Where is Science in Culture?

11 Sep

The discussion of science’s place in culture dates back to the late 1820’s. According to Richard Holmes[1], under the theme of the decline of science in Britain, there were a series of publications by John Herschel (1792 – 1871), Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) and David Brewster (1781 – 1868). In particular, in Brewster’s “Life of Sir Isaac Newton” in 1831, “Brewster emphasised the cultural importance of science in society”.[2]

It is one thing to say that science is part of our culture, quite something else to specify exactly where it resides in our collective psyche. It is not a question of identifying technical objects we use in everyday life and saying: that is science. A high percentage of the population follow football, but no one would say that that is science, just because the process of manufacturing footballs is based on scientific principles. It is about how we engage with the process of science that determines how it impacts our lives and occupies our cultural space.

In answering the question: where is science in culture? I would have to say everywhere. This is not a fatuous answer, but a recognition that most of the time, like speaking prose, we are not even aware that what we are doing is scientific, or at least at base, scientifically reduced behaviour. Science is our adaptation of how we engage with the physical world, and as such it permeates our life in ways that are sometimes difficult to see or identify, because they are so familiar. Even deciding whether or not to cross a busy road, involves complex decision making that at its root is scientific.

In its broadest definition, culture is about the collective life, social and behavioural as well as intellectual. Culture is transmitted and disseminated through populations by social learning: it is something acquired, it is also a way of life.


[1] The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, HarperPress 2008.

[2] Ibid p323.