The Scientific Revolution Revisited - Mikuláš Teich - ebook

The Scientific Revolution Revisited brings Mikuláš Teich back to the great movement of thought and action that transformed European science and society in the seventeenth century. Drawing on a lifetime of scholarly experience in six penetrating chapters, Teich examines the ways of investigating and understanding nature that matured during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, charting their progress towards science as we now know it and insisting on the essential interpenetration of such inquiry with its changing social environment. The Scientific Revolution was marked by the global expansion of trade by European powers and by interstate rivalries for a stake in the developing world market, in which advanced medieval China, remarkably, did not participate. It is in the wake of these happenings, in Teich's original retelling, that the Thirty Years War and the Scientific Revolution emerge as products of and factors in an uneven transition in European and world history: from natural philosophy to modern science, feudalism to capitalism, the late medieval to the early modern period.With a narrative that moves from pre-classical thought to the European institutionalisation of science – and a scope that embraces figures both lionised and neglected, such as Nicole Oresme, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Thaddeus Hagecius, Johann Joachim Becher – The Scientific Revolution Revisited illuminates the social and intellectual sea changes that shaped the modern world.

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The Scientific Revolution Revisited

Mikuláš Teich

© 2015 Mikuláš Teich

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0). This license allows you to share, copy, distribute and transmit the work; to adapt the work and to make commercial use of the work providing attribution is made to the author (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Attribution should include the following information:

Teich, Mikuláš, The Scientific Revolution Revisited. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2015.

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ISBN Paperback: 978-1-78374-122-9

ISBN Hardback: 978-1-78374-123-6

ISBN Digital (PDF): 978-1-78374-124-3

ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 978-1-78374-125-0

ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 978-1-78374-126-7

DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0054

Cover image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Summmer (1563),

All paper used by Open Book Publishers is SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes) Certified.

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To the memory ofAlistair Crombie (1915-1996)Rupert Hall (1920-2009)Joseph Needham (1900-1995)Roy Porter (1946-2002)scholars most learned and friends most loyal


List of Illustrations


Note on Terminology and Acknowledgements







From Pre-classical to Classical Pursuits



Experimentation and Quantification



Institutionalisation of Science






The Scientific Revolution: The Big Picture



West and East European Contexts








List of Illustrations


Image of heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (c. 1543). Wikimedia Commons,



Palaeolithic painting, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (southern France), c. 32,000-30,000 BP. Wikimedia Commons,,_Chauvet_cave.jpg



The Prague Astronomical Clock (Prague Orloj) in Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic. © BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons,



Portrait of Nicolaus of Cusa wearing a cardinal’s hat, in Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Wikimedia Commons,



Georg Ernst Stahl. Line engraving (1715). Wellcome Trust,



Portrait of Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom (c. 1689). Wikimedia Commons,



View from above of Gresham College, London, as it was in the eighteenth century. By unknown artist, after an illustration in John Ward, Lives of the Professors of Gresham College (1740). Wikimedia Commons,



Portrait of an old man thought to be Comenius (c. 1661) by Rembrandt. Florence, Uffizi Gallery. Wikimedia Commons,,_Rembrandt.jpg



Spherical burning mirror by Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1786). Collection of Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon (Zwinger), Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons,,_Ehrenfried_Walther_von_Tschirnhaus,_Kieslingswalde_(today_Slawonice,_Poland),_1786,_copper_-_Mathematisch-Physikalischer_Salon,_Dresden_-_DSC08142.JPG



Title page of New Atlantis in the second edition of Francis Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum: or A naturall historie. In ten centuries (London: William Lee at the Turks, 1628). Wikimedia Commons,



A diagrammatic section of the human brain by René Descartes, in his Treatise of Man (1664). Wikimedia Commons,



A page from Song Dynasty (960-1279), printed book of the I Ching (Yi Jing), Classic of Changes or Book of Changes. National Central Library, Taipei City, Taiwan. Wikimedia Commons,



