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The surprising history of the scientific method – from an evolutionary account of thinking to a simple set of steps – and the rise of psychology in the nineteenth century.
The idea of a single scientific method, shared across specialties and teachable to ten-year-olds, is just over a hundred years old. For centuries prior, science had meant a kind of knowledge, made from facts gathered through direct observation or deduced from first principles. But during the nineteenth century, science came to mean something else: a way of thinking.
The Scientific Method tells the story of how this approach took hold in laboratories, the field, and eventually classrooms, where science was once taught as a natural process. Henry M. Cowles reveals the intertwined histories of evolution and experiment, from Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection to John Dewey's vision for science education. Darwin portrayed nature as akin to a man of science, experimenting through evolution, while his followers turned his theory onto the mind itself. Psychologists reimagined the scientific method as a problem-solving adaptation, a basic feature of cognition that had helped humans prosper. This was how Dewey and other educators taught science at the turn of the twentieth century – but their organic account was not to last. Soon, the scientific method was reimagined as a means of controlling nature, not a product of it. By shedding its roots in evolutionary theory, the scientific method came to seem far less natural, but far more powerful.
The Scientific Method reveals the origin of a fundamental modern concept. Once seen as a natural adaptation, the method soon became a symbol of science's power over nature, a power that, until recently, has rarely been called into question.
1. Age of Methods
2. Hypothesis Unbound
3. Nature’s Method
4. Mental Evolution
5. A Living Science
6. Animal Intelligence
7. Laboratory School
8. A Method Only
Henry M. Cowles is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan. A scholar of the history of science and medicine, he has written on evolutionary theory, animal psychology, and efforts to combat extinction. His research explores how the human sciences shape our perceptions of agency, possibility, and progress.
"Cowles's probing work delivers fresh insight into a less frequently visited part of intellectual history."
– Publishers Weekly
"With dazzling brilliance and rare verve, Henry Cowles has accomplished what historians dream of – seizing upon an important fixture in our lives that we often take for granted, and making its story come alive. What is science? Anyone with even a passing interest in that question will have to read this book."
– Jonathan Levy, author of Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America
"Cowles brings to life a lush and unexpected intellectual history of the concept of the scientific method. This fine book will be of great significance to both historians and practicing scientists interested in the advances and limitations of contemporary science."
– Richard Prum, author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
"The Scientific Method tells the exciting story of how nineteenth-century psychologists and anthropologists were crucial in establishing how to think about science. Unexpected, provocative, and far-reaching, this book positions the human sciences at the center of rational thought."
– Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: A Biography
"Henry Cowles has produced an extremely rich history of the idea of 'the scientific method'. He recounts its eventful life from the crucial period when modern science took shape, tracing the influences of many diverse intellectual trends such as Darwinism and pragmatism. This is a unique and exemplary blend of philosophical and historical scholarship, with pertinent lessons for the troubled relationship between science and politics today."
– Hasok Chang, author of Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress