Below you'll find a smorgasbord of writing from the academic (Why the Greeks?), a script for the animated documentary (The tree that shaped empires) and a blog post examining a musicians debt to nature.
Why the Greeks?
What factors drove the rise in Science in ancient Greece?
Neither reason, nor enquiry began with the ancient Greeks. Nor can it be said that the ancient Greeks were doing anything that resembles our modern understanding of the term “Science”. However, during the classical period of Ancient Greece (6th- 4th Century BCE) there was a marked cognitive shift into the enquiry of the nature of the universe, the effects of which have shaped the modern world. This change was defined by seeking to find truth through observation and rational debate, instead of myth. The intangible nature of the history of ideas, and the chasm of time that separates ancient Greece from today, makes it impossible to identify exactly the circumstances of this cognitive shift. However, through an examination of economic, geographical, technological and political factors, and a comparison with other ancient societies, I will argue that the development of Greek science is indebted to all these elements, but above all is linked to the emergence of democracy and the religious pluralism of the time.
In the 5th Century BCE the philosopher Luecippus stated “nothing came to be at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity” this demonstrates a clear rejection of myth to explain our existence. By this period various fields of enquiry, from the physical, mathematical, medical and moral were being extensively debated using such rhetoric and although written evidence is patchy, we can infer that such thought processes emerged from approximately the 6th century BCE. Undeniably, Greek science made many elementary contributions to mathematics, cosmology, medicine, amongst many others, but their greatest legacy was opening the doors of enquiry onto the nature of knowledge, looking not just at what, but why the universe behaves as it does. For the first time the idea that one could find fundamental truth through observation was considered a legitimate discourse, at least for some thinkers, in ancient Greece. Though there were also many important contributions to science from Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians from the same period, it was this second order questioning of root cause that marked the Greeks out from their neighbours.
Geography has always had an influence on the development of civilisations, Ancient Greece being no exception. Based in the Mediterranean basin, Greece is a mountainous region characterised by poor soils and easy access to the sea. This had both political and economic consequences that are relevant to what happened to Greek science. Firstly, the impetus that this had in driving Greeks to sea faring trade and secondly, the emergence of the city state as a consequence of the difficulties in over-land travel.
The rise of Greek natural philosophy in the 6th century also coincides with the richest period in Ancient Greece . Recent technological innovations in coinage also allowed for wealth to be concentrated and transferred easier than ever before. It is tempting to give an economic explanation of the development of Greek thought via the creation of leisure time through economic surplus, as even Aristotle did himself. However, both the Egyptians and Babylonians were far more economically developed than the Greek city states and had ample access to leisure time. The availability of free time was no doubt essential in providing the space to carry out natural philosophy yet it is not sufficient to account for the cognitive shift seen in classical Greece. Perhaps then, it was the intercultural exposure that was implicit to international trade and travel that can account for this shift.
Seafaring was pivotal in putting the Greeks in close contact with many neighbouring societies. We know it exposed them to new technologies, ideas and systems, they inherited their alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians and literature from the Sumerians. By looking at other cultures, and seeing how markedly different they were from themselves, it is evident from various classical authors that ancient Greeks began to be more critical of their own belief systems. However seafaring and enquiry into other cultures was not unique to the ancient Greeks. For example, the Persians governed a broad array of peoples, and even made note of their different customs and beliefs, and the Phoenicians were reported to have sent an expedition to circumnavigate Africa in the 7th Century BCE. Instead then we may look to the surge in exposure of previous and contemporary beliefs within Greek society as a result of technological innovations of the written word.
With the advent of literature, or more specifically the alphabetic system of writing sometime between the 8th and 9th century, literacy expanded beyond an esoteric group of scribes, into a broader public domain. Although the period we are interested in took place between the 6th and 4th century BCE, the gradual accumulation of thoughts and practices in writing, and their subsequent exposure to Greeks through the written word no doubt enabled critical reflection on belief systems. This argument has some merits, though is inadequate to account for the changes in Greek thought. The Greek alphabet was adapted from the Phoenician’s and the ancient Greeks were not the only society with a large demographic of literate people, nor a wealth of literature on which to reflect on. Neither wealth, exposure via trade and travel, or literature were unique to the Greeks, to answer why this cognitive shift didn’t happen to the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians or any other Eastern empire, we should instead look to the unique socio-political situation in Ancient Greece as a potential clue.
From the 7th to the 4th Century BCE, the Greeks political structure, as a result of geographical and economic factors was composed of city states, Poleis, that were characterised by dynamic shifts in governance almost continually. This is a striking contrast to the centralised, static governance of the Persian, Phoenician and Egyptian empires of the time (Morris,1989). Following Cleisthenes introduction of democracy in Athens in the 6th Century natural philosophy and the spread of rational enquiry flourished.
Political participation in Classical Athens was de rigueur. Neither prestige, wealth or contacts were sufficient to have your argument taken seriously in the dicasteries. Instead, speakers were forced to turn to carefully constructed argument based on observation and reason to persuade their audience. And in turn these listeners were forced to scrutinise arguments, weigh up evidence and decide between opposing viewpoints. As well as regular participation, the reach of these debates extended right up to constitutional questions of how societies should be run. There were certain limitations to this freedom, the trial of Socrates being a telling example, but nevertheless there was an unprecedented tolerance of criticism. The combination of broad public participation, frequent scrutiny of argument, and breadth of debate, provided an ideal breeding ground for the emergence of rational argument in the political sphere.
Outside of the political arena there was a complete absence of religious orthodoxy in ancient Greece. Though there were widespread, deeply held beliefs, there were no sacred texts, religious representatives or even an institution to support such figures or suppress dissenting opinion. Just as there was a tentative “safe space” in the political realm to debate fundamental questions of how man should govern man, so too were writers and thinkers able to question if, and by what rules, nature governed man, without fearing the wrath of the powers that be. Athenians were their own masters of thought, but to convince others of the merits of their ideas and beliefs, they were turning to the rhetorical tools of argument that had been sharpened in the
Rational enquiry in politics if not preceded, then certainly coevolved with natural philosophy. This is reflected in the fact that much of the natural philosophy writing in this period borrowed terminologies and analogies directly from the political and legal spheres. Further evidence of the relationship of natural philosophy to the political sphere was the fact that the Greeks predominantly tended to use evidence and rational enquiry to refute other peoples claims rather than to support their own propositions, as is evidenced in On The Sacred Disease, where the author applies a modus tollens argument to logically refute others suggestions for the causes of leprosy, yet fails to hold his own proposal to the same standard. This feature was characteristic of classical Greeks, as even was noted at the time by Aristotle who wrote “we are all in the matter of relating an enquiry not to the subject matter, but to our opponent in argument”. Thus this also exposes the weakness of Greek thought, as it was characterised by an emphasis on argument and rhetoric, instead of the application of empiricism.
There were many factors were necessary for the rise of Greek science; economic surplus, an exposure to ideas both new and old from literature and trade, but all of these factors were found in other ancient societies of the time. As demonstrated it seems likely that religious pluralism, and the toolkits of rational argument that were refined and sharpened in the socio-political sphere, helped Greek science emerge as distinctive in its search for an alternative form of truth through observation and rational thought. This tentative step, so deeply fundamental to western society, has gone on to provide the principle framework for modern science and left a lasting legacy on the
history of mankind.
The Tree that Shaped Empires
The script for my tree that shaped empires animation.
This is Cinchona, a tree whose legacy is as bitter as it’s taste.
For over three centuries, it’s bark was humanity’s only defence in the fight against malaria, a blood eating parasite responsible for killing five percent of all the humans who’ve ever lived.
The tree was a medical marvel, but it opened the door to a dark chapter in history.
The story begins in the icy foot hills of the Peruvian Andes, it’s the 17th century and Spanish Jesuits are here on a mission to spread the word of God. As legend has it, the priests observed local villagers chewing on the bark of cinchona tree to stop them shivering from the cold. For the priests, shivering had long been a harbinger of doom, it was a tell-tale sign of Malaria, which was a major problem in Europe at the time. It was a period in history when many cities were surrounded by marshland, an environment that provided an ideal breeding ground for malaria spreading mosquitoes. Such was the disease’s prevalence that many of the priests brought it with them when they travelled to the new world. They were on the look out for anything that might ease their symptoms.
While shivering from fever and shivering from cold have very different causes,
Shivering from the cold and shivering from fever are not the same thing, but the Jesuits didn’t know that and as luck would have it the bark was effective for treating their malarial shakes
Soon the enthusiastic priests were sending crate loads of the bark back to Europe. The barks success at reducing fevers stunned the doctors of the day and marked a significant advancement in the treatment of disease. Curious, thought doctors at the time, that there are other, better ways of curing a patient that don’t rely on the medieval practices of letting a patient’s blood or inducing a bout of vomiting.
Even though the bark worked, it’s application didn’t go mainstream. The barks effectiveness varied wildly depending on the species of Cinchona tree that was sourced, And it cost and arm and a leg to ship it over from Peru. Plus ties to Catholicism during a period of religious bigotry in Europe tainted Cinchonas reputation. English Civil war victor, Oliver Cromwell, a famously puritanical protestant, refused the bark whilst dying from Malaria, dismissing it as popish quackery.
The Jesuits bark was for Catholics and the wealthy and especially wealthy Catholics.
At the same time the Cinchona tree was discovered in the New World in the 1630s, European exploitation of Africa was just beginning. But fast forward 250 years, to the 1870s, and Europe’s colonial project hadn’t got very far. In Europe, Africa was known as the “Dark Continent”, Dark because, well, Europeans really were in the dark when it came to Africa, they’d only really explored the coast, anyone with an ego big enough to head inland would usually wind up dead.
