History of Science (Origin of Western Science in the Ancient Times)


History of Science (Origin of Western Science in the Ancient Times)

In this article, you are going to learn how Western science originated in ancient times. In fact, the next article will introduce you to how that science originated and how it evolved to its present state. Please bear in mind that when we talk about the origin of science, we are in essence talking about the origin of the scientific method.

If you can recall that, science can be defined in terms of the method of acquiring knowledge of nature. From the time of recorded history to the early sixteenth century AD, Western science progressed very slowly. It was the emergence of this method of science in the seventeenth century that enabled the science to achieve the impressive success it has achieved today.

This topic is important because it will help you to appreciate how logical thinking is of indispensable value to man. It is also important because it will expose the mistakes of the past and enable us to learn from them.

The history of Western science is going to be discussed in four phases namely:

1. Origin of Western science in ancient times beginning of recorded history to about AD 476).

2. Science in the middle ages of Europe (AD 476 -1400).

3. Rise of modern science (AD 1400 to the present time).

4. Twentieth century scientific revolution.

However, you should note that the division of history into these periods is only a guide to help historians. There was never any such clear-cut division of time in history. Rather, one period merged into the next.

As was mentioned earlier, this article will only treat the origin of science in the ancient times. The other phases will be discussed in subsequent posts. The objectives below specify what you are expected to have learnt after studying this article.

At the end of this article, you should be able to write briefly on the contributions of ancient Egyptians and Babylonians to science, discuss vividly how Thales of Miletus, Anaximander and Pythagoras explained the fundamental component of matter and identify the contributions of the Roman Empire to science.


Origin of science in Ancient Time  

The origin of science is often traced to the Egyptians and the Babylonians. They originated science during the Neolithic age when they settled down to an organized agricultural life and activity. It has been possible to infer what the content of science in these areas was from archaeological remains. This is because writing, as we know it today, hadn’t been discovered: then (Dampier: 1989; Nwala & Agbakogba: 1997).

It is important to note that the disciplines we call science today separated gradually from philosophy. Thus at the time of the Egyptians and Babylonians, people who studied plants, animals, stars and other heavenly bodies, rocks, soils, etc were all called philosophers. There was nothing like a botanist, zoologist, an astronomer, etc.

It was in Alexandrian Academy in Egypt that specialisations started. You will read about this subsequently. Please also note that the word ‘philosophy’ was taken from two Greek words, namely: ‘philos’ (which means love) and ‘sophia’ (which meanswisdom).

Thus philosophy literally means ‘love of wisdom’. Therefore to call a person a philosopher was to call him a lover of wisdom. This is because the reeks believed that whoever tried to study and understand nature was trying to be wise.


Origin of science in Egypt

The kingdom of Egypt was divided into three religious centres, which were Memphis, Heliopolis, Thebes or Hermopolis. These centres were administered by priest-scholars. They were called scholars because they were the intellectualclass of the ancient Egyptians. Their power remendous and even the kings were subject to it (Onyewuenyi: 1993).

These priest—scholars established a kind of school system known as the Egyptian Mystery System schools. The schools were a kind of university where every known discipline was taught by the priests. Such disciplines were philosophy, comprising religion, medicine, law, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, etc. This group of disciplines was referred to as ‘the Wisdom of the Egyptians’.

Thus a lot of ancient Egyptian science studied as sacred knowledge. And such knowledge was possessed and disseminated by the priests.

One of the main stimuli for the origin of ancient Egyptian science was their practical needs in agriculture (such as measuring, calculations, surveying and study of the weather and the heavens).

Second is their understanding of the world they lived in through religion and philosophy (Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997).

Astronomy originated with the Egyptians through their study of the heavens, the stars and the weather. They knew that the best time to plant their crops was right after the Nile River overflowed its banks.

Their priests noticed that between each overflow the moon rose 12 times. So they counted 12 moons or months and figured out when the Nile would rise again.

Their accuracy in these predictions led to their invention of the lunar calendar. They divided the year into 12 ‘moons’ or ‘months’ of 30 days each and added a space of 5 days to each year, thus bringing each year to a total of 365 days (Arkady: 1977).

Credit is also given to the Egyptians for the origination of mathematics. The evidence was the finding of the Rind Mathematical Papyrus, which was written during the reign of King A-ser-Re (1650 B.C.).

It contained arithmetical problems and solutions involving the use of fractions and decimals.

Another ancient text which contains evidence of Egyptian origin of the sciences is the famous writings of Hermes Trismegistus which contain among other works, books on medicine, physics and chemistry (then called alchemy).

The theory of transmutation of elements (the basis of modern chemistry) first appeared among ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians were also reputed highly in medicine. They are said to have performed caesarean operations and removed cataracts from the eyes.

Evidence for these is contained in the Edwin Papyrus, which was excavated. Do you know that the first physician of the ancient world and the most famous was the Black Egyptian called Imhotep? He lived about 2980 BC. He was called ‘the god of medicine’ by the Greeks and he lived 2000 years before the Greek doctor, Hippocrates, who in modern times is called the father of medicine (Eneh: 2000; Onyewuenyi: 1993).

The Egyptians also invented writing called Hieroglyphics and paper (papyr us) on hich they recorded their ideas and culture.


Origin of science in Babylonia (present day Iraq)

The sciences of mathematics, astronomy and engineering (irrigation and canal construction) also developed in Babylonia about 1800-1600 BC.

The Babylonians believed that the heavens were the abode of their gods. They also believed that terrestrial disasters such as floods, insect attacks and storms were caused by these gods.

Thus, they studied heavenly events carefully in order to know when their gods were angry so as to pacify them. Out of these practices grew a descriptive astronomy that was the most sophisticated of the ancient world until the Greeks took it over and perfected it. The first accurate astronomical observation they recorded was the rising and setting of the planet Venus (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995).

The Babylonians also realised the importance of fixed units of physical measurement. Their unit of length was the finger; the foot contained twenty fingers; the cubit, thirty fingers.

The measurements of weight were the grain, the shekel and the talent, while their medium of exchange was the barley (Dampier: 1989).

Their land was harsh and was made habitable by extensive damning and irrigation works from their two great rivers - Tigris and Euphrates. Mathematics thrived under these conditions.

For instance, they needed to calculate the volume of dirt to be removed from canals and the provision necessary for work parties. It might be interesting to you to know that they were the first to divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds, and also divided the circle into 360 degrees (The Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995).

You will agree that the Egyptians and the Babylonians were observers of nature and they gave precise descriptions.

What we’re missing were scientific explanations. To them, all knowledge was attributed to the revelations of their gods. They believed that it was the function of religion and magic to understand nature but that man could describe it and use it.


African philosophy

From the last two sections, you have learnt the contributions of Egyptians and Babylonians to the origin of various sciences. Before we discuss the contributions of ancient Greeks, your attention needs to be drawn to the influence of Egyptian philosophy on Greek philosophy.

You should note again that in ancient times, philosophy embraced all the disciplines of study including natural science.

But with the advancement and development of learning, specialised areas of study such as various sciences separated from their ancestor - philosophy, and became independent disciplines (Eneh: 2000).

The influence of colonial education has made it difficult for many to appreciate Africa’s contribution to world civilisation. This is especially with regard to philosophy and science.

European and Western civilisation and philosophy owe their origins to Egypt and Babylonia. Indeed Egyptian philosophy is the origin of Western philosophy but Greek philosophy itself owes its origin to Africa, particularly Egypt (Onyewuenyi: 1993).

The evidence includes the following:

1. From the writings of the ancient Greeks themselves, such as Homer, Pythagoras, Socrates, Herodotus, Plutarch, Plato and Aristotle, etc, and modern historians such as William Stace, Edith Hamilton and James Henry Breasted, we learn

(a) The fact that Egypt is said to have colonised Greece and dominated its culture. The ancient Greeks also acknowledge the Egyptian origins of their language, identity, science, philosophy, names of their gods, their rituals, etc.

(b) The fact that many of the leading Greek intellectuals lived and studied in Egypt.

Africa’s major contributions to philosophy and philosophical foundations of the various sciences include the following (Eneh: 2000; Onyewuenyi: 1993):

1. The world’s first philosopher in history Ptah-Hotep (c 2800 BC) was an African.

2. Another African, Ipuwar (c 2500 BC) was the world’s first social philosopher.

3. The black Egyptian Imhotep who lived 2000 years before Hippocrates was called by the Greeks ‘the god of medicine’.

4. Hypathia - The world’s first woman philosopher (360- 415AD).

5. The Alexandrian Academy in Egypt, which flourished between 300 BC and AD 200, was the centre of the scientific world.

It was also the first to establish the tradition of disciplinary scholarship and specialization. Among its intellectual giants were:

(a) The great mathematician Euclid who synthesised geometry as a science in his book Elements of Geometry. (b) Aristarchus, the great astronomer and ‘Copernicus of Antiquity’. Human body.

(d) Archimedes, the great mathematician who laid the foundation for the science of mechanics. He founded the Archimedean screw for raising water and is attributed with the doctrine of levers.

(e) Eratosthenes, the librarian at Alexandria who was called ‘the most learned man of antiquity’. He also advanced the knowledge of prime numbers.

(f) Ptolemy of Alexandria, a geographer and an astronomer.

