Monday May 2, 2005

Lost Discoveries by Dick Teresi

Over the last few weeks I've been making my way through Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science from the Babylonians to the Maya.  It's full of interesting instances of knowledge and technologies that are usually credited to European scientists but were in fact discovered or developed earlier elsewhere.  I enjoyed a lot of the book—it's made up of many small anecdotes that make excellent bedtime reading—but it's not without its flaws.

The best parts of the book, I think, are the chapters on astronomy, chemistry, and technology, because those are the areas of knowledge where the evidence is best for the non-European origin of things like the prediction of eclipses, various chemical and metallurgical processes (e.g. gunpowder), and useful machines and materials (e.g. paper).  The problem is, the rest of the book isn't so convincing, in part because Teresi has an annoying agenda.

Rather than simply cataloging and comparing the achievements of various cultures (the Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans, ancient Egypt, China, India, the Inca, etc.) Teresi seems determined to downplay any achievement of a group that can be identified as European (particularly the ancient Greeks, who would probably have been surprised to be lumped in with the barbarians to the northwest), and to praise any achievement of a non-European culture, no matter how dubious.

I know that sounds a little defensive (disclosure: I'm of European descent), but let me give you some examples—he's got some real howlers.  In the chapter on geology, Teresi discusses the Hawaiians:

The Hawaiians knew that their islands went down into the sea, and they believed there to be a sea floor, but they visualized the islands themselves as floating, unconnected to the floor....  The idea of landmasses, islands, floating over the ocean floor, presaged the theory of continental drift....  It shows, at least, that Pacific Islanders did not view the solid land as stable or stationary, though their view differs from present-day theory.  We now know that the continents do not plow through the ocean floors but are part, along with the ocean floor, of rigid sixty-mile-thick plates that jostle against each other.  (pp. 273-4)

That's a pretty big stretch.  The Hawaiians thought their islands floated in the sea, and we now know that they were wrong.  Teresi, however, decides to see the glass as half full and generously praises them for holding a belief that accidentally resembles modern ideas of plate tectonics.

Here's another, from the chapter on chemistry:

The Yoruba see their universe as enclosed in a sphere or a calabash, the traditional bottle-gourd.  In each quadrant are the four elements of the ancient system: earth, water, fire, and heaven (air).  Heaven and fire are associated with light, masculine, positive qualities; water and earth with dark, feminine, and negative qualities.  The lack of balance of these elements is seen as the cause of disharmony.  If one wishes to stretch the concept, we can connect it to modern ideas of the role of positive and negative ions in bonding chemical materials.  (p. 294)

Everything up to the last sentence is fine—it sounds like the Yoruba, like basically everybody else, had a view of the building blocks of the universe that we now know is wrong (not to mention the charming male chauvinism).  But rather than saying so, Teresi posits an extremely dubious connection between their ideas and the modern notion of charged ions.  (There's a lesson to be learned here: when you find yourself beginning a sentence with the words "If one wishes to stretch the concept...", you should back up and delete the sentence—you're just going to embarrass yourself.)

The chapter on cosmology is probably the most annoying in this regard.  First, Teresi criticizes some dead white males:

The medieval European Christian universe was a comforting and static one: humans at the center; heavens populated by spirits; a sphere of fixed stars; beyond it, the primum mobile, a sphere maintained in constant motion by divine will; and, finally, the empyrean, a realm of pure fire where God lives.  Western medieval cosmologists provided their followers with purpose and place in the Christian Universe.  It was primarily an Aristotelian model.  The Arabs supplied the primum mobile.  (p. 159)

He then goes on to give credit for anticipating (or even surpassing) all sorts of aspects of modern cosmology to everybody else, based only on only the vaguest connections:

