World's Fair

Does Science Equal Progress?

Instead of me answering that, I wondered instead how other people have argued about the question. To be more specific, since I am interested in the role of scientific practice for defining the land, I wondered how people argued about whether or not science was better for agriculture. I wrote a book about it. It’s called Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside. I commented here a few months ago that the book was finally on its way. Although Amazon sales do not begin until October 20th (here is their link), the publisher has it officially listed for sale now at their site.

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Rather than paraphrase, I’ll offer an excerpt from the preface here:

Notes from the Ground is about how and why dirt became an object of scientific interest. It is, to that end, a story about defining the modern landscape with scientific means. The book examines the historical and cultural basis from which agriculture and science first came together in America, a story that begins in the later eighteenth century and becomes fully manifest by the mid-nineteenth. By looking to farmers, planters, politicians, publishers, natural philosophers, chemists, and other advocates and critics, this book examines the moral and material bases from which our agricultural (i.e., food-making) practices became directed through scientific principles. The study takes soil identity, soil fertility, and the cultural reasons to seek more systematic knowledge of both as the basis of its narrative. These issues of soil identity and fertility interest me not only in the perhaps Nixonian way of wondering what rural citizens knew and when they knew it, but also at the level of questions about credibility and authority: when advocates claimed to know something new about the soil, why did anyone else believe them? Taking the knowledge and credibility questions together, in its larger ambition Notes from the Ground is a study of how science became a culturally credible means for humans to interact with the environment.

And the answer to that question, “Is science progress?”?

Yes, you’ll have to read the book. But in brief, I can say that Americans began to equate the two once they built scientific practices that benefited their deeper goals of cultural progress. Put another way, science did not equal agricultural progress until scientific practices fit a dual improvement ethic that sought moral and material improvement together.


  1. #1 Michael Robinson
    September 28, 2009

    Looking forward to reading it! Will it be available at HSS? Your science/progress question is interesting. I know that exploration, science, and progress were linked for a while, until progress itself became un-cool in certain quarters at the end of the 19th century. I’m wondering if the same thing happened to soil science and agriculture. Do you see people rejecting scientific analysis of the soil as a way of getting back to the nostalgic days of yore?

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