What Were Some Early Scientific Ideas?

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Looking back on the history of science, it’s clear that we’ve come a very long way. It’s also clear that the desire to systematically learn about the natural world has never been limited to one culture or time period; people have been doing at least a version of science for a very long time.

In the beginning, the main motivations for biological scientific learning were either to learn how to cure illnesses and keep people healthy (medicine) or to discover new information about nature and animals (natural history).

For example, we know that basic medical science was practiced in Ancient Egypt due to the discovery of several papers detailing medicine preparation and even rudimentary surgical techniques. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates developed the idea of the four humors; various liquids found within the human body whose imbalance he believed was the root cause of many illnesses.

In terms of natural history, ancient scholars commonly dissected animals in order to learn more about their internal anatomy. Aristotle in particular was known for dissecting many species of animal and classifying them based on their physical characteristics.

Much of this early science was based entirely on personal observations, hypothetical thought experiments, and individual anecdotes. The idea of controlled, unbiased experiments and the scientific method had yet to come into vogue.

In Western culture, the transition to a more modern scientific philosophy began during the European Renaissance with the rise of empiricism, which valued direct observation from the senses over theoretical ideas. Galileo is sometimes credited as the “father of the scientific method” due to his systematic studies in astronomy and physics. The momentum of his ideas were built upon by other philosophers, and eventually led to Francis Bacon formalizing a version of the scientific method in 1621.

The scientific method made studies more empirical, comparable, and replicable. It allowed science as a whole to progress, rather than just the ideas of one particular scholar or philosopher.

The 1600s saw the invention of more accessible and powerful microscopes, and with it the beginning of microbiology. Scientists were now able to study living things smaller than what could be seen with the naked eye. These early microscopes eventually led to the discovery of cells, and then to cell and germ theory in the 1700s and 1800s. Although it sounds crazy now, it wasn’t until we developed a more nuanced understanding of germs and other microorganisms that physicians learned to wash their hands and disinfect tools when tending their patients.

In the 1700s, the naturalist Carl Linnaeus revolutionized how living things were classified in the Western sciences. His idea of “binomial nomenclature” is still used today, in the form of the scientific names (or Latin names) that we use to refer to species. This earned Linnaeus the title “father of taxonomy”.

One essential feature of science is that it each new scientific idea builds on the ideas that came before it. Linnaeus’s idea of organizing living things based on physical characteristics and relatedness to one another also would eventually help set the stage for Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution.

It was in the 1800s that Charles Darwin spent time on a fateful voyage, which included the Galapagos Islands, and from his observations formed the Theory of Natural Selection. In the words of biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

Darwin’s theory opened the doors for a more complete understanding of the living world and how the current species living on Earth came to be. Evolutionary theory impacts all parts of biology, from animal behavior to genetics to taxonomy to ecology. All modern biology relies on evolution as a central tenet, which was built out of hundreds of years of previous biological knowledge.

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