Zheng He’s Treasure Ship. Model at the Hong Kong Science Museum. Wikimedia Commons,



David Gans, Ptolemaic cosmological diagram (planetary circles surrounded by Zodiac constellations) in Hebrew, from his Nechmad V’Naim (1743). Wikimedia Commons,



Emperor Franz Stephan (sitting) together with his natural science advisors. From left to right: Gerard van Swieten, Johann Ritter von Baillou (naturalist), Valentin Jamerai Duval (numismatist) and Abbé Johann Marcy (Director of the Physical Mathematical Cabinet). Wikimedia Commons,


Note on Terminology and Acknowledgements

In a book about the much debated Scientific Revolution, problems unavoidably arise with terminology. They pertain to terms such as science/normal science/modern science, and social/societal, among others. I regret possible ambiguities in their employment despite efforts to be consistent. There is also the question of references. They are given in full but I apologise for inadvertent omissions. This also applies to the bibliography relevant to the debate.

I am indebted to Dr Albert Müller, who read a large part of the early version of the book, and Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, who commented on chapters 1 and 2 in draft. It is a pleasure to pay tribute to discussions with Professors Kurt Bayertz, Herbert Matis, Michael Mitterauer, Dr Deborah Thom and Professor Joachim Whaley. Deep thanks for support are due to Dr Ian Benson, Alison Hennegan, Professor Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and the late Professor William N. Parker. Dr Alessandra Tosi provided invaluable editorial guidance. Ben Fried proofread the manuscript and commented on it most helpfully. Lastly and firstly, my warmest words of gratitude go to my family, above all to Professor Alice Teichova and our daughter Dr Eva Kandler – without their assistance the book would quite literally not have seen the light of day. The responsibility for the published text is mine.


In 1969, after taking up a Visiting Scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, I was approached by the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, to give a public lecture. The subject-matter I chose was ‘Three Revolutions: The Scientific, Industrial and Scientific-Technical’. When it was announced in the University Reporter (100 (1969-1970), p. 1577), for some reason the Scientific-Technical Revolution metamorphosed into the Scientific-Industrial.

I gave the lecture on 4 May 1970, and in it I attempted to convey that the Three Revolutions were products of, and factors in, historically far-reaching societal transformations, and that the place of science and technology cannot be left out of the societal picture. It was this perspective that led me to return to the subject-matter and address it now in book form.

Apart from underestimating the difficulties of presenting a short account of the issue, other commitments prevented me from focusing solely on the project. When I reached my 90th birthday, it occurred to me that if I was to contribute to the debates regarding these three great movements of thought and action, a viable course would be to produce the work in three separate parts, of which The Scientific Revolution Revisited is the first. It turned out to be a thorny journey; the other two parts are in preparation.

Autumn 2014



This book is about interpreting the Scientific Revolution as a distinctive movement directed towards the exploration of the world of nature and coming into its own in Europe by the end of the seventeenth century. The famed English historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) is said to have advised that problems were more important than periods. If he held this opinion, he ignored that problems are embedded in time and place and do not arise autonomously. The inseparability of problem and period has been amply demonstrated in six collections of essays, examining the ‘national context’ not only of the Scientific Revolution but also of other great movements of thought and action, which Roy Porter and I initiated and co-edited.1

In general terms, one way of encompassing the world we live in is to say that it is made up of society and nature with human beings belonging to both.2 It is reasonable to connect the beginnings of human cognition of inanimate and animate nature (stones, animals, plants) with the ability to systematically make tools/arms within a framework of a hunting-and-gathering way of life, presently traceable to about 2.5 million years ago. It is also reasonable to perceive in the intentional Neanderthal burial, about 100,000 years ago, the earliest known expression of overlapping social and individual awareness of a natural phenomenon: death.

