Not a martyr for science.

Those who still mistakenly subscribe to the White-Draper hypothesis of a war of religion against science, and these days it is mostly gnu atheists and their ilk, invariably produce lists of the martyrs of science, those considered to have fallen in the war. Almost without fail those lists include the sixteenth century Spanish mathematicus and physicus Michael Servetus (Span. Miguel Serveto) who was born 29th September 1511 and was burnt at the stake as a heretic in Geneva 27th October 1553, for once by the Calvinists and not the Catholics. Servetus was an active Protestant theologian who amongst other radical theses denied the holy trinity, which led to his being imprisoned by the Inquisition in Vienne in France. He managed to escape and fled to Geneva where he was again incarcerated, tried for heresy on the basis of his most recent publication, Christianismi Restitutio, found guilty and sentenced to death, being as I stated above burnt at the stake. This is a very clear case of religious persecution and has nothing to do with science so why is he frequently listed as a science martyr? This is because the Restitutio as well as being a book on theology also contained an important medical discovery.

Servetus had led a fairly normal scholarly existence for the Renaissance, wandering around Europe studying bits of this and bits of that at various centres of learning until he ended up studying medicine in Paris in the 1530s. Paris was one of the leading centres for medical studies at the time and Servetus studied under the same set of excellent teachers as his contemporary Andreas Vesalius. He was an excellent student but became embroiled in a dispute involving his activities as an astrologer and was forced to leave Paris, settling in Vienne as a medical practitioner. It was here in 1553 that he ran foul of the Inquisition.

Servetus’ original contribution to medicine was the discovery of the small or pulmonary blood circulation. In antiquity Galen, the leading medical authority, had thought that blood flowed from the right ventricle to the left ventricle through microscopic holes in the septum or central wall in the heart. This theory was still accepted as gospel in the 16th century and Servetus hypothesised instead that the blood flows out of the right ventricle through the lungs and back into the left ventricle, pulmonary circulation. This was of course a very important step towards understanding blood circulation in general. However it is important to note that Servetus’ discovery remained without influence because nobody knew about it. Condemned as heretical, by Catholics, Calvinists and Lutheran Protestants alike, his Restitutio was like its author committed to the flames with only three copies surviving the immolation and remaining hidden and unread. Although his work had no direct influence on the history of medicine his fate is a good example of two important frequent occurrences in the history of science, firstly discoveries get lost and secondly discoveries are very often made independently by more than one person.

The discovery of pulmonary circulation actually got lost at least twice and Servetus was not its first discoverer. Pulmonary circulation had already been discovered in the thirteenth century by Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi, known as Ibn al-Nafis, and published in his Commentary on the Anatomy of Canon of Avicenna a text that simply disappeared and was first re-discovered in the twentieth century. Somehow this was a discovery that didn’t want to be made. However pulmonary circulation was discovered independently for a third time, and this time demonstrated empirically, by Realdo Colombo, Vesalius’ successor as professor of anatomy in Padua, in 1559 and this time it remained discovered.

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7 Comments

Filed under History of Astrology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

7 responses to “Not a martyr for science.

  1. Pingback: Not a martyr for science. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. johnpieret

    From Erik Nordenskiöld, The History of Biology:

    When, in spite of this, he dared to publish his book anonymously in Vienne and concluded it with a venomous attack on Calvin, the latter became furious and had the author brought before the Inquisition in Vienne. Servet was cast into prison, but managed to escape, and this time sought refuge in Geneva, probably in order to co-operate with the anti-CaIvinistic party which was just then planning an attack on the despotic reformer. Calvin, however, was on his guard; Servet was arrested and Calvin seized the opportunity offered by the trial of this sectarian, so hated by the whole Christian community, to strengthen his position. Having obtained the consent of several Protestant Church councils, the court at Geneva condemned Servet to be burnt at the stake, and the verdict was carried out on the 27th October 1553, to the eternal shame of Protestantism. …

    Shortly before, the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne had caused Servet’s portrait to be burnt in the absence of Servet himself. Through his death, however, Servet won such renown as neither his personality nor his writings in themselves warranted; the Catholics in particular have in latter times honoured his memory, in order to annoy the Calvinists. Statues have been erected to him in both Paris and Madrid.

    It takes a rare talent to be burned by two opposing sets of religious zealots and then to be adopted back by one of them to chuff the other. One thing that it doesn’t demonstrate is a “war on science.”

  3. Vince

    I love the historical detail, but what I would love more is an argument supported by facts and evidence rather than an attempt to disprove the usefulness of one example. The fact is, there are many thousands of individuals who were, and still are today, the subject of violence and persecution from religious organizations entirely because they are engaged in specific studies in the sciences. From Galileo, to John Scopes in The Monkey Trials, to Stephen Hawking, religious institutions have sought to silence, belittle, and violently stop scientists from doing their work when it contradicts religious teachings. Abortion doctors have been murdered, heretics were burned at the stake, and evolutionary biologists receive outlandish treatment from communities because members of those communities have been brainwashed to ignore reality. Is this a “war?” No, not quite. However, it’s targeted, intentional, and hateful, and for someone who clearly knows a great deal about history I’m concerned that you have managed to gloss over this very important aspect of the last 700 years of the Western World.

    For further reading, you might want to try any history book… ever written… about Europe and/or America.

    • Ron Van Wegen

      “…violently stop scientists from doing their work when it contradicts religious teachings. Abortion doctors have been murdered…”
      You are joking aren’t you? Abortion doctors as “scientists… doing their work”?!

