In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
Douglas Adams



- 3.4 Gyr: Procaryotes
- 2.4 Gyr: Molecular oxygen in atmosphere
- 2.1 Gyr: Eucaryotes
- 1.6 Gyr: Multicellular organisms
- 1.2 Gyr: Sex
- 600 Myr: Nerves
- 560 Myr: Fungi
- 480 Myr: Insects
- 430 Myr: Land plants
- 370 Myr: Reptiles
- 250 Myr: Mammals
- 150 Myr: Birds
- 130 Myr: Flowers, phytochemicals
- 120 Myr: Primates
- 30 Myr: Apes
- 4.4 Myr: Upright walking
- 4.2 Myr: Australopithecus
- 2.5 Myr: Homo habilis
- 1.7 Myr: Homo ergaster
- 170 Kyr: Eve


- 2.6 Myr: Stone axes
- 1.5 Myr: Control of fire
- 400 Kyr: Wooden spears
- 300 Kyr: Microlith technology
- 80 Kyr: Oil lamps, grammar
- 72 Kyr: Clothes
- 60 Kyr: Ocean navigation
- 40 Kyr: Murals, flutes
- 20 Kyr: Ceramics, archery, numbers
- 14 Kyr: Pottery, first settlements
- 10 Kyr: Agriculture, beer
- 8 Kyr: Shoes
- 7.5 Kyr: Wine
- 7 Kyr: Scales, textile, glass
- 6 Kyr: Cities
- 5 Kyr: Copper from ores
- 4.5 Kyr: Glue, soap, writing
- 4 Kyr: Flood control, bronze, opium, plow
- 3.5 Kyr: Enamel, iron, lead, glass, alphabet
- 3 Kyr: Wheel, abacus, cannabis, mortar, bricks
- 2.4 Kyr: Salicylic acid, soldering
- 2 Kyr: Astronomical navigation
- 1.9 Kyr: Glazes
- 1.5 Kyr: Steel, bowed strings, glass vessels
- 1270: Encyclopedia
- 1000: Use of magnetism
- 750: Lenses
- 650: Coins
- 530: Library
- 300: Electrodeposition of chromium
- 200: Zinc, paper, compass
- 100: Cement, glass blowing
0: Distilled alcohol
500: Antibiotics
800: Printing, tuned bells, coffee
900: Gunpowder
1300: Equal-tempered scale, spectacles
1647: Vacuum pump
1800: Steam traction, stoichiometry
1885: Bicycle
1900: Aeronautics, electronics
2000: Smart materials, internet

(in years, - for BCE, + for CE; Gyr = Gigayears, Myr = Megayears, Kyr = Kiloyears)


Five metaphysical inventions

- 150 Kyr: Virtual realities (animism)
- 12 Kyr: Religion
- 2.5 Kyr: Patriarchal warrior cultures
- 800: Monotheism
~1400: Capitalism

Seven metachemical inventions

- 400 Kyr: Technology
- 10 Kyr: Farms, cities
- 3 Kyr: Synthesis of metals
- 600: The 'axial revolution' (cognitive renaissance)
1700: Science (of the submicron world)
19th century: Industry (machines)
Present: Information technology (micro-electronics, molecular biology)



The axial revolts were synchronous all over Eurasia because communication became much easier by writing no longer on walls and heavy clay tablets but on vellum, papyrus, and palmleaf. The invention of light-weight scripture just before the axial era had a social impact comparable to that of writing, book printing and internet. Each humanitarian revolution was triggered by a novel communication technology: the axial revolution, the renaissance with the enlightenment, and the recently started information revolution. Read Steve Farmer on the development of prehistoric cultures.









Neo-materialism means to recover the feeling that we have been neglecting ... for a long time, that there is a much more interesting form of knowledge that relates to this skill to deal with matter—in the kitchen, in the blacksmith’s shop, in the carpenter’s shop. To deal with representations and concepts and mental stuff is interesting, too, but is just as interesting as this direct sensual knowledge of matter.
Manuel de Landa

History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.
George Santayana


Open boek This book by Lange on the history of materialism was Nietzsche's favourite. Also available are Part II and Part III.


Chemie is nicht mehr als Kunst oder Experimentallehre, niemals aber eigentliche Wissenschaft”.
I. Kant.(1786)

Today of course we are all as mixed in values as in blood, but the unstated assumption that it is better to be physically strong than wise, violent than gentle, continent than sensual, landowner or coupon clipper than shopkeeper, lingers on as a memorial to those marauding tribes who broke into history at the start of the Bronze Age and whose values are with us still ...
Gore Vidal




Nothing is more unknown than matter.
Bartholomeus Anglicanus (1203 - 1272)


... alchemy is a chaste harlot with many lovers, all of whom are disappointed, however, and none is granted her embrace. She transforms the stupid into imbeciles, the rich into beggars, the philosophers into babblers, and the deceived into elegant deceivers.
Trithemius (1690)


When history does begin, in China or India, Egypt, Babylonia, even in the Pacific and in aboriginal America, we see evidence of one underlying religious idea: the conception of the vitality of the cosmos, the myriad vitalities in wild confusion, which still is held in some sort of array: and man, amid all the glowing welter, adventuring, struggling, striving for one thing, life, vitality, more vitality: to get into himself more and more of the gleaming vitality of the cosmos. That is the treasure. The active religious idea was that man, by vivid attention and subtlety and exerting all his strength, could draw more life into himself, more life, more and more glistening vitality, till he became shining like the morning, blazing like a god.

The people are not initiated into the cosmic ideas, nor into the awakened throb of more vivid consciousness. Try as you may, you can never make the mass of men throb with full awakenedness. They cannot be more than a little aware. So you must give them symbols, ritual and gesture, which will fill their bodies with life up to their own full measure. Any more is fatal. And so the actual knowledge must be guarded from them, lest knowing the formulae, without undergoing at all the experience that corresponds, they may become insolent and impious, thinking they have the all, when they have only an empty monkey-chatter. The esoteric knowledge will always be esoteric, since knowledge is an experience, not a formula. But it is foolish to hand out the formulae. A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. No age proves it more than ours. Monkey-chatter is at last the most disastrous of all things.
Lawrence Durrell

It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.
Every non-human body shares with every human body a cognitive nature.
Baruch Spinoza

How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.
T.H. Huxley

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
Douglas Adams

When I try to explain chemistry to outsiders I have three main audiences: the person in the street, fellow academics in the humanities and physicists. All three audiences are equally ignorant of chemistry, but the most difficult audiences are the physicists, because they think they understand, but they don't.
Chemists don't have any Holy Grail, like the quest by particle physicists for the top quark or Higgs boson. Our goals are small but numerous, on the scale of the human condition itself.
Roald Hoffmann




… la production d'idées et d'expériences, dans la chimie contemporaine, dépasse la mémoire d'un homme, l'imagination d'un homme, la puissance de compréhension d'un homme.
La chimie a donc l'avenir d'une des plus grandes réalités de la pensée et de l'action humaines.
Gaston Bachelard



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On the history of materialism

All plants and animals are materialists, they cannot exist otherwise. The history of their materialism is part of paleobiology. Humans are special animals, during their evolution they developed a complex brain which made them want to embellish their reality with ideas. How the human species has nearly forgotten and rediscovered materialism is summarized here.

Grass roots

Materialism as a world-view is not a recent development, its roots are buried deep in prehistory. Materialism is older than the first myths, older even than language. Our ancestors made tools before rituals, fire before magic, weapons before symbols. If they fought each other, they did it for food and perhaps territory, ages before they invented gods and honour to justify killing each other. They sang and joked together long before they made up priests and managers, and must have had clothes before prayers. Mural art and music started at least 30 000 years before agriculture. Results in palaeontology, anthropology, and animal ethology indicate how our ancestors lived. Early humans were experts on dealing with matter; they had to be materialists in order to survive like the plants and other animals. We did not forget their material skills but improved them as the timeline shows. Humanity still exists because of its extensive technology.

Modern behaviour of humans is determined by whatever tricks, methods, and rituals their ancestors made up with their newly enriched consciousness and acrually needed to survive in their new fictitious worlds which were very different from ours. Certain apes (pan and homo) are social animals and the ancestors common to both species were probably slightly more like the peace-loving egalitarian bonobos than the less peaceful hierarchic chimpanzees and humans. A list of the new and inherited biological and social characteristics shows similarities of the three species and their differences: our Australopithecine ancestors had the same body type as bonobos, unlike humans; humans and bonobos dine in company, chimps don't; humans and bonobos are alleged to have a microsatellite of the AVPR1N-gene for production of oxytocin receptors and chimpanzees don't; also there is frequent infanticide by chimps and humans but not by bonobos; humans and chimps organize mass murders, bonobos don't; chimps do not like to copulate when infertile, bonobos and humans do, and mostly mate for other reasons than procreation; versatile sexual play is unknown between chimpanzees but common in bonobos and humans (in dolphins as well); bonobos and some humans share food with non-clan members, chimps don't; chimps and bonobos look similar, humans are taller and are naked; chimps are much stronger than bonobos and humans. The three species are rather alike because their common ancestor lived not very long ago. Most, if not all, existing groups of hunter-gatherers are egalitarian and non-violent (like bonobos), in other words pragmatic and non-idealistic, if that group is sufficiently isolated from more aggressive tribes because internal competition does not help survival when food is scarce. Since 3000 BCE human manners have become more aggressive and chimp-like (quite late in their evolution). Now there are hardly any matriarchal societies left; they are defenceless as they avoid using violence in conflicts.

