Monday, April 24, 2017

Pirates and the Dawn of Science

In honor of Earth Day and the March for Science, we’re going to take a look at science in the early 1700’s. With an emphasis on pirates, of course.

This was the time period called “The Enlightenment.” After the Dark Ages, centuries when Europeans barely kept hold of the knowledge of ancient times, let alone created new knowledge or understanding of the world around them,

Some place the beginning of the enlightenment as late as 1715, others as early as 1620. It was based on the Science played an important role in Enlightenment discourse and thought. Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had backgrounds in the sciences. They associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favor of the development of free speech and thought.

In many ways, this was a result of the printing press, greater literacy (at least among the wealthy) and a wider spread of knowledge. When human understanding of the world’s workings were confined to small enclaves, largely controlled by religious institutions, the words of old philosophers can be handed down as immutable fact. When many people can read, and communicate their ideas with each other, people can begin to question things that don’t line up with their observations.

For centuries, Aristotle and the Bible had agreed that Earth was the center of the universe.  Galileo Galilei observed the motion of the moon (as revealed by tides), the phases of Venus, and the orbit of Jupiter’s moon, and determined that Earth orbits the Sun. This was a radical notion, and it got Galileo in a great deal of trouble. The old ways do not die easy.

(And a note, here. Neither pirates nor anyone else believed that the earth was flat. The ancient Greeks had proved its spherical shape, and had measured its diameter to a highly accurate degree. Sailors saw regularly that, as their ships traveled, land seemed to rise and sink from the ocean. Stories of monsters and falling off the edge were drunken bravado and tales for land-lubbers.)

However, as the dates in the third paragraph indicate, the Golden Age of Piracy falls in the beginning of this age of Reason. While the idea of “science” was catching on, it was still largely the thought-playground of the rich.

Take medicine. Our pirate friends, along with everyone else from Europe, still believed that disease was caused by “bad air” or “bad water.” Even the idea sickness could be transmitted directly from one human to another was radical. Germ theory was over a hundred years off. Even the idea that dirt causes sickness was not established.

Because of this, the most common form of treatment for sickness was trying to bring the “humors of the body” into balance. This was most often done by bleeding, or by giving the patient herbs or drugs that caused intense vomiting or diarrhea. The fact that a sudden loss of blood can end a fever, or temporarily treat high blood pressure, and violent intestinal spasms can drive out parasites, only muddied the issue.

Cleanliness was regarded with suspicion. The Protestant Churches (official religions of England and the Netherlands) discouraged washing as “worldly”. Most people lived in filth that would be difficult for a modern person to believe. In addition to not washing, they drank water straight from lakes and rivers, even if those contained raw sewage and decomposing animals.

Today, we can credit science with not only with understanding that germs are dangerous, and teaching us how to kill them, but with discovering other dangers in life. The 18th century was awash with alcohol – children drank liquor as soon as they were weaned. Mothers drank throughout pregnancy.

And of the other dangers, the most prevalent was lead. Today science has taught us that lead is a dangerous substance. Ingesting it can be deadly, and even touching it with bare skin can damage the brain. In the 18th century, the world was awash in lead. Lead water pipes, lead-based paint, lead based makeup. Sheets of lead were a common material, used for a variety of things. Pirates wrapped scraps of sheet lead around the flints in their guns, to better fit them into the screw-hold of the hammer. Every time I think of the lead being handled by common pirates and sailors, I wonder how many IQ points it cost them.

A pistol flint with its base wrapped in lead
Anything resembling the practice of birth control was believed to be a sin against God. Women in Europe gave birth to a dozen or more children in their lives. This was necessary, however, since as many as a third of infants did not make it to their second year. The women, worn out by childbearing, died young. Today, women outnumber men. In the 18th century, there was a shortage of older women.

Capitalism was in its infancy. The old system of medieval feudalism had broken down. Land was increasingly held by a small number of the rich. Under the old feudal system, everyone was entitled to work, a home and a place in society. But as new lands were explored (This era is also called the Age of Exploration) and new products came to market, the rich wanted cash.

In the new spirit of understanding the world as a mechanism, understandable to the human mind, the owners of “capital” saw human labor as if people were machines. Employees were work-producing units, and employers had no more responsibility to the workers they employed than to the animals they owned, or the carts pulled by those animals.

So, while the place of the educated man was seen as being semi-divine, capable of grasping the very workings of the universe, the working class, the uneducated, were viewed as little more than animals.

Image result for pirate flag gif

This was what the pirates were fighting. In a changing world, the place of the working class was being pushed down, money was becoming more important, and human rights were failing, pirates struck out against the immediate cause of their oppression. Their leadership may have heard the stirrings of change… Humans were not locked into their place in the economic ladder. God had not ordained what a man did with his life. The pirates chose to stand up, and try to change the world. 

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