Archive: History of Science


A recent essay by Randolph Nesse, “Maladaptation and natural selection”, is part of a tribute to George Williams (link from Zimmer 2005). Nesse teaches and does research in “Darwinian medicine”, the study of the evolution of susceptibilities to disease (broadly construed so as to include, for example, aging). He and Williams have co-authored two books on the subject. “Maladaptation” is a helpful summary of the background to Darwinian medicine for the non-specialized reader (of which I am certainly one). Among many passages that struck my eye, the following stand out.


LinkJune 30, 2005

Natural history at Kyoto

A series of exhibitions at the library of Kyoto University, among them The Age of Natural History, which includes digitized versions, in color, of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, Tournefort’s Élémens de botanique, and Linnæus’s Systema naturæ, as well as works in Japanese. The site is in Japanese and English.

LinkMay 23, 2005

A Response on Descartes

John Emerson has responded on his website to an entry on Descartes and doing history (see “Descartes without the boring parts”). That post and his earlier post on the Discourse are worth reading. I have since come across a passage in Huxley’s essay on the Discourse that summarizes nicely, and I think quite accurately, Descartes’ religious attitude. (I add some footnotes on matters of fact & interpretation.)
Descartes lived and died a good Catholic, and prided himself upon having demonstrated the existence of God and of the soul of man. As a reward for his exertions, his old friends the Jesuits put his works upon the “Index”, and called him an Atheist (↓1); while the Protestant divines of Holland declared him to be both a Jesuit and an Atheist (↓2). His books narrowly escaped being burned by the hangman; the fate of Vanini (↓3) was dangled before is eyes; and the misfortunes of Galileo so alarmed him (↓4), that he well-nigh renounced the pursuits by which the world has so greatly benefited, and was driven into subterfuges and evasions that were not worthy of him (5).
“Very cowardly”, you might say; and so it was. But you must make allowance for the fact that, in the seventeenth century, not only did heresy mean possible burning, or imprisonment, but the very suspicion of it destroyed a man’s peace, and rendered the calm pursuit of truth difficult or impossible. I fancy that Descartes was a man to care more about being worried and disturbed, than about being burned outright; and, like many other men, sacrificed for the same of peace and quietness, what he would have stubbornly maintained against downright violence. However this may be, let those who are sure they would have done better throw stones at him. I have no feelings but those of gratitude and reverence for the man who did what he did, when he did; and a sort of shame that any one should repine against taking a fair share of such treatment as the world thought good enough for him.
Addendum 7 May 2005: for more on the quarrel of Utrecht and on condemnations of Descartes’ works, see “Descartes rehabilitated”.
(↑1) Descartes’ works were put on the Index of prohibited books (Index librorum prohibitorum in 1663. It is thought that the Jesuit philosopher and mathematician Honoré Fabri (1607–1688) had a role. Fabri seems to have gotten into difficulties himself in 1647 for “concessions” to Cartesianism in his teaching in Lyon and in 1670 for attacks on the Jansenists; he was briefly imprisoned in the 1660s for espousing heliocentrism. His own work against the Jansenists was placed on the Index. (See the entry on Fabri at Scholasticon.) I don’t know of any Jesuit text in which Descartes is called an atheist. The placing of his works on the Index was probably owing primarily to his explanation of the Eucharist in a late letter to Arnauld. There Descartes proposes a theory that, while it preserves the Real Presence of Christ, amounts to a rejection of transubstantiation. Various Cartesian theses had already been condemned by the theologians at Louvain, including the identification of matter with extended substance.
Source: Gereformeerde Theologen
Studentenvereniging “Voetius”
(↑2) Huxley is probably thinking of the controversy between Descartes and Gisbertus Voetius in 1642–1643. Voetius recruited Martinus Schoock, professor at Groningen, to write against Descartes. In his Admiranda methodus novae philosophiae Renati Des-Cartes, Schoock attacks both the philosophy and the person, comparing Descartes to Vanini.
(↑3) Giulio Cesare Vanini (1585–1619), after renouncing Catholicism in 1612, then returning to it in 1613, published two heterodox works, the Amphitheatrum aeternae providentiae divino-magicum (1615), and De admirandis naturae reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis (1616). Although he had a gift for attracting powerful patrons, he was executed in Toulouse in 1619.
(4) After the condemnation of Galileo, Descartes in a letter to Mersenne writes that “if [the movement of the Earth] is false, all the foundations of my philosophy are false too”. Still, he says, “I would not for anything in the world have any discourse come from me, in which the least word could be found of which the Church would disapprove” (to Mersenne, end of November 1633; AT 1:271). Three months later he wants to know whether the authority of the Congregation of Cardinals in charge of censorship “was sufficient to make it [the condemnation of Copernicanism] an article of faith” (to Mersenne, Feb 1634; AT 1:281). In August he has obtained a copy of the condemnation (to Mersenne, 14 Aug 1634; AT 1:306). It is clear that for philosophical reasons, the condemnation did distress him; on the other hand, he indicates always his intention not to contradict any article of faith.
(5) Huxley may have had in mind Descartes’ treatment of the motion of the Earth in the Principles. Descartes finds in favor of the system of Tycho Brahe (in which the Sun revolves around the Earth and the remaining planets, other than the Moon, around the Sun); nevertheless, it follows from the vortex theory that the Earth, though at rest within its own ciel, revolves with its ciel around the Sun. It’s worth noting that Gassendi, after refuting anti-Copernican arguments, leaves it open to his readers to hold true the system of Tycho. These are indeed subterfuges of a sort that I would guess commonly occur under regimes that, though they will brook no active, public opposition, are content with merely nominal agreement. The issue is first of all one of authority, not truth. Philosophers like Descartes and Gassendi would have regarded their acts as prudent; it would not have entered their minds that anyone would regard them as cowardly. (An interesting question: certainly it would have been brave to oppose the Church in those areas where opposition met with sanctions; but was it cowardly not to oppose the Church? ‘Cowardly’ and ‘brave’ are certainly contraries; but I’m not sure they are contradictories.)
Some references
On Voetius:
Gereformeerde Theologen Studentenvereniging “Voetius”. Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), wie was hij? (in Dutch).
Voetius, Gisbert” In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon. The original is in v. 12, col. 1549–1554 (published 1997).
On Vanini:
Galileo Project. “Vanini, Giulio”.
Emile Namer. La vie et l’oeuvre de J.-C. Vanini. Vrin, 2000. · 2711641120
On Tycho’s system:
Galileo Project. “Tycho Brahe (1546–1601)”. Includes a reproduction of an engraving of Tycho’s system.
Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (Florence). “Tycho Brahe’s system”. Also lnglabita.png. Includes an animation of Tycho’s system.
On Gassendi:
Gassendi”. Catholic Encyclopedia (1911).
Olivier Bloch. La philosophie de Gassendi. La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971. (See especially pp. 327–329.)

