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Science vs. religion in ancient Greece

Ideas that passed muster among the olive groves of Academe didn't always fly in downtown Athens. Ancient Greek scientists often ran into opposition from religious/philosophical groups, Georgia Irby-Massie said. One concept, heliocentrism, might be considered the era's equivalent of Darwinism in terms of the controversy it caused.

"The Greeks knew that the earth was round," Irby-Massie said. "and several of them kept bringing up evidence that the earth seemed to go around the sun. But heliocentrism was too big a blow to the Greek ego-for them not to be the center of the universe."

So, according to the accepted dogma of the time, she said, the sun-and everything else-revolved around the earth.

Another conflict between science and religion/philosophy in ancient Greece stemmed from their ideas about shedding of blood. Irby-Massie said that even soldiers had to undergo purification rites after spilling blood in battle.

"The Greeks had very strict rituals about shedding blood of any kind. Menstruating women are not allowed within a temple precinct," she explained. "Killing someone in a temple precinct is the worst crime you can possibly commit. It's not so much the murder...it's the desecration of the temple."

Ideas about bloodshed extended to dissection of human cadavers, she explained, effectively limiting most of the Classic anatomists to comparative anatomy, using apes for dissections and even vivisections. However, some scientists found ways around the strictures of religious orthodoxy.

"Herophilos did work with cadavers in the Third Century B.C.E. It remained a touchstone," setting an anatomical standard that lasted until the Renaissance, she said. Herophilos probably didn't get into trouble for violation of religious mores of the time. "He enjoyed the patronage of powerful men."

The ancient religious right didn't always get it wrong, she said.

"Heliocentrism was a point of controversy, like human dissection, on religious grounds," Irby-Massie explained, "but the spherical earth was widely and readily accepted for many of the same reasons: the sphere was considered the perfect geometrical shape, and a spherical earth appealed to the Greek sense of symmetry and aesthetics."