History Of Science
Not Out Of Greece
C K Raju
On the model of discovery used to declare Columbus,
Vasco etc. as discoverers, only Christians could make discoveries. The Western history of science involves a slight extension of this model and attributes all discoveries in science to Christians and "friends"—the early Greeks. Accordingly, the stock Western history of science first tells a story of the achievements of early Greeks, and then jumps to claims about discoveries by Christians in post-renaissance (or, more correctly, post-Crusade) Europe.
This stock storyline applies across all fields: whether mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, or medicine. For example, the story goes, astronomy began with Claudius Ptolemy, and then developed with Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Kepler. Or that mathematics began with the Greek Euclid and then developed with Leonardo of Pisa, Newton and Leibniz, etc. This storyline is contrary to commonsense : if science is universal, it should have originated universally. Yet, this history is found in numerous current texts in science and history of science. It spreads the message that science is Western in origin, and hence that the non-West is inferior, and can progress only by imitating the superior West.
What is the evidence for this history? Thus, "Euclid" is a major figure in this history, but there is nil evidence that "Euclid" even existed, or that he, or someone near his purported date, authored the Elements attributed to him. By an extraordinary coincidence the philosophy of mathematics attributed to this unknown "Euclid", from 1500 years earlier, is closely aligned to the Christian theology of reason which developed during the Crusades when the book first arrived in Europe! Since mathematics education today is based on that philosophy of mathematics (that mathematics is about reasoning), and other ways of doing mathematics (as practical calculation, for example) are rejected as "inferior", the veracity of this history ought to be a key concern for science educators.
Actually, Greek manuscripts of the Elements do not mention "Euclid" at all, but attribute the book to Theon who came some 700 years later! A book written by a different author at a different time, under vastly different social conditions (of a religious war) would naturally have a different motive and a different interpretation. This is confirmed by the most superficial reading of the book, which had to be rewritten in the 19th c to fit its wrong interpretation maintained for seven centuries!
To expose this lack of evidence for "Euclid", in all senses, this writer offered a "Euclid" prize of around Rs 2 lakh for any serious evidence about "Euclid". No one claimed the prize so far. It is astonishing how, for centuries, non-Westerners too swallowed it all without independently, cross-checking that history. And even after the lack of evidence is exposed, school texts in India still hang on to the story of "Euclid" exactly like astrologers hang on to astrology though unable to claim Kovoor's challenge prize. This itself shows that the Western history of science is based on insular faith rather than evidence.
The purported evidence for "Euclid" and his motives cornes from a short isolated passage attributed to Proclus (who comes 8 centuries after "Euclid"). The passage is found in a manuscript which comes another thousand years after Proclus! The passage is now proven to be a post-Crusade interpolation.
What is true for "Euclid" is true for lesser figures. The same lack of evidence characterizes almost all claims of Greek inventiveness. The "evidence" consists solely of speculations based on late manuscripts. Those are either Arabic manuscripts, which came to Europe after the 12th c, during the Crusades, or even later Byzantine Greek manuscripts from the 15th c. Thus, there are no "original Greek" manuscripts to back the claims of the Greek origins of science.
The late manuscripts do not constitute valid evidence, for there is a huge discontinuous gap of 1000 to 1500 years between the time from which the manuscripts are obtained, and the time to which their origin is attributed. The purported place of origin is another continent (Alexandria in Africa) and the language too is different from that of the purported originals (being Arabic or Byzantine Greek). The imagined identity between the real manuscripts and the purported originals rests solely on the believed inferiority and non-inventiveness of others, that they added nothing. After all, Western scholars reasoned, who else except the superior Greeks could have written those? This is a classic example of the logical fallacy of begging the question : one indirectly assumes what is to be proved.
So, this is like taking a modern day manuscript in English from, say, London and declaring that it is a verbatim copy of a Sanskrit manuscript from India in the 5th c, all other traces of which are lost! One could additionally reason that only "superior" Indians could do it. That would be utterly absurd and laughable. And, when PM Modi recently advanced a claim about advanced sciences in Indian antiquity, all knowledge of which was then lost, even journalists jumped to object.Astonishingly, however, in two centuries not a single one of Indian historians even once questioned the similar lack of evidence for the claims of the Greek origins of science before this writer did so. This persistent silence calls for serious introspection, as does the double standard.
