24 June 2021

Divided we stand

Toward the end of his landmark book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond poses an interesting question.  From the fifteenth century on, why was it Europe rather than China that launched the Renaissance, produced an explosion of scientific research and technological innovation, explored and colonized the Americas and Australia, and eventually came to dominate the globe?  During the Middle Ages, China had been far more technologically innovative and advanced than Europe.  From 1405 to 1433, Chinese "treasure fleets" of hundreds of ships, much bigger than those later used by Columbus or da Gama, plied the Indian Ocean.  An observer at that time would have predicted that China, not Europe, would achieve colonial dominion over the world and lead it into industrialization and modernity.  So why was it actually Europe which did that instead?

Diamond's answer is interesting, and has important lessons for our own time.

For reasons ultimately connected with geography, China for most of its history (since the third century BC, at least) has been a single huge unified state, while Europe since the fall of Rome has been fragmented into dozens or sometimes hundreds of small independent countries.  This meant that certain kinds of bad decisions by leadership, while equally likely to happen in either civilization, had much more decisive impact in China than in Europe.

For example, China stopped sending its "treasure fleets" due to the outcome of a power struggle between two factions in its government.  The fleets had been a project of the faction which ultimately lost, and were strongly identified with it -- so the winning faction made an end to them and even dismantled China's shipyards to prevent more ocean-going ships from being built in the future.  It's the kind of thing that could happen in any country.  But because all of China was under a single government, this one accident of history took the whole Chinese civilization out of the running in the field of global exploration.

In Europe, even if one country had banned shipbuilding due to some similar political event, other countries would still have continued.  As Diamond points out, Columbus went to several European leaders looking for support for his plan to circumnavigate the globe and was turned away, until the king of Spain agreed to sponsor him.  If Spain had also turned him down, he would have kept trying other monarchs until one finally agreed.  Even if China had produced a similarly ambitious explorer, he would not have been able to carry out his project.

Similarly, at various times during the fifteenth century China abandoned development of a number of promising technologies.  China's political unity meant that once these decisions were made, they were enforced throughout the whole vast region.  In Europe, at the same time, there were many cases of individual governments rejecting or trying to suppress various new technologies -- but in every case, there were other countries that embraced the new ideas and moved forward.  When the new technologies were militarily or economically useful, those countries which rejected them were left behind and marginalized, and ultimately had no choice but to abandon their recalcitrance -- so Europe as a whole continued to progress, while China stagnated.

The lesson for our own time is clear.  Many people find the divided condition of the world frustrating and wish for a global government which could solve problems on a world-wide scale.  But the example of the fifteenth century shows the potential danger of this.  The anti-technology mentality is still very much alive in some circles, motivated either by religious taboos or by a bizarre tremulous "there are things man was not meant to know" mentality, or sometimes simply denial or misunderstanding of science.  It's not so long ago that religionists in the US were opposing AIDS treatments and mass HPV vaccination on the grounds that they would encourage "sexual immorality", and the general anti-vaccine movement continues to do great harm in many parts of the world.  Advocates of teaching creationism in schools instead of evolution, which would cripple the study of biology as a whole, have had some political success in the US.  Printing, lightning rods, airplanes, and many other new technologies aroused opposition on various grounds when they were first introduced.  Today, there are forces which oppose work on nanotechnology, anti-aging research, and certain fields of genetic engineering.

If the entire world were under a single government, anti-science forces would be strongly motivated to seek influence in that government to bring about a global ban on research into areas they find objectionable.  If they succeeded, this would result in some period of unnecessary stagnation, as happened in China, or perhaps would even mean that progress in those fields would be carried out by underground groups such as terrorist organizations (Ray Kurzweil has emphasized this danger in the case of nanotechnology -- if governments try to slow down research, they will be left defenseless against nanotech-based weapons developed by terrorists, since they will have prevented themselves from building up the knowledge base necessary to create such defenses).  Just imagine how much worse the covid-19 pandemic would be, if for several decades the (mostly Christian and Islamist) global anti-vaccine movement had been able to influence a world government to slow down vaccine research everywhere, so that the mRNA technology which we used to create vaccines against the new coronavirus so quickly had not yet been developed.

The world's politically-fragmented condition is our insurance against such disasters.  Even if anti-vaxers had managed to stop or slow research in one or two countries, it would have continued elsewhere.  Stalin's embrace of Lysenkoism crippled Soviet progress in genetics, but the West continued to move forward.  If reactionaries someday persuade a conservative US government to ban work on genetic engineering or on curing aging, then the work will continue in other advanced nations.  And as in fifteenth-century Europe, any country which stops progress on important new technologies within its own borders will tend to fall behind rival nations which embrace those technologies, ultimately becoming marginalized and irrelevant on the world stage -- unless it changes its ways.


Blogger jono said...

Thanks for this.

24 June, 2021 06:30  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Interesting! So once again, bigger is not better.

24 June, 2021 06:48  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

"Just imagine how much worse the covid-19 pandemic would be, if for several decades the (mostly Christian and Islamist) global anti-vaccine movement had been able to influence a world government to slow down vaccine research everywhere, so that the mRNA technology which we used to create vaccines against the new coronavirus so quickly had not yet been developed."

