H. R. Slotten u.a. (Hrsg.): The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 8

The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 8. Modern Science in National, Transnational and Global Context

Slotten, Hugh Richard; Numbers, Ronald L.; Livingstone, David N.
The Cambridge History of Science
870 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Maximilian Georg

This book is the eighth and final volume of The Cambridge History of Science. The first volume was published back in 2002/03. Since then, historians of science have, as explained in co-editor Slotten’s introduction, gained two insights, which his volume takes up. First, science is shaped by the place (the site, culture, country, and continent) where it is practised.1 Second, science is also shaped by global processes that transcend national and other borders.2 Part I of this volume, comprising 9 chapters, deals with the “Transnational, International, and Global”, and part II, comprising 31 chapters, concerns the “National and Regional”. Each chapter has been written by one or two, in one case three, specialists of the respective subject.

The Cambridge History of Science defines “science” broadly as “the systematic investigation of nature and society, whatever it was called” (“General Editors’ Preface”, p. xxvi). It thus covers natural and social sciences as well as humanities. This volume covers their history mainly between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. This is logical as in earlier times there was no “nation-state” to surround science with the “national” or “transnational” contexts of the volume’s title. There were, of course, “global” or at least transregional as well as regional and local contexts, such as science in the Islamic and in the Christian/Western worlds and the influence of the former on the latter in the “Middle” Ages. Those spatial dimensions appear in previous volumes of the series, albeit not as explicitly and methodically as here. In volume 7 (The Modern Social Sciences, published 2003), for example, part III is entitled “The Internationalization of the Social Sciences”.

In this volume 8, the chapters in part I discuss a certain period (e.g. ch. 5: “Internationalism in Science after 1940”) or aspect (e.g. ch. 8: “Museums of Natural History and Science”) of transnational/international/global science, or combine the two (e.g. ch. 4: “International Science from the Franco-Prussian War to World War Two: An Era of Organization”). The chapters in part II discuss the history of science in a certain country (e.g. ch. 14: “Germany”) or in a larger region (e.g. ch. 26: “Sub-Saharan Africa”). The chapters are grouped together according to five world regions: “Europe”, “Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia”, “East and Southeast Asia”, “United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania”, and “Latin America”. The final chapter of each group is a brief “Commentary” by another author, presenting connections and comparisons among the group’s countries/regions.

From my viewpoint of global history (the kind of historiography that focuses on such connections and comparisons across national borders), I was disappointed at first that part I is limited to 150 pages, whereas part II comprises 650 pages (that is to say, over 80 per cent of the volume), which largely tell the history of science in the well-known framework of individual nation-states. The commentaries, however, do transcend that framework, and some “national” chapters explicitly try that as well.3 Moreover, one can only present connections and comparisons among places if one sufficiently knows them individually.

As entry points into such local knowledge, the chapters of part II are therefore useful and necessary (especially if one does not know the local language/s); and they are equally useful for those who, instead of going beyond the respective country or region, retain an internal focus. The chapters each offer a concise, structured overview of their country or region, as well as ample literature in the footnotes. They also cover countries, such as “Greece” and “Korea”, whose modern science might otherwise be difficult to find information on. At the same time, the chapters do not expect local background knowledge from the reader, but instead thoroughly explain their places.4 What is strikingly missing, however, is East Central and South-eastern Europe: no chapter covers Poland, Czechia, Austria (or, for that matter, Switzerland), Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, or other countries between “Greece”, “Germany”, and “Russia and the Former USSR”.5

While Greece or Korea, as well as the “United Kingdom”, “France” (before and after 1914 respectively), “Germany”, or the “United States”, are respectively granted one chapter (if not two) of their “own”, diverse world regions such as the “Middle East”, “Sub-Saharan Africa”, and “Spanish South America” are respectively treated as one entity and their chapters are not longer than those concerning single countries. As any historiography that wants to encompass the whole globe, the Cambridge volume could thus be challenged regarding its regional subdivision or spatial (im)balance. It is by no means inherently wrong to aggregate, in a global history, certain areas into one analytical unit although they somehow differ from each other – even “nation-states” are such aggregates. Chapter 17, for example, treats Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland all under the title “Scandinavia”, but the author convincingly justifies their “consideration as a supranational region” in his introduction. On the other hand, the “Middle East” and “Sub-Saharan Africa” are each so much larger and more diverse 6 that they are harder to justify, despite being commonly used. The editors certainly never thought of aggregating the United Kingdom, France, and neighbouring countries into one chapter entitled “Western Europe”; but in each of the mentioned two chapters, they have aggregated many territories without satisfactory discussion.

