All great civilizations and many lesser societies developed sophisticated understandings of the natural world. Diverse and complex systems of knowledge arose and functioned in varied social contexts. In the name of multicultural awareness, a politically correct Worldcentric caricature holds the pernicious view that today’s Western science is derivative of knowledge developed in the non-Western world, and lacks originality because many people perfected long ago understandings of nature that modern science is only now recognizing. The intellectual and practical accomplishments of traditional societies is inflated 1, with a put-down on Europe and the USA 2.
Even if parallels can be drawn between the theoretical and practical achievements of Mayan, Chinese, Greek, Byzantine, Arabic and other non-Western cultures, these are not identities but analogies. Non-Western cultures ultimately failed in the passage from an agricultural society to an industrialist one because of lack of connections between science and technology. The abortion of the passage from scientific acquisitions to practical applications is traced to the unwillingness of the political and managerial elites of these cultures to admit technological adaptations that escape their control and lead to social changes that may endanger their dominant position and leadership. This is still a dramatic shortcoming of the science developed in some contemporary European countries.
Before the 12th century, Europe was a backwater and, on this poor heritage, managed to become a world historical power and the seat of the Scientific Revolution. An eurocentric caricature attributes to Western man unique gifts in the achievement of this dominance over nature and other political powers, which allegedly set him and his civilization apart from all other human beings and civilizations. Western man is, according to this view, an intrinsically superior human being. In fact, resistance to change was as stubborn and violent in the European politics as anywhere else in the world and is still observable now in European countries 3.
The new Weltanschauung proposed in the 12th century by merchants as Fibonacci and scientists who began to better understand natural phenomena and the mechanisms of economical exchanges, was resisted in the Universities by the Church’ theologians who feared a loss of command over the teaching of scholasticism. The medieval universities became centers of conservatism, opposing medicinal and philosophical progresses. The refusal of technological progress and medicinal knowledge, and the slow progress toward a plebeian democracy, was violently opposed by the medieval rulers, fearful for the loss of power and wealth such a trend represented. The new Weltanschauung proposed in the seventeenth century by Copernicus and Galileo was resisted by the common people, who protested with Luther and Calvin on the management of the Church, its drift toward tolerance and reason and its reluctance to abandon the pursuit of knowledge in favor of traditional cosmological views. In 2008, the French Ministry of Research advocates vigorous research in genetically modified organisms but adds, and openly states in advance, that she will refuse to apply the results such an indigenous research may yield.
The possibility of the productive segment of the population to oppose the gluttony of the rulers and keep for themselves the fruits of their work, enabling it to apply the amassed capital and the accumulated knowledge to further practical developments, was an extraordinary and rare event that occurred in the North-Italian city states and in Flanders allied to the kingdom of England and the Hansa league. The Italian city-states developed autonomously, torn between the pretensions of the Emperor and those of the Papacy. French military incursions ruined them. The Southern cities of Flanders escaped the heavy hand of the French Crown only to be smashed back into submission by its Spanish rulers. The Hansa was ruined by religious wars. Ultimately, the Dutch and the Anglo-Saxon leadership accepted the change in mentality demanded to promote the new cultural values: The Seven United Provinces took the lead but were ruined by French aggressions. England was fortunate in that it was not a so easily invaded land. Henry VIII separated the English Church from Rome in a relatively peaceful way without questioning the Christian heritage; Cromwell rejected the socialist utopia; the beheading of Charles I stopped the absolutist drive of the Crown; the political entities of England and Holland merged, de facto, with the occupation of the English throne in 1689 by William III, the captain-general of the Seven United Provinces; the occupation of the throne by George I of Hanover reinforced the cosmopolitan mentality of the country and, in addition, guaranteed its lawful management (Act of Settlement, 12 June 1701). The country had assembled the conditions necessary for a successful implementation of the technological revolution.
1. J. Needham: Science and civilization in China. Vol. 1-7. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1954-1999. Needham was a staunch communist, which favored his access to Chinese archives. His monumental work does not seem to be at a par with the succinct analysis made by Cipolla of the development of Western medieval technology.