Monday, April 18, 2005

A statement I am often having to defend is my claim that science arose only in Western Europe.

The usual objection is that science also arose in ancient Greece, China, the Islamic caliphate or anywhere else you care to mention (Mesoamerica is the most original suggestion that I have heard). To this, I would reply that what I mean by science is very specific. It is not just an interest in nature, or observation, or rejecting the supernatural explanation, although all of these feature in science. Rather it is a large bundle of preconceptions, axioms and methods which make up the practice of what we today understand as science. This only really came into being in early nineteenth century Europe and certainly did not exist in all the other civilisations that are claimed to be scientific. I admit we do talk about Islamic science, Greek science or medieval science but these are probably misnomers. But to be clear, when talking about science as we experience it today, I usually try to use the term 'modern science' to try and avoid this conclusion.

Of course, no one can deny that many of the roots of modern science are to be found outside Western Europe. But that doesn't mean that science itself could be found elsewhere. The roots may spread across the world, but the tree only grew in the one soil.

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