What were the reasons modern science and mathematics emerged in the West

this has always puzzled me

we all know that during the middle ages civilizations like the Middle East, China were more developed than the west and more advanced

and then around the 1600s-1700s that completely flipped and people like Galileo, Kepler, Newton emerged and Western Europe became the dominant center for mathematics and science

why did this happen? what were the factors


That was the time of increasing agricultural yields (at least in what is now the UK), religious/thought diversity and the rise of many nation-states which largely left each other alone after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

I’m sure someone will be along to add more for/against the idea of guns, germs and steel.

I’ve heard the reinnasance changed culture to become more questioning.

I know advances in agricultural productivity in the 16th century freed up labor for other things (like innovation) but I think that more helped give birth to the industrial revolution.

According to the controversial Guns, Germs, and Steel, China’s problem was it was too centralized. On the plus side, the Emperor of China could standardize all wagon widths, but on the other hand, if the Emperor decides not to investigate a new technology, then it doesn’t get investigated. If the Emperor decides not to send fleets out to travel the world, then no fleets do so. If the Ming Emperor decides on an isolationist policy, then China does not advance as quickly as it otherwise could have done.

Other theories suggest the Qing dynasty (invaders) did China in, as they refused to expand.

By contrast, Europe was split up. When a new invention came along (say cannons) inevitably it would be used, and someone would either steal it or be so impressed they buy or copy it. When Christopher Columbus came up with this idea for locating India, he could not find a single backer in his native Italy (which was not a country at the time, so he had many choices of rulers). He traveled until a Spanish royal couple decided to fund his expedition. Of course it could have been a total failure, and Columbus never did reach India… but as a direct result of the Spanish royal decision, Latin America is largely Spanish-speaking outside of Brazil.

Europe was colonizing much of the world when the steam engine was invented (or reinvented), so not only was there a new power source, but resources to consume.

Another factor was that Europe developed farther because China started out more advanced. Europe was an economic backwater, which meant that Europeans had a reason to go to Asia while Asians had no comparable reason to go to Europe.

Europe also had available for (re-)discovery the works of the Arabic scientists who in turn were building on, and had preserved, Greek works that would otherwise have been lost.

A major factor was the continuing problems nearly all of the other major centers of civilization (India, the ME, what is now Russia, China) had with being overrun by invasions of steppe nomads, which kept them from progressing as rapidly as Europe - the Western parts of which at least were free from such distractions.

China, for example, was first overrun by the Mongols; a native Chinese dynasty - the Ming - booted the Mongol dynasty out.

The Ming may well have completely replaced European colonialism - for example, they sent several enormous sea expeditions to India, one actually reached Africa (half a century before Vasco de Gama arrived, coming the other way!). If the Chinese navy was active in the Indian ocean, the Portuguese would not have been able to establish themselves … but it was not to be. The Chinese gave up the effort, and let their (very advanced for the time) navy rot.

Why? Western scholars often stress the whimsical nature of the Chinese bureaucracy … or contend that the expeditions were simply for prestige and did not pay, or that the Chinese distained such matters as trade. But another factor was much more significant: the Chinese were, rightfully, far more concerned with the continuing threat of the steppe nomads - if money had to go into military spending, it ought to go into paying for a land army to keep the nomads out.

And indeed, a new nomadic army did conquer the Ming - the Manchus - whose dynasty lasted until the 20th century; and the Manchus were, famously, resistant to change - because they were a relatively small minority ruling a vast nation.

A similar trajectory can be seen elsewhere - Russia in its endless wars pushing back the nomads (and having their rulers come to resemble Mongol Khans in the process), India ruled by a “Mughal” empire (based on invaders from Afghanistan; distant descendants of the Mongols), Persia overrun by the likes of Tamerlane and Nader Shah, who idolizes Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the Ottoman Turks ruling nearly the entire middle east … all of these emphasized creating vast empires based on the military supremacy of a relatively small military ruling class, which ultimately all either trace their origins to the steppe nomads of central Asia, or strongly emulate their methods of government and war-making.

Such empires found creating and adapting to change extremely difficult.

Historians don’t agree about any reason, or any set of reasons. For each historian who puts forward a new theory, there are a hundred other historians to refute it, or to say “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Maybe it was just one of those things. :slight_smile:
“It seems to be almost the universal error of historians to suppose it politically, as it is physically true, that every effect has a proportionate cause. In the inanimate action of matter upon matter, the motion produced can be but equal to the force of the moving power; but the operations of life, whether private or public, admit no such laws. The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation. It is not always that there is a strong reason for a great event.”
  ― Samuel Johnson

I’m wondering about something which may be enlightening when it comes to the spread and advancement of science and technology. Yes, science isn’t the same as technology but they build on top of themselves and each other. Also, technology, especially military technology, is usually easier to compare than scientific advancement.

