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Impact of Science on Global Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Science is pretty cool, but it's also a pretty powerful force in the modern world. In this lesson, we'll explore the relationship between science and culture throughout human history and see what this means for us today.

Science and Culture

Here's the thing about science: it's pretty awesome. At various points in human history, science has continually reemerged as the guiding principle to help us understand the world in which we live.

It impacts our behaviors. It affects our worldviews. It changes our daily lives. So, science can have some pretty strong impacts on human societies. What happens in the lab doesn't stay in the lab. Instead, it can end up changing cultures around the world.

Technology

So, where can we see the link between science and culture? One obvious place to look is in technology that is generated by new advancements in science. While this happens constantly, there are a few periods across human history where technological advancements were so extreme that

they fundamentally changed human cultures forever. We call these the technological revolutions.

Neolithic Revolution

Some scholars think we are experiencing one right now thanks to new communications technologies. However, the very first one occurred thousands of years ago, with the development of agriculture. We call it the Neolithic Revolution.

These ancient peoples were engaged in the selective breeding of plants for desirable traits and conducted routine experiments on crop types, soil compositions, and irrigation. Though they may not have thought of this strictly in the same ways that we think about science, they were early scientists.

Enlightenment

The first scientific revolution in terms of science as we understand it came during the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual growth in the 18th century. Scholars of the Enlightenment believed that only things that could be tested could be trusted, and as a result developed the scientific method we still use today.

People of the Enlightenment looked to scientific experimentation for answers
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Their experiments led to the creation of machines that could conduct scientific tests without human error, and over time these machines grew in size and complexity.

Industrial Revolution

Following this intellectual and technological growth was the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Few things in history have impacted our ways of living as dramatically as this shift. Most of our modern ideas, institutions, and global relationships owe their existence to the advent of industrial technology.

Discoveries

Science can impact our cultures through technology, but other scientific discoveries can have just as dramatic an impact. In 1859, English naturalist Charles Darwin published a book titled On the Origin of Species. In it, he outlined the theory of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution.

This scientific discovery had widespread impacts on human cultures. For many people, Darwin's theories challenged long-held religious beliefs. For others, evolution became the framework that redefined their relationship to the natural world and which changed the way they understood humanity. It's cultural power is relevant to this day.

A more modern example of a major discovery that impacts world cultures is that of global warming. While the theory existed for decades, it wasn't until the 1980s that people began to seriously note the changing global temperature.

Global warming has had tremendous cultural impacts on the modern world. While there are still those who refute it, this scientific theory has the power to unite millions of people in broad behavioral changes. Modern notions of environmental stewardship, sustainable ecological policies, and our relationship with the natural world all stem from the scientific evidence for global warming.

Climate change advocacy posters like this show the cultural influence of global warming theories
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The Risk and Promise of Science

Clearly, science can have major impacts on human cultures on a global scale. That means one thing: science is dangerous. Anything which has immense cultural power can be manipulated towards malicious ends, and this is true of science.

In the 19th century, Darwin's theory of evolution was used to try and scientifically define the differences between ethnic groups. The goal was to prove that Anglo people were genetically superior. The result was genocidal policies such as those of the Holocaust. Military technologies, chemical warfare, and doctrines of hate have all achieved strong cultural power because they were seemingly supported by science.

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