Because serious evidence is absent, most of this "history of Greek science", based on late texts, is done in the manner of mythological speculations, and a difference in speculations is settled simply by appeal to the prejudices of those in authority! This is the method of theology, not history, for it can be used to prove anything. Moreover, the fact is that for at least 13 centuries Western "history" was written exclusively by Christian priests committed to defending all the most absurd lies told by the church, including the claim that Jesus was a real historical figure. Hence, those "historians" had demonstrated lack of commitment to historical truth. Naturally, their "authoritative speculations" involve strong religious biases which then prevailed in Europe. Naturally, also, they implicitly took into account what would be materially advantageous to the church. It is elementary commonsense that such persons cannot be trusted: not a word they say should be believed without independently cross-checking it.
The church often has devious motives. Thus, after the military failure of the Crusades (after the first Crusade, and beyond Spain), the church switched from its earlier policy of burning heretical books to a new policy of learning from them, with a view to overcome Muslims by persuasion. When Toledo fell during the pre-Crusades, its huge library came under Christian rule. Using the gold earned from the first Crusade, the Western church launched a program to mass translate those Arabic books to Latin in 1125 CE. How to justify this sudden switch of policy? How to justify this project to learn from the hated religious enemy? The simple way out was to tell a lie—falsifying history was an old church trick. Hence, the scientific knowledge in those Arabic books was declared a Christian inheritance by attributing it all to the "friends of Christians", the early Greeks. This false history, justified translating those Arabic books, since the church now said it was only reclaiming its rightful inheritance which the Muslims had kept in safekeeping!
The Eastern church, based in Istanbul (Constantinople), had started the process of translation much earlier. It translated Arabic books from the Abbasid Khilafat of Baghdad into Byzantine Greek. For example, the Pancatantra was translated from an 8th c Arabic translation to the Greek in the 11th c. The Eastern church was no less chauvinistic in attributing the knowledge in Arabic books to early Greeks. Therefore, the example of the Pancatantra is important, because the origin of the text cannot be fudged, so it firmly establishes the direction of translation from Arabic to Byzantine Greek. This was also the natural direction of translation given the huge investments in knowledge and books made by Baghdad, which led to such a surge in the demand for paper, that paper technology was imported from China. These later Byzantine Greek manuscripts from Turkey, which translated or copied from Arabic texts, flooded Europe in the 15th c, after the fall of Istanbul to Mohammad the Conqueror (because of the Islamic injunction against book-burning), and were often passed off as "original Greek" manuscripts to dupe.
Of course, books on Indian arithmetic and astronomy were also translated into Arabic in the 8th and 9th c. Thus, the claim that all scientific knowledge in the later Arabic and Byzantine Greek texts was of Greek origin involved some unsustainable speculations. However, no one even whispered the possibility of religious bias in that speculative history written for centuries by Christian priests committed to the church aim of world power. Early European universities, like Cambridge, were set up, during the Crusades, for the express purpose of producing priests trained in religious propaganda, but colonised academics never dared mention the possibility that they are true to their foundational objectives, and do, in fact, carry out religious propaganda through their academic work.
On the contrary, many colonised minds try to defend that history. Instead of questioning the lack of evidence for those claims of the Greek origin of science, they indirectly defend those stories by questioning the motives of the critic in demanding evidence! Failing all else, they put forward the lame apologia that all history is like that (so one should continue with those stories!)
All history, however, is not like that. Thus, Islamic jurisprudence explicitly recognized the commonsense principle of isnad : a continuous chain of intermediate evidence connecting the present-day testimony to the purported time of origin. Such a continuous chain of intermediaries is available in India. For example, one can learn about Aryabhata even from opponents like Varahamihira and Brahmagupta as also from a chain of commentators such as Bhaskar, Someshwar, Suryadev Yajvan and so on until the 15th-16th c and Nilakantha down to more modern times. The later texts clearly separate the commentary from the original which is cited in full. The coherence and continuity of this chain of sources from different times and places makes the conclusion about Aryabhata's text robust.
In the Greek case, such a continuous chain of transmission is absent. (One hears of commentators, but there are no intermediate texts.) That means the entire story of Greek origins of science rests squarely on the reflexive assumption, contrary to commonsense, but central to Western history, that "others" were inferior and not inventive, and hence added nothing.
