West Is Best?

Why Civilizations Rise and Fall

In the 1940s, Joseph Needham, a British academic, began cataloging China's achievements in science and technology in an effort to understand why they were inferior to the West's. In his 40 years of study, he found that even though China may have seemed behind in such achievements at the moment, it had led the world in science a millennium before. He concluded that Confucianism and Taoism made a Chinese scientific revolution less likely because they allowed for only slow, incremental innovation, rather than overnight breakthroughs. Still, he recognized that this was only a partial explanation. Religions are not fixed, and if China's loss of scientific leadership stemmed from its religious attitudes, then what could account for the emergence and persistence of those attitudes?

Although Needham failed to resolve this great mystery, he made it impossible for other historians to continue to ignore questions about why some societies pull ahead and some fall behind. At a time when most Western, and even many non-Western, intellectuals believed in the intrinsic superiority of the West, Needham showed that both China's apparent shortcomings and the prevailing Western supremacy needed a historical explanation. His agenda became known as "the Needham question."

Broader analogues to the Needham question exist around the world. In the Middle Ages, the Middle East was at the forefront of optics, metallurgy, and mathematics. Its largest cities, libraries, and marketplaces dwarfed those in Europe. Subsequently, over the next half millennium, the Middle East slipped behind Europe in many realms, including science and medicine, finance and business, and literacy and living standards. But just as Confucianism and Taoism could not explain China's failures, Islam, often blamed for the Middle East's shortcomings, raises more questions than it answers. If Islam's supposedly retrograde system of beliefs explains the Middle East's recent failures, what accounts for its earlier successes?

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