Science historian Busquet debunks the myth that great scientific discoveries were made in Europe

For two centuries, historians have attributed the origin of modern science to Europe. Other cultures had known “golden ages”, such as the Arab world with the discovery of algebra or China with the discovery of the compass and gunpowder, but science in these civilizations had deteriorated after the Middle Ages. They haven’t made any major contributions since then. Modern science, with resounding names like Galileo, Huygens, Newton, and Darwin, was entirely in the name of Europe.

In recent years, this vision has reached its climax. Books appeared in several languages ​​​​that showed that the development of modern science was not a unique European feat, but was based on a global exchange between cultures. The contributions of non-European scholars have been forgotten or even written out of history. Credit is not given to the first person who discovered something, but credit to the person designated as discoverer by scientists – mostly from the European Center -.

There is now a book by the young science historian James Buskett, horizons. world history of science, which provides an overview of the multicultural history of science from 1450 to the present. Buskett, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick, places the global development of science in the context of four large-scale processes, each with its own chapter: the emergence of European colonial empires, slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and decolonization. In his book, Poskett rehabilitates science outside Europe, using the principle of credit where credit is due.

Forgotten scientists

Busquet’s book is neither the only nor the first book on the subject, but he has one thing that is absolutely true: science not only flourished outside Europe in the “golden age” during the Middle Ages, but continued to make significant contributions thereafter, even in this respect. day. Moreover, Arabic, Chinese, African, Indian and other sciences have been in constant contact with European sciences, as Busquette flawlessly demonstrates. He discusses dozens of forgotten scholars lively and places them in the political context of their era. It not only lists the discoveries of colonial scientists, but also enslaved scientists. Like the thriller of Graman Kwasi, which was wound up by slave traders in Suriname in the eighteenth century.

It was there that Quassia, thanks to his extraordinary talent, discovered the medicinal properties of a plant that was later named after him: Quassia amara. The bark of this plant, when boiled in water, was an effective medicine against fever in malaria. Kwasi was released and invited to the court of Stadholder Willem V, who gave him a small farm in Suriname, complete with slaves, as a gift. Kwasi, like many other naturalists outside Europe, is largely forgotten today, even in the country where he grew up.

poor hindu family

Or let’s take the story of Magnad Saha, who came from a poor Hindu family at the beginning of the 20th century. Buskett recounts how, despite all the opposition and discrimination, Saha managed to work as a physics teacher at Calcutta University and then got an appointment at Imperial College London. There is work on high temperature physics. Until then, no one had been able to explain what happened when electrons moved freely between atoms (forming a “plasma”), until Saha succeeded in doing so in 1920.

The mathematical equation named after him very accurately describes the relationship between temperature, pressure and electrical energy in a plasma. This made it possible to interpret the spectra of stars. This led to the discovery of new chemical elements. Although Saha was not forgotten in his native country, Bosquette demonstrates with this and many other examples that the influence of non-European scholars was much greater than had long been believed.

However, Busquet’s examples are rather anecdotal. First, it discusses success stories almost exclusively, while the history of science is riddled with dead ends and wrong paths. If we omit it, we get a somewhat misleading picture of the history of science. So Bosquet’s book has the character of an unmistakable triumph. But this choice is justified because its goal is to show that modern science with all its success did not originate only in Europe, but is the result of a continuous cultural exchange. However, by choosing an anecdotal approach, Bousquet sometimes misses the longer scholarly tradition outside of Europe.

For example, he left without mentioning the Kerala school that flourished in India for three centuries. Great discoveries were made in astronomy and mathematics within this school, many of which are attributed to Western scholars. Such as the beautiful mathematical sequence of approximation to the number pi that was discovered and proved in the 15th century by Madhava of Sangamagrama, but is attributed in history books to the 17th century mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

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Nevertheless, Busquet is to be commended, as it convincingly shows that many countries do not have their (scientific) histories in order. Poskett does this in an engaging narrative fashion in the best of Anglo-Saxon traditions. According to Busquet, the Western colonial empires sent the world the wrong idea that civilizations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were left behind and needed to be modernized. By refuting this myth, Busquet’s book contributes to the decolonization of the natural sciences.

smallpox vesicles

Busquets was absolutely correct in his analysis that the natural sciences outside Europe have always contributed to scientific developments. But he is wrong on another point: he treats the scientific traditions of the world as if they always had the same purpose and were therefore interchangeable. This is not true, at least until the 19th century. We cannot collect (and perhaps not yet) the many cognitive practices in the world prior to the period of European expansion and colonialism. For example, much of Chinese scientific practice prior to 1850 was highly ritualized and thus not taken seriously in Europe.

An interesting example, which Busquets did not mention, is the ancient Chinese preventative treatment against smallpox by vaccination. The method consists of drying the crusts of smallpox vesicles from recovered patients. These peels were crushed into a powder and blown into one of the children’s nostrils through a tube. In this way, the child develops a mild form of chickenpox, which causes only a few crusts to appear, before becoming immunized. However, the Chinese inoculation was part of a ritual that required the blowpipe to be made of silver, the right nostril for boys and the left for girls.

This ritual was the reason why Chinese insemination was considered a form of superstition in 17th century Europe. It took a long time in the eighteenth century for Mrs. Montague to introduce the Chinese way to Europe after one of her children died of smallpox. The method was refined by British physician Edward Jenner by vaccinating children against cowpox. This resulted in a safer method. Meanwhile, millions of European children died needlessly from smallpox. This example shows that the ritual context of a method can present a cultural barrier to the exchange of knowledge, leaving successful medical treatment aside for more than a century.

This cultural barrier is not limited to Europe but can be found in all civilizations. Busquets’ book is not blind to the ritualistic aspects of science, but it does mention cultural barriers, while illustrating how complex the comparisons can be between different traditions of knowledge.

Non-European Center

Therefore, there are also doubts about the goal set by Busquet himself to write a history of a science that is not centered on Europe. In almost all cases, Busquets puts the results of non-Western scientists at the service of European science. Bosquet tells how Arab astronomers influenced Copernicus, how Asian and African observations were crucial to Newton, how Chinese zoologists helped Darwin move forward, and how the Bengali physicist provided inspiration for Einstein. While Bosquet lauds all these non-European scholars, his measure seems to be how far they have advanced European knowledge. In doing so, he shows that he himself has also failed to emancipate himself from the Eurocentric perspective.

Of course, any serious attempt to write the history of a non-European science should be appreciated. Busquet’s book is part of a new wind in historiography. But Busquets could also have opted for a “polycentric” approach in which the various centers of knowledge of the world are discussed on an equal footing and then describes scientific exchanges in all directions. So not only the exchange of “other” cultures with Europe, but also from Africa to Asia, from Oceania to pre-Columbian America, etc. Since Busquet himself suggests that historians should free themselves from a Eurocentric worldview, he can be blamed for this loophole.

Finally, it must be said that Busquet’s book is not a world history of “science” in general, as the subtitle of his book suggests, but only a history of the natural sciences. Another innovation that the history of science has undergone in recent years is the treatment of the history of the natural sciences not in isolation, but as part of an ongoing interaction with other sciences. It is now widely known that important developments in the natural sciences were initiated by scholars of the humanities (and vice versa). For example, the insights of Arab linguists, thanks to their use of genealogical trees to represent source traditions, influenced evolutionary biology through European linguists. The methods of Indian linguistics made the legendary linguist Panini the top programming languages ​​in computer science possible.

This again shows that naturalists and humanities scholars outside Europe contributed to the emergence of modern science. These caveats aside, Bosquet’s book should definitely be read by anyone interested in the history of science from a global perspective.

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