The dawn of magicians

Rituals to bewitch, sacrifices to pacify the gods, prayers to spirits, and myths about haunting souls are very old inventions, probably as old as language and art. Our ancestors discovered that adaptation to the environment also worked in reverse: they could change the world by merely thinking differently about it. Totems and taboos unified and controlled clans as they do now. Magic explained every mystery and fictions such as variants of the idea that the soul was created by a god and matter by a devil became favourite subjects of storytellers. Gradually spiritualism pervaded everything, even the material arts. As far as we know the new purpose of life was to satisfy all wishes of spirits and shamans. That raises a question: if materialism is so vital for existence as people must have known, why did they embrace those novel fictions? After all, they must have noticed that idealism was far from ideal. Several answers to that riddle have been suggested. One is that the rise of consciousness, that was the result of the hypertrophied human brain, called for inventing an immortal soul to alleviate fear of inevitable death "You need a religion if you are terrified of death" according to Gore Vidal (Nietzsche suggested art as a defense against the truth but Epicurus proved that fear of death is logical nonsense). Consciousness was a wonderful new toy that enabled invention of virtual worlds that looked like the real one. Those worlds were also given nasty bits because they were useful. Another answer is that supernatural beings are projections of alpha-males that ran clans. The increasing size of the settled tribes made specialization possible and even necessary. The specialists that were closest to the gods were seen as representatives of heaven and necessarily became the new authorities. Then there is the pragmatic argument that events must have been caused by someone in order to make sense; if not a human then a principle, a spirit, or a god. Spirits and sacred principles explain strange events and have the added advantage that they facilitate social control by priests. Social control became vitally important when clans grew after the agricultural revolution. Myths are byproducts of Ideas that had survival value and they must have been popular in prehistory. Compared to the rich romanticism of the ideal virtual world, material reality must have appeared dreary, dull, and an unsuitable subject of political power games or theatre.

The agricultural revolution started 12 000 years ago in a region which is now Kurdistan, when women in sedentary groups found out how they could be less dependent on hunting (a diminishing source of food due to mass extinction of animals by humans) by producing food; first plants and then animals were domesticated. It was a disaster. Health collapsed, life expectancy plummeted, epidemies broke out, and diseases from domesticated animals such as measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, bubonic plague, and malaria, which were unknown before that time, ravaged communities. Societies changed because clans increased in size. Stratified hierarchies were set up, matrimony and castes were introduced, women became part of livestock, laws were made, politics became a trade, and cruelty, slavery, prostitution, and wars of conquest became standard. Birth rates went up, everything else got worse. Agriculture was not only a catastrophe because proper food became scarce (a technical fix was duly found) but because it started a social revolution. The old instincts that were developed in millions of years could not deal with the increased size of agglomerations owing to a novel evolutionary factor, property. That began to determine everything, from personal power to sexual mates. The ancient habits, etched in DNA, were unable to adapt to the new situation and are still the source of conflict in modern society. The stories of the insubordination by Prometheus and by Eve are basically about the catastrophe during the agricultural revolution.

Idealism was gradually strengthened by this development but not immediately; initially farmland was not a scarce resource. Archeologists tell us that life in most of the oldest known urban civilizations such as Yangshao in China, Ggantija in Malta, Caral in Peru, Catal Höyük in South Anatolia, and Mehrgarh near the Indus valley and its successors at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, were still predominantly materialist, and matrifocal. Although they flourished after the agricultural revolution, those illiterate pre-aryan societies somehow kept their old peaceful way of life. The cities in the Indus valley had swimming pools instead of temples, an advanced sewage system instead of fortifications, city walls to protect against floods, not against invading armies (as there were none), statuettes of dancing girls instead of gods, body ornaments instead of weapons, and international trade instead of wars of conquest. There were no palaces for kings and no monuments but houses had bathrooms. People made a living by producing cotton for Mesopotamia and China. The inhabitants of the Indus valley had no state, no bureaucracy, they worshiped no gods, they lived "heartily and joyously", and their women were free to do as they liked according to the Aryans who replaced their civilization. Parts of that ancient culture survived in Yoga, Tantra, and Shaktism (which is one of the four great hindu sects). The Aryans introduced horses, patriarchism, the caste system, genocide, and vedic spiritualism in India. Near Europe, the Cycladic and Anatolian cultures were also materialistic, peaceful, trade-based, and hedonistic; they were also replaced by patriarchal tribes from the north. In Eurasia people adopted a warrior culture ruled by an aristocracy and materialism was eliminated during the bronze era (from 3000 to 800 BCE)

The axial era

The debts and slavery that the elites of the bronze age tribes had introduced as organizing principles got out of hand and around 800 BCE, all over the old world, some of our ancestors seemed to wake up from a long nightmare. As if a mutation in the human species occurred: in addition to believers who didn’t like to think, there now were a few unbelievers who did and who inspired others to reflect on their situation. People reacted differently to what they saw when they came to their senses. Some believers exclaimed “What a piece of work is man… How infinite in faculties, how like a god”! As is only to be expected, they started to reshape their religions by reducing the number of their gods and making them more like supermen. The monotheisms that they started made very large tyrannies feasible (Homers Odysseus said one personal authority is better than many). Less conventionally, the unbelievers marvelled: “… what is this quintessence of dust?” and started what we now know as materialism. These were the first non-idealistic revolutionaries in history; they were remarkably uninterested in their old myths and hunted for better alternatives.

In three widely separated regions in Eurasia, materialism as a comprehensive worldview started in different versions. Almost simultaneously in India, China, and Greece freethinkers revived paleolithic pragmatism and converted mysteries to minor problems. Many revolutionary things happened at that time. Iron weapons and agricultural tools replaced bronze ones, infantry was added to cavalry, the aristocracy had issues, meritocracy was born, social mobility increased, markets developed, citizens learned to write on palm leafs, vellum, and papyrus, stamped coins were used to pay, mass production and specialization were perfected, and Olympic games, written history, literature, theatre, music, and philosophy flourished. Innovations blossomed in all social activities. In India (approximately 1000 BCE) materialism started as Lokayata. Somewhat later (from 600 BCE) the Chinese produced taoism to escape from the constraints of ritualism that confucianists had kept. In Greece, preplatonic philosophers (starting 600 BCE) developed materialism that evolved into atomism. The period of these three stunning movements was called the axial age (800 – 200 BCE) by Jaspers (1883 - 1969). In the axial era the individual was rediscovered and the basic difference between the natural and the supernatural, or in ancient words, between physis and nomos, began to be recognized. Secular philosophy started in the axial era.

Philosophers writing about the history of their trade seem to miss the point of the axial revolution when they characterize it as merely a religious change, a radical shift from crude paganism to organized religion or from polytheism to monotheism. It is very obvious that people in the axial age changed their beliefs. How religions developed in that era is detailed by Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation. But historians and philosophers are able to take idols only seriously and see spiritualism everywhere in the past, it is a professional deformation (or feature). They feel that the ancient protagonists of idealism such as Gautama, Zarathustra, Isaiah, Pythagoras, and Plato, who changed current beliefs, were the true revolutionaries in this period. These thinkers admittedly adapted traditional religions and invented sin but in the light of what we know they were certainly not the key actors of the period. Although the religions at that time were considerably affected by the new materialist criticism, the authentic core of the axial revolution was not religious but radically secular and rational. Old transcendencies were actually discarded, they were not just renamed. The freethinkers Brhaspati, Democritus, and Lao Tse not only separated the profane from the sacred and the real from the virtual, but reversed their priorities. The reforms of the axial age were the result of the onset of argued materialism which also happened to trigger the religious revolution as a side effect. Even Armstrong herself pointed out that "the essential spirit of the Axial Age" is basically atheistic although she did not even mention lokayata. The three materialistic movements emphasized different consequences of the same assumption. Lokayata was radical and stressed basic principles. Taoism developed mainly the practical aspect of materialism and preplatonic philosophy its cognitive side. Taoism has been more successful than the other two initiatives in making individual life more mundane and materialistic.

One of the devastating conceptions of the Indian and Greek axials was conservation of matter during conversion processes (energy conservation had to wait for von Mayer and Helmholtz in the 19th century): mass is perennial, matter changes but does not perish and is not created. Conservation of matter is an assumption that implies self-organization, which leads easily to chemistry if explored. The cynic Demonax (70 - 170 CE) joked about it when asked whether his soul was immortal: "Dear me, yes, everything is". Matter conservation is at the core of materialism. It counters all earlier and later creation myths, stories that invent palatable causes, creators, and annihilators in order to make sense of the world. Every ancient culture cherished its own creation myth, except Jainism. The creation myth in modern theoretical physics is the big bang. Another modern creation myth, intelligent design, is accounted for by gene expression, a chemical process in organisms that produces their intelligence and stupidity.

The backlash of the romantics

The revolution of the axial era might have been a great success if it had not been crushed by the idealistic counterrevolutions in India, China, and Greece. Lokayata was thoroughly eliminated by the brahmins in India and a considerable amount of archeology is necessary to dig up its remnants from vedic scripture. In China, gentleness was also wiped out by aggressive nobility, and what rested of taoism degenerated into a commonplace religion, complete with temples, cloisters, priests, immortality, and rituals. Original taoism seeped out to Japan, changed its name, and fell asleep in Zen monasteries. In Greece, Plato’s followers succeeded in destroying the vast literature on materialism and its consequences, written by the atomists, the cynics, the sofists and the hedonists; about them only fragments and gossip remain, written by contemporary opponents. Our queasy arsonist paved the way for christianity: christians took from neo-platonists what suited them (obedience) and replaced skepticism by faith. Besides destroying almost all Hellenic books on subjects they did not like, christians even managed to "forget" material skills such as oil lamp illumination, ancient medicine, Roman building techniques, Syrian glassblowing, and Persian electroplating. All over the world materialism was silenced for 14 centuries. Parts of Europe are only now seriously trying to implement materialistic views in ethics, even though materialism is mainstream in technology, the arts and science.

