Book Summaries History

Chapter 15: The Marriage of Science and Empire (Sapiens)

In the period between 1500 and 1850, the military-industrial-scientific complex blossomed in Europe, but why not in India? Why did countries like Britain, France, Germany, and the US leap forward, while China did not?

Was it so hard for the Chinese to manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads? In reality, the Chinese, Persians, and Ottomans did not lack the technology, or the ability but they did lack something else.

They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly. France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.

Modern science and capitalism enabled Europe to dominate in the early modern period. The Europeans were perfectly situated to take advantage of the technological revolution. Indeed, Harari explains the love affair between science and European imperialism that led to the flourishing of the west.

European empires promoted modern science, but it was ancient scientific traditions of classical Greece, China, India, and Islam that laid the foundations.

The insights of Muslim economists were studied by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, treatments pioneered by Native American doctors found their way into English medical texts and data extracted from Polynesian informants revolutionised Western anthropology.

But until the mid-twentieth century, the global European empires dominated the sciences. The rest of the world produced great minds during this period, but nothing that came close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology.

The rise in science led to military conquests and invasions that would reshape the world. The European expeditions into South America and North America, not only displaced people from their lands and terrorized them, but these populations lost the will to live – after they were forced to abandon their cultural values in favor of western ones.

This finally changed when in the 20th century, the non-European cultures started to think globally.

The Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) was the first sign of things to come. Their guerrillas defeated the superior French army. The Algerians knew how to use public opinion in France and in the world towards their cause. The same happened when lowly North Vietnam defeated the American colossus. These guerrilla forces showed that even superpowers can be defeated if a local struggle was given global spotlight.

But when the Europeans conquered lands in the east, they were not just interested in procuring more assets – they sought to understand the lands and cultures scientifically.

When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, or zoologists. But when the British conquered India, they did.

On 10 April 1802 the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted sixty years. With the help of tens of thousands of native labourers, scholars and guides, the British carefully mapped the whole of India, marking borders, measuring distances, and even calculating for the first time the exact height of Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. The British explored the military resources of Indian provinces and the location of their gold mines, but they also took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colourful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.

These scientific pursuits opened the door to ancient worlds that had been forgotten. A British officer named Henry Rawlins once encountered a Behistun inscription in his spare time. It was fifteen meters high and twenty-five meters wide, and it was written in cuneiform script in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. The local population knew about the inscription, but no one could read it. Rawlins knew that deciphering the writing would be the first step in understanding a hidden world. After considerable investigation, a breakthrough occurred

The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices – the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats. Without the efforts of modern European imperialists such as Rawlinson, we would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Middle Eastern empires.

When you consider European colonization – you can read the story in two ways. If you wanted to focus on the evil monstrosities that they inflicted, on the death, destruction, and oppression they caused around the world, you could. But you could also look at the other side of the story. The Europeans brought new medicines, better economic conditions, and more security to the lands that they conquered.

There was a time when racist theories were much more pronounced, such as the glorification of the Aryan race, the tall blond haired white skinned paragons of rationality deserved to to control the world while the mixed breeds and dark-skinned irrational populations were merely slowing humanity down. earth.

But things haven’t changed very much. The only difference is that instead of claiming today that some people are biologically superior to others, the civilized world claims that they are culturally superior.

Thus European right-wing parties which oppose Muslim immigration usually take care to avoid racial terminology. Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of the Front National go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny.

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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