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Review of The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination

Angelina Kuleshova (The Florida State University)

The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination, by Stephen Bertman, 2010, 293 pp., Illustrations, $27, hardcover, ISBN 13: 978-1-61614-217-9.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination by Stephen Bertman was inspired by a question, "Why were the ancient Greeks the world’s first scientists?".  Bertman offers his answer in the first part of the book, arguing that "science took root in ancient Greece because the seminal principles of Greek civilization – humanism, rationalism, curiosity, individualism, the pursuit of excellence, and the love of freedom – were uniquely compatible with science’s own essence" (p. 14).  This assumption provides a common perspective for the second part of the book that offers a detailed description of ancient Greek accomplishments in the areas of optics, acoustics, mechanics, chemistry, geography and geology, meteorology, astronomy, biology, medicine, and psychology.  In parts three and four, the author discusses the transmission of Greek science to the modern world and the development of science beyond the Mediterranean.  

Given that the book is written for a wide audience, the author makes significant use of literature and mythology to argue his points.  For example, in the discussion on optics, Bertman uses a quote from Homer’s Iliad  to illustrate a fundamental trait of the ancient Greeks – the urge to see – and argues that "[i]t was this abiding trait that, centuries later, made science possible, and made the ancient Greeks its true inventors" (p. 49).  Undoubtedly, Bertman is a passionate admirer of the ancient Greeks and he focuses his narrative on mostly positive aspects of Greek history.  For example, whereas other authors (such as David Lindberg in The Beginnings of Western Science (1992)) have admitted that the evidence of Greek medicine is spotty and were unsatisfied with having to rely solely on literary sources for evidentiary support, in his discussion on Greek medicine Bertman makes no such statements.       

If you are a mathematics educator or mathematics historian looking for a Greek history of mathematics text, I can assure you the mathematical content of this book is limited.  There is no chapter titled "Mathematics" – only a chapter on "the language on the universe" (p. 43).  Spanning about three and a half pages, the narrative includes a general discussion of Greek fascination with the abstract nature of numbers and shapes and their deductive approach to mathematics.     


Lindberg, D. C. (1992). The beginnings of western science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.