Teaching the History of Science, Technology, and Innovation

Fall 2018

By Joe Bord

The History of Science and Technology is a subject usually reserved for advanced undergraduate or graduate programs, but it is a wonderful way to bridge the sciences and humanities and to engage young people in creative inquiry.1 A historical study of scientific and technological discovery gives real heft to abstract concepts like creativity and innovation. It is challenging and broadening for students to grapple with how people in the past might have had serious and (to them) convincing reasons to espouse theories not accepted by current scientists. The History of Science is an effective antidote to the passive reception of science, a bedeviling problem in standardized science teaching.2 It is also intrinsically fascinating! 

The question that arises is how to do it well for teenagers. Choice is important; at Seacrest Country Day School, the course is taught as an upper school elective, attracting a mix of 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders. Significance is important; the curriculum should encompass episodes that students can already see in some way as relevant to their experience. So if time is a constraint—and it always is—I would recommend teaching Darwin rather than Copernicus and telephony rather than steam locomotion. A series of case studies, rather than a straight chronological survey, works best here. Contexts are important. It is key to convey to students that the history of science and technology is not the same as the study of particular scientific disciplines or engineering and that the art, religion, sociology, law, and politics surrounding discoveries are instrumental. There is no need to be drawn into abstruse epistemological debates at this level; most students are able to understand that the question of how scientific ideas and technologies arise is distinct from the question of the truth or optimal construction of these things. I have found it fruitful to end the course with a topic examining the theory of innovation in economics (specifically Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction” and later ideas about disruption). Comparing and contrasting scientific with business creativity gives the subject purchase—no pun intended—and highlights the distinctiveness of the scientific method and more generally discussable concepts like that of a dominant paradigm and paradigm shift.3

Finally, direct, tangible engagement with the material is desirable. As with any historical study, a dry procession of isolated texts can kill vitality. Fortunately, the subject lends itself to the exploration of argument. 
We can illustrate this by looking at the origins of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. How was he able to conceive of his theory? This is a good substantive topic for engaging students: How did Darwin seek to win his argument? Two key ideas can be conveyed: Darwin put into new combination ideas familiar to him from other contexts (geology, political economy, domestication), and the natural theology he had to overcome was far more sophisticated and scientifically credible than biblical literalism. Darwin was effectively forced to be creative in marshaling his breadth of references by the need to make his argument believable to other naturalists.

Introducing natural theology first, I begin with a class walk outside, across a rock and a clock placed on the grass, to introduce William Paley’s famous argument for design:
But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given—that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? … For this reason, and for no other, viz, that, when we come to inspect the watch we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose … [Description of watch omitted] This mechanism being observed … the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker … who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.4

The thing to do is to have the group stumble upon the clock and the rock before giving them any Paley. Get the students to pick up these objects and handle them. What are these articles? Are you surprised to see them here? How are they different? Do they require different explanations? Why so? I have ruined a number of wall clocks in this way. But the conversation is worth it. Once the students have ruminated on complexity, function, and purpose, the clockwork view of the universe generally follows with its presiding technician. Sometimes the discussion is more respectful of the stone than Paley ever was, but this tends to expand the idea of design. Paley knew what he was about. I have never yet had a student contend that the clock could happen always to be sitting there just like the stone. The students need to feel the potential plausibility of Deism at this point: The clockmaker does not have to be immediately present for the clock to work.

Paley’s argument for design was confirmed for contemporary intellectuals, not so much by scripture as by the work of the most important naturalist of the early 19th century, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Cuvier argued for the harmony of anatomy in each organism, “all the parts of which mutually correspond and concur to produce a certain definite purpose by reciprocal re-action, or by combining towards the same end.”5 It was therefore implausible that organisms would ever change or transmute. As one of my students wrote in his essay on Cuvier:
Therefore, there could be no evolution … because if a new trait develops, then there is no way the animal could function. It is like if you had a perfectly balanced scale, and then you suddenly glued a hammer to one side.

Cuvier produced copious and vivid illustrations that are great to show to the class. He had a powerful research program based on something like anatomical forensics, deducing wider animal features from scarce remains:
[A] single foot-mark clearly indicates to the observer the forms of the teeth, of the jaws, of the vertebrae, of all the leg bones, thighs, shoulders, and of the trunk of the body of the animal that left the mark.6

The weakness of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s circumstantial evolutionism is exposed by contrast with Cuvier’s precise forensics. If the class studies Cuvier first, it becomes clear why Darwin wanted to distance himself from Lamarck’s theory, which had been on the losing side of contemporary debates.
If the class understands the outlines of Cuvier’s thought, it also helps them understand Charles Darwin’s attraction to the uniformitarian geology of Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Cuvier had the problem of explaining how such exquisitely attuned organisms could possibly vanish and produce fossils, and so he had an elaborate theory of successive geological catastrophes. Lyell’s theory of constant and gradual geological change rendered that doubtful, as well as providing the vast timescales over which evolution could operate.

Students should then follow the order of the argument in the Origin of Species (1859), which starts by focusing on domestication. What about the gradual changes in pigeon and dog breeds due to artificial human selection? Ask the students to research and present on their own choice of domesticated animals. Frequently they share with Darwin a love of dogs. Is this then so different from the variation seen in geographically separated locales, like the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin had visited during the voyage of the HMS Beagle (1831-1836)? What natural mechanism could account for a descent of organisms with modification? This is where the Malthusian core of the mechanism of natural selection and the struggle for existence comes in. When going over Malthus’s argument with its Darwinian relevance to differential reproduction, we need to proceed slowly and in small groups if possible. Otherwise, students will tend to relapse into a Lamarckian and upwardly progressive way of talking about evolution.
From Darwin, the course might coherently proceed to topics in the history of medicine, such as the introduction of the germ theory and more recent discoveries in the life sciences, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. Constraints of space preclude discussion of these examples, but I would be delighted to correspond with interested peers and colleagues on how this or related courses might be constructed. Keep the focus on scientific arguments with seriously competitive ideas rather than on a procession of scientific victories, and many students will be enthralled.


  1. See, for example, courses offered at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University (https://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/) or the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University (https://hshm.yale.edu/). For a short but eloquent exposition of the value of the history of scientific disciplines, see Alejandra Dubcovsky, “To Understand Science, Study History,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 24, 2014; online at https://www.chronicle.com/article/To-Understand-Science-Study/144947.
  2. Alexander Ossola, “Scientists Are More Creative Than You Might Imagine. But Original Thinking Could Be Declining Among Students Because of the Growing Emphasis on Test-Taking in Schools,” The Atlantic, November 12, 2014; online at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/11/the-creative-scientist/382633/.
  3. Perhaps Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory of paradigm shifts works better for understanding business and economics than it does for science itself. See Justin Fox, “Will Economics Finally Get Its Paradigm Shift?” Harvard Business Review, April 28, 2014; online at https://hbr.org/2014/04/will-economics-finally-get-its-paradigm-shift.  Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th edition, Introductory essay by Ian Hacking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
  4. William Paley (1743-1805), Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected From the Appearances of Nature (London: J. Faulder, 1802), Chapter One.
  5. Georges Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth [1813], ed. D. Knight (repr. London: Routledge, 2003).
  6. Ibid.
Joe Bord

Joe Bord (jbord@seacrest.org) teaches a variety of World and United States History courses at Seacrest Country Day School in Naples, Florida. He previously taught history at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City and at Durham Academy and the Oakwood School in North Carolina.