Uncommon Sense or Traditional Ethnocentrism?
A Review of Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science by Alan Cromer
Given the ideological dominance of scientific thought and the scientific community in the 21st century, science is often portrayed as a natural development or growth arising from innate human proclivities towards such methodological inquiry. Alan Cromer, in his book Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, forcefully rejects the notion constructed by some scientists and historians that science was a predetermined or mechanistic development in the course of human evolution. In contrast with the commonly accepted view that the development of science is a natural process, he attempts to trace the metaphysical origin and historical trajectory of scientific inquiry as a unique phenomenon occurring because of the peculiar material and cultural developments observed in Ancient Greece. In other words, Cromer posits that science developed not because humans have a natural proclivity towards it, but because the society established in Ancient Greece, and nowhere else, cultivated the perfect combination of economic and ideological variables that lead to its development. He argues that no other place in the world developed, nor could have developed, modern science, as the concept is understood today. By rooting the development of scientific inquiry in its material and economic roots, and simultaneously drawing on a myriad of sources and documents, Cromer makes a compelling but ultimately flawed argument for his case.
Although not substantively dealt with until much later in the book, it is important to note at this point that Cromer accepts the definition of science articulated by the British physicist John Ziman. Ziman argues that science is a social activity and can be defined as “the search for a consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers.” All of chapter one deals with particular aspects of science and Cromer maintains that science, despite a few exceptional leaps in scientific theory, is generally cumulative rather than revolutionary in its advancement. Due to this fact, the scientific basis upon which the scientific community currently builds is relatively stable. Cromer skillfully utilizes the theory of Newtonian mechanics to reinforce this assertion:
Although some future theory may be able to relate G, m, e, c, and h to a smaller set of still more fundamental constants, it won’t decrease the validity or scope of the existing relations that involve them. Our knowledge of Newtonian mechanics and quantum theory is complete because it is knowledge — not of absolute causes, but of relations of broad generality — that is valid to the limits of our current measuring abilities. Future theories can only broaden the scope and deepen the range of our knowledge.
He cites the exploration of DNA as yet another example of this principle. Thus, the fact that science is so recent and complete in its fundamental knowledge, and intrinsically unified, allows Cromer to posit that “for the first time in human history we have true knowledge of the nature of existence and of our place in it.” Establishing truth and certainty as the basis upon which modern science is predicated, however, is only an ancillary argument in his book. According to Cromer, “higher rational abilities don’t develop spontaneously, but must be carefully cultivated by a process of formal education.” Therefore, something other than the course of human evolution must have galvanized the development of such an unnatural intellectual propensity.
Cromer’s primary thesis rests in his contention that Ancient Greece was the womb in which the modem conception of science was cultivated. He begins by constructing a dichotomy between scholars who argue the traditional view that science was “a product of the special genius of Ancient Greece... [which] developed the concepts of objectivity and deductive reasoning that are necessary for science” and those who argue that science develops in all civilizations but some may develop the concept further than others. Cromer develops what he labels a neotraditionalist interpretation of scientific development. Within this framework he claims that “antecedents of science either permeate a culture or are absent altogether.” Thus, the tradition of open debate and non-contradiction, found solely in Ancient Greece, support the idea that science is not a natural proclivity but a historically unique phenomenon that can only be developed “under a very precise set of cultural circumstances.” This is the fundamental thesis that runs throughout Cromer’s work.
Alongside this is the rejection that science ought to be applied to any system of thought dealing with problem-solving. Therefore, according to Cromer any “bland relativism that applies the term science so indiscriminately…hopelessly muddles thinking on the subject.” Nonscientific systems such as psychoanalysis and astrology function within their own traditions and their own closed sets of ideas. They, accordingly, do not constitute authentic science. Cromer spends an entire chapter comparing and contrasting different forms of what he considers to be pseudoscience. Similarly, he purports that the technological advances in a variety of areas across a broad range of different civilizations, including China, Egypt, and the Islamic world, do not constitute a holistic and rational scientific approach comparable to modern forms of scientific endeavors.
Cromer maintains, in alignment with the psychologist Piaget, that the development of rational capabilities require cumulative accumulation. Therefore, rational and critical capacities must be overtly cultivated and fostered. They require a specific environment which, he argues, only the Greeks were able to develop. The result is that other societies, even if they produced certain technological advances beyond the Greeks, could not break through traditional egocentrism into scientific objectivity. However, Cromer attempts to formulate a dialectical synthesis between objectivity and subjectivity; “Although it sounds contradictory,” he explains, “what we call objective thinking is possible only after we come to understand the subjective nature of thought” Once that subjective nature is understood, a break with egocentric continuity between private thoughts and the external world is possible. Only then, with the emergence of this historic schism, and the recognition of the role subjectivity plays, is the development of rational, scientific models able to come to the fore.
