Precursors of Modern Science

By Needham, Joseph | UNESCO Courier, October 1988 | Go to article overview

Precursors of Modern Science


Needham, Joseph, UNESCO Courier


THE extraordinary inventiveness, and insight into nature, of ancient and medieval China raises two fundamental questions. First, why should the Chinese have been so far in advance of other civilizations; and second, why aren't they now centuries ahead of the rest of the world? We think it was a matter of the very different social and economic systems in China and the West. Modern science arose only in Europe in the seventeenth century when the best method of discovery was itself discovered; but the discoveries and inventions made then and thereafter depended in so many cases on centuries of previous Chinese progress in science, technology and medicine.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) selected three inventions, paper and printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass, which had done more, he thought, than any religious conviction, or any astrological influence, or any conqueror's achievements, to transform completely the modern world and mark it off from Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He regarded the origins of these inventions as "0bscure and inglorious" and he died without ever knowing that all of them were Chinese. We have done our best to put this record straight.

Chauvinistic Westerners, of course, always try to minimize the indepbedness of Europe to China inAntiquity and the Middle Ages, but often the circumstantial evidence is compelling. For example the first blast furnaces for cast iron, now known to be Scandinavian of the late eighth century AD, are of closely similar form to those of the previous century in China; while as late as the seventeenth century all the magnetic compasses of surveyors and astronomers pointed south, not north, just as the compasses of China had always done. In many cases, however, we cannot as yet detect the capillary channels through which knowledge was conveyed from East to West. Nevertheless we have always adopted the very reasonable assumption that the longer the time elapsing between the appearance of a discovery or invention in one part of the world, and its appearance later on in some other pan of the world far away, the less likely is it that the new thing was independently invented or discovered.

But all these things being agreed, a formidable question then presents itself. If the Chinese were so advanced in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, how was it that the Scientific Revolution, the coming of modem science into the world, happened only in Europe?

The fact is that in the seventeenth century we have to face a package deal; the Scientific Revolution was accompanied both by the Protestant Reformation and by the rise of capitalism, the ascendancy of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. Distinctively modem science, which then developed, was a mathematization of hypotheses about nature, combined with relentless experimentation. The sciences of all the ancient and medieval worlds had had an indelibly ethnic stamp but now nature was addressed for the first time in a universal and international language, the precise and quantitative idiom of mathematics, a tongue which every man and woman, irrespective of colour, creed or race, can use and master if given the proper training. And to the technique of experiment the same applies. It was like the merchant's universal standard of value. How one looks at the primary causative factor in all this depends on one's own background. If one is a theologian one probably thinks that the liberation of the Reformation was responsible; if one is an old-fashioned scientist, one naturally thinks that the scientific movement occurred first and powered all the others; and if one is a Marxist, one certainly thinks that the economic and social changes bear the main responibility.

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