Course Icon
Natural Science - Year I

Unit 3: Conditions for Doing Science: Studying the Weather

Course Materials are always under revision! Weblecture content may change anytime prior to two weeks before scheduled chat session for content.

SO Icon

History Weblecture for Unit 3

This Unit's Homework Page History Lecture Science Lecture Lab Parents' Notes

History Lecture for Unit 3: Historical Background: Science in Prehistoric Times

For Class

Science before History

We've only begun to define what we mean by science. Even though we haven't formulated an acceptable final definition (and it is possible we'll never have a complete definition!), we need to start looking at the whole course of human history and ask whether something we could call "scientific activity" took place in prehistoric times. As we work through different time periods, we'll refine to our definition of science, work out more details and explanations, and then see whether it still applies to activities their participants and historians have defined as "scientific", or perhaps now describes previously excluded discoveries and theories.

Modern anthropologists try to account for evidence like tools, cave paintings, fire rings, shelter remnants, and burial sites by proposing that up until about 10000 years ago, humans lived in small clans and survived by hunting and gathering food. The anthropologist's task is a particularly difficult one, because we don't have any written materials that explain how prehistoric humans accomplished the tasks that produced these artifacts, or what they thought about what they were doing. We only have the artifacts themselves.

The work of an anthropologist is very much like that of a modern police detective, and many different resources are used. Anthropologists may study how animals like chimpanzees use tools, or how babies learn language, or how the few remaining primitive societies in Australia and the Amazon river basin form communities to survive without modern tools and methods of communication. The same forensic tools and processes used in modern law enforcement are applied to ancient human remains from prehistoric burial sites, and used determine the age, gender, and cause of death. Anthropologists also use methods like radioactive carbon dating to estimate the age, origin, and use of tools — although their conclusions are sometimes controversial. From this kind of evidence, they try to reconstruct what human experience must have been like before humans invented writing and started keeping records.

Whether we accept their dating methods or not, it seems clear that technology in toolmaking developed at different times and rates in different locations, but that most groups of people followed the same pattern of development, starting with tools found or chipped from likely pieces of stone, then moving on to using metals.


All of the stone, copper, and bronze tool-making cultures were hunter-gatherer cultures. Besides making tools, they left other artifacts from which we tentatively makes some conclusions about their appreciation of nature and their cultures. Humans in the south of France created cave paintings of different animals, often presented in groups, from which we speculate that they recognized similarities between different individual animals, and created classifications for them. They domesticated animals in a primitive form of husbandry. They used fire as a tool for cooking and smelting — both primitive forms of chemistry or manipulating matter from one form to another. They buried their dead in mounds, often with bowls or tools, which might indicate they had some ideas we would probably class as religious about what happens to individuals after death. They built monuments like Stonehenge and Avebury in England, for which they had to move gigantic pieces of stone. Individuals could not have produced Stonehenge, so we assume that the group of people that built it had language.

Whether they did science is another question. We often classify achievements like making paints, creating tools, using fire, building monuments, and herding animals as technology, or the practical application of scientific ideas. This doesn't necessarily mean that they formulated from their general observations of nature precise conclusions that we would recognize as scientific information or analysis.

Science before Cities

The Requirements for Science in Societies

Let's assume for the moment that scientific activity involves looking at natural phenomena and trying to explain them in a rational way which considers only other natural phenomena as causes. [We will spend the rest of the year fine-tuning this definition]. The first question we need to consider is:

What conditions are necessary for scientific activity to occur?

What do people need to have in order to do this activity or acquire the knowledge that we are calling science?

When we look at societies in the past, we can distinguish between different groups of people and say "these people, in this time and place, didn't do science". Remember that this isn't a value judgment which also claims that these people were stupid or unimaginative; it just means they didn't do what we now call science. A curious and precocious student might bring up some other questions:

The practical conditions necessary for science

Historians claim that least two necessary conditions must exist before a culture can support intellectual activities such as natural philosophy and literature:

  • The society must be able to support specialization, so that some people have time to do something other than find food, water, and shelter on a daily basis. It takes time to observe and record information, or to learn from existing documents.
  • The society must tolerate the introduction of new ideas. One of the activities we associate with science is discovery. We'll see many examples throughout history where scientific ideas ran into opposition from the dominant contemporary political, scientific, or religious institutions.

