History boils down to biology, and geography can be unfair, says Ian Morris: but the advantages they confer may not last forever

Trinity College, Cambridge, 1669

ISAAC NEWTON rubbed his eyes. He was tired but excited after another long day polishing lenses in the Chinese Astrocalendrical Bureau, where he worked as a lab assistant. The bureau was abuzz about a new mathematical technique that its young director, Mei Wending, had just brought back from Beijing.

Using this new method, Mei claimed he could calculate the laws of motion of the celestial bodies, which the emperor back in Beijing hoped would so impress Europe’s backward rulers with the superiority of Confucian wisdom that they would welcome the expansion of China’s global trade.

Mei and his master were to be disappointed. King Charles II’s courtiers in London cared more for superstitious quarrels than for finding truth, and eventually expelled the Chinese scientists. Newton, inspired by the beauty of Mei’s calculus, devoted his life to showing that its fluxions and fluents unlocked the secrets of the universe – but to no avail. In 1704, Mei went back to Beijing, to spearhead scientific and industrial revolutions that were to give China global mastery. Newton stayed in chilly Cambridge, frustrated and forgotten…

Of course, things didn’t happen that way. Newton and Mei are real enough, but China did not bring advanced techniques to 17th-century Europe. Instead, European astronomers took their techniques to China. Charles II didn’t throw out Chinese scientists, but China’s Emperor Kangxi did expel the Europeans. And, most importantly, Chinese science didn’t deliver global domination to the east: European science delivered it to the west.

So how did we end up with a world where Newton, not Mei, founded classical physics? Where Britain, not China, had the first industrial revolution? And where American atomic bombs levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rather than Japanese bombs obliterating Chicago and New York?

Why, in short, has science been western?

There are countless theories. Are westerners just smarter than the rest? Is it the influence of the ancient Greeks’ logic? Despite appearances, does western religion leave more room for science? Could it be luck? After all, China, North Korea, Pakistan and India now all boast nuclear weapons, Chinese astronauts have walked in space, and robotics is as advanced in Japan and South Korea as anywhere on earth. Western domination of science may have been a phase, which will end soon.

Testing these theories against history would mean going back to humanity’s beginnings – and ranging over the planet. Not surprisingly, historians baulk at working on such a scale. To answer this manageably, they need to take the advice evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond and political scientist James Robinson offered in New Scientist earlier this year (1 May, p 24), and act more like natural scientists. We might even go further and argue that history has become a sub-field of biology, focusing on the behaviour of one animal, Homo sapiens.

To show this, we need to step back from the details. Three big things become immediately clear: first, wherever we find them, people are much the same; second, thanks to shared biology, history has unfolded along more or less the same lines worldwide; third, history has not unfolded at the same pace globally.

This third observation tells us why science has been western – and why it may not remain so much longer. The reasons have nothing to do with race, culture, religion or great men. Nor do they have much to do with luck. But they have everything to do with a force that is also fundamental in biology: geography.

If we look back 12,000 years to when the world warmed up after the last spasm of the Ice Age, we see that geography is unfair, driving different places at different speeds. In the so-called “lucky latitudes”, a band stretching from China to the Mediterranean in the Old World, and from Peru to Mexico in the New World, climate, topography and ecology conspired 12,000 years ago to allow the evolution of unusually high numbers of plants and animals that could be domesticated.

This vastly increased the food supply for humans, and because people are much the same wherever we find them, it was in these latitudes that humans first domesticated plants and animals. Fuelled by such resources, they would also be the places where over the next 10,000 years people would create the world’s first cities, states and empires.

People in Australia, Siberia or sub-Saharan Africa stuck with hunting and gathering not because they were lazier, more stupid or better attuned to nature than the others, but because geography endowed their homelands with fewer resources, so domestication took longer.

Nor was geography even-handed within the lucky latitudes. The area archaeologists call the “hilly flanks” around the Euphrates, Tigris and Jordan valleys in south-west Asia had especially dense concentrations of plants and animals fit for domestication. Here, around 9500 BC, people turned into the world’s first farmers; then they became urbanites around 3500 BC, and imperialists around 750 BC.

By 500 BC, they had also developed the first forms of what we might reasonably call science. As populations grew, the agricultural centres in western Eurasia expanded, carrying farming, cities, states, empires and proto-science across Europe – ultimately becoming the civilisation we label “the west”.

