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Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences

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Georges Cuvier

6. The waning of the Empire / Le déclin de l’Empire

18. Contributions of the Ancients: A Summary

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THE SCULPTURE GALLERY. Engraving by the French artist Auguste Blanchard (1819-1898) after the Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Illustration first published by Pilgeram & Lefevre (editors in New York) in 1877.

THE SCULPTURE GALLERY. Engraving by the French artist Auguste Blanchard (1819-1898) after the Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Illustration first published by Pilgeram & Lefevre (editors in New York) in 1877.

1Having arrived at the end of the history of the sciences in ancient times, we shall cast a general and rapid glance back upon the knowledge they had acquired.

2The works of the ancients in the natural sciences span no more than five and a half centuries. After Aristotle and Theophrastus, these sciences made almost no progress. Only the medical sciences experienced continual progress, since men always have need of medicine. We have shown the external conditions that were so readily opposed to the development of the natural sciences: first, there was the decline of the Ptolemies, resulting in that of the school at Alexandria. Later, it was the overextension of the Roman Empire, the lack of interest in the sciences on the part of the conquerors of the world, the constant tumults that occasioned the excessive development of Roman military might, and the struggle to establish Christianity, which directed all intellectual activity towards the speculative studies.

3We shall show other causes harmful to scientific progress. We shall call such causes internal, but before explaining them we shall take a fair inventory of what the ancients knew.

4In general natural philosophy, the ancients had but the rough ideas that Thales brought back from Egypt. True, Aristotle had conceived of a system of natural philosophy based on what is called occult causes; but this system was extremely defective, and one can see by Seneca’s Questiones that it gave rise to ridiculous explanations.

  • 1 [Archimedes (born c. 290-280 B.C., Syracuse, Sicily; died 212 or 211 B.C., Syracuse), the most fam (...)

5Geometry had made great progress among the ancients. Statics and hydrostatics were well developed in the areas to which Archimedes1 had applied geometry. But the ancients made no application of this science to natural philosophy as such. The art of experimentation, moreover, was unknown to them. They were not versed in reducing a phenomenon to its simplest elements, and deducing cause from effect.

6Chemistry was completely unknown to them, for although the Egyptians knew how to dye fabrics and were very clever in the art of working metals, they had no theory of the whole and no knowledge of simple substances. They possessed only artisans’ procedures. However, it is to Egypt, as you know, that the discovery of chemistry is attributed; this science originally was called the science of Egypt.

7The ancients had fairly extensive ideas about mineralogy, but their ideas were, so to speak, only external [superficial]. They knew a great many stones, soils, and minerals, and they put them to wide use; but such substances received no classification whatever from them and they did not even know the principal constituents.

8In botany, they described about six hundred species of plants: all of our edible plants and fruit-trees were known to them. They employed far more plants in their medicines than we do; but the ancients cannot be praised for this, for they attributed to many plants properties that were merely fictitious.

  • 2 [Cryptogam, any of the spore-bearing plants also known as pteridophytes. The name pteridophyte, no (...)

9The ancients had some inkling of plant physiology; they knew that certain plants could not reproduce except with the help of other plants, but they were far from the theory of the sexes that we apply now to all plants save the cryptogams;2 they had no clear idea of the true mode of plant fertilization. Plants were classified according to the properties attributed to them, and their nomenclature was not fixed. The ancients confined themselves to giving plants the names common at the time, and since such names varied with century and country, much confusion has resulted about the identity of the plants mentioned in ancient botany.

10In zoology the same lack of order exists. The ancients never had a fixed nomenclature. Aristotle established large classes, to which probably no change will be made; but his successors failed to subdivide his classes into genera or species.

11The only science that was carried further by the ancients than by the moderns is agriculture: many practices were known to them that would be useful for us to adopt.

12In anatomy, too, they had rather extensive knowledge; they gave a good description of the bones and passably good ones of the muscles and viscera. Arteries and veins were less well known to them, and the lymphatic vessels were unknown to Aristotle.

13In physiology they were not well advanced; they had no precise idea of the circulation of the blood, nor of respiration. A few philosophers had glimpsed but only vaguely the analogy between the latter function and combustion. They did not know the exact nature of the sense organs, nor how the sense organs were acted upon externally. They had no idea about the delicate parts of the organs, but they knew the uses of the larynx, the liver, and the stomach.

14In medicine they had some knowledge of the course of diseases, and several described with accuracy the principal symptoms of diseases.

15Such, then, is the knowledge of the natural sciences possessed by the ancients. We are now going to indicate the internal causes that we said were obstacles to the development of these sciences. In the first rank of these causes, we must place the lack of method, of classification, of fixed nomenclature.

16The ancients designated species only by the names in common use at the time, and they never fixed the meaning of such names by indicating characteristics rooted in the nature of the objects. Moreover, since the resource of printing or engraving was wanting, it was often impossible to recognize a species by its name alone.