    • Vince you have the highly dubious honour of having posted probably the worst comment on this blog in the year 2012.

      I love the historical detail, but what I would love more is an argument supported by facts and evidence rather than an attempt to disprove the usefulness of one example.

      You makes a special plea for “facts and evidence and then go on to make a completely unsubstantiated and largely false generalisation.

      The fact is, there are many thousands of individuals who were, and still are today, the subject of violence and persecution from religious organizations entirely because they are engaged in specific studies in the sciences.

      Where are your facts? What evidence do you provide for this statement?

      From Galileo, to John Scopes in The Monkey Trials, to Stephen Hawking, religious institutions have sought to silence, belittle, and violently stop scientists from doing their work when it contradicts religious teachings.

      I once created Christie’s Law for people who evoke Galileo’s name when discussing the relationship between religion and science. It’s a post waiting to be written but Galileo’s persecution by Pope Urban had much, much more to do with Galileo’s personality than either religion or science; a fact that people like yourself will continue to blindly deny.

      Scopes I will grant you as a genuine example of religious prejudice against science. In fact there is a genuine conflict between some religious fundamentalist and evolutionary biology but that is a long way from the sort of eternal conflict envisioned by Draper-White and obviously yourself.

      To see Stephen Hawking as in anyway a victim of any form of religious oppression is a joke. Hawking attacked belief in god or gods with some fairly spurious pseudo scientific arguments and was strongly criticised by religious groups for having done so. The whole exchange, which still rumbles on, is called freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

      Abortion doctors have been murdered,…

      I am myself not a supporter of abortion but I’m not an opponent either. In an ideal world I would oppose abortion but we do not live in an ideal world and I see it as an unfortunate necessity in our world. However to stylise the conflict between the supporters and opponents of abortion as part of a conflict between science and religion is complete and utter rubbish

      …heretics were burned at the stake…

      I know of no single case of somebody being burnt at the stake as a religious heretic for their scientific views.

      …and evolutionary biologists receive outlandish treatment from communities because members of those communities have been brainwashed to ignore reality.

      I have already granted you the real existence of a religious conflict between some religious fundamentalists and evolutionary biology but one genuine case does not make for “thousands of…”

      Is this a “war?” No, not quite. However, it’s targeted, intentional, and hateful, and for someone who clearly knows a great deal about history I’m concerned that you have managed to gloss over this very important aspect of the last 700 years of the Western World.

      I have glossed over nothing but you have presented a historical fantasy with no “evidence or facts” to back up your claims.

      For further reading, you might want to try any history book… ever written… about Europe and/or America.

      I am the son of a professional historian and grew up in a house full of history books. I have studied, archaeology, history and history of science at university. I worked for several years as a professional archaeologist. I am a semi-professional historian (I only earn part of my income through history). I have a flat full of history books most of which I have read. I have also read many, many more history books borrowed from libraries all over Europe. I have never ever come across a history book that in anyway substantiates the claims that you are making. Obviously I have not read the right history books but wait a minute… you said “…any history book… ever written…” ????

  4. Risky to invite folks to produce “an argument supported by facts and evidence” about the celebrated war of science and theology since until relatively recent times what we think of as the sciences just weren’t at the center of serious social or political struggles—people fought and died over interpretations of the Eucharist, not the orbit of Mars*. If you ransack the archives for examples that support your favored narrative, you can obviously find some; but you’re going to have to do some serious special pleading to convert the same handful of anecdotes into a credible history. Incidentally, special pleading is exactly what the doyens of the Manichean version of scientific history did engage in. I recently reread A.D.White’s History of the Warfare of Science and Theology and was somewhat scandalized by his dishonesty. He wrote, for example, that “Ten years after the martyrdom of Bruno the truth of Copernicus’s doctrine was established by the telescope of Galileo” as if you could see that in a telescope—the rest of the chapter in which this quote occurs carefully avoids any mention of Tycho Brahe, whose system of the world was surely not embarrassed by anything you could see in a telescope. You won’t find any mention of Galileo’s insistence that comets are subluniary either, not because White hadn’t read up on the subject—he certainly had spent plenty of time in the library—but more likely because this particular bit, like several others he overlooks, was inconvenient.

    The great failing of White and his modern successors is not a matter of cheating, however. White and the others make a more fundamental mistake: If you want to understand any historical era, you have to figure out what the people of that time cared about and not project your own obsessions backwards.

  5. Ian Paul Wragg

    The great failing of White and his modern successors is not a matter of cheating, however. White and the others make a more fundamental mistake: If you want to understand any historical era, you have to figure out what the people of that time cared about and not project your own obsessions backwards.

    You make 2 very good points Jim. (1) The need to “want to understand”, And (2) avoiding anachronistic interpretations by projecting your own concerns into the era.

    For instance, reading something like the creation texts in Genesis or Isaiah 40 against the historical background, world view and concerns of the ancients, these texts make sense understood within their world view and the issues at hand. Particularly the concern to legitimize the god of Israel over and against the threat of deities/polytheism from the surrounding nations.

    The anachronistic reading of ancient creation texts as though they were some sort of divinely inspired polemic against biological evolution somewhere between two and three millenium before Darwin arrived on the scene makes no historical sense to me whatsoever.

    Of course, having said that, I am not asking anyone to believe that these texts are “true”, have any scientific credibility or are records of historical events. The point that I am trying to make (and I am not sure that I am doing a very good job here) is the same point that Jim made. The “desire to understand”. And in a very real sense I think that to be sympathetic to the material that your dealing with, is fundamental to actually understanding it.

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