Saturday, December 26, 2009

John Herron's "Science and the Social Good"

John P. Herron is Associate Professor of History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the editor of Human/Nature: Biology, Culture, and Environmental History.

He applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Science and the Social Good: Nature, Culture, and Community, 1865-1965, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Marshall’s faith in forestry’s positive impact on social affairs is reflected in the changing dynamics of science in America. Just as nature no longer resembled the scene of King’s adventures, American natural science in the 1920s and 1930s no longer reflected his hands-on approach to geology. King and his contemporaries approached the study of nature as an investigation of fundamental terrestrial processes. Big scientific issues dominated the era. What was the age of the earth? How was it formed? To find their answers, they climbed high peaks and explored vast areas of terrain searching for hidden clues in glaciers or canyon riverbeds. Although their conclusions differed, this generation of natural scientists shared the belief that their purpose was to understand change and development. These questions remained significant because they impacted equally large debates about political advancement and national growth. The unified objective…stood as one of the critical forces framing American natural science in the nineteenth century.

In the early years of the twentieth century…the approach to nature-in-the-large was replaced with a more focused interest on scientific practices meeting specific industrial needs. The scientific emphasis on purpose and function matched a growing social interest in environmental adaptability. When applied to nature, this shift prioritized what organisms did rather than where they originated… [Older scientists] criticized specialization, but they misunderstood the changing direction of natural science. Twentieth-century natural scientists were willing to let the part represent the whole. They reached beyond their specific technical expertise to see science in expansive terms. Such practice required an understanding of small details. As a trained forester, Marshall saw humans in the same way he interpreted trees—ever-improving organisms within a natural order. From this position, the goal of natural science became straightforward: instruct citizens how to fill their potential.
I quote page 99 almost in full and, while the larger context is hard to decipher, the test works surprisingly well. Science and the Social Good examines the world of American natural scientists and the impact of natural science on American life. My argument is that natural scientists understood their work—whether on rocks and rivers or trees and turtles—as a cultural activity contributing to social stability. Their goal was to advance a civic-minded science concerned with the political well-being and cultural health of society.

On page 99, we glimpse the changing modes of science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The “King” I refer to is Clarence King (1842-1901), a Yale-trained geologist and “Marshall” is Robert Marshall (1901-1939), an American forester—both are key players in my narrative. In the 1860s and 70s, King studied riverbeds, mountain peaks, and agricultural valleys, all in an effort to understand their construction and find answers to planetary development. Confident in his knowledge of creation, King applied scientific “laws” about nature’s process to society. And, most unexpected to modern readers, such was the position of natural science that people actually listened to a geologist on political issues like Cuban independence and social concerns like educational reform.

In the 1920s, however, little questions replaced big. Unlike King, Marshall studied details. He investigated how nature’s smallest parts fit together and from there, tried to determine if society’s many groups could likewise find common cause. Marshall’s forestry, a field that appears to contain little human context, actually engaged fundamental questions about state responsibility and community health in an era of economic and social upheaval. Dissecting the aims of American natural science reveals the influence of the field on cultural affairs. Making understandable the efforts of natural scientists to advance the social good, as well as the motivations behind those efforts, remains a primary goal of my work.
Learn more about Science and the Social Good at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue