Why Europe in the 1700s?

Scholars from numerous disciplines have examined variables that might explain the advent of economic growth—included have been geography, politics, religious belief, and luck.

With varying degrees of imagination and elaboration, these scholars have come to the same conclusion:  Economic growth certainly could have started in another era via a non-European culture; but it did not.

No scholar has yet offered a persuasive “why-Europe, why in the 1700s” explanation.

Walk through a museum that displays the broad story of all major world civilizations. Say to yourself, “In the 1600 and 1700s, one of these civilizations initiated modern science and modern economic growth and increasingly dominated the world. Which civilization was it?”

Even though every museum by definition has biases in its collection and presentations, one of the last civilizations you would choose would be Europe. Based on variables such as farm implements and others tools, sources of energy, and breadth of artistic expression, China and other cultures often seem to have been far ahead of Europe. Indeed, for many centuries, Arab visitors to Europe had found it backward; mid-tenth century geographer Al-Masudi, for example, wrote of Europeans that “the farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are.”

Writing about Muslim attitudes more than half-a-millennium later, Bernard Lewis notes:

… Europe was a frontier to which the Ottomans, and indeed many other Muslims, looked in much the same way as Europeans were to view the America’s from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Beyond the northern and western frontiers lay rich and barbarous lands to which it was their sacred mission to bring religion and civilization, order and peace—which reaping the customary rewards of the pioneer and frontiersman. (The Muslim Discovery of Europe, N.Y.: W.W. Norton, p. 29)

Why didn’t economic growth begin in China at various times in its history given it was many centuries ahead of Europe in both basic science and inventing essential technologies like the printing press and the compass? Indeed, according to historian Kenneth Pomeranz, in 1800 “the urban core of China was not different from northwestern Europe in commercialization, commoditization of goods, land and labor, market-driven growth, and adjustment by household of both fertility and labor allotment to economic trends” (Pomeranz quoted by Gregory Clark, Survival of the Richest).

And yet, just to make things more complicated, Joseph Needham, the British scholar whom the Chinese themselves recognize as the world’s greatest authority on the history of their science and technology, writes that when traveling in Japan he thought “how strange it was that modern science had not originated there” as well as Europe (Science & Civilization in China Volume VII: 2 General Conclusions and Reflections, p. xlvii).

Or, why didn’t economic growth begin in ancient Greece in the fourth-to-second centuries BCE, when advances included the discovery of basic mathematical principles like the value of Pi and when philosophers devised systems for debating concepts like “reality” and “morality” that still shape our discussions today?

Another interesting possibility: What we call modern science may be, by definition, a European phenomenon.  Maybe China’s version of a “scientific revolution” did take place in a Chinese way. “The notion of a universal and value-free modern science, which is somehow independent of its social and historical origins, is wishful thinking,” writes N. Siven in an essay entitled “Why the Scientific Revolution did not take Place in China—or Didn’t It?”



Mayu says:

What a contrast to present day images of European dominance! That the Middle East and China led Europe in so many ways is so counterintuitive to the post-imperialism discourse of Europe spreading its military and economic might across the world in what seems like the beginnings of globalization.
How did Europe leap frog over other civilizations and plunge into the Industrial Revolution before them? And how did these other vibrant and advanced civilizations fall behind?
It might be possible that the notion of pinpointing one location for the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution may be moot. Maybe the British factories and the scientific revolutions that occurred in Europe weren’t so unique.
But if this is true, it is interesting that we never hear about other forms of advancement. Historians often make the Industrial Revolution sound like it was a storm of innovation centered in Europe, mostly bypassing other continents like Africa and Asia until much later.

Joel L. Swerdlow, Ph.D. says:

Good points and we must keep them in mind as we proceed. Maybe “industrialism emerged in Europe first so Europe dominated” is among those very rare, one-time-only occurrences (homo sapiens dominating and Neanderthals disappearing about 30,000 years ago is another example) whose significance we can see but whose causes we never fully understand.
In any event, the dominant view in China today is: The past 200-300 years of Western dominance have been an aberration, and the world is returning to its proper condition of Chinese dominance.


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