[Answer] Why wasn’t science invented in China?

Credit for the question to Eli Tyre.

Preface + Epistemic Status

I spent roughly two days attempting to learn the answer this question plus several more writing it up. What is presented is more accurately described as a partial answer or contribution towards answering the question—this report isn’t actually a confident, solid answer. The question is too large for that.

I need to provide a couple of epistemic caveats:

  • I am not experienced at this kind of research, I don’t know what kind of rookie mistakes I might be making.

  • I have not attempted to assess the reliability of the historians who I quote, though my prior is to be less than completely confident. It might to be too easy to start with a conclusion, a nice narrative, and just find evidence for that. Though I quote what they say, I urge skepticism.

    • I have relatively more trust in statements like “Ibn al-Haytham lived in Cairo in the around the year 1000 and wrote the Book of Optics” more than broad statements like “[there was a] virtual absence in ancient Chinese philosophy of anything resembling the socratic method.”

  • Writing a research report like this one turned out to be remarkably effortful, more so than the pure research and obtaining answers for myself. To keep it from being even longer and more time-consuming, I found myself having to simplify heavily and then often fearing that the result is too simple and leaves too much out (and possibly important stuff out).

Clarifying and Refining the Question

If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’re likely to instantiate a version of it which doesn’t help your upstream goal, assuming it’s the right general thing at all. This applies to research too: almost all questions are sub-questions.

In this case, I didn’t have an expansion of the question from its author, but I did have their other questions and was aware of their general interests. Other questions they had were: Are there patterns in what makes great scientists? Were there other intellectual subcultures anything like the rationality community any time in the past few hundred years? What was it that made the intellectual high points of human history high? What made the renaissance, the enlightenment, etc., work?

The real agenda is clearly about understanding the factors which cause intellectual progress. The expanded question is more like What were the factors which were present in Europe but absent in China which led to science being invented in the former? In particularly, were there factors which caused Europeans to be more intellectually generative on this front than the Chinese?

Clarifying terms: Science, Scientific Method, etc.

A few terms worth disentangling: empiricism is the notion that you should look at the world to learn about it, and that’s a very old idea even when not widely adopted. I wouldn’t equate science with empiricism for this question. Science can either refer to a body of knowledge or the method used by which that knowledge is generated. Though they’re tightly connected, I’ve interpreted this question is primarily about “why wasn’t the scientific method invented in China?”

Also in this space is the Scientific Revolution and, somewhat more weakly, the Industrial Revolution. The research here has some relevance to those, but I wasn’t trying to answer questions about why they didn’t occur in China which I expect to possibly involve different economic and social factors then the pure intellectual development of scientific methods by some individuals. I’m looking at invention, not adoption.

Abridged History of the Scientific Method

What follows here is a slightly shortened and heavily simplified summary of Wikipedia entries, primarily from History of the Scientific Method with embellishment from other pages.

Different Scientific Methods over Time

First, it’s important to note that there hasn’t been just a single the scientific method which we can point to having been invented at a single time and space. There have been successively refined methods of generating scientific knowledge developed over time. Scientific methods were possessed by:

  • at least one person who wrote an Egyptian medical textbook, (c. 1600 BCE)

  • the Babylonians with their mathematical astronomy

  • the Greeks (who were foundational)

  • the Arabs

  • the Chinese Mohists (more on them later)

  • the Indian Charvaka school.

This is important because it means in answering the question I’m not looking for factors which caused something to happen at a very particular time and place, e.g. not what made Francis Bacon very special or the like. Instead, I’m looking for factors which held over Europe (and the Middle East) for over a thousand years.

To better understand what the relevant factors might be and to have a more precise of idea of the thing we care about having been invented, I read through the history of scientific methods as developed in Europe.

An ongoing debate in the philosophy of science is the relative role of observation vs reasoning in the scientific method, e.g. rationalism vs empiricism, and by extension the role and nature of experimentation. Another difference is whether a theory starts with general theories which leads to experimental work or the reverse. The different scientific methods from different thinkers were largely playing with the same elements. Still, they are united by all involving some degree of empiricism, some degree on reason, and are for the purpose of producing naturalistic explanations of physical reality.

