Science Is What Makes Us Human

In his inaugural address, President Obama pledged to "restore science to its rightful place." Following up on that, the Corporate Masters have launched the Rightful Place Project, asking bloggers, readers, and scientists to define the rightful place of science.

Many of these responses will focus on narrow matters of policy, but as many have said with regard to the economic crisis, this is no time for timid measures. It's a time for big thoughts and bold action. With that in mind, here's my take on the question of science's rightful place, which, in the end, boils down to defining what science is:

Science is the most fundamental human activity there is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that science is what makes us human

Some people will object to this claim, saying that science as we know it is a relatively modern invention, too recent to be a fundamental human activity. To my mind this is like saying that art is not a fundamental human activity, because perspective painting didn't get nailed down until the Renaissance.

The problem is one of context, and thinking too small. Science as a set of well-defined activities and institutions is, indeed, a modern invention, but that's not the essential core of science. Science is a process, not a collection of facts or institutions, and the essential elements of science have been with us from the dawn of the species.

The essential beginning of science is simple curiosity. Science doesn't begin with a hypothesis, it begins with a "Huh." The first scientist wasn't Galileo or Newton-- the first scientist was the first proto-human to look at the world and say, "I wonder why that happened?"

Science is, at its core, a four-step process: Look, Think, Test, and Tell.

  1. Look at some phenomenon in the world
  2. Think up a possible explanation for it
  3. Test your explanation by further observations or experiments
  4. Tell everyone you know the results.

The whole thing didn't become institutionalized until surprisingly recently, but in its essential elements, it's been with us forever.

The first human to figure out how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together was doing science. The first human to figure out how to plant and harvest crops was doing science. The first human to work out that when the sun rises over that rock, it's time to start planting was doing science.

Science is what sets us apart from animals. It's what let us become hunters rather than scavengers, despite not having teeth or claws. It's what let us become farmers rather than hunter-gatherers. It's what let us build cities rather than huddling in caves and fearing the dark.

Some people (most of them humanities scholars) will claim art as more fundamentally human than science, but that's wrong. Science pre-dates art-- somebody had to figure out how to make the red dye to daub on the walls of those caves. That person was doing science.

So what is the rightful place of science? It's at the very core of what we do and who we are.

Science should be known and celebrated not as an arcane activity accessible only to freaks and geeks, but as the most fundamental of human activities. You don't need beakers and tubes to do science, or particle accelerators, or multi-dimensional vector calculus. All you need are eyes and ears and a brain, and a willingness to look at the world and say "I wonder why that happened?" You don't get more human than that.

How do we restore science to its rightful place? We need to stop teaching our children to accept received wisdom without question, and that it's frivolous or nerdy to wonder how things work, and why things are. We need to start teaching them to look for causes, to ask questions, and to care about the answers.

To do anything less is to be untrue to our heritage as human beings.

More like this

Agreed. Mostly. Science is as fundamental as your child consistently nagging you with "why did that happen?" and "How Come?" or the eternal bane of parents everywhere, the simple "Why?"

Whether it is more fundamental than art? I don't think we need to go there, really. Rather, the two seem to be outgrowths of the same innate human trait to explore, explain, and symbolize the human experience. I need not go back over how many scientists are also artists and musicians and how many musicians and artists have an interest in keeping up with the science. Musicians in particular have been tech heads from the get go, always demanding the latest and greatest technology of whatever age they live in, whether it be new material for strings, or the latest version of Pro-Tools plug-ins for re-mixes (run on the latest dual core computers, of course). The technology of sound-to-tape was barely invented before Edgar Varese stated experimenting with machine and actual "tape loops" (real loops of tape strung across the room between two machines).

Did Pythagoras work out the frequency of the musical scale because he was interested in science of because he was interested in music? I think you're opening a chicken-and-egg with that one.

Not to mention, you, being a scientist, have a particular slant of course. Ask a bunch of musicians that question and you'll get a real hot thread going. Oh, wait, I'm a musician...

Everything else is dead-on.

I also liked John Wilkins answer to the question over at Evolving Thoughts.…


Whether it is more fundamental than art? I don't think we need to go there, really.

Check out this very interesting interview on artistic universals...

"And more recently heâs turned his attention controversially to the question: What is Art? Have artists been surreptitiously coopted by a brain thatâs evolved over millennia? For his explorations Richard Dawkins has described Ramachandran â or Rama as heâs known, as âa latter day Marco Polo, journeying the silk road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mindâ."

