In mainstream writings on science and society from the seventeenth century to the end of the millennium, the beneficiary of the growth of knowledge was perfectly clear. Humanity as a whole, often referred to as “man,” was bound to reap the benefits from the advance of scientific research and its manifold practical applications. Optimistic depictions of progress assumed that eventually the growth of science, technology, and modern institutions would benefit not only powerful elites, but the world’s population more broadly with improvements evident in health, nutrition, housing, industrial produc- tion, transportation, education, and numerous other areas.
Among the first to grasp the possibilities were Francis Bacon and René Descartes, whose writings on the promise of the new science included bold projections of the godsend that would flow from the laboratories and workshops. Explaining why it was important to overcome his modesty and publish his discoveries in physics, Descartes comments, “I believed that I could not keep them concealed without sinning grievously against the law by which we are bound to promote...the general good of mankind.” It is at last conceivable, he argues, that “we might...render ourselves lords and possessors of nature.”11xRené Descartes, Discourse on Method, Book Six.