It’s certainly true that the instinct to know more about our environment must go back as far as humanity does, and before. That makes perfect sense because there’s an evolutionary advantage to knowing more about what surrounds you. So from that point of view, there’s no mystery why we are curious.
In my new book, however, I really interrogate this slippery concept of curiosity. If you look back to classical times, it’s clear that people in ancient Greece were asking questions about how nature worked that to us look just like curiosity, but they would never have used that word or its Greek equivalent. To them, curiosity was something quite different, all about prying into things that didn’t concern you. There was a hierarchy to asking questions about the world. Some questions were clearly important and some weren’t worth asking, often those to do with particulars rather than overarching themes or principles.
The case I argue is that science in the modern sense only really took off when that hierarchy started to be eroded – when it became acceptable to ask any question about anything. That really began to happen towards the end of the 16th century and particularly in the 17th century. Curiosity also had theological connotations. Most obviously in the Christian tradition, curiosity was problematic and impious, trying to pry into God’s creation. If something was hidden, a lot of medieval theologians thought, then it was something that God intended us not to know about.
Ask any question about anything. I like that. But if you want to hide the truth about something, set it at the top of a hierarchy of values, make it sacred, and discourage certain lines of inquiry. That should do it.
And it frequently does.