The Voltage Gate

Welcome to the Tangled Bank and to The Voltage Gate. The theme of this 84th edition of TB is science in Ancient Greece, so we’ll be exploring what that meant to them, and jumping ahead a couple millenia to find out what it means to us.

I want to begin this edition with an important announcement. Aetiology’s Tara Smith has some news about the Clergy Letter Project (and Evolution Sunday). This founder, Mike Zimmerman, is trying to create a list of scientists who would be willing to answer the more technical questions posed about science and evolution by participating clergy. Tara has all the details, be sure to check it out and participate if you can.

It’s hard to say whether or not the Ancient Greeks ever really practiced science. They claimed to be proponents of reason and observation, but their observations were usually brief and they leaned on reason and rhetoric to explain the world around them. They more often found truth in logic and faith. Surely, the meaning of all of these words – science, reason, truth, faith – have changed over the millenia and the Ancient Greeks were indeed explorers and discoverers. Regardless, they have done much for laying the groundwork for modern science.

Probably the most fundamental question you can ask about science in Ancient Greece is was it actually science? Did they perform controlled experiments? Empedocles is tentatively slated to have been the first experimenter, and Alun from Clioaudio suggests that there is some evidence of this based on a recent translation.

Biology/Zoology/Evolution

Aristotle is most often hailed as a great zoologist, credited with writing extensive treatises on the subject. This has become more contentious of late. Aristotle did in fact write some early information on marine animals, but his later works could be attributed to Theophrastrus, his successor at Lyceum. Regardless, Aristotle had a hand in their formation. Within the treatises, over 1,000 plants and animals are categorized and described according to their physical and behavioral characteristics (though not on a species by species basis).

Ideas about evolution are also attributed to Aristotle. He believed that all natural phenomena have a purpose, as stated in Parts of Animals, which some scholars construe as early ecological/evolutionary thought:

The same bird never possesses both spurs and talons, and the reason is that Nature never makes anything that is superfluous or needless.

They believed in the mutability of things. Thales was one of the first to explore the natural world by observation. He believed that water was fundamental, and all life must have literally come from the water, taking shape from it much as ice does. Anaximander, his younger comtemporary, believed that humans evolved from a sea dwelling species.

Our conceptions of biology are a bit more grounded:

Medicine

Back in the 500s BCE, Alcmaeon proposed the idea of body forces – hot and cold – that caused sickness when imbalanced. This developed into the idea of humours eventually and maintaining a necessary balance within the body to stay healthy. The Greeks were not above learning (stealing?) from other cultures as well. The Egyptians were unmatched as surgeons at the time (and perhaps as far back as 2000 BCE) honed perhaps through ritualistic practices like embalming. The Greek learned what they could from the Egyptians, and classical Greek medicine was born. Hippocrates and the oath came later.

From humours and forces to blood and bones:

Environment

Like the early writings of Arabic naturalists, there is no real call for the protection of nature because humans were still largely at odds with nature, though the Ancient Greeks certainly studied it and were inspired by its beauty. There are even examples of biogeographical content in De Causis Plantarum (pictured above), discussing the distribution, range and composition of certain species of plants.

Not at odds, we write:

Astronomy

Ancient Greek astronomy has its roots in myth and ritual. Like many other ancient cultures, the Greeks saw their deities in the stars, and assigned them names as constellations. But starting in around 500 BCE, with Thales’ accurate measurements of the sun’s diameter, Pythagoras’ observation that the world is round and Anaxagoras’ notions that the sun and moon were in fact natural phenomena (leading to his arrest for contradicting the state religion), astronomy was beginning to take shape in the descriptions of celestial bodies.

That does it for TB #84. A big thank you goes out to all of the contributors for a solid science carnival (and to Frank Egerton for his lovely series on life science history). Be sure to check out TB in two weeks at Migrations!

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    July 18, 2007

    Wonderful stuff Jeremy; I always love these historical posts. Perhaps my favorite pre-evolutionary belief amongst the Greeks was that parts of animals were created, colliding with each other to make monstrous forms, most of which were unable to reproduce. The monsters died, however, and those that could reproduce and survive led to extant lineages.

    If you’re really into this topic you might want to check out H.F. Osborn’s From the Greeks to Darwin and Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters, both of which deal with ideas about paleontology and evolution at the height of Greek and Roman power. It’s absolutely amazing to see the good ideas (and bad ideas) that have largely been forgotten now, and (as Osborn notes) the various reversals that occurred when it came to figuring out “transmutation.”