But within just 40 years, almost the entire continent was colonised by European powers in what became known as the scramble for Africa.
So what changed?
Rapid industrialisation of European economies meant these nations were hungry for raw materials. And Africa had them all, timber, gold, palm oil and coal. You name it and Europe wanted it. And they were prepared to do anything to get it. There were just a couple of hurdles to overcome. Malaria was a big one.
At this point in the 19th century, Malaria remained a problem in some parts of Europe, but the strain of Malaria found in Africa, falciparum was far deadlier than the type seen in Europe, especially for those who hadn’t built up an immunity from childhood.
Death rates among early European explorers were spectacular.
On one expedition in 1777 to Mozambique, 132 out of 152 Europeans died from the disease before they returned. Malaria was a bloodsucking spanner in the works for Europe’s imperial projects. How could they even work out what was there to take if all their prospectors kept dying in the field?
Back to Europe, it’s 1820 and French Chemists Caentou and Pellier had identified the barks' active ingredient. A complex, bitter tasting chemical they named Quinine after the Quechua word for the tree, Quina quina.
Soon, improved forms of anti-malarial treatments were developed. But people continued to suffer from Malaria, and those who contracted the disease tended to have recurrent bouts of fevers for the rest of their lives.
Something had to change.
By 1848 An aspiring British medic, Doctor HR Thompson, wanted to test out a theory he’d been mulling over. Instead of taking quinine when the Malarial shivering began, Thompson predicted that by taking it daily, a patient could saturate their blood with Quinine, killing off any chances of the Malaria parasite from taking hold on the body. On an expedition up the gambia that same year, Thompson got the opportunity to test his theory of quinine prophylaxis on his crew. On their return, Thompson was elated to declare not a single member of the crew succumbed to Malaria. Soon after the British Army were all ears, and by 1848 the British were using it en masse to to keep its soldiers and Bureaucrats alive long enough to penetrate and carve up Africa, India and other tropical regions where Malaria was rife.
On the recommendations of doctor Thomson and the army, quinine tablets were to be taken daily. But the ferociously bitter pill was hard to stomach, and so the challenge was to find a more palatable means of taking it. In typical boozy British fashion, it was mixed with sugar, water and Gin. The gin and tonic was born. And it soon became synonymous with colonial life. European leaders saw it as critical tool in their quest for global dominance. As Churchill put it “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire”.
Let us not forget that empire was above all else a project to maximise the extraction of resources from colonies to their colonisers. Over 10 million Congolese died in enforced concentration camps producing rubber in The Belgian occupation of the Congo, Millions died from famine in India in the 1870s as farmers were forced to grow export crops that they were unable to feed local peoples. All rail, road and other infrastructure that was developed and is still to this day used to show empires benevolent side were in reality designed to get materials from their source to the nearest port, not for the kinds of intercity travel that are helpful to a countries development.
The G&T emboldened the British, but at the cost of the lives and minds of the indigenous populations they were repressing. Nevertheless, the colonial cocktail was not enough to keep the British empire alive. The resistance and bravery of independence movements eventually brought about the decline of this dark chapter in History.
These days, more effective and less toxic anti malarial drugs are used to treat and prevent Malaria, but the thirst for the bitter taste of quinine remains. So next time you sip on a G&T, take a moment to wonder at that Peruvian bark, those Jesuit priests, and the bitter legacy of empire infused in this epochal cocktail.
A Musicians debt to nature
Stuck halfway through that poem? Can’t find the right lyrics to express yourself?
Writer’s block is an affliction that affects even the most driven individuals. Without inspiration it is easy to struggle to get the creative juices flowing, one easy solution is to turn to nature for guidance. Nature’s role as a panacea for the imaginatively disinclined is well known, from the lonely wanderings of Wordsworth to Bon Iver whose melancholy, award-winning album- For Emma, Forever ago- was penned over a long winters stay amongst the Aspen pines of North Wisconsin.
Yet despite the prevalence of Natures’ influence in the creative sphere, it might seem like an impossible task to try and value this source of inspiration. But that is exactly what researcher Luca Coscieme, from the University of Dublin has done. In a first of its kind, Coscieme measured the frequency of ecosystem related keywords (such as “tree” or “mountain”) amongst the lyrics of the 31 million songs on the Apple music store. By multiplying these “ecosystem inspired” songs by the total number of downloads, and averaging the price of a song, they were able to estimate the contribution of cultural ecosystem services to the music industry from 2003 to 2014.
The results were dramatic, finding that over 1.4 million songs have been inspired by ecosystems, generating a total value of $600 million over the 11-year period. Curiously, lakes and rivers systems were the most popular ecosystems mentioned whilst wetland and coastal systems were the least referenced in song lyrics. This paper is likely to pave the way for further investigations into the cultural value of Nature across other creative fields.