11/26/2013 07:29 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014


Why does the West still have a large lead over other civilizations in technology, innovation, military might, and to a lesser but still important degree, living standards? If you want a one-word answer: science. Scientific achievement since 1900 has been more far reaching in both intellectual and practical terms than at any other time, crowning six centuries of amazing discoveries about nature and the universe. And though it almost seems politically incorrect to say so, there is no doubt that the achievements and discoveries were, and continue to be, overwhelmingly Western, led by America and Europe. This has important consequences that are overlooked by almost every pundit today. And it may not last - which would have strange and perhaps terrible results.

In 1905, sociologist Max Weber said "only in the West does science exist at a stage of development which we recognize as valid today." In 2000, the historian of ideas, Peter Watson, wrote that "in the twentieth century, the non-Western cultures have produced no body of work that can compare to the ideas of the West ... Whatever list you make of twentieth century innovations, it is almost entirely Western."

In the broad sweep of history, the emergence of scientific leadership in the West was a surprise. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Islamic civilization became scientifically and culturally pre-eminent in Europe. It is no surprise that it also established military dominance. On the whole, it was a benign hegemony. When Christian Europe had lost nearly all Greek learning, it was known and treasured throughout Islam. The beautiful Islamic cities of Spain - Seville, Granada, and Córdoba - were magnets for scholars of all faiths. Muslims, Jews, and Christians collaborated to great benefit. New learning also flowed from Persia, India, and particularly China, the only civilization to equal Islam for its technology and science.

Yet Islamic science, like that of the ancient Greeks on which it was based, had serious limitations. Caesar E. Farah, the distinguished and devout Muslim history, explained why: "The early Muslim thinkers took up philosophy where the Greeks left off ... in Aristotle the Muslim thinkers found the great guide ... Muslim philosophy in subsequent centuries merely chose to continue in this vein and to enlarge Aristotle rather than to innovate."

From the eleventh century, European science began to catch up with that of Islam and China. By the end of the thirteenth century, it had overtaken it. In particular, the invention of the mechanical clock in the 1270s led to a new precision in scientific measurement, and kick-started a surge in empirical science that covered everything interesting on earth and in the heavens.

Of course, it was the Renaissance in Italy, which started around the second half of the fifteenth century, that took science and human expression to a level never seen before. Take, for example, the six years between 1450 and 1455 - they saw the birth of Columbus and Leonardo, Gutenberg's hugely important invention of the printing press, and the migration of Greek scholars to Italy after the fall of Constantinople - comparable in importance to the move of the Jewish giants of science, mainly to the US, in the 1930s as they fled Hitler. Back in Renaissance Italy, advances in drawing and painting, such as the geometrical measurement of space, perspective, and anatomical realism, spurred later discoveries in medical and technical science. Leonardo, who was as much scientist as artist, laid down the three principles of modern science - empiricism, mathematics, and mechanics. In 1687, Isaac Newton made perhaps the greatest intellectual breakthrough of all time - three irrefutable physical laws of motion, and the theory of gravitation, could explain everything known and observed about heavenly and early movements, the first convincing scientific theory of the entire solar system. Newton's discovery gave tremendous confidence to the scientists, philosophers, and engineers who followed him. Everything made sense, everything fitted together, everything was mechanical, and everything could be investigated, predicted, managed, and improved by science.

You might well ask why science is pre-eminently Western. There seem to be three complementary answers.

First, a necessary condition of the full emergence of science was belief in one all-powerful God, whose perfect creation awaited rational scientific explanation. This conditions was fulfilled by Judaism and Christianity, but not by other religions. Still, it took Christians a thousand years to invent modern science. Second, rediscovery and enhancement of Greek humanism and science, building on Islamic foundations, were vital from about 1000 onward. Third was the symbiotic relationship between technological and economic advance in Europe - when living standards reached unprecedented levels anywhere in the world, and it was possible to support an elite body of artist-scientists-philosophers to actually do the work of inventing science. Europe was unique in having around twenty important city-states run by free burghers who used economic growth to found and expand universities, confident that knowledge would pay huge dividends for humanity. Although then, as now, there were important "freelance" scientists, the universities were the hotbeds of innovation.

But this is not the end of the story. Next week, I will tell the story of how in the twentieth century, despite the apparently remorseless advance of science and technology led by the West, something strange and fateful happened to science, and hence to the engine of Western confidence and dominance. The question marks over the future do not flow from non-Western competition in science, but from a partial collapse of the wellsprings of optimism and rationality in the West itself. These could yet have fateful consequences. Tune in the same time next week to find out why.

This post is partly based on the book Suicide of the West, by Chris Smith - the Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury - and myself, published by Continuum in 2006.