Science in different cultures
The scientists that students hear about in university courses are usually men of European descent. In recent years, this has increasingly led to protests that the curriculum is too “white” – students think there are too many “dead white males” in the curriculum. There is a supposition that this is due to white ethnocentrism. I read for instance in a debate on the internet as follows: “I’ve always been taught that “Dead White Males” were the only resource of creativity and innovation, when it, by just the mere fact of probability, could not be true. . . . After all, we’re talking about WESTERN culture here, not Chinese, Arabic etc. etc. Of course it is going to be dominated by Europeans when Western = European for hundreds and hundreds of years. The argument is an appeal to itself. It is circular. If you want to debate anything, debate the fact that European (Western) FEMALES are underrepresented in the Western Canon.”
So there are two issues here: 1) Most of the important scientists were of European descent. 2) Most of these were men. I will deal here with item 1) – that most scientists were “white” . In part 3 I will go on to discuss item 2) – that most of them were male.
I will reach the conclusion that worldwide most scientific progress has been made in European cultures, and by men. Without European men, modern science – and all the benefits that it has brought – would not have existed.
It is natural to start in ancient Greece. This was where a focus on logical argumentation and scientific inquiry first appeared. We see it spreading from there into the wider Hellenistic world, to Persia, and further into the Arab world. At the same time as scientific thinking appeared in ancient Greece, somewhat similar kinds of thinking arose independently in India and China.
As an example of how scientific understanding progresses, let us take the understanding of blood circulation in the body. The first observations were described by Hippocrates and Aristotle in the 5th and 4th century BC in Greece. The next important contributions are due to Galen, born in Asia Minor in the 2nd century AD, to Razi in Iran around 900 AD and to Ibn Nafis from Syria in the 13th century. Their knowledge was probably transferred to Miguel Serveto in Spain in the early 16th century, and later in that century to Italian physicists. Around 1600, the English physician William Harvey studied in Italy. When he returned to England, he made careful studies that led him to the final full understanding of how blood circulates from the heart to the lungs and back, and from the heart to the body and back again. So although the Middle East played an important role in the process, the crucial breakthrough – the final understanding – happened in England, based on an “approach to nature through systematic observations, experiment, quantification of measurements, the quest for mathematical relationships and the establishment of natural laws governed by rational thought “.
Let us look more closely at the role the Arab world played in the promotion of science. In the tenth century AD, Baghdad was the largest city in the world, and it also became a center of scientific thought. From around 800 AD, there was a movement to gather and translate as much scientific knowledge as possible, and before 1000 AD, nearly all of the classical Greek scientific works had been translated into Arabic. In addition, science was helped by the knowledge of papermaking imported from China, by the numeral system imported from India, and by independent new discoveries.
However, scientists in the Arabic world were not supported by mainstream society. Science survived in separate “niches” of society. For instance, scholarship was frequently aided by wealthy patrons who gave covert shelter and support to scholars making inquiry in the natural sciences.
Already during the ninth century, there was a counter movement against the scientific endeavor with the rise of the Ash´ari school that went against rational thought and even managed to make it criminal to copy books of philosophy. The Ash´arists denied natural causality, which cannot exist because God´s will is completely free and thus nothing can happen that is not caused by God. In spite of the Ash´arists, the work of translation and of scientific studies continued, more or less in remote or safe places. However, there never arose legally independent scientific institutions where students could be introduced to existing knowledge. After the twelfth century, Europe had more significant scholars than the Arabic world. By then, translation of the works of ancient Greek and Islamic scholars into Latin had begun.
Let us not forget China. At about the same time that Socrates lived in Greece, the scholar Mozi (c. 470 – c. 391 BC) was active in China. Mozi developed an analytical school that focused on logic, including the tenet that two contradictory claims cannot both be true. This goes against the principle of yin and yang, where mutually contradictory principles can exist within the same unity. Mozi´s teachings were carried on for some time by his followers, the Mohists, who aimed at finding the underlying cause of things and may be said to have sketched out a complete theory of scientific method. But they gradually lost support, and from about 200 BC, Mohism was banned and some books were allegedly burned, because they went against Confucianism. The understanding of logical argumentation did not appear again in China until about nine hundred years later when it was imported from Indian Buddhists.
Although the Chinese received many inputs from other cultures and had ample opportunity to develop science as a study object, they failed to do so. The educational system was set against the pursuit of scientific inquiry per se right up to 1905, and there were no official efforts to encourage autonomy of thought or action.