However, non-Western historians have persistently neglected to cross-check the stories, the assumptions or the evidence. Even Marxist historians of science worldwide did not bother to ask how the purported Greek achievements in science related to the development of productive forces. The Greek city states were tiny (Athens had an adult male population of about 600 citizens). Those states were constantly warring, so they could hardly support leisured scholars, unlike the vast and ancient civilizations of Egypt and Persia. They had no wealth to import expensive papyrus they used for books. Hence, also, Greeks had no library prior to Alexander's conquests.
Alexander looted the library of Darius. And it was through Egyptian and Persian books that the great library of Alexandria was stocked, for it was in place by the time of Ptolemy 2, some three decades after Alexander's military incursions. So the books in the library could not have been produced by Greeks even if all of Ptolemy's army laid down their arms and started writing books. Hence, also, that library was located in Africa, never in Greece, and all big Greek names in science, such as "Euclid" and Archimedes have perforce to be speculatively located along with that library in Alexandria, in Africa.
As Toynbee points out, military incursions are often carried out by "barbarians" on the fringes of more advanced civilizations. Hence "barbarian incursions" such as those of Alexander, or Hulegu, led to a flow of knowledge towards the military intruder. The Greeks were clearly the barbarians or the "external proletariat" on the fringes of the Egyptian and Persian civilizations, and the Ionian Greeks were a Persian colony. The early Greeks travelled to Egypt for their higher education, and were so non-inventive that they copied everything including their very gods from black Egyptians (and their architecture from Persians). So, these general historical considerations, correctly applied, again lead to the same conclusion that there is no reason to believe in Greek inventiveness, though they may have translated some Egyptian texts into Greek.
As another concrete example, to illustrate these general considerations, consider the claim that astronomy (and trigonometry) began with "Claudius Ptolemy" in the 2nd c. The hard evidence is that of the 12th c or later manuscripts of the Almagest. The purported date of "Claudius Ptolemy" comes from four passages in those manuscripts. Those passages are known to be unreliable for they involve fake observations. Those "observations" are fake for they have systematic errors of a kind which could only have arisen by back-calculation using a defective astronomical theory. Undeniably, Egyptians had knowledge of astronomy, and the Almagest may possibly have begun as an Egyptian book on astronomy, which was translated into Greek in Plolemaic times. But attributing the 12th c version of it all to a mythical Greek "Claudius Ptolemy" from the 2nd c is certainly wrong.
Why, anyway, should a 12th c scientific manuscript be a carbon copy of a 2nd c one? Scientific texts don't stay constant. They are accretive, since they are updated to reflect the latest knowledge. For the Almagest this updating is manifest in its star list which is headed by the current pole star, and hence dates to after the 9th c before which the current pole star was not the closest star to the north pole.
If one doesn't posit the inferiority and non-inventiveness of others one must immediately admit another source of accretion : by transmission of knowledge from others. This knowledge crept into later Arabic and Greek texts. Thus, for example, apart from the Pancatantra, it is well known that Indian astronomy and arithmetic went to Persia and then Arabs. Indian arithmetic was vastly superior to the Greek. And this is the reason the 7th c Eastern Christian bishop Severus Sebokht gives for the superiority of Indian astronomy. It is well known that this imported knowledge found its way in numerous Arabic texts, and the Almagest could hardly have lagged behind.
Indeed, the opening pages of the current manuscripts of the Almagest sound like a digest of the centuries of debate in Indian astronomy over a rotating earth, since Aryabhata. That is, knowledge of astronomy and trigonometry was transmitted from India and accreted into later-day Arabic and Byzantine Greek manuscripts.
In fact, even the bare authenticity of texts coming through the hands of Western scholars is suspect. For long centuries they were Christian priests, who were masters at manipulating texts, including the Bible, to suit their immediate political convenience. This was easily done at a time when books were copied by hand, and most people were illiterate. For example, a well known forgery is the "Donation of Constantine" used by the church to grab the Vatican. The purported "testimony of Flavius" is another forgery which aimed to provide evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. Therefore, as a precaution, any Western historical claim based solely on textual evidence, ought to be cross-checked against non-textual evidence.
For example, the Greek and Roman systems of numeration were manifestly primitive. They were additive systems tied to the abacus, so doing an elementary sum like 18×39 is a pain (try it!). It could not be used to do the sophisticated arithmetic required for astronomy. Europeans themselves eventually rejected that primitive Graeco-Roman arithmetic for superior Indian arithmetic based on the place value system and algorithms—but that happened over a thousand years later. Thus the non-textual evidence tells quite another story of arithmetic backwardness of Greeks and Romans which does not fit the claim that they advanced quantitative astronomy.
