0708-History of Human Knowledge

Background reading material for Yr 1 PPSD session on 08th August 2007 by Professor Omar Hasan Kasule Sr.



Adam was the first human in recorded history to have acquired knowledge through an active process. He learned the names of things so that he might classify and identify them; most knowledge however complex starts with naming and classification.



Throughout human history knowledge has been acquired by revelation, through the agency of prophets, or by empirical observation and experimentation. Prophets were basically teachers who transmitted knowledge. Knowledge of the unseen is through revelation. Knowledge of the seen is acquired by direct interaction with the physical environment. Both methods of acquiring knowledge require the use of human intellect. It is a mistake to try getting a particular type of knowledge from the wrong source.



The historical record is silent about what happened in terms of knowledge and scientific development after Adam. The archeological record however shows that humans in various habitats made progress in learning scientific concepts as well as developing simple technology such as use of fire, making and using tools, building durable homes, animal husbandry, and agriculture. Progress was slow and was mostly by trial and error. Ancients were keen observers of nature with the focus on movements of celestial bodies and variation of seasons. Astronomy was mixed with astrology and was closely bound with religious beliefs.


Growth of science and technology based on systematic and methodological investigation is recent in human history. Technological development was fastest when humans lived together in large communities where they could interact, learn from one another, and share their creative endeavors. Big spurts in the growth of human technological knowledge always coincided with discovery of new forms of energy in the following succession: fire, animal muscles, wind, hydro, explosives, steam, internal combustion engine, electricity, and nuclear energy. Technology has led and determined the growth of all other disciplines of human knowledge by bringing about major changes of social organization. Social and human sciences have developed in response to challenges posed by technology.




The history of modern science disciplines is very brief. Europeans and their descendants in the Americas, Australasia, and other parts of the world dominate science and technology today because of the head-start that their forefathers gave them during the European renaissance. This domination may make some people forget that modern science and technology is a common heritage of all humans and that all people contributed to its growth.



Mesopotamians developed mathematics, astronomy, and a number system. The Babylonians observed stars with no attempt at analyzing and synthesizing the phenomena they saw. The ancient Egyptians also had many developments in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. They developed a calendar mainly to help them predict the annual flooding of the Nile The ancient Chinese developed a calendar using astronomical observations. Practical knowledge of alchemy, medicine, geology, geography, and technology was encouraged. Indians studied movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars. They developed advanced mathematics including geometry and algebra. They also developed the Hindu-Arabic numerals that are used widely today. The Mayans of Central America studied astronomy and astrology and developed a calendar. All these ancient civilizations described nature but did not make attempts to understand it.



The Greeks studied Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and medicine. They tried to find theoretical explanations for phenomena but loathed experimentation. Romans used some of the Greek science and made additions but mostly practical ones. With the decline of the Greek and Roman civilizations science was forgotten in Europe but it had a new beginning in the then ascendant Muslim world. Muslims used knowledge from the Greeks, improved it, and made new discoveries of their own.


Greeks seem to have started the tradition of inquiring about causes thus developing the discipline that was later to become philosophy. Science thus became natural philosophy. Aristotle and Archimedes were the most influential Greek scientists. Aristotle was a keen observer of nature but like later Greek scientists was not inclined to experimentation. Archimedes applied mathematical principles to description of nature. Hippocrates in the 5th century BC under the influence of natural philosophy introduced the concept that disease was a natural and not a supernatural phenomenon. Later Greek physicians such as Galen made contributions to anatomy and physiology. When Romans conquered Greek lands, they did not encourage further growth of science. With the fall of Rome, science in Europe entered the middle ages of no growth but as mentioned above flourished in the Muslim lands.



Medieval Europeans were trying to explain observed natural phenomena from a religious stand point. They saw no conflict between religion and science. The medieval thinkers saw God as the creator of the book of scripture and the book of nature. Scientific ideas woven around religious themes could therefore not be challenged easily because any challenge was treated as an affront to religion.



Islam encouraged the search for knowledge. Muslims translated ancient Greek texts. They absorbed Greek medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. They criticized Greek science and made innovations of their own. They were interested in numbers and they created the discipline of algebra. During military conflicts between Christian medieval Europe and the Muslim world in Andalusia and Palestine, Europe came to discover treasures of scientific knowledge that Muslims had. Muslims expelled from Andalusia left behind many manuscripts that were translated by monks into Latin.




Starting with the renaissance Europeans rediscovered Greek science largely by learning from Muslims who had preserved and developed this knowledge. This led to a knowledge revival in Europe and the rise of Western Europe to being a world power. Roger Bacon (1220 - 1292 M) was an English Fransiscan philosopher who advocated experimental science. Many theoretical and conceptual break-throughs were realized during and after the renaissance. These were stimulated by practical observations and experimentation. Leonardo da Vinci, Corpenicus, Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo made observations that contradicted scientific concepts propagated by the Christian Church. Andreas Vesalius published ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ based on anatomical dissection that corrected many prevalent ideas about human anatomy. In 1628 William Harvey published ‘An anatomical exercise concerning the motion of the heart and blood in animals’ in which he described blood circulation that had been described centuries earlier by a Muslim physician in Damascus, Ibn al Nafees. In 1687 Newton published his ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’ in which he enunciated three laws of motion and the force of gravity. He thus was able to provide theoretical explanation for the observations of Corpenicus, Galileo and others who had studied planetary motion. Newton also made methodological contributions in his ‘Optiks’ published in 1704 by showing how hypotheses could be used in scientific investigations whose results could lead to scientific theories. Newtonian mechanics later wholly mathematized was dominant in the next three centuries. Scientific societies were established to study the new knowledge that was accumulating. The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge was set up in 1662. The Academie des Sciences was set up in Paris in 1666.


3.2 THE 18th and 19th CENTURIES

The new spirit of scientific inquiry and experimentation in Europe also triggered the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was not a direct application of the newly discovered scientific knowledge. The revolution was in the textile, metallurgical, and transport industries whose scientific basis was already known.  It was not until the end of the 19th century that science made direct contributions to industry especially in metallurgy, dyes, and the electric motor.


In 1820 Hans Christian Orsted showed that electric and magnetic forces were related. Michael Faraday extended this observation by studying the transformation of one form of energy into another one. This and later observations led to the principle of conservation of energy. By the end of the 19th century all force transformations could be described mathematically.


Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier explained the role of oxygen in combustion and triggered a revolution in chemistry. John Dalton’s discovery that elements differed in atomic weight led to discovery of many new elements. These were arranged according to their properties in a periodic table first devised by a Russian chemist called Dimitri Mendeleyev.


In the 18th century Carl von Linne described a rational system for classifying and naming organisms. Jean-Baptiste Chevalier de Lamark proposed the idea that organisms could change into others a position contrary to the teachings of the Bible. The idea was picked up by Charles Darwin who proposed evolution and natural selection in 1859. Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden in 1838 proposed the cell theory. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch pioneered the germ theory of disease that led immediately to practical methods of disease control.


3.3 20th CENTURY

 The 20th century also witnessed many theoretical break-throughs. Albert Eistein showed that mass and energy were interchangeable and that time and distance were relative. Werner Eisenberg proposed the uncertainty principle ie that you can not know both the location and speed of an object accurately at the same time.

ŠProfessor Omar Hasan Kasule, Sr. August 2007