Book Summary: “Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction” by McClellan and Dorn

Science and Technology in World History

Title: Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction
Author: James E. McClelland and Harold Dorn
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The authors give a nice overview of science and technology throughout world history.

Key Take-aways

  • The common assumption that scientific research leads to technological breakthroughs is usually not correct.
  • Technology long preceded modern science. It was only in the late 19th Century that science began to catch up.
  • More often the opposite occurs: new technologies enable scientists to acquire new data which conflicts with existing theories. This forces them to come up with new scientific theories which better fit the new data.
  • Most technological innovations come through craftsmen, engineers and entrepreneurs who possess only a basic knowledge of science. They can see that something works, but they do not know why.

Important Quotes from Book

Science and technology, research and development—these are assumed to be almost inseparable twins. That belief, however, is an artifact of today’s cultural attitudes superimposed without warrant on the historical record.

A more accurate historical appreciation of technology will place proper emphasis on independent traditions of skilled artisans whose talents crafted everyday necessities and amenities throughout the millennia of human existence. Such a historical reappraisal will also show that in many instances technology directed the development of science, rather than the other way around.

The technologies of both the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras have left a rich legacy of material artifacts. In contrast, only a feeble record exists of any scientific interests in these preliterate societies, mainly in the form of astronomically oriented structures. Thus, at the very outset, the evidence indicates that science and technology followed separate trajectories during 2,000 millennia of prehistory. Technology—the crafts—formed an essential element of both the nomadic food-collecting economy of Paleolithic societies and the food-producing activities in Neolithic villages, while science, as an abstract and systematic interest in nature, was essentially nonexistent, or, at any rate, has left little trace.

The origin of technology is rooted in biology. Some nonhuman animals create and use tools, and technology as a cultural process transmitted from generation to generation arises occasionally among monkey and ape communities.

Practical knowledge embodied in the crafts is different from knowledge deriving from some abstract understanding of a phenomenon. To change a car tire, one needs direct instruction or hands-on experience, not any special knowledge of mechanics or the strength of materials… And conversely, knowledge of theory alone does not enable one to make a fire.

Science and engineering had begun to find common ground by the turn of the twentieth century, and engineers now took command in transforming the socio-industrial landscape on a global scale.

How, then, did science and technology achieve the merger and integration that we observe today? That was the question with which we began this book, and in the course of this historical survey we have collected more than a few clues to its answer. In the beginning there was only technology. Then, 6 ,000 years ago in the first civilizations, science originated in the form of written traditions of mathematical and astronomical knowledge. But this development occurred in the social context of state-level societies where the central government saw to it that the mathematical and astronomical sciences were tapped to serve the needs of a complex agricultural economy. This pattern of state support for useful knowledge repeated itself wherever and to whatever extent strong central states appeared.

Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and only slowly and grudgingly, have governments and an increasing number of industries fully recognized the possibilities of applying theoretical research to the problems of technology and industry. The result is a dramatic expansion in the applications of science to technology, this time under the rubric of R&D—research and development.

This chapter is about the advent of a particular, atypical kind of “applied science”.

For the most part, however, these examples [of innovation in the 19th Century] represent “applied science” of a more empirical and trial-and-error sort, less sweepingly theoretical and with applications filtered down through engineering education and practice.

Science-based technologies have proven to be powerful agents of social change and have revolutionized the way a significant portion of humanity now lives.

Contemporary scientific medicine is one grand science-based technological system. In many other areas, however, even today it is misleading to envision technology as simply or directly “applied science.” For example, the education and on-the-job training of technologists and engineers entail significant doses of science, yet rarely does that component consist of advanced theoretical science from the research front. Rather, “boiled down” science usually suffices for the practicing engineer or science-based technologist.

That many different styles and brands of copy machine or TV or computer exist on the market today reveals a key difference between contemporary science and technology. That is, the scientific community generally recognizes only one solution to a given scientific puzzle or problem…

In technology, by contrast, even in science-based technologies, multiple design and engineering solutions are commonplace.

Up until the nineteenth century the practical effect of science and medicine on the organization and functioning of states and societies remained small.

Fine arts and literary academies received much higher subventions than did the science academy (a pattern, incidentally, that recalls the situation in ancient Athens), and scientific academicians held a comparatively lower social status than their literary and fine arts counterparts.

Federal funds overwhelmingly go to support applied science and technology, on the order of an 80 /20 applied and pure split, with applied science in defense-related spending approaching 100 percent. The descending order of funding from the Defense Department, to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA, the Department of Energy, and down to the National Science Foundation (NSF) is revealing in this regard.

Through the mid-1970s the U.S. government provided the bulk of these funds, but then private industry funding began to skyrocket.

Today over half of nondefense government R&D spending is devoted to research in health and the life sciences. This support is at a level eight to ten times that for academic research in any other discipline.

Two conclusions concerning federal support for research and development are to be drawn from these statistics. One, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991 represent a watershed for U.S. science and government. Prior to that date the story centers on the physical sciences and on military hardware. After that date, emphasis shifts to the life sciences and the revolution in biology and genetics.

In the 1990s a new era began with industry displacing government as the primary source of R&D funding. In virtually every developed country, industry now supports scientific research and development to a considerably greater degree than does government, usually by a factor of at least two.

The investments of business and industry in R&D go overwhelmingly (71 percent) into D, development itself (that is, prototyping, marketing), with a further 21 percent of industry’s own funds given over to applied research, and only 8 percent going to pure research.

Strikingly, the federal government funds two-thirds of R&D activities carried out by researchers in colleges and universities, the locus of so many fundamental discoveries in science.

It may be more analytically useful to distinguish pure science on the one hand from a merged applied science and technology on the other. That is, a social and institutional separation exists today not, as in the past, between science and technology but between theoretical scientific inquiries and scientifico-technological applied science. The product of scientific research, for example, is new knowledge; applied scientists, technologists, and engineers, on the other hand, strive to produce useful material objects or processes.

Indeed, one secure lesson of the history of science is that virtually every scientific theory to date has failed—to be replaced by a better one.

If you would like to learn more about Science, Technology and Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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