A friend recently asked me how to explain to a group of normal, reasonable people that the ancient Greeks didn’t invent science, and I immediately realized what a massive question that is to answer. I think that our whole approach to intellectual history is wrong – we like to teach secondary school students that all Western culture descends from civilizations that have been gone for thousands of years, and underscore that history, especially the history of science, is just a march of progress towards ever greater rationality and objective understanding. So it’s no wonder that some people think only white people ever did anything worthwhile! [Note: normally I would link to this kind of claim, but I’m making it a policy not to use this blog to promote white nationalism, even if indirectly.] If we make our history an arms race, a zero-sum game of the competing civilizations, we will only ever see ourselves in terms of the past accomplishments that have been most obviously useful to the exact way we are living right now.
Maybe that’s why we’re so surprised that the massive e-commerce sites, online communities, and search engines we loved using in the aughts are now the most powerful bodies in our society and have considerably more control over us and information about us than the government. If we only think about these companies in exactly the way they are now – data businesses – rather than how they started – book retailer! public library! high school cafeteria! – we have no capacity to predict or even understand how a company’s (and therefore a society’s) goals can change as they realize what their technology could be used for. This is kind of the central spoof of the show Silicon Valley – a dopey engineer wants to make a website that will identify a song that’s playing, but accidentally develops a compression algorithm that would completely change the foundation of the internet. The goal post moves as new technology breeds new information breeds new questions breeds new technology.
So I’m writing a series on the history of science designed to challenge this linear, progress-focused way of thinking. I want to deal with topics that are fundamental to how science impacts our daily lives to convince you that the way you think about science is probably limiting your perspective. If we think about why our systems of science are the way they are, we realize that science isn’t something we discover, it’s a system we invent to express concepts that are inherently bigger than words and symbols.
What have the Greeks ever done for us?
If you’re doing even the most cursory overview of a history of “western” science, you will inevitably start with the Greeks, even though you should probably start with the Babylonians. And it makes sense that we start with the Greeks, because what the Greeks did looks very obviously familiar. But the biggest reason ancient Greece seems familiar is because we use the Greek names for things, even when those concepts have changed.
And it’s not a coincidence that we use these Greek words – when modern (roughly 19th century to today) scientists across various disciplines want to name something, they often invent a new Greek word for it. So, on the one hand, “chemistry” is actually the development of the Greek word χημια (chaemia) into English by way of Arabic الخيمياء (al-khemea) which became الكيمياء (al-kemea), which became alchymia in Latin (and maybe also adopted the Greek word at the same time?), which became alchemy and eventually chemistry in English as the two sciences separated (more on this in a future post). In contrast, take a word like “zoology”. This word is a modern invention, that simply slaps together two Greek roots: ζωον (zo’on, meaning animal) and λογοσ (logos, literally meaning “word” but also the study of something). Even though ancient peoples often made observations about animals in a systematized way (an overly complicated way of saying they studied animals), they didn’t have this word for it, or perhaps any single word that means a similar thing. This was not a concept that existed in a remotely similar way in the ancient world, and so modern scientists invented a new Greek word so that their new branch of science would fit neatly into the continuum of Greek science that they saw themselves participating in.
As with a lot of the study of the premodern world, what we think about ancient Greece today is really based on what people in the nineteenth century thought about it. And in the nineteenth century, western Europeans decided that Greece was the height of civilization because – to make a long story very short – nineteenth century empires were trying to fashion themselves after what they thought was the most successful European empire, the Roman Empire (that’s a debatable point), but then they realized that the Romans fashioned all of their culture after other people they conquered, and took the majority of it from the Greeks (and the Etruscans, but for some reason horses didn’t become such a big thing in modern Europe).
But there are some Greek scientific concepts that continue on into what we call science. Chemistry is not a good example of this, by the way – chemistry is what happened to alchemy in the 16th/17th centuries, and Greek “chemistry” was actually alchemy, which was the study of metals. But, again, I’ll come back to this in a future post. Most of the good examples of science that have continued from the ancient Greeks to the present are in medicine. We get a lot of disease names from Greek, and there are some diseases that humans have been interested in writing about since the ancient Greeks. Asthma is one. But even in those cases where the name and the concept of the disease are the same, the disease itself is not necessarily exactly the same condition. This is because ancient medicine classified diseases and medical conditions by their symptoms, no their causes. So, a very modern technical understanding of asthma considers it a chronic condition in which the sufferer’s lungs react to stimuli such as allergens or cold air by constricting or becoming inflamed, resulting in shortness of breath. The ancient Greek definition of asthma didn’t necessarily consider the whole process around being unable to breathe, it simply considered asthma to be a condition whereby an individual is unable to breathe. And this is really the key difference, the break between pre-modern and modern science.
Modern science is fundamentally concerned with cause and effect, the process by which results are brought about, and the reason that a particular outcome is produced. Pre-modern science didn’t focus on this so much – that just wasn’t a type of question that guided pre-modern peoples’ work. Instead, pre-modern science is fundamentally concerned with systems – what is the underlying mechanism, set of relationships, or ongoing function that produces these outcomes? What are the major forces that govern life or the movement of the planets or the existence of consciousness? These are relegated to the category of Really Big Questions in modern science, and although they certainly have a place in our modern scientific study, modern scientists tend to do most of their work without directly addressing these questions.
So, although the Greeks did have a word and a concept of asthma that is the direct ancestor to what we consider to be asthma now, asthma was really just a way of talking about the larger system that governs human health – the four humors and the four elements. And that concept is a huge break from modern science, to the point that it is essentially unrecognizable to most people. Now, I will be the first person to say that there is a way to view the theory of the humors/elements in our modern scientific terminology. But at the end of the day, it is a different way of explaining human health than we use now. And it is different enough that it should not be considered a precursor to our modern system. Just in terms of disease, to get from humoral theory to germ theory (the idea that disease is carried by microorganisms), we had to reconfigure the idea of disease from something that is always possible and can be activated by either human action or an unknown force, to something that is largely preventable because it is external to the body and can literally be killed. There are ways that these two ideas can exist together, like when we are talking about epidemics, but for the most part, the distance between the two ideas requires creating an entirely new framework for thinking about what disease is and how it interacts with people.
At the end of the day, most Greek science is completely separate from modern science because there was a huge reconfiguring of what science is and what kinds of questions it should answer between then and now. And we have a name for this – the Scientific Revolution. It wasn’t the huge upheaval that we often say, but it did codify a different way of approaching science, and created concepts like the scientific method, which informs our approach to every question. This is, again, a topic for its own post. But in short, the difference between the ancient Greeks and us isn’t that our technology is better, but that our questions and our outlook are different.
One of the few aspects of Greek science that really does exist in the modern world is math, or more specifically Euclidian geometry. And the difference between how the Greeks practiced Euclidian geometry and what we do with it is probably the best illustration of why modern science is fundamentally different from ancient science. Greek concepts of geometry represented the world in simple shapes to understand the relationships and ratios in these shapes, like the relationship between two angles on a triangle and the length of the side they share. Perhaps the most famous of these ratios is the relationship between the width of a circle through its center point and its circumference, which we, based on the Greeks, call Pi (π). Pi isn’t just a conceptual ratio or variable, though – Pi has a consistent numerical value, such that all circles have the same relationship between their width and their circumference. And we roughly calculate this numerical value to be 3.14 (plus a lot of other digits that some people like to memorize).
The ancient Greeks understood this. But at the same time, they didn’t. Because ancient math didn’t use numbers. Ancient western writing systems tended to represent only whole numbers, and they did this using their alphabets, rather than a separate vocabulary of numerals [side note: this is where the Jewish practice of Gematria comes from, in which a word has a numerical value that is the sum of the numerical values of all its letters, and this can be used to create equivalency between different words]. The limit of an alphanumeric system like this is that it can only represent numbers that are already known. For instance, I can say that I have five geese. But if I want to calculate how many geese I will have when two of those geese each give birth to five goslings, I cannot compute that calculation in writing – any computation I do is ultimately in my head, and I can only represent the result in writing. This doesn’t really make a difference for simple arithmetic, but when you’re talking about decimals or computing ratios it means that these concepts cannot be represented with specificity, and it’s probably for this reason that Pi is simply π. I think it’s likely that the ancient Greeks had a sophisticated practical understanding of the value of Pi, but I also think that the fact that they had no means of precisely recording or computing it meant that using it was a really specialized skill. An architect, for instance, would have to have a keen eye for understanding the ratios between different objects and distances in order to use Pi in his designs (which the Greeks certainly did). I often wonder whether this kind of verbal/conceptual understanding of numbers is why large numbers in French are expressed as multiplication equations.
While Roman numerals signal an expansion in the practical use of numerical systems in the Mediterranean and Europe, it wasn’t until the introduction of Arabic numerals (or really Hindi numerals) that European, Middle Eastern, and North African cultures had a purely numerical form of notation that could express precise mathematical concepts. This number system existed in Baghdad around the ninth century and made its way into both Latin and Arabic Europe by the end of the tenth (for comparison, Greece ceased to be autonomous in the ancient world after the second century BC and then essentially developed into a different culture after the Roman Empire split in two in the third century).
It’s not just that a numerical system like this allowed for more expression of mathematical concepts, but that the fact that math had existed before the development of this system suggests that the goals of math were different to the point that they did not need such a system. Consider what math, astronomy, and physics – all forms of science that nominally existed in the ancient world – would have looked like without numerical expression. These are sciences that deal heavily in concepts and relationships, that aim to describe but not to pin down. They have little concern for precision in the sense that the value of something is plainly visible and it doesn’t need to be given a more specific name.
Take this illustration as an example. Although numerals are in use in Europe at this time, the mathematical system still considers them optional. The goal of this diagram is to express the ratios in the movement of the moon, but to do so essentially without specificity – everything the reader needs to know is presented visually within the shapes (unlike those standardized math tests where they try to trick you by drawing an angle that is clearly a right angle, but because it doesn’t have the little box you can’t assume that it is so you do the whole problem wrong). It’s a different way of communicating because what the author has to say exists for a different purpose. You could even argue that modern science didn’t really know what to do with numerals until we started building complex machines and became obsessed with expressing everything about these machines in terms of their numerical value.
So is modern geometry still a Greek science with numbers? It’s certainly close. But is modern medicine still Greek without the humors? Certainly not. The Greeks developed plenty of concepts that still exist in our current systems of science as oblique references or nominal relations. But the foundations of modern science – the kinds of questions we ask, the tools we use, our methods and approaches – those are completely separate from the Greeks. And if we are going to attribute our scientific heritage to the Greeks, then we also need to acknowledge the Babylonians, ancient Egyptians, medieval Jews, medieval Arabs and Persians from Spain to Iran, and probably some “barbarians” too, who contributed equally if not more to the science that became Science in a modern sense. If we really want to understand where our science comes from, we need to look at the Scientific Revolution, Alchemy, Epidemiology, and (ugh) Philosophy. Welcome to An Angry History of Science.