technological civilization resembling the one we actually have if, for some reason Europe had not existed in the form it did in 1750? Such counterfactual narratives are quite “probable” with a minimal “re-write” of history. Examples include a Moslem victory at Poitiers in 732 and the creation of a Moslem society in western Europe; a complete Mongol conquest of Europe after Batu’s defeat of the Europeans in the battle of Legnica in 1241 accompanied by a devastation of its urban enclaves; an epidemic catastrophe in Europe following the Colombian voyages on the order of what the Europeans inflicted on the indigenous populations of the new world; a military victory of the counter-reformation in the late sixteenth century that would have imposed Iberian standards on the intellectual pursuit of useful knowledge on the rest of the Continent from 1580 on, and thus no Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, or Newton.34
It is always difficult to test a counterfactual argument, but we are not completely in the dark. China developed a large and substantial body of knowledge of nature separate from the West, catalogued in great detail in the volumes put together by Joseph Needham and his collaborators. The question “if some invention had not been made in the West, would it have been made anywhere else?” is not entirely answerable. But the least we can do is ask whether there is a high probability that it would have been made in China. Needham, whose work on Chinese science and technology led him to view the great divergence between East and West as the central historiographical issue of our time, viewed science and technology as “inseparable”.35
The nature and characteristics of useful knowledge as it developed in China were not “less” or “worse” that the Western experience, but its ability to serve as an epistemic base for Chinese technology clearly did not work as well.36 Chinese technology, no matter how sophisticated and advanced, remained grounded on a narrow epistemic base. Needham cites with approval the verdict of a ninth century Arab author that “the curious thing is that the Greeks are interested in theory but do not bother about practice, whereas the Chinese are very interested in practice and do not bother much about the theory”.37 As a general statement about scientific knowledge in China, this is not entirely accurate. In
34For such possible counterfactual scenarios, see many of the papers in Philip Tetlock, Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker, eds., Counterfactual Analysis in History and the Social Sciences, 2002, forthcoming.
35Nathan Sivin, “Science and Medicine in Imperial China – The State of the Field.” Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb 1988.), p. 47.
36We should not turn the story into what Sivin has called “a saga of Europe’s success and everyone else’s failure” (Sivin, “Why the Scientific Revolution”, p. 542). Yet he himself notes a few pages (p. 537) earlier that “the privileged position of the West comes ... from a head start in the technological exploitation of nature.” It is unreasonable to explain such a head start without admitting that something that Westerners learned about nature was different from what was learned in China.
37Joseph Needham, Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West, 1970, p. 39.