About the same time that Hippocrates and Aristotle were active in Greece, Chinese medical researchers compiled the written records and oral knowledge of Chinese medicine from previous ages. This compilation appeared as “The yellow emperor´s classic of internal medicine”, or Huangdi Neijing, which contains chapters describing the blood and its circulation. However, they did not ascribe the circulation to the pumping of the heart. Rather, it was ascribed to the opposing and complementary forces of yin and yang.
The Huangdi Neijing presented the human body as an organic whole and saw health and illness as intimately connected to the surrounding environment.
Chinese health care was hampered by the absence of a comprehensive governmental regulation of the vocational practice and almost no supervision of the qualifications of the physicians. Confucian policy did not allow experts with a specialized expert knowledge to rise socially as a group, as this might have led to social tensions, crises, and even restructuring. In Chinese medicine, very little knowledge existed about the internal organs.
In general, the ancient Chinese had a profound conviction of the organic unity of the universe and of the body as a part of this unity. Also today, Chinese have a holistic and collectivistic world view. They view the individual as part of a larger whole, and each person is obliged to live in harmony with this larger whole. This way of thinking is in accord with Confucianism, which was promulgated in China especially during the Han dynasty from about 200 BC, and it was at least as characteristic 2000 years ago as it is today.
The physical world was viewed in the same way as the body. Any object was viewed as something embedded in a sort of “field”. That is, what happened to the object was seen as due to the forces of the surrounding field. The Chinese understood the existence of a magnetic field that could affect a magnetic object and hence were able to invent the compass. They also understood the effects of the moon on water tides – yet another case where some sort of all-pervasive invisible force affects the elements. In such cases, the single elements are seen as just parts of the whole, like the strings of a fishing net.
Whereas the Chinese saw elements as parts of a whole, contemporary Greek thinkers focused on the elements themselves. They thought of any object as something with properties of its own. Examples of such properties are heaviness and lightness. When a stone is thrown into water and sinks to the bottom, the Greek saw this as due to its heaviness, and when a piece of wood that is thrown into water floats, this was seen as due to its lightness. So what happened was ascribed to something in the object itself rather than to the surroundings. Therefore it became of interest to classify objects according to their properties. In this classification, it was natural also to find common features for groups of objects, and to find general rules (“laws of nature”) for how objects behaved, that is, they thought in terms of abstract general principles. The Greek culture was the only ancient culture anywhere on Earth where scholars tried to derive general laws of nature.
The East Asian holism is not scientifically “wrong”. Many phenomena have the character of large fields affecting single elements, and East Asians should be especially able to study such phenomena. But in some way, the Western individualistic thinking with focus on single objects and their properties has allowed enormous scientific progress that is unseen elsewhere.
Chinese scientists based their knowledge on practical experience, which led them to understand important physical principles and to construct technical inventions. Until the fifteenth century, China had an advantage relative to Europe in practical technological knowledge. But they did not seek out abstract general explanations (“laws of nature”), and most of them tended to have little sense of what is logical.
It seems that the concept of an independent “self” is important for the way a scientist thinks. It may have been important for the development of European science. A concept somewhat like the “self” emerged gradually in ancient Greece, not least with Plato who believed that there is a soul separate from the body, and this soul should rule the body like a wise leader. Much later, when European universities were being established during the 12th and 13th centuries, we see that the independent self was held in high esteem. It was presupposed that adult citizens had the reason and the conscience to think independently of old authorities. A person could so to speak step outside of the established erudition and add something from his own rational thinking. In 1591, Giordano Bruno wrote in one of his books: “He who desires to philosophize must first of all doubt all things. He must not assume a position in a debate before he has listened to the various opinions, and considered and compared the reasons for and against. He must never judge or take up a position on the evidence of what he has heard, on the opinion of the majority, the age, merits, or prestige of the speaker concerned, but he must proceed according to the persuasion of an organic doctrine which adheres to real things, and to a truth that can be understood by the light of reason.” This is close to the way of thinking of René Descartes, who likewise ventured to doubt all traditional knowledge. When Descartes could not be certain of anything else, the only certainty he was left with was “cogito, ergo sum” – that is, he knew that he was thinking, and therefore had to be a self. So the very fundament on which the Cartesian approach rested was the existence of a self. Another lighthouse in Western thought was John Locke, who argued that before we can analyze the world and learn about it, we must study ourselves. He defined a person as “a thinking intelligent creature that can reason and can think about something, that can consider itself as itself, and have the same way of thinking at different points of time and different places.”
