Themes[ edit ] The Discoverers as well as The Creators and The Seekers resonates with tales of individuals, their lives, beliefs and accomplishments. They form the building blocks of his tale and from them flow descriptions and commentary on historical events. In this respect he is like other historians David McCullough , Paul Johnson , Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter , to name a few who give prominence to the individual and the incremental approach to history. Thus, in the chapter "In Search of the Missing Link", he features Edward Tyson and his contributions in comparative anatomy. The role of religion and culture is another recurring theme. Boorstin, a reform Jew, has been described as a "secular, skeptical moderate Northeastern liberal of the New Deal rather than the New Left school.
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Shelves: world-history This theme based history of how the modern world came to be is so much more engaging than the typical geopolitical event based history. Rather than learning about battles, kings and politicians we learn how ideas pursued by innovators shaped our culture. Boorstin shows us how these creative thinkers were helped or more often held back by political, religious and cultural forces and in turn how their ideas changed these forces.
This wide ranging book begins with mans first discovery, time, and This theme based history of how the modern world came to be is so much more engaging than the typical geopolitical event based history. Boorstin takes us right up to the start of the twentieth century and along the way treats us to captivating vignettes of visionaries who radically altered our perceptions, many of whom I learned about for the first time or in a new way. The notes below touch on some of the topics I found most interesting.
Since the dawn of civilization, man has depended on his understanding of the seasons. Boorstin takes us from the first primitive calendars to the invention of the mechanical clock in the 14th century. Now people could live from hour to hour. This also led to the idea of a clockwork universe. With the 17th century invention of the pendulum clock we could live from minute to minute. The 18th century invention of the chronometer which kept accurate time on pitching and rolling ships meant longitude could be accurately calculated.
Now we knew where we were even in the middle of the ocean. The first steps on the path to our current hectic lives had been taken. With the Middle Ages came maps that relied on myths and bible references rather than ancient knowledge or actual experience.
Thus in Christian Europe exploration beyond known bounds was considered dangerous as some evil would be lurking. When their empire faded, the Turks and Arabs blocked the way. Thus Europe was shut out of Asian trade until the Portuguese in the fifteenth century found their way around Africa launching the age of discovery.
Grossly underestimating the distance to Asia, he was lucky America was there. After many voyages to the New World he never recognized it as such, still thinking he had found islands off the Asian coast. Amerigo Vespucci who explored most of the east coast of South America, did realize he had found a fourth continent and documented it.
He not only saw through the errors of current maps but noted the vast numbers of new species. He reasoned that Noah could not have gotten them all on the ark becoming a heretic. Just as with the discovery of new lands, the discovery of the macro and microscopic realms were inhibited by the doctrinaire Church, the widespread presumption of already knowing, and reliance on intuition.
Thus when the telescope and the microscope came along to expose new dimensions their revelations were challenged. Galen and Dioscorides developed new ideas about medicine in the first and second centuries but even into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries medical students simply took these ancient writings as bible rather than develop new ideas themselves.
Paracelsus in the early sixteenth century would lead in new ways of thinking about medicine, embracing chemistry and exploring new mineral and botanical remedies.
Later that century Santorio Santorio would use a new strategy, measurement. He crafted devices to measure pulse and temperature. He even weighed everything that went into and out of the body, initiating the study of metabolism.
In the early seventeenth century William Harvey overturning Galen correctly identified the functioning of the circulatory system. By the seventeenth century medicine was no longer bound by the notions of the ancients.
The seventeenth century was also the turning point in physics and mathematics. Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, was adulated for his discoveries rather than imprisoned like Galileo who died the year Newton was born.
Scientists were fighting each other as often as the Church, the intense conflict between Leibniz and Newton being a case in point. To avoid state and church censorship and establish authorship, the Royal Society under Henry Oldenburg began accepting letters documenting discoveries and publishing them in journals. He initiated peer review and the organized sharing of scientific information. In the eighteenth century biology stepped forward with the classification of plants and animals by Carl Linnaeus who created taxonomy and John Ray who was the first to scientifically define the term species.
Also that century the Comte de Buffon gave credibility to the idea that the earth was far older than 6, years. Meanwhile Edward Tyson founded comparative anatomy and showed that a man and chimpanzee had more in common than a chimpanzee and a monkey. Throughout the book Boorstin shows that the breakthroughs of eminent scientists like Darwin usually are the culmination of the contributions of many predecessors. From manuscripts numbering in the thousands before Gutenberg printed his bible, within 50 years there were ten million books in print.
Prior to Guttenberg, scholarly texts were written in Latin. Universities across Europe conducted classes in Latin. The general populace spoke local dialects. There were no national languages in Germany, France, England, Italy or anywhere else. The art of history was rediscovered in the Renaissance. For the first time since Herodotus the idea emerged that history should be built from independent facts not simply reported in terms of religious dogma.
Then in the 18th century came the concept of prehistory, that there was human life before the 6, years presented in the Bible. This discovery enabled a new idea, the idea of human progress. In the sixteenth century Francis Bacon formulated empiricism and the idea of scientific progress.
But it waited until the nineteenth century for the concept of cultural progress to be explored: Heinrich Schliemann and Johann Winckelmann established archeology; Christian Thomsen and Jens Jacob Worsaae created the concept of prehistoric time periods stone, iron, etc. All of the above may seem like too much to cover in one volume, but it is well done and thoroughly enjoyable.
We see the connections, each new idea leading to others often in different fields. We see how our modern conception of the world came to be. We see the vast scope of our knowledge base. We see how after being repressed for over a thousand years, there was a furious explosion of scientific discovery. We see how human society remained stuck in place through the illusion of knowledge and how recent is the image of the world we have today. If you find these topics appealing, this is the book.
Highly recommended for those interested in a comprehensive history Western discovery and innovation.
The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself