How did science begin? Several years ago, we considered one answer to that question in the form of the following book. scientific inventions. Among them, British historians david wootton The origins of this research lie in Europe’s centuries of history, where the hallmarks of modern science, such as experimentation, models and laws, and peer review, gradually converged into a formal process of organized discovery.
But the answer is very sensitive to how science is defined. A wide variety of cultures engaged in systematic observation of the natural world and tried to identify patterns in what they saw. In a recently published book, horizons, james pocket places these efforts firmly within the realm of science, arriving at the subtitle “The Global Origins of Modern Science.” He downplays the role of Europe and in the process directly contradicts Wootton’s book with his footnotes.
Whether you find Poskett’s broad definition of science convincing or not will go a long way toward explaining how you feel about the first third of the book. But the remaining two-thirds of his point is that no matter where science began, it quickly grew into an international endeavor and was in dialogue with international cultural trends such as colonialism, nationalism, and Cold War ideology. I welcome the fact that I have matured inside.
Mr. Postkett waits a full paragraph before declaring that it is a “myth” that the origins of science involve figures like Copernicus and Galileo. Instead, he refers to it not so much to other places as to astronomical observatories along the Silk Road and in Arabian countries, to catalogs of plants in the Western Hemisphere by the Aztecs, and other efforts made to record what people saw. They are placed almost everywhere. Natural world.
As Poskett makes clear, some of those efforts required the systematic production of information of the kind found in modern science. Early astronomical observatories improved their accuracy by constructing large, structured buildings that allowed them to measure the positions of celestial bodies. The projects involved huge costs, often requiring some form of royal patronage. Another commonality with modern science is that records were preserved over time and disseminated to other countries and cultures. Some of this activity dates back to Babylon.
However, this information production still lacks several things commonly considered to be central to science. Astronomers in many countries have figured out ways to calculate the patterns of planetary movement and the timing of solar eclipses. But there are signs that they recognized that those patterns reflected a small number of underlying principles, and that predictions could be improved by imagining what was happening in the heavens. There are very few. Can this really be called science without some combination of things like models and laws and the observations they explain?
Postocket’s answer would be a resounding “yes,” but the book says he never considered that question in the first place. In fact, when he calls something like an Aztec herbalism manual a science, his definition of science is even broader (though perhaps on even weaker basis). Is there any evidence that the herbs listed there are effective against the diseases they are used to treat? Discovering that is definitely something science can do. However, this requires scientific elements such as experiments and controls, and there is no evidence that the Aztecs considered such an approach. Poskett’s use of it as an example seems to highlight that organized knowledge alone is not enough to qualify as a science.
A complete perspective on the origins of science reveals that many non-European cultures had developed better observations and more sophisticated mathematics centuries before figures like Galileo and Copernicus appeared; And it will inevitably be recognized that access to these observations was essential to the eventual development of what we now know. Science. However, a convincing argument can be made that these alone are insufficient to call it science. It would be interesting to read a similarly convincing rebuttal. but, horizonsPoskett doesn’t even try to formulate it — he simply declares all of this science fiat.
(Note that, according to a stricter definition, even someone like Copernicus was not actually doing science, even if he made important contributions to it.) He completely lacked any mechanism to explain the motion of the planets in his heliocentric model, and was very vague about whether he thought his model reflected reality in any way. Those who hold a strict view about this would probably agree with Poskett that describing Copernicus as one of the first scientists is a myth (for entirely different reasons).