Steve Jones’s chaotic theory of history

Jones’s science may be good, but his history is all over the place in No Need for Geniuses, a survey of invention and progress in the Age of the Enlightenment

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine Steve Jones

Little, Brown, pp.384, £25, ISBN: 9780349405452

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ Philip Larkin’s most famous line has appeared in the Spectator repeatedly, and there has even been a competition devoted to its refutation. Steve Jones, though, thinks it too coarse to be quoted in what he himself describes as a popular science book. This is just one of many indications of the way in which this book is haunted by C.P. Snow’s two cultures.

I was a bit shocked to see Jones describe his book as popular science because I had been under the impression that he thought it was, in part at least, a history book. As a popular science book, it’s quite good. As history, not.

Jones begins by looking out over Paris from the Eiffel Tower and identifying places where important science was done. Every chapter, more or less, has an 18th-century start, but they wander happily into 21st-century science. There’s no attempt, at any point, to grapple with the possibility that there might be some fundamental discontinuities between our science and Enlightenment science.

Thus Lavoisier’s ‘discovery’ of oxygen is told in the most old-fashioned heroic terms. There’s no sympathy for Joseph Priestley, who consistently opposed Lavoisier, and no sense of the limits of Lavoisier’s understanding. On the contrary, Jones thinks Lavoisier ‘demolished’ Priestley’s work ‘with a simple experiment’. ‘Soon the whole of chemistry began to fall into place.’ Well, more than 50 years ago Thomas Kuhn himself demolished this sort of account of Lavoisier’s work in a short, classic article which Jones evidently hasn’t read.

The truth is, Jones doesn’t have much interest in history. Every chapter begins with a quotation from Carlyle’s French Revolution (1837). He only mentions two other books on the Revolution: Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Simon Schama’s Citizens (1989). That’s it. He doesn’t mention a single work on the history of science. Not one single one. There are no notes, bibliography or suggestions for further reading. So one has to use a search engine. A quotation from Galileo isn’t from Galileo. A quotation about Haussmann’s Paris is from the Wikipedia article. We are told there were 3,000 ‘factories’ in Paris in 1801. I can’t trace the source, but it must have been referring to workshops or manufactories, not factories, of which, by any sensible definition, there can’t have been 3,000 in the world in 1801. We are told that ‘within a couple of decades of the Revolution’ Paris became ‘a sordid, ugly town… the atmosphere is a blend of railway tunnel, hospital ward, gasworks and open sewer’. ‘This is in fact,’ says Jones disarmingly, ‘a 19th-century description of St Helens in Lancashire, but just the same, if not worse, could be said of contemporary Paris.’ Except this is a description of St Helens in 1899, and as far as the reader can tell we are discussing Paris in the 1810s; the first Parisian gasometer was built in 1823, the first railway in Paris dates to 1837; within a couple of decades of the Revolution Paris might have been described as having the atmosphere of a hospital ward or an open sewer, but not of a railway tunnel or a gasworks. As for the city in 1899, it was de-industrialising, and nothing like St Helens.

After making points like these, historians of science routinely complain that scientists should not be allowed to write about history. (I’m really not exaggerating here; and I don’t think they are right.) But it seems to me we can’t just blame the scientists; the historians have their responsibility too. Evidently, Jones has never come across a history of science that really got him thinking, and much of the blame has to lie with the historians who (to be honest) stopped trying to make sense to scientists at least 30 years ago.

So what we have here is two cultures apparently incapable of communicating with each other. It really doesn’t have to be like this. Stephen Jay Gould was both a good historian and a fine scientist — his example is there for anyone who wants to follow. But what interested Gould wasn’t just good science in the past, but batty, bonkers, bizarre science — for at least he had the sense to realise that one day he too might look a bit batty, bonkers and bizarre. Jones writes history without any sense that there is a discipline here with its own standards and its own problems. He takes it for granted that if he knows the science he understands the history.

Take, as a sample, chapter five, ‘Einstein’s Pendulum’. Already with the title we are obviously far away from ‘Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine’. The chapter is primarily about Foucault’s Pendulum, first displayed in 1851 — long after the Revolution. From there we move back to the Coriolis effect, 1835 (Coriolis was ‘born in Year One of the Republic’, so evidently that makes this revolutionary science), and to Laplace (Celestial Mechanics, 1799 — much closer to the Revolution), and back further to the first heavier-than-air flight (1783), and then on to modern weather forecasting and chaos theory.

I enjoyed reading this chapter, but as far as I can see it has little to do with science in the age of the French Revolution, and I don’t imagine that anyone buying the book would expect to find a chapter on the Coriolis effect and chaos theory. So the book is a bit like a box of chocolates where the key identifying the different flavours has got lost. And the problem is that we get to nibble on all sorts of chocolates, but we never get a decent meal. On Coriolis we get two and a half pages — not enough to begin to understand his significance (the next chapter is a little better in that it provides a somewhat fuller discussion of Laplace).

I’m not sure who this book is intended for. Is it for young scientists who can’t handle Larkin (who appears on GCSE-level syllabuses, though it must be acknowledged that he is not represented by his most famous poem)? Is it for Francophiles who want to learn something about French science and about Paris (in which case some further reading would be in order)? Or is it for fans of Steve Jones? Only this last answer makes sense.

I am sure plenty of people will buy the book, and many will enjoy it. But meanwhile those of us who hold that non-fiction books should have subjects and arguments will mutter that the world is going to hell in a handcart. For it calls in question the whole idea of what a book should be. Books are normally written by people who like books; they are, by their very nature, an intertextual performance. Jones evidently loves Darwin — and quite right too. But if he is going to write a book on Enlightenment science he needs to read more widely, and with more enthusiasm. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, way back in 1992, he wanted to have the novels of Anthony Powell on his desert island. This book, alas, is no dance to the music of time.

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