While the theme of the interaction between the social, human and natural has a long history, there is scant debate over the links between perceptions of nature and perceptions of society from antiquity to the present. This is crucial, however, not only for understanding the evolution of our knowledge of nature as well as our knowledge of society, but also for gauging the type of truth produced in the process. An inquiry into the relationship between science and society takes us to the heart of the issue highlighted by the late Ernest Gellner, noted social anthropologist and philosopher, when he stated that ‘The basic characteristics of our age can be defined simply: effective knowledge of nature does exist, but there is no effective knowledge of man and society’.3

This assertion, indeed Gellner’s essay as a whole, gives the impression of a despondent social scientist’s cri de coeur, made before he sadly passed away with the text yet to be published. By then, Gellner had undeniably come to believe that social knowledge compared badly with natural knowledge. He particularly reproved Marxism because it

claimed to possess knowledge of society, continuous with knowledge of nature, and of both kinds – both explanatory and moral-prescriptive. In fact, as in the old religious style, the path to salvation was a corollary of the revelation of the nature of things. Marxism satisfied the craving of Russia’s Westernizers for science and that of the Russian populist mystics for righteousness, by promising the latter in terms of, and as fruit of, the former.4

It is noteworthy that this critique contrasts with Gellner’s position five years before the demise of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, a development which he clearly had not envisaged:

I am inclined to consider the reports of the death of Marxist faith to be somewhat exaggerated, at least as far as the Soviet Union is concerned. Whether or not people positively believe in the Marxist scheme, no coherent, well-articulated rival pattern has emerged, West or East, and as people must need to think against some kind of grid, even (or perhaps especially) those who do not accept the Marxist theory of history tend to lean upon its ideas when they wish to say what they do positively believe.5

This was in line with what John Hicks noted a year after receiving the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics (in 1972). Venturing to develop a theory of history ‘nearer to the kind of thing that was attempted by Marx’, he declared:

What remains an open question is whether it can only be done on a limited scale, for special purposes, or whether it can be done in a larger way, so that the general course of history, at least in some important aspects can be fitted into place. Most of those who take the latter view would use the Marxian categories or some modified version of them; since there is so little in the way of an alternative version that is available, it is not surprising that they should. It does, nevertheless, remain extraordinary that one hundred years after Das Kapital, after a century during which there has been enormous developments in social science, so little else should have emerged. Surely, it is possible that Marx was right in his vision of logical processes at work in history, but that we, with much knowledge of fact and social logic which he did not possess, and with another century of experience at our disposal, should conceive of the nature of those processes in a distinctly different way.6

‘Learning from history’ is invoked by politicians at will, but avoided by historians. They could do worse than to heed Hicks’s observation regarding Marx’s approach to encompassing and deciphering human social evolution. It has not lost its force when it comes to analysing the roots of the contemporary troublesome state of world affairs, fuelled by globalisation.


There is no point here in recapitulating what is argued in the book. But, as I have found the strongly-disputed Marxist conception of a period of transition from feudalism to capitalism a useful framework within which to locate the forging of the Scientific Revolution, it may be worthwhile to dwell on it briefly.

According to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm,

the point from which historians must start, however far from it they may end, is the fundamental and, for them, absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction, between historical statements based on evidence and subject to evidence and those which are not.7

But what is established fact? Take the categories ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’.8 There are historians who find them to be of little or no use. There are others who may, curiously, employ both variants in a text: feudalism/‘feudalism’ and capitalism/‘capitalism’. In other words, the categories have the semblance of both fact and fiction. More often than not, the assessment that feudalism and capitalism are not viable historical categories is politically and/or ideologically motivated. This of course is vehemently repudiated on the basis that true historical scholarship does not take sides.