In his work on logic, The Organon (Greek: Ὄργανον, meaning “instrument, tool, organ”) Aristotle (384 BCE to 322 BCE) lays out his inductive-deductive method of generating scientific knowledge. Short version: a) via inductions one can discover universals by generalization, b) using deductive reasoning in the form of syllogisms, one can infer new universal truths from those already established. However, Aristotle did not consider the inductive step to be scientific reasoning itself—merely preliminary to real the business which was the deductive reasoning. It’s also worth noting that Aristotle performed no modern-style experiments.

Several scientists from the Middle East pushed much closer to what we recognize as modern science. Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham (~965 to ~1040) combined observation, experiments, and reasoned argument to his study of optics proving the models held by Ptolemy, Euclid, and Aristotle to be wrong. He criticized Aristotle’s handling of induction. Persian scientist Al-Biruni (973 to ~1050) used repeated experimentation in his work and was concerned with systematic errors and observational biases. He held that “universals came out of experimental work” and “theories are formulated after discoveries.” Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980 to 1037) combined induction and experimentation, criticizing Aristotle’s induction with the claim “it does not lead to the absolute, universal, and certain premises that it purports to provide.” Ibn Sina might also have been the first to describe several of the methods of induction listed by John Stuart Mill in 1843. Avicenna’s scientific method is one in which “general and universal questions came first and led to experimental work.” [Note these guys all seemed very impressive to me.]

During the Renaissance of the 12th century, ideas on scientific methodology, including Aristotle’s empiricism and the experimental approaches of Ibn al-Haythem and Ibn Sina were introduced to medieval Europe via Latin translations of Arabic and Greek texts together with commentaries.

Robert Grosseteste (~1175 to 1253) was probably one of the first European thinkers in Europe to understand Aristotle’s vision of the dual nature of scientific reasoning. His conception was of going from particular observations to universal laws back to prediction of particular observations. “Resolution and composition.” He’s been called the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford.

Roger Bacon (~1219 to 1292) was inspired by the writings of Grosseteste. He describes a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation plus the need for independent verification. With special permission from the Pope (necessary since he was a friar) he published three large treatises.

At this point in the history it is noted that in 1562 “Outlines of Pyrrhonism” by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160) were printed in Latin and circulated in Europe, placing the arguments of classical skepticism in the European mainstream.

In 1620, Francis Bacon (1561 to 1626) published his Novum Organum, the title a reference to Aristotle’s Organon. Countering Aristotle, he said that induction must be used “for proving and discovering not first principles only, but also lesser axioms, the middle, and indeed all.” Unlike Aristotle, Bacon insists on induction throughout the entire process, not just at the beginning to derive universals. He was very committed to experimentation, including “crucial experiments” to differentiate between competing hypotheses. However, unlike in modern scientific process, hypothesizing forms only a small part of Bacon’s method. In his method hypotheses were supposed to arise in the process of investigation (contrast this with Avicenna who was happy to start with general theories and then experiment).

Isaac Newton (1642 to ~1726) embraced Bacon’s empiricism and outlined four rules on reasoning in the Principia. Some of his methods were systematized by John Stuart Mill.

The “hypothetico-deductive” method with its focus on the formulation and testing of hypotheses which can be falsified arose in the 18th century. Major contributors towards this refinement of the method were Charles Sanders Pierce (1839 to 1914) and Karl Popper (1902 to 1994). Pierce made induction and deduction complementary and put forth the basic schema for hypothesis testing we have until this day. Popper is the famed champion of falsification.

In the 20th century, Bayes’ theorem was brought to bear on the scientific method, though it is a lens not yet universally adopted.

So when was “science invented”?

When starting this project, my vague conception was something like “the scientific method was invented in the 17th century by Francis Bacon.” After reading this history, I realize what an extreme, perhaps laughable, simplification—the things you believe when you haven’t thought about them for even five minutes.

The modern scientific method as we know it is the result of over a thousand years of intellectual tradition. It was built piece by piece, eminent scholars each providing their own contribution. Contrary to my starting conception, it’s not that meaningful to say that it was “invented” specifically in the 17th century.

However, it does still seem that something significant happened in the 17th century or then abouts. I didn’t go into this in any depth, but the following pieces might be involved:

  • The improvements in the methods Francis Bacon and Newton caused a dramatic difference in the power of the scientific method leading to significant breakthroughs.

  • Major scientific breakthroughs, caused by improved method or other causes, occurred around this time causing widespread interest and enthusiasm for science, leading to social change. The social change cause these developments to be especially noteworthy.

