Past in Present: Historical Implications of Science and Society

July 1, 2017 – By Nijah Glenn

Dr. Jotham Parsons is an historian and a faculty member in the Duquesne University History Department. He is also my former professor for History of Science. We sat down together to discuss science, society, and modern politics.

What period(s) in history do you think this current period mirrors with regards to social policy, social climate, and scientific advancement? And how?

In a lot of ways the period we’re in now looks a lot like that period at the end of the 19th/ beginning of the 20th century, when technological progress and social change were actually very rapid. One thing that kind of struck me is what’s happening in Britain right now in politics, with the sort of party system breaking down, with the Labour Party [led by Jeremy Corbyn] being replaced by a pretty dominant Conservative Party [led by Theresa May] and then a bunch of regional parties. That’s the system they had at the end of the 19th century!

Do you think people are as politically engaged now as the time period you are describing?

I’d say maybe less engaged, and part of it has to do with technology. In particular, what you don’t see is party building. Going back, for example, to the British Labour party, where it was built up very painstakingly from the labor movement in Britain, from the factory floor up; it was around the union halls, it was around the communities, and everything was deeply organized and I think people have a hard time doing that today. I think that part of that is that the technology distracts; it connects us to people who are far away, but at the same time, it leaves less available for local communities and what may be effective and long-term political organization.

If previous scientists like Boyle or Darwin were to be resurrected, what would they think of the ways in which their theories have been applied?

A lot of them would think that a lot of scientists have gotten far too narrow. These greats were people who were knowledgeable about not only many areas of science, but deeply interested in the arts, the humanities, society and the world around them. I think that Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein would back me up in saying that that [narrow] approach is not just bad for society, but bad for science, and scientists would work better if as individuals and a group [they] thought bigger, and thought about stuff beyond their own discipline.

This is a fill in the blank: a society can hardly call itself a society if it lacks _____ and why?

Art. I think it’s almost true by definition that a society is a group of people that come together, not just like a group of ants in a mechanical way, but at a conscious and symbolic level. Art is simply the way that happens. Anthropologists, when they try to think about “where does human society truly begin,” the things that they tend to look for are signs of artistic and religious expression. It simply is what being a civilization is. But I also personally think it’s one of the things that makes life worth living.

My other answer to that question, by the way, is tax collectors. There’s a famous saying: “the only thing that separates us from animals is taxes,” which is a shorthand for having the willingness and ability to make sacrifices and contributions to collective ends. Taxes get a bad rap, but they’re really important.

Lastly, your work extensively covers the political and social thought in 17th-century Europe. In what ways can we still see the influences of that time period in our current society?

I would certainly say the development of modern science is a large part of that. The other thing is taxation. This is a period of state-building when a lot of the elements of state-building take place. There are definitely elements of them that are very helpful: the ability to bring large groups of people together frequently, to bring about law and order, and to negotiate disputes internally and externally. From my own research, what people wanted with these strong monarchies in countries like Spain and France were institutions that would act in the public interest, and had specific ideas. One example is the money supply, and providing a reliable coinage. Even absolutist governments were responsive to public opinion, pressure, and ideas about the public good.

Nijah Glenn is a biology major and a youth activist. She is a TMC board & NewPeople  Editorial Collective member, literature/film/music critic, and is dedicated to making both the scientific field & world more equitable.

 

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