System Builders

Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century

by Clarence J. Glacken
California, 763 pp., $15.00

The Royal Society: Concept and Creation

by Margery Purver
M.I.T., 246 pp., $7.00

Science in Utopia: A Mighty Design

by Nell Eurich
Harvard, 332 pp., $8.50

The first of these books traces the history of the answers given to three questions, namely:

Is the earth, which is obviously a fit environment for man and other organic life, a purposefully made creation? Have its climates, its relief, the configuration of its continents influenced the moral and social nature of individuals, and have they had an influence on moulding the character and nature of human culture? In his long tenure of the earth in what manner has man changed it from its hypothetical pristine condition?

An immense amount of solid, firsthand work has gone into this book; it is full of extremely interesting material; apart from a few lapses, it is clearly and intelligently written; and on the whole, unlike some historians of scientific ideas, the author is not contemptuous of now obsolete theories. On the other hand, long stretches of it are very tedious to read, and the whole book gives an impression of shapelessness. Not only is it a very big book, but it is much bigger than it need be. There are, I think, several reasons for these defects of form.

First, there is a lack of selection; this inevitably leads to repetitiousness when one is recounting the history of a fairly rigid tradition of theory, such as, for example, the argument from design for the existence of God. Moreover, what selection there is sometimes seems arbitrary; we have, for instance, several pages of excerpts from Greek and Roman literature (some in ghastly translations) to show the ancients’ awareness of the beauties of Nature (a theme which is anyway barely relevant to the above three questions), but nothing whatever from the early Romantics. Or again, modern writers on medieval thought are frequently quoted verbatim, whereas the sections on Hume, Kant, and Herder are so condensed as to be almost unintelligible.

Secondly, there is a lack of focus, both in the range of the ideas dealt with, and in the period covered. With regard to the former, any one of the above questions would have given quite wide enough scope. With regard to the latter, I feel sure we would have had a more tightly organized, and a much shorter, book if the author had concentrated on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and traced ideas backward in time, as and when necessary. It was in this period that long-lived, standardized theories about environment and design began to break down and be replaced by new, revolutionary ideas. Moreover, the author evidently knows this period more intimately than the huge stretch of preceding time; because of this, the second half of the book is of much higher quality than the first, and here some of the sections, on Montesquieu, Buffon, and Malthus, for example, are excellent. It would perhaps have been even better if, as he had originally intended, the author had focused his book on a somewhat later period, so that Darwin could have been included. The Darwinian revolution was quite as radical for the biological sciences …

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