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Why did science take so long?

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I am interested in others ideas on this question.

Here is a little background speculation.

Our species, Homo sapiens, has been in existence for about 200,000 years, give or take a reasonable error factor. A quick calculation. Three assumptions.

1. Definition of a genius is the smartest 0.1% of the population.

2. Average number of humans per generation is about 1 million, globally, over 200,000 years.

3. A generation is 20 years.

 

Thus, in the period before the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, a total of about ten million human geniuses were born, lived and died. You can dispute my assumptions and conclusion, but it in inevitable to conclude that an awful lot of genius humans have lived over all those years.

 

How is it, then, with 10 million (or similar high number) geniuses to make their contribution, that it took 200,000 years before the invention of agriculture and then the invention of science as we know it?? Why did science take so long?

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A lack of long-range communication, record keeping, and sufficient population pressures.

 

I don't exactly dispute your assumptions (although you are just chucking out figures without justifying or sourcing them), but I do suggest that you might want to state (i) what you consider to be a "genius" and (ii) why the presence of these "geniuses" in any given population should lead to "science".

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the point sayonara states about the lack of communication is a very important one, it doesn't matter if there was a stoneage genius who discovered calculus if he was never able to communicate it.

 

also a factor would be recording the discoveries in a way that is not prone to corruption like word of mouth(play a game of chinese whispers to illustrate this point).

 

although, it is entirely accurate to state that science has been there all along, there was just never the necessary framework, resources or community for it to be anything more than a disorganised mess until we started developing cities.

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Sayonara

You are perfectly at liberty to dispute my assumptions, if you wish. I am fully aware that they are probably wrong, but I do not think they are so wrong as to deny my conclusion that humankind has had heaps of genius level intellects over the 200,000 odd years before the invention of agriculture.

 

The point about communication is a good one. Also the lack of writing. Perhaps I should have rephrased the question as "Why did it take so long before humans invented writing?"

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Geniuses need time to apply their intellect. That's harder to do if you have a full-time occupation of staying alive, which describes a large fraction of the world's population over the bulk of that time frame.

 

More recently, there was a struggle to overthrow the restrictions placed by the marriage of ideology and significant political power. If someone decides what's true independent of checking with mother nature, and has the wherewithal to silence opposition, not much true science can be done.

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I think the problem is largely with progression and recording of ideas, as well as swansont's point that survival doesn't leave much time for science or art or anything. Being a genius really doesn't mean anything if you have no background knowledge...also you'd have to worry about being burned as a heretic for quite a while in history

Edited by UC

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I think it needs to be said that until about 40 to 50 thousand years ago humans didn't excel much beyond simple tool making. During the preceding 150,000 years human made the same tools with very little advancement. 50,000 years ago and quite suddenly humans began to make things better, art, tools became more complex in design.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_modernity

 

after this "Great Leap Forward" progress was at a ever faster rate. Until this time progress was much slower. exactly what occurred then is open to debate.

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Good thoughts.

Question for swansont. I cannot speak on this with expertise, but I read an account a while ago by an anthropologist who has studied the San, or Kalahari Bushmen - a recent hunter gatherer society. This account stated that most of the waking hours of the San hunters was devoted to liesure. Hence the rich cultural elements of song and dance. Do you not think this applied to our tribal hunter gatherer ancestors?

 

I have also read a suggestion that human progress was limited by the fact that life in the tropics was easy - hence no incentive to develop new methods of living. This suggestion concluded that the move to the more hostile colder northern climes was needed before development. Does this idea make sense?

 

Another thought. The invention of agriculture 'coincides' with the end of the last glaciation period. Is it possible that the preceding cold held back the potentially progressive societies living to the north?

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I have also read a suggestion that human progress was limited by the fact that life in the tropics was easy - hence no incentive to develop new methods of living. This suggestion concluded that the move to the more hostile colder northern climes was needed before development. Does this idea make sense?

There may be some truth in that idea for certain populations. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And nothing breeds necessity faster than a good bout of adversity.

