Marching Resolutely Backward
This morning I was watching a documentary on the History International Channel about Tudor/Stewart England [video of What the Tudors Did For Us the second third here and the end is here].
Adam Hart-Davis, the host, talked about educational, medical, scientific and industrial strides made in 16th century England as a direct result of the theocracy that was going on in Europe at the time.
In mainland Europe, accepted astronomy said that the Earth was stationary and the universe revolved around it. The Church had finally, reluctantly, accepted the idea that world was round, at least—but it still maintained that we were the center of everything. Anyone who said otherwise was silenced and imprisoned and, possibly, burned.
Dissection of human bodies was forbidden—so what medical practices were not founded in superstition were based on the anatomy of a pig.
Galen had been of Greek origin though he practiced in Rome. He had developed the theory of the 4 humours and dissected pigs and apes. In the 1500’s the Church still adhered to the theories put forth over 1300 years earlier.
If you got sick in the 15th century you were likely to be purged, bled and fed a potion made of the ground up carcasses of dried mice.
Dried snakeskin was another favored medication. One method of use was to cover the affected area with the snakeskin, sprinkle it with holy water and intone the words: 'In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.'
Across the Channel, Henry VIII wasn’t just a blood-thirsty tyrant who was wont to kill his wives. He established state education which rewarded merit. So sons [no daughters yet, of course] of tradesmen and miners could hope to better their positions for the first time in European history.
Any forward thinkers were fleeing Italy, Holland, France, Belgium, Spain and Germany. They took their new ways of looking at the world to Britain where their observations would be tolerated, even welcomed.
In 1572, the Elizabethan astronomer Thomas Diggs saw a bright new star in the sky. He was shocked. This could not be. Heaven, where God resided, was eternal and unchanging, wasn’t it? But, there it was—a new star—undermining everything Tudor England believed in.
And, there was a printing press—brought to England by William Caxton, a Brit who had traveled in Europe and brought it back with him. So it didn’t remain something that was kept bottled up for only the powerful to know about.
Today, we know that that ‘new star’ was a super nova. But in 16th century England it was a bombshell. That one sighting of "something that shouldn’t be there" ushered in observational science: the practice of seeing reality rather than relying on what one believes to be true because “that’s how things have always been.”
What do you want to bet that France, Germany and Italy saw that star as well? But only England published the fact.
The understanding of human anatomy was revolutionized by Andreas Vesalius following the legalization of human dissection.
William Harvey, the son of a cobbler, discovered the arteries and veins that circulate blood.
Modern medicine began from the alchemist, Paracelsus, who had fled Switzerland and sought sanctuary in England. He believed that minerals and chemicals could be used to treat diseases and ushered in modern medicine.
Today, Europe is striding forward looking at the world as it is rather than as the Church would have it be. It is in America that people are harking back to a time of intolerance toward science.
It has been a long, long time since Victorian newspapers published editorial cartoons that declared that Darwin’s ancestor may have been an ape but the rest of us were created by the hand of God. In Kansas, however, people want to return to that view and drag the rest of the world with them.
In the Southern and Midwestern United States people would stop science in its tracks—bequeathing Alzheimer’s to their parents and spina bifida to their children rather than allowing research that could bring us cures for those conditions.
It is well said that the only life in this country that is worth protecting is life within the womb. Well, I take that back. If you are a vegetable lying in a hospital bed being fed with tubes and being breathed for by a machine -- THEN your life is sacred -- assuming your family can pay for your care.
Well, we can clearly see what happened in mainland Europe when it held to those viewpoints. Those who perceived the world AS IT IS moved to England and created the most powerful nation the world has ever seen.
Our brief time in the sun seems to be over—not because Europe is leaping ahead so much as because the US is willfully falling behind.
I’m watching as Europe sails toward the future and the US sits in it’s stagnant swamp. Good luck to you, Europe, and more power to you. We have abdicated—you may now take the crown.