Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld III’: Chapter 18

In the eighteenth chapter of Darwin’s Watch, I learn about steam engine time! Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III. 

AHHHHH THIS IS SO COOL! Historical context that helps shape my understanding of Darwin so much that I now get why we credit him with his discovery! Y’all, this chapter is SO GOOD, and I love the sheer work done to connect the dots throughout history in order to contextualize something like, for example, the steam engine.

I wanted to start out with praise of one particular thing, because I see it so rarely that it’s worth commending it here. It’s not often that I see the direct references made to ancient, non-white cultures and their developments that were often—for lack of a better term—ahead of their time. (And granted, the Cestesibus example puts us in Rome-controlled Egypt, but STILL. A greek man in Egypt was probably not our conception of “white” as we see it in the modern age,” and there’s plenty of evidence that these civilizations were intensely diverse. The point being: bigots often whitewash history to make it more convenient for them.) So much of that stuff gets erased and replaced with narratives about how primitive they were, which is not the truth at all. We have TONS of evidence of how advanced these civilizations were. And look at the piece that Cohen and Stewart provide! A mechanism that allowed a priest to open a door with FIRE. And we know of so many incredible things that the Egyptians did, and that’s just one civilization over a broad period of time.

Anyway, from that point, the authors do a fantastic job of tracking predecessors to the steam engine, not just to detail the history, but to explain why James Watt is often the person we go to as the “first” person to create a steam engine.

Clearly, he’s not; they existed for a long time, and there’s so much here to help me understand how humanity slowly progressed to the first steam engine. AND it’s important to note that even when the first one was built, it took off as an important part of industry and growth, but it was missing what Watt provided: efficiency. His means of figuring out how to keep the cylinder the same temperature as the steam that would enter it allowed for a preservation of energy is one of the major reasons his name is remembered more often than others. His improvement to what already existed caused the revolution in steam engines, and thus, he went down in history.

This example was a brilliant way to demonstrate the point the authors wanted to make about Darwin. Darwin was very much willing to admit who his predecessors were, yet another thing I did not know because I’ve just never read The Origin of Species. (This book is making me want to.) The big question is posed: Does Darwin deserve the credit he gets? Well, certainly, because it’s not that he thought of evolution first:

What Darwin is laying claim to is not the idea of evolution, but that of natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism.

And that was a first, and his work changed the world.


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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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