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The bit about communication by Sayonara³ and insane_alien, and survival prioritizing by swansont, all hit the nail on the head. Below are some more related thoughts for you to check out.

 

-- Genius is only a potential, not a guarantee.

 

Recipe for Genius Revealed

 

If you think the innate talents of your child alone will produce the next Albert Einstein, think again.

 

The real recipe for producing a bright-minded adult, according to a new study, calls for a few ingredients—cognitive abilities, educational opportunities, interest, and plain old hard work.....

 

We found that mathematical gifts and a variety of aptitudes have a significant impact, but that special educational opportunities and commitment can dramatically increase this impact...

-- Geniuses depend on former genius. This is where communication steps in.

The Geniuses Behind the Geniuses

 

Sir Isaac Newton once said that if he had achieved anything with his work, such as his laws of motion and gravity, it was "by standing on the shoulders of giants."

 

The scientific vision and achievements of those before brought Newton metaphorically to a higher ground that allowed him to "see" further into the nature of the physical world....

 

"The idea of a lone genius who changes the world with his ideas is essentially flawed," Simmons told LiveScience. "Copernicus came up with a brilliant idea, and it would have been strictly limited without Kepler's work. But the social background—the Reformation—played a major role in how all this work was conceived and received. Society creates the conditions for scientists to be creative and productive—or not."

-- Geniuses learn from others. Again, communication gives us ready access to more heads, which are better than just one head.

 

Einstein Managed His Inbox Just Like You

 

Einstein sent more than 14,500 letters. But he received more than 16,200, and responded to only a quarter of them. Darwin mailed more than 7,500 letters. He responded to 32 percent of the roughly 6,530 letters he received.

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Geniuses need time to apply their intellect. That's harder to do if you have a full-time occupation of staying alive, which describes a large fraction of the world's population over the bulk of that time frame.

 

This is the big one that came to my mind. It is one of the primary reasons so much of the scientific knowledge was conducted by monks and the church -- members of the clergy who were supported by their communities for food, clothing, etc. had the spare time to sit around thinking about stuff rather than spending 100% of their waking time keeping themselves alive. Similarly, only the aristocrats and rich had the means a little later in history to pursue scientific inquiry.

 

Heck, I suspect that you can make a really similar argument today. A significant majority of people in this world today still have to spend most of their time keeping themselves alive. The next Einstein may be living in the heart of Africa right now, though no one will ever know because they are far more concerned about where their next meal will come from than the intricacies of space-time.

 

In a larger point-of-view, I actually think the more compelling question might be: given human that we know it today, how have we actually done such a good job learning the amount of science we have to date? Because, really, it wasn't too long ago mankind was exceptionally primitive. Just as one example from Greg Easterbrook that there is wine available in gas stations all across the US that would have been considered among the finest wines by Medieval kings and queens. Heck, even 15 years ago or so it was an impossibility to communicate with people all across the globe in a public forum like this (maybe not impossible, but certainly not very easily). More to the point, up to about 100 years ago or so, you could honestly give your title as a "scientist" and have significant knowledge about the cutting edge in almost all of the different disciplines. Today, it would probably take a lifetime just to read the entire amount of scientific publication that will occur in calendar year 2009. Several lifetimes to not just read it all, but understand it all. It may even be cranking at a rate fast enough it might take a lifetime just to read a current month's worth of output. There are no "scientists" per the old definition anymore, and not very many true "biologists" or "chemists" or "physicists" any more, either. To keep up to date, you have to pick a small specific sub disciple and keep up with that and hope to catch the big waves from the other parts of your chosen discipline. There just isn't enough time to stay up-to-date with all the little discoveries of each part of an entire branch of science anymore. The actual amount of information that we have and are generating today is almost unbelievable -- well at least to me.

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Why did science take so long?