  • Social change happening for multiple reasons at this time caused the improved scientific method to gain a lot of traction at this time.

  • Newton and Galileo (though not Bacon) had impressive scientific breakthroughs which caused their methods to get a lot of attention.

I’ll quote the entry on Scientific Revolution:

In the 19th century, William Whewell described the revolution in science itself—the scientific method—that had taken place in the 15th–16th century. “Among the most conspicuous of the revolutions which opinions on this subject have undergone, is the transition from an implicit trust in the internal powers of man’s mind to a professed dependence upon external observation; and from an unbounded reverence for the wisdom of the past, to a fervid expectation of change and improvement.”[12] This gave rise to the common view of the Scientific Revolution today:
A new view of nature emerged, replacing the Greek view that had dominated science for almost 2,000 years. Science became an autonomous discipline, distinct from both philosophy and technology and came to be regarded as having utilitarian goals.[13]

. . .

In 1984, Joseph Ben-David wrote:
Rapid accumulation of knowledge, which has characterized the development of science since the 17th century, had never occurred before that time. The new kind of scientific activity emerged only in a few countries of Western Europe, and it was restricted to that small area for about two hundred years.

This last quote raises an interested related question to the main one being answered here: if true, what factors caused the rapid accumulation of knowledge in specifically only a few countries and for only those two hundred years?

Perhaps the issue was that China wasn’t included in the intellectual tradition?

Reading the history of the scientific method and noting that there was this long intellectual tradition and it depended on translations and ideas spreading from one place to another, I wondered whether the lack of (supposed) scientific development in China was that China wasn’t exposed to this tradition. Perhaps they didn’t get the translations. Later reading suggested this wasn’t true—China had sufficient exposure but for some reason didn’t latch on and didn’t develop its own science or scientific method in the same way.

Toby Huff writes in The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, 2nd Edition:

By the end of the fourteenth century in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, and optics, there was a considerable debit on the Chinese side, despite the fact that there had been many chances for the Chinese to benefit from Arab astronomers and to borrow or assimilate the Greek philosophical heritage through constant interchanges between the Arabs and the Chinese. During Yuan times (ca. 1264-1368) Needham tells us, the Arabs or, more probably, the Persians played a significant role in bringing new mathematical ideas to Chinese science, and this role paralleled that played by Indians in T’ang times. (p. 242)

Apparently the Chinese ended up employing Muslim astronomers in their astronomy bureau because they hadn’t mastered their superior methods yet.

Their deficiencies in this area, moreover, led the Chinese to employ Muslim astronomers in the Chinese Bureau of Astronomy continuously from the thirteenth century onward. Indeed, in 1368 a special Muslim Bureau of Astronomy was established in China that was still functioning at the time of the arrival of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century.16 Upon the arrival of the Jesuits, there were four competing astronomical systems: the traditional Chinese system; that of the Muslims (based on the lunar calendar); the new European; and that of the so-called new Eastern Bureau.17 For these reasons Needham notes that “there can be no doubt but that there was every opportunity for Arabic and Persian mathematical influences (as from the observations of Maragha and Samarqand) to enter Chinese traditions.”18 Even more tantalizing are the reports that a Mongol ruler in China, Mangu (d. 1257; the brother of Hulagu who ordered the construction of the Maragha observatory), is said to “have mastered difficult passages of Euclid by himself.”19 In what language was this version of Euclid, and why is it that Mangu’s successor—Khubilai Khan—did not suggest the learning of Euclid to the court officials surrounding him ?20 These facts make it all the more puzzling why it was that the Jesuits are credited with having introduced Western astronomy to the Chinese (albeit incompletely because of the Galilean controversy just then unfolding) as well as geometry, when the Maragha models clearly assumed all the fundamentals of Western astronomy at that time except the heliocentric orientation. In other words, given the direct contact in the capital city between some of the best Muslim astronomers of the time and the Chinese astronomers in the official Bureau of Astronomy, the Chinese ought to have had nearly two centuries to translate Euclid’s Elements and to assimilate the Ptolemaic models (as perfected by al-Tusi, al-’Urdi, aI-Shirazi, and Ibn al-Shatir) before they were transformed into the Copernican models by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (p. 244)

It looks like the Chinese had many opportunities to absorb and build upon foreign knowledge. For some reason they didn’t, instead employing foreigners for centuries. This is evidence against my hypothesis that China wasn’t as intellectual generative because they didn’t get to be part of the same intellectual tradition. They could have been, but something got in the way.