His two greatest works were:

(i) Al magest, one of the most influential scientific works of all ages. It showed the paths in which the planets appear to move in the heavens, a detailed star catalogues and, extensive description of astronomical instruments.

(ii) Geographical outline, which showed the map of the world representing the curved surface of the earth or a plane surface using latitude and longitude. If you are interested in knowing more about the African origin of Greek philosophy, the following book will be of assistance to you: Onyewuenyi, I.C. (1993)

The African Origin of Greek Philosophy: An Exercise in Afrocentrism, University of Nigeria Press, Nsukka.


Ancient Greeks

Through the influence of Egypt and Babylonia, the Greeks acquired their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy and developed these to an unprecedented degree (Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997). Science in ancient Greece will be treated under two headings:

1.  Pre-socratic philosopher-scientists

2. Socratic philosopher-scientists



These people were known as natural philosophers because they engaged themselves with the study of nature and the origin of the world. They were ten in number and they included, Thales of Miletus, A Phoenician who migrated to Miletus in Ionia, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Democritus, etc, who were Ionian philosophers.

These men are usually called early Greek philosophers by some historians while some others are consistent in noting their non-Greek origin. They studied in gypt erlsewhere under the same curriculum. After their studies, they went back to their respective countries to expand the teachings of the Egyptian Myster y System School (Eneh: 2000; Onyewuenyi: 1993).

They were more concerned with the phenomenon of change. They observed that physical substances (matter) change into one another but their main concern was to find out the original stuff from which all originated and to which they return. Has such a thought ever come to your mind? They attempted to answer this question and named the ‘world-stuff’ each in his own way:


1. Thales of Miletus (620 -546 BC)

He is usually referred to as the father of Western philosophy. He taught that water was the source of all things in the universe.

According to Aristotle (Dampier: 1989), Thales got this idea from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moisture and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things. Things that exist in the world are solid, liquid or gaseous in form.

Water, according to Thales, underlies these forms and change from one form to another. Thales also forecast the eclipse of 585BC, although knowledge about eclipses was far advanced in Egypt where he studied (Nwala and Agbakoba:1997; The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995).


2. Anaximander (611 -547 BC)

He was a pupil of Thales in the Milesian school. He was quick to argue that water could not be the basic substance, because water is essentially wet and nothing can be its own contradiction.

According to him, if Thales were correct, the opposite of wet could not exist in a substance and that would preclude all the dry things in the world.

Therefore Thales was wrong ( The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995). Here was the birth of the critical tradition that is fundamental to the advance of science. On his own part, he called the ‘world-stuff ’ the ‘infinite something’. This expresses the idea that the original stuff had no beginning, was imperishable, inexhaustible and indestructible. He was also the first among the Greeks to represent the earth on a map, though the science of map making (cartography) was known in Egypt and Babylonia.


3. Pythagoras (582 -497 BC)

He spent 22 years in Egypt and received instruction in mathematics, physics, theology, music, philosophy and ethics from the priest scholars of the Mystery System schools (Nwala and Agbakoba :1997; The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995). The mathematical theory called Pythagorean theory is named after him.

For him all things are numbers. He believed that the universe was composed of numbers in various shapes -squares, cubes, oblong, triangular, etc.

To him all things in the universe were numerable and could be counted.

Pythagoreans (his followers) believed that the unit ‘one’ is the source of all numbers and they divided it into odd and even numbers. The whole story is interesting, isn’t it?


4. Heraclitus (535 - 475 BC)

For him the ‘world-stuff’ is divine fire. He was the first Greek to advance the principle of change as a universal law. Change, he said is the only reality and that there is nothing permanent in the world.

According to him, ‘From life comes death; from death come life; sleep changes into wakefulness and wakefulness changes into sleep’. Everything in the universe, he says, has its own opposite (Dampier: 1989).


5. Democritus (460 BC - ?)

He was a disciple of Leucippus who is credited with the founding of the atomic theory or the doctrine of matter. He became the ablest and best known interpreter of the atomic theory (Dampier: 1989).

He proposed that matter is made up of atoms and they are infinite in number and too small to be perceived by the senses. He said that atoms differ in size, some bigger, some smaller and that there is empty space between them.

According to him, everything new is produced from a combination of atoms and that death or cessation takes place when atoms separate. So you can see that even the atomic theory was known in the ancient times. This effort of the Greeks to explain the basic components of matter is important in the history of scientific thought. This is because they tried to reason and to explain it in seemingly simpler terms.


The Socratics

They included Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato studied in Egypt, but history is silent on whether Socrates and Aristotle also studied in Egypt. We shall discuss them one after the other.


1. Socrates (469-399 BC)

He was the teacher of Plato and was born in Athens. He was a moral teacher and sought truth by asking questions. He enriched science with the tools of universal definitions and inductive reasoning. You will learn about inductive reasoning in a subsequent unit.


