Remarks on Social Selection as a Factor in the Progressivism of Science

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AS WILL APPEAR, this memoir, unlike most of my published writings, is the fruit of meditation, and to some degree introspection, rather than research. The considerations it advances developed in the course of teaching the history of science and thinking about its relation to general history. In what measure the analysis stands up is for a reader to say. The question of how the elements appear to me now, a full generation since 1968 when I wrote the piece, had better be reserved for a postface.

One thing may be noted at the outset. It will be obvious that Robert Merton exerted a powerful influence on my thinking. Sociology of science has indeed developed into a flourishing subdiscipline since the days when he, as it were, summoned it into existence. That it should be so bears out his prediction that sociology of science would flourish only when and if the role of science in society itself came to be seen as problematic instead of simply beneficial. That is precisely what happened as a carryover from the counterculture of the 19705. The consequence, however, is not what Merton imagined or, I think, approved. For in large part the sociology addressed to science is constructivist in the sense that it seeks to exhibit the role of social relations in forming the content of science. In his view the function of sociology was to elucidate the dynamics governing the conduct of scientists.


Remarks on Social Selection as a Factor in the Progressivism of Science*

The purpose of the present essay is to invite consideration of modes in which science may have been functionally related to political and social progress in the course of modern history. The discussion does not touch on the material and technological role of science. I believe that these factors, tremendously important as they undoubtedly are, could be brought within the scope of the argument, but am not presently prepared to do so. What follows is not, therefore, intended to take issue with Marxist or materialist positions in the historiography of science and does not confront them on their own ground. At most, the concluding section advocates an alternative way of looking historically at relations between science and its social environment, one based on considerations concomitant with rather than reducible to technological and economic factors and one that does not presuppose any causal philosophy of history.


So far as history has a direction more significant than the mere succession of events in time, that direction is generally taken to be forward toward liberalism, democracy, socialism and an accompanying amelioration of the human condition. Whig history is out of fashion, but there must be very few historians who do not in their own sensibilities evaluate events according to whether they participated in or impeded progress in that sense. Opinions seem to agree, moreover, about the reality of dynamic connections between the growth of science and progressive political and social development.

It will evoke the universality of the assent to this last proposition to call to mind the political and social significance of the signal philosophies of science since the seventeenth century, when modernity in science as in history first became clearly recognizable. One has to go right back to Hobbes to encounter a philosopher who, reasoning positively upon science, drew conclusions that have since been thought politically regressive. Even in the case of Hobbes, however, it would be difficult to call his view of the state and of sovereignty anything but prescient. Thereafter, philosophers have consistently taken science to be a body of knowledge relevant and important ideologically to the progressive side of political and social issues. The matter appears to particularly good advantage in the interplay between philosophy and politics throughout modern British history. At the time of the Whig Revolution John Locke made the case for empiricism in philosophy, for constitutionality in government, and for toleration in society. …