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Science Definitions and Dunbar’s Mind Theory


Science is derived from a Latino word “Scientia”, implying acquisition of knowledge. The word science does not have a universal definition. The new Webster Collegiate Dictionary states that scientific knowledge is acquired through both studies and practice. This includes knowledge obtained through experimentation of events using scientific methods; thus, science is a process of gaining knowledge. Natural events are explained through experimentation and direct observation methods. The study of natural events equips learners with knowledge in science (Derry, 1999).

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Various definitions of science

Derry (1999) argues that scientific activities build, organize, explain, test, and predict knowledge about various events in the universe. According to Aristotle, science is a reliable body of knowledge with rational and logical explanations. Knowledge in science matters was closely related to philosophy from ancient times. In the olden days, philosophy and science had similar meanings in the English language. It was not until the 17th century that natural science emerged as a discipline. Recently, science applies to branches that specialize in the study of natural events in relation to laws of nature. The contemporary understanding of science was improved by scientists such as Kepler Johannes, Newton Isaac, and Galilee Galileo, among others who pioneered the laws of nature. An example of natural laws is the law of motion formulated by Newton. From the 19th century, the word “science” referred to scientific methods of studying the natural world. These methods included disciplines such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Geology. William Whewell, a natural theologian, invented the word “scientist” to differentiate people who specialized in the study of the universe from specialists in other disciplines in the 19th century (Derry, 1999).

According to Goldstein and Inge (1984), science involves understanding how the universe works. Scientists seek to understand the relationship between facts and events of the universe through the use of theories and laws of nature. In this case, scientific instruments should be used to measure the targeted phenomenon or subject of the study. The object must also be observable. Various instruments are used by scientists to prove the reality of an object. For instance, instruments are used to verify the physical properties of an object such as motion, density, size, temperature, shape, the existence of molecules, and atoms as well as recording sounds and images. The use of scientific instruments for carrying out measurements ensures the validity of the findings. Observation of events and objects in the physical universe is the first step in a scientific investigation. Spiritual and religious matters cannot be investigated scientifically because they cannot be measured. The majority of scientists support and are followers of certain religions through their studies exclude religious issues.

The process of science involves the acquisition of knowledge. This does not imply that scientists follow certain procedures like a cook would when preparing a dish. Scientific investigations can be approached in different ways. Frequently, scientists improve and develop further previous works done by other scientists. Physical laws and theories are applied by scientists to provide scientific explanations of events. The relationship between events and objects are explained by natural laws. Natural laws are not scientists’ assumptions, but they are determined by phenomena that can be observed, measured, and described. After making observations from the events that occur in the universe, scientists formulate questions. After that, they carry out experiments to find answers to the questions posed. A tentative explanation (hypothesis) of the event can be given in an attempt to explain the observed event.

The predictions made in a scientific hypothesis should be experimental. For instance, if an individual predicts that the shadow of the earth on moon causes its phases, then the following hypothesis can be made: earth’s shadow forms some kind of illustrations on the top left side of the moon, and this should be seen sometimes during the month. The line bordering dark and light parts of the moon is curved. This hypothesis can be rejected because this is not the appearance of the moon throughout the month. The moon appears in this way during the lunar eclipse only. Once the hypothesis is supported by acceptable evidence, it becomes a theory. The meaning of theory used by scientists is different from its general use. Many people understand the theory as an assumption or a complete guess. An idea distinguished by the term “theory” by scientists refers to something they are confident is right. Scientific facts are explained through theories. For instance, the theory of flight is taught to pilots. Although the word “theory” is used, it is clear that planes fly (Goldstein & Inge, 1984).

Goldstein and Inge (1984) argue that science is a collection of facts. This collection of facts involves a wide range of information about the universe. One important characteristic of science is that understanding how something works do not necessarily require an individual to understand why it works. For instance, failure to understand the reason why gravity works the way it does could not prevent Newton from formulating the law of gravity. The law of gravity can be used in the prediction and calculation of the movement of missiles and baseballs on earth, stars, and plants without understanding how gravity actually works.

