Does Science Transcend Culture?
Science is distinctly a cultural
the methods and techniques of Science
are elements of that cultural pattern.
John H. Rohrer*
The Title of
this Thesis is carefully chosen. It is a study of whether Science
DOES naturally transcend Culture -- not a study of whether it
CAN do so.
That Science can be transplanted
into, and adopted by, any Culture which did not previously have
it, is clear from history. But it is not at all certain that
Science is a natural outgrowth of a certain level of technical
competence in the sense that, once that level has been reached,
Science automatically develops to extend it. If this were the
case, it should have arisen several times in the past in certain
non-Indo-European Cultures -- where, in fact, it did not arise.
Four or five such Cultures had reached a very high level of technical
sophistication and intellectual achievement but for reasons,
which will be examined carefully, Science did not develop. Evidently
Science and Technology are not the same thing, though they are
related. The former is rare; the latter is found in every Culture
from the most primitive to the most complex.
On the other hand Science
CAN transcend Culture. In comparatively recent times China has
adopted the Scientific Method and is now applying it in the solution
of many basic problems. It does not appear, however, that she
would have developed it on her own, in spite of the genius of
her engineers and craftsmen in the past centuries. Having reached
a certain level, Chinese civilization remained static for a long
time, and then gradually decayed so that her Golden Age passed
away and her Culture settled down at a somewhat lower level.
There it remained for centuries. The phenomenal change which
may come to a Culture with the introduction of Science is beautifully
illustrated in a recent report by James Muir, Chairman and President
of the Royal Bank of
Canada, who visited China
during the summer of 1958. In one place he describes his reactions
The growth of industry, the change
in living standards, the modernization of everything and anything,
the feats of human effort and the colossal impact of human labour
are not within our power to describe and still give a worthwhile
picture of the scene. All I can say is that it must be seen to
be believed. It is truly stupendous.
The effect is almost to bewilder
one when he sees what has been accomplished in less than 10 years
but, if he is a thinking person, to appall him and dumbfound
him when he realizes what had not been done in the previous 4000
years or even 100 years.
What is true
of China has been true of all high civilizations which were not
of Indo-European origin. None of them succeeded in crossing the
threshold into an Industrial Revolution such as resulted from
the introduction and development of the Scientific Method in
Europe. It is therefore a remarkable fact that although a number
of such high Cultures have arisen, Science -- as a method of
vastly extending control over the forces of Nature did not appear
in any of them: yet it did appear in Europe where Technology
was not particularly remarkable.
Cultures seem to enjoy a certain
'specificity' and some types of human activity apparently do
not develop automatically unless the Culture happens to be of
the right kind. Such activities may be introduced by outside
pressure, or by influential newcomers, or as result of a kind
of cross-fertilization in times of emergency. But they are not
natural outgrowths. By borrowing an illustration from biology,
we may point up the difference between the word DOES and CAN,
in this context. Adolph Schultz has stated that: 2
All the distinct
forms within an anthropoid genus can readily hybridize
[as] has been proved for Gibbon, Orangutan, and Chimpanzee [emphasis
these animals can be persuaded to interbreed they do not do so
naturally. Their characteristics are sufficiently marked that
each species does not, by nature, transcend its appointed niche
in the economy of things. They only transcend these boundaries
under considerable pressure applied from outside.
Cultures, like species, also tend
to preserve their integrity, encouraging certain activities but
not others, and
1. Muir, James, "The Challenge of China",
a report published by the Royal Bank of Canada, Montreal,
June 26, 1958, p.1.
2. Schultz, Adolph, "Man and the Catarrhine Primates,"
in Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Biological Laboratory,
Cold Spring Harbor, New York, 1950, vol,15, p.49.
by no means following
the same pattern of development in each case.
To give a reverse illustration:
while no non-Indo-European Culture has ever initiated the development
of Science, Indo-European Cultures have apparently never favoured
Totemism, 3 though
it is common enough elsewhere and seems to have arisen quite
spontaneously in widely separated areas evidently in response
to a social need. Totemism arises because of a certain feeling
which a Society has towards Nature. This feeling is evidently
largely lacking among Indo-Europeans. The lack is related, as
will be shown, to the same attitude of mind which opened the
way for the development of Science.
It seems, therefore, that Cultures
have a certain 'individualism' which is preserved intact so long
as the situation which permitted their growth and development
is not seriously challenged. The stability is in fact a social
necessity in many cases, and rapid cultural change usually generates
sufficient tension and anxiety in the community to lead to the
rejection of innovations -- especially in certain circumstances
which will be discussed subsequently.
But it does not arise within any
species of Culture merely because a certain level of Technology
has been achieved.
