the education of European elites often did not extend beyond basic literacy and horse riding. Of course, there has long been talk of a ‘Scientific Revolution’ that occurred in early modern Europe, often said to have culminated in the theories of Isaac Newton. Personally, I do not believe in such a revolution, but I do not consider those who do to be moral scoundrels.

James Poskett complains that ‘we are told’ that modern science ‘is a product of Europe alone’. He seeks here to combat this ‘myth’. As should be clear, he is himself indulging in a spot of myth-building. Thankfully, once this rhetoric is out of the way, Poskett settles down to tell a lively story of global collaboration in the study of nature from 1500 to the present day. Horizons shares the strengths and weaknesses of other global histories. His own primary area of expertise is British imperial history. Accordingly, many of his examples concern the contribution made by colonised peoples to European science rather than the history of non-Western science itself. As one would expect, those contributions varied depending on the levels of expertise that were required. The best sections are those that make no references to Europeans at all. For example, the discussion of Li Shizhen’s natural history The Compendium of Materia Medica (1596) not only demonstrates the richness of early modern Chinese medicine, botany and pharmacology but also explains, clearly and elegantly, how these were grounded in the ancient Chinese separation of the world into five phases, a separation that is no less interesting or sophisticated than the well-known Greek matter theories that were dominant in 16th-century Europe.

In fact, botany and natural history provide many of the most interesting of Poskett’s examples, since the Europeans on whom he focuses were very aware that their native plants were only a small proportion of those that existed in the world and sought to remedy the situation. For example, at the end of the 17th century the German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian travelled to Surinam, where she learned about the medicinal properties of plants from enslaved women. Some of these plants were then depicted in Merian’s Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (1705), a lavishly illustrated tome that was used by all the most important European naturalists, including Carl Linnaeus. In this case, Poskett is undoubtedly correct to conclude that ‘the growth of Atlantic slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a profound effect on the development of European society’ – including in the realm of science.

In other cases, however, Poskett reaches similarly strong conclusions on the basis of far more slender evidence. The most egregious example comes in the discussion of Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation. Poskett rightly points out that Newton’s theory explained an observation made by Jean Richer in the French colony of Cayenne, where he found that a pendulum clock ran slower than in Paris. For Newton, here was another data point to add to the evidence that the Earth was not perfectly spherical – hence the varying force of gravity across its surface. But to conclude from this that ‘Newton was able to make a major scientific breakthrough only by virtue of his connections to the wider world of empire, slavery, and war’ is the kind of hyperbolic overstatement that gives global history a bad name. Newton discovered universal gravitation in his rooms in Cambridge, and his primary collaborators and interlocutors were English and European. Not everything has to be global.

None of this is to argue that Newton was completely disconnected from the atrocities of colonialism: late in his life he invested in the South Sea Company. But this had nothing to do with his earlier scientific work, and to call a whole chapter ‘Newton’s slaves’ is tendentious at best. The sad reality is that, as with many other spheres of activity, scientific flourishing often occurs in societies that have grown rich through empire, without that science necessarily being intrinsically connected to colonialism. Such societies have appropriated the knowledge and talent of those they have colonised, and their rulers and elites have used their riches to sponsor science and bask in the prestige of its achievements. This was as much the case in Athens in the fifth century BC, Han dynasty China, the medieval Islamic world and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century as it was in Europe between the 16th and 20th centuries. All of these societies made huge contributions to the field that is today known as ‘science’. If the ideas that developed in Europe happen to look more ‘modern’, it is simply because many of them emerged nearer to the present than those that emerged elsewhere, and not because of any European or Western intellectual superiority (this is one of many reasons why ‘modern’ is a useless category of historical analysis).

I can warmly recommend Poskett’s rich and lucid book, with the caveat that it should be read with an awareness of the academic politics just discussed. When Poskett concludes that ‘there is no reason to think that the next big scientific discovery will come out of a laboratory in Europe or the United States’, he is certainly correct. Whether as many people would disagree with him as he thinks is another question. And when he hopes that global histories of science might encourage more international scientific collaboration, he – and we – might do better to look at our humanistic disciplines and our own practices. Poskett’s bibliography, consisting of several hundred items, contains only five works not written in English (and they are all in French). Perhaps all our talk of ‘going global’ is just another form of Anglo-American cultural imperialism after all.

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