Was Science Really Born in Ancient Greece?

Was Science Really Born in Ancient Greece?

There is no question more tempting to the historian of science than the age-old “When did science begin?” The most popular answer to this question has to be “Ancient Greece!” It was Carl Sagan’s answer, and it was Simon Singh’s. This week, I found that it was also Andrew Gregory’s answer.


Andrew Gregory is the author of the 2001 book Eureka! The Birth of Science. This short book caught my eye both with its clickbait title and with its use of Raphael’s School of Athens as its cover art. Surely this won’t be another regurgitation of the belief that Greeks invented science?

the book Eureka! by Andrew Gregory. The front cover features Aristotle and Plato in Raphael's painting The School of Athens. Behind it is Rebekah's bookshelf, out of focus

As soon as I started reading the inside flap, I knew this book was begging for a critique:

Eureka! shows that science began with the Greeks. Disciplines as diverse as medicine, biology, engineering, mathematics and cosmology all have their roots in ancient Greece. . . .

Free from intellectual and religious dogma, the Greeks rejected explanation in terms of myths and capricious gods, and, in distinguishing between the natural and the supernatural, they were the first to discover nature. New theories began to be developed and tested, leading to a rapid increase in the sophistication of knowledge, and ultimately to an awareness of the distinction between science and technology.

Andrew Gregory unravels the genesis of science in this fascinating exploration of the origins of Western civilisation and our desire for a rational, legitimating system of the universe.

Andrew Gregory, Eureka!, front flap

There was no Greek miracle

I appreciate the scientific advances of the ancient Greeks as much as the next gal, but this seemed like giving them a little bit too much credit. Even if I didn’t know any better, I still would have been extremely skeptical that any one culture gave birth to science or discovered nature.

But I’ve read entire books disproving the “Greek miracle”, most notably Dick Teresi’s Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya, which is almost 400 pages of examples of ancient science, many of which were pre-Greek. And in many cases, the Greeks were not even the first to come up with the ideas that they themselves are traditionally credited for.

A great deal of Lost Discoveries is dedicated to the work of the Babylonians and the Egyptians, so I wasn’t surprised to see Gregory acknowledging their great contributions to engineering and math. But no, Gregory says, the Babylonians and Egyptians weren’t doing science. They were doing technology, which is not science. And regardless, their religious and superstitious beliefs would have prohibited them from doing real science anyway.

Does science need to be secular?

This was not the first time that I heard the idea that science isn’t science if not done with purely secular and rationalistic intent. I’ve written before that Carl Sagan had an anti-theistic bias in Cosmos when he praised the Greeks for their nonreligious pursuit of science and their great libraries, while ignoring earlier, equally impressive work done in the name of Eastern religions.

[Sagan] praised Alexandria and Ionia because (he believed) they were great secular hubs. According to Sagan, people came to the Library of Alexandria to do science purely for science’s sake, and to discover what must be true if nature is not explained by the will of gods. This wasn’t actually true, but even if it was, it would be troubling. One of the biggest problems with historians recognizing non-Western science as science is that much of it was done in the name of religion. For most of history, the priests were the ones who conducted science. The ancient Indians made great strides in geometry in order to build grand and complex altars, and the Islamic thinkers were dedicated to knowledge as part of their religion.

Since when is science invalid if it is tied to theism? Is rejecting that science nothing more than tainting an objective view with an anti-theistic lens? Let’s not abandon honesty just for the sake of being secular gatekeepers.

Inaccuracy, Eurocentrism, and Antitheism in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Somehow, the anti-theistic bias in Eureka! is even worse.

Many ancient societies could accurately predict the time that the sun would rise, and at what point on the horizon. Any sort of scientific explanation of the sun or its motions, though, was beyond them.

At some point, a new and more critical attitude came about. People began to reject myths and explanations in terms of the gods as arbitrary and fanciful. Instead, they began to use theories for which they could gather evidence and debate the merits.

Andrew Gregory, Eureka!, p. 2

Defining (Greek) science

If this isn’t the description of a Greek miracle of science, I don’t know what is. Soon after, Gregory gives a list of four basic criteria that have to be met in a satisfactory basic definition of science:

  1. Science distinguishes between natural and supernatural, and so it does not explain phenomena using the intervention of gods.
  2. Science is expressed using theories rather than myths or poems.
  3. Science uses mathematics, experiment, and observation. Mere technology is not science.
  4. “It would also be helpful if our candidates as the originators of science were aware of the differences between what they were doing and what their predecessors were doing.”

I really don’t like this as the definition of science. Even if it was a good one, I wish that Gregory would have given reasons as to why these are the four criteria that real science meets. It seems that he purposefully chose standards that only the Greeks would meet. But to my astonishment, going forward in the book, saying that even the Greeks themselves meet these standards is a great stretch. Gregory makes unjustified exceptions for Greek thought throughout the whole book.

