Saturday, November 30, 2002

White, brown and yellow science & the forest from the trees Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

Interesting article on non-western science. It starts out with the failed attempt to introduce Afrocentric mumbo-jumbo in the Portland school districts, and goes on to catalog a veritable stamp collection of non-western science and engineering. In particular, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese and Maya achievements. One problem I have with standard multiculturalist theology is its Manichaean tendencies. In the beginning, the Lord God separated the West from the non-West, and he saw that the non-West was non-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, communal, pacifistic and all the rest of it. Of course, that's not really how it is. All the stamps counted and enumerated to show how vibrant non-western science was come from the aforementioned civilizations. The Middle East is in fact part of Western civilization-the cleavage between Islam and Christendom adding a somewhat artificial boundary between the two [1]. India and China between them created much of the high culture of southeast Asia. The Maya civilization was stillborn, it didn't really contribute much to modern central America aside from genes and language (OK, that's important, but the flesh of culture, religion, didn't really come through unscathed and is but a ramble of superstitions). Africa, non-Maya Amerindians, Australia, etc. are not mentioned, because they didn't really stumble onto any cool stamps so to speak. Of course, I use the analogy with stamp collecting because though specific discoveries by the non-European civilizations were interesting and more accurate in their details than later western science, they never systematized it. Astronomy was too entangled with astrology, science was seen as separate from engineering, the pursuit of eccentrics and marginalized intellectuals [2]. The European culture after the Renaissance managed to organically produce a system of science that took some of its inspiration from the Greeks, and borrowed details from other cultures, but could leverage their own advances so that hypothesis led to theory led to hypothesis, and so forth [3]. The Europeans saw the forest, though they might not have studied the trees in detail. [1] You could add that Orthodox Christianity was a separate civilization, with a similar intellectual flavor to that of the Dar-al-Islam, refining its ancient wisdom and mining the repository for more detailed elucidation, but doing little original. [2] I remember reading in ancient China that the logicians-who focused on math and science-were one of the least prestigious groups. Even the classical culture abandoned natural philosophy for ethics and later esoteric theology. Sextus Empiricus was an intellectually marginal figure compared to more abstract philosophers such as Plotinus who had little interest in the fouled natural world. [3] I am persuaded by arguments that the real revolution didn't happen until after 1700, when Europe began to really outpace Manchu China, and especially in the 19th century when engineering began to draw more explicitly from established science such as Newtonian Mechanics.

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