Science, Origins of

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Science, Origins of

An enquiry into the origins of science is immediately faced with fundamental questions about the nature of science itself. Is science a discrete activity that endures over time? Can it adequately be distinguished from related human activities such as magic and religion? Is it a peculiarly Western phenomenon? Traditional histories of science have tended to answer each of these questions in the affirmative. Science is customarily defined as the systematic description or explanation of natural phenomena along with the habits of mind that make that possibletypically logic and mathematics. Working with this understanding of science, historians have traced the origins of Western science to Greek thinkers living on the west coast of Asia Minor in the sixth century b.c.e.

Science in antiquity

The speculations of these ancient Greek philosophersprincipally Thales (c. 625546 b.c.e.), Anaximander (c. 611547 b.c.e.), and Anaximenes (500s b.c.e.), all from Miletusare regarded as distinctive for three reasons. First, they offered naturalistic accounts of various phenomena that differed significantly from earlier mythological explanations that invoked arbitrary or supernatural causes. Second, they attempted to deal with the universal rather than the accidental and particular, and they sought unitary, underlying principles that could account for the diverse phenomena of nature. Third, they engaged in rational criticism of alternative explanations. On the first count, while the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod had tended to attribute lightning or earthquakes to the anger of Zeus or Poseidon, the Milesian natural philosophers explained these phenomena in terms of the forces of nature. Thales, for example, believed that Earth was supported by water, and that earthquakes were caused by disturbances in the water in which the Earth floats. Anaximander suggested that thunder is caused by the wind. It should be noted that the Milesian philosophers were not, on this account, atheistsThales had once observed that "all things are full of gods"it was just that they excluded the gods from their explanations. These thinkers also endeavored to isolate a single material principle that could account for the varied forms found in nature. For Thales, this was water; for Anaximander, "the boundless"; for Anaximenes, air. Anaximenes also provided an explanation of the transformations that air would undergo in order to give rise to the diverse phenomena of nature. Finally, the Milesians engaged in the critical appraisal of rival theories, providing reasons why one hypothesis should be preferred to another. Again, this is quite distinctive, for the purveyors of myth found it unnecessary to defend their accounts in the face of alternatives, and seemed untroubled by inconsistencies between different mythological accounts.

These features of early Ionian science found their way into later schools of Greek thought. The sixth- and fifth-century Pythagoreans, for example, located the principles of all things in numbers, and demonstrated how numerical ratios were manifested in nature. They were the first to attempt to provide knowledge of nature with a mathematical foundation. The fifth-century atomists, by way of contrast, proposed that all physical objects were composed of different arrangements of atoms. These schools thus anticipated what were much later to become central features of modern sciencethe mathematization of nature and atomic theory.

Greek science culminated in the thought of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), who was to provide such a comprehensive and compelling account of natural phenomena that it dominated much of Western thought up until the seventeenth century. Aristotle wrote on virtually every contemporary disciplinephysics, logic, biology, psychology, along with metaphysics, poetry, ethics, and politics. His biological works were informed by impressively accurate observations of animals, and provide descriptions of their anatomy, reproduction, and behaviors. He also made enduring contributions to taxonomy. Most important of all, Aristotle developed a metaphysical framework that set out the conditions required for a complete explanation. These were Aristotle's four causes, which sought answers to fundamental questions of the "what," the "how," and the "why" of natural phenomena.

The scientific revolution

When Aristotle's writings were rediscovered in twelfth-century Europe, having been preserved in the interim by Islamic scholars, they became the cornerstone of the university curriculum, and were dislodged from this privileged position only after considerable controversy in the early modern period. Over the course of the seventeenth century the preeminence of Aristotle was successfully challenged by such figures as Galileo Galilei (15641642), Francis Bacon (15611626), René Descartes (15961650), Robert Boyle (16271691), and Isaac Newton (16421727). So great was the intellectual upheaval effected by these individuals that later historians were to describe their achievements as a "scientific revolution." This period witnessed the birth of experimental methods, the mathematization of nature, and the introduction of new taxonomic principles. It might thus be said that if science, broadly conceived, had its origins in the thought of the ancient Greeks, modern science, with its distinctive use of mathematics and experimentation, began in the seventeenth century.

Non-Western science?

This standard account of the origins of science is susceptible to a number of criticisms. These concern both Western claims to a monopoly on scientific thinking, and the idea that science has some identifiable essence or method that endures over time. One line of criticism points to archaeological evidence of remarkable technological achievements in China and the ancient civilizations of the near East, which preceded the speculations of the early Greek natural philosophers. However, it makes sense in this context to distinguish technology from science. The former could well be based on trial and error combined with accumulated experience. The practical ability to produce useful artifacts, however impressive, is something quite different from the systematic attempt to arrive at an understanding of the operations of nature as a whole or to provide a theoretical account of laws of nature.

It has also been suggested that the definition of science that operates in the standard account is too restrictive. Science might be defined more broadly as a set of behaviors geared towards mastery of the natural environment. On this more inclusive definition, science can be said to have originated in a number of different cultures at different times. There is a wealth of anthropological evidence that points to the fact that many traditional societies developed remarkably sophisticated and complex understanding of natural phenomena. Whether such indigenous knowledge counts as science will, of course, ultimately depend on how the term is defined. It must be said, however, and without wishing to devalue such traditional knowledge, that its inclusion in the category "science" tends to make that designation rather vague.

The nineteenth-century alliance

Perhaps the most telling criticism is the opposite contention, that the definition of science that informs the standard account of the origins of science is too broad. "Science," it can be objected, is a modern category, and not an ancient or even an early-modern one, and its application to those periods is anachronistic. The ancient Greeks did not have a word for science as we understand it, and thinkers from Thales to Aristotle regarded themselves as pursuing "philosophy." Something similar is true for other ancient cultures. A comparable situation also existed in the seventeenth century, when the disciplines "natural history" and "natural philosophy" were the closest analogues to modern science. Isaac Newton thus explicitly identified himself as being engaged in the pursuit of natural philosophy. Individuals like Newton did not think in terms of science and nonscience, and the now-familiar distinctions between chemistry and alchemy, astronomy and astrology, even science and religion, were at this time at best fluid, at worst meaningless. For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries natural history and natural philosophy were intimately linked with religious concerns and included theological explanations. For this reason alone they are to be carefully distinguished from science as we understand it. The term scientist was not invented until the nineteenth century, and a good case can be made that it was only at this time that modern science came into being. During this period a new alliance of disciplines was formed, linked together by the professional designation "scientist." Natural history was superseded by a laboratory-based biology, and for the first time the sciences began to occupy a central place in the university curriculum. Crucially, just as the new professional category of scientist now excluded the clergy, who had hitherto played a central role in natural history and natural philosophy, the sciences eschewed religious explanations. Charles Darwin's (18091882) naturalistic account of the origins of life helped make this transition possible. The contemporary idea of science as a professional, secular activity that is conducted primarily in a laboratory setting dates from this period.

In sum, it is possible to answer the question of the origins of science in four ways:

  1. Science originated amongst Greek natural philosophers in the sixth century b.c.e.
  2. Science originates whenever and wherever human beings attempt mastery of their natural environment.
  3. The origins of science can be traced to the "scientific revolution" of the seventeenth century.
  4. Science began only with the professionalization of various scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century.

While there is something to be said for each of these alternatives, the last is perhaps the least anachronistic and most historically respectable.

See also Aristotle


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peter harrison

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