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Biology: Early Scientific Thought


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About this Lesson

  • Type: Video Tutorial
  • Length: 10:32
  • Media: Video/mp4
  • Use: Watch Online & Download
  • Access Period: Unrestricted
  • Download: MP4 (iPod compatible)
  • Size: 113 MB
  • Posted: 07/01/2009

This lesson is part of the following series:

Biology Course (390 lessons, $198.00)
Biology: Evolution (37 lessons, $54.45)
Biology: Early Perspectives in Science (4 lessons, $5.94)

Taught by Professor George Wolfe, this lesson was selected from a broader, comprehensive course, Biology. This course and others are available from Thinkwell, Inc. The full course can be found at The full course covers evolution, ecology, inorganic and organic chemistry, cell biology, respiration, molecular genetics, photosynthesis, biotechnology, cell reproduction, Mendelian genetics and mutation, population genetics and mutation, animal systems and homeostasis, evolution of life on earth, and plant systems and homeostasis.

George Wolfe brings 30+ years of teaching and curriculum writing experience to Thinkwell Biology. His teaching career started in Zaire, Africa where he taught Biology, Chemistry, Political Economics, and Physical Education in the Peace Corps. Since then, he's taught in the Western NY region, spending the last 20 years in the Rochester City School District where he is the Director of the Loudoun Academy of Science. Besides his teaching career, Mr. Wolfe has also been an Emmy-winning television host, fielding live questions for the PBS/WXXI production of Homework Hotline as well as writing and performing in "Football Physics" segments for the Buffalo Bills and the Discover Channel. His contributions to education have been extensive, serving on multiple advisory boards including the Cornell Institute of Physics Teachers, the Cornell Institute of Biology Teachers and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics SportSmarts curriculum project. He has authored several publications including "The Nasonia Project", a lab series built around the genetics and behaviors of a parasitic wasp. He has received numerous awards throughout his teaching career including the NSTA Presidential Excellence Award, The National Association of Biology Teachers Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for New York State, The Shell Award for Outstanding Science Educator, and was recently inducted in the National Teaching Hall of Fame.

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We left off, there's Charles Darwin, a 22-year old guy in his first interview for his first job, with Captain Fitzroy, and we're talking about an agenda. Now before we continue with the interview and Darwin's theory, we have to first go back in time. We have to figure out what kinds of forces are driving Fitzroy to have this attitude about science. What was the mental situation in 19th century Europe at that time? So we're going to get on our little time machine, you and I together, and we're going to - it's going to be like a science observation time machine. We're going to go back and we're going to look at science, and we're going to go back a few years. So let's get on board and take a look, and let's just kind of fly over Europe. And as we look down, we see that between the ages of about 200 A.D. and about 1200 A.D., there's a void - there's no science; there's no science being done. It is far from the age of science, and it's most probably referred, or could be referred to, as perhaps the Age of Theology, but no science whatsoever.
Well, what did people do for science back then? Well, let's keep going back. We have to go back to the years B.C. - more than 2,000 years ago. We have to go back to the ages of the Greeks and the Egyptians and the Babylonians, where there was some real good science being done and some major discoveries being made. And that was the last science until the 13th century. To this day, some of these great scientists - and you see the quotes? - that talks about them as scientists - are still remembered.
One of the great ones is a guy you may have heard of - his name is Aristotle. Well, wait a minute. Do you really think of Aristotle as a scientist, or do you think of him as a philosopher? And if you think of him as a philosopher, what does that tell you about the nature even of science, through the middle ages of Europe? Well, what was so great about Aristotle? Aristotle really did some sound science and some sound thinking about science, and didn't just stand around in his white robe, scratching his chin. For example, until the age of Galileo, Aristotle was one of these guys who just stood there, and he watched, and he observed. And what he observed was that elements - core elements - had their natural places. And this was the science that was described until the times much later when Isaac Newton was around and Galileo was around. What were the four elements: The four elements were: earth, air, fire, water - the four natural elements. And everything on the planet could be explained by the way those elements arranged themselves. For example, take a rock, drop it in some water - earth, water - the natural place of earth - below water. Light a match - I don't know if they had matches back then - light a fire - fire rises, above air. Everything had their four natural places. This was scientific thought until the 15 and 1600s, believe it or not.
So we're back in time and we're seeing the Egyptians and the Greeks and some real good science, and then we get to 200 A.D., and then there's nothing till about 1200 A.D. So let's go forward a little bit, and let's see some of the changes that started to occur. In the 13th century - remember, the Age of Theology, if you will, there were two theologians that really changed around the thinking of the world: Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas - they worked at the University of Paris. And they came up with what was then a shocking revelation; and in their publications, what they said was this: That there is a true distinction between natural truth and revealed truth - a distinction between nature and theology - natural truth, revealed truth. You can imagine that this shook some people up. Remember where are we? 1200 - the 13th century.
Well, along came a guy named Roger Bacon at Oxford University. Roger Bacon said, "Reject dogma; reject some of these things like these great philosophers Aristotle said, and do not be ruled by dogma and authority; look at the world," - a quote from Roger Bacon - "look at the world."
And now we jump back to the 16th century. Francis Bacon - again, from England. He was a champion of this newfangled thing called experimentalism. Remember the scientific method? I kind of pooh-poohed that. But I'm a true believer in the scientific method, and this whole idea of experimentalism was indeed to verify all things and test them rigorously; don't accept anything without testing it. How's that for science?
Now, where are we? We're in the 16th century, 1500s. Well, you know what? It wasn't that easy. Sounds easy; sounds logical, right? But it wasn't. Let me tell you kind of a sad story here. Galileo, Galileo - you ever heard of Galileo? One of the great astronomers of our time. By the way, his real career was he was an astrologer. Well, back in those days, to be an astronomer, you basically had to be an astrologer; it was the only way you could get a job. So Galileo kind of bought into a theory that was laid out in the 1500s by a guy named Copernicus. Again, what was Copernicus's theory? Copernicus said that the earth was not - he's in trouble - not the center of the universe. Indeed, the earth was merely a planet that revolved around this big old yellow thing up in the sky called the sun. Well, Copernicus was in real trouble, and Galileo was in even more trouble, because in the 1600s, Galileo was punished for this heresy. He was put under house arrest.
Can you imagine being grounded for about 14 years, because that's what happened to Galileo - put under house arrest by the Pope. His assistant Bruno - burned at the stake. That can ruin your day. So the bottom line here is, this was not a good time for scientists. And, indeed, what happened to Galileo - well, he had to recant - let me read you a little quote from a book by H.G. Wells - yes, that H.G. Wells - written in 1922, and this book is called The Outline of History, from H.G. Wells. "The Church decided that to believe that the earth was smaller and inferior to the sun made man and Christianity of no account. So Galileo, under threat of dire punishment when he was an old man of 69, was made to recant this view and put the earth back in its place as the immovable center of the universe. He knelt before 10 cardinals in Scarlet, an assembly august enough to overawe truth itself. While he amended the creation, he had disarranged. The story has it that, as he arose from his knees, after repeating his recantation, he muttered, "Eppur si muove!" -- "It still moves nevertheless!"
Well, Galileo - one of the heroes of physics, along with Isaac Newton of their time - the true dawn of science. But it was, like I said, not easy. Here's another good story for you. In response to all of these crazy controversies, some of which we're going to see in just a minute or so, Archbishop James Usher in the mid-17th century declared something, and here's what he declared: "The earth and all life forms are created in the year 4004 B.C." I have no idea how he got that date, but 4004 B.C., that was it. If you were in my time machine, you could go back and see creation. This was the world Charles Darwin was about to dive into. He had no clue. Well, he was a 22-year old kid looking for a job. He wasn't one of these newfangled scientists. He wanted to explore; he was excited; he had vigor. And, man, he didn't know what he was getting himself into.
Well, just as kind of a summary and before we move on to some of the naturalists that affected Darwin, I want to tell you a little bit about why things were changing so in the world of Darwin. First of all, Europe was communicating. Think about it, it was the 1800s. Columbus - it had been 3, 400 hundred years since he had discovered so-called The New World. People were traveling. The printing press had revolutionized communication hundreds of years before this. And you know what else? There was a growing knowledge that processes that run our planet. See, this whole idea of the science of the earth - geology - was starting to come to the forefront. And before we get - like I said, there are some cool naturalists I've got to tell you about - but I've got tell you that geology and biology - man, if you haven't taken a good geology course yet, you do that. To be a good biologist, you need to know geology.
And let me tell you about some of the things that geologists discovered and set the stage for Darwin. I've got to go back a little bit as we enter this part one of Darwin's life to a guy named John Ray. Now, John Ray predates Darwin a long time, and what John Ray did - he lived, by the way, John Ray lived in the 1700s - or, excuse me - the 17th century in the 1600s, from 1627-1705. Remember Darwin - 19th century. What he did was he identified fossils as the remains of living things. Now think about this. Can you imagine what it was like to be in the 1600s and you walk into the woods and find a bone in a rock? How do you explain that through your theology? How do you explain that analogy? If you are in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there's always Noah's flood to work on. But the bottom line is, how do you explain these things in the rock? So John Ray was able to say, "Ha! Fossils - the remnants of living things."
Now what we're going to do is -- you see this water? Well, we're going to make believe this is a sea, and in our next lesson, I'm going to show you some tricks that this next guy, a Frenchman by the name of George Cuvier figured out. And Cuvier and geologists after him - Hartman and Wallace -- set the stage for Darwin as he embarked on the Beagle.
Early Perspectives in Science
Early Scientific Thought Page [1 of 2]

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