A Strange Madness of Sorts: European Imperialism and Science

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #11 and #12: The Discovery of Ignorance & The Marriage of Science and Empire

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

The scientific revolution was not the result of scientific research alone. Scientific research can flourish only in an alliance with an ideology or a political force which justifies the cost of research. The ideology determines the scientific agenda and determines how its discoveries and inventions will be utilized. The two most important political and economic forces that have shaped modern science are European imperialism and capitalism. 

This lesson is on the relationship between European imperialism and science.

Before the modern era, Western Europe was a poor and marginalized area of the world, but in a matter of few centuries it conquered practically the whole world. Technological advancement did play a role in this but it became significant quite late, 1850 and onwards. Prior to 1800, the technological gap between European, Asian and African powers was relatively small.

The technology of the first industrial wave wasn’t particularly complicated. When Britain opened its first commercial railroad in 1830, rest of Europe followed quickly, but China, Persia and Turks lagged behind tremendously. They could easily have obtained the technology as well if they had pursued it. They had the resources. What they lacked were the values and social-political structures that had developed over centuries in the West. Europe had an ideological mindset that favored modern science and capitalism.

The unique character of modern science began to take shape in the early modern period, simultaneously with the imperial expansion of European countries such as Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia. The bond between imperialism and science was forged by the fact that both the scientists and the conquerors of early modern Europe, shared the same basic mindset and worldview. They admitted the fact that they know very little about the world, and they felt compelled to go out to the furthest corners and explore, to gain new knowledge, and to utilize that knowledge for their power and mastery.

The connection is apparent in the great European voyages of exploration, of the early modern period. “These voyages were at one at the same time both scientific voyages of exploration and imperial voyages of conquest. European imperialism was in this way very unique, very different, from all previous imperial projects in history.” (Dr Harari)

Voyagers explored new coasts and lands, gained new geographical knowledge but also claimed control over the lands they had discovered. In the 18th and 19th century, almost every important military expedition had scientists in it, and almost every scientific expedition had political motives. Famous example of this includes the expedition of James Cook to the South Pacific Ocean and Australia, in 1778 (which had a team of 10 scientists). The expedition provided the first detailed account of this geographical region and found a cure for scurvy, but James Cook also claimed sovereignty of Britain over the lands he had discovered, including Australia, subjugating the Aboriginal Australians and Maori of New Zealand. The projects of science and imperialism were essentially inseparable. Another famous example is the expedition of the ship Beagle, sent in 1831 to map the coasts of South America, the Falkland Islands and the Galapagos Island in expectation of war. Charles Darwin was a part of this expedition and his observations proved to be instrumental to the development of his theory of evolution.

Pre-modern maps had no empty spaces in them; unknown areas were either left out completely or filled with imaginary details. The new world maps with empty spaces in them that emerged in the 15th and 16th century represented a significant change in outlook. In 1492 Columbus set out to discover a new trade route to East Asia. He discovered America instead, a completely unknown continent to humans dwelling elsewhere on the planet. Columbus mistakenly believed he had discovered India, and kept this mistaken belief throughout his life, because it was simply inconceivable for him that a completely unknown continent not present on their maps could even exist. “In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a man of the Middle Ages. The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci.” Amerigo was an Italian sailor, who was first to argue in 1502 that the continent Columbus had discovered was a continent unknown to classical geographers. In 1507 a famous German cartographer Martin Valdez Muller published the first world map in Europe that showed America as a new and separate continent, naming the landmass after Amerigo. “And this was the foundational event of the scientific revolution, the discovery of America is what really began the scientific revolution because it taught Europeans to favor present observations over past traditions and sacred texts.” From then on, European explorers were drawn to the blank spaces on the map. These explore and conquer expeditions were first of a kind in history. Even great empires in the past had shown little interest in exploring and conquering far away distant, unknown lands. Romans, for instance, conquered Britain after about 400 years of step-by-step land expansion, but in the early days of the Roman empire, no Roman would’ve thought of sailing directly to Britain to explore and conquer. Even when some rare ambitious ruler or adventurer embarked on a long range campaign of conquest, such as Alexander, the intention was not to explore and conquer unknown lands, but rather to take over existing known empires. There is, however, one close precedence of these explorations. Between 1405 and 1433, a Chinese admiral, Zheng He, led seven huge fleets to explore the Indian ocean. The largest of these seven expeditions, contained almost 300 ships, and carried close to 30,000 people. (In comparison, Columbus’s 1492 expedition had 3 small ships and 120 sailors.) He explored from Indonesia to as far as present-day Kenya. Crucially, he made no attempt to conquer and colonize these countries. “[T]hese expeditions of Zheng He, they were not deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture. They were the result of some chance policy of one particular ruling faction in Beijing.” When the ruling factions changed, the expeditions came to an absolute end. The fact that Zheng He successfully made these expeditions reveals that the expeditions of Europeans were not the result of any outstanding technological or economic advantage. Any of the other world empires could have done it; they simply were not interested. They did not share the ferocious European ambition to explore and conquer, which was a strange madness of sorts.

“The Romans never had any interest in conquering Scandinavia or India, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. And again, this shouldn't surprise us, because why should the Romans try to conquer far away India? Or why should the Chinese try to conquer Indonesia or Africa? What sense does it make? The really strange thing is that early modern Europeans caught some kind of madness that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one small step on the beach and immediately declare, I claim all this land for my country, for my king.”

“The first time that a non-European power tried to send a military expedition to America was only in the Second World War when Japan, in 1942, sent an expedition towards Alaska that managed to conquer two small islands near the Alaskan coast, Kiska and Attu.”

In this way modern science and European imperialism have shared roots. Empires supported scientific explorations because they proved to be of use again and again. Scientific revolution began with geography, giving Europeans mastery over the new world. The same spirit of exploration then spread to other areas of science.

Look at the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization, the first great civilization of India which was destroyed around 2000 BC. Ruins of its cities had existed for ages, but no native or invader had bothered to study them until the British arrived and did so, discovering the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro in 1922. Or take the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost by early first millennium AD. No invader of Egypt made any serious attempt to study them. It was during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt that Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers and brought to the attention of scientists in Napoleon’s army. The stone carried three inscriptions of it in Ancient Greek, Demotic script and Egyptian hieroglyphics. When Napoleon was defeated, the British took over the Rosetta stone and put it in the museum, where it was extensively studied and eventually led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)