A belief in something is too attractive to be vulnerable to mere reason or facts; ancient religions survived to this day and have spawned many others. Of the innovations of the radical axials only those escaped destruction that the religions adopted and modified for their ends (e.g. travesties of the golden rule, altruism, and egalitarism). Whatever is humane in holy books is charitable only because it is materialistic but it also is always in conflict with other statements in those books. Most religions actually are somewhat contaminated with materialism; there even exists a non-aggressive sect in hinduism and also one in mohammedanism. Unlike most holy books the buddhist ones do not recommend murder. But in practice, the materialists were (and are) no match for the religious. Peaceful societies cannot coexist with aggressive ones.

Lucretius' epos, "De rerum natura" (which is latin for 'Fundamentals of chemistry'), summarized in 60 BCE what was developed until then. It remained the only book on materialism until d'Holbach's Système de la nature was published in 1770. The hatred against materialism has always been such, that all closet-leaving materialists from the renaissance to the present, from Spinoza and d’Holbach to Onfray and Dawkins were or are kept busy parrying attacks by the religious in their efforts to make materialism known. That made their reputation of being fanatic, an inversion generated by the fanaticism of their opponents. Therefore, the best places now to find information about materialist ethics and politics are websites on atheism.

Hellenistic chemistry

The most original feature of the axial era was that people started to question the existence of supernatural entities and returned to trying to find natural explanations of what happened around them, explanations involving analogies with other observed processes and things. The remarkable behaviour of matter, as seen with their new brain, inspired the beginning of an original train of thought which would later produce chemistry. Atomism is the dominant story in materialism as well as the basis of scientific chemistry. Scientific chemistry has a hidden role in the history of materialism which needs a short explanation.

Anaximander suggested Apeiron as the basic substance of all matter, rather than the four conventional elements, fire, water, earth, and air. With hindsight and a little prodding of his concept apeiron, he can be said to have invented or discovered valence electrons, which we now know to be responsible for all chemical and most physical properties of terrestrial matter. Valence electrons, the entity all elements share, make up the content or significance of matter; in the Renaissance Bruno called them the soul of the atoms. Stahl rediscovered in 1700 those unseen and elusive valence electrons in metals and called them phlogiston (the phlogiston model was recently reintroduced to unite different heuristic models of the chemical bond). Leucippus and Democritus started chemistry by formulating atomism and the law of mass conservation during conversion processes. Democritus also initiated statistical mechanics by invoking chance in atomic motion. He originated what we now call phase theory by teaching that the four Empedoclean elements (which we now call plasma and the phases solid, liquid, and gas) were composed of atoms and the void between them. Statistical mechanics disappeared with the Romans and was revived in the second half of the 19th century. Anaxagoras (500 - 428 BCE) was the first to describe brownian motion. His chaos (not van Helmont’s) is our gas. Epicurus (341 - 270 BCE) distinguished atomic motion in a solid from that in a gas. Philo the Byzantine, (~300 BCE) measured the thermal expansion of gases; his speculations about chaos theory were confirmed in the 20th century. Chrysippus (280 – 206 BCE) was epistemologist, logician, and theoretical chemist. He distinguished composition of solids (parathesis), alloys (mixis), liquid mutual solubility (krasis), and compound formation (synchysis). By suitable treatment of matter, novel materials could be synthesized (metavoli). The hellenistic precursor of our concept of molecule or polymer is oncos. The name chimia for the science of matter conversion came from Chrysippus’ concept synchysis.


In Alexandria, beginning around 100 CE, a cult of matter flourished which later became known as alchemy. The name alchemy derives from archi mia, the arch-unity, an apt name for that crypto-religious discipline. Alchemy started 300 years earlier in China using well-known methods for converting matter. Its purpose was to find a theory about the obvious potential of matter in order to make its adepts wise, rich, and immortal. It was another wet dream about a utopian virtual world; science fiction as metaphysics. It came down from heaven, not up from the earth: according to legend its “secrets” were given by angels to the first alchemists (who were women) in exchange for sexual favours.

However, the first alchemical documents were metallurgical manuals which shows that alchemy initially started as a continuation of the technology of matter with other means (virtual means, like those in platonic philosophy). That quickly went wrong: as the general atmosphere at the time was neo-platonic, alchemy was strongly linked to astrology and became myth-ridden. Alchemy turned into undiluted platonism: its four elements are properties as well as essences which are abstractions assumed to be real. Alchemists attempted to modify matter, not by combining materials as the craftsmen used to do, but by manipulating forms or generalized properties. According to aristotelian science, forms make matter. Gold is a yellow metal so it should be made by fusing a base uncoloured metal having a lot of metallic essence (e.g. lead or mercury) with yellowness, essentially yellow materials such as sulphur or urine. To make a new material, essences of other materials are fused to form a new one. Jabir believed that gold contains 50% essence of mercury and 50% essence of sulphur. But essences were idealistic inventions and therefore impotent ones. The alchemists could have known that, because it had been pointed out by Leucippus centuries earlier. They chased adjectives, not substantives. They put the cart before the horse on recommendations of Plato and Aristotle and could not budge the set. Instead of reconsidering their assumptions, the alchemists then started to make a living by cheating other believers. It took the Europeans 18 centuries to find out that they should have been using Democritus' atoms instead of platonic forms if they wanted to understand matter and be able to alter it in order to become wise, rich, and immortal. In hindsight we have to admit that the basic premise of the alchemists was excellent but their start (long after Aristotle) too late, platonism was too well established. Chinese alchemy had five elements, not the same ones as those of Aristotle but they were also properties and not constituents; two of them still exist as part of most of the Chinese characters for the Mendelevian elements (the fire radical is part of the characters for alkanes). Chinese alchemy had some ghastly inventions such as powdered rhinoceros horn to cure impotence (keratin is more expensive than gold in China) and bear bile and claws as a panacea for all other ills. Chinese metaphysics is as absurd as Aristotle's but more picturesque.

