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New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination

by Joyce Appleby

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-23951-5
Publisher: Norton

A social historian explores the “intellectual consequences” of the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, which “nudg[ed] Europeans toward modern ways of thinking about their planet.”

Appleby (History, Emeritus/UCLA; The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, 2010, etc.) makes the assertion that “the most significant consequence of the age of discovery is the awakening of curiosity among Europeans about the world in which they lived.” Not only was the geography of the known world stretched to include North and South America, but the biblical narrative of the Creation and God's purpose were also challenged. Thinkers raised the question of whether or not the Creation was a one-time event, considering the existence of human civilization in far-flung places. Some Christian missionaries condemned the brutality practiced by conquistadors, and Paul III issued a papal bull prohibiting the forced enslavement of native populations. Unfortunately, the argument became moot when millions of Native Americans were killed by European diseases and African slaves were forced by their European conquerors to work on plantations and gold mines. On the positive side, the widening of European horizons spurred intellectual curiosity, as well as the expanded knowledge needed to circumnavigate the globe—e.g., mapmaking, measuring the circumference of the Earth, astronomical knowledge and the determination of longitude. In fact, the attitude toward knowledge itself changed. “A passion for collecting information through observations, measurements, descriptions, and depictions of new phenomena grew stronger,” writes the author, replacing the scholarly focus on received wisdom. Appleby points out that in the beginning of the 17th century, Italian friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake when he challenged received wisdom, but by its end, “Newton laid the foundation for modern physical science.” A quick traverse over time leads the author to Darwin and the conclusion that Columbus' discovery hastened the tempo of intellectual discovery. “Over the course of four centuries,” she writes, “studying natural phenomena became an activity defining western modernity while loosening the hold of religious dogma over scientific inquiry.”

Entertaining popular history.