Contrary to this, East Asians had and have a different concept of the “self”. To them, the “self” is conceived as one´s status as a participant in a larger social unit, and when the person shifts to another social situation, the “self” shifts along with it. Although the “self” possesses and expresses internal attributes, such as abilities, opinions, judgments and personality characteristics, these internal attributes are understood as situation specific, and thus as rather elusive and unreliable. This means that knowledge about persons, either the self or others, will not be abstract and generalized across contexts, but instead will remain specific to the focal content. So it is an unfamiliar thought that persons (and, by analogy, things) should possess stable inherent properties.
For the ancient Greeks, discussions were a favored activity, since at least the 8th century BC. The individualism and stress on personal freedom made it possible for any man to claim his own point of view. An ordinary citizen was permitted to challenge even a king in a debate. This led to the development of a sense of logical consistency and absence of contradictions. We can trace a line leading from this to modern Western mentality where logical argumentation and rhetoric are tools used in debate between opponents in theoretical science as well as in democratic political debates. This respect for logic is in marked contrast to the ancient Chinese mentality with its emphasis on harmonic unity and adaptation to the power structure. It was not acceptable to claim independent points of view in opposition to the majority. When a Chinese person is asked a factual question, the person will think: “What is being asked of me here? What is expected from me?” and the person will answer according to what is expected. The person may abstract from the social situation and answer according to what is theoretically or practically correct, but that is mentally difficult – there may often be an incongruence between the person´s public display and the independent thoughts of that person. That is, to this person, two incompatible statements may in some sense both be true at the same time.
The Greeks, as we all know, developed their sense of logic to a refined way of rational thinking, formalized in the scheme called a syllogism, containing two premises and a resulting conclusion. The type of syllogism that is based on how two contradictory claims cannot both be true is foreign to people in most cultures, and even today people in East Asian societies find such thinking difficult. They want only to argue on the basis of concrete, direct knowledge, not on the basis of abstract principles or hypothetical assumptions (if A is true, then . . . ) . So even today, such thinking is easier for European people than most East Asian people.
The differences in Eastern and Western ways of thinking that existed more than 2000 years ago still exist today. Even today, Westerners are more individualistic; they tend to consider elements as independent units with associated properties, and they tend to classify them into categories. And even today, Eastern people are more collectivistic. They tend to see elements as subject to ongoing changes, embedded in fields of forces with many factors in play simultaneously, and for them it carries less meaning to divide elements into categories and speak of their fixed properties.
The Eastern way of thinking is prominent also in modern Japan, even though this nation has become flooded by Western influence through industrialization and an economy based on individualism. This contradicts that the different ways of thinking should be formed by the material basis of production. The differences have persisted through thousands of years during periods of enormous changes in society.
The Enlightenment with its emphasis on rational thinking is a phenomenon particular to the West. Any advancements in the same direction in other cultures faded away, principally due to suppression by religious and moral authorities.
In Europe, on the other hand, religious authorities did not manage to stop the advancement of science. After the papacy became open to rational thinking at the end of the 11th century and the establishment of the first university in northern Italy in 1088, European thinking was greatly advanced by persons working within the church system. There was at that time no opposition between theological thinking and scientific thinking. During the 12th and 13th century, universities gained a strong focus on the natural sciences, mainly due to an unprecedented translation activity in Spain, Sicily and northern Italy, whereby the very best of the accumulated scientific wisdom of the Greek and Arabic traditions was brought into Europe. However, problems with the church arose gradually towards the end of the 13th century, when it became evident that the newly translated works of Aristotle on some points contradicted the Bible. Some scholars who refused to bow to church authorities were sentenced and burned by the Inquisition, including the above-mentioned Miguel Serveto (1553) and Giordano Bruno (1600). Still, the number of death sentences in Europe was lower than in China, where the Emperor in 1386 criticized scholars at the Imperial Academy for being estranged from the teachings of Confucius and declared “To execute them and confiscate the property of their families is not excessive”. And so he executed 68 scholars. In contrast to their contemporaries in the Arabic world and China, European scholars won the battle against the church and ultimately prevailed. This siege against religious authorities was possible because Europe – in contrast to elsewhere – had established a system of universities as legally autonomous corporate entities, and because Europeans – unlike the Chinese – utilized existing knowledge of book printing to disseminate their thoughts.
Summing up, I reach the conclusion that there exist some slight, but pervasive differences in the way that people think, and these differences have remained remarkably constant over thousands of years. These differences in the way of thinking may explain why scientific endeavor survived and flourished in the West, and only there.
Part 1: When gray tones disappear
Part 3: When science is hampered by more feminine ways of thinking
Part 4: Origins of the movements that want to undermine Western culture
Part 5: When feminists say: “Science must fall”