"Natasha Mitchell: We are expecting to see a new book from you down the track in Australia called The Artful Brain, and youâre certainly well known for brave and creative hypothesising, always a good skill in the sciences, but tell me, what motivated you as a neuroscientists to take on thatâs one of the wiliest question of all and that is - What is Art?"

And this from Neurology Reviews


"âOkay, so explain art,â Dr. Ramachandran challenged himself. âThe question is, are there artistic universals, just like there are linguistic universals? There is a great diversity of styles in art, but could it be that despite this staggering diversity, there are some common principles, some universal laws? And then, of course, thereâs the corollary: how does the brain respond to art?"

"Dr. Ramachandran emphasized that these theories and observations are âno more than hesitant first steps toward a science of artâtoward discovering artistic universalsâthe new science of âneuroaesthetics.ââ To conclude, he returned to the questions about the human mind and consciousness he started with. âWhat is consciousness? What do you mean by falling in love? What is free will? What is âthe selfâ? What is humor, music, art? How did language and abstract thinking and metaphor and poetry evolve in humans? When I was a medical student, these were things you pondered only if you didnât want to get tenure. Now, given our wonderful imaging technology, if we ask the right questions, do the right experiments on the right patients, we can begin to answer these lofty questions about the mind which until now have remained in the domain of philosophers.â"

âThis explains, I think, why synesthesia is so much more common in artists, poets, and novelists. What do artists, poets, and novelists have in common? They use metaphor, analogy. They can take seemingly unrelated ideas and link them."--Vs Ramchnadran

...interesting subject. Several studies suggest that the genetic material for synesthesia is shared by as many as 5% of all humans. Many well known synesthetes are music composers, pianists, poets and authors. Among scientists, Richard Feynman, one of most creative physicists of 20th century, is a notable exception.

1. Moses saw a miraculous burning bush.
2. He thought God was behind it.
3. He tested it with 10 plagues in Egypt.
4. He told everyone that God was behind them.

I feel that Science Makes Us Human, but Not Science Alone.

Here a scientist and writer's writer puts it better:

"There is no science without fancy and no art without fact." -- Vladimir Nabokov

IN any case, there is no Science in America, other than through immigrants, without Science Education. And no Science Education without more money for Education.

Of course, this is colored by my having been laid off as a science teacher 6 months before finally collecting my Secondary School Full-time Teaching Credential that I've spent 1.5 years and circa $5K earning, despite having voluntarily taken a huige pay cut by leaving the university and college teaching business.

H.R. 1 includes the following [excerpted from a summary linked to from the Huffington Post, which also has the full 647-page PDF that I have trouble searching):


Education for the 21st Century: To enable more children to learn in 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries
to help our kids compete with any worker in the world, this package provides:

* $41 billion to local school districts through Title I ($13 billion), IDEA ($13 billion), a new School Modernization and Repair Program ($14 billion), and the Education Technology program ($1 billion).

* $79 billion in state fiscal relief to prevent cutbacks to key services, including $39 billion to local school
districts and public colleges and universities distributed through existing state and federal formulas, $15
billion to states as bonus grants as a reward for meeting key performance measures, and $25 billion to states
for other high priority needs such as public safety and other critical services, which may include education.

* $15.6 billion to increase the Pell grant by $500.

Slightly expanded:


We will put people to work building 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries to help our kids compete with any worker in the world.

21st Century Classrooms

* School Construction: $20 billion, including $14 billion for K-12 and $6 billion for higher education, for
renovation and modernization, including technology upgrades and energy efficiency improvements. Also includes $100 million for school construction in communities that lack
a local property tax base because they contain non-taxable federal lands such as military bases or Indian reservations, and $25 million to help charter schools build, obtain, and repair schools.

* Education Technology: $1 billion for 21st century classrooms, including computer and science labs and
teacher technology training.

Higher Education: Tuition is up, unemployment is up, and as a result more people are choosing to go to school
to upgrade their skills and more of these students need student aid.

This investment addresses those short term needs while investing in our nation's future economic strength.

* Pell Grants: $15.6 billion to increase the maximum Pell Grant by $500, from $4,850 to $5,350.

* College Work-Study: $490 million to support undergraduate and graduate students who work.

* Student Loan Limit Increase: Increases limits on unsubsidized Stafford loans by $2,000.

* Student Aid Administration: $50 million to help the Department of Education administer surging student aid programs while navigating the changing student loan environment.

K-12 Education: As states begin tackling a projected $350 billion in budget shortfalls these investments will prevent cuts to critical education programs and services.

* IDEA Special Education: $13 billion for formula grants to increase the federal share of special education
costs and prevent these mandatory costs from forcing states to cut other areas of education.

