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Bernal, 50 years after

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

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SOMETIME in the mid-1960s, a special meeting of the Soviet Academy of Science had been convened, with the sole agenda to discuss a book: Science in History. John Desmond Bernal, the author - a biologist, a physicist, historian, a political agitator and a peace activist - was to present his work. When Bernal first made such an attempt it was to be a set of lectures to be delivered in 1948 at the Ruskin College, Oxford and the manuscript was to be written up in three weeks. Little did he realise then that it would take 12 more years and about five lakh words to complete the work.

Science in History is a landmark in the history of scholarship and analytical studies. His earlier work, The Social Function of Science, which appeared in the late 1930s, was a pioneering work and a sensation. It reflected a sense of urgency in the era of economic depression in the West, the rapid progress in experiments with socialism in the Soviet Union, the rise of fascism and the imminent threat of the Second World War. Science in History gives mankind a message: look into the tradition of science and the dynamics of its evolution with a much deeper perspective so that man can make history consciously. In this, the science of society gives man a vision of new social outlook where life will be a pleasure and man will live on earth for the pleasure of living, while the science of nature will give man the means to realise that dream.

Interestingly, Bernal does not define science in any of his work. That was a criticism of his The Social Function of Science. Bernal replies in the Science in History that such an attempt would be futile and empty. He cites Einstein's opinion on the subject and states that science's interactions with social phenomena being so vast and everchanging it is worthwhile to state what science embodies in itself rather than to tell what it is. He extensively uses D.D. Kosambi's approach: "Science is the cognition of necessity." In this book, he traces not a history of science but the role that science has played in history. Science, in this approach, acts as an institution, as a methodology, as a tradition of cumulative knowledge, as a source of ideas, as an agency, in constant interplay with society. This analysis has been a great inspiration not only to individuals but also to mass movements, like the People's Science Movement, in India. To a reader and an activist, the book remains an important source on the one hand and an analytical guide on the other, which is not dated in terms of ideas in the 50 years after it appeared and perhaps assumes an enhanced importance in the unipolar world that we live in.

WHERE did early sciences emerge from? This has to do with man's own natural faculties, that is, eye and hand coordination, which occupies almost half of the brain's capacity. This gives man the ability to change his own surroundings by exploiting nature. It is this way that early implements and early arts (for instance, cave drawings with charcoal) arose. The other important phenomenon was the emergence and development of languages. All animals are known to use their voices to express their primitive urges like sex, anger and fear but human language transcended these above by being able to express thoughts. This also has to be accompanied by development of a community and the community's acceptance that certain definite sounds express certain definite thoughts. This process matured by about 10,000 B.C. Early medicine and surgery appeared in this era.

With the discovery of agriculture (c.8000-7000 B.C.), the primitive food gathering phase of history was surpassed. Surplus could be created by employing human labour, but the ownership of the surplus vested not in the one who created it but in a propertied class. The science of the ancient Greeks is to be examined in this social context. A question may arise: what is the importance of Greek science? It lies in the fact that the tradition of scientific knowledge as is known today really originates with the Greeks, who collected them from every source, friend or foe, often not acknowledging them. Every element of modern science begins with the Greeks, whether atomism, the structure of heavens, of human body, and so on. Much of it would be proved wrong after the European Renaissance, 1,400 years later, but the fact remains that the Greeks were the first theoreticians. The military expansions that took place in the 6th century B.C. gave way to city states. Greek science owes itself to the flourishing of an early Iron Age civilisation (which follows the Bronze Age, that lasted form 2500 B.C. to the age of Christ). It worked under a social classification of city states, where democracy meant rights to free men and their denial to slaves. Exploitation of slave labour gave the material basis for the wealth appropriated by the aristocracy. This era saw great advance in mining, metal working, ship building , architecture and the use of water mill. Great scientists such as Democritus, Hipparcus, Hippocrates and Archimedes belong to this era.

From the propertied class rose the `philosopher', that is, one who dealt with wisdom. It was in the interest of the aristocracy that primacy was given to thought than to its links with physical labour. Attention shifted from the material world to the dyadic world of divine thought. That marked the decline of Greek science. It was also accompanied by civil strifes.

