Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Science and technology" - then & now   posted by Razib @ 7/30/2008 01:38:00 PM

Tyler points to a new story in The New York Times highlighting discoveries about the Antikythera mechanism:
The new findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, also suggested that the mechanism's concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with the great Archimedes.


"We believe that this mechanism cannot have been the first such device since it is so sophisticated and complex," Dr. Freeth said. "And we don't understand why this extraordinary technology apparently disappeared for several hundred years, later to emerge in the great astronomical clocks of the 14th century onwards."

My explanation: the ancients had scientists and technologists, but they did not have Science and Technology. In other words, science and technology as we understand it today in the age of scientific industry is a cultural complex which has attained critical mass and is self-perpetuating. One does not need to manifest the brilliance of Isaac Newton to stand upon his shoulders, the sociocultural framework takes Newtonianism as a given. There were scientists in ancient Greece, in the Islamic world, China, India, etc., of various sorts. But these people lacked a cultural framework in terms of a critical mass of numbers which arose in the West sometime between 1600 and 1900 as a cumulative process.*

This is not to say that the "knowledge based" economy is a function of the modern West, it is not. The ancient Greeks had lawyers, doctors and philosophers. So did many other civilizations at various points in history. Legal frameworks, as an example, are essential for complex society, but it also seems to be that they arise necessarily from mass societies of a particular threshold of complexity. The mass societies of the post-Neolithic world straining against the bounds of the Malthusian trap were not barbaric; but they were not mass consumer societies. While I do not believe that science & technology as I am conceiving of them in this post were necessary or sufficient to drive the productivity gains which are required for existence outside of the Malthusian trap,** I suspect that they will be necessary to perpetuate said society into the indefinite future. Science & technology are not hallmarks of civilization, but they necessities of continued affluence.

* That cultural complex's emergence might be contingent upon a host of parameters. For example, the printing press, the unity imposed by Latin as a common language for western European intellectuals, the lack of a unified ideology to suppress diversity of thought
(remember that the Reformation broke the Church's power to stifle new currents in Protestant Europe, while Protestant high priests likewise had no power in Catholic Europe), etc.

** This is not to say that I don't think technology was not necessary or essential for the massive productivity gains, but the scientific-industrial-complex which we know and love (I hope!) today didn't coalesce into its full form until the past century or so, though I do believe its origins can be traced back to the 17th century.