2. Plato (427-347 BC)

After Plato’s studies in Egypt, he returned to Athens and opened a school called the ‘Academy’. He taught that it was more noble and dignified to seek answers by reasoning rather than by experiments. He loved mathematics and he formulated the idea of negative numbers.

His Academy also produced philosopher-scientists such as Heracleides of Pontus (388-315 BC). Heracleides suggested that the earth rotates on its own axis once in every 24 hours and that Mercury and Venus circle round the sun like satellites (Eneh: 2000; Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997).

3. Aristotle (384-322 BC)

He was the most accomplished of Plato’s pupils. He was born at Stagira in Macedonia. He was a tutor of Alexander the Great. He wrote books on almost all the areas of knowledge - biology, botany, anatomy, physics, metaphysics, astronomy, mathematics, logic, economics, politics, law, psychology, etc. 

His influence on subsequent development of science and philosophy was enormous.

In particular, his views on physics and astronomy controlled the view most men had of the universe for two thousand years.

However, to him, the proper means of investigation was observation. In conclusion, Greek science was said to be more of a speculative and theoretical activity rather than experimental and practical.

In the next section, you will learn about the contributions of Rome to science. In the meantime, answer the following questions to check your understanding of the topic so far.


Science in the Roman period (50 BC-AD 400)

The last and the most important of ancient civilizations in Europe was the Roman Empire. People of many different races came under its rule - the English, the French, Arabians, Syrians, Greeks, etc.

The Roman Empire, however, did not have much influence in the development of science. It was more interested in conquests and maintenance of power through political and military administration.

The spirit of independent research was quite foreign to the Roman mind, so scientific innovation was interrupted for a while (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995).

However, some scientific works were produced during this period, but none of them was revolutionary in nature. They were mainly a detailed explanation of scientific conceptions already developed in Alexandria or Greece.

These include:

1. Geographical science

The wars and military expeditions of the Romans yielded much further geographical knowledge to mankind. Nations or countries, which were relatively unknown, entered the world map. Julius Caesar, one of emperors gave the world its present calendar called the Julian calendar in 46 BC.

In this calendar, the length of the year is fixed at 365 days and at 366 days at every fourth year. There were 12 calendar months of 30 and 31 days except for February, which has 28 days.

However, February has 29 days at every fourth year or leap year. The month of July is also named after Julius Caesar (Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997).

Additionally, Pope Gregory III made a slight innovation to the Julian calendar. He made the leap year occur in any year whose number is exactly divisible by 4. The only exception is the centenary years whose numbers are not exactly divisible by 400, for instance, 1800, 1900. The revised calendar is called the Gregorian calendar.

2. Medical education and health care

The Romans of this period also established hospitals and paid physicians who worked there. They also promoted public health, hygiene and sanitation.

3. Pliny’s natural History

Pliny (AD 23-79) promoted the development of natural history. He wrote a book on natural history and the topics of discussion in it were on animals and plants, especially medicinal plants and their uses.

However, the book was a compilation of 2000 works by 146 Roman and 326 Greek authors.

In conclusion, both scientific research and theoretical science were in decline under the Roman Empire. The advances they made were more of a practical nature.


Conclusion on History of Science (Origin of Western Science in the Ancient Times)

This article has introduced you to how science originated in Egypt Babylonia and how the sciences were advanced further in Greece and in the Roman Empire.

You have also been informed that Western philosophy and science owe their origins to Egypt.

The main points in this article include the following:

• Science originated in Egypt and Babylonia (which is present-day Iraq).

• Egyptian priest-scholars established a kind of school known as the Egyptian Mystery System Schools where every known discipline was taught by the priests.

• Evidence for the Egyptian origins of mathematics and medicine can be found in the Rind Mathematical Papyrus and the Edwin Papyrus respectively.

• Babylonians developed the most descriptive astronomy of the ancient world.

• They were the first to divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds and also divided the circle into 360 degrees.

• Egyptian philosophy is the origin of Western philosophy. 

Evidence can be found in the writings of ancient Greeks themselves such as Homer and Pythagoras, and from modern historians such as William Stace and James Henry Breasted.

• Pre-Socratics named the original stuff from which all things originated and to which they return. The names given were:

(a) Water by Thales of Miletus

(b) Infinite something by Anaximander

(c) Number by Pythagoras

(d) Divine fire by Heraclitus

(e) Atoms by Democritus

• Socrates enriched science with universal definitions and inductive reasoning.

• Plato formulated the idea of negative numbers

• Aristotle wrote books on almost all the areas of knowledge - biology, zoology, physics, astronomy, etc.

• Scientific innovation began to decline in the Roman Empire.

• The calendar invented by the Egyptians was modified further by Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory III.

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