The rigor of Greek science

Here are some of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas that Gregory credits as early, testable scientific theories:

  • Platonic solids, in which the basic building blocks of nature are “the best triangles.” These triangles can assemble into perfect solids: cubes (earth), tetrahedra (fire), octahedra (water), and eikosahedra (air). The solids are perfect because Plato’s god only would have made them in a perfect sort of way.
  • God spends all of his time thinking about thinking, because, according to Aristotle, this is the “supremely pleasant activity.”
  • The earth is at the center of the cosmos because that is its natural place.
  • The heavenly bodies move in circular motion because that is “the best sort of motion.”
  • The planets are intelligent, and they always choose the best motion.

Again, I don’t have a problem with Plato and Aristotle coming up with these primitive concepts of how the world may work. Given their lack of technology to test their ideas, I can see why these might seem like good explanations of nature.

What I don’t understand is Gregory’s praise of these ideas as part of the “change from myth to theory.” How are these declarations of the “perfect shape,” the “best motion,” or the “natural place” any more scientifically rigorous than the myths that preceded them? I know that Gregory and those who agree with him would say the difference is the lack of religious storytelling, but why does that matter? Is it more scientific to say that “God made it that way because it’s the best way” than it is to say that “that’s how Phan Ku created it after emerging from the giant egg”?

Culture’s need for religion and science

This anti-theistic view of science is cold, and it implies that true science must be divorced from culture. I would venture to say that creation myths throughout most of history were not posited as scientific explanations of origins. They were stories to be passed down, ways of remembering tales of nature that connected generations of ancestors and descendants. Creation myths themselves might not have been true science, but that is not to say that these cultures, like in China or India, didn’t have science. They had as much science as they needed, and as much as they had the time or resources to do.

The sriyantra, or "great object," which belongs to the tantric tradition. In it nine basic isosceles triangles form forty-three others, encircled by an eight-petaled lotus, a sixteen-petaled lotus, and three circles, which in turn are surrounded by a square with four doors.
Ancient Indian sriyantra

The sriyantra is typical of Indian geometry, with its religious originality, mysticism, and even playfulness, qualities we rarely see in Greek geometry, which remains “uncontaminated” by religion. Various special “numbers” are integrated into the sriyantra, such as pi and another irrational number, the golden ratio, or approximately 1.61803. The golden ratio is found in the pyramids at Giza and in the later construction of the Parthenon and other classical Greek buildings. Is 1.61803 a better number when found in later secular Greek architecture than in earlier Indian religious patterns? Interestingly, as Vedic sacrifices declined around 500 B.C., so, too, did the practice of mathematics among Indians.

Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries, pp. 63-34

Separating science and technology

I’m glad that Gregory at least acknowledges the debt that the Greeks owe to Babylonian and Egyptian technology.

It was, then, the ancient Greeks who were the originators of science, although not, it must be said, without considerable contributions from other cultures. But it was the Greeks who took the technologies of earlier civilizations, most notably those of the Babylonians and Egyptians, and turned them into science.

Andrew Gregory, Eureka!, p. 155

The Greeks didn’t really use earlier inventions to conduct experiments at all. Babylonian inventions, like the wheel, the sailboat, and the seed plow, were more for agricultural or everyday activities rather than for science. After praising their testable theories for so long, Gregory acknowledges that the Greeks didn’t excel at experiments.

Undoubtedly, the strongest areas of Greek science were those in which there was no need for observation, experiment or a strong link with technology, or in which, for some special reason, the Greeks inherited a good deal of empirical data or had no objection to gathering such data.

. . .

The major weakness in ancient Greek science was a lack of appreciation of the proper role of experiment, observation and technology. Experiment, to some extent, was seen as manual labour, and as such beneath the dignity of a “gentleman” philosopher. . . .

The Greeks were never particularly good at technology, nor did they develop a fruitful relationship between technology and science.

Andrew Gregory, Eureka!, pp. 158-159

For the lengths that Gregory went to stress that technology is not legitimate science at the beginning of the book, he now confidently acknowledges that “a fruitful liaison between science and technology could lead to inventions which would better the lot of society in general, and indeed would improve their science.”

He’s completely right, but to me it looks like the claim that the Greeks invented science and discovered nature entirely falls apart. Gregory tries so hard to separate science and technology, but is this distinction necessary? Science and technology are not identical to one another, but they can barely operate independently. How much of modern science would be possible at all without the advanced technology that we have today?

Slavery’s toll

What’s more, that last quote hints at why the Greeks were so reluctant to engineer and do experiments: they didn’t have to. Gregory goes on: “Perhaps this was due to their slave-based culture (there was no need for labour-saving devices), or the stigma of manual work, or the nature of the aristocratic Greek philosophers. Whatever the answer, this was a weakness of Greek science.”