In Europe, personal firearms appeared around the 1300s*, gradually spread and became a mainstay around 1700 with the invention of the flintlock mechanism. They eventually revolutionized warfare by making melee combat a minor aspect of war with the spread of breechloaders and cartridges in the mid-1800s. Why didn’t China get there first? It had a headstart and would have benefitted in its fight against the Mongols.

*History of the firearm - Wikipedia

By the time personal firearms became a military mainstay, China was basically ruled by Mongols (well, Manchus actually: a minority ruling caste from the steppe). The Ching Dynasty was established in 1636.

They had an inherent interest in maintaining the military supremacy of mounted horse archers over lowly infantry using gunpowder weapons, because the fact that the mounted horse archer was militarily supreme was the only thing keeping the Manchus in power over the bulk of the much more numerous ethnic Chinese population who disliked them.

This lead to military fossilization, until Western imperialists showed up; the Manchus were still attempting to resist the British with Manchu “bannermen” using recurved composite bows, when the British had rifles, during the Opium Wars.

This did not work out well for the Manchus, to put it mildly.

Much the same thing can be said of the aristocracy in Europe. Heavy cavalry used to be the main weapon of war in Europe and required a dedicated warrior class. When the supremacy of heavy cavalry went, the aristocracy had little to offer and gradually lost power throughout Europe from the mid-1600s (in what is now the UK) to the 1800s.

I take it that international competition between European countries meant they couldn’t afford to fossilize when it came to the military and thereby, government and then society. I remember John Stuart Mill saying something to that effect in On Liberty.

It seems analogous to the way many incumbents in business don’t want significant creative destruction because the way things have been done in the past is currently to their advantage and changing would require taking risks and venturing out of their comfort zone. IBM and US steel/carmakers have been bitterly learning that. They insisted on staying within a heavily fortified mountain while the rest of the world simply left that mountain behind.
More specifically with science: Have Europeans from the 1500s onward been more willing to swallow bitter existential pills? For example, junking geocentrism in favor of heliocentrism seems to have been quite existentially unsettling to many people (maybe we’re not the center of the universe!). The same seems to have been true of natural evolution with Darwin.
There’s a sociologist called Ronald Inglehart who divides values into traditional vs secular-rational and survival vs self-expression values*. If scientific hypotheses are rejected or not pursued when they conflict with Tradition, that could seriously curb scientific progress. For the first example of that, I guess we can go back to Thales of Miletus who sought to understand the world in purely physicalist terms about 2500 years ago.
*Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world - Wikipedia

I think that aspect can be overrated. The classical Greeks had some great ideas in philosophy and politics - but they really didn’t put much into math, science, and technology.

In my opinion, the big contribution classical Greek and Roman works gave to the Renaissance was just existing. They showed that a complete developed body of knowledge had existed outside of the Christian Church. This showed people that the Church was not the exclusive source of all answers and that it was possible to find knowledge outside of the Church.

I believe this.

I agree about the Greeks when it comes to science and technology, but Euclid’s elements was used in basic mathematics education into the 20th century, and Arabic science and classical works were essential in kick-starting a lot of the early European thinkers.

Agreed. Euclid was a major figure in the advance of mathematics.

But you also had people like Pythagoras. Nowadays we credit him for the Pythagorean Theorum (which was in fact known before his lifetime) but his actual teachings were numerological mysticism.

I think this illustrates the central problem with classical Greek learning; it was essentially mind games. Ancient Greek philosophers saw no need to connect their ideas to the real world.

Again, decentralization means there’s nobody to enforce a ban. There was a Papal ban on crossbows as far back as the 1100s, and nobody in Europe cared even the slightest bit.

They had no science in the modern sense, did they?

What are you basing this claim on?

Eratosthenes came up with a remarkably accurate measurement of the circumference of the Earth.

Archimedes was responsible for many mathematical/scientific/technological inventions, some of them of great practical use.

Even Pythagoras is credited with discovering that strings whose lengths are in simple ratios produce harmonious sounds when plucked together.

Certainly mathematics was advanced by the needs of navigation. Especially trigonometry of course, but I think the log tables of Napier and Briggs were motivated by the needs of navigators. But mostly the developments of science and mathematics were driven by what is now sneeringly called curiosity-driven research.