Not much chemical science yet

Our scientific chemistry is not a development of alchemy as often suggested by historians but a continuation of prehistoric materials technology with the same means. The history of chemistry after the formulation of atomism shows no revolutions as dramatic as the first one but a continuous line of striking insights. Alchemy was a dead end. Some of the first chemists were miners who made alloys from ores and herbalists who made medicaments from plants by drying, mixing, extracting, cooking, distilling and calcining. Tanning, fermentation, colouring, baking, calcining, glazing, and making soap started in prehistory. The ancient atomists tried to make sense of what was known about those techniques of matter conversion. They were not understood at the time but their basic assumption was utterly right: when their atomism was finally accepted it took only two centuries to firmly establish our experimental genetics, neurophysiology, molecular psychology, and nano-electronics; those disciplines were the logical result of a very simple hypothesis. At the end, chemistry did deliver what alchemy promised only. Alchemy, avoiding Democritus, went mystical after the Roman Empire. At that time, Lucretian atomism ceased to interest intellectuals and returned to the kitchen and the forge-shop.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw a few wary attempts at more sense, particularly whenever authorities relaxed (they failed to execute Averroes and the neoplatonist Avicenna who wrote controversial books). The civilized world then consisted of China, India, the Middle East, and for a short time Spain but materialism was nowhere politically correct and went underground. The alchemists Jabir ibn Hayyan (721 – 815 CE) and Al Razi (865 – 925 CE) published their chemical results in inscrutable terms to avoid execution. In 1194 the Ulama of Cordoba destroyed Islamic science by burning all scientific and medical texts that could be found. Apart from the formidable economist and historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1405), mohammedans have ceased being interested in science since then except in three fields, desalination, falconry, and camel breeding. Shen Kuo (1031–1095), a dissident civil servant and climate scientist, who is anachronistically called the Chinese Leonardo da Vinci, managed to survive the current regime and invented the compass, the sextant and the dry dock. Only around 1200, Europeans learned about a few works of Plato and, more importantly, Aristotle from translations of Arab commentators. In 1438 Gemistos Pletho (1355 - 1452), a Greek scholar, brought copies of other writings of Plato and Aristotle from Constantinople to Florence. Together with Cosimo de Medici he founded a Platonic Academy to teach classic Greek philosophy in Florence. Greek materialism became widely known in Europe only after movable type printing was reinvented by Gutenberg in 1439. In 1417 the humanist Bracciolini had discovered in a monastic library a copy of the Lucretius manuscript which went into print in 1471. This allowed more Europeans to catch up with the Greek materialists (previously Lucretius' work was occasionally mentioned by a few monastic scholars). In the 19th century, the point of of the ancient axials was finally understood and radical atomism was vindicated. There are more details about the history of materialism in the section on materialism in philosophy.