17The absence of collections, and indeed the impossibility of forming them, is a second internal cause of the slow progress of the sciences among the ancients. Not knowing the procedures for distillation, they had neither spirits nor alcohol. Consequently, they had no means of preserving for very long the objects of natural history.

  • 3 [The Egyptians possessed an amazing knowledge of metallurgy. They used tin oxide to make white opa (...)
  • 4 [Vienna? Surely Cuvier, or his editor, means to say Venice.]

18They also lacked knowledge of the procedure for making transparent glass, and even clear glass was extremely rare.3 This substance was not generally known until much later; for it was at the end of the fifteenth century that the city of Vienna4 was mentioned as remarkable for its glass.

  • 5 [Calydon, ancient Aetolian town in Greece, located on the Euenus (Évinos) River about 6 miles (9.5 (...)
  • 6 [Massinissa, also spelled Masinissa (born c. 240 B.C., died 148), ruler of the North African kingd (...)

19Neither did the ancients know how to stuff dead animals; they were content to hang the objects of curiosity they wished to preserve in the temples, without prior preparation. It was in a temple that Pausanias saw the wild boar that was said to be that of Calydon.5 It was also in a temple that Hanno hung the skins of the apes that he had taken from the coast of Africa and which he believed to be wild women. The skin of Regulus’s boa snake and the tusks of king Massinissa’s6 elephants were kept in the same way.

20Yet the ancients were sometimes observed using honey or brine to hinder the decomposing of certain objects. For example, honey was used for preserving the body of Alexander the Great, and brine for preserving the body of Mithradates. But such procedures were entirely insufficient.

21In antiquity, it was difficult to acquire instruction; one could succeed in doing this only at a great expenditure of time and money. The ancient naturalists all made long and costly voyages. Herodotus went to the borders of Arabia to examine the skeletons of dragons devoured by ibises –or, actually, the bones of serpents cast up by the Nile. Like Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana traveled to India. One can imagine that such travels were within the means of only a few men. Therefore, the march of the sciences, as we have said, was very slow.

22The first person who had the idea or the means of forming a collection of natural history objects is Apuleius. This innovation seemed so strange in his time that it became one of the main counts in the charge of magic brought against him. In his defense on this head, he declared that he had intended to judge for himself the wonders of Providence instead of relying on his father’s and his nurse’s tales in this regard.

23Today we can consult collections of accurate engravings in libraries and public cabinets. The ancients did not have this advantage. Aristotle had actually included in his works some drawings done by hand; but we have seen that they could not be preserved. There exist some copies of Dioscorides containing pen and ink drawings, but they are extremely rough and most of them could not be used to identify with any accuracy the plants they are supposed to represent. Moreover, these handmade illustrations, besides being expensive, are necessarily altered from one copy to another on account of the carelessness or the lack of ability of the copyists. The art of engraving, which remedied these problems, in Europe dates only from the end of the Middle Ages. The artistic genius that in antiquity presided over painting, sculpture, and architecture was evidently of no utility to the natural sciences.

24The development of the sciences was also hindered in antiquity by the absence of the means of observation. The microscope and the magnifying glass had not yet been invented, and without these instruments –which, like printing, date from the last years of the Middle Ages– we would still be, like the ancients, in ignorance of a new and almost infinite world, and it would be impossible for us to know the many delicate structures not visible to the naked eye.

25In addition, the ancients did not know about injecting cadavers; they seem only to have insufflated the viscera, and occasionally the veins, in order to examine their shape. They lacked the resource of chemical reagents for learning about the intimate composition of bodies.

26Far from wondering about the slow progress of the sciences in antiquity, we ought rather to offer praise for the remarkable work accomplished in so little time and with so few means, since there was neither fixed nomenclature, nor collections, nor drawings, nor optical instruments, nor acquaintance with the procedures of injecting cadavers. Only two or three men created and brought to near perfection the divers sciences known to the ancients. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Theophrastus alone were sufficient for such astonishing works. After them the sciences remained at a standstill until the end of the second century A.D. But then Galen appeared and this great man effected new progress in several sciences. After his death, the decline of practical knowledge began and lasted until the barbarian invasions destroyed not only the Roman Empire, but also letters, science, and the whole civilization of antiquity.

27Today we are going to give you an idea of these barbarian peoples.

28The human species is composed of several principal races that are subdivided into families or secondary races.

29The name of Caucasian has been given to the race that inhabits Europe and the part of the Indian continent lying on this side of the Ganges. From its origin this primitive race was subdivided into several families:

  1. The Semitic family, to which belong the tribes that speak languages analogous to Hebrew, such as Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopian.
  2. The Indian family, whose original language was Sanskrit, and from whom come most of the tribes of Europe; the people that it comprises can be divided into the Pelasgians and the Latins.
  3. The Slavonian family, distributed in the east of Europe and divided among Bohemia, Poland, and Russia.
  4. The Teutonic family, which occupies the northern regions of Europe, such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and England.