If you have ever played the board game Civilization, you know that in order to get the cards representing astronomy and mathematics, you must first have a population big enough to build several cities, and then enough cities to engage in trade. This isn't just a funny rule that the game makers thought up. It models a practical reality based on what a group of people needs in order to survive.

A hunter-gatherer society can support its members only when nearly all of them are actively involved in collecting food. An agricultural society can support a community in which some members never participate in food gathering, but perform other functions, such as building houses, making pottery, smelting metals, or writing down histories of events, rules for living together, or accounts and inventories. These members need time, not only to make tools, but also to learn to use them, and then more time to actually produce buildings, pots, iron ladles, or written inventories. Once made, however, a village's products can be traded for products or natural resources from other regions— but only if people can move about on roads or in ships, navigating properly.

Sometime around 12,000 years ago (according to the anthropologists, who are operating from one set of assumptions about how to date all the artifacts that we've been discussing), permanent agricultural activity began in the river valleys of Egypt, China, Mesopotamia, and India. The people living in these locations were able to support the development of specialized non-agricultural activities such as writing, which in turn made it possible to keep track of field boundaries, property ownership, business inventories and profits, and, eventually and unavoidably, taxes for growing government bureaucracies. Somewhat later in time, several of the native cultures of Central and South America accomplished the same capabilities. Societies which are this complicated generally require laws (more writing), and engage in leisure pursuits like art, drama, and natural philosophy—the kind of enterprise that eventually led to what we now call science.

These three clay tablets were discovered by Nicolae Vlass in 1961 at a neolithic burial site in the village of Tărtăria in Romania. The are considered some of the oldest examples of writing in the world, dating from about 5300 B. C. — which would (if you accept the dating method) make them about 7000 years old. Similar symbols have been found on pottery from the same period and region. Other than the fact that these resemble the Egyptian hieroglyphs used nearly two thousand years later, we have no idea what they mean. Because they do probably do not represent symbols for spoken language tokens, some archaeologists prefer to call this kind of pictogram "proto-writing".

Read this brief description about the Neolithic Revolution, as some groups moved from hunter-gatherer cultures to societies based on agriculture.

  • Besides growing crops, what other sources of food did Neolithic cultures have? How are these sources different from those the Paleolithic cultures had as hunter-gatherers?
  • What inventions in this period might be considered "technology" based on ideas from science-like thinking or observations?

Science Interacts with other Human Pursuits

One of the advantages of writing is that not only can we preserve accurate records of observations, so that we don't make mistakes because of faulty or hazy recollections later on, but we can transmit what we've learned to each other, and to our descendants. This means that each generation can build on the information gained by the preceding generation. We don't have to start over every single time and learn everything from scratch.

But this also has implications for science: it makes it a community endeavor across both time and space. As with any other knowledge or experience, the information transmitted by written records is subject to interpretation and transformation by those who receive it. These readers (or listeners) will bring to the information their own conceptual frameworks, both the scientific framework appropriate to the information, that is, things they already know or think they know about the subject matter, and the conceptual understanding built from their own experience and that of their community.

People are never just scientists, and pursue scientific endeavors in the context of their society's culture and their own religious, philosophical, and scientific beliefs. Consequently, one of our goals in this course will be to understand how science influences the culture in which it is practiced, and how the cultures support or limit scientific pursuits. As members of a primarily western European culture dominated by Greek philosophical ideas and a Judeo-Christian religion, we need to be aware of how these ideas influence the way in which we define and pursue science.

Study/Discussion Questions:

Further Study/On Your Own

Optional Websites
Remember, I will not quiz you on these or require you read these to complete homework assignments, but you may find the information interesting if you are particularly interested in this topic: