Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

This is an excellent history of the words "science" and "religion." The way we use them today is not more than a couple hundred years old, yet we constantly talk as if science and religion were always around in the way that we think of them. They. Were. Not. Peter Harrison shows how the ancients thought differently from us, and how and why it changed to the concepts we have today, as the verbal maplines were redrawn. This kind of study across cultures and nations is immensely valuable, and Harrison brings out the value and application to our current seeming standoffs over these terms. What struck me most on this reading is how "scientists" were deliberately created by secondary scientists like Huxley and Spencer, not through intellectual need so much as through political maneuvering and propagandizing. I don't use that last word lightly, but there's no other word for what Huxley and company did to Darwin's legacy, and how the Galileo story was distorted into the dark parable that scientists repeat today. (Don't get me started on Bruno.) Harrison writes in an easily accessible mode, because it seems that much of what he describes is at least known as open for debate among historians, but people outside of history, especially scientists, keep repeating the same old stories using the same old words. We need to both recover the old meanings and forge new ones. As a chemist who wants to do natural history, this book is especially encouraging, because it helps explain why natural history is no longer in vogue -- and how, perhaps, it can be again.

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