What is the relationship between History and Natural Sciences?

As the natural sciences began to develop new visions were opened up for a science like history to make use of the new knowledge and improve the work of reconstruction of the past. In the 17th and the 18th centuries studies in different disciplines came under the overriding influence of these sciences. The Scientific Method which used observation, experiment and ascertainment of facts for formulating universal laws appeared to be the only way to acquire knowledge.

In the nineteenth century the influence of Scientific Method was universal. Historians wanted to present their narratives so as to fall in line with the scientific approach to the past events. Two schools of thought in History namely Empiricist and Positivist sciences but could not make much progress in historical thinking. History deals with things that existed in the past and which have disappeared from the view. Natural Sciences demand sensuous knowledge that is perception of the objects by sight, sound, touch etc. Science can carry on experiments and repeat them anywhere and at any time. Historians cannot revive the dead men nor can they reproduce the battles, wars and revolutions of the past age. However Natural Sciences can render great help in proving whether a solid object which is relic of the past is a real one or a fake one. Natural Sciences can throw much light on the physical conditions of the place of the event and the changes in the course of time.

The influence of Natural Sciences stimulated research in historical process. When the researchers found that the nature of historical events was different from mere study of natural phenomenon, they began to develop their own methods as they had to depend more on things which disappeared now but existed once upon a time. Those things continued to exist in the minds of men but the concrete forms perished now. Natural sciences could hardly help historians to reconstruct the things that perished long but once existed in their own way. For example, the Rig Vedic fire- pit (Yajnga-Kunda) perished but its image persisted in the minds of men who know the description in the Vedas. Such images and experiences could be reconstructed with the help of Ancilliary Sciences. We shall see how natural sciences strengthened the base of historical research especially while dealing with him the remote past as well as the recent past.

1. Biology

Among the natural sciences Biology is intimately connected with human life. Both the branches of this science, namely Botany and Zoology have helped historians to understand the flora and fauna of a place about which we choose to know as a determinate period. The vegetation, the animals different living species including homo sapiens and the climate could be known by the special techniques devised by biologists. In the 19th century excavations revealed many unknown things. Biologists like Lamarck could reconstruct the extinct animals from the remains of the then existing animals. He boasted “give me a small bone of an animal or a bird and I shall reconstruct them in their full original forms.” Similarly, botanists could tell us many interesting things about the plants. In Rig Veda there is a frequent reference to ‘Soma Valli”, the botanist could locate it in the mountainous regions of the north.

A knowledge of biology will be very useful to history, because evolution is the common principle of both, and because evolutionary ideas have been the result of the impact of history on science. Long before Darwin enunciated the theory of evolution in ‘The Origin of Species’, historians had traced it in the history of ideas and institutions. Evolution in science was confirmed by the idea of progress in history. The historical or comparative method known as Historicism has revolutionised not only the sciences of law, mythology, language, sociology and anthropology, but has forced its way even into the domain of philosophy and the natural scien- ces. Will Durant rightly says, “animals eat one another without qualm, civilized men consume one another by due process of law.” Biology tells us about the struggle of man in which the fittest survive. There are hereditary inequalities which are biological and these create and sustain social inequalities. The Malthusian theory of biological multiplication has a powerful impact on the life and conditions of man, if our race is to survive. The warning refers to man’s struggle against nature.

2. Agro-Biology

This Science of plants, nutrition and soil has helped reconstruct the state of agriculture in the periods under study. In this regard the grains found in the Mehenjo-Daro and Harappa excavations are very interesting. The relics at Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh also suggest thick forest in the region now comparatively an arid land.

3. Medical Science

Medical science is helpful in determining the nature and possibly the age of skeletal remains. Medical Science has contributed significantly to historical knowledge about kings and great men in the Medieval Age. The most sensational revelation about Napoleon Bonapate’s death of St. Helena. The medical science found from Napoleon’s hair retained the effect of some poison administered by his British captors. Medical Science could also identify the diseases of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Peshva Madhavrao- I from symptoms described in the documents. The Medical Scientists can also identity the diseases and epidemics which had played havoc with lives of people. The people who believed in superstition had regarded them as scourge of God.

