World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Scott L. Montgomery and Alok Kumar, A History of Science in World Cultures.  New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp. xiii +349. Index. $49.95 (paper).


     Depending on whether one is a conventional academic historian of science or a world historian, the glass may seem either half empty or half full to readers of A History of Science in World Cultures. The two authors of this book, a geologist and a physicist, seem themselves to address the world of conventional history of science, and to give the authors their due in pushing back against that history of science tradition, perhaps it is better to review the fullness of the glass first.

     The authors Scott Montgomery and Alok Kumar are quite explicit in their desire to challenge and reformulate that old-fashioned history of science that so often begins with the Greeks, passes briefly to the Arabs as preservers of what scientific "light" there was, and then returns quickly to describe an emergence of modernity and true scientific thought centered in Europe starting with the Renaissance. This book tackles that Western Civilization narrative on two important accounts. First, the book aims to show on a chapter-by-chapter basis the scientific and mathematical thought and achievements of many civilizations across the globe, from the more usual suspects of ancient Egypt and Greece to the less discussed areas of Mesopotamia, India, China, the Islamic world and the ancient civilizations of the so-called New World. For almost 300 pages, Montgomery and Kumar lay out in convincing detail sophisticated theories, advances, technologies, and discoveries originating in elaborate, coherent, and innovative scientific systems across the entire globe.

     As the authors say, although scholars and specialists largely acknowledge that science has always been a global phenomenon students in both the humanities and sciences continue to be taught a version of the history of science which limits the existence of science to Europe. The textbook style of this book emerges from its presumed mission to make the multi-civilizational invention of science available to the history of science courses that they lament still peddle the myth of European scientific exceptionalism.

     Inherent in this project of re-writing the history of science as a global history is a challenge to the idea that science is found only in modernity. As their second major challenge to conventional histories of science, Montgomery and Kumar tackle this modernizationist prejudice straight on. Given that this prejudice is even more firmly rooted in conventional histories of science than Eurocentrism is, this is no small gesture. With a deep, assumed respect for each civilization they approach, the authors point out that agriculture, road systems, architecture, tools and more are most accurately seen as physical manifestations of scientific research, thinking, and knowledge. Without drawing false equivalencies between or among historically specific worldviews, they explicitly reject the idea that most of human history has been bereft of "real scientific thought". Scientific work and thought have never, they write, "been confined to one time period or one culture or one part of the globe. On the contrary, scientific traditions evolved in all of the world's major civilizations from a very early period—indeed advanced civilizations were based on such traditions from the very beginning" (3).

     The material evidence of excavated technologies and products provide ways for Montgomery and Kumar to see and describe the scientific successes of ancient civilizations, and happily, they eagerly draw on archaeology as well as documents for their sources. For instance, they look at the chemical composition of paint or the appearance of food crops to extrapolate the scientific research and understanding involved in the development and production of those paints or crops. Drawing on a catholic understanding of scientific culture, they also mine poems and songs as potentially scientific texts. A generosity of interpretation which allows parsing the Vedas as astronomical texts or Tang paintings as representing acumen in natural history is a breath of fresh air in evaporating in a more Western chauvinist worldview.

     In making the case for a vastly more inclusive civilizational history of science, Montgomery's and Kumar write that "humanity has never lived without some measure of tested understanding about the natural world that we would recognize as having aspects of science." Their book is a heartfelt and convincing assertion, bolstered with proof that "science has been there all along, from the beginning, homo sapiens and homo scientia defining a single series" (8).

     The glass represented by this book is also half empty, however. From the point of view of world historians or anthropologists, there are serious failings. First is the choice of locations researched, which obviously cannot be comprehensive, yet nevertheless display problematic patterns. Regions, or civilizations, as they are termed here, that receive their own chapters are scattered across the Eastern Hemisphere or so-called Old World, and yet omit all of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. W.E.B. DuBois' efforts to convince historians that until Africa was included in the history of the world, that history would be fallacious apparently have not borne fruit in the history of science. Similarly, despite the consistent understanding of agriculture as evidence, in and of itself, of a successful science, there is no mention at all of New Guinea, where agriculture was independently developed in the same time frame as it emerged in China and the Middle East. Coming in for slightly more but still unduly small coverage are the Americas. While Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, for instance, each have their own chapters, both continents of North and South America are lumped together into one single chapter which lists itself as presenting four civilizations across a 3,000 year long span.

     In other words, by focusing on those civilizations which we most commonly in Europe and the U.S. think of as "advanced civilizations", the authors unfortunately reproduce a colonial worldview; Africa and Australia/Pacific Islands and the Americas in general but particularly North America north of the Rio Grande have no claim on "civilization" and hence no real claim to be part of the history of science. In fact, the authors write, "The history of science is the history of civilization" (330). Those societies without strong central states and cemented hierarchies that nevertheless did produce science hence become invisible. We might consider as counter-evidence for the preoccupation with civilizations, for instance, not only New Guinea's invention of agriculture but the astronomy and navigation of Pacific island inhabitants, or the forging of steel in 1400 B.C.E. in East Africa. The expansion by Montgomery and Kumar of the category of scientific cultures to include India and China and the Arab world is good, but not yet nearly what we need.

     A final historian's complaint is that this history of science is…not a history, at least as historians use that term. Each chapter opens with a little background on what has been designated as a civilization, and then goes on to describe the scientific thinking of that society through vast numbers of facts and details. There is no examination of how those sciences came to be, why they consist of what they do consist of, how they functioned in society, or how they changed over time. Sandra Harding, for instance, in Is Science Multicultural?, has ventured an understanding for the shape of science in the last centuries based on its deep roots in colonialism. Clifford Conner, in A People's History of Science, has at least attempted a social history of science from below. John Hobson, in The Eastern Roots of Western Civilization, has proposed that changes in science have been initiated by patterns of world trade.1 Whether you find all, some, or none of these historical explanations convincing, they are at least explanations. On the other hand this book, however encyclopedic, lacks both a historical dynamic and an explanation for that dynamic.

     Perhaps as another reflection of the unfamiliarity these authors have with historians, this book is set up almost as a very old-fashioned textbook, though without the glossy photos and maps. (Would that they had read Sam Wineburg's piece on reading historical texts, in which the academic historians he surveyed gave textbooks the lowest rating in historical reliability.) And like a textbook, there is not a citation in sight in this volume, much to a historian's frustration. On page 202, the authors assert that the Chinese invented movable type in clay and the Koreans then used movable type in metal, both before Gutenberg's use of moveable type in Europe. Wouldn't it be nice to have a source for that information? But we get no citation, not even a bibliography at the end of the book, but just a select list of suggested further reading at the close of each chapter. Whether the lack of sources was the authors' choice or the publishers', it is an unfortunate omission that greatly limits the book's usefulness.

     As a source in itself, if you trust the authors and don't want or need further evidence, this book is a generous depiction of science as abundant in societies we categorize as advanced. It could provide great material for preparing lectures for introductory level history courses. As a deeper re-thinking of who has created and practiced science in human history, this book falls short. And as a history itself, i.e., a book with an argument and an understanding of explanation and change, this book fails. It is, in other words, a glass partly full.

Eva-Maria Swidler is on the undergraduate faculty at Goddard College, where she works with students in the fields of world history, sustainability, and social medicine. She can be reached at



1 Sandra Harding, Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998); Clifford Conner, A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives and "Low Mechanicks" (New York: Nation Books, 2005); John Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use