In this connection, Penelope J. Corfield’s ‘new look at the shape of history, as viewed in the context of long-term-time’ comes to our attention. Her interest in this question was triggered by the Marxist historians E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill (her uncle). Though she clearly disagrees with their world-view, she hardly engages with their work. Criticising the old ‘inevitable Marxist stages’, she finds that gradually

over time, historical concepts become overstretched and, as that happens, lose meaning. And ‘capitalism’/’communism’ as stages in history, along with ‘modernity’, and all their hybrid variants, have now lost their clarity as ways of shaping history. To reiterate, therefore, the processes that these words attempt to capture certainly need examination – but the analysis cannot be done well if the historical labels acquire afterlives of their own which bear decreasingly adequate reference to the phenomena under discussion.9

Corfield’s model of making sense of the past is that ‘the shape of history has three dimensions and one direction’. The three dimensions, she argues, are ‘persistence/microchange/radical discontinuity’.10 While her long-view approach is to be welcomed, her formula gives the impression of being too general to be of concrete value in casting light on, say, the Scientific Revolution.


TheScientific Revolution in National Context (1992) illustrated that no nation produced it single-handed. So in what sense was the Scientific Revolution a distinctive movement? In the sense that in Europe it had brought into being ‘normal science’ as the mode of pursuing natural knowledge – universally adopted in time and still adhered to at present. Thus ‘when an Indian scientist changes places with an Italian or an Argentinian with an Austrian, no conceptual problems are posed. Nobel Prizes symbolise the unity of science to-day’.11

In Europe diverse social, economic, political and ideological conditions brought together the historically-evolved ways of knowing nature and produced the Scientific Revolution. These conditions included procedures, such as classification, systematisation, theorising, experimentation, quantification – apart from observation and experience, practised from the dawn of human history. Still, the social context of this transformation of the study of nature into normal science – institutionalised over time and in certain places – may be understood in terms of the passage from feudalism to capitalism. It was a long-drawn-out process of which the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, along with the Scientific Revolution, form ‘historically demarcated sequences’.12 By the eighteenth century, normal science had arrived in latecoming countries, such as Sweden and Bohemia.

Outside Europe the assimilation of normal science had taken place under different historical circumstances. Indeed, we may witness that it still takes place today as part of a fierce global interchange. Existing Stone Age human groups come into contact with latest scientific technology – ancestrally descended from the Scientific Revolution – and eventually they acquire the skills to use electric saws, mobiles, etc., without having passed through the historical learning process experienced by European and non-European peoples under the impact of early capitalist expansion.

The adaptation to tangible contemporary scientific-technical advances by ‘primitives’ testifies to lasting legacy of the fundamental transformation of the mode of pursuing natural knowledge, both theoretical and practical, between the middle of the sixteenth and the close of the seventeenth centuries. The much maligned Scientific Revolution remains a useful beast of historical burden.13

1 Published by Cambridge University Press, the volumes formed part of a sequence of twelve collections of essays which included The Enlightenment in National Context (1981), Revolution in History (1986), Romanticism in National Context (1988), The Renaissance in National Context (1992), The Scientific Revolution in National Context (1992), TheReformation in National Context (with Bob Scribner, 1994), and The Industrial Revolution in National Context: Europe and the USA (1996).

2 What follows, draws on the ‘Introduction’, in M. Teich, R. Porter and B. Gustafsson (eds.), Nature and Society in Historical Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

3 E. Gellner, ‘Knowledge of Nature and Society’, cited in ibid., p. 9.

4 Ibid., p. 13.

5 E. Gellner, ‘Along the Historical Highway’, The Times Literary Supplement, 16 March 1984.

6 J. Hicks, A Theory of Economic History (repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 2-3.

7 E. Hobsbawm, On History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p. viii.

8 ‘Once you accept that feudalism existed, and capitalism does, there’s a big academic debate about what caused the collapse of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. Shakespeare managed to get to the essence of it without having knowledge of the terms’. Paul Mason (economics editor of Channel 4 News), ‘What Shakespeare Taught Me about Marxism and the Modern World’, The Guardian, 3 November, 2013.

