HG Wells and the World State—in a cartoon by David Low.

Project (2016)

Science and World Order: Uses of Science in Plans for International Government, 1899-1950

In his Marie Curie fellowship project Geert Somsen investigates how science has been promoted as a model for international relations during the first half of the twentieth century. In an era of two world wars and rampant nationalism, many saw science as a guide to a more stable and just world order that was in line with its universality. Such idealizations of science took many forms and fed into the design of the first international political institutions, like the League of Nations and the United Nations.

One point of the project is to explore the variety of proposals and the manifold shapes that a ‘scientific’ world order could take. Science was taken as a model for international politics by liberals and socialists, communists as well as fascists. Its universalism was translated into radically different world maps. For members of the pre-1914 arbitration movement science offered a way to prevent war and preserve the status quo of the great powers and their colonial possessions. For historian of science George Sarton science represented the universal civilization that Belgium had defended and Woodrow Wilson had saved during the Great War. For the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald science showed the way to peaceful German expansion and hegemony. And according to the British writer HG Wells, science would lead to a single World State that much resembled the British Commonwealth. Mussolini’s fascists saw “scienza universale” as the reflection of Italian genius. And the Christian communist Joseph Needham proposed science as the key to enlightening the “Dark Zone” (i.e.,  the developing world) through UNESCO, whose Natural Science Programme he set up and directed. While all of these actors agreed that the modern world should somehow be scientifically organized, the effects of this organization differed drastically and often irreconcilably.

In the project and the resulting monograph Geert Somsen compares the various forms of scientific internationalism and follows their evolution from the late nineteenth century to the dawn of the UN. His first set of case studies is clustered around the pacifist movement that produced the Permanent Court of Arbitration (the first international political institution) in 1899. His second set looks at varying interwar currents, both within the League of Nations and among its detractors—on the left and on the right. A last set of case studies looks at appeals to science in the early United Nations. It appears that throughout these developments different understandings of how science was universal competed with each other. Some of these were premised on the notion of a Republic of Letters of scientific practitioners, elevated above national strife. Others hinged on the belief in a universal scientific method to solve practical problems around the globe. Our current view of science as primarily an instrument for tackling “technical” international problems (nuclear security, biodiversity, but not e.g., migration or international conflict) should be taken as the—temporary—outcome of this competition.