Another piece of non-textual evidence is the calendar. Because of their arithmetic backwardness, Greeks made a mess of the calendar they had earlier copied from Egypt like their gods. Acknowledging that mess Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar with great fanfare, though the net result only aggravated the mess about months (e.g. July has 31 days in honour of Julius, so August competitively has 31 days in honour of Augustus, and February is reduced to 28 or 29)!
That (Julian) calendar was adopted as the Christian religious calendar in the 4th c Nicene council to fix the date of the Easter ritual, then the main church festival. However, even that "reformed" calendar had the wrong length of the year (as 365¼ days). That was a gross error even in comparison with 3rd c calendars from India. The gross error arose because the Roman system of numeration had no way to articulate fractions, except for simple fractions like half and quarter; therefore they were unable to state the true length of the year (but that wrong figure is what the colonially educated still learn!). This error (in the second place after the decimal point) naturally led to a noticeable slip in the date of Easter within a century.
The church repeatedly tried to correct the error, but even the 5th c Hilarius reforms failed. The church controlled the Roman state then, and Hilarius was a pope, so the only possible reason for this persistent failure to fix the error in the date of the key religious ritual was this : basic knowledge of astronomy was unavailable in the Roman empire. Thus the non-textual evidence states the real hilarious story of Roman incompetence in astronomy, contrary to the tall tale of a Graeco-Roman Ptolemy who authored an advanced text on astronomy in the 2nd c. That is, neither "Claudius Ptolemy" nor advanced knowledge of astronomy existed anywhere in the Roman empire in the 5th c. Lack of accurate knowledge of so basic a parameter as the length of the year nails those false claims?
Though the Almagest value of so basic a parameter as the length of the year is wrong in the second place after the decimal point, the 12th c version of the Almagest computes some values to the 13th place after the decimal point! Why were such extravagantly accurate values needed when other values were so crude? How tedious would it have been to compute them without efficient arithmetic algorithms? Thus, a giant leap of faith is required to believe in the Western story which glibly attributes 12th c knowledge to the 2nd c (or earlier, as in the case of Archimedes).
Further, people are asked to believe that "Ptolemy" (signifying knowledge of astronomy) appeared miraculously like fairy godmother, in the 2 c without any earlier Greek tradition of serious astronomy, without the requisite competence in arithmetic, and without any social need for astronomy (such as navigation or the need to determine the rainy season, critical for monsoon-dependent agriculture, which need drove the development of the Indian calendar. After that miraculous appearance, Claudius Ptolemy and his work and the related tools all disappeared with equal suddenness, by the 5th c, and were not available to correct the calendar! But that is not all. People are further asked to believe that the same work reappeared somewhere else, in the 12th c. And it is said that the other work from a thousand years later, in another language, was not just a copy, but an exact verbatim copy of that unknown earlier work! It was this sort of faith-based history which persuaded Indians to switch to the colonial education system, which has helped tighten the noose of faith since then!
In actual fact, trigonometry first came to Europe only in the 12th c from Arabic manuscripts, through the Toledo translations, contrary to the story of Ptolemy on the one hand and of Regiomontanus on the other. That real story is embodied in the very words like sine, in current use. The word derives from the Latin sinus meaning "fold" being a translation of the Arabic jaib (meaning pocket, as in Hindi). What the Oxford English Dictionary does not tell the world is what a pocket has to do with trigonometry!
That jaib is a misreading of the Arabic jiba by the Mozharab and Jewish translators of Toledo from a time when the nukta system was not widely prevalent, and it was written as just the consonantal skeleton jb. That came from the vernacular jiva from the Sanskrit jya meaning chord. This Toledan translation howler, confounding "chord" with "pocket", is accompanied by a conceptual error like Vasco's errors : the chord relates to the circle, the triangle is incidental, and it was in chapters on the circle that this was studied in Indian texts. Since it concerns circular functions, one should call it circlemetry not trigonometry, but people don't do so since the West trusted straight lines and had serious problems with curved ones, and everybody blindly apes that practice on the belief that the West is superior.
Vol. 47, No. 25, Dec 28, 2014 -Jan 3, 2015