In this chapter, we will see how savage tribes before their close contact with modern humans as well as our prehistoric ancestors were using empiricism and logic to build and keep up to date their picture of the world — the gigantic foundation of modern science.
Claude Levi-Strauss, a French social anthropologist often known as “the father of modern anthropology”, in his book The Savage Mind describes in great detail the ways how savage tribes meticulously classify the world around them. With his deep insight derived from observations of the savage life and the structural analysis of ancient myths, he draws a picture of the overwhelming scientific project undertaken by our distant ancestors in learning from nature around them.
Like cat scientists in the experiments of Edward Thorndike, savage scientists in the descriptions cited by Levi-Strauss were relentlessly classifying external objects through relationships between them.
“Any classification is superior to chaos and even a classification at the level of sensible properties is a step towards rational ordering. It is legitimate, in classifying fruits into relatively heavy and relatively light, to begin by separating the apples from the pears even though shape, colour and taste are unconnected with weight and volume.”
“This preoccupation with exhaustive observation and the systematic cataloguing of relations and connections can sometimes lead to scientifically valid results.” He wrote. “The Blackfoot Indians for instance were able to prognosticate the approach of spring by the state of development of the foetus of bison which they took from the uterus of females killed in hunting. These successes cannot of course be isolated from the numerous other associations of the same kind which science condemns as illusory.”
Indeed, savage scientists established many illusory connections between external objects. They used their knowledge and imagination to find the best possible candidate for the cause of the effect that made them wonder in the same way as infant scientists were doing in the experiments described in the previous chapter.
Levi-Strauss made his best in trying to establish a clear distinction between magic practiced by primitive cultures and modern science but he finally arrived at the conclusion that learning directly from nature, as savage scientists did, laid at the core of modern science as well. However, as Albert Einstein described it, modern scientists play with illusory associations introspectively in their minds until they arrive at a regularity that satisfies them and can be logically explained.
Interestingly, John Maynard Keynes, better known for his ideas that fundamentally changed the theory and practice of macroeconomics and the economic policies of governments, in his essay Newton, the Man named Newton “the last of the magicians.”
“Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition.” He described the magical thinking process of Newton in a way very much resembling the words of Einstein.
Magic isn’t proto-science, it’s “a metaphorical expression” of science, as Levi-Strauss put it. “Both science and magic however require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied.”
Savage scientists practice learning directly from nature in the same way as cat scientists, infant scientists, and real scientists do. They apply empiricism and logic to everything that makes them wonder, to derive order out of chaos.
- Claude Levi-Strauss (1962) The Savage Mind
- Edward Thorndike (1898) Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Monograph Supplement №8
- Jacques S. Hadamard, Albert Einstein’s testimonial for An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field
- John Maynard Keynes (1942) Newton, the Man