9 P. J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. ix, 182-83.

10 Ibid., p. 248.

11 Introduction in Porter and Teich (eds.), The Scientific Revolution in National Context, p. 1.

12 D. S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 1.

13 Introduction in Porter and Teich (eds.), Scientific Revolution, p. 2.

1. From Pre-classical to Classical Pursuits

The theme

In the main, historians and philosophers of science have come to differentiate between the Scientific Revolution and scientific revolutions. The former term generally refers to the great movement of thought and action associated with the theoretical and practical pursuits of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1631) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), which transformed astronomy and mechanics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First, the Earth-centred system based on Ptolemy’s (c. 100-170) celestial geometry was replaced by the heliocentric system in which the Earth and the other then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) revolved around the Sun. Second, laws governing the motion of celestial as well terrestrial bodies were formulated based on the theory of universal gravitation.

The origins of the interpretation of these changes in astronomy and mechanics, made between Copernicus and Newton, as revolutionary are to be found in the eighteenth century.1 Offering an essentially intellectual treatment of it, Alexander Koyré is credited with having coined the concept of the Scientific Revolution in the 1930s.2 Since then much has been written about the periodisation, nature and cause(s) of the Scientific Revolution.3 Broadly, two seemingly incompatible approaches have been employed. The ‘internalist’ perspective, greatly indebted to Koyré, identified the Scientific Revolution as a societally-disembodied and supremely intellectual phenomenon. The alternate approach, greatly influenced by Marxist ideas, focused on social, political, economic, technical and other ‘external’ factors to clarify the emergence of the Scientific Revolution.

Since Copernicus’s seminal De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published in 1543 and Newton’s no less influential synthesis Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica appeared in 1687, some have been perplexed that a phase in scientific history can be called ‘revolutionary’ when it lasted around 150 years. Others have dwelt on the fact that the protagonists in the transformation of astronomy and mechanics – deemed to be revolutionary – did not fully divest themselves of traditional ancient and medieval approaches and ideas. This connects with the issue of how to view later scientific breakthroughs associated, say, with Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) or Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Are the novelties of Lavoisier’s oxygen theory of combustion, Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s linking of space and time comparable in revolutionary terms with the Scientific Revolution? If they qualify as ‘scientific revolutions’, is the Scientific Revolution then first in time among equals?

Fig. 1 Image of heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus'De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (c. 1543).

Kuhn’s paradigms and normal science

A determined attempt to address the general question of how scientific revolutions emerge, and how they are identified, has been made by Thomas S. Kuhn in his highly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which first appeared in 1962 and was enlarged in 1970, containing a ‘Postscript-1969’. Setting out to portray scientific development (as a succession of tradition-bound periods punctuated by non-cumulative breaks),4 Kuhn’s approach centres on the utilisation of three notions: paradigm, scientific community and normal science. He treats them as mutually connected categories.

For the reader, the grand problem is the truly protean notion of ‘paradigm’. After being told that the term he had used in at least 22 different ways, Kuhn admitted: ‘My original text leaves no more obscure or important question’.5 As a consequence, Kuhn preferred to equate a paradigm with 'a theory or set of theories' shared by a scientific community. The question of whether a scientific community’s common research activities, designated by Kuhn as ‘normal science’, determine a paradigm or whether it is sharing a paradigm that defines a scientific community was answered by him as follows: ‘Scientific communities can and should be isolated without prior recourse to paradigms; the latter can then be discovered by scrutinising the behaviour of a given community’s members’.6

To put it succinctly, Kuhn conceives of scientific revolutions as transitions to new paradigms. The motor of this process is not testing, verification or falsification of a paradigm but the scientific community’s gradual realisation of a current paradigm’s inadequacy. That is, while engaged in normal science, the scientific community finds the paradigm’s cognitive utility wanting when confronted with riddles or anomalies which it does not encompass. The response to such a crisis is the emergence of a new paradigm that brings about small as well as large revolutions whereby ‘some revolutions affect only the members of a professional subspecialty, and [...] for such groups even the discovery of a new and unexpected phenomenon may be revolutionary’.7