Revival in the Enlightenment

The ancient Greek scientists, being philosophers, were not interested in details of the crafts. That was a serious barrier for understanding the world, even more so because atomism was rejected out of hand. However, the development of chemical skills and knowledge after classical times was not only restricted by idealistic prejudices but also by guild secrecy and lack of documentation. That changed dramatically when books could be printed which made techniques and opinions widely known (something similar is now happening because of Internet). The (second) enlightenment, which is also called the humanitarian revolution, became possible because materialism could no longer be suppressed. Observation, measurement, and classification were seen as useful and learning was no longer restricted to memorizing and reeling off sacred texts (at least in Europe although it is still popular in schools in mohammedan countries and in Israel). The introduction of the printing press in Europe also led to the scientific revolution. Books and information became widely available. This stimulated a demand for spectacles and lens grinders; the telescope and the microscope became inevitable and these were the gadgets that made the scientific revolution. That revolution is sometimes thought to be a novel view of the planetary movements, which was developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth century by Copernicus, Galilei, and Kepler. It is now clear that their revolution in astronomy was merely a mathematical reformulation of the ancient heliocentric model of Aristarchus. Impetus was a medieval discovery by Buridan and mathematics was initiated by the ancients, such as Euclides (who systematized mathematics in the third century BCE) and Diophantus (who created algebra in the third century CE). The mathematics which was necessary to deal with planetary orbits was developed further in India and Persia and extended with calculus by Leibnitz and Newton; calculus was launched two centuries earlier in Kerala. The church of course tried to repress development of astronomy and empirical knowledge in general; the surgeon Realdo Colombo (1516 - 1559) was arrested for studying blood circulation that had already been discussed earlier by Ibn al Nafis in the thirteenth century and by Servetus (1511 - 1553) who was burned alive. The sovereigns in China were more successful in preventing innovation when they made sailing the seas with boats having more than one mast a capital crime. The new western astronomy of Brahe and Galilei remained strictly confined to the imperial court. And the Ottomans also blocked emancipation when sultan Bayezid II made printing punishable by death; the islamic medieval enlightenment perished because apostacy was (and still is) a capital crime. The import of telescopes from Europe became a criminal offense after a Venetian merchant was hanged for using one to spy on Murads harem. In Europe the divided clerics and magistrates were not able (or too stupid) to stop emancipation. Initially, the 'new science' in Europe remained diluted with platonism (with all due respect to Vesalius, Agricola, Gilbert, and Harvey who simply ignored it in their work). The astronomical prelude to the intellectual landslide that was to follow, was caused by the telescope invented by Zacharias Janssen (1558 - 1632), a product made with lenses that were developed by workers in the optical guilds, inspired by Alhazen. With the telescope Galilei could convince his colleagues that Venus orbits around the sun, like the other planets. Shortly after the telescope was invented, Galilei, Malpighi and others studied physiological details by using a compound microscope, based on the telescope. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (1632 - 1723), a self-made glass technologist, built a single-lens microscope (basically a loupe) that had an order of magnitude larger magnification than the earlier compound microscopes that were derived from the telescope. With his microscope, van Leeuwenhoek discovered the submicron world and started two new scientific disciplines, microbiology and bacteriology. Koch got his Nobel award by using the novel Zeiss microscopes The microscope helped the revival of materialism because it refuted the argument of Aristotle against Democritus: atoms and the void do not really exist because no one has ever observed them. The microscope showed that invisible things exist and can be studied. Much later, when scientists recovered from this shocking discovery, Lazzaro Spallanzani and Pasteur killed the ancient myth of spontaneous generation of life out of mud. The microscope, rather than the telescope, started the scientific revolution in Europe. Glass technology has empowered science after the astronomical discoveries that preceded its revival.

The subsequent development linked most natural sciences firmly to the technology of matter. Van Helmont (1579 - 1644) used the balance to measure matter conversion and thought that body heat is not the soul as Fernel (1497 - 1558) had claimed but a product of chemistry in the body. Together with the atomist Nicolas Lémery (1645–1715) he established non-platonic, experimental chemistry in Europe, five centuries after similar efforts in Persia by Al Razi and Jabir. The dualist Boyle (1627 - 1691) was the first to turn chemistry into a science by redefining the elements. Chemistry could then really take off in the 18th century when atomism was accepted by mainstream intellectuals in Europe. Boerhaave (1668 - 1738) was physician, chemist, and tutor of Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709 - 1751). La Mettrie was a radical materialist who as a physician discovered that a human is basically a kind of machine; machines were archetypes in his time, now humans are said to be basically like computers. Paul d’Holbach (1723 - 1789), the author of Système de la nature (the grand summary of enlightenment materialism), translated chemical textbooks and wrote chemical and mineralogical articles for the Encyclopedia of Diderot (1713 – 1784). The theologian, materialist, and utilitarianist Priestley (1733 - 1804), who first made sodawater and invented rubber, was a liberal who had to flee from England to escape lynching. The enlightenment chemists Carl Scheele (1742 - 1786), who discovered oxygen, chlorine, and tungsten, and Lomonosov (1711 - 1765), who falsified the phlogiston theory, laid the basis for Lavoisier (1743 - 1794) and Dalton (1766 - 1844). Lavoisier designed a system of notation for the elements but denied the existence of atoms; light and heat were the first two elements in his table. Dalton finally re-established atomism and made it quantitative in 1808 with his book "A New System of Chemical Philosophy".


Chemists gradually got used to atoms but Deville and Berthelot were anti-atomists. Physicists were more conservative than chemists; Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 - 1906) was an atomist which made him a dissident in his discipline. Top physicists such as Mach and Duhem, as well as the physical-chemist Ostwald denied the reality of atoms. Albert Einstein was quite explicit when he leaked the hidden agenda of the physicists: "What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses. There is no matter." Even long after Einstein physicists have had problems getting the point of atomism: they behaved like gold-making alchemists when they searched during three quarters of a century (without success) for high temperature superconductors. How? By ceaselessly trying to combine platonic forms or essences such as Bose condensation and phonon interaction to make a new material without electical resistance. Unbelievable but true. An atomist finally showed them that novel materials having desired properties can be discovered only in a laboratory, not on a blackboard. Right now physicists are trying to make quantum computers in their usual style. Physicists are unsurpassed masters of measurement but in their university courses they were not taught how to make stuff; they should leave that to others. In the twentieth century platonic scientists were not only found in theoretical physics: a notorious biological alchemist was Lysenko (1898-1976).