* Title I Help for Disadvantaged Kids: $13 billion for grants to help disadvantaged kids in nearly every school district and more than half of all public schools reach high
academic standards.

* Statewide Data Systems: $250 million for competitive grants to states to design and develop data systems
that analyze individual student data to find ways to improve student achievement, providing teachers and
administrators with effective tools.

* Education for Homeless Children and Youth: $66 million for formula grants to states to provide services
to homeless children including meals and transportation when high unemployment and home foreclosures have created an influx of homeless kids.

* Improving Teacher Quality: $300 million, including $200 million for competitive grants to school
districts and states to provide financial incentives for teachers and principals who raise student achievement
and close the achievement gaps in high-need schools and $100 million for competitive grants to states to address teacher shortages and modernize the teaching workforce.

Early Childhood Development

* Child Care Development Block Grant: $2 billion to provide child care services for an additional 300,000
children in low-income families while their parents go to work. Today only one out of seven eligible children receives care.

* Head Start: $2.1 billion to provide comprehensive development services to help 110,000 additional
children succeed in school. Funds are distributed based on need. Only about half of all eligible preschoolers and less than 3 percent of eligible infants and toddlers participate in Head Start.

* IDEA Infants and Families: $600 million for formula grants to help states serve children with disabilities
age 2 and younger.

I'm having a hard time tracing back to page numbers, as the above is extracted from the first of 3 summary pages linked to from Huffington Post.

One should be able to string search the PDF, but for whatever reason I'm having problems with that.


I must carefully dissent here.

I see where you're trying to go with this: Science is the endeavor that makes us human, therefore all humans are scientists, and therefore we should all be more mindful of and appreciative of science and the scientific mindset.

Well, yes, I agree with the final conclusion, and I believe you were writing in good faith. Nevertheless, it's possible to read what you wrote as being fairly self-serving: Science is the endeavor that makes us human, therefore people who aren't doing science aren't really human. I know you don't mean it like that, but it does somewhat rankle.

Besides, every other profession out there can come up with a similar statement: Economic activity is what makes us human. Art is what makes us human. Engineering is what makes us human. Language is what makes us human. Prayer is what makes us human. Ad nauseam. (And the linguists have a very powerful argument for primacy against you, in particular-- it's hard to perform your step four without being able to tell people about it.)

Of course, the other thing you're trying to do is provoke debate and discussion, and in that you've succeeded by getting me to respond, but still, I dissent.

By John Novak (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

Sounds like something we might have batted around the freshman dormitory on speed at 3:00 am.

I assume you believe that the origins of agriculture and the emergence of urban life were "advancements" in human culture.

By Eric the Leaf (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

John: Nevertheless, it's possible to read what you wrote as being fairly self-serving: Science is the endeavor that makes us human, therefore people who aren't doing science aren't really human. I know you don't mean it like that, but it does somewhat rankle.

I disagree with that reading. Or, perhaps more accurately, I agree with the statement, but not in the sense that you mean it.

For that statement to be insulting, you need to conflate the two different meanings of science. I would not be willing to say that capital-S Science in the sense of formal institutions and practices is essential to humanity-- there's a perfectly good case to be made that, say, being a doctor is more valuable to humanity than, say, theoretical high energy physics. There's no problem with people choosing not to do Science.

I would be ok with saying that of small-s science, in the exceedingly broad sense of thinking systematically about the world, and making and testing mental models. Calling them subhuman might be a little strong, but I would say that there's something seriously wrong with people who go through life without ever questioning anything, or thinking systematically and critically about anything.

(I shared a house with a couple of them during grad school, so believe me when I say it takes hard work to be that dumb.)

Eric: I assume you believe that the origins of agriculture and the emergence of urban life were "advancements" in human culture.

Yeah, I would.
I know enough people who hunt for sport that I never bought into the idea of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as idyllic.

The discussion of advancement and progress in human culture is far more developed than your simplistic reaction. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the most successful in the history of the species, having a minium duration of 200,000 years or perhaps much more depending on your definitions.

The originis of agriculture and settled life was probably not a conscious outcome based on the aspiriations of the participants. This view is antiquated.

It is a larger and more interesting question to wonder whether the neolithic "revolution," so short as it has been, is ultimately a successful one for the species. The jury, many contend, is still out.

For a nice overview, check out Jared Diamond's short essay "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" or the more sweeping "Cannibals and Kings" by Marvin Harris.

By Eric the Leaf (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

The discussion of advancement and progress in human culture is far more developed than your simplistic reaction. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the most successful in the history of the species, having a minium duration of 200,000 years or perhaps much more depending on your definitions.