LinkMay 4, 2005

The Galilean Library

A Swiss-Army-knife site
: essays, bibliographies, a forum, and a weblog, mostly concerned with the history and philosophy of science. The weblog, Studi Galileani, is posted to regularly. If you want to learn about Galileo himself, the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (also lnglabita.png) is a good place to start.
Since I’ve mentioned philosophy of science, I’ll add a link to the Philosophy of Science Archive at Pitt. This is a preprint/reprint archive; as of today there were 741 papers. Compared with physicists and mathematicians, philosophers have been slow to put their work online: efforts like this should be rewarded with visits and contributions.
Added 1 Mar: Paul Newall of the Galilean library has written me a nice note with an updated link to the Library. He also notes that the forum, which is called “The Academy”, has been running for just three months. The forum includes a series of introductions to the various branches of systematic philosophy, which could be a useful resource (along with, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia and the Internet Encyclopedia) for anyone teaching an intro course—or for someone curious to know what philosophers do.

LinkFebruary 27, 2005

Des monstres: images et savoirs

The Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine in Paris presents a “livre-exposition” on monsters in the Renaissance. The text was written by, and the images selected by, Annie Bitbol-Hespériès. From the introduction:
Le livre-expositionThe book-exhibition “Monsters in the Renaissance and the Classical Age” starts from three observations: a profusion of images of monsters beginning in the second half of the 16th century; in particular the great variety of engravings, often ambiguous; and the diversity of authors who treat monsters. The period considered is indeed the time of monsters. The word enjoyed its greatest extension with Ambrose Paré; moreover, various sources first converged, and competing systems of knowledge later confronted one another, in the study of monsters. Les Monstres à la Renaissance et à l’âge classique part de trois constats : d’abord une profusion d’images de monstres à partir de la seconde moitié du seizième siècle, ensuite une grande variété de gravures, souvent ambiguës, enfin la diversité des auteurs qui traitent des monstres. La période retenue est vraiment le temps des monstres, puisque le mot connaît sa plus grande extension avec Ambroise Paré, et qu’autour des monstres convergent des sources variées, avant que ne s’affrontent des savoirs concurrents.
Monstrous births—individuals born with deformities—were a problem for both the old & the new science. In Aristotelian science, the existence of individuals visibly departing from the norm at which the generative power of each species aims required explanation: not only a “material” explanation that would show why in these instances nature falls short,
Source: Paré, Monstres et prodiges,
p. 1091 (BIUM)
but also a teleological explanation by which the præter- or contra-natural could be accommodated in a world planned and made by an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent deity.
For the proponents of the new science, monsters offered a pretext for arguments against Aristotelian finality, and an opportunity to exercise their ingenuity while offering mechanistic accounts of generation. Descriptions and illustrations of animals developing in the womb did not yet greatly constrain philosophical speculation. Only in the eighteenth century did natural philosophers begin to understand that monstrous births could be treated as “experiments” in generation—to realize that the abnormal could be made to yield information about the normal.
