The Evolution of the Natural Sciences

by Frederick Engels Icon

The most fundamental natural science was physics and astronomy.

Second was mathematics.

These sciences were perfected, as represented by Newton and Linnaeus at the end of the period. The basic features of the most essential mathematical methods were established:

  • Analytical geometry by Descartes especially
  • Logarithms by Napier
  • The differential and integral calculus by Leibniz and Newton.
  • Kepler discovered the laws of planetary movement
  • Newton formulated them from the point of view of the general laws of motion of matter.

The other branches of natural science were so far from this perfection. Only towards the end of the period did the mechanics of fluid and gaseous bodies improve.

Chemistry for the first time emancipated itself from alchemy through phlogistic theory.

Geology had not yet gone beyond the embryonic stage of mineralogy. Hence, paleontology could not yet exist at all.

Finally, biology was still preoccupied with collecting immense botanical, zoological, anatomical, and physiological material.

Botany and zoology arrived at an approximate completion owing to Linnaeus.

This period was characterized by the belief in the absolute immutability of nature.

In whatever way nature itself might have come into being, once present it remained as it was as long as it continued to exist.

The planets and their satellites were set in motion by the mysterious “first impulse”. They circled on and on forever.

The stars were forever fixed and immovable in their places, keeping one another therein by “universal gravitation”.

The earth had persisted without alteration from all eternity, or, alternatively, from the first day of its creation.

The “five continents” of the present day had always existed. They had always had the same mountains, valleys, and rivers, the same climate, and the same flora and fauna, except in so far as change or cultivation had taken place at the hand of man.

The species of plants and animals had been established once for all when they came into existence. Like continually produced like, and it was already a good deal for Linnaeus to have conceded that possibly here and there new species could have arisen by crossing.

This is in contrast to the history of mankind, which develops in time. The history of nature only develops in space.

  • All change, all development in nature, was denied.

Natural science, so revolutionary at the outset, suddenly found itself confronted by an out-and-out conservative nature in which even today everything was as it had been at the beginning and in which – to the end of the world or for all eternity – everything would remain as it had been since the beginning.

High as the natural science of the first half of the 18th century stood above Greek antiquity in knowledge and even in the sifting of its material, it stood just as deeply below Greek antiquity in the theoretical mastery of this material, in the general outlook on nature.

For the Greek philosophers, the universe emerged from chaos. It then developed and came into being.

Back then,

  • Science was still deeply enmeshed in theology.
  • Everywhere it sought and found its ultimate resort in an impulse from outside that was not to be explained from nature itself.

Even if attraction, by Newton pompously baptised as “universal gravitation”, was conceived as an essential property of matter, whence comes the unexplained tangential force which first gives rise to the orbits of the planets?

How did the innumerable varieties of animals and plants arise?

How did man arise if he was not present from all eternity?

Natural science answered this by making a Creator responsible for all things.

Copernicus, at the beginning of the period, renounced theology.

Newton closes the period with the postulate of a divine first impulse.

The highest general idea to which this natural science attained was that of the purposiveness of the arrangements of nature, the shallow teleology of Wolff, according to which cats were created to eat mice, mice to he eaten by cats, and the whole of nature to testify to the wisdom of the Creator.

It is to the highest credit of the philosophy of the time that it did not let itself be led astray by the restricted state of contemporary natural knowledge, and that – from Spinoza right to the great French materialists – it insisted on explaining the world from the world itself and left the justification in detail to the natural science of the future.

I include the materialists of the 18th century because no natural scientific material was available to them.

  • Kant’s epoch-making work remained a secret to them.
  • Laplace came long after them.

We should not forget that this obsolete outlook on nature, although riddled through and through by the progress of science, dominated the entire first half of the 19th century. It is still being taught in all schools. 1


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