Tuesday, May 21

Why we can’t do away with ‘Western Science’ completely

In the wake of Richard Dawkins’ latest visit to these shores, the New Zealand Herald published a piece with a number of quotes from Tara McAllister, a post-doctoral researcher in freshwater ecology at Victoria University.

The piece ends with a defiant block quote from McAllister, in which she declares that

Mātauranga Māori will continue to be incorporated into the curriculum, celebrated and used alongside “Western” science in research and elevated within all facets of New Zealand society, regardless of what Richard Dawkins thinks.

Tara McAllister

The issue of mātauranga Māori and science – what each one is, and where one ends and the other begins – is obviously a complex one, and one that deserves a much more open and honest debate than has hitherto taken place in our media and universities.

But what interests me here is the phrase ‘Western science,’ with or without the scare quotes that McAllister puts around the word ‘Western.’

The notion also appears in the letter to the Listener that first sparked the debate over mātauranga Māori and science in our education system.

‘Science is universal,’ the seven co-authors of the letter wrote, and ‘not especially Western European.’ ‘It has origins’ they continued,

in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and later India, with significant contributions in mathematics, astronomy and physics from mediaeval Islam, before developing in Europe and later the US, with a strong presence across Asia.

Listener letter

Both sides of the debate, then, seem keen to disclaim the idea of a ‘Western science.’

I know where they’re coming from. Science is universal. Its processes and procedures are available to everyone, as are its fruits. The laws that govern the expansion of gasses and the grip of gravity are the same everywhere. That is what makes them scientific laws.

If science is not necessarily Western, though, I think there is such a thing as Western science, just as there is such a thing as ancient Greek science, Chinese science, or – for that matter – Māori science (which may or may not be co-extensive with mātauranga Māori).

Western science, in this sense, would simply refer to science as it developed and was institutionalized in the West, especially in early modern Europe.

And Western science, in this sense, was extremely significant. Niall Ferguson’s 2011 book Civilization: The West and the Rest even contains a handy list of the major scientific breakthroughs achieved in Western Europe between the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. It’s quite a list.

List of major scientific breakthroughs achieved in Westrn Europe, from Civilization: The West and the Rest

It’s also not a list that can easily be paralleled by any other historical society. Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Greek and Islamic worlds, China – all have made important contributions to human knowledge, as the authors of the Listener letter rightly acknowledged. But they were all eventually overtaken by the modern scientific revolution that began in Western Europe.

China’s scientific achievements were especially impressive. China famously had the ‘four great inventions’ of gunpowder, the compass, paper, and the printing press long before Europe. Science and Civilization in China, the massive series of scholarly volumes inaugurated by the English embryologist Joseph Needham in 1954, fills seven volumes and is still unfinished.

By the early 16th century, though, Western scientific achievements were starting to overtake even China’s. The astronomical calculations of the Jesuits missionaries led by Johann Schrek proved so much more accurate than traditional Chinese methods that the Emperor invited Schrek to revise the Chinese calendar.

By the 19th century, the technological gap was wider still. When the Qing state tried to shut down the burgeoning trade in opium controlled by the British East India Company, the British used their superior ships and weaponry to simply blast their way to Nanjing, precipitating a humiliating Chinese surrender.

All of this should remind us of two things. First, the West’s huge scientific and technological advantage wasn’t always used for good purposes, even if its net impact was overwhelmingly positive. (Where would we be today, for example, without vaccination, pioneered by the English physician Edward Jenner?)     

Secondly, the balance of economic and military power is very different today than it was during the Opium Wars. This is partly because the Chinese, like many other societies around the world, have now closed the science and technology gap with the West – even if they have done so mainly by adopting scientific best practices first pioneered in Europe and the US. 

All the same, the extraordinary take-off of scientific achievement in Europe from around 1500 remains a historic fact – and one that cries out for explanation.

And a number of explanations have been advanced. Some stress the recovery of Greek and Roman learning during the Renaissance. Others put more emphasis on a developing secularism, which exposed even previously sacred claims to free enquiry. Increased rates of literacy in the wake of the Reformation must have helped, as did the growth of Europe’s ‘collective brain’ through rapid urbanization and the diffusion of scientific clubs and networks.

A final, grand theory of why the particular shape that science took in the early modern West proved so successful is unlikely to be available any time soon.

In the meantime, though, perhaps we shouldn’t do away entirely with the notion of ‘Western science.’ Not to suggest that there are different ‘sciences’ in different places (Pythagoras’ theorem works just as well in modern China as it did in ancient Greece), but to remind ourselves of a crucial part of our shared history and progress.