 

The Goa'uld...? :o)

 

 

Anyway, I agree with Bignose. And there's another "beautiful" thing about that, one that I may realize more than other because I'm still in a phase where I don't want to learn everything I have to learn; the knowledge taught at school also expands in the same way. And I just seriously do NOT envy my grandchildren (if I ever have any), because the ammount of stuff they will have to learn will probably exceed what I have to learn quite a bit. Maybe not, maybe more time is needed for the effect to be pronounced, but it's going to happen sooner or later. And I can't help but wonder how this problem will be dealt with. Will they just teach the most important of the most important? In that case, what is more important? The theory of relativity, or quantum mechanics? Or, for that matter, mathematics or biology? Or will they just keep stuffing all the knowledge into your head? Or will they give 4 year olds the choice of what they want to study, thus predetermining what they will do in life with little chance of them being able to switch for something else?

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Good thoughts.

Question for swansont. I cannot speak on this with expertise, but I read an account a while ago by an anthropologist who has studied the San, or Kalahari Bushmen - a recent hunter gatherer society. This account stated that most of the waking hours of the San hunters was devoted to liesure. Hence the rich cultural elements of song and dance. Do you not think this applied to our tribal hunter gatherer ancestors?

 

 

I think time is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Hunter-gatherers are generally nomadic, and I'd guess it's hard to devote your time to many kinds of scientific inquiry if it required packing up your laboratory and lugging it around with you. However, successful hunting does require some science — making better weapons, within the constraints of the equipment that was available, and observational efforts like realizing one can predict where animals will be, navigation, and (other) astronomy-related knowledge.

 

Moontanman's point about the acceleration of the rate of accumulation of knowledge is also part of this. You build on previous discovery. A supergenius thousands of years ago might have observed a pressure buildup from boiling water and realized that you could exploit that to do mechanical work, but without metallurgy couldn't build it, and without writing, couldn't preserve it. The metaphorical wheel has likely been reinvented several times and other knowledge lost forever because of the inability to preserve or destruction of recorded information. If you don't have access to information, as several have mentioned, you can't stand on those shoulders of giants.


Merged post follows:

Consecutive posts merged

It also occurs to me that necessity being the mother of invention does also apply. As SL has pointed out, if you're surviving just fine there may not be the same push to invent and discover. A lot of inquiry and discovery has been at the behest of leaders, often with military ends in mind, so the social structure of a group will play a part, as well as economics.

 

A good read on this topic is Guns, Germs And Steel by Jared Diamond

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Many of you have touched upon this idea which is really well articulated by "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs." In sum, if you're spending all of your time searching for food and shelter, you don't have time or resources to spend contemplating the nature of pi.

 

Lower levels of the pyramid must be fulfilled before you continue upward to the point.

http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/maslow.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

 

 

800px-maslows_hierarchy_of_needssvg.png?w=399&h=266

 

 

 

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is predetermined in order of importance. It is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the first lower level is being associated with Physiological needs, while the top levels are termed growth needs associated with psychological needs. Deficiency needs must be met first. Once these are met, seeking to satisfy growth needs drives personal growth. The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are met. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritized. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritize those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs, but will not permanently regress to the lower level. For instance, a businessman at the esteem level who is diagnosed with cancer will spend a great deal of time concentrating on his health (physiological needs), but will continue to value his work performance (esteem needs) and will likely return to work during periods of remission.

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On Maslow.

As I pointed out earlier, 'primitive' hunter gatherer societies do not appear to have to spend all their time in getting food. They seem to have adequate liesure, which is why they accumulate such a mass of cultural treasures such as traditional stories, religious myths, songs, dances, and their own style of art works, personal adornment etc.

 

For example : in another article I read by an anthropologist, it was stated that crudely chipped stone tools work just as well as the beautifully sanded and smoothed tools that we see so often in more recent stone age cultures. It appears that enormous extra effort is put in to make these stone tools beautiful, as well as practical. This is not an indicator of a society that has to devote every waking hour to survival. Primitive societies did have the time to develop themselves, though they seem to have pushed this side of their culture into the arts, rather than towards scientific investigation.