Science is a collection of laws and principles. Apart from discovering objects like galaxies and atoms, scientists have realized that there are certain ways through which objects interact, and they can be explained by laws. Physical laws are expressed conceptually or mathematically. The aim of science is to develop theories such as biological evolution by means of organizing the facts (Lee, 2000).

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According to Lee (2000), science is a cultural aspect. The culture of sharing and trusting each other is widespread in the scientific community. Like other human activities, science involves different personalities, different capacities of thinking and working, and social interaction. Communication plays a major role in science, making it a social activity. Recent scientific discussions form a strong foundation for new ideas that will develop into theories in the future. Scientists with similar views may combine efforts for the success of the project. The results of scientific findings are discussed informally or formally through conferences, journals, and E-mails. For instance, by means of presentations made in conferences, a scientist gets an opportunity to hear new and helpful ideas that can be used as evidence in one’s own research. The results are then submitted for publication by the researcher. Reviews and criticisms are also provided. The referee has to make sure that there is enough evidence to prove his or her argument to the scientific community. The original information, which led to scientific conclusions, is not verified by the referee. Verification is done by other scientists after conducting the experiment for the second time. The conclusions are justified if the data is valid after following the scientific procedures.

Science is an object that philosophers and sociologists study. Recently, several disciplines dedicated to the study of scientists and science have emerged. Examples of such disciplines include the general discipline of studying science, the history of science, sociology of science, and the philosophy of science. These disciplines are concerned with the process through which scientists acquire knowledge. They reflect on intellectual, political, and social factors that form the practice of science. They also reflect on the differences between scientists in the steps followed during the acquisition of knowledge (Dunbar, 1998).

Science is different from other professions. The aim of joining a scientific career is not to become rich. The desire to learn more about the universe motivates many people to join the career. This is why the scientific community is free of corruption. Because of this, cases of scientific fraud receive much media attention. Truth and honesty are important values in the profession of science. The tremendous advancement in science observed today could not be achieved if these qualities were absent. Other people are motivated by curiosity to join the science career. However, other qualities like creativity and persistence are important in order to succeed in science. Rewards that scientists get include an interesting profession and employment. The most important thing is the discovery of something that has never been discovered before. It is a great honor to the scientist (Dunbar, 1998).

Dunbar (1998) asserts that science has its foundation in empirical testing. Instead of making assumptions, scientists base their arguments on what is observable. Science is gaining knowledge of the natural world. Unless ideas are backed up by evidence and objective observations, scientists should not accept them. A factor that differentiates science from other disciplines is that ideas must be tested to prove their validity.

Robin Dunbar

Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar was born on 28th June 1947. He is a British anthropologist, primatologist, and evolutionary psychologist. Robin Dunbar is a Psychology professor at the University of Oxford as well as the director of Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group. Dunbar is recognized for formulating Dunbar’s number. Primatology is the systematic study of primates. The discipline of primatology includes various subjects such as zoology, anatomy, biology, anthropology, and medicine. To understand the process of evolution and behavior of extinct and living primates, primatologists carry out research and conduct experiments. This is important in classifying primates into different classes. The ability to learn varies greatly depending on the class of primates. Dunbar argued that those creatures with learning ability pursue some kind of science (Dunbar, 1995).

The Theory of Mind

According to Dunbar (1995), the behavior of primates is similar to that of human beings in many ways. For instance, primates socialize, apologize, lie, and care for each other. Interaction and socialization among primates are best explained by the theory of mind. The theory seeks to comprehend if primates can learn and keep information within the group and if information can be passed from one generation to another. The ability of a primate to understand and cater to the needs of other primates is important. After observing the behavior of the primates for a long time, Warneken Felix came up with the “theory of mind” to explain the behavior of chimpanzees as they interact among themselves and other animals. In his study, he recognized that chimpanzees had the capacity to differentiate whether a researcher dropping an object accidentally or intentionally and responded by collecting the object accordingly. He observed that chimpanzees would only respond if the object fell accidentally. If the manner of dropping the objects seems intentional, chimpanzees will assume.