The intellectual impact of Kuhn’s historical scheme of scientific revolutions was wide-ranging and stimulated much debate during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it began to wane afterwards. For one thing, on reflection, not only the notion of paradigm but also those of scientific community and normal science appeared to be vague. Take Kuhn’s notion of normal science and its association with three classes of problems: determination of fact, matching of facts with theory and articulation of theory. Useful as the concept of normal science is, there is more to it than these three categories, into one of which, Kuhn maintains, ‘the overwhelming majority of the problems undertaken by even the very best scientists usually fall’.8

Everything has a history and so does normal science. It evolved and materialised first in classical antiquity as peri physeos historia (inquiry concerning nature) with entwined elements of scientific methodology, such as observation, classification, systematisation and theorising. By the seventeenth century in Europe, these practices, extended by systematic experimentation and quantification, were bringing forth generalisations in the form of God-given laws of nature. Moreover, institutionally shored up by newly-founded scientific organisations and journals, these pursuits paved the way for science to operate as a collaborative body. That is, an integral aspect of these developments was the institutionalisation of scientific activities through scientific societies (academies) and journals in Italy, Germany, England and France. Focusing attention on these historical aspects of normal science, we recognise that essentially they still shape its fabric today.

Neither the duration of the coming of normal science into its own nor the blurred line that separates the old from the new in Copernicus’s or Newton’s thought is the problem.9 It is the coming into existence of a methodologically-consolidated, institutionally-sustained mode of ‘inquiry concerning nature’, that distinguishes the investigations into natural phenomena made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from those of previous centuries, and which lies at the heart of the Scientific Revolution.

What the Scientific Revolution arrived at was the eventual institution of science as the human activity for the systematic theoretical and practical investigation of nature. In a complex interactive process, intellectual curiosity and social needs were involved and intertwined; and it is not easy to disentangle the ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ impulses and motives which advanced the Scientific Revolution. Historically, perhaps, the most significant achievement of the Scientific Revolution was the establishment of science as an individual and socially-organised activity for the purpose of creating an endless chain of approximate, albeit self-correcting, knowledge of nature – a veritable extension of the human physical and physiological means to understand, interpret and change nature.10

Empirical knowledge

Relevant to the historical understanding of the Scientific Revolution is the need to distinguish between empirical and scientific knowledge of nature, and to be aware of their historical relations. Broadly considered, empirical knowledge of nature derives from human activity based on observation and experience. Whereas scientific knowledge derives, as indicated, from historically-evolved and interlocked characteristic procedures of investigating nature, including observation.

Observation is an activity not specific to humans. The human perceptual experience of nature, attained through observation, differs qualitatively from that of non-human animals in that it entails mental, verbal, manipulatory and societal dimensions which are hard to disentangle. According to the ‘food-sharing hypothesis’ propounded by the anthropologist Glyn Isaac, ‘the collective acquisition of food, postponement of consumption, transport and the communal consumption at a home base or central place’ constituted a major stage in human evolution, assisting ‘the development of language, social reciprocity and the intellect’.11

It is believed that early humans embarked on producing tools and weapons about 2.5 million years ago. These activities, in combination with meat-hunting and plant-gathering, the use of fire and ability to make and control it, stand at the very beginnings of empirical knowledge of nature. Take the making of stone tools: it involved finding out about the relative hardness and cleavability of stones by trial and error. The underlying dialectic between doing and learning has been pinpointed by the anthropologist Nicholas Toth, who spent many years experimenting with techniques for making stone tools, as follows: ‘Toolmaking requires a coordination of significant motor and cognitive skills’.12

This applies even more markedly to the manipulative prowess of the modern humans (Homo sapiens) who created Palaeolithic art, traceable in the Blombos cave in South Africa to about 75,000 years ago, and in the Chauvet cave in France to about 30,000 years ago. Comparable in age are the Sulawesi cave paintings in Indonesia, pointing to African origins of figurative art before Homo sapiens spread across the globe. Explanations and interpretations abound, examining, for example, whether mural pictures of animals with arrows in them should be looked upon as a form of hunting magic. Be that as it may, the position of the arrows in the heart region indicates the hunters’ familiarity with the (anatomical-physiological) locus where the animal could be mortally wounded. Representations of women with pronounced female sexual attributes (breasts, buttocks, pubic triangle) are evidence that prehistoric humans attached particular importance to fertility and sexual matters. Human interest in reproduction and sexual activity has a prehistoric past.