The reason for those differences is Euro/Western-centrism. It is undoubtedly impossible for any author to avoid all bias inherent in his or her background and context. The Cambridge History of Science is published by a British university, written in English, and authored mostly by European and (North) American scholars. How would the product not be in some way Western-centric? It would nonetheless be an interesting experience to one day read, say, three scholars from and/or based in Africa tell the history of science of a Western region instead of, as in chapter 26, three scholars from and/or based in the West tell that of Africa.

Moreover, “modern science” is, in the understanding of many of the authors, a Western concept that spread from Europe to the rest of the world, especially in the course of colonialism. The chapters on the “Middle East”, “Sub-Saharan Africa”, and also “Korea” or “Indochina” describe that process and local reactions to it rather than any local, non-Western science.7 It may be appropriate to hold that “modern science” understood in a specific sense has come from the West, and its expansionist history would then in fact be a global one full of connections and comparisons. Yet, remember that the general editors of The Cambridge History of Science define “science” as “the systematic investigation of nature and society, whatever it was called” (one of those editors, Ronald L. Numbers, also co-edited vol. 8). Locals around the world conducted such investigations and produced “their own” knowledge before as well as after the Westerners’ arrival. Volume 8 does mention such non-Western science8 – but mostly in relation to the Western one. In the respective chapters, would it have been useful – or, regarding sources, even possible – to move the West more to the background?

Finally, the volume’s part I deals with the history of certain aspects of science as it took place in, or emanated from, the West (e.g. chs. 2: “Science and Imperialism since 1870” and 9: “National Scientific Surveys”) while again mentioning the agency of locals in the non-West in relation to the West.9 Depending on one’s personal research and interests, one could regret that certain aspects have not received a chapter of their own. For example, international scientific congresses – most obvious instances of an international science10 – form only one short section (pp. 45–47) within chapter 4: “International Science from the Franco-Prussian War to World War Two”.

Nevertheless, volume 8 of The Cambridge History of Science may so far be the most ambitious, most general contribution to the cross-border and global history of science.11 Global history has classically dealt with, and been inspired by, globalized economies and political empires. The volume reviewed here marks a big step towards establishing science as another major subject of global history.12


1 David N. Livingstone, Putting Science in Its Place. Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago 2003.
2 Fa-ti Fan, The Global Turn in the History of Science, in: East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 6 (2012) 2, pp. 249–258.
3 E.g. “Spain” (ch. 19), starting with: “In writing the history of modern science in Spain, we want to highlight specificities while remaining attentive to the role of global and regional developments” (p. 361).
4 E.g. “Portugal” (ch. 21), starting with: “Portugal is a small European country located in the western part of the Iberian Peninsula with stable geographical mainland boundaries since the thirteenth century” (p. 390).
5 On recent developments in the historiography of science of (East) Central Europe, see Soňa Štrbáňová, International Collaboration in the History of Science of Central Europe, in: Prace Komisji Historii Nauki PAU 14 (2015), pp. 347–353.
6 As the chapter on “Sub-Saharan Africa” highlights: “there is often a great diversity in the ways in which science has been generated and applied across sub-Saharan Africa” (p. 508).
7 In his commentary on “Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia,” the volume’s co-editor Slotten justifies the aggregation of very large, very diverse areas into common chapters with their “common heritage of having dealt with the impact of European colonialism” (p. 510).
8 E.g. pp. 496–497, 499 (“Sub-Saharan Africa”), 511–512 (“Commentary” on “Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia”).
9 E.g. pp. 10–11, 21, 24–25, 30–31 (“Science and Imperialism”; p. 30: “The movement of people, ideas, and practices between metropoles and peripheries was two-way”); pp. 93–94, 101–104 (“Missionary Science”; p. 101: “Host cultures shaped the course and consequences of missionary efforts to spread science”); cf. pp. 3–5 (the volume’s “Introduction”).
10 Cf. e.g. Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn / Wolf Feuerhahn (eds.), La fabrique internationale de la science. Les congrès scientifiques de 1865 à 1945, Paris 2010.
11 Recent other contributions to the field include Kapil Raj / H. Otto Sibum (eds.), Histoire des sciences et des savoirs, vol. 2: Modernité et globalisation, Paris 2015; James Delbourgo, The Knowing World. A New Global History of Science, in: History of Science 57, 3 (2019), pp. 373–399.
12 Thereby, the history of science would follow its relative “intellectual history”, which since 2016 has been explored in the journal Global Intellectual History.

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