Death and Discovery

The first example that comes to mind of how scientific discovery was shaped by political and fiscal interests is the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. This was a voyage that is often undermined in our current culture due to the negative impacts it had on the native cultures and environments. However, as Neil Degrasse Tyson says, “It was the most important event in human history” (Joe Rogan Podcast). Columbus was funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, with the goal of finding India and China to decrease the cost and travel time of the spice trade. They did not set out to find the new world, but instead it was an unintended “consequence”. Clearly, it was out of political and fiscal interests that the new world was founded. This is a great discussion to have in the class because it circles back to our interest in unintended consequences. I seemed to focus on negative consequences, which even the word consequence denotes, but in this case one of the most important human discoveries was unintended.


Harari states “During the past 500 year modern science has achieved wonders thanks largely to the willingness of governments, businesses, foundations and private donors to channel billions of dollars into scientific research” (272). I entirely agree with Harari that without empirical data, and the funds that supported discovery, we would be a lot less advanced. He also goes on to say that scientists rarely have control of their agenda, because the people funding it have their own greedy goals in mind. For a great example, we can look at the work of Maurice Hilleman and his link to the military-industrial complex. While he was an incredibly motivated and successful man, his work may never have reached it’s potential without the funding from the U.S government. Who knows the exact motivations behind his funding, but I can only assume our government wanted to keep a population healthy enough to win any future war. The quote which sums up this portion of the book best compares the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer: “They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world” (284).