Friday, March 2, 2012

In Our Time Moment: History as Science


One of my all-time favorite podcasts is In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg from BBC Radio 4. This series is an exploration of the History of Ideas and has been running since 1998. Last summer the BBC made every episode available to download. 

History as Science, aired in 1999,  features a discussion between Bragg, Jared Diamond and Richard Evans about Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

I purchased this book in 1998, but did not read until several years ago when I read it for a department workshop. I really enjoyed the book, as did most of the rest of faculty, and found the overall thesis interesting. The scope of the book is vast, about 8,000 years, and tries to explain why Europeans conquered the Americas and not the other way round.  Diamond’s answer is rooted in geography, people who are more connected to each other can exchange ideas better. Ultimately connections were easier in Eurasia than the Americas. It would have been a great discussion but for three of the instructors in the department (all non-Western, post-1500) absolutely hated it, said they’d never assign it to their students, and generally didn’t have one good thing to say about it. Seriously. I almost walked out.

What these three historians did, in a similar way that Richard Evans does, is to pick on the one thing they knew about and then criticize that particular aspect of the work. Of course this is qualified by words along the lines of “well, he might be right about those parts of history or places that I don’t know about.”  I think Evans was more sympathetic to Diamond’s work than my former colleagues, but his comments and tone made me think of the long ago workshop and it set my teeth on edge.

Diamond is a professor of Geography and Evans a professor of Modern History, so they approach the study of the past differently.  Some academics are much more willing to work in and with other disciplines. Diamond seems to be one of these academics, while Evans (based solely on this interview) does not.  With degrees in history and art history I definitely fall into the interdisciplinary camp.

One aspect of the interview I did find interesting is that comparison of history to science, particularly like geology. I mentioned in an earlier post that John Lewis Gaddis had made this same observation: History is like a Science where experiments can not be repeated. 

Find this episode at the IOT History archive here or search iTunes.

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