Life is material

Our understanding of matter is a developing subject, our views on materialism have often changed and will continue to do so. When the public finally noticed atomism after Dalton, a tsunami of materialism changed Europe; Carnot (1796 - 1832) corrected Lavoisier and Mendeleyev (1834 - 1907) classified the elements. Lavoisier, Wöhler (1800 - 1882), Darwin (1809 - 1882), Mendel (1822 - 1884), and Pasteur (1822 - 1895) contributed irrefutable evidence for the ancient axial conjecture that life is material. Helmholtz (1821 - 1894) convincingly killed vitalism (started by Stahl) but only late in the twentieth century the immortal soul met its fate. Patricia and Paul Churchland made psychology a material discipline. Recently, more was added to materialism with the formulation by de Landa of what he called neo-materialism (neo to distinguish it from dialectic materialism) that stressed autocatalytic processes and self-organization as basic for life and complex non-living processes.

Wet logic

Chemistry is not merely the science of atomic and molecular behaviour, a discipline for making novel materials, a technique to find out what really happened in history, a method for designing processes to convert matter, a means to cure the ill, a toolbox for those who tinker with life, or a device to explain life and consciousness. In addition to all that, chemical processes can be made to represent logic; which is unsurprising really because organisms are chemical systems that try to live by applying the logic of matter in their technology. Traditional logic, like mathematics, is a discipline of symbols. Chemical logic or wet logic, also called artificial chemistry or biological intelligence, is not about abstractions; it uses a large set of coupled chemical reactions in soft matter and on reactive surfaces to run its algorithms. Electrical switches as we now have in our traditional computers modify and transfer signals to perform traditional logic, called dry logic (the dryness metaphor is from Aristotle). Dry logic juggles symbols, wet logic uses molecules to establish facts or make truths. Two worlds of logic apart, a virtual one and a material one. Our computers are designed to do dry logic because transistors are easy to make, they are very good at signal manipulation and do that very fast. Chemical logic, which is less simple and often much slower because it usually depends on diffusion, is complex and for that reason versatile enough to enable life. It changes matter during the logical procedure or calculation and can actually do things that matter: its software changes hardware that produces changed software and so on. Electronic logic cannot do that by itself, its hardware is practically fixed and separate from the software. Organisms cannot work that way because their hardware has to learn how to modify itself in order to program itself. Chemical logic materialized in the first organisms and flourished in evolution. Organisms did not develop electrical conductors or ultrapure single crystals for their reactions, they had to bootstrap themselves from dirt sediments and survive in them. As Thales pointed out, all living beings use this sticky stinking type of intelligence.

The nervous system in organisms is a heterogeneous continuation of the endocrine system with other means. Together with the immune system the nervous system forms a vast chemical computer that includes periferals in its kernel. Logic was first linked to chemistry by Turing who refuted Plato by showing in 1952 how reactions produce forms (the following year Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA, another argument for the same point). Engineers now try to use chemical logic to construct a new type of parallel computer. Actual instances of non-living chemical computers are still primitive and dedicated to a single task. Chemical computers have plant-like intelligence in so-called smart materials that are made to adapt themselves to circumstances, to repair themselves, to sort atoms in membranes, or do other smart things. Chemical computers are potentially able to do certain things better than electrical ones as organisms show. In a biological computer the wiring on its metaphorical motherboard and the chips on it can be changed by software or by using the metaphorical keyboard. Artificial intelligence has recently become less algorithmic and more embodied: intelligence is now recognized to be a function of the material hardware used to realize it. Artificial chemistry is the umbrella discipline that includes artificial life and artificial intelligence. It tries to make sense of biochemical complexity and to explain why plants, insects, and birds are often so much better at thinking than humans. Humans think they need words to think with, which is a fallacy produced by words. Fallacies are inevitably the result of using words: a language has approximately 106 words that are supposed to express concepts that are produced by 1015 synapses and 1015! switch states in neurons. The brain does not work by juggling signs in the manner of classical logic, mathematics, and grammar. All tissues in organisms think chemically with peptides and amine receptors in an ambience of buffers and enzymes. But humans have intellectual pretentions and take their algorithms and narratives seriously.

The history of materialism as a world-view, from its beginning in India to its present versions, is strongly linked to the history of atheism as a lifestyle and of chemistry as a science because materialism is the opposite of ideology and chemistry is the beginning of the science of whatever follows from the basic materialist assumption. Their setbacks and breakthroughs were synchronous. The recent success of chemistry in real subjects such as microelectronics, genetics, and psychology proves that Democritus was spot on when he proposed atomism. His metachemics is about the immanent pervasive logic of matter. It is the opposite of Aristotle's metaphysics, which is is about immaterial ideas. Atomism became gingerly accepted in Europe only after the enlightenment and its social implications have not been fully accepted, even after two centuries of stupendous accomplishments.