I’m glad Gregory addressed it, but the importance of the “slave-based culture” deserved at least more than a paragraph of the book. The elite thinkers only had the privilege to sit around and pontificate about which triangles were best was because they themselves had slaves to do their domestic work. At least, Plato is known to have had his own slaves. Aristotle is famous for having said that some people are “slaves by nature.” So the luxury of having slaves allowed these men to philosophize, but the stigma associated with manual labor also meant that experiments were simply below the great Greek thinkers.

I have my problems with the Greek science stories in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, but drawing from the work of Benjamin Farrington, Sagan further addresses the effects of slavery and how it brought Greek science to its end:

Without experiment, there is no way to choose among contending hypotheses, no way for science to advance. The antiempirical taint of the Pythagoreans survives to this day. But why? Where did this distaste for experiment come from?

An explanation for the decline of ancient science has been put forward by the historian of science Benjamin Farrington: The
mercantile tradition, which led to Ionian science, also led to a slave economy. . . . What slaves characteristically perform is manual labor. But scientific experimentation is manual labor, from which the slaveholders are preferentially distanced; while it is only the slaveholders—politely called “gentle-men” in some societies—who have the leisure to do science. Accordingly, almost no one did science. The Ionians were perfectly able to make machines of some elegance. But the availability of slaves undermined the economic motive for the development of technology. Thus the mercantile tradition contributed to the great Ionian awakening around 600 B.C., and, through slavery, may have been the cause of its decline some two centuries later. There are great ironies here.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, pp. 197-198

The real birth of science

The title of the book, Eureka!, was an immediate red flag, because it paints a false picture of science in which a thinker is suddenly struck with the answer, and science is born. No one culture discovered nature, and certainly no one invented science.

The true beginning of science is a gradual story that involves everyone who’s ever felt curiosity or just wondered why the world is like that. Ancient creation myths may not be true empirical science, but that same desire for an explanation is the seed that eventually leads to us positing and testing hypotheses.

Indigenous cultures have been doing science for tens of thousands of years. They pass down their scientific truths through beautiful and scandalous stories of jealous gods rather than through dusty old tomes and shiny textbooks, but the discoveries are the same. They have always had an intimate connection with nature, far deeper than what the Greeks understood to be nature; they knew they were part of it.

4 thoughts on “Was Science Really Born in Ancient Greece?

  • August 14, 2022 at 11:05 am

    I agree with your stance that this book approaches the development of science and civilization too exclusively from a western POV. It’s in line with what you argued in a previous post about Carl Sagan.

  • August 14, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    I suggest the word “born” is a mistake. If you were to go back to the seventeenth century and identify those in European tradition could be considered to be scientists, and then traced their roots/influences backward in time, I am sure many of the roots will go into and through Greece, but not exclusively so. Scientists were and are hungry for the works of others. (As an example, consider the works of Aristotle recovered through Arabic translations.)

    Science is not an animal, it was not born. There is no singular event or person you can point to that was the “father” or “mother” of science. It grew like Topsy and metamorphized as it went. It is still changing and will continue to do so.

    I agree with you about Gregory’s “definition” (er, characterization) of science, especially Point #1. Science has never set out to distinguish the natural from the supernatural. Science, that is the natural sciences, study nature. The supernatural isn’t part of nature and cannot be studied (being, as it were, imaginary). In the early days, “scientists” and natural philosophers inserted gods into their explanations as their beliefs guided them and to avoid persecution. But they soon found no need to insert gods as all of the causes they identified seems natural and, importantly, unguided. Today, scientist never insert God into gaps in their knowledge because that implies knowledge they do not possess. And later, those gaps get filled with natural processes, reinforcing the practice of not applying “God of the Gaps Magic Sealant” to those gaps.

    • August 14, 2022 at 2:20 pm

      I agree, science wasn’t just born. Maybe it, like everything else… evolved 😁

  • August 23, 2022 at 11:01 am

    First, one has to define what one means by “science”, which gets one into the infamous Demarcation Problem — there isn’t universal agreement. Science as we know it today is generally held to come into being c.1600, i.e. the so-called Scientific Revolution, which is roughly bookended by Copernicus and Newton. At least, that seems to be the standard story (I’d recommend Thony Christie’s blog for more detail than you could possibly want to know on the subject ;-)).
    What debate that I’ve seen on “indigenous science” is a brief exchange between biologist Root Gorelick and biologist-turned-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. The latter agrees that indigenous cultures often had a detailed corpus of practical knowledge of their world (they had to, in order to survive), but did not generally formulate testable explanatory theories, which is an important component of modern science.


What do you think?