Seeking case studies in scientific reduction and conceptual evolution

Tim Minchin once said “Every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.” One thing I want to understand better is “How, exactly, has that happened in history? In particular, how have our naive pre-scientific concepts evolved in response to, or been eliminated by, scientific progress?

Examples: What is the detailed story of how “water” came to be identified with H2O? How did our concept of “heat” evolve over time, including e.g. when we split it off from our concept of “temperature”? What is the detailed story of how “life” came to be identified with a large set of interacting processes with unclear edge cases such as viruses decided only by convention? What is the detailed story of how “soul” was eliminated from our scientific ontology rather than being remapped onto something “conceptually close” to our earlier conception of it, but which actually exists?

I wish there was a handbook of detailed case studies in scientific reductionism from a variety of scientific disciplines, but I haven’t found any such book yet. The documents I’ve found that are closest to what I want are perhaps:

Some semi-detailed case studies also show up in Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc. but they are typically buried in a mass of more theoretical discussion. I’d prefer to read histories that focus on the historical developments.

Got any such case studies, or collections of case studies, to recommend?


  1. iarwain says

    I’m in the middle of reading Wootton, The Invention of Science. Is that the sort of thing you’re looking for?

    • Luke says

      I’m not really looking for generalist histories of science or the scientific revolution. Rather, I’m looking for histories of how particular scientific reductions or eliminations — of pre-scientific concepts like “water” or “life” or “disease” — occurred. How did we learn what we learned? How did our concepts change in response to early learning, and how did that revised concept inform further scientific inquiry, which further revised our concept of the thing, etc.?

      • iarwain says

        He goes through a lot of that in the course of the book. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, so to this point he’s mainly focused on how our conceptions of the earth and the cosmos changed over the time period of the Rennaisance / early Enlightenment.

        Also, please post any other sources you find – I’m very interested in these topics. Thanks.

        • Luke says

          Most general histories of science don’t go into as much detail as I’d like for any single reduction/elimination, because they’re trying to cover more ground rather than zooming in on particular case studies. I’m looking for documents that zoom in on particular case studies.

      • Leon says

        I don’t understand the claim that “water”, “disease”, and “life” are pre-scientific concepts. Scientists use these terms all the time, and they’re reasonably precise.

        What are the differences between “reducing” the concept of X, “eliminating” the concept of X, and simply “learning about” X?

        I think “soul” is distinct and more interesting, because, as you point out, it hasn’t been re-mapped.

  2. says

    Arthur Koestler’s book “The Sleepwalkers” discusses the learning processes that some scientists (cosmologists) went through as they made their discoveries. It highlights the difference between the scientist’s expectations and their discoveries. There’s some amount of noise, but I think some of the case studies you seek could be found there, with some digging.

  3. Dan Fitch says

    Although it’s not a detailed case study like you’re seeking, “Soul Made Flesh” by Carl Zimmer is pop-sci covering the progress made on locating the human mind in the brain, and it covers quite a long span of time. May have some interesting references.

    • Luke says

      Oh yeah, I think I read that a long time ago, and IIRC it is roughly the kind of thing I’m looking for. Thanks!

  4. Enkidum says

    The book Creating Scientific Concepts by Nancy J Nersessian might be a good starting point. Among other things, it has a lengthy discussion of Maxwell’s development of the idea of the electron in terms of a series of metaphors and formal models based on those metaphors. (At least I think that’s right, it’s been a while since I read it.)

  5. says

    Some suggestions:

    Ian Hacking’s philosophical history of the origin of probability, “The Emergence of Probability”.

    Lorraine Datson and Peter Galison have a book on the origin of the notion of objectivity called “Objectivity”.

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