The Genesis of Science

The popular idea of the Middle Ages in Europe is that it was a thousand year period of ignorance and barbarism between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a time of nearly complete intellectual stagnation. Everyone is supposed to have been illiterate with the exception of a few clergymen and the Catholic Church kept a tight rein on all learning,  burning any scholar who dared to have an independent thought or challenge the authority of Scripture.

Historians have recognized for some time that this stereotype is entirely false. The Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages” were, in fact, a time of extraordinary fertility and progress. Many of the concepts and institutions that came to distinguish Western Civilization were developed in this era, especially the beginnings of the intellectual enterprise we call science.

In his book “The Genesis of Science”, James Hannam traces the development of science, or natural philosophy as it was then known, through the Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the trial of Galileo. He begins in the very depths the Dark Age, the chaotic 5th to 7th centuries, where even then the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in practical technology with such useful tools as the moldboard plow and the horse collar, which revolutionized agriculture.

The discovery of ancient Latin and Greek manuscripts from the Arabs and Byzantines led to the rise of the Scholastic theologians of the 11th to 13 centuries. The Scholastics, under the influence of Aristotle, established reason as the method for learning about God and His creation. There was some controversy in the Catholic Church about pagan learning but the Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas showed that faith and reason could be reconciled and the Church accepted the ancient learning to the extent that it did not contradict Christian doctrine. With the acceptance of reason as an adjunct to faith, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were prepared to see the natural world around them as the rational creation of a rational God, forming the foundation for later scientific thinking.

The Scholastics did not slavishly follow Aristotle, however. They were capable of observing that he was wrong in some instances and were willing to move beyond him. In fact, some of their ideas about motion and forces were surprisingly modern. Some, especially Roger Bacon stressed the importance of careful observation of the natural world.

With the increased knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance of the 13th to 15 centuries, much of this learning was disregarded and forgotten. The Renaissance Humanists venerated the ancients and so were inclined to denigrate the achievements of their immediate predecessors. The authority of Aristotle and others was more respected than the thoughts of more recent philosophers. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, as the Protestants were not eager to give the Catholic Church any credit.

Still, progress continued and in the last section of his book, Hannam explores the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  He closes with an account of Galileo. Although Galileo was a brilliant scientist who practically invented physics, he owed far more to his medieval predecessors than he was ever willing to admit. As for his troubles with the Inquisition, they had less to do with any Catholic opposition to science and were more due to politics and the folly of implying that the Pope was a simpleton.

The Genesis of Science is worth five stars. The perhaps over long summary that I have given above is only the merest foretaste to this brilliant work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


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