  2. #2 Russell
    July 18, 2007

    Well, yes, astronomy was beginning to take shape in the 6th century BCE. And the Greeks continued to make great strides in it over the following centuries. They developed methods for measuring relative sizes and distances of solar bodies, which were used to make quite accurate measurements of the earth (Eratosthenes), developed an accurate model solar motion, admittedly geocentric, understood precession and the difference between sidereal and tropical years, and even proposed heliocentrism (Aristarchus). For astronomy alone, the Greeks can fairly be said to have invented science. Ptolemy’s Almagest was the major science text in Europe until the renaissance. One can go from it to the work of Galileo and Kepler (those were real scientists, right?) without noticing a significant gap, despite the fact that over a millennium had passed between.

    In medicine, Herophilus taught that knowledge of how the body worked should be drawn from observation. He practice dissection, and thus learned the brain was the center of the nervous system. The school of medicine at Alexandria invented the practice of anatomy. Is that not a science?

    And I’m surprised to see mathematics omitted from the discussion. Surely the notion of axiomatic systems (Euclid), iterative methods (Archimedes), and the practice of applying mathematics to physics and astronomy count for something?

    It’s easy to look at all of this as quite basic. But it wasn’t there before. In the modern world, we learn it and live it and breathe it from our first school days. Someone had to invent science. And it was the ancient Greeks who did so.

  3. #3 Jeremy
    July 18, 2007

    Russell:

    As I said, it’s hard to say who exactly invented science. The Greeks played their part, opened the door a bit more, but modern science did not begin until the 16th century and 17th century with the implementation of a rigorous, well defined scientific method combined with the proper tools to analyze our surroundings. We can see glimmers of this in the ancient past with folks like Herophilus, but his work philosophy was hardly well developed.

    As far as math is concerned, again the Greeks played their part, and math is essential to proper analysis in many fields. But math is not science, and we are talking about science here.

    I will also remind you that this is not a thesis on the influences Ancient Greece had on scientific discipline. It was merely a light-hearted way to organize the carnival and avoid it becoming just another link list.

  4. #4 The Commissar
    July 18, 2007

    I submitted this post
    http://acepilots.com/mt/2007/07/12/anabasis-book-1-ch-5-animals-and-millstones/

    to this edition of Tangled Bank, it relating, loosely to Greek observations of natural history.

    If I might be permitted a little self-promotion, I am reading (in the original Greek), and concurrently blogging, Xenophon’s Anabasis.

  5. #5 bob koepp
    July 18, 2007

    Galen definitely performed experiments as part of his inquiry into functional anatomy, particularly as it relates to the central nervous system. Be careful, though — his descriptions of vivesection are not for the faint of heart.

  6. #6 Monado
    July 18, 2007

    The link for “Identify your own damn galaxies” should be http://badastronomy.com/bablog/2007/07/11/discover-new-galaxies/

    Somehow an image GIF link got into it as well.

    My brother pointed it out to me and I’ve been classifying galaxies!

    Great stuff!

  7. #7 Russell
    July 18, 2007

    Let me add that I’m not trying to draw bright lines. I don’t believe that even science now is quite as closely defined as many think. Mostly, I’m trying to point out how remarkable it was what the ancient Greeks did. Before, there was little rigorous in the way of science. After, there was astronomy as nature, not a mythical story, analog computers that accurately modeled the solar system, accurate measurements of the size of the earth, mathematical models of basic mechanics, the notion of axiomatic system, anatomical studies, methodological discussion of how to think about these results, and more. Primitive compared to today? Of course. But still the start of what came after, and quite different from how people thought about things before.

  8. #8 Jeremy
    July 19, 2007

    thanks for the link. there’s some choice material in this round-up, and I appreciate your setting it in context.

  9. #9 harold
    July 19, 2007

    I love fifteenth century manuscripts, but don’t you think that you should explain what the image at the top of the page is?

    Ridiculous as it may seem, somebody might mistake it for an “Ancient Greek book” without an explanation in place. (Yes, I know, the writing is in Latin, but still…)

  10. #10 Jeremy
    July 19, 2007

    I did, harold:

    There are even examples of biogeographical content in De Causis Plantarum (pictured above), discussing the distribution, range and composition of certain species of plants.

    This particular book was translated in the 15th century by Theodore of Gaza, but the contents are still Theophrastus’.

  11. #11 Glen Gordon
    July 20, 2007

    Russell: “But still the start of what came after, and quite different from how people thought about things before.”

    Here’s a thought-provoker: How do we know what our ancestors knew before the Greeks knew what they knew? Maybe the Greeks only rediscovered what others already learned millenia ago :)

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  14. #14 sohbet
    October 17, 2008

    Galen definitely performed experiments as part of his inquiry into functional anatomy, particularly as it relates to the central nervous system.

  15. #15 zayıflama
    June 27, 2009

    I will also remind you that this is not a thesis on the influences Ancient Greece had on scientific discipline. It was merely a light-hearted way to organize the carnival and avoid it becoming just another link list.

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