In one area which witnessed the
rise and development of Science, it can be shown that there was
little inventiveness or ingenuity displayed by the Culture --
in marked contrast to those areas in which it did not arise,
where inventiveness and ingenuity are strongly in evidence.
A number of authoritative works
have been published in recent years dealing with the Technology
of both Indo-European and non-Indo-European Cultures, and these
speak freely of the 'Science' that such Cultures have developed.
However, it is all too easy to confuse Science and Technology,
in the same way that it is easy to confuse Philosophy and purely
practical wisdom. Both these confusions of thought are related,
I think, and both seriously hamper our understanding of historical
Dr. George Sarton makes the following
observation in this connection: 4
3. Andrews, Alfred C., "The Bean
and the Indo-European Totemism," The American Anthropologist,
vol.51, Apr-June, 1949, p.274-290. It may be noted that Heraldry
is not considered to be a form of Totemism [Lord Raglan, "Totemism
and Heraldry," Man, vol.60, Aug., 1955, p.128].
4. Sarton, George, quoted by Benjamin Farrington, as a prologue
in his Science in Antiquity, Oxford, UK, Home University
Library of Modem Knowledge, 1947.
intellectual division of mankind is not along geographical or
racial lines, but between those who understand and practice the
experimental method and those who do not understand and do not
Yet in his book,
A History of Science, 5
the same writer seems to confuse the technical achievements of
the Middle East Cultures of antiquity with Science! He credits
the Sumerians and Babylonians and the Egyptians with Science
of a kind, where we might feel that the ascription is not due,
since the achievements were purely practical and should therefore
rather be called Technology. As James Conant has put it: 6
The distinction between
improvements in the practical arts and advances in the Sciences
would be one of the recurring topics in a course on the Tactics
and Strategy of Science. The difference between invention
and Scientific discovery may in a few instances seem
slight but a confusion between the history of the practical arts
and the development of Science is a fruitful source of misunderstanding
about Science. . . .
There can be no doubt that knowledge
has been accumulated, classified, and directed to some practical
ends ever since the dawn of civilization. Yet very little
is to be learned about the Tactics and Strategy of Science by
studying the history of these advances. For they do not form
a part of Science. [my emphasis throughout]
I think they
do form a part of Science, and this Conant would be the
first to admit. What he means rather is that Technology is not
the 'father' of Science -- its source of inspiration does not
lie here, through a direct generative process. Yet, a relation
That these Cultures and others in the
New World and the Far East developed a remarkably high degree
of skill and knowledge is not questioned: that they developed
any Science at all is not so certain. And there were many among
them with great practical wisdom: but it is not at all clear
that they were the least bit concerned with Philosophy as we
understand it. Ptah-hotep in Egypt, Confucius in China, Pachacuti
in Peru: these men were very wise, in a canny way. But they were
not Philosophers. In ancient India the situation is more complex.
An examination of the reasons for
this circumstance constitutes the subject of this Thesis. To
the question, Can Science transcend Culture, the answer
would be unquestionably, Yes. To the question, Does Science
transcend Culture, the answer is apparently, No. Science can
transcend Culture because it may be transmitted
5. Sarton, George, A History of Science,
Harvard, 1952, p.16. He expresses the opinion that pre-Greek
Technology was Science, though admittedly "very poor science."
6. Conant, James B., On Understanding Science: an Historical
Approach, New York, Mentor Books, 1951, p.35, 36.
from one Culture to another
-- although this transmission usually brings some modifications
to the Grammar of the language of the recipient. It apparently
does not by nature transcend Culture, however, because
only one particular type of Culture ever witnessed its initiation.
It thus appears to be an activity that is culturally conditioned
in some way. Not until Philosophy was applied to Technology did
Science develop. Where there were no philosophers, there was
no Science, no matter how well developed the Technology was.
But conversely, without this 'pabulum' of Technology, Philosophy
has not given birth to Science even where genuine Philosophers
were to be found.
is to show in Part One that non-Indo-Europeans have been highly
inventive and ingenious, and that there is scarcely any single
basic element of Western Technology in which they did not anticipate
us, and which in fact we did not borrow from them. There are
cases where the necessary links to demonstrate this borrowing
are lacking, but in such cases the non-Indo-European has at least
anticipated us and often by many centuries.
* * * * *
In Part Two, an attempt is made
to demonstrate two negatives. This is always difficult. Research
seems to show that while non-Indo-Europeans have been so inventive,
they have never produced Philosophers. And conversely, while
Indo-Europeans have not been particularly inventive, they have
a genius for philosophical speculation.
In Part Three, the interrelationships
between language and thought are explored and some evidence is
presented which shows, I think, that the non-Indo-European languages
do not permit or encourage speculation of a philosophical nature,
whereas the Indo-European languages do.
