THE GENESIS OF SCIENCE: HOW THE CHRISTIAN MIDDLE AGES LAUNCHED THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
By James Hannam
Regnery Publishing, $29.95, 448 pages
The claim that there is a conflict between science and religion and that Christianity is to blame is one of our most treasured pieces of cultural baggage. In “The Genesis of Science,” James Hannam exposes it as a stubborn lie. His principal goal is to restore the good name of the Middle Ages, and in this he succeeds admirably. His 400-page book, heavy to hold, is a pleasure to read, and I even found it to be a page-turner. It covers the period between the scholarly Pope Sylvester II, who died in 1003, and the trial of Galileo in 1633.
Pope Sylvester, known as Gerbert of Aurillac before he became pope, was “the most learned man in Europe,” Mr. Hannam writes. Centuries later, one of his successors put Galileo on trial for upholding the heliocentric system, but this was more for diplomatic than for scientific reasons.
In his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” Galileo had gone out of his way to mock one of the papal arguments. Academic historians are now convinced that the trial “had as much to do with politics and the pope’s self-esteem as it did with science,” Mr. Hannam writes. Almost a century earlier, Copernicus, a Catholic, had already published his work putting the sun at the center of the solar system and it was dedicated to the pope at the time.
Galileo was not tortured, as sometimes claimed. Convicted of heresy, he was sentenced to house arrest and there wrote his “Discourse on Two New Sciences.” It was published in the Netherlands and never banned by the Congregation of the Index. The English Protestant poet John Milton visited him at home, without objection, and Galileo died in bed at the age of 78. In his book, Mr. Hannam shows how much Galileo owed to his medieval predecessors.
“Medieval” is now frequently used as a synonym for brutal, and it is often assumed that material progress, if it occurred at all, did so in the face of active resistance from the Church. Mr. Hannam argues that, in fact, much of the science that we now take for granted occurred in that period. Scientific laws illuminate the predictability of nature and in subjecting life to God’s laws, the Christian order established the conditions for the study of the natural world, or science. In contrast, tyrannous countries where arbitrary rule is the norm, life is unpredictable, and the lack of individual autonomy and initiative make independent study impossible.
The Middle Ages, Mr. Hannam writes, were a time of many intellectual triumphs. Among the inventions were eye glasses, mechanical clocks, the windmill, the blast furnace, cameras, most kinds of machinery, and the industrial revolution itself. “All owe their origins to the forgotten inventors of the Middle Ages.”
Mr. Hannam gives particular credit to St. Thomas Aquinas who skillfully mediated the dispute about how Aristotle should be received in the 13th century. Aristotle’s works, recently translated from Arabic by researchers in Spain, had been praised by the Islamic scholar Averroes. But Aristotle’s ideas conflicted with Christianity on key points. He said the universe had no beginning and no creator, for example. When a heretical sect seemed to have been inspired by Aristotle, the bishop of Paris banned his works.
But St. Thomas, whose intellectual brilliance was well known, encouraged a moderate position, persuading the authorities that while Aristotle had good things to say, he was also sometimes wrong. Thanks to St. Thomas’ influence, the ban on Aristotle was rescinded and natural philosophers (as scientists were then called - the word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1833) could “get on with the study of nature without being tempted to indulge in illicit metaphysical speculation.”
James Hannam is a young scholar with a Ph.D. in the history of science from Cambridge University, where he also studied physics. He was influenced by David C. Lindberg’s “The Beginnings of Western Science” (2007). One hopes that Mr. Hannam’s book will bring a halt to the many falsehoods spread by what is called the Enlightenment.
Mr. Hannam concludes with a little-known quote from Isaac Newton, who was born in the year that Galileo died. In the second edition of his treatise “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” Newton said that “blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things.” Therefore, the “diversity of organisms” that we see around us “could have arisen from nothing but the ideas and Will of a Being necessarily existing,” namely God.
“It would take Charles Darwin to prove Newton wrong,” Mr. Hannam comments, and it is my one disagreement with Mr. Hannam. Indeed, it is with Darwin that the “conflict between religion and science” really arises. But maybe it is Darwin’s science that will be shown to have been in error.
Tom Bethell is a senior editor of the American Spectator.