Cromer briefly outlines the evolution of humanity in order to situate the development of rational thinking in its historical and evolutionary context. After articulating how early humanoids interacted and positing a variety of plausible explanations for common behaviors among them, he moves on to juxtaposing Ancient Greece and Israel. By reviewing the dominant literature of these two civilizations, the Iliad, Odyssey, and the Old Testament, Cromer argues how these works are manifestations of the dominant ideological discourse and nature of thought present in these societies. In the former, open debate and the ideas of non-contradiction are fundamental aspects in Greek society and are ever present in the stories written by Homer. In the former, appeals to mysticism and higher powers prevail as the dominant discourse. Cromer credits the Greeks with developing a variety of mathematical branches, science, astronomy, theater, history, history, philosophy, and democracy, all of which resulted from their contribution of objectivity and the development of their rational capacities. The development of such rationality in Greek society is attributed to a variety of cultural factors, with material conditions playing an ancillary role in this development The Greco-Israeli paradigm is the primary example supporting his thesis.
The rise of Christianity into power alongside repeated attacks by what Cromer refers to as barbarian hordes during the fifth and sixth century decelerated the spread and eventually reduced notions of rationality and objectivity to an obscure and esoteric fate. It was not until the resurgence of European developments associated with Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, which Cromer maintains was “directly simulated by the work of ancient Greek mathematicians, astronomers, and natural philosophers,” that science again became universal discourse. His argument is that during the European dark ages, even great civilizations such as China, India, and the Islamic world did not develop scientific inquiry. China, despite being “more unified, organized, cultivated, and technologically advanced than Europe” for many centuries, never reached objective thinking. Instead, Cromer argues that such a rigid and hierarchical bureaucracy, along with affiliative or purely collective forms of thinking, actually dissuaded the pursuit and development of science. India, despite some mathematical developments, remained trapped in an egocentric ideology that often dismissed the material world. Islamic society actually produced technological advances and maintained Greek classics, which spurred the scientific revolution in Europe. However, Cromer argues that religious restrictions on things like printing and surgery kept Islam “cut off from the scientific revolution that...it helped initiate.” Therefore, rationality and scientific pursuit is a decidedly Greek phenomenon.
Material changes in European society galvanized the growth of capitalism and an economic system. These included, but were not limited to, the expansion of trade and the development of technological advances such as three-crop rotation systems and the horse collar which, subsequently, augmented crop production and work output,. Therefore, a combination of material changes led to the scientific revolution in Europe, and Europe alone:
First, European science was a direct continuation of Greek science... Second, the distinctive feature of European culture was its tendency to develop autonomous self-governing institutions [the guild and university, which]… offered stability and continuity to Europe’s intellectual life... Third, capitalism provided a force and a class that could stand up to the nobility and the clergy... Fourth, the printing of inexpensive books spread new ideas among the learned and also made possible the education of an increasing number of students from the middle class.
Thus, Cromer’s assertion is buttressed by his reference to the changing material conditions which were made possible primarily by chance. The ideological and cultural impacts that these material conditions, along with the lasting legacy of Ancient Greece, had on Europe were the primary reason why science was resurrected there and not methodologically constructed elsewhere.
In essence, then, his thesis is that science is a unique phenomenon that is not common to humanity and, due to this, it developed because of the particular material and cultural dimensions of one society. The potential for science, the rational pursuit of consensus concerning objective knowledge, can only develop given certain historical conditions. Cromer argues that despite the existence of these conditions, however, the development of rationality and science is not mechanistically determined or inevitable. Instead, a unique synthesis of objective and subjective elements, the material conditions and subsequent cultural predilections crafted by human thought and action, must occur. This synthesis is what fosters the development of scientific inquiry.
There are many strengths and factors that contribute heavily to the legitimacy Cromer’s work and reinforce his thesis. The approach he utilizes as his analytical framework is a materialist one. First, Cromer attempts to draw on a wide range of sources to support his thesis. Throughout the work he cites a wide range of literature from the Bible to Homer’s epics, classic philosophers like Aristotle, major scientific theorists such as Newton and Einstein, and scientific researchers studying a broad array of topics. This extensive arsenal of primary and secondary source material gives a sense of legitimacy and scope that scaffolds his argument. Second, the sociological approach he uses to address a history of science, and the definition of science itself; is a unique approach that allows room for debate. Scientific advances and the development of rational, scientific inquiry are situated within their appropriate historical, social, economic, and political contexts. Furthermore, Cromer’s relatively easy approach allows for non-science majors to comprehend the often dense, theoretical, and esoteric topics he engages.