And this is what the IMPOTUS2 Cultists wanted. My friend tells me they'll literally Darwing themselves out of the equation or get with the agenda. I'm not that optimistic.


24 June, 2021 08:29  
Blogger Mary said...

Very good post. The US is positioned to be left behind due to religious extremism and ignorance and inability to use critical thinking. Too bad the US, in itself, can’t be divided up into several regions of like minded progressive people like Europe, so that at least part of it keeps up.

24 June, 2021 08:49  
Blogger Tundra Bunny said...

A very interesting analysis!

24 June, 2021 14:26  
Blogger jenny_o said...

Interesting and thought-provoking. I'd never stopped to wonder about China's lack of influence. I don't know whether to blame my schooling or my personality for my lack of curiosity!

24 June, 2021 20:59  
Blogger Mike said...

Well said.

24 June, 2021 22:36  
Blogger Victor said...

Thanks, I feel a bit better now!

And I'm reminded of a quote from one if my favorite films,"The Third Man:"
"In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, and they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."


25 June, 2021 06:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was assigned "Guns, Germs and Steel" in college, and after reading that part about why Europe and not China, I laughed. Not because I disagreed with the idea-it made sense to me, but because I accidentally discovered the same idea playing "Civilization III." After taking over an entire region, scientific development ground to a halt because instead of several nations studying different scientific ideas and trading them, there was one that was studying one scientific idea at a time.

25 June, 2021 12:57  
Blogger Bohemian said...

This was fascinating. Tho' I don't like the divisive nature of our Political Scene right now and how our own Country has devolved in recent times, at least they don't dominate everything and so progress can still be made and a refinement of Democracy as it presently stands can be achieved. The challenge is for the majority not to assume an Autocracy is preferable to a Democracy they've always enjoyed the Privilege of. Any Autocracy is at the whim and Lunacy of it's one person with Absolute Power. As the old saying goes, Power corrupts and absolute Power absolutely corrupts. I do think some of the Asian Countries are playing catch-up now for having fallen behind, we shouldn't discount them as advancing to World Power status at all.

25 June, 2021 13:19  
Blogger Lady M said...

I enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel. It is a good read. On a side note, have you seen the Mic the Vegan video about the Covid study related to diet. It is fascinating.

25 June, 2021 18:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jono: Thanks!

Debra: That's pretty often the case.

Sixpence: Luckily the Trumpanzees had negligible influence on other countries. Even here, Trump at least didn't try to stop research. Whatever other flaws he has, he doesn't seem to be an anti-vaxer.

Mary: Thanks! Fortunately the current administration isn't in thrall to the religious reactionaries, but the Republicans still have a lot of power to gum things up, as we've seen. I think states are going to more and more set their own policies going forward, since every federal administration we get will be objectionable to about half of them.

Tundra: Thanks!

Jenny_o: China is recovering some power and influence now, but I doubt it will ever again be as much a leader as it was during the Middle Ages. And of course the window of opportunity to be the first to explore and dominate the world has closed now.

26 June, 2021 01:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mike: Thanks.

Victor: Peace is a very valuable thing to achieve, but of course there are other ways of doing that than unifying many states into one. And polyglot amalgamations of countries can be inimical to democracy, as the European Union shows. It's hard to imagine how a world-wide democracy could work.

Anon: I'm not familiar with the game, but I guess it's realistic in that sense.

Bohemian: It seems that in the US now it's the minority (right-wing / theocratic) that wants an autocracy -- the majority has no need to advocate one since we are the majority and will tend to prevail in fair elections. As for Asia -- Japan and Korea are already world leaders in technology, and fascist China presents a threat comparable to Germany in the 1930s. If the US ever elects another Trump and withdraws from the world, I could imagine a scenario where Japan and India would emerge as the new leaders of the free world, with China as the main totalitarian enemy.

Lady M: I've seen a couple of videos about covid-19 and diet -- pretty sure one of them was his.

26 June, 2021 01:11  
Blogger Mary said...

Also wasn’t there a similar story about the Muslim world in the 1100s being a progressive leader in science and then the religious leaders took over and they have never recovered to this day.

26 June, 2021 06:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

That's true, and I touched on it here (paragraph 6). It's not an illustration of the unity-vs-local-independence concept, though. The Islamic world started off unified and became increasingly fragmented over time; the end of its scientific era was indeed due to the triumph of strict religious orthodoxy, which is a different issue.

26 June, 2021 08:30  
Anonymous Annie said...

Diamond's book is yet another I've heard discussed for years and has long been on my "must read" list. I appreciate this intro to his thinking, which provides a reasonable historical framework.

Have you also read "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"? That one sounds quite tantalizing in view of the ongoing attacks against our democracy.

26 June, 2021 13:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Guns, Germs, and Steel is indeed a must-read. What I've talked about here relates to only three or four pages in a sprawling work. He's addressing the whole question of why some areas of the world progressed so much more than others over the last thirteen thousand years, and he's come up with the most convincing and logical answers I've seen.

I haven't read Collapse. What references to it I've seen made it sound a bit doomy-gloomy.

26 June, 2021 23:00  

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