Perhaps China didn’t have networks of scholars the same way?

Related to the idea of an intellectual tradition which built upon itself, I believe I hit upon the topic of various communities of thinkers which exchanged ideas in Europe.

Invisible College is the term used for a small community of interacting scholars who often met face-to-face, exchanged ideas, and encouraged each other. One is examples is Robert Boyle’s network of natural philosophers who had a focus on acquiring knowledge through experimentation. They were supposedly a precursor to the Royal Society. The Hartlib Circle, a network of correspondence across Western and Central Europe, was another instance of an invisible college.

Relatedly, the Republic of Letters was a long-distance intellectual community in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the Americas. I didn’t look into this or any of the others, but the Republic of Letters was bound up with the Royal Society, famed institute and network of Science.

It’s been asserted [source] that having Latin as a lingua franca was important for Europe integrated market for ideas. Makes sense if scholars who otherwise speak different languages are going to be able to communicate.

These communities and networks of thinkers maybe a factor which contributed towards the development of the scientific, its spread, and associated social change. A question I had, yet didn’t fully get into, is the extent to which China has similar communities and networks of thinkers. I do have some early indication that travel was more difficult in China and that China had a powerful censoring system, though it is unclear to me the effect that censor would have had on scholars exchanging letters given that its primary target were officials in the bureaucracy.

Science and Scientific Methods in China

Main article: History of Science and Technology in China

An Existing Literature

Working on this project, I found that there is an existing body of work on the related questions “why wasn’t science invented in China?”, “why didn’t China have a scientific revolution?”, “why didn’t China have an industrial revolution?” and “why did China fall behind Europe?”

A launching for this literature is the Scientific and technological stagnation section of the History of science and technology in China Wikipedia entry. And relatedly, The Great Divergence

Key historians on this topic include Joseph Needham, Toby E. Huff, Nathan Sivin, Derek Bodde and Justin Lin. Most of the early Western work in the history of science in China was done by Needham. He wrote a series of books/​encyclopedia called Science and Civilisation in China. In 1969 he asked:

“Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo?” “Why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization … ?” He adds a second question that makes the larger problem more interesting: “why, between the first century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D., Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs.” (Needham cited by Sivin in Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—or Didn’t It? P. 2 )

Is it a reasonable question?

At least some question that asking why science/​the scientific revolution didn’t happen in China is a good question. Maybe it’s like asking why your neighbor’s house didn’t burn down. But there are some good reasons.

First, China had a long history of being quite technologically advanced.

“Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental [civilization] in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs.” (Needham cited by Huff, p. 241)

They invented the abacus, the crossbow and the Four Great Inventions of the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing which Francis Bacon considered the most important inventions facilitating the West’s transformation from Dark Ages to the Modern world [Lin]. They possessed these a thousand years before Europe did. Early China had matches, dry docks, piston pumps, cast iron, the wheelbarrow, parachute, natural gas as fuel, and the suspension bridge. They had technology and they had a wide range of sciences. They had many sciences even if they didn’t have a unified science [source].

Second, China had a popular large than Continental Europe [source].

Given technological prowess and population size, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to ask why China didn’t generate the modern scientific method or undergo a scientific revolution.

So why not in China?

I collect here reasons from Toby E. Huff’s book The Rise of Early Modern Science (overwhelmingly), Wikipedia, and a few other papers I glanced at. Huff’s book itself is something of a summary which is incorporating views from Needham, Sivin, Bodde, and others. What is presented here is primarily taken from Chapters 6 and 7 from Huff’s book, about 75 pages. It is a very interesting and worthwhile read which I’ve done a so-so job of summarizing. Possibly this answer could have been framed as a book review.

Some of reasons taken from the Wikipedia entry on The Great Divergence [between China and the West]. These are less directly about the development of science specifically than overall economic divergence, but I’ve included the few which might also apply in the specific case here.

Huff writes:

If one takes the point of view that science is above all a system of error detection, not a set of skills for building machines, mechanical or electronic, then attention must be directed toward those abstract systems of thought and explanation that give higher order to our thinking about the natural realm. Science at its heart is systematic and theoretical knowledge about how the world is and how it works. It is episteme as opposed to techne. It is speculative in that it is always conjecturing the existence of new entities, processes, and mechanisms, not to mention possible new worlds. Its task is to determine which of these ideas and entities have a real existence in the world. Karl Popper’s description of this process as “conjectures and refutations” aptly captures this dynamic.4 From such a point of view, science is about how to describe, explain, and think about the world and is not concerned with how to make labor easier or how to control nature. (p. 241)

We are differentially looking for factors which facilitate the develop of science and scientific thinking, not technological progress more broadly. Building technology is a safer endeavor, politically and metaphysically, with less opportunity to challenge the prevailing worldview.

Overview of Huff

Huff’s overall thesis is that China was unable to produce modern science primarily because a lack of the requisite intellectual freedom. Unlike Europe, China’s political, religious, legal, and education systems did not afford the neutral spaces where novel ideas could be advanced and old ideas questions. Culturally, it may have lacked the practice of debate and dispute, including anything resembling the Socratic dialog. Further, philosophically and conceptually, China’s neo-Confucian worldview which viewed the world through correlations and binary pairs may not have lent it itself to the causal thinking necessary for science.

. . . it did not encourage or tolerate thinkers who were essentially disputatious and critical of the intellectual status quo . . There was no Chinese equivalent to the Scholastic method of disputation, no canons of logic a la Aristotle, and no mathematical methods of proof such as one finds in Euclid’s geometry. Derk Bodde points out, “Throughout its history Confucianism has deprecated the use of debate as a means of advancing knowledge.” (p. 279)

I expand on these points in the following sections. Unless otherwise stated, statements are coming sourced from Huff.

More Detailed Summary of Huff

In the 12th century, Europe had a legal revolution which redefined the nature of social organization with significant political, social, and economic, and religious effects. In particular, legally autonomous collectives emerged including cities, towns, universities, interest groups, and professional groups. While overall subject to an overall law, these groups could still operate fairly autonomously, and could set their own rules and regulations, could owe land, could sue, could have legal representation before the king’s court, and generally operate without too much interference from the authorities.

I didn’t properly read or think about Huff’s chapters on the legal revolution and its significance, and therefore can’t do it justice, however other relevant points: a) this being the beginning of separation of state and religion, b) this legal revolution represented an adaptation of Roman civil to the European’s needs.

[Huff makes the broad assertion that modern science arose in Europe due to the unique combination of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian theology. I didn’t read enough to fully understand this model, however.]

Legally autonomous collectives of special interest to the development of science are the European universities which arose in 12th century around the time of the legal revolution. Though many grew out of cathedral schools and religious orders, that wasn’t always the case, and the universities “sprang into existence . . . without express authorization of king, pope, prince, or prelate.” Crucially, they were able to set their own curricula. Practically, they taught a lot of Greek philosophy including its naturalistic and scientific parts.

In the Byzantine Empire, the “pagan curriculum” of the Greeks, based on the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, followed by arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy [the quadrivium]), was taught from the “fifth to the fifteenth century.”3 Naturally, the curriculum was infused with the Greek philosophical outlook, and that doubtless was the rub. (p. 140)

In contrast to the legal autonomy developing in Europe, from the 12th century (and earlier) China was (with only a few exceptions) a unified, top-down and bureaucratically run empire where there was no separation of state and religion and all power flowed down from the emperor upon whom there were no legal checks or balances.

Legally and bureaucratically, there was a hierarchy of officials which eventually rolled up into the emperor. Lower-level officials had almost no authority or independence from higher ups. Any collectives which might be created were not autonomous from the larger empire. There was nowhere safe to venture any revolt against authority.

The Chinese also did not have a system of law as we would recognize in the west (a system with universally applicable rules, rights, due process, interpretation of the law) and instead something more simply a penal code with no clear rules, variable enforcement, and many exceptions to be made at the discretion of whichever authority is applying punishment.

The legal system is relevant is both to lack of autonomous spaces and also the possibility that due to lack of a conception of a universal law which was binding to all citizens, the Chinese lacked the metaphor to laws which were binding to nature, and therefore did not seek them out.

Significantly, the vast Chinese imperial bureaucracy was staffed semi-meritocratically based on the imperial examination. This system stood intact from 1400 to 1905. The effect of the examination was standardize Chinese education. However, it was rigidly controlled and focused on literary and moral learning—not mathematics or the sciences—and largely consisted of rote memorization of hundreds of thousands of words of Chinese classic. There are nuances to these states as at various periods there were questions about mathematica, music, and astronomy on the exam, however they were never a focus. In contrast, European universities were free to set their own curricula.

Philosophically, in place of Western atomism/​reductionism governed by mechanical and impersonal laws of nature, China viewed the world as made of primary forces (yin and yang) and the five phases (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) constantly shifting in recurrent cycles. Things are not to be understood through laws governing parts, but through the unity of the whole. The patterns of the natural world were studied to find correlative correspondences between the conduct of the emperor and the patterns of the heavens. In this vein, there was a strong focus on binary pairs like light vs dark, hot vs cold, heaven vs earth—but all understand as natural complements which follow an inscrutable patterned progression. To translate into more typical LessWrong language, the Chinese didn’t look for gears-levels models, because they didn’t have a conception of gears—just patterns in the organic unity of the whole. Or something.

Even if we grant Aristotle was a little confused, we can see he was trying to explain things in terms of universal laws which explained things with a causal structure. From that point, you can progress to finding better universal explanations. I can imagine if you’re not thinking causally, you can’t embark on a process of science. Though I must confess, having very little grasp of Chinese philosophy, I cannot appraise the claims about historical Chinese philosophy and worldview.

An exception of the above point on philosophy is that the Chinese Mohist school of thought might have been on track to develop a solid scientific method, but unfortunately they and their thinking died out.

Although it seems doubtful that early Chinese methodological discussions were equivalent to those of Aristotle and Plato, it must be said that in the work of Mo-tzu (fourth century B.C.) there are keen methodological insights that, in Needham’s words, “could have become the fundamental basic conceptions of natural science in Asia. “38 Perhaps one could even agree with Needham that the Mohists “sketched out what amounts to a complete theory of scientific method. “39 The problem is that the Mohists and their thought faded into Chinese history and apparently had little influence on Chinese natural thinkers and none at all on Western thought. Despite the promising beginnings one sees in Mohist philosophical thought, it never gained much influence in the Chinese thought world. (p. 247)

Other Factors

There are at least a couple more factors not covered in Huff’s work which contributed to the rise of modern science Europe. rather than China.

Political fragmentation

It may be macro-politically relevant that because China was a unified empire, there was nowhere that thinkers seeking more intellectual freedom could migrate too. In Europe, if a nation’s policies hampered scientific or technological progress they would be soon be outcompeted by others who didn’t. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel that the European balkanization into smaller states was the result of geography with China’s geography being more conducive to a large, monolithic, isolated empire. [Wikipedia]

Economic freedom

Related to intellectual freedom, economic freedom may have been quite relevant. David S. Landes writes in Why Europe and the West? Why not China?:

China had two chances: first, to generate a continuing, self-sustaining process of scientific and technological advance on the basis of its indigenous traditions and achievements; and second, to learn from European science and technology once the foreign “barbarians” entered the Chinese domain in the sixteenth century. China failed both times. What explains the first failure? I stress the role of the market: the fact that enterprise was free in Europe while China lacked a free market and institutionalized property rights; that in Europe innovation worked and paid, while the Chinese state was always stepping in to interfere with private enterprise. As for the second failure, China’s cultural triumphalism combined with petty downward tyranny made it a singularly bad learner.

I did not explore this factor. The natural question to me here is how much the potential for profit or other gain incentivized the development of science. For example, astronomy was arguably the foundational scientific field and had important applications. How did these incentives affect academics, scholars, and the men of means who already had enough wealth they could engage in scientific discovery?

Europe’s escape from the Malthusian trap

My colleague, jimrandomh, brought this to my attention. The thesis is that due to plague, war, and urbanization, early Modern Europe escaped the Malthusian trap which kept everyone at subsistence with no resources left for advancing science and technology. One source for this is here.

The High-level equilibrium trap

A similar economic point has been made by Mark Elvin to explain why China didn’t develop its own revolution. From the Wikipedia entry:

Essentially, he [Mark Elvin] claims that the Chinese pre-industrial economy had reached an equilibrium point where supply and demand were well-balanced. Late imperial production methods and trade networks were so efficient and labor was so cheap that investment in capital to improve efficiency would not be profitable.

The relevance to the development, as above, would depend on how strongly the demand for profit-increasing technology impacted the development of science.

