engineering, biological technology, and such would simply not have taken place in the same form it did. Had there been a Chinese Industrial Revolution that would have overcome the negative feedback constraints of their epistemic bases, it would not have much resembled the one that actually occurred.
This is not to say that without the Rise of the West, the Orient would forever have been inward looking and stagnant. An Asian culture without the intrusion of the West might have once again have built a grand fleet and explored the world. A Japanese-Korean-Chinese collaborative effort, under the right set of circumstances, could have created a dynamic not unlike the North Atlantic semi-competitive research program that produced the second Industrial Revolution. Material wealth and even a degree of technological sophistication can be and were created with narrow-based techniques. At some point, however, this process would have run into the kind of ceilings that both East and West had experienced repeatedly before 1750. It is the removal of these ceilings and the negative feedback mechanisms behind them, that would have been difficult to remove.
And yet, at the end of the day it is hard to know precisely whether Oriental science, had it been left alone long enough by the West, would not have developed into something so radically different from what we are used to that we cannot even imagine it. Bray, in her critical review of much writing on Chinese history of technology, exhorts us to imagine “alternative trajectories of technical development” that might have stayed away from engineering sophistication or economic growth.65 An evolutionary interpretation of history suggests that there are possible states of the world that are not imagined, but that might have occurred, given the opportunity. The problem is that such opportunities, too, depended on historical contingency. Just as a lot of indigenous flora and fauna in isolated demes have their evolutionary path cut short or altered irreversibly by a catastrophic event or the adventitious invasion of a fitter species, the path of technological evolution can be irreversibly altered by the invasion of a “fitter technology.” There is no way of knowing whether Pre-Columbian Peru or Maori New Zealand would ever have developed forms of technology that would astound us the way Marco Polo was astounded by China and the way New Guinea natives were astounded by Western technology. We can be pretty sure, however, that unless they somehow managed, against all odds, to produce a world of knowledge similar to that produced by Galileo, Lavoisier, Darwin, and Maxwell, the technology in use in these areas would have looked very different from what it looks like now.
65Bray, “Critical History”, p. 163. One clue as to what Chinese technology, if left alone by the West, might have looked like is provided by all technological history, namely that it differed from the west in that the “state” played a much larger role in developing and choosing techniques than it did anywhere in the West. Thus for instance Bray (p. 173) explains agricultural change in China repeatedly as “the state’s efforts,” “the state tried” and “the state intervened.” This of course means that an “alternative” course of Chinese technology would have been largely politically determined – which alone marks a major difference between it and the West, where innovation was largely left to the private sector. Cf. Joel Mokyr, Lever of Riches, 1990, p. and Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Why the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World, 1986.