Passing strange: The convergence of evolutionary science with scientific history

History and Theory 40 (1):1–15 (2001)
In the second half of the twentieth century, a surprising change in the notion of scientific truth gained ground when an evolutionary cosmology made the Newtonian world machine into no more than a passing phase of the cosmos, subject to exceptions in the neighborhood of Black Holes and other unusual objects. Physical and chemical laws ceased to be eternal and universal and became local and changeable, that is, fundamentally historical instead, and faced an uncertain, changeable future just as they had in the initial phases of the cosmos.The earth sciences along with biology had become historical in the nineteenth century; and the Big Bang cosmology in effect brought physics and chemistry into line, allowing venturesome intellects to concoct a new all-embracing worldview that recognizes the catalytic role of the observer in defining what is observed, and how different levels of local complexity provoke new and surprising phenomena--including terrestrial life forms, and most notably for us, humanly-constructed symbolic meanings--of which science is only one example.The article then argues that it is time for historians to take note of the imperial role thus thrust upon their discipline by making a sustained effort to enlarge their views and explore the career of humankind on earth as a whole, thus making human history an integral part of the emerging scientific and evolutionary worldview.Tentative suggestions of how this might be addressed, focusing on changes in patterns of communication that expanded the scale of human cooperation, and thus conduced to survival, follow. Dance, then speech, were early breakthroughs expanding the practicable size of wandering human bands; then caravans and shipping allowed civilizations to arise; writing expanded the scale of coordination; warfare and trade harshly imposed best practice across wide areas of Eurasia and Africa and kept the skills of that part of the world ahead of what the peoples of other continents and islands had at their command. Then with the crossing of the oceans after 1492 our One World began to emerge and swiftly assumed its contemporary shape with further improvements in the range and capacity of communication--for example, printing, mechanically-powered transport, instantaneous data transmission--with consequences for human society and earth's ecosystem yet to be experienced.Much remains to be investigated and, in particular, interactions between the history of human symbolic meanings and the history of other equilibria--ecological, chemical, physical--within which we exist needs further study. But with suitable effort, history can perhaps become scientific and the emerging scientific evolutionary worldview begin to achieve logical completeness by bringing humankind within its scope
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DOI 10.1111/0018-2656.00149
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