See The Great Divergence for more factors and more detail.


This project simultaneously took far more time than expected and yet also still feels very shallow, heavily simplified, and bluntly presented. I do find Huff’s account, which I have cited extensively quite compelling, but I have made no attempt to verify his reliability or the reliability of his sources.

Though it is already intuitive to say that intellectual freedom was crucial for the development of science, I think Huff’s work is an impressively detailed case that Europe had this freedom in a way China did not. I did not cover it here, but Huff’s book also explores the situation in the Islamic world adding another point of comparison to his analysis.

My LessWrong associations are biasing me here, but it does seem important that Europe had a sustained intellectual tradition reaching back through the Arab scholars to the Greeks. The modern scientific method wasn’t developed de novo, but rather it was built up by piece by piece from antiquity. I think that’s an argument for technologies that better collect, curate, and transmit knowledge.

I didn’t explore economic explanations more, and there might be something to them, but I imagine that the political, religious, and cultural structures upstream of intellectual freedom were also upstream of economic factors. A fully comprehensive picture would probably include all three.

Overall, I do conclude a firm conclusion that even I’m not sure of the details, there were almost certainly concrete systematic factors which caused Europe to develop modern science and the scientific method even when China and the Islamic world didn’t. And that studying these factors probably does help us identify which factors are core to further intellectual progress in the present.

Related Questions

  • What made the ancient Greeks so generative? It seems they founded the Western philosophical and scientific traditions, but what led to their innovativeness?

  • What is the relationship between the development of science and economic incentives to do so?

  • Q. What kind of things where the people who innovated on science researching? E.g. those from history of science. How much immediate practical value did those things have?

  • What is a detailed account of how Bacon’s scientific method different from Aristotle’s inductive-deductive method?

  • How much was the scientific revolution caused by the innovations in the scientific methods at the time vs more general circumstantial factors?

  • How much was science/​the scientific method responsible for the Great Divergence?

  • Q. What did China have which was similar to the Republic of Letters, Royal Society, Invisible College?

  • Q. Why exactly was astronomy so important? Time-keeping, setting calendars, navigation . . . I’m interested in a more detailed understanding of how astronomical knowledge was used and how much it mattered.

  • Is Joseph Ben David’s claim that there was a rapid accumulation of scientific knowledge in only a few countries of Western Europe and only for about 200 years accurate? If so, why?

Reflections on the Research Experience

My background motivation for this work was to research the research experience as part of the validation and design of LessWrong’s efforts to build an Open Questions research platform. I collect here a few observations/​notes:

  • I did this work with relatively little evaluation of the ideas presented. It seems it would be an additional skill to learn how to evaluate historians and their historical work. Ideally I’d have been thinking quantitatively and assigning credences to the points I reported.

  • I do feel somewhat suspicious of Wikipedia, it paints very neat narratives and I’m doubtful that reality is that neat.

  • In our early thinking, the LessWrong team was approaching research with something roughly like asking a question, asking sub-question, asking sub-sub-questions and so on. There are elements of this, but overall it didn’t feel like that. A lot of it felt like realizing I needed knowledge of a topic and then just trying become a mini-expert in that topic. For example, having decided I need to understand the development of the scientific method, I was just reading a bunch of Wiki articles not holding explicit questions in my mind, instead letting my intuition guide me.

  • Writing is time-consuming and constituted the bulk of time spent on this project.

    • When reading just for myself, it was okay if not every idea was crystallized, however to write things for others I really had to first get them clear in my own head.

    • I’m not sure how the writing effort scales with the amount of research done, but I’m pretty sure it’s sub-linear. More research might actually result in a much clearer picture making it easier to write.

      • During the writing stage, I was progressively reading more and more of Huff’s book which actually made it easier to write and I more properly absorbed the picture he was painting.

  • I wonder about the alternative approaches to conducting and communicating this research. Possibly I went into too much depth (as shallow as it felt) and would have been better to write much more condensed, lossy summaries. And either separately or additionally, perhaps provide an annotated set of references, i.e. collecting all the sources I read, explaining what one should read to arrive that the same picture I developed.

  • I wonder how much this research could have been split into parts. Was it necessary that same person researched both the history of the scientific method and also the history of science in China? It feels like I had a better perspective for having done so, but maybe it wasn’t necessary and this could have been two smaller projects.