30The Greeks began under Alexander the conquest of the Indian and Semitic families.

31The Roman Empire brought them almost entirely under its sway. But its power always failed when confronting the Teutonic peoples, who occupied Germany and the countries to the north and east of that region. These peoples maintained their independence up until the time they succeeded in invading the empire that had often invaded them.

  • 7 [Publius Quintilius Varus (died A.D. 9), Roman general whose loss of three legions to Germanic tri (...)

32Caesar had tried twice to bring Roman arms into their land, twice he had passed the Rhine; but his genius and military talents always failed before the valor of the ancient Germans. The attempts by Augustus and Tiberius against these peoples were no more successful. Under the first of these emperors, the army of Varus7 was exterminated in Germania.

  • 8 [Dacia, in antiquity, the area of the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania, in present north-cent (...)

33Trajan, who was more fortunate, passed the Lower Danube and established Roman might in Dacia;8 but the Germans, sensing the importance of this event, changed their social habits. Instead of remaining divided into small tribes, as they had been up until then, they united into large confederations in order to repulse the Roman invasion. By A.D. 200 there existed on the upper Rhine the confederation of Germans; in 237, that of the Franks on the Lower Rhine; in 286, that of the Saxons on the coasts of the Baltic. In 220 there was formed in Poland and southern Russia the confederation of Goths, which constituted a vast empire, separated into two realms by the Dnieper; to the east was that of the Ostrogoths; to the west, the Visigoths; farther to the north and east were the Suevi and the Vandals.

34These mighty peoples threatened the Roman Empire as early as the middle of the third century. It resisted, through its auxiliary forces, for a century and a half; but during this long period of time, its enemies were learning the arts of war and they soon succeeded in penetrating and becoming established in its every province.

35We shall continue in our next meeting this examination of the Roman Empire and the peoples that attacked it.

Notes

1 [Archimedes (born c. 290-280 B.C., Syracuse, Sicily; died 212 or 211 B.C., Syracuse), the most famous ancient Greek mathematician and inventor. He probably spent some time in Egypt early in his career, but he resided for most of his life in Syracuse, where he was on intimate terms with its king, Hieron II. Archimedes published his works in the form of correspondence with the principal mathematicians of his time, including the Alexandrian scholars Conon of Samos and Eratosthenes of Cyrene. He played an important role in the defense of Syracuse against the siege laid by the Romans in 213 B.C. by constructing war machines so effective that they long delayed the capture of the city. But Syracuse was eventually captured by the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus in the autumn of 212 or spring of 211 B.C., and Archimedes was killed in the sack of the city.]

2 [Cryptogam, any of the spore-bearing plants also known as pteridophytes. The name pteridophyte, no longer used in systematic taxonomy, is derived from Greek words meaning feather plant. In earlier classifications, the Pteridophyta included the club mosses, horsetails, ferns, and various fossil groups. In more recent classifications, pteridophytes and spermatophytes (seed-bearing plants) are placed in the division, or phylum, Tracheophyta.]

3 [The Egyptians possessed an amazing knowledge of metallurgy. They used tin oxide to make white opaque glass; turquoise blue came from the use of copper, and the same metal was employed for red and green glass. Transparent glass was rare at the time, not only because it would have been difficult to make without knowledge of decolorizing agents, but equally because transparency was unnecessary. Glass was used almost exclusively for personal adornment and, because of the difficulty and expense of manufacturing it, was considered equal in value to the natural gems, with which it was frequently combined.]

4 [Vienna? Surely Cuvier, or his editor, means to say Venice.]

5 [Calydon, ancient Aetolian town in Greece, located on the Euenus (Évinos) River about 6 miles (9.5 km) east of modern Mesolóngion. According to tradition, the town was founded by Calydon, son of Aetolus; Meleager and other heroes hunted the Calydonian boar there; and Calydonians participated in the Trojan War.]

6 [Massinissa, also spelled Masinissa (born c. 240 B.C., died 148), ruler of the North African kingdom of Numidia, and an ally of Rome in the last years of the Second Punic War (218-201). His influence was lasting because the economic and political development that took place in Numidia under his rule provided the base for later development of the region by the Romans.]

7 [Publius Quintilius Varus (died A.D. 9), Roman general whose loss of three legions to Germanic tribes in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest caused great shock in Rome and stemmed Roman expansion beyond the Rhine River.]

8 [Dacia, in antiquity, the area of the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania, in present north-central and western Romania.]

Table des illustrations

Titre THE SCULPTURE GALLERY. Engraving by the French artist Auguste Blanchard (1819-1898) after the Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Illustration first published by Pilgeram & Lefevre (editors in New York) in 1877.
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