Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Review: The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way by Joy Hakim

The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way by Joy Hakim
2004, Smithsonian Books, 282 pages, hardcover

Joy Hakim is a talented story-teller, as readers of her American history series can attest. Her presentation of the history of science, ably illustrated with colored images of scientists and their apparatus and their books will engage the student and readily acquaint him with all that he is likely to be expected to know (in the politically correct sense) about the history of science.

It is the "politically correct" aspect that warrants some caution.

Joy Hakim is not herself either a scientist or a historian, and several annoying but commonplace and politically correct assumptions about science are reinforced by her work, to wit:

  • That religion and science are in conflict.
  • That the history of science basically begins with the Greeks, pauses for the Dark Middle Ages, and resumes for the Reformation/ Enlightenment.
  • That science involves a particular type of thought, in the long run the best kind of thought and the only one that is really dependable and serious.
  • That science fiction is a source of suggestive ideas about the nature of man, and since it has a veneer of science, these suggestions will be welcomed by all men of good intelligence.
Here are some of the details of her thought about religion being in conflict with science.

The presentation of science as a constant conflict with religion begins at the beginning of the text. On p. 48, for example we learn that the religious and political leaders were "aghast" with the ideas of Anaxagoras (500 – 428 B.C.), who said that the Moon had mountains and shone by the reflected light of the sun. It is a curious fact that in writing this first volume, titled: Aristotle Leads the Way, Hakim does not note that Aristotle himself, several generations after Anaxagoras, in 350 B.C., rejected these ideas about the Moon. This is important because it shows that the academics were in disagreement among themselves, not busily making "Scientific Progress" except as inhibited by hysterical religious leaders.

The battle continues on p. 91 (in a sidebar) where Hakim laments that unfortunately we can't read the works of Democritus because they were destroyed by religious zealots. Whom does she mean? Plato wanted to burn his writings, but did not have the power to do so; worth mentioning to recognize that there were academic conflicts about his ideas. Some claim that the books were burned in 391 by Christian monks; this refers to some sort of political chaos in which the Library at Alexandria was damaged, but it has nothing to do with singling out Democritus. Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the Alexandrian Library – excepting the works of Aristotle -- be burned to heat their baths in 642. Again, Democritus was not singled out. And by the way, now we know why Aristotle so dominates our knowledge of Greek thought. Thanks, Omar.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the books in this library contained a mixture of sorcery and science; this was the source of the discord. I would probably burn a good number of the books myself if they were found in my family library. Of course I would want to sort them first, and 700,000 books is more than I can sort…

So much for religious zealots.

Skipping ahead, chapter 22 is entitled, "A Saint who was No Scientist" referring to St. Augustine. Actually, for his time Augustine was moderately good at science, considering that it was not his primary vocation. He specifically urged that the Christians not say things about science that pagans would certainly dismiss as stupid for this might cause them to dismiss the gospel, -- good advice today. And he made a mammoth effort to bring the understanding of Genesis 1 up to date – his date.

To her credit, Hakim mentions that some scholars dispute the idea that the dark ages were so very dark, and she urges her readers to do their research. This is a little unfair. The idea of writing a textbook is that you are laying out the essentials and the readers may do further research. She doesn't even list the people they might research in order to consider the merits of Medieval science:

- St. Isidore of Seville in the 7th century, St. Bede in the 8th century, and Rabanus Maurus in the 9th century all worked on encyclopedias, humble efforts to set forth what was known in an orderly manner. Coming out of the piracy that marked the fall of Rome, these efforts were humble but important for the resumption of culture.

- John Scotus Eriugena (12th century) set forth a layout of the heavens with Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter orbiting the Sun, though not Saturn.

To be sure, Hakim's book actually has marginal notes and side bars with other resources that might be pursued, but since these are not well-integrated into the text, a student might not notice them as a resource for further research.

Reviewed by Mary Daly (2-28-07)

    1 comment:

    Crimson Wife said...

    I really wish that I had seen this post earlier as I just bought Ms. Hakim's book over the weekend. I'm very disappointed because I feel the first part of the book covering the Ancient period is excellent. Had Ms. Hakim ended this volume there, I would've highly recommended it. Unfortunately, the last 80 pages are marred by serious anti-Catholic bias :-(

    The first 21 chapters are a fascinating look at the scientific knowledge of ancient civilizations including the Sumerians, Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Ancient Chinese, and of course the Ancient Greeks. Ms. Hakim does an admirable job at explaining often complex topics in a comprehensible and entertaining way.

    The portion of the book covering the medieval period shows major anti-Catholic bias. For example, in the chapter entitled "A Saint Who Was No Scientist", Ms. Hakim promotes the false story that St. Cyril had the Library of Alexandria burned, when in fact it was most likely done by a lawless mob of peasants that included both Christians and pagans.

    She also criticizes monastaries for "locking up" knowledge behind closed walls, when actually they were sanctuaries in a continent overrun by barbarians. She selectively quotes early Christians such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Tertullian, Lactantius, and Cosmas to portray them as backward and anti-intellectual while portraying Islamic, Jewish, and Chinese scholars in a completely positive manner. The great Catholic intellectuals Sts. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas are only portrayed positively because Ms. Hakim considers them to be "rebels" against the Church.

    My advice to Catholic homeschoolers wishing to use this book would be to stop on page 189 and skip the remainder.