Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld’: Chapter 24

In the twenty-fourth chapter of Darwin’s Watch, the authors discuss why Victorian England led to the future we now live in. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld III. 

So, I’m not sure I actually know enough about this to have any sort of fair and knowledgable discussion about what Victoriana actually looked like. And that’s something I’ve had to come to terms with in the Science books, because, as we’ve all seen, there are times when I come across stuff that I’m totally ignorant about. The only thing here that I felt I could (casually) bring up was that the first half of this chapter seemed to be real light on acknowledging the British Empire and its impact both on the nation and the world at large. Granted, there are a few mentions here, but they’re clearly not meant to be critical at all, nor do the authors ever give the British Empire the weight needed to discuss how Britain was able to thrive by stealing material wealth, resources, and actual people for many, many, many years. 

Is that necessary? I don’t know. And because I am certainly no expert on British social strata or history or anything in these areas, I truly don’t know enough to counter what I’ve read here. I think that the aim in this chapter was to demonstrate what progress means. How did the people of Victorian England—as a whole, too, since multiple classes ARE discussed—progress from one age to the next? How was there an investment in infrastructure and technology during this specific time when so many other nations weren’t doing the same thing? What made it special and unique? So, from that perspective, I can see why there might not be a willingness not to be critical at the same time. Plus, some of the terms used here are very different from what I’m familiar with as an American. Our class structure is VASTLY different, and when you’re talking about a strong middle class here, it means something totally different to what Cohen and Stewart are talking about. The same goes with the bootstrap theory; there’s certainly a similarity in them, but I feel like the American usage of that term has a more insidious, toxic element to it. Social mobility works different here, so the notion of pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps is often weaponized and used as a means of distraction. Try talking to a certain type of American about poverty and the systems in place that guarantee it, and you’ll probably hear the “bootstraps” theory brought up as a means of insulting people who didn’t pull themselves up by their “bootstraps.” 

All of this to say: I’m interested in the discussion around the first half of this chapter and the authors’ usage of Victoriana as a model of progress. Something rang weird to me while reading it, but again: I don’t feel qualified to actually talk about this. ALSO, COULD SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN THE WHOLE PICKLE/MANCHESTER THING. I thought it was a joke at first, but it was mentioned way too many times. Is this a thing???

Anyway, I was much more understanding of the second half of this chapter, and that’s most likely because there are a lot more similarities between Britain and America in terms of how our societies were able to progress based on what was accepted. And that’s fascinating to me how things are parallel to one another, even if they happened in different places and at different times. The idea of social heterogeneity is SUPER meaningful to me and I bet you could analyze US history through this lens to identify periods of massive social, financial, and cultural growth based on what was valued in our nation. When was dissidence hypervisible? When did we experience “exposure to the public eye of things being done or understood in different ways”? 

Honestly, as I remarked on video, this chapter was a trip to read in 2019, when hetergeneity is NOT being valued in my country. (And perhaps not in the UK, either, since… well, at least from what we learn about Britain from the news and from social media, it sounds like things are a bit of a mess over there, too.) Difference is not valued; dissidence is discouraged; neo-fascism is on the rise again. So, is it accurate to say that in England, there’s an “unbroken tradition” of heterogeneity? Well, I’ll leave that up to those who know more and actually live there. I can think of way too many examples of this tradition being “broken” here in America, so much so that I am not even sure we get to say we HAD a tradition to begin with.

But I like the message. I like that this chapter not only says that difference and diversity is a great thing for societies, but it also, in part, addresses something I brought up very early in this book:

So one person, even a Newton or a Darwin, will not really be enough, despite the story we have just told you. Our fictional Darwin is a symbol for an endless stream of Darwins, challenging orthodoxy and being right, a glorious network of innovative thinkers and radicals.

Darwin is a stand-in; he’s a focus. Perhaps this book does focus on Britain more than anywhere else, but there is still an analogy that expands outside of that focus. Challenging orthodoxy is valued in this text, because we never truly know everything about the world we live in. That point is made in this chapter, too! And we become stagnant when we accept that there’s nothing left to learn about the world. So it’s fitting that the end of this chapter reflects on the final lines of The Origin of Species. Darwin challenged orthodoxy, and look how he changed the world!

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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