(cross-posted to Revise and Dissent)

The other day, I was chatting with a scientist about the history of science and related matters. When I told him I had taken a class on “Biology and Society”, focused on eugenics and genetics, he replied something to the effect of “that’s not really history of science, is it?” Actually, it was more of a statement than a question.

This scientist, quite eminent in his field, had a positive reaction to my current project (on the history of molecular evolution), but was rather cool on the field in general. He sees little of value, he confided, in “anthropological studies of science” (which I took to refer specifically to the work of Karin Knorr-Cetina, though I can’t be sure).

The main constituency of the history of science, aside from fellow historians of science, has traditionally been scientists and philosophers of science. The field has been growing for decades, but (in general, at least) moving away from the kinds of work that interest scientists or philosophers.

Case studies, rich in social significance but representing only a small slice of the scientific past, have become the norm. Even so, like most history today, the majority of it is only intelligible or interesting to other humanist scholars.

Though the field has grown rapidly since the mid-twentieth century, the scope of the scientific enterprise has grown much faster. A grad student can hardly write a seminar paper on post-WWII science without stumbling upon a handful of possible dissertation topics in virgin historical territory. Synthesis and grand narrative seem beyond reach, and moving further every day.

It’s enough to put one into a panic, if the state of historiography of any field were something to panic about. (Part of my own ham-fisted response was to try to piece together a comprehensive “History of Biology” article on Wikipedia.)

When I shared with the scientist my concern about the history of science accumulating faster than historians of science could handle, he said, “Give it time.” But if it’s not important, if it can wait, what’s the point in doing it at all?

My answer that question has a lot to do with why I contribute to Wikipedia.