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.
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:
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:
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:
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!