In Part Four, a number of relevant
issues in this study are considered, and some general conclusions
drawn. These issues include, among others, some thoughts on the
basic question as to how the ultimate bifurcation of mankind
along these lines came about historically, and what factors tended
to preserve it. Did the language predetermine the thought pattern,
or has some mental characteristic, possibly genetically determined,
been responsible for the language structure? The findings of
research in prefrontal lobotomy seem to throw some light on this
point. The possible relevance of all this, in a practical and
applied way from the point of view of modern educational methods
and goals, is given consideration.
A few clear definitions of the basic
terms as used by the author are essential and the following is
an attempt made to satisfy this requirement.
An unfortunate term which will
in time perhaps be replaced by the more appropriate term "pre-literates"
which is really the most comprehensive definition of what is
A very inexact term which is most
meaningful when viewed from the point of view of Language Families.
In India it refers to those
who could be traced back to the Aryan element in the population,
if such an undertaking were historically possible.
In Europe, it means essentially
all those who have shared in Western Traditions, excluding only
a very small group such as the Basques, who are racially distinct.
As a language designation it is
composed of the Romance group (the French, Spanish, Italian,
Portuguese), the Teutonic (German, Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish,
Icelandic, Norwegian, Flemish and the now extinct Gothic and
Norse), the Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hindi, Armenian, Lithuanian,
the Celtic group (Erse, Gaelic, Breton, and Welsh), and the Slavonic
group (Polish, Russian, Czech, Serbo-Croat). All are considered
as descended from a common tongue once spoken somewhere in Central
7. Claude Levi-Strauss said, "A primitive
people is not a backward or retarded people: indeed it may possess
a genius for invention or action that leaves the achievements
of civilized peoples far behind" [as quoted in a Time Essay:
"Man's New Dialogue with Man", Time, June 30,
1967, p.36, 37].
* * * * *
SOME PROVISIONAL DEFINITIONS
The spirit of a Civilization
of a Culture.
Man's control of
his Man's control of his
Progress lies in: fuller
realization of increasing
potentialities of the luxuries
individual important only
his functions, not for himself.
Defined as: Learned
behaviour in the
and solutions form
of skills and
shared by a community techniques,
a system of values with
An attempt to summarize and contrast some of the
essential distinctions between:
Technology, Science, Philosophy, Religion and Magic
||Attitudes to Nature in:
Strictly rational speculation
Concerning the ultimate nature and meaning of reality
Apart from Revelation
To satisfy purely intellectual needs.
Looks upon the object of worship as superior, hence the capitalized
(an unequal, personal partnership)
Looks upon Nature more as an equal, but still as a 'person:'
(an equal, personal partnership)
Looks on nature as impersonal, and man superior:
(not partners, no equality factor, impersonal)
Must be Useful
Ought to be Useless
||Control by Search
||Understanding by Research
||Science is concerned with physics.
||Philosophy is concerned with metaphysics.
|| Needs only the help of Technology for its
|| Requires only a healthy, mature mind.
|| Its problems change.
|| Its problems remain unchanged.
||Science is Philosophy applied only to the laws
||Philosophy asks why in the ultimate sense.
A Note on Source Materials
materials for this Thesis extend over a very wide range of literature,
and in a very small number of cases these might not be considered
the best. The fact is that few authors have been altogether aware
of the total picture which seems to emerge from this Study. Consequently
one frequently finds a single item of value that clearly contributes
to the overall picture in a text which for one reason or another
might not always be considered suitable.
Much of the data is derived
from Technical and Scientific journals and periodicals in the
fields of Architecture, Anthropology, Physics, Mathematics, Human
Genetics, Science in general, Metallurgy, Linguistics, and Science
History. Some of it is derived from philosophical treatments
of these subjects. The majority of the references to Technical
literature or periodicals are completely up to date [in 1958
In certain areas, notably
Aegean Prehistory, and Primitive and Early Metallurgy, as well
as the Archaeology and Ancient History of the Middle East, extended
studies were first made, preparatory to this Thesis. In these
areas in particular, some of the background of certain generalized
statements is omitted from the text in the interests of brevity.
In some cases it may be wondered
why any documentation was necessary at all for observations
which are commonplace. However, in all such cases the sources
of reference have been given because:
Back to Index Next
(1) the original article contains further
relevant data which the reader may find of interest (e.g., the origin
(2) the original author has employed a number of apt phrases
which the present writer did not wish
to appropriate without acknowledgement (e.g., Clive Bell
on the Athenian view of 'the good
life', or 'exceptional native personalities'),
(3) the reader may wish to see the context in which such
a statement is made (e.g., 'spray painting'
in Palaeolithic times).
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved