How did science begin? A few years ago, we looked at an answer to that question in the form of a book called The invention of science. In it, British historians David Wootton set the stage within a few centuries of European history in which the elements of modern science—experiments, models and laws, peer review—were gradually integrated into a structured process of discovery.
But that answer is extremely sensitive to how science is interpreted. Many working cultures observe the structure of the natural world and try to identify patterns in what they see. In a recent book called Horizons, James Poskett place these efforts firmly within the realm of science and arrive at its title: “The universal origins of modern science.” He emphasized the role of Europe and wrote Wootton’s book directly through a footnote in the process.
Perhaps you find Poskett’s broad definition of philosophy will go a long way to explaining how you feel about the first third of the book. The remaining two thirds, however, are a welcome reminder that, wherever it may have begun, science quickly grew into an international movement and grew in dialogue with international traditions such as colonialism, nationalism, and Cold War ideologies. .
Poskett waits an entire paragraph before he says “perfectly” that the foundation of science involves figures like Copernicus and Galileo. On the contrary, it is not so common elsewhere as it is almost ubiquitous—at astronomical observatories along the Silk Road and in Arab countries, in the tracts of Western plants by the Aztecs, and in other efforts to record what people have seen of that time. natural life.
Some of those efforts, as Poskett makes clear, require the systematic production of information found in modern science. Astronomers have increased accuracy by building large structures designed to measure the position of celestial objects—expensive tasks that often require royal control. affect. Records were preserved over time and were spread to other countries and cultures, common with modern science. Some of this behavior went as far as Babylon.
Yet all this information production is still missing some things that are generally seen as central to science. Astronomers in many countries discovered ways to calculate the patterns in the movement of the planets and the periods of the moon. But there is little indication that any of them realize that those patterns reveal a small number of basic patterns or that their predictions can be improved by creating a mental picture of what is happening in the skies. Without things like models and laws to compare with the observations they explain, can we really call it science?
Poskett’s answer would be a resounding yes, although there is no indication in this book that he ever read that question in the first place. In fact, his definition of science is even broader (and perhaps on even weaker ground) when he refers to things like the Aztec herbalism manuscript as science. Is there any evidence that the herbs that claim to be effective against the diseases they are used to treat? Finding that out is definitely something science can do. However it would require scientific techniques like experiments and controls, and there is no indication that the Aztecs ever considered those approaches. Poskett’s choice of using it as an example seems to show how his organized knowledge is not enough to be called science.
A fuller perspective on the origins of science would necessarily recognize that many non-European cultures had developed better observations and more advanced mathematical skills before figures such as Galileo and Copernicus and that access to these observations are important to the development of the phenomenon of what we now know as. science But a strong argument can be made that these alone are not enough to be called science. It would have been interesting to read a similarly influential counter-argument. But inside HorizonsPoskett doesn’t even try to develop one—he just dictates all this theory by fiat.
(I would note that, by a more stringent definition, even figures like Copernicus did not really do science, although they made important contributions to it. No doubt about whether you think that the model is in any way shows the truth. So someone with a strict view of what science is would probably agree with Poskett that describing Copernicus as one of the first scientists is a myth. for very different reasons.)