Refuting God's Crucible
People of European origins are constantly accused of harboring prejudice against people of other cultures. But the more I read of European history, the more I believe that some of the worst prejudice actually targets our own ancestors, particularly during the Middle Ages.
Virtually any young Westerner you ask will reply that the Muslims, the Chinese…(fill in the blanks) were vastly more sophisticated than the backward Europeans in medieval times. This is true in some cases, but not in others.
In his interesting book Technology in World Civilization, Arnold Pacey claims that the Song Dynasty was "an especially creative period for Chinese technology. In 1100, China was undoubtedly the most technically 'advanced' region in the world, particularly with regard to the use of coke in iron smelting, canal transport and farm implements. Bridge design and textile machinery had also been developing rapidly. In all these fields, there were techniques in use in eleventh-century China which had no parallel in Europe until around 1700."
Indeed, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was one of the most dynamic periods in Chinese history, and China has perhaps never enjoyed a greater global technological leadership than she did in the eleventh century. Pacey admits, though, that this technological leadership became less pronounced in later times. After the sixteenth century,
"the most significant developments in Asia were the technical books published in Japan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a handful of Chinese scientific works, and very occasional episodes in India such as the use of models in the design of the Taj Mahal in the 1630s, and the systematic use of scale drawings by some shipbuilders by the end of the eighteenth century. But such examples are few and isolated. The great preponderance of new technological potential generated by increased ability to conceptualize technical problems was accruing in the West."
China was always significantly better at applied technology than she was in the theoretical sciences. And no, science and technology didn't merge until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and then only in Europe. According to Toby E. Huff in his excellent book The Rise of Early Modern Science, if we consider the main fields of scientific inquiry to be astronomy, physics, optics and mathematics, then the Chinese lagged behind not only Europeans, but also Muslims from the eleventh century onwards, if not before.
Even Joseph Needham in his monumental Science and Civilisation in China concluded that "the Chinese had very little systematic thought in this domain." While one can find "Chinese physical thought," one "can hardly speak of a developed science of physics."
Many Westerners to this day are convinced that medieval Europeans thought the earth was flat. They never did, at least not the educated ones. Here is David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science:
"It must be emphasized that the arrangement of the elements is spherical. Earth collects at the centre to form the earth, and it too is spherical. Aristotle defended this belief with a variety of arguments.
"Arguing from his natural philosophy, he pointed out that since the natural tendency of earth is to move toward the centre of the universe, it must arrange itself symmetrically about that point. But he also called attention to the observational evidence, including the circular shadow cast by the earth during a lunar eclipse and the fact that north-south motion by an observer on the surface of the earth alters the apparent position of the stars.
"Aristotle even reported an estimate by mathematicians of the earth's circumference (400,000 stades = about 45,000 miles, roughly 1.8 times the modern value). The sphericity of the earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin."