Eurocentrism regarding science and technology in Asia

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The received Eurocentric mythology is that European technology was superior to that of Asia throughout our period from 1400 to 1800, or at least since 1500. Moreover, the conventional Eurocentric bias regarding science and technology extends to institutional forms, which are examined in the following section. Here I focus on the following questions: (1) Were science and technology on balance more advanced in Europe or in Asia, and until when? (2) After importing the compass, gunpowder, printing, and so on from China, was technology then developed indigenously in Europe but no longer in China and elsewhere in Asia? (3) Was the direction of technological diffusion after 1500 from Europe to Asia? (4) Was technological development only a local and regional process in Europe or China or wherever, or was it really a global process driven by world economic forces as they impacted locally? To preview the answers that will emerge below, all of them contradict or at least cast serious doubt on the received Eurocentric “wisdom” about science and technology. Technology turns out not to be independently parallel. Instead, technology is rapidly diffused or adapted to common and/or different circumstances. In particular, the choice, application, and “progress” of technology turns out be the result of rational response to opportunity costs that are themselves determined by world economic and local demand and supply conditions. That is, technological progress here and there, even more than institutional forms, is a function of world economic “development” much more than it is of regional, national, local, let alone cultural specificities. Nonetheless an oft-cited student of the subject, J. D. Bernal (1969) attributes the rise of Western science and technology to the indigenous rise of capitalism in the West (which he accounts for in the same terms as Marx and Weber). Robert Merton’s now classic 1938 discourse on “Science, Technology, and Society” is entirely Weberian and even linked to the latter’s thesis about the Protestant ethic and the “Spirit of Capitalism.” That in itself should make his derivative thesis on science and technology suspect, as already argued in chapter 1; for another critical discussion, see Stephen Sanderson (1995: 324 ff.). Coming full circle, Rostow’s (1975) “central thesis” on the origins of modern economy is quite explicit: it all began in modern Europe—with the scientific revolution. The study of the history and role of this scientific and technological revolution seems to be much more ideologically driven than the technology and science that allegedly support it. For instance, Carlo Cipolla (1976: 207) favorably cites one of the Western “experts” on the history of technology, Lynn White, Jr., who asserts that “die Europe which rose to global dominance about 1500 had an industrial capacity and skill vastly greater than that of any of the cultures of Asia…which it challenged.” We have already seen above that Europe did not rise to “dominance” at all in 1500 if only because exactly the opposite of White’s Eurocentric claim was true. The second volume of the History of Technology edited by Charles Singer et al. (1957: vol. 2, 756) recognizes and even stresses that from A.D. 500 to 1500 “technologically, the west had little to bring to the east. The technological movement was in the other direction.” Reproduced there is a table from Joseph Needham (1954) that traces the time lags between several dozen inventions and discoveries in China and their first adoption in Europe. In most cases, the lag was ten to fifteen centuries (and twenty-five centuries for the iron plow moldboard); in other cases the lag was three to six centuries; and the shortest time lag was one century, for both projectile artillery and movable metal type. “It was largely by imitation and, in the end, sometimes by improvement of [these] techniques and models…that the products of the west ultimately rose to excellence” (Singer et al. 1957: vol. 2, 756). However, these accounts are themselves also excessively European-focused. There was indeed much technological diffusion; but during the millennium up to 1500 it was primarily back and forth among East, Southeast, South, and West Asia, and especially between China and Persia. Before any of this technology reached Europe at all, most of it had to pass via the Muslim lands, including especially Muslim Spain. The Christian capture of Toledo and its Islamic scholars and important library in 1085 and later of Cordoba significantly advanced technological learning farther “westward” in Europe. The Byzantines and later the Mongols also transmitted knowledge from east to west.

Andre Gunder Frank. ReORIENT (Kindle Locations 3926-3928). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.