Monsters were not only objects of scientific study. Like other unusual events, they were portents. The birth of a monster must signify, must point to something else by way of some similarity or mark (see Céard and Daston & Park). Science itself no longer accords the status of knowledge to the interpretation of prodigies. But interpretation goes on regardless: AIDS was said to be “God’s wrath upon homosexuals”. One lesson that the study of cultural history teaches is that styles of thinking rarely vanish altogether: they migrate.
Added 22 Jan 2005: My original reference for the site was Carnet de Zénon (see “All Philosophy, Addendum 2”.
Bitbol-Hespériès, Annie. Le principe de vie chez Descartes. Vrin, 1990, « Bibliothèque d’Histoire de la Philosophie ». 236 p. [ISBN: 2-7116-1034-9]
Céard, Jean. La nature et les prodiges. L’insolite au XVIe siècle en France. 2nd ed. Geneva: Droz, 1996. 560 p. (Orig. publ. 1977.) [ISBN: 2-600-00502-1]
Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the order of nature, 1150–1750. Zone Books, 2001. [ISBN: 0942299914]
Paré, Ambroise Ambroise Paré,
. Vingt cinquième livre traitant des monstres et prodiges, in Œuvres. Paris, G. Buon, 1585. Bitbol-Hespériès notes that “La première édition de ce traité est de 1573 avec pour titre Des monstres tant terrestres que marins. Dans les Œuvres Complètes, publiées en 1575, rééditées en 1579 et 1585, le titre devient celui de Monstres et prodiges”. hook hook

LinkJanuary 6, 2005

Mathematics sources online

Many of the canonical works in the history of mathematics can be found online. Let’s hope that more libraries receive funding to scan their collections. All the sites below are free.
  • Digital Mathematics Library:
    Author & title listing of works online, together with journals.
  • World Digital Mathematics Library:
    List of catalogues.
  • Bibliothèque Nationale:
    Among the thousands of texts now online are a number of texts in mathematics, mostly French.
  • Cornell Historical Mathematics Monographs:
    512 titles. These are 600 dpi bitonal scans made in the early 90s.
  • Digitised European Periodicals:
    Includes the Monatshefte fü Mathematik und Physik, v. 1 to 51.
  • Das Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum (GDZ):
    Several hundred monographs and a thousand articles, mostly in German.
  • Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik:
    An important German journal; includes most of the volumes published between 1868 and 1931.
  • University of Michigan Historical Mathematics Collection:
    A good collection of old textbooks and important monographs. It was slow when I tried it.

LinkDecember 4, 2004

Merz’s History of thought

John Theodore Merz, History of thought in the nineteenth century (Edinburgh & London: Blackwood, v. 1–2, 1896; 2nd ed. of v. 1–2, 1907; v. 3–4, 1912, 1914; repr. New York: Dover, 1965.)
Volumes 1 and 2 deal with the natural sciences, 3 and 4 with philosophy. Merz restricts himself to authors in France, Great Britain, and Germany. Though he tends to favor the Germans, Merz’s work is a good place to start if you want to survey the intellectual landscape as it appeared to a well-informed intellectual historian at the end of the century.
Merz, an electrical engineer by trade, knows his science and mathematics, at least till near the end of the century. In physics, the concept of energy (at that time just half a century old), the laws of thermodynamics, and Maxwell‘s theory have completed the classical edifice. Atomism has still not carried the day: the phenomenalism of MachErnst Mach (1838-1916), author of Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung (1883), Die Analyse der Empfindungen (1886), and Erkenntnis und Irrtum (1905). ernstmach and others was, in the 1890s, a tenable position. Merz’s coverage of biology (the name was coined at the very end of the eighteenth century, and becomes current by way of Cuvier) is very good. The transformation wrought by Darwin is fully in evidence. Defining the essence of the living remains an issue, but “mechanistic” explanations are gradually winning out over various versions of vitalism. In psychology, German authors predominate; at the end of the century, Brentano and James appear briefly, but Freud is absent.


LinkMay 31, 2004