Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Science is the process by which we acquire knowledge and seek out truth. It is a process for gaining an understanding of the natural world and the universe in which we live.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where the precursors of modern science took root. Science certainly did not just appear as discipline out of the blue. Modern science had to be seeded, nourished and allowed to evolve over thousands of years. The process of modern science typically involves asking questions and posing problems, proposing and testing theories or hypotheses to provide explanations for the observations we make. In modern science the results of this process are published in appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journals. Publication disseminates the new knowledge for anyone to evaluate, criticize and reproduce. The scientific method as it is executed nowadays is iterative and self-correcting and can have a long duration involving researchers from all corners of the globe. Often, long periods of scientific debate culminate in theories, results and new knowledge that cannot be debunked and therefore they persists and can be built upon.
Lawson in his book ‘Science in the ancient World’ states that “Ancient science reveled in the spiritual, the oneness of life and being. Science and religion, reason and faith, were rarely discordant in the history of science until recent times”.
As near as scholars and academics can tell, what might be called human civilization probably first began to flourish in the Mesopotamian region between the rivers Euphrates and the Tigris as early as 3500 BCE. For this reason this region is often referred to as the ‘cradle of civilization’. A peoples we now refer to as the Samarians occupied this region during this period and they were a remarkable people indeed. They knew how to navigate the coastal zones, about agricultural production, irrigation, flood control and engineering. The architecture of the ancient megacity of Uruk, is a testament to the engineering prowess of the people of the region. The Samarians developed a written language and a system of accounting and they developed calendars based on the phases of the moon. The Samarians along with other metallurgists of the ancient Near East figured out how to heat copper and tin to extreme temperatures to form bronze from which they made tools and weapons. These early civilizations developed the wheel, paper and even the world’s first math. The ancient Minoans, who lived on the Mediterranean island of Crete from 3000 to 1100 BCE, left records of using the stars to navigate. By 1100 BCE compasses were being used for navigation in the coastal zones of the ancient Mediterranean.
Reconstruction of the ancient city of Uruk.
The Greeks late in the first millennium BCE undoubtedly built on this early development. It is the ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates (470-399 BC), his student Plato (429-347 BC) and his student Aristotle (384-322 BC) and others that are often credited with the first scientific thought. In fact the ancient Greeks did not have a word for science, the closest Greek word being episteme - to know. The line between what is philosophy and what is science has always been blurred and remains so today.
Some of the greatest scientists during the first millennium BCE hailed from further west in Magna Graecia, southern Italy. They included Pythagoras, Alcmaeon, Xenophanes, Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus, and Zeno. We know of their accomplishments because they left their writings. This flourishing of intellectual activity in the first millennium BCE is, even today, truly awe inspiring. The first millennium BCE also saw philosophical and scientific advances in Asia and other parts but scholars generally agree that it was not on par with developments in Mesopotamia.
The Romans who came after the Greeks, had less enthusiasm for the science and philosophy of the ancient Mediterranean region and were more focused on engineering and utilitarianism. The conquests of Rome resulted in a sprawling empire that took in the ancient world in the east up to what is now England and Germany in the west. This expansive empire had a duration from 31 BCE to about 476 CE in the west. Although the Roman empire in the west fell at the hands of Germanic tribes, it continued in the east as the Byzantine Empire until the death of Constantine XI (1449-1453 CE) and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.
Ancient thought, culture, and institutions had a profound impact and helped shape the subsequent centuries of the European Middle Ages (500-1300 CE), the European Renaissance (1300-1600 CE), the Scientific Revolution (1500-1700 CE), the Enlightenment (1700-1800 CE), and the Modern World.
Although many ancient civilizations in other parts of the globe cultivated some form of scientific knowledge and philosophy, the activity that started in the Mesopotamian region in the first millennium and then spread west to Europe eclipsed developments in these other regions. After something of a hiatus during the middle ages, what started in the Mesopotamium region in the first millennium BCE ramped up during the renaissance and then took a tremendous boost during the age of enlightenment which ushered in the industrial revolution.
Since then we have been on the turning point of an exponential curve in terms of human knowledge. Modern science has given us a myriad of revolutionary inventions including the steam engine, printing press, electricity, fixed and mobile telephony, television, powerful computers, advanced medicine, air and space travel and so forth. With the help of the classical mechanics of Newton and the electromagnetism of Maxwell, Lorentz, Einstein and others, the nuclear theory of Bequerel, Rutherford, Madam Curi and quantum mechanics from the likes of Plank, Schrodinger, Boltzman, Heisenburg, we have harnessed the power of the atom, sent humans to the moon and space probes to explore the outer reaches of our solar system.
Almost everything a modern human uses in the developed world is a product of the science and technology that was first seeded in the ancient Mediterranean world. An important feature of modern science is the development of theories with impressive predictive power. We can predict weather, measure the spectrum of the stars and have theories for how the universe and solar system formed and how it operates at large and small scale.
While science has given so much to the developed world in terms comfort, freedom from mundane chores, prolonged life expectancy and so forth, it is, together with the force of capitalism, threatening to take us over the edge. Exponential development is threatening to irrevocably damage climate, the environment and ecosystems. We are living in the age of the anthropocene. In some ways science helped get us into hot water and it is only science that can help us get out of it.
Although the scientific spark that was lit almost 5000 years ago first in Mesopotamia and then Persia, Egypt, India, China and Central and South America was impressive, it is far removed from where we find ourselves today. However, it makes no sense at all to enter into comparisons between the science and technology of the modern age with these ancient knowledge systems or those of more modern indigenous peoples in other parts of the world.
As we journey perilously through the anthropocene we would do well to learn the lessons of ancient peoples the world over who were perhaps better in touch their surroundings than many of us more modern humans have become. Sophisticated ancient civilizations such as the Samarians with their impressive cities endured for millennia but they inexorably came to an end. Whilst we do not know exactly how they met their demise, environmental degradation, warfare and extended drought are among the possibilities.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (26-Apr-121 CE – 17-Mar-180 CE), stoic philosopher and Emperor of Rome, who likely died of the small pox pandemic that bears his name (the Antonin Plague), famously stated that, “He who lives in harmony with himself, lives in harmony with the universe” and “The universe is a single living being, possessed of a single substance and a single soul, and what is good and right in itself, is to live in harmony with nature”.
* The Oxford English Dictionary defines civilization as a “civilized condition or state; a developed or advanced state of human society.”