That's certainly one way to define success. Of course, by that standard, the jury's still out on multi-cellular life.

My personal definition of success includes antibiotics, indoor plumbing, and the Internet.

I'm perfectly willing to accept that hunter-gathering is a local maximum and that early agriculture and subsistence farming suck more than hunting and gathering. Anybody wanting to argue that it's a global maximum is invited to write their argument on a piece of bark and hand-carry it to my office.

I would suggest that since the origins of agriculture the vast percentage of human populations have spent their lives in the servitude of others and lived lives far more unhealthy and labor-intensive than their hunter-gatherer forebears. At least one rewarding method of analyzing the basis for culture change is to follow the flow of energy, its aquisition and redistribution, through the ecosystem. The modern wealth of certain populations is largely a consequence of enormous subsidies procured from the drawdown of stored energy. For some, but probably not even the majority of the human population, this has meant almost unlimited access to high quality proteins, among other things--at least for a while.

I'll pass on the bark, thank you. But I like the imagery.

By Eric the Leaf (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

I, too, am dubious as to whether subsistence agriculture was a plus. Subsistence farming even today sucks for the farmers, as any look at rural areas of the Third World will tell you, and it allowed the priests/emperors to hire thugs with spears in order to perpetuate the new status quo. But once that step was taken, it was effectively irreversible. So mankind looked for a better way forward, and the development of urban culture was that way. Urban culture was a definite step forward, as long as some means existed to keep the population in check. I'd say the overall result was an improvement, although some of the steps along the way were not.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

Chad, can I quote-and-link for my grade 10 science class starting up this week?

Chad, can I quote-and-link for my grade 10 science class starting up this week?

Anything on the blog can be quoted and linked to freely, provided it's attributed to me.

I probably ought to figure out what variant of Creative Commons that is, and put the appropriate icon in the sidebar.

I quoted this:

Some people (most of them humanities scholars) will claim art as more fundamentally human than science, but that's wrong. Science pre-dates art-- somebody had to figure out how to make the red dye to daub on the walls of those caves. That person was doing science.

to a friend 'cause I liked it.

He pointed out (obliquely) that visual art is only one of the arts, by saying:

I think we probably had storytelling and singing before anyone invented paint.

And possibly even before we had fire. Or any other technological advance. It may even be that storytelling enabled science (at least step 4 of the process Chad enumerated) to exist.

Seems to me that science (small s - the tendency to want to know why things work) is necessary to make us human, but not sufficient. I doubt that we'll ever find a single aspect that we'll ever be able to point to and say, "That is what makes us human," with the implication that 'that' is the only thing we need to be human.

Science is a necessary ingredient, but, like flour in a cake, it's not the only necessary one.

By Wilson Fowlie (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

It is not the "Two Cultures" fallacy that distinguishes Science and Art. It is a paradigmatic recogition, or denial, of whether humans are Rational.

"... Stanovich coined his own term â dysrationalia â for 'the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence.' That 'disorder,' he suggests, might afflict some of the smartest people you know...."

Irrational Intelligence; Get Smarter
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ohh, I'd go a step further than that. Anything intelligent has to make hypotheses about its environment and test them. Animals trying unfamiliar foodstuffs are doing science.

I'd say art makes us human: for a certain value of human, of course.

That being the case, where did antiscience come from, if science is so basic? Art attempting to do the job of science, perhaps. A false trail, which we are in the process of abandoning.

Science is the endeavor that makes us human, therefore people who aren't doing science aren't really human.

Or perhaps the woos aren't true scotsmen.

re #18: "where did antiscience come from, if science is so basic?"

The two extremes:

(1) Pseudosciences such as Alchemy and Astrology predate and evolved into Sciences such as Chemistry and Astronomy; hence the remnants (Astrology columns syndicated in newspapers) are fossil species, akin to gingko trees or horseshoe crabs. Just as every religion begins as a cult but not every cult becomes a religion, so also it can be argued that every science began as a mishmash of nonsense and "natural philosophy", but not every mishmash evolves into a science.

(2) Intentional fraud and disinformation (as in Intelligent Design) by criminally-minded individuals and groups seeking money, sex, and power.

There are colors in between. Scientism is the attempt to wrap pseudoscience or nonscience in a scientific veneer.

And sometimes pseudoscience turns out to have been premature science -- Wegener's Continental Drift, or John Mitchell's Newtonian Black Holes.