 

However, as pointed out earlier, the 'correct' path to development would have to begin with communication and writing. Many methods of making records have developed in the past 3000 years, from coded knots in string, to writing in sand, to clay tablets, slates, papyrus etc. I suspect the first development along the road to science had to be writing. Why did it take till 3000 years ago for the first writing?

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Many of you have touched upon this idea which is really well articulated by "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs." In sum, if you're spending all of your time searching for food and shelter, you don't have time or resources to spend contemplating the nature of pi.

 

True, but as SL has pointed out, some societies have developed art and culture but not science to the same degree. So for them at least, the time part is present.

 

I think that developing agriculture and settling down was a prerequisite to having science advance and developing more than rudimentary writing. I think there's a limit to how far one can advance and be nomadic.

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swansont

I think I agree with you that agriculture was a necessary prerequisite. It meant stable, settled societies. Led to villages, towns and cities.

 

A mobile, nomadic culture could not carry the implements for written records. Imagine a primitive group who relied on slabs of wood and charcoal pens to write. Now imagine a genius writing down his scientific observations and making a book to carry. Kind of impossible. However, it could happen in a settlement.

 

That leads me to the question : why did it take so long to develop agriculture. I note the 'coincidence' between the development of agriculture and the end of the last glaciation period, but this should not affect tropical human societies, and most of humanity should have been tropical. Why did they not develop agriculture? After all, agriculture spread through the entire world, including the tropics.

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You can dispute my assumptions and conclusion, but it in inevitable to conclude that an awful lot of genius humans have lived over all those years.

The first problem is what constitutes genius. Humanity appears to have gone through a population bottleneck 70,000 years ago or so that more or less coincides with the appearance of Y-chromosomal Adam and with the explosion of Mt. Toba. Population bottlenecks are a ripe time for punctuated equilibrium events. Humanity went through the Upper Paleolithic Revolution around the time of this time. You made your speculation: I'll make mine. Something happened to our brains 70,000 years ago. The genius of archaic homo sap may well have been today's town idiot. They invented a rudimentary proto-language, the atl, some advanced stone tools, and maybe domesticated the dog.

 

That population bottleneck represents a second problem: population level. It was not constant. It took 60,000 years after that bottleneck for the population to grow geometrically from 15,000 or so to 1 million 10,000 years ago at the onset of agriculture. Moreover, that 1 million per generation is off by a factor of about 2. People who survived infancy lived longer than 20 years. So, rather than your 9.5 million geniuses between the onset of humanity and the invention of agriculture (190,000 years / 20 years/generation * 1 million people/generation * 1 genius / 1000 people), I get about 400,000.

 

Now comes the third problem: Those 400,000 geniuses were spread out over a 60,000 year interval. Even with most of them living in the last 10,000 years before the development of agriculture, that's far too few geniuses for any. Each was alone. Agriculture, art, pottery, bows and arrows, writing: All were invented, reinvented, and re-reinvented at different times by different peoples. There was very little communication between civilizations, so the few geniuses around had no giant shoulders on which to stand.

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Why did it take till 3000 years ago for the first writing?

Maybe it just didn't occur to anyone. I mean, it's not a big intuitive leap to "write" sounds. First you'd have to think of it, and it's unlikely you'd think it feasible because you wouldn't have known about consonants, vowels, alphabet system, notation, etc. The closest writers they had I'd guess were painters. Just draw what you need to convey.

 

And even drawing would not be an intuitive leap, how would you ever have thought of "representing" something without vocals? Maybe at first you just point to familiar things. Remember. no one had parents teaching the basics of schooling we take for granted.

 

Also, language would've had to develop into a coherent structure, one that has rules where a lot of people agree on the meaning of sounds (words). This is harder than might seem at first. In the U.S. alone, we have dialects of the same language which are difficult as hell to understand, and yet modern society boasts a comprehensive, standardized network of learning institutions along with by dictionaries and spelling bees.

 

It also occurs to me that necessity being the mother of invention does also apply. As SL has pointed out, if you're surviving just fine there may not be the same push to invent and discover

True, but it only has a part, as you implied. Too many people believe it is THE driving reason and forget about bedroom kids who tinker and discover into adulthood, creating new inventions without any survival needs pushing them.

 

And I just seriously do NOT envy my grandchildren (if I ever have any), because the ammount of stuff they will have to learn will probably exceed what I have to learn quite a bit....

 

...And I can't help but wonder how this problem will be dealt with. Will they just teach the most important of the most important? In that case, what is more important? The theory of relativity, or quantum mechanics? Or, for that matter, mathematics or biology? Or will they just keep stuffing all the knowledge into your head? Or will they give 4 year olds the choice of what they want to study, thus predetermining what they will do in life with little chance of them being able to switch for something else?

Information will collapse as knowledge increases and new systems facilitate this collapse.

 

One example is the attempt for a simpler tax code. People often attempt to simplify computer programming language and structure.

 

Ruby programming language (Wikipedia) (my paraphrasing)

 

Often engineers focus on the machines. They think, "By doing this, the machine will run faster. By doing this, the machine will run more effectively. By doing this, the machine will etc etc etc." But in fact we need to focus on humans, on how humans care about doing programming or operating the application of the machines. We are the masters. They are the slaves.”

 

Ruby follows the principle of least surprise, meaning that the language should behave in a way that minimizes confusion for experienced users. Matsumoto has said his primary design goal was to make a language which he himself enjoyed using, by minimizing programmer work and possible confusion.

 

We'll eventually apply this philosophy to many other systems. At some time in the future, law will be clear enough that a lawyer won't have to decipher it for you, tech industries will adopt more universal and intuitive terms, etc.

 

Many of you have touched upon this idea which is really well articulated by "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs."

I don't know. Half of that list seems a bit arbitrary, perhaps even with a tinge of bias.

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To DH

Some good thinking in your post. On the number of geniuses, I agree that this is speculative. I made no pretence that my assumptions were necessarily correct. So can we agree that the number of human geniuses over the 200,000 years of our species existence is somewhere between 400,000 and 10 million?

 

On your point about the drop in human population 70,000 years ago I must disagree. The early craniums of oldest Homo sapiens fossils show a brain size roughly equal to modern man. If there was a surge in intelligence following the depopulation episode, it is not reflected in any increase in brain size.

 

It is also worth noting that the first chipped stone tools dates well back to Homo habilis. I suspect that even they had a fair degree of intelligence. It seems to me unlikely that the genius of before 70,000 years ago was significantly more stupid than today's genius.

 

I suspect that the recovery from the depopulation event was a bit stronger than you suggest. I note that the oldest fossil from Australia is 40,000 years ago (Mungo Man - a skeleton from Lake Mungo in New South Wales). If humanity was populating Australia that soon after the depopulation event, it suggests a strong resurging population growth. In fact, the major extinction event of megafauna in Australia, dated to 55,000 to 60,000 years ago suggests a large human population in Australia at that time.

 

Your point about the isolation of geniuses is probably very valid. A genius who cannot communicate with others, and especially without writing, is not likely to make any significant long term impact.

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It seems to me unlikely that the genius of before 70,000 years ago was significantly more stupid than today's genius.

I've always imagined that if a whole lot of modern babies were transported at infancy to the just after post-caveman era, they would grow up as smart as their prehistoric villagers and their learning wouldn't surpass that of others.

 

So I agree with you. Because no matter how quickly a child picks up knowledge, its parents still had to teach it. Without a precursor, the genius can't get very far. And in prehistory, they might have not understood the concept of history enough to safeguard and record knowledge for posterity, much less be wise enough to share it with others.

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Your point about the isolation of geniuses is probably very valid. A genius who cannot communicate with others, and especially without writing, is not likely to make any significant long term impact.

There's also the idea that a lot of what makes "genius" is the ability to link knowledge in novel and unconventional ways to produce something which is intellectually startling. Although a brain from 70,000 years ago could be as 'smart' as our own, without the comparatively vast amounts of knowledge which we have now such links would be few and far between. It's like having a quad-core computer but only running Windows 95 on it.

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On your point about the drop in human population 70,000 years ago I must disagree. The early craniums of oldest Homo sapiens fossils show a brain size roughly equal to modern man. If there was a surge in intelligence following the depopulation episode, it is not reflected in any increase in brain size.

Brain size isn't everything. Chimps have much better short term memory than humans. The gift of gab apparently was not free. Something happened to us 70,000 or so years ago. Tools changed very slowly until then. Art was a bunch of hand smudges until then. Tools and art suddenly began changing rapidly and became much more sophisticated.

 

I think that "something" was language. Whether that was genetic (foxp2 or some unknown genetic marker for language; the jury is still out on foxp2 in Neanderthal) or lamarkian (language follows lamarkian evolution), I don't know and it doesn't matter. We began thinking much more abstractly than every before.

 

I suspect that the recovery from the depopulation event was a bit stronger than you suggest. I note that the oldest fossil from Australia is 40,000 years ago (Mungo Man - a skeleton from Lake Mungo in New South Wales). If humanity was populating Australia that soon after the depopulation event, it suggests a strong resurging population growth.

Growing geometrically from 15,000 to 1 million in 60,000 years is a very strong growth rate.

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Growing geometrically from 15,000 to 1 million in 60,000 years is a very strong growth rate.

 

That level of growth represents just over 6 doublings of population. In the last 100 years, the human population has increased 6 fold. If we assume a doubling each 100 years (conservative by today's standards!), then to go from 15,000 to 1 million takes 600 years.

 

If we assume a starting base of just 15, to get to 1 million would take 1600 years at that rate of increase. I am not suggesting the population grows at that rate in those primitive times. Just that to get to 1 million in tens of thousands of years is not only possible, but probable. Population growth will stop when the environment imposes limits. However, the diaspora of those times would keep those limits very high.

 

DH

I am still a bit dubious about your explanation. I am not sure that there was a real change in culture/technology 70,000 years ago. There is a steady increase in the sophistication of tools and art works over a long period of time, and more recent artifacts (less than 70,000 years) will be more common since they have a better chance of surviving. I believe that the idea of a 'renaissance' some tens of thousands of years ago is a bit controversial among anthropologists for these reasons.

 

Do you think that an evolutionary change of the magnitude and importance that you suggest would leave no changes in brain size/shape that would show in a fossil cranium?

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Just to throw this in the mix as well:

 

Superstition has been the strongest survival mechanism for a very long time, and while we started moving to science, it is still very strong in our society even today.

 

By superstition, I mean an individual understands a set of procedures to achieve a result, and even if they have a story behind why it works, it works because of physical laws... but is discovered through trial and error and the true laws are not known.

 

 

Consider the Inuit hunters (heard of this a decade or so ago) that, after a successful hunt, decided to forgo the usual "offering to the gods" ritual and go straight to processing the meat.

 

They died, due to bacteria in the food. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the ritual just happened to include actions that prevented bacteria from becoming a problem. It was never intended to combat bacterial factors, and the rituals predated microbiology... probably by several thousand years.

 

Myths of vengeful gods, sacred rituals requiring great concentration and detail undoubtedly safeguarded much knowledge that was passed down and discovered by trial and error.

Breaking from, or even questioning traditional beliefs meant challenging the actions those belief's demanded.

 

Even if 90% of a ritual is completely non-beneficial, that leads to a 1 in 10 chance that abandoning any given aspect of even one ritual could have detrimental impacts.

 

All in all, I think science had to "ease in" to society in "safe ways" over time, and still had to overcome the general taboo regarding "sacred" traditions - it has been paramount to survival for a very long time, and the one's that could change the least had the best chances for survival.

 

Once populations and language hit a level where ideas could be created in one group, and, if that group improved, others may copy it (often by force of conquerors) without risking the experimentation themselves I think science slowly became more viable.

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