One of my most treasured books is Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man – based on his magnificent and authoritative BBC series from 1973. The book is about the development of humankind and particularly our scientific culture. I do my best to try and re-read the book and re-watch the series on DVD each year. Each time that I do, I come away utterly awed and inspired at Bronowski’s achievement.
A couple of weeks ago when I had a day off work I went down to Highgate cemetery in London to visit the grave of Jacob Bronowski – he died in 1974, just a year after the series aired on television: he had apparently been unwell during the making of the programmes. I arrived at the cemetery only to discover that it is split into two parts East and West. The Western part is open to visitors during the week, the Eastern part can only be visited with official guides at restricted times due to the precarious state of parts of the cemetery. And as you have probably guessed, Bronowski is buried in the Eastern part so I didn’t get to pay my respects at his grave that day.
Chapter six of The Ascent of Man (episode six in the TV series) is titled “The Starry Messenger” and is about the trial and tribulations of the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who was persecuted by the Catholic Church for supporting the Copernican view that it is the earth which revolves around the sun and not vice versa as the Catholic Church insisted. The old view that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth had first been promulgated by Ptolemy in the second century C.E. and had later been adopted by the Catholic Church as part of its doctrine.
The Catholic Church had some decades earlier – in response to the rise of Protestantism in Northern Europe – established the Inquisition to deal with heretics and uphold Catholic doctrine. Following the 1632 publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Great World Systems in which different speakers discussed the various merits of the Ptolemaic and Copernican world views, with Galileo making rather clear which side of the debate he was on, the Pope himself ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition. Galileo – who was by then almost seventy years old – was forced to recant his views, shown the instruments of torture, including the rack, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
The result, says Bronowski, was silence amongst Catholic scientists everywhere from then on. The Church’s authoritarian ways had brought a halt to the development of science in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Galileo, who had helped to develop the telescope which had so enlarged our view of the heavens was now confined to his house and soon went totally blind. He wrote of himself:
Alas…Galileo, your devoted friend and servant, has been for a month totally and incurably blind; so that this heaven, this earth, this universe, which by my remarkable observations and clear demonstrations I have enlarged a hundred, nay, a thousand fold beyond the limits universally accepted by the learned men of all previous ages, are now shrivelled up for me into such a narrow compass as is filled by my own bodily sensations.
Galileo died in 1642 still a prisoner in his own house and the Scientific Revolution moved to northern Europe, Protestant Europe. On Christmas Day of the same year, in England, Isaac Newton was born.
I find the story of Galileo so full of resonance – particularly as a Muslim. I grew up on books about the ‘Golden Age of Islam’, about the heights that Muslim civilisation reached while Europe lapsed in the Dark Ages.
Regrettably, we Muslims have our own form of the Inquisition in the shape of religious figures who take it upon themselves to pronounce on matters of what is lawful and what is not. Their foolishness would not be such a problem if they did not seek to also coerce others into following their pronouncements.
When Muslim scientists were hounded into silence by religious figures in the name of orthodoxy, science did not stop, it just moved elsewhere as it did when Galileo was also silenced.
It was an ominous sign a couple of months ago when Turkey – one of very few Muslim countries to have made some notable progress in the sphere of freedom and human rights in recent decades – announced that it would stop the teaching of evolution in secondary schools.
Change is inherent in the human condition and we have to adapt to it.