In any genealogy there are always things one wants to hide; the misfit relative, the children born on the wrong side of the sheet, or the relative Aunt Martha just does not like. As a genealogist it takes a lot of effort to find these things out. Genealogies tend to be sanitized: the illegitimate grandchild becomes a legitimate child, the misfit relative somehow missed being included, and Uncle Ben aged 15 years during the 10 years between censuses and died at age one hundred although he was only eighty according to the earliest records. The roots of science, like all family histories, have undergone a similar sanitization process. In a previous essay, I gave the sanitized version. In this essay, I give the unauthorized version. Aunt Martha would not be happy.
The Authorized Version has the origins of science tied closely to the Greek philosophical tradition with science arising within and from that tradition. While that has some truth to it, it is not the whole truth. It was two millennia from Aristotle to the rise of science and there have been many rationalizations for this delay, many starring Christianity as the culprit. However, Christianity did not gain political strength for a few centuries after Aristotle’s death. So, if the cause was Christianity, it must have had a miraculous non-causal effect.
A lot happened between Aristotle and the rise of science: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Renaissance, the reformation, and the printing press. A lot of what could be called knowledge was developed but did not provide major gains in philosophy. The Romans were for the most part engineers not philosophers, but to do engineering takes real knowledge. Let us pass on to the Arabs. They are generally considered as a mere repository for Greek knowledge which was then passed on to the West largely intact but with some added commentary. I suspect that is not correct, as I will argue shortly.
There are two contributions to the development of science that are frequently downplayed: astrology and alchemy. These are the ancestors that science wants to hide. We all know the story of the Ptolemy and Copernicus, but the motivation for the development of astronomy was astrological and religious. From the ancient Babylonians to the present day, people have tried to divine the future by studying the stars. It is no accident that astronomy was one of the first sciences. It had practical applications: astrology (Kepler was a noted astrologer) and the calculation of religious holidays, most notably Easter. One of the reasons Copernicus’s book was not banned was because the church found it useful for calculating the date of Easter. The motion of the planets is also sufficiently complicated that they could not be predicted trivially, yet they were sufficiently simple to be amenable to treatment by the mathematics of the day. Hence, it became the gold standard of science. Essentially we dropped the motivation but kept the calculations.
Alchemy, the other problem ancestor, is even more interesting. The Arabs, those people who are considered to have produced nothing new, had within their ranks Jābir ibn Hayyān (721 – 815), chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, and physicist, pharmacist and physician—in general, an all-around genius. He, along with Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), is regarded as the founder of modern chemistry, but note how far in advance Jābir ibn Hayyān was—900 years. Certainly he took alchemy beyond the occult to the practical. Although the alchemists never succeeded in turning lead into gold, they did produce a lot of useful metallurgy and chemistry. It is indeed possible that along with his chemical pursuits, Jābir ibn Hayyān forged the foundation of science by going down to the laboratory and seeing how things actually worked. It is no surprise that the first two people to introduce something like science into Western Europe, Frederick II (1194 – 1250) and Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), were both very familiar with Arab scholarship and presumably with Jābir ibn Hayyān’s work. In addition, both Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) were alchemists. A major role for alchemy in the development of science cannot be creditably denied.
It is perhaps wrong to think of astrology and alchemy as separate. To turn cabbage into sauerkraut, you need to know the phase of the moon and the same probably holds true for turning lead into gold. Hence, most alchemists were also astrologers. But alchemy and astrology have always had a dark side of occult, showmanship, and outright fraud. A typical, perhaps apocryphal, example would be Dr. Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480 – c. 1540). He was killed around 1540 when his laboratory exploded. Or his laboratory exploded when the devil came to collect his soul. This person is presumably the origin of the Dr. Faust legend of the man who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge. It interesting that this legend arose in the late sixteenth century just as science was beginning to rise from obscurity. The general population’s suspicion of learning, there from the beginning, has perhaps never really gone away.
The philosophers and theologians, the beautiful people, had their jobs in the monasteries and universities but science owes more to the people who sold their soul, or at least their health, to the devil for knowledge. These were the people who actually went down to the laboratories and did the dirty work to see how the world actually works.
To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.