The emerging philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle really saw the writing on the wall that such a society ought to change. But this social change was exactly what they were afraid of. Their philosophy was advanced, primarily to stall this change by building concepts of immutability of the world - material, social and spiritual. Indeed, interpreters of the world could not stop the world from changing.

Great advances had taken place in other societies too, for example, in China, India, and so on. But the importance of Greek science was in seeing knowledge in its diversity as also in its unification. This is the basis of dialectics but it could not advance because Greek knowledge ended up searching for immutability. A major contribution of the Greeks lay in the advances in mathematics, particularly geometry. The final collapse of Greek science occurred with the Roman Empire (100 B.C.-A.D. 500), which by its immense brutalisation of the slave society robbed it of its creativity. If the fruits of Greek scholarships are not lost, the credit must go the Islamic scholars, who blended it with those from India and China. Still, their limitation lay in the fact that Islamic scholarship enriched Greek science but never revolutionised it, except in chemistry where one witnessed a rich repertoire of innovations, such as in distillation, used for the preparation of perfumes.

The immutability of the world order that Aristotle preached and the maintenance of the feudal order took away from science its vitality. Galileo's (1564-1642) rejection of the Church's teachings and emphasis on experiments (that is a direct probe of the natural world) shook the basic canons of Platonic philosophy. His observations of the heavens gave a fresh impetus to break new barriers. This was also the aim of the new class of wealthy merchants, who wanted to break open the shackles that were put on their there trade by the feudal lords, kings and, above all, by the church. The final triumph of these forces also opened the floodgates of new innovations, where the practitioner who worked with hands mingled with the theoretician and scientific text began to be written in the language of the common man and thus gave knowledge a greater dispersal. Society too was transformed. There appeared such technical innovations as cheap manufactures of paper, the printing press, new methods of mining, metallurgy and chemistry. The colonies provided the cheap raw material for the new economy. Agriculture was transformed by the introduction of new biological variety, that is, potato, which helped in mass food production. On the theoretical front Newton's (1642-1727) discovery of calculus (simultaneously with Leibniz) and the laws of mechanics brought to completion the Copernican revolution. The mechanics of objects, heavenly or earthly, were thus made comprehensible by the same laws. The barrier that remained was that machines still were to be powered by human or animal power. In the philosophical plane, a revolution had taken place with an emergence of what is called today the rational outlook.

The question that may be asked is: why did not the industrial revolution follow immediately after Newton, for the science of machines had already matured? That machines were still animal powered was a well-known barrier. Bernal identifies an important social cause. The workmen, with their small, borrowed capital were now able to direct a production that was not subservient to the merchants' demands. They tried to innovate. The James Watt-Boulton cooperation is an evidence of that, which finally brought in the steam engine. The steam power, first used in the textile industry, joined the two strands of light and heavy industry that created industrial complexes, which were to be replicated elsewhere. This is the trend of industrialisation even today. Internal to science emerged a living link between the scientist and the artisan and then emerged a new profession called engineering.

The opportunities that this revolution gave could now no longer be held back by the archaic feudal social order. The French revolution was the most violent manifestation of the change, which destroyed all the vestiges of the old order. But the Industrial Revolution set forth great upsurge in scientific interests and brought political patronage to science; in Napoleonic France and in 19th century America, where the statesman and diplomat Benjamin Franklin was an outstanding scientist himself. Industry-university research links were established to be complemented later by in-house Research and Development. Learned societies were established. The industrial revolution that first came in England was replicated in France, Germany and in Japan. Nineteenth century science remained the hallmark of chemical advance. Unnoticed by many, electricity, steam engine's challenger, appeared as a mature science, by the 19th century. It displaced steam power in the next hundred years.