I have been exploring this in my novel manuscript, now rushing towards completion. I set my murder mystery in a world where magic was never displaced by science, but coexists, as Newton was also successful as an Alchemist, and Kepler as an Astrologer. I've been researching the origins of the Royal Society, when the science/occult lines was not where it is now, and on the details of Holy Roman Emperor funding both science (i.e. ordering Kepler to edit the Rudolphine Tables for Brahe) and and the Occult (he was the most extensive collector of occult manuscripts in Europe).

One Royal Society publication mentions:

"Isaac Newton has been 'outed' many times as an alchemist. As long ago as 1855, his biographer David Brewster felt reluctantly obliged to disclose that the paragon of rationalist science had also been 'the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry' and had seriously studied and annotated works that were 'the obvious product of a fool
and a knave'.1 When the bulk of what had been deemed Newton's non-'scientific' papers was auctioned at Sotheby's in 1936, the economist J. M. Keynes set about amassing what remains the world's largest collection of 'chymical' Newtoniana (now held in King's College, Cambridge).2 In his posthumously published article 'Newton, the Man', Keynes radically challenged the prevailing 'rationalist hero' image of Newton, declaring that he 'was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.'3"

"Since then, no serious student of Newton has been able to overlook his Hermetic side. F. S. Taylor, B. J. T. Dobbs, Karin Figala, R. S. Westfall and W. R. Newman, among many others, have made valuable contributions to the understanding of Newton's alchemy and its relation to his other studies. Yet comparatively recent popular biographies such as Michael White's The last sorcerer and Louis Verlet's La malle de Newton [Newton's trunk], and two still more recent BBC television documentaries, have made much of Newton's 'secret life' as an alchemist and the shock value of 'revealing' it all over again.4"

So if President Obama is using Keynesian Stimulus for our economy, are you 100% sure that he isn't trying Newtonian Magic?

Hurry to beat the 1 Feb 2009 deadline to read ANY of the online papers of The Royal Society.

The idea that the first people who learned to cook with fire were doing science sets the stage for a massive irony.

Those people may have discovered what worked, but they did not discover *why* it worked - they had no reality-based theories. The only way to prevent subtle poisoning was to follow the recipes by rote.

In fact, and I mean this literally, the recipes for detoxifying food had to be followed religiously. Any "sin" or deviation would result in your family fading away. Following the received wisdom, however arcane or disconnected from the rest of reality, would result in you and your family prospering.

The need to religiously follow complicated recipes would thus have been bred into us for many tens of thousands of years.

In other words, the "science" of cooking may very well have given us a strong genetic propensity for religion. It may not be a coincidence that so many cults and religions have idiosyncratic food rules. And the mindset I described above - follow the rules and your family will prosper, and vice versa - can be seen very clearly in, for example, the Book of Proverbs.

(By the way, I disagree that an activity is science if it doesn't lead to reality-based theories. Discovery, exploration, memory, cultural transmission of ideas - these make us human. Science merely makes us right more often, and can sometimes point out new areas to explore.)

Chris Phoenix, as is evident from #21, is a Deep Thinker about Evolution, even though his employment background is more in the Software regime; this makes him parallel to, for instance, Dr. Mark Chu-Carroll of the ScienceBlog "Good Math, Bad Math."

There are numerous interesting analogies on different approaches to Truth and Justice in:

'Angels and Ages' by Adam Gopnik
The proposition: that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin can be linked in the transforming effect they had.
By Richard Eder
Los Angeles Times
February 1, 2009
Angels and Ages
A Short Book About Darwin,
Lincoln, and Modern Life
Adam Gopnik
Alfred A. Knopf: 224 pp., $24.95

It is an exploration more than a settlement. Adam Gopnik calls his thoughts about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln a "short book." His aim is not to erect one more edifice upon such grandly built properties but to travel around them, reflecting.

His travel voucher, so to speak, is a proposition: that two great figures, seemingly so different in their achievements, backgrounds and characters, can be linked in the transforming effect each had on their times and times to follow.

Gopnik extends the links to all manner of things: modest demeanors for evolving unshakable purposes, immense ideas argued engagingly from homely particulars, strong family ties, devastating family tragedies. Beyond these, he sees a larger tragedy at the root of their transforming work: universal death as the necessary agent of natural selection; vast death as the agent of emancipation....

He starts with an entertaining fact... Both were born on Feb. 12, 1809.... out of the deep reflection upon what he saw -- his mighty theories emerged. Each man practiced 'the slow crawl of fact' to travel distances. 'Snails with sublime purposes are what they both were.'" [truncated]

What your looking for with this is what separates us from nature not what makes us human.