Experiment to Show that some Creatures have a Learning Ability

Psychologists carried out an experiment on chimpanzees to show that like human beings, they have a learning ability. In a study carried out on Rhesus monkey by some psychologists, the results showed the ability of monkeys to arrange images in the correct sequence. Monkeys can choose between objects and determine objects that came before others. However, scientists have not been able to determine the capacity beyond which monkeys cannot learn. Many studies addressing the issue of cognitive abilities in monkeys such as formation of concepts and numerical cognition show that primates like human beings acquire knowledge through learning (Dunbar, 1995).

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For example, in a study conducted by Elizabeth Brannon, Lisa Barnard, and Harbert carried out a study to understand the learning process of monkeys. In their study, the researchers took four monkeys for training namely Benedict, Macduff, Rosencrantz, and Oberon with all the selected participants being trained on how they could arrange images revealed on a touch screen. Many images were used in the initial experiment with the most common being images of people, cars, animals and bridges among many others. The researchers required the monkeys to point the images. Monkeys were rewarded with banana pellets. Images were displayed on the screen by chance for the monkeys to position them. The researchers began with three image lists, then to four image lists and finally the list included seven images. The monkeys were supposed to arrange the images correctly. The outcome of the study showed an increased ability of monkeys to understand four and seven sets of images. Second, monkeys located and grouped images according to the original lists. Accuracy in locating and pairing was 94% and 91% for four and seven-item lists respectively. The results of the study showed that the ability of learning in monkeys is high (Berrey, 2008).

Relationship between Dunbar’s Argument and the definitions of Science

Robin Dunbar’s argument is that creatures with the capacity to learn, no matter how limited it may be, employ some kind of scientific evidence, according to some of the definitions of science. However, his argument does not meet the standards of other definitions. The fact that monkeys have the ability to learn may or may not meet the standards of the definition of the word “science”. On the basis of the definition that science has its foundation on empirical testing, an ability of creatures to learn can be termed as science. In the case of monkeys, the ability of monkeys to learn is testable and observable. The evidence is provided by the results of the study, which showed that chimpanzees can locate and list images from the same list on the touch screen (Berrey, 2008).

According to Tilgner (1990), the definition that science is a cultural aspect makes the argument that creatures with the ability to learn engage in some kind of science valid. Culture involves sharing characteristics and values. The experiment carried out on the chimpanzees’ shows that they could learn. This indicates that learning ability is a common practice among the population of chimpanzees. The ability to learn is also realized in subsequent generations of chimpanzees. This validates Dunbar’s argument that creatures possessing the ability to learn practice some kind of science. The researchers required the monkeys to point the images.

However, Dunbar’s argument is invalid considering other definitions of science. For instance, science is a profession that involves the study of the universe. In order to gain knowledge in science, researcher and other interested people study the sun, the planets, the moon, and the galaxies among other heavenly bodies and substances. Ability to learn other things is not categorized as scientific. The aim of studying science is to understand how various elements of the universe like the sun, moon, and stars work. For instance, an ability of chimpanzees to categorize images cannot be termed as science because the knowledge gained is not related to the universe. Moreover, there are no laws and principles that explain the process through which creatures acquire knowledge like scientific issues require. Apart from acquiring knowledge, science involves building and improving previously done research by other scientists. Finally, scientific activities require organization, building, testing, and predicting knowledge about events happening in the universe.


It is not a must that knowledge acquired by individuals is linked to the universe. Individuals may choose to study and acquire knowledge in other fields. According to various definitions of science, Dunbar’s argument that creatures with ability to learn engage in some kind of science is valid whereas on the basis of other definitions, his argument is invalid. The general meaning of science is the study of the components of the universe. Other explanations of science may be considered invalid (Tilgner, 1990).


Berrey, D. (2008). Us and them: the science of identity. Chicago, CHI: University of Chicago Press.

Derry, G. (1999). What science is and how it works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dunbar, R. (1995). The trouble with science. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

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Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

Goldstein, M. & Inge, G. (1984). The experience of science: an interdisciplinary approach. New York, NY: Plenum.

Lee, A. (2000). The scientific endeavor: a primer on scientific principles and practice. San Francisco, SF: Addison Wesley Longman.

Tilgner, P. (1990). Avoiding science in the elementary school. Science Education, 74 (4), 421.

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