The Mythical Stillbirth of Science in Greece

A few years ago a hyper-religious Catholic chemist with no history credentials wrote a face-palming article at Strange Notions that repeats an all-too-common myth Christians love to sell today: that science was “stillborn” in antiquity, and only a Bible-based Christian theology could rescue it. I still occasionally have that Strange Notions article cited at me. And I’m sure many naive folks are still being taken in by it. So here’s why articles like this are embarrassing and Christians need to stop saying stupid things like that.

Let’s Clear Some Things Up First

Of course, I’ve thoroughly refuted this myth already in a whole chapter on it, fully referenced, in The Christian Delusion (“Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science,” pp. 396-419). I’ll have a great deal more to say on the subject in my next book, The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, which you can pre-order now on Amazon (the sequel to last year’s Science Education in the Early Roman Empire).

But the gist of what I show in TCD is this:

  • Correlation is not causation. That the Scientific Revolution was finally completed when Christians ruled the West, was as much an irrelevant happenstance as that it occurred in England.
  • Pagan theology and even de facto atheism both inspired empirical-mathematical-mechanistic scientific thinking in antiquity. Christianity contributed nothing.
  • No cyclical theory of time had any effect on scientific thought or progress in antiquity. Christian expectations of the imminent end of the universe were actually far more antithetical to investment in science.
  • Animism died out with Aristotle. It was never a significant component of any ancient science after him. And even he was not fond of it. (Also, just FYI: vitalism is not animism, and was not overthrown until a century after the Scientific Revolution.)
  • There was no head-hand divide. Scientists were both highly educated intellectuals and talented hands-on craftsman, and were respected by their peers and superiors for mastering both.
  • Badly preserving a lost science treated as gospel and never improved on or even correctly understood (as defines the Medieval treatment of science) is not “doing science.” The Greeks and Romans were actually doing science.
  • Everything distinctive of the Scientific Revolution existed in antiquity: They had systematic controlled experiments, careful observation, mathematically predictive descriptions of nature, mechanical theories and models, and continual progress toward correct conclusions about the laws, contents, and operations of nature. (And as I also show in Science Education, they even had the equivalent of universities and scientific societies.)
  • Science was only killed by the collapse of the civilization that supported it. Which was a political, not an intellectual failure. The third century saw a fifty-year civil war ending in the collapse of the fiduciary economy. What arose from the ashes was basically the ancient equivalent of Panem: a facade of glory resting on a ravaged and fucked economic and social system no one did anything to fix, and that was only kept in check by a ruthless fascism. Run by Christians.
  • The only intellectual zeitgeist that put an end to science was Christianity. It did not wage any war on science (contrary to exaggerated myths); but it did scorn and dissuade everyone from the values necessary to a successful scientific enterprise: embracing curiosity as a moral virtue, assigning evidence the highest authority in debate, and believing in the value and possibility of progress in scientific and technical knowledge. The pagan elite had all three of those things. Medieval Christians held all three in suspicion or contempt.

Christians need to read and address that chapter before continuing their contrary nonsense. But here’s why it only makes them look foolish to keep saying such silly things…

More Strange Notions

The new article continuing the baloney I debunked years before is a piece written by Stacy Trasancos, called The Stillbirth of Science in Greece. It’s intro says it’s “based on Fr. Stanley L. Jaki’s research,” which is a huge red flag. I demonstrate in TCD that everything Jaki said about ancient science is false. In some cases so obviously false I strongly suspect him of outright lying. Jaki also, incidentally, had no credentials as a historian. This is Catholic fundamentalism run amok. And what Trasancos includes in her essay is really just a mindless repetition of Jaki’s lies. Not a single item fact-checked. Gullibility is evidently one of the most common Christian diseases.

Right out of the bat Trasancos doesn’t seem to know science continued to advance under the Romans, who absorbed and supplanted the Greeks as an independent entity. Greeks were still the leading scientists, but now they were Roman citizens working in Roman occupations and institutions with Roman patronage. But even worse, she doesn’t even know that science continued to advance even after Aristotle.

Trasancos says “there is a long list of scholars who left behind writings that inspire intellectual endeavors to this day,” at which she lists only a handful of Presocratic philosophers and Aristotle—thereby excluding all the greatest scientists of the ancient world. The Presocratics were already obsolete by Aristotle’s time; and indeed most of what Aristotle did was refute and correct them on everything. Worse for Trasancos, even Aristotle, who ended the Classical Age and after whose death began the Hellenistic Era, was obsolete by the time the Roman Empire had conquered the Mediterranean, and indeed most of what the great scientists of the Hellenistic and Roman eras did was refute and correct Aristotle on everything. If you don’t know that—if you think ancient science ended with Aristotle—you don’t know what you are talking about.

Catholics Have Always Been Disturbingly Obsessed with Aristotle

Foot squarely in mouth, Trasancos says “the most mature form of science achieved during Hellenic times in the biological sciences was that of Aristotle’s.” Um. No. Holy balls no. There were also of course other sciences besides biology—like physics and astronomy, which advanced immensely after Aristotle. But so did biology.

She bases her assertion on the singular claim that Aristotle’s “On the Generation of Animals remained, until modern times, the authority on embryology.” Um. No. That would be Galen’s On the Formation of the Fetus (supplemented by On Semen and On the Natural Faculties). Written in the 2nd century A.D. Under the Roman Empire.

True, in the Middle Ages, when Aristotle was rediscovered after the Dark Ages, most scholars had lost almost all the scientific treatises and knowledge available in the Roman era, and mistakenly thought Aristotle’s was the best and latest in everything. But when Galen was rediscovered a few centuries later, Aristotle was no longer top dog. There would also have been more treatises on embryology written in the ancient world after Aristotle that weren’t preserved, even in quotation. But embryology isn’t the whole field of biology anyway. We know Galen wrote a treatise on plant physiology—though not preserved by Medieval Christians—and he conducted extensive research on animal anatomy and physiology as well. All of which were the most advanced studies of any composed since Aristotle.

Advances in biology had already been made by the likes of Theophrastus (Aristotle’s successor), Dioscorides, and Nicolaus of Damascus, though most of their research was not preserved by Medieval Christians, either. We likewise don’t have the works of Sostratus on animal biology. But from surviving quotations we know he was advancing well beyond Aristotle. Dioscorides, Nicolaus, and Sostratus were all scientists of the Roman era. But even by the time of Herophilus, in the third century B.C. (just a century after Aristotle), anatomical and physiological theory had left Aristotle in the dust (more on that point shortly). And those were by no means the only post-Aristotelians advancing the field of biology beyond him before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Then Trasancos moves to physics. Even though Aristotle wasn’t a physicist. But whatever. “Aristotle asserted,” Trasancos says, “that if two bodies were dropped from the same height at the same time, the one with twice the weight of the other one would fall twice as fast because it had twice the nature and twice the desire to do so.” Almost nothing in that sentence is true. Aristotle believed what made weights fall was a natural tendency, in other words what we would call a natural law, not a “desire.” He actually repudiated the “desire” theory of natural motion, advocated by Empedocles a century before. And Aristotle never once said what would happen if “two bodies were dropped from the same height at the same time.”

Aristotle did say the rate of fall of an object increases in proportion to its weight, and his statement is nearly correct: for weights on a scale; and for weights dropped in water. And there is evidence he was relying on those kinds of observations. But he was also a biologist. So that he wouldn’t be totally squared away on physics is to be expected. After all, in terms of trying to develop mathematical laws of motion, he was the first one doing this. Aristotle discusses his empirical investigations and experiments in biology, and there got a great deal right as one would expect; he never discusses similar research in physics. But since we are supposed to be evaluating the Greeks, and not just one dude at the very beginning of ancient science, we shouldn’t be talking about Aristotle. What we want to know is what the results were in subsequent treatises by actual physicists who conducted actual experiments on falling objects. And we know of at least two: On Lightness and Heaviness, written by the physicist Strato, the third head of Aristotle’s school, a century after Aristotle; and On Objects Carried Down by Their Weight, written by the astronomer Hipparchus a century after that. But alas, Christians were uninterested in those treatises. So we don’t get to read them.

Ignorant of all that, Trasancos persists. “Even though,” she says, “simple observation would prove that false” (you mean the observation of how weights fall on a scale or in tubs of water? Because…those observations wouldn’t so easily prove Aristotle’s notion false), “the hold on the mind of the Greeks of this animistic orthodoxy would not allow it.” By “it” I guess she means checking beliefs against observations. Which would contradict the fact that Aristotle built his biology on extensive observations. Animism evidently served no impediment. Nor did it impede Strato or Hipparchus in their later experiments with falling objects. In fact, after Aristotle, scientists became increasingly mechanistic in their theories of nature, even in biology. So if by “it” Trasancos meant the search for and discovery of correct mathematical laws of physics, that also happened after Aristotle, the Greeks and Romans among other things discovering and describing the laws of mechanics (e.g. Strato & Hero), optics (Euclid & Ptolemy), and hydrostatics (e.g. Archimedes & Menelaus). So her claim that it was stymied by any animistic thinking is simply false.

There are several follies in criticizing the entire Greco-Roman world by harping only on Aristotle. First, Aristotle began ancient science. So focusing on him ignores what subsequent Greco-Roman scientists did. If you want to talk about where science got to under the Greeks and Romans, you need to talk about the Greeks and Romans who took it there. And that means everyone after Aristotle. Second, it’s disingenuous to rag on Aristotle’s mistakes in physics, knowing full well he was actually a biologist. If you want to talk about the merits of an ancient physicist, you need to be talking about Strato or Archimedes or Hero or Ptolemy. Third, it is fallacious to judge scientists by their failures. If we were to judge a civilization that way, oh boy, the stupid shit said by Galileo and Newton would bowl you over. And dare ye not look at the litany of garbage that passed for science in the 19th century. Yes, a lot of amazing advances also happened then. But that’s the point. A lot of amazing advances happened in the Greco-Roman world, too.

Repeating Cycles of Bullshit

Trasancos, again echoing Jaki, claims “the Greeks were steeped in the perspective of eternal cycles of birth-life-death-rebirth for all things, a theme common to all the great religions and cultures that experienced a stillbirth of science.” In fact no educated intellectuals among the Greeks and Romans were steeped in any such perspective. Even insofar as any even entertained such notions, their “cycles” were tens of thousands of years long, and thus wholly irrelevant to their stalwart and ubiquitous belief in scientific progress.  In other words, this claim of impediment is just more bullshit from Jaki, based on no evidence whatever.

Likewise, she says “the Greeks also put a strong emphasis on…the comparison of the cosmos to animals.” Nope. The Greeks and Romans, especially after Aristotle, embraced mechanistic explanations for everything—including animals. Indeed, they were even using the analogy of programmable robotics to explain physiological functions (as witnessed even in Galen’s theory of fetal development, conceptually anticipating DNA by eighteen hundred years). In fact they were actively repudiating animistic explanations. And they were even building actual working mechanical models of the cosmos. We even have one of their mechanical computers (the Antikythera mechanism, built in 120 B.C. and recovered in 1901, of which the leading image atop this article is a reconstruction). Though they were also building proper orreries, working physical display models of the planetary system (some even automated), and speculating on whether the actual cosmos was a like machine.

“In subsequent centuries,” Trasancos says, “even as new ideas about the nature of the cosmos were explored, the fundamental cyclical presumption remained.” She then names Philolaus, Alcmeon, Archytas, and Oenipodus. I already mentioned this is false (no cyclical worldview had any effect on ancient science), but what’s weirder here, is that none of these people she names existed in “subsequent centuries.” All those figures predate Aristotle, or were near dead before he started his career. She then spends a bunch of time ragging on Plato. Who also predated Aristotle. And wasn’t a scientist. And whose worldview was not influential among actual scientists until the decline of Western civilization. Aristotle was actually an opponent of Plato’s philosophy. And insofar as any Platonism influenced actual scientists after Aristotle, it was only after being hugely overhauled in eclectic fashion with Aristotle’s corrections and the best ideas of the atomists (see Science Education in the Early Roman Empire, index, “eclecticism”).

