Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Scholarly Reminder

The 1421 hypothesis is a fringe historical theory developed by Gavin Menzies, claiming China discovered the Americas seventy years before Europe. Emperor Zhu Di sent a fleet of ships (led by Zheng He) which discovered the Northeast Passage, Antarctica and everything in between. In the 1420s, a lightning strike burned down the newly consturcted Forbidden City which the administrators took as an omen which denounced the voyages. A year later, all new explorations were banned and evidence of them were ordered destroyed.

Menzies' theory is about as popular among historians as Creationism is around biologists. There is no real need to go into the details, but across the board they refer to it as "usless" and "without substance." So the question becomes "why." Menzies' made too many errors for his theory to be honest mistake. He might be trying to make a name for himself or creating more interest in his area of expertise. But I think he's also motivated by a hunger to downplay Europe's role in history.

In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes argues the key reason why Europe developed faster than the rest of the world is because its people are free. Sure, other countries might stumble upon a new development but governments never allow people to expand on them. Terence Kealey echoes the same point in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. While China had gunpowder centuries before Europe, it was Europe's free societies that developed the technology. Both works could easily be called "Eurocentric" (Landes is proud that his is) and be annoying to those who specialize in the history of the rest of the world.

There is good reason for Eurocentricism when discussing economic growth. Europe developed and continued to develop technology and trade as other parts of the world grew into stagnation. Any historical discussion of the underlying causes of economic growth must include the only success story. But this does not jive with the instinct for inclusion and fairness so people choose intellectual mediocrity. New ideas are great to have, but to quote Richard Dawkins, "You don't want to be so open-minded your brain falls out."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please explain how medieval Europe was free. I minored in history specializing in that era and I can tell you it was NOT free. The Church pretty much held control over who was literate (thus preserved knowledge and their version of truth) and enforced their will on the populus. Any new ideas that were incompatible with their docterine was squashed. Remember, the internet didn't exist and books were rare. If the Church didn't like an idea, the idea would not spread very well, if at all.

People were executed for suggesting aliens and translating the Bible into English. We'll never know how much literature this so-called "free" society destroyed. Scientists like Galeio and Keplar were more Renissance than medeival, but they still suffered from censorship. Copericus's book about how Earth was NOT the center of the universe had an extra page put in the front when it was published. It was one of those "this is a work of fiction" pages you see today.

No, Europe's economic rise had little to do with how free it wasn't, but their resources. They had more available resources than other parts of the world. Like the early US, they had acres of good timber for structures and shipbuilding easily available to them. While other parts of the world didn't have easily available trees. With ships came easy trade. China's navy was mostly for influence, not trade.

Plus there is geography. China had vast land areas it had easy access to which meant armies, cities, and slow exploration. India is between two ancient cultures and stayed between them in many respects. Africa had long tribal warfare and inability to access their own resources. Europe really had no place it could expand into except for the sea and with the wood they had access to, were able to explore and trade further. It was necessity and prostlizing, not freedom, which helped Europe.

Did Queen Isabella give Columbus money to develop trade routes or spread freedom? Nope, it was to convert the heathens and force her religion on everyone else. She wanted the world less free.