ACCORDING to Bernal, 20th century was the era in which 90 per cent of the science has really occurred. There has been a proliferation in the number of scientific workers, a rapid deployment of theoretical concepts as viable industrial products, though experimental science has still lagged behind theory. To him, this is the era of electrical sciences for no branch of science has diverged as much as this one. The twentieth century is the century of scientific revolution. Unlike the late 18th century industrial revolution, in which changes took place in production process, the revolution in the 20th century was not triggered by any crisis in industry or in the social realm, but by a crisis in the realm of thought and understanding of nature. This revolution has given man a vision into the macro-world as also the micro-world. The transformation in technology allows many large-scale experiments - enhancing food production by the use of microbes on the one hand and with largescale experiments in ecology - on the other.

The crisis occurred in the area of physics. The discovery of the X-ray (1895), constancy of the speed of light irrespective of speed of the observer (1880), discovery of the electron (1897) and of radioactivity (1898), all pointed to a deep crisis in Newtonian thought and a mere extension of Newtonian ideas did not help. Physics had to be overhauled and this process took several years to complete. It saw the discovery of Einstein's Theory of Relativity and of quantum mechanism. They did not disprove Newton but established the limits of the validity of Newtonian ideas.

The revolution became all encompassing. That the crisis in physics would need a revolution for its resolution, was indeed understandable. The unique feature of this scientific revolution is that crises in physics led to crises in other disciplines. The first to feel this was chemistry. Chemists had to wait for the revolution in physics to complete, in order that they had a consistent theory of valency based on the new discoveries of the atomic structure. This breakthough in chemistry was beneficial to the physicists too, for it helped them obtain very tractable understanding of solids, particularly of the electrical properties of metals, insulators and semiconductors. This would prove to be of momentous consequence as it paved the way for the invention of the transistor (1947) and the electronic revolution that followed.

The most surprising was the revolution in biology. Biology in the early 20th century still followed the Darwinian legacy but new ideas were in the air, particularly on the question of Mendelian genetics. There was, however, no sign of crisis. The new direction in biology came form a different course. It was on the basis of Oparin's idea of a chemical origin of life that biologists like Bernal, already trained in the Marxian methods of dialectical materialism, asked the question "how the structure determines the function", - an issue to be resolved both in society as also in the structure of matter. Using several probes from physics and chemistry, modern biology charted a new course that sought the answers in the structures of biologically important molecules, the culmination being the landmark discovery of the DNA structure in 1953. This was a landmark, in every sense.

Bernal did not live to see the political consequence of these development as also that of the patentability of new biological forms and also of the Information Technology revolution. A modern researcher must fill these gaps. The role that these areas have played in the advance of imperialist globalisation must be examined for the protection of the scientific profession too, since the underlying secrecy, under the euphemism of intellectual property, militates against the progress of science. Bernal's warning that a scientist's role as a democratic citizen and duty to build fronts with all other working people to defend against the threat of war, exploitation of the natural and human resources for the benefit of international capital can hardly be overestimated in the present unipolar world.

Bernal has based his analysis on Marxist principles and thus dreams of a communist society in which a life with plenty of food, leisure and opportunities for creative work will be realised not by millionaires alone but by all citizens and no one will be driven from the paradise on earth for the crime of tasting the fruit of knowledge. Inevitably, a quarter of the book deals with social science and shows how science, unbound from the profit motive of capitalism, can allow both science and social progress to develop. Bernal in this analysis did not rest on a utopia but analysed in detail the progress that the Soviet Union achieved in advancing both science as also the conditions of its citizens. The establishment of the People's Republic of China only enhanced his hopes. But Bernal was also conscious that the future of science in these societies depended as much on their internal stability as also in their ability to ward off external threats of war, including nuclear war and cessation of bickering in the socialist camp.

As regards the future of science, Bernal says: "Science will not fail for lack of human capacity, where it fails will be for lack of social organ to make use of that capacity." Under capitalism, it is an unrealisable dream where science has ceased to be a romantic individual enterprise and is linked to industry. The scientist is in a true sense, a `scientific worker'. In his mind, international cooperation within the scientific community, the developing world being an equal partner, would be a major plank for achieving this change. The philosophy of science, neglected in the capitalist world, would be used to give man a new vision for the furture. And with the discovery of the science of society, the true history of humankind really begins.

S. Chatterjee is a scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 28, 2005.)

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