Religion, Science and the Development of Society

March 10, 2007 at 3:23 pm (Books, Dissertation, Economics, Education, History, Languages)

I’m finding Goody’s book exciting not just for the ideas contained within, but also because he is giving me a whole new vocabulary with which it explore ideas of my own, ideas that I’ve been playing with in my head for months and years but have never had the words to properly express before now. For example, as part of my research over the last few weeks, I’ve been repeatedly encountering the question of the distinction (if any) between the magic, religion and science in human societies. It is clear to any observer that there are dramatic differences in this aspect (as in others) between different societies, both contemporaneous and not (e.g., the difference between religion and technology in Sumerian Mesopotamia in 2500 BC and American Los Angeles in AD 2007). The real questions are, how do we describe those differences, and why do they exist?

I must, in the interests of full disclosure, reveal that I am (a) something of a positivist and (b) something of a relativist. Therefore, it should not be surprising that I resist explanations that suggest that science is fundamentally different in its origins from magic or religion (outside of the possibility of revelation, with which I will not deal here, since it would take too long), or religion from science and magic, etc. Instead, I believe that these ideas all start from the attempts of early man to explain and understand the world around them. It would be utterly false to say that early man did not have scientific knowledge; he knew how to make tools, and at some point he learned a mechanical process by which to make fire. However, for a long period of time, something caused mankind to attribute these, and other natural phenomena, such as disease, to the operations of supernatural forces as opposed to entirely natural forces, as we now understand them. In order for my intellectual position to be correct, then, I must answer two questions: First, why didn’t early man learn from the inconsistency of his supernatural explanations that they were (most likely) false, and second, what changed around 500 years ago that has led to a dramatic shift in human society’s technological and scientific understanding, especially in the West?

I have played around recently with the idea of exponential growth, that scientific and technological innovation accelerates at an essentially exponential rate. Therefore, early innovations, although important, were essentially few and far between. But, sometime around the Renaissance, we hit a point in the curve at which the discoveries of the past were sufficiently broad that whole new levels of discovery became possible, leading to greater and even greater ideas. And, while this curve may indeed be graphically accurate, the idea would always hit (for me) the stumbling block of the Soviet Union. IF technological advance was simply a matter of momentum, if you will, then the USSR shouldn’t have languished while the USA leapt ahead in technology during the Cold War. So, the problem couldn’t have been that simple.

Springing from that idea, I began to wonder if there was something about the capitalist system itself that encourages innovation. And, of course, there is; individuals are generally rewarded for economically advantageous innovations in a capitalist system, therefore exerting social pressure on people to develop said innovations. And, as I was taught in high school, Capitalism as we know it basically developed during the second half of the second millennium AD, right about when the human understanding of science and technology started to take off. Except that, as I’ve learned in the last few years of my PhD program, capitalism DIDN’T start in the mid-second millennium AD. Capitalism in various forms was found all over the ancient world, including Greece, Rome and Mesopotamia, just to mention my areas of expertise. If capitalism were the primary cause of innovation, then technology ought to have taken off long ago.

As an aside, it occurred to me while following this line of thought that one of the great discoveries of the Industrial Revolution, specifically the assembly line, wasn’t actually as revolutionary as I was taught in high school; it is actually just a later, more extreme version of the division of labor, a social development that occurred during the Neolithic period. In other words: the opposite of the assembly line model of manufacturing is NOT the factory or crafts center where one person receives processed raw materials or parts, does all of the work assembling one product and then gives it to someone else to deliver to the customer; the actual opposite involves the same person killing the animal or harvesting the plant for him- or herself, making the cloth from the animal or plant products, transforming that fabric into a garment, and then wearing it him- or herself. The idea of separate herdsmen, hunters, farmers, weavers, and merchants all participating in the creation of the garment actually represents an intermediary step in the development of manufacturing, and that is attested in some of the earliest written documents known to man. Ford’s assembly line, although certainly a step forward in terms of efficiency, was actually the continuation of a process begun 10,000 years before.

Now, back to the main argument: I’m starting to wonder if the explanation for the western world’s current position on the magic-religion-science axis is somewhere in between the two previously discussed ideas, and perhaps off in a third direction, as well. That is, what if it IS a question of technology, but not the technology of which I had thought? In cuneiform, for example, we find early examples of reasonably complicated math, including multi-year accounting and geometric equasions such as the Pythagorean Theorum (about 1500 years before Pythagorus, no less). However, the difficulty of learning to read and write using the cuneiform or hieroglyphic scripts necessarily limited the percentage of the population during this period that could read. The alphabet, which represents a significant advancement in the technology of writing, made literacy significantly more accessible, and (as I understand Goody to argue) literacy is the technology necessary for abstract, scientific thought, at least as we understand it today. Greece and Rome experienced some scientific and technological advancements; just look at Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes, for example. Following this train of thought, however, the chaos in Europe which coincided with the last centuries of the Roman Empire and the succeeding “Dark Ages” prevented literacy from taking hold, and the center of intellectual advancement moved east, to the Islamic world. Finally, as the Renaissance and the later Industrial Revolution led to a resurgence of literacy in Europe, Europe and the Americas became again a center of science. Meanwhile, the increasing dependence of Western society on technology has increased the social and economic pressures to develop new, more efficient technologies. So, in this analysis, the issue is one of education: By educating the members of a society, specifically by teaching them to read and write, you enable ways of thinking that would be technologically impossible otherwise.

Now that I’ve spouted from my soapbox, I should admit that, as with all sweeping generalizations, this is (a) dramatically oversimplified and (b) probably wrong. But I’m okay with that, since I at least feel that it is LESS wrong than the ideas that I had before. And, I should point out, this latter part is not (at least, not that I’ve yet found) Goody’s thesis, it is entirely my own analysis based on no systematic evidence whatsoever, but instead on my own general knowledge about world history. So, if you don’t like it, don’t blame him, read him instead! Evaluate his ideas for yourself. And stay tuned for any additional revelations!

Edit: Indeed, it would appear that that is exactly what he is arguing, except that he attributes the further rise in the West after the Renaissance to the invention of the printing press, which made literature (and, therefore, literacy) more accessible than ever before.

1 Comment

  1. Agent Flying Mouse said,

    Sounds like it’s about creating those new neural pathways again. Somewhat painful, but ever so satisfying. Bravo.

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