Perhaps both the strongest and weakest aspect of his is that it is, essentially, a materialist one. Although no explicit materialist label is provided by Cromer, it is clear that he addresses the material conditions as the root out of which society, culture, and evolution occurs. Vague abstractions and idealistic notions are rejected for a solid, fundamentally material analysis. His approach, as seen near the end of his chapter titled “From Apes to Agriculture,” even incorporates a nascent understanding of class struggle in the development of human society. This class struggle, however, is ancillary in Cromer’s view. The term is not used, but the concept is present. Cromer generally portrays an accurate view of human history and evolution. He makes it clear that material conditions, and not abstract ideological changes or idealistic tribal leaders, forced the development of agriculture. “The Neolithic agricultural revolution was one of the most important episodes in human history,” he explains, “It’s wrong, however, to think that it was an advance on a previous economy. Agriculture arose from grim necessity.” This materialism, however, could be attributed purely to a Darwinian approach. It is clear when analyzing Ancient Greece that Cromer falls far short of a Marxist or dialectical approach.
Therefore, his primary weakness arises from the fact that his materialism falls far short of a serious, consistent historical analysis. Although rooting any work in a materialist framework is important, Cromer falls into the trap of reductionism. It is clear that an analysis based upon dialectical materialism could have broadened Cromer’s scope and allowed for a more lucid, holistic work. Instead, as evident in his analysis of Ancient Greece, Cromer’s materialism is often haphazardly applied. For instance, he locates the development of Greek rationality in seven essential Greek characteristics: the assembly, a maritime economy, the existence of a widespread Greek-speaking world, the existence of an independent merchant class who could educate themselves the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a literary religion not dominated by priests, and finally, the “persistence of these factors for 1,000 years.” Out of these, only two deal with material and economic conditions; namely, the development of a maritime economy and a merchant class. However, the other factors, while vital it his analysis of why Greek society developed rationality, are ideological abstractions that Cromer does not provide a material base for. In other words, he appears to adopt a rather Hegelian approach that puts the idea before the world that constructed it. For example, when dealing with the assembly he shows how rationality and non-contradiction were fundamental aspects. Yet, the actual development of the assembly, and how Greek society was the sole society to develop such a democratic institution, is not addressed. In other words, Cromer leaves this purely to chance and gives no real material root for why and how such an institution developed. It is in instances like these that his analysis appears superficial. Even with these critical oversights, his primary argument is clearly flawed.
Subsequently, his material framework is all too often used solely as a historic approach; Cromer’s analysis of contemporary society post-Scientific Revolution, and his specific proposal for educational reform, lacks the critical insight and piercing clarity that his historical analysis can potentially offer. His political convictions often shine through in his work, diminishing the clarity and objectivity he claims to support. For instance, he claims that the redirection “from physical aggression to economic aggression” is one of the “major accomplishments of our species.” This is the same economic aggression, manifested in a capitalist economic system, which condemns millions of people to death every year because they are not part of the market system or force millions to toil under heavily exploitative conditions for the benefit of an elite economic class of owners. Despite this, the assertion itself is not accurate. Humanity has not been redirected from physical aggression. The last century, which has been plagued by world wars and imperialistic slaughters, dismisses such an utterly absurd statement. His hagiographic analysis of capitalism is evident elsewhere throughout the book as well. Furthermore, his assertion that it was the “entrepreneurial spirit” that “launched the age of discovery” in medieval Europe is drastically misguided. Instead, an analysis of the colonial drive for primitive accumulation by the burgeoning capitalist class and the militaristic monarchial regimes striving to maintain dominance would have been much more appropriate. This sort of Euro-centrism often pierces and deflates an otherwise important material analysis.
Considering these theoretical failures, Cromer also commits a myriad of fallacies and purports truth to a list of historical inaccuracies. For instance, when he proclaims that if Greek mathematics “had been totally lost, it probably would never have been reinvented” is an utterly absurd statement to make. Despite authoritatively asserting such nonsense, Cromer gives no serious evidence to support such an absolute statement. While it is clear that the material base determines what ideological superstructures can potentially arise in any given society, it is not so clear that objectivity and rationality were the result of a highly unique Greek culture. Similarly, the idea that Ancient Greece discovered objective thinking and that Homer was the world’s first example of it are not only improbable, they are impossible to prove.
Similarly, when Cromer adopts his definition of science as the search for consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers, he cloaks what he refers to as this sociological definition in a host of glittering generalities. For instance, he never defines what constitutes a rational opinion or competent researcher. He asserts throughout the book that some objective, eternal reality must exist which can constitute an objective search for rationality. However, he does not address the problem that arises when one considers that different opinions or ideas could prove rational within a particular framework. For instance, inside a capitalist mode of production where inter-state rivalries pursue nuclear weapons to maintain hegemony in a region or over the globe, such massive weapons of human destruction, and their creation by purportedly rational scientists, may appear rational to some observers. In some other context, a society where Cromer’s supposedly benevolent economic competition is a thing of the past, nuclear weapons may prove a futile, irrational waste.
Historically, Cromer’s arguments often fail the test as well. He constructs a dichotomy where two forms of intelligence dominate. One, the kind human beings have been confined to for most of their existence, is common intelligence that confuses consciousness with egocentrism and, therefore, is nothing more than the intelligence an animal would possess. The other, the unique kind Cromer posits only developed in Greek society, is the hyper-rationalism suited to mathematical methodology and consciously cultivated. Although the argument for unique cultural factors contributing to the development of such intelligence may appear legitimate, this dichotomy is arbitrarily constructed and defended with religious zeal. There are a multitude of problems with this approach.
First, it is entirely too simplistic to assert that there is a black and white choice between excepting the traditional view of science originating in Greece and science developing in every human civilization. The reality is much more complex. For instance, many scientists and historians posit that the development of monotheism was an essential step towards the scientific concept of the universe being constructed along certain natural laws. This could disqualify Cromer’s assertion that science could not “evolve from the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity.” Similarly, many of the earliest European scientists came directly from the church apparatus. Although it is fair to say that at times the church greatly hindered scientific development, the claim cannot be made that Christianity single-handedly destroyed the scientific rationality developed in Greece.
Furthermore, the ethnocentrism Cromer displays is historically inaccurate as well. While it is not true that scientific though is innately generated by every human being confronted with a problem, this does not mean that Cromer’s equally dramatic assertion is the only explanation left. Cromer maintains that the Scientific Revolution was a direct continuation of the work done by ancient Greek figures. This is blatantly false. The Scientific Revolution in Europe would never have been realized without the stimulus provided by the Islamic societies that kept Greek learning and rational thought alive. The very fact that scholars within Islamic society maintained such a rigorous and methodological method of learning is not diminished simply because some sectors of society were dominated by religion. Even during the European rebirth in scientific thought this was the case.
Lastly, despite Cromer’s claims otherwise, the significant scientific and mathematical advances developed in Islamic societies, India, and the Mesopotamian area cannot be ignored. Things like the concept of zero and infinity were fundamental for mathematics. Without some form of rational and critical inquiry these developments would not have been possible. It is a strong claim to make, and one nearly impossible to prove, that throughout the history of such civilizations no form of rational thought was developed that lead to scientific inquiry.
Perhaps the most distressing view he takes is on education, where he asserts vacuously that the problem with American education is “fundamentally one of values.” Instead of addressing institutional inequality, an entirely unequal funding structure for schools, a prodigious lack of resources, racism, economic segregation, and a host of other ills that the American educational system faces, Cromer simply asserts that “the poorest and least successful families dictate what public schools can demand of students and parents.” His class consciousness is apparently not in solidarity with the working majority. In place of the current system, he advocates what is essentially a meritocracy based upon the principle of social efficiency. Churning out obedient workers and transforming them into what is the most economically advantageous for the state apparatus remains his primary goal, despite the rhetoric he sometimes employs about higher levels of thinking. Even more extreme social and economic stratification, then, based upon a purportedly meritocratic system, would be the result of Cromer’s educational reforms. This chapter was the most disappointing conclusion to an otherwise thought-provoking and engaging work.
Cromer provides a lucid and entertaining read that is accessible to non-science majors and lays out a host of important arguments and ideas to consider. He utilizes a wide range of sources and theories, properly engaged as to not confuse the reader, to support the main tenants of his argument. He falls short in some areas, especially concerning his approach to education and his extreme emphasis on the merits of the capitalist economic system. However, his thesis that science and rationality ought to be cultivated, and are not necessarily inherent to human thought, is a fair proposition. It is not so clear, however, that Greece was the only society to ever develop rational thinking and scientific inquiry. Still, Uncommon Sense ought to be read by anyone who finds science or history engaging but none of Cromer’ s propositions ought to be accepted without a serious and critical analysis.
 Cromer, A., Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1993), 144.
 Cromer, Uncommon Sense, 13.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., vii.
 Ibid., viii.
 Ibid., x.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 103.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 140-1.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 79.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 198.
 Ibid., 199.