4. Alchemy-Chemistry

The preservation of the Egyptian mummies aroused the interest of the Chemical scientists. It was a wonder for common man and also historians how the bodies of the rulers of Ancient Egypt (pharohs) lasted in good condition. Also, the mystery of the holy relics of St. Xavier’s gave the scientist an opportunity to explain the treatment. This added to historical knowledge. The Alchemy which was associated with black magic got higher degree of success which turned the study into a respectable science of Chemistry by European scientists. Wohler the German Scientist started a new era in Organic Chemistry and Louis Pasteur the French Scientist exploded the myth of spontaneous generation. His more famous and commonly known work was on wine, vinegar and beer preservation which led to the process known as ‘Pasteurization’. The 20th Century Chemistry-Scientist James Dewey Watson established that the structure and function of nucleic acid (DVD) is the key substance in the transmission of hereditary characteristics. The study of man and his activities which is the main object of study of history has a new means of understanding the contemporary public leaders and their genealogy.

5. Advanced Technology

The computation, storage and utilization of data can be efficiently managed with the help of advanced technology of the present century. The carbon-14 method has solved the greatest impediment of dating the remains of the past age whether they are of human being, of animals or any solid substance like nocks etc.

Similarly, satellite pictures of inaccessible territories, now invisible course of rivers or changes in their courses as in the case of now invisible “Saraswati’ over in the Punjab-Rajasthan- Gujarat region provide better understanding of the oral history. Computer, video-films and other devices have revolutionized historical knowledge about the long past as well as the present.

6. Ethnology

History owes something to Ethnology which is the study of race and its characteristics. Race is a biological reality, and in recent years the Nazi party had made much of it by advocating that the Nordic race is the most superior race and that it was destined to dominate the world. This resulted in historical events of a catastrophic nature. Gobineau was the philosopher of Aryan racial superiority. The Varna system in India, apartheid in South Africa, Nazi persecution of the Jews, colour distinctions in America are all historical realities based on ethnic differences. The real issues cannot be understood without a deep study of these fundamental issues of ethnology.

7. Intellectual History:

The relation between creative ideas and their impact on society has resulted in Intellectual History which has become very popular in recent years. Intellectual history is a field of great sophistication dealing with fundamental ideas and ideology which ultimately shape human history. It seeks to review the transformation of ideas, beliefs and opinions held by intellectual classes from primitive times to our own. Dr. Johnson has said that no part of history was as useful as this, which is related to the progress of the human mind. The gradual improvement of reason, the successive advances of science, of arts, of philosophy and learning are all very instructive and interesting.

E. H. Barnes has written An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World, and it comes under the history of ideas. So also works on history of political thought, history of economic thought, and history of science come under this category. Schiller has said that ‘the genuine history of mankind is its history of ideas’. Colling Wood thinks that history is the expression of human ideas. Intellectual history concerns itself with the examination of what men say, what they think, and what goes on in their mind. The intellectual historian attempts to judge the nature of the effects of an idea or a cluster of ideas on human events. He is confronted with the old problem of value-judgments, where he has to discern the common and unique elements in ideas and attitudes.

Intellectual history is not merely a summary or synthesis of such material as pertains to philosophy, literature, religion, science and arts, but it is ‘the cartography of ideas’ whereby an attempt is made to trace and understand the impact of those ideas on a given society. At its narrowest intellectual history tells us who produced what intellectual or cultural attainments, where, when and how.

At its broadest it comes close to a compendium of man’s knowledge about culture. Intellectual history seeks to explain the relation among creative ideas and the effect they bring to bear upon non- intellectual factors. The intellectual historian is bound to be a thinker rather than a story-teller. In the United States intellectual history has become very popular acting as a bridge between the historian and the practitioner of social science. In England, France and Germany which have produced Buckle, Toynbee, Comte, Hegel, Marx and Spengler, intellectual history has attained a high degree of proficiency, and these historians are called meta-historians.

Intellectual history requires philosophy, and it is very surprising that India, the home of philosophy, has not yet produced a meta-historian. If history is the cause of a nation’s persistent identity, which links the past, the present and the future in one integrated whole, it could do so only through the chain of ideas, and hence one ought to pay more attention to them. It is rightly said that through the proper study of intellectual history we can join the wisdom of Solomon to the counsel of Socrates.

Historical studies in the direction of what Will Durant has done in ‘The Story of Civilisation’ or Buckle in ‘History of Civilisation’ or H. G. Wells in’ Outline of World History’ or the UNESCO in their survey of human culture would surely take stock of intellectual history.

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