The Sumerian and Babylonian tales exhibit contradictions and reflect with candor the cultural contexts of the time.  But certain parallels can be drawn between modern big bang cosmology and the ancients.  Totally apart from the constant revisions, there are separations of primal matter into polarities.  In the Sumerian version, the primal water splits spontaneously into heaven and earth first, and then later anthropomophically, when Enlil, the air god, separates earth from heaven with a pickax.  Hence, creation comes into being from nothing, without cause.  (pp. 173-4)

But the similarities between Indian and modern cosmology do not seem accidental.  Perhaps ideas of creation from nothing, or alternating cycles of creation and destruction are hardwired into the human psyche.  Certainly Shiva's percussive drumbeat suggests the sudden energetic impulse that could have propelled the big bang.  And if, as some theorists have proposed, the big bang is merely the prelude to the big crunch, and the universe is caught in an infinite cycle of expansion and contraction, then ancient Indian cosmology is clearly cutting edge compared to the one-directional vision of the big bang.  (p. 175)

The Tahitian story above also reflects a common ancient belief of "As is above, so is below": what rules the gods and the heavens manifests itself on the level of everyday human life, as all things are connected to the divine.  What works on the scale of the cosmos should also work down to the smallest particle of matter.  We believe this today, but we have yet to formulate a theory of quantum gravity, combining our rules for particles and gravitation.  (p. 180)

Teresi is way off in Von Daniken ancient astronauts territory in the cosmology chapter, as far as I'm concerned ("hardwired into the human psyche"?).  He also spends a lot of time trying to poke holes in theories of modern cosmology (a subject he hardly seems qualified to have an opinion on).  He therefore seems to simultaneously believe that (a) various non-Western cultures anticipated modern cosmological theory and (b) those theories are wrong.  Perhaps they're only notational variants of each other...

Here's an especially amusing moment, in which Teresi realizes he sounds like he's criticizing a non-Western culture (shock horror!), and so feels compelled to balance it with a reference to a European practice:

[Aztec] Captives were brought through the streets of Tenochtitlán and led up the stairs to the sacrificial altar of the great temple.  To the accompaniment of drums, the victim was held down on the altar, and in an instant the obsidian knife of the priest opened his or her chest.  The priest then reached in, grabbed the heart, and held it high for all to witness.  The Aztec sacrifice machine was nearly insatiable.  During one famine year the priests sacrificed more than ten thousand victims, most of whom had been captured in wars.  (During the Renaissance, Italian physicians convinced authorities to let them perform autopsies on the bodies of executed criminals to aid in the study of anatomy.)  (p. 343)

This is nearly a non sequitur, but I think I can see what he's getting at.  You see, performing an autopsies on the body of a dead criminal to learn about anatomy was just as bad ripping out a man's heart and showing it to him before he died.  Bastard Italians!  (Say, I wonder if the Aztec drums that accompanied the sacrifices were a echo of an unconscious knowledge of the sudden energetic impulse that propelled the big bang...)

I could go on, but I don't want it to be too down on the book—there's actually a lot of really interesting cases of advanced knowledge possessed by peoples outside of the Western scientific tradition, and it makes for entertaining reading.  I was just annoyed by the overreaching and cheerleading of the author.  The book also fails conspicuously to address the question it raised in the back of my mind: if European science was so late, and so backward, how did the Europeans come out on top?  Teresi never attempts any sort of Guns, Germs, and Steel-esque analysis of this problem, and I would have liked to read his thoughts on the subject.

[Oh, all right, one last howler.  In the chapter on geology, Teresi writes:

While Europe held fast to the concept of a flat earth, its Arab neighbors revived ancient Chinese, Indian, and Greek speculations of a round globe.  The seventh-century Armenian Ananii Shirakatsi thought the universe was egg-shaped, with the sky being the shell, the air the white, and the earth the yolk.  (p. 253)

Where to begin?  First, although Shirakatsi lived from 610 to 685 A.D. and Armenia did fall under Arab control around 640 (and the words "Arab" and "Armenia" do both begin with the letters A and R), it seems odd to ascribe his ideas to Arab civilization.  As I understand it, Armenia remained fairly autonomous and staunchly Christian during this time, and according to this site, Shirakatsi studied under a Greek master in Trebizond on the Black Sea, so his discoveries seem more plausibly assigned to the (Byzantine) Greek scientific tradition.  But what does it matter?  His weird ovoform universe seems just as wrong as (and maybe even more wrong than) the medieval European universe Teresi criticizes above.  So what are the rules of Teresi's scorekeeping?  I guess if somebody seems Western, their ideas were bunk, but if they seem non-Western, their ideas had a deep, underlying truth to them we should understand as anticipating modern science.  Or something.]