Fig. 2 Palaeolithic painting, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (southern France), c. 32,000-30,000 BP.

It is accepted that the extinct Homo neanderthalensis – the evolutionary relations between him and the surviving Homo sapiens are still debated – was burying his dead about 100,000 years ago. As previously mentioned, the Neanderthal burials are regarded as the earliest expressions of human awareness of the natural phenomenon of death. With them originates not only the history of human perception of the relation and distinction between life and non-life, but also that of time.

Perception of time and space: early impulses

‘Time is a word’, we read in an authoritative encyclopaedia of astronomy and astrophysics, ‘that eludes definition until it is given some practical application’.13 The quandary of envisaging time has been reflected in the dichotomy between linear and circular visions of time, depicted vividly by the palaeontologist J. S. Gould as ‘time’s arrow’ and ‘time’s cycle’ respectively. Gould holds that ‘time’s arrow’ – encapsulating the unidirectionality of events – ‘is the primary metaphor of biblical history’.14 Doubtless the lineage of time’s cycle is more ancient – it goes back to the hunter-gatherers’ observation of recurrent events, such as heavenly cycles, annual seasons or female menstruations.

As to the perception of time’s ‘twin’ – space – it assumes tangible form in terrestrial measurement, in the wake of the growth of permanent agricultural settlements. Heralding the Neolithic Age, agriculture based on the cultivation of soil and the manipulation of plants and animals arrived in parts of Western Asia about 10,000 years ago.15 It brought about a shift from hunting and gathering to production and storage of food hinged on irrigation and drainage – as in the river valleys of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. The establishment of sedentary life was accompanied by empirically-attained technical developments embodied in a host of arts and crafts, such as pottery, spinning and weaving, dyeing, metal working, house and boat building and others. All these developments contributed to the growth of specialised material production, including that of food. The distribution of products, as well as political, military and religious activities, came under institutional, palace or temple control, administered by officials variously described as ‘scribes’, ‘clerks’, ‘bureaucrats’ – the literate minority of society. Thus the basis was laid for the establishment of socially stratified and centrally governed polities, as encountered in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.16

Apart from Western Asia where the cultivation of wheat and barley began, other sites of origin for agriculture are recognised. China for rice and millet, for example, or Central America and the northern Andes for maize. Agriculture as a means of supplying the human demand for food turned out to be a worldwide activity. Even today the majority of the world population lives off the land. Because of its unprecedented impact on world history – comparable with the Industrial Revolution – the changeover to economies sustained by agriculture during Neolithic times deserves to be called theAgricultural Revolution.17

River valley civilisations and knowledge of the natural world

The Neolithic agricultural and craft activities, developed in contact with living and non-living things, broadened the empirical knowledge of diverse natural materials, as well as natural and artificial processes, enormously. The concurrent inventions related to the state, commercial and communication needs of the river valley civilisations ‒ such as measures and weights, numerical symbols and arithmetic, writing and the alphabet ‒ were historically of incalculable import.18

The advent of agriculture activated astronomical observations, and with them brought forth the measurement of time as realised in the construction of the calendar. Thus in Ancient Egypt, from about 3000 BC, the length of the year amounting to 365 days was accepted. The number corresponded to the interval between two observed, predictable events that recurred and coincided annually. That is, the agriculturally vital flooding of the Nile and the rising of the brightest star in the sky (known today as Sirius) after its period of invisibility, just before sunrise in July. The Egyptian year became the basis for calendar computation and reform. It was largely this achievement, together with the recognition of the influence of solar and stellar observations on the alignment of those truly towering works of engineering – the pyramids – that made the fame of pre-Hellenistic Egyptian astronomy.

The emphasis on the agricultural context of ancient astronomy should not obscure other factors at play. Certainly a mixture of religion,