Let’s Correct Catholic Lies and Un-Erase History

And that’s all Trasancos ever mentions. Science evidently ended with Aristotle. As far as she knows, apparently. Because she foolishly trusted Stanley Jaki not to lie to her. But he did. Because this stupid notion that no science happened after Aristotle, comes from Jaki. Trasancos then finishes by going on and on about Plato’s fatalistic cyclical worldview—which an expert on ancient Platonism could make sport with (it’s not a valid analysis), but since Plato was already obsolete even by the time of Aristotle, I hardly care. What interests me is her naive trusting of Jaki’s assertion that this cyclical worldview in Plato had “the psychological impact” of “complacency,” because “such a belief hardly inspired an intellectual curiosity or confidence to learn and dominate the physical laws of nature,” and therefore this Platonic fatalism stalled all scientific progress.

This is such an appallingly false statement I honestly think one could almost as validly say that the earth melted in 1872. Simply because Stanley Jaki said so.

Because in the actual centuries after Aristotle, this happened:

  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Herophilus was so complacent and uncurious that he advanced Aristotle’s biology with some of the most impressive anatomical and physiological inquiry and research, including the first extensive dissections of human cadavers, and refuting Aristotle’s theory that thought occurred in the heart, proving instead that it resided in the brain, and he even localized diverse brain functions to regions of the brain with vivisection experiments on animals, distinguished sensory from motor nerves, and so thoroughly named the components of the brain and body that modern anatomy still uses pretty much all his designations.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Eratosthenes was so complacent and uncurious that he correctly measured the diameter of the earth to within a 10% accuracy and originated the science of mathematical cartography.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Archimedes was so complacent and uncurious that he described some of the first correct mathematical laws of physics, including the laws of hydrostatics and the lever, discovering the principle of displacement and inventing the first unit of specific density based on water, still used today.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Seleucus (pupil of the heliocentrist Aristarchus) was so complacent and uncurious that he developed a correct lunisolar tide theory, identifying the mutual role of the position of sun and moon on the tides, and proposing a projected force to explain it.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Hipparchus was so complacent and uncurious that he discovered and scientifically proved the precession of the equinoxes (a process that takes approximately 26,000 years), observed and recorded the first supernova, published the first extensive star chart, and developed the first successful predictive model of planetary motion.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Hero was so complacent and uncurious that he experimentally discovered that the principle of least action explained the mathematical laws of reflection and demonstrated that air is a body that can be expanded or compressed by force or temperature.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Menelaus was so complacent and uncurious that he invented and formalized the first complete system of spherical trigonometry and expanded the hydrostatics of Archimedes.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Ptolemy was so complacent and uncurious that he invented the system of latitude and longitude we still use today (except the British Empire relocated the center-line to London; Ptolemy naturally had it in Alexandria), and experimentally developed the first laws of refraction and originated the concept of the index of refraction (measuring that light bends at different rates in glass, water, or air), beginning the first experiments on refracting lenses.
  • Because of Plato’s fatalistic, cyclical-worldview-generated apathy, Galen was so complacent and uncurious that he experimentally confirmed the then-most-complete theory of the function of the renal system and fully mapped the nerves governing the tongue, face, and vocal chords.

And that’s just a sample. A sample, even, of just what survives. We know at least a hundred times more science was done in antiquity, than survives for us to read about it. And I’ve only listed a few accomplishments for each scientist in this sample; they accomplished a great deal more. So did others.

Conclusion

This claim that science was stillborn among the Greeks, and died under Aristotle, because of a philosophy espoused by a guy whose philosophy Aristotle actually opposed and no scientist subscribed to, is indeed almost as fantastically false as claiming the earth melted in 1872. And it makes Stacy Trasancos and all the Catholics she represents look like flat earthers in their scale of ignorance. Nothing she says is relevantly true of the ancient world. It’s entirely a fabricated fantasy of the late Stanley Jaki, himself either a shameless liar or a stunning ignoramus.

Trasancos doesn’t even realize how true her own statement is that the Greeks “came closer to a birth of science than any other culture.” Because she doesn’t even know beyond a microscopic fraction of their scientific achievements—thinking as she does ancient science ended with Aristotle, when in fact it began with Aristotle. And that’s also a sentence that begs the question of what she means by a “birth of science.” What the ancients were doing wasn’t already science? They were doing everything Galileo and Newton were doing. They just didn’t solve one particular problem in physics, and were still debating whether heliocentrism made more sense than a very sophisticated (and predictively successful) geocentrism.

Indeed, Ptolemy’s geocentric model remained the most predictively successful theory even after Copernicus, whose model was actually substantially less accurate, because Copernicus, not Ptolemy, was irrationally obsessed with circular motion and constant velocities, anything else offending his aesthetic sensibility. Yet Ptolemy had done away with both: his model described complex non-circular motions (indeed his model for lunar motion was nearly elliptical), and he proposed the first law of planetary motion—equal angles in equal times—which entailed inconstant velocities. That’s how his system was able to so accurately predict planetary positions. Far more accurately than the Copernican model.

The Romans were arguably just another couple of centuries away from the innovations of Kepler and Newton. Science wasn’t stillborn under their watch. It was murdered. And not by Christians. Or by animism or cyclical theories of time. But simply by the failures of politicians to develop a stable system for the peaceful succession of power, a failure having not one whit to do with science. But when the Christians took the reins, they did nothing to fix that, either. They didn’t resurrect science. They entombed its corpse. And had neither the ideas nor the intellectual resources to continue it or even desire its revival.

What makes a Scientific Revolution? It’s pretty much everything the Greeks and Romans had established as standard in the sciences. The only thing the ancients fell short of was developing a state-sponsored organization that was specifically directed toward advancing scientific knowledge, and then choosing the correct set of tools to prioritize over others in determining what’s true. Which is more a political invention than a scientific one. Though some ancient scientists were arguing emperors should found such an institute. And were advocating a push toward that correct set of tools, and the marginalization of those more dubious. The empire just collapsed before anyone listened.

Most important, though, was that push to demarcate the methods that actually work from the ones that don’t. And a push to do that was indeed begun in the Roman era (we see it in Hero, Ptolemy, and Galen). But then it was forgotten for 1,400 years under the Christian watch. It was resumed only after a few Christians more than a thousand years later read their advice on the matter and enough of their peers actually started to listen. And even they had to fight against their majority and higher ranking Christian peers to do that. It took hundreds of years of struggling against the opposition to scientific values inherent in Christian ideology to finally break through and catch back up to where the Romans had reached, and finally move beyond. The values of curiosity, empiricism, and progressivism were never popular in Christian thought, even from the dawn of the religion, but even more so as it became more fascistic and arrogant. Only when that Christian fascism and arrogance were beaten down enough to allow a new pagan bud to grow again in spite of it, did science return to the world.

And that’s what really happened to science.

5 comments

    1. Much less than is claimed, though. No major advances (everything claimed to be, was actually a revival of theories and research already done in antiquity), and only small improvements (e.g. they listened to Ptolemy’s request to get a better estimate of the diameter of the earth). For example, that Wikipedia article you link to, falsely claims “He was the first to explain that vision occurs when light bounces on an object and then is directed to one’s eyes.” Nope. That theory originated with the atomists shortly after Aristotle (if not before), and was continually discussed by later optical physicists, including Hipparchus and Ptolemy, and advocated by other scientists whose works were not preserved in the West (but probably known to al-Haytham, hence where he got the idea).

      The Muslims had a brief scientific renaissance in the 9th-11th century, but it was killed by religious fanatics, and the fate of the Islamic world was sealed as forever centuries behind the West. Biggest mistake they ever made. Had they continued, they could have been five hundred years ahead of the West.

      Reply
  1. Hi Richard,

    The Great Courses has an excellent series on Greek and Roman Technology. Although not strictly speaking about scientific research and science, it touches on many technologies that evidently influenced and were influenced by science. One example is his demonstration of how there were suction pumps for aqueducts and water supplies in cities. Plenty of demos and working scale models also.

    http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/understanding-greek-and-roman-technology-from-catapult-to-the-pantheon.html

    Reply
  2. In your alternate history where the Romans solved the problem of political succession and thus avoided the Fall and the Dark Ages, where would we be now? A Star Trek future or would we have fallen into the petroleum trap and destroyed our climate, just centuries earlier?

    Reply

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