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"(During the Renaissance, Italian physicians convinced authorities to let them perform autopsies on the bodies of executed criminals to aid in the study of anatomy.) (p. 343) "

This is a total non sequitur. The problem with writers with an agenda is that they will do anything to prove that their theories are correct. And this writer definitely has an agenda, one which I see no reason for. Thanks for the warning I shall never buy this book.

Posted by: Alistair at May 2, 2005 7:32:22 AM

Sorry, but this guy sounds like a total idiot; like Alistair, I intend to avoid him.

Posted by: language hat at May 2, 2005 1:57:37 PM

Re that last one -- Did the dark-ages Europeans really believe the earth was flat? I had the vague idea that the whole flat-earth thing (in Europe) is a bit of an urban legend. Sure, if your world is a disc rotating on the backs of four elephants standing on a stack of turtles...but that's not a European cosmology, is it? This impression seems to be confirmed by his description of the medieval European universe you cite up above:

The medieval European Christian universe was a comforting and static one: humans at the center; heavens populated by spirits; a sphere of fixed stars; beyond it, the primum mobile, a sphere maintained in constant motion by divine will; and, finally, the empyrean, a realm of pure fire where God lives.

So what did the medieval European Christians believe? Sphere or flat? whichever sounded dumber for Teresi's rhetorical purposes of the moment, I suppose...

Posted by: hh at May 2, 2005 2:25:36 PM

hh wrote:

Did the dark-ages Europeans really believe the earth was flat?

The Wikipedia article about the flat earth claims they didn't, saying in part:

Today essentially all professional mediaevalists agree with Russell that the "mediaeval flat earth" is a nineteenth-century fabrication, and that the few verifiable "flat earthers" were the exception.

(Take that with the usual Wikipedia grain of salt—it could all be replaced with The New Truth tomorrow.)

Posted by: The Tensor at May 2, 2005 5:22:24 PM

Hmm ... have you read anything by Stanley Jaki? He writes very eruditely in support of the thesis that science could only develop in the Christian worldview ...

Posted by: Steve at May 5, 2005 5:33:57 PM

Summary: Dick Teresi erects straw man which he calls "the consensus", knocks it down!

In the late 1980s I sat down and read some histories of the development of mathematics and history.
The works I read were mostly rather conventional, even conservative, obviously written by people with an interest in looking for facts and reality.

It was no secret that modern Western mathematics and science derive from a wide range of peoples, even if 'the West' became more or less the world leader for most of the last few hundred years. It was no secret, for example, that Europeans of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance had picked up quite a lot of their more advanced mathematics and science from (primarily Arab) scholars in the Muslim world, who had acquired theirs from Classical and Indian sources, but had improved significantly upon what they had received.

Already on page 6 I see Teresi setting up a straw man which bears rather little resemblance to any of the above, so he can debunk it.

Mr. TenserTensor, considering that this guy starts out by seriously misrepresenting the orthodoxy in the field that he claims to be setting straight, why should we trust him to get anything else right? If any of his information is new, genuine, and correctly presented, he shouldn't soil it by associating it with the rest of his book.

Posted by: Chris at May 20, 2005 4:28:21 AM

You are all being overly is an interesting read, and I think the "agenda" claim is somewhat harsh.

Read it, give it a shot...what else do you have to do?

Posted by: sunking at Nov 8, 2005 1:15:25 PM