David Wootton

A clash of two cultures

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

‘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).

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