Lagging behind

China, Pakistan’s Indus valley, Mexico and Peru all emerged from the Ice Age with rather less dense concentrations of domesticable plants and animals than the hilly flanks. In each case, farming developed a couple of millennia later (after 7500 BC), with cities, states and empires following further time-lags. Some 2000 years ago, a continuous band of agrarian empires ran across the lucky latitudes from Rome to Han-dynasty China; in the Americas, Teotihuacan, the Maya and the Moche were following the same path.

Rome, the heir of the oldest centre at the western end of Eurasia, remained the biggest and richest region, and home to the strongest scientific culture of all. So is this why science is considered to be a western artefact? Do we honour Newton rather than Mei simply because the west hung on to a 2000-year lead geography gave it at the end of the Ice Age?

The reality is rather more complicated. Consider this: from AD 500 to 1500, Chinese science led the world, with Muslim science lagging far behind and European further still. The role of geography here is complex, driving history, but not straightforwardly. While geography dictates the speed at which different parts of the world develop, the speed of development simultaneously dictates geography’s meaning.

To illustrate this, look at western Europe, sticking out into the cold waters of the north Atlantic. Five thousand years ago, geography placed the land mass at a huge disadvantage. It was far from the centres of action in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where people were building the world’s first cities, writing down its first epics, and waging its first organised wars. Geography was making western Europe backward.

But fast-forward to 500 years ago, and the same geography was making western Europe rich and powerful. While Germanic, Arabic, and Turkish invaders fought over the ruins of Rome, a new medieval empire had reunited China, sparking centuries of scientific advances. Not least among those advances were two 13th-century inventions: ships that could cross oceans, and guns that could shoot the people the sailors met on the other side. Everyone found the new tools useful, and they spread rapidly across Eurasia. But as they did, they changed the meanings of geography.

Suddenly, the disadvantage of sticking out into the Atlantic became a huge plus. Western European sailors had to sail half as far as the Chinese to reach the Americas. Before ocean-going ships, that was of no importance, but once the ships existed it became crucial. Since all people are much the same, geography now dictated it would be west Europeans rather than the early modern world’s greatest sailors, the Chinese, who discovered, colonised and plundered the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring, their settlers just as intrepid, but geography had now stacked the deck in favour of the west.

So it was the Europeans rather than the Chinese who created a new kind of maritime market economy, exploiting comparative advantages between continents, and it was the Europeans rather than the Chinese who saw the benefits in explaining how winds and tides worked. A chain of intellectual breakthroughs followed, generating better ways of measuring and counting, and cracking the codes of physics, chemistry and biology. This fuelled a scientific revolution in Europe, not China. By 1800, science and the market economy were creating incentives and opportunities for western entrepreneurs to mechanise production and tap the huge power of fossil fuels. Once again, it was the west (Britain) and not China or Japan that had an industrial revolution and learned how to project power globally.

The back-and-forth between geography and social development reveals why science has been such a western activity, and it may also give us clues about what will happen next, as the engine of geography, biology and social development continues to roll. By 1900 a British-dominated global economy had drawn in the vast resources of North America, converting the US from a backwater into a global centre. By the 20th century, a US-dominated global economy had in turn drawn in Asia’s resources, turning Japan, the “Asian tigers” and China and India into global centres.

In my book Why the West Rules – For Now, I have tried to quantify the history of social development, which suggests that if change continues through the 21st century at the same speed as it did in the 20th, the east will catch up with the west – in 2103, to be implausibly precise. But if the rate of change continues to accelerate as it has done since the 15th century, we can expect global dominance, and the world’s scientific centre of gravity, to migrate to east Asia as soon as 2050.

So far, so clear – but for one niggling detail. The past shows that while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means, and in the 21st century the meanings of geography seem to be changing faster than ever. If current technological trends continue, exponential growth in computing and interconnection may rob geography of its meanings altogether, flattening and shrinking the world so as to strip “east” and “west” of all significance. But current trends in global problems such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, mass migration, pandemics, and food and water supply may mean that they spiral out of control even faster.

The 21st century will be a race between worldwide transformation (a singularity of some sort) and worldwide catastrophe (what, following science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, I call nightfall) – each on an unimaginable scale. Whichever wins, the next 100 years are likely to bring more change than the previous 100,000. Perhaps the real lesson of history is that by the time the east overtakes the west, it will no longer matter much that Newton, and not Mei, was the father of classical physics.


Ian Morris is a historian, archaeologist and classicist at Stanford University, California.

This essay is based on ideas from his latest book, Why the West Rules – For Now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future (Profile, 2010)

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