The Rise of the West: Science and Ideology

Posted on June 3, 2013 by

When I switched my research interests from biology to social sciences and history, one big adjustment I needed to make was to learn how to deal with heavily ideologized or politicized subjects. Politics, of course, intrudes everywhere (after all, as Aristotle said, humans are political animals), but compared to biology most social sciences are veritable minefields.

Although such issues cannot be completely avoided (and should not be, see my recent blog Keeping Science and Ideology Apart), my tendency has been to stay away from the most heavily ideological issues. The case in point is the vast literature on the ‘Rise of the West’ – in some of the more extreme and self-congratulatory versions, the ‘European Miracle’ the ‘Uniqueness of Western Civilization.’


The Great Exposition: London 1851. Source

Most contributions to this literature, even those on the more extreme, exuberant end of the spectrum, adopt the form of a scientific argument. But the overall goal is to pass a value judgment on the achievement, creativity, significance, vigor, excellence – indeed, the miracle! – of Western Civilization. Of course, if ‘the West is the Best’, then the ‘Rest’ is inferior in one way, or another.

At the other end of the spectrum is the opposite view that Western Civilization is the source of much that is wrong with the modern world. The overall opinion tends to swing back and forth, with the unapologetic, and even unconscious Eurocentrism holding the sway in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, while the opposing Multiculturalism gaining the upper hand since the 1960s.

The problem with both of these extremes is that ultimately they care about what is good and what is bad. But such questions belong to the realms of moral philosophy, religion, and ideology, rather than science. Science is ultimately concerned with truth (and, yes, we can never achieve the absolute truth, but the goal is to approach it as closely as we can).

This is not to deny that scientists are motivated by other considerations – including, certainly, goodness (unless one aspires to become a mad scientist of the comic books) and also beauty, prestige, etc. Theories, for example, can be elegant and even beautiful. However, when these other considerations come in conflict with truth, they are always trumped by it. Many a beautiful theory has been slayed by ugly facts…

Similarly, sometimes the application of the scientific method leads us to conclusions that we may find unpalatable from the moral point of view. The temptation is to allow a consideration of goodness to trump that of truth. However, the logical mistake of mixing up descriptive statements (‘what is’) with normative or prescriptive statements (‘what ought to be’) has been known to philosophers at least since David Hume. Furthermore, in practical terms we have a much better chance of changing the deplorable state of things to what they ought to be, if we have a clear and unbiased understanding of what they currently are and why so. Generally speaking, when considerations of ideology are allowed to trump those of science, we end up with bad science.

There is a second problematic aspect in most of the literature on the ‘Rise of the West.’ There is a universal agreement among scholars and pretty much everybody else that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of European societies pulled away far from the rest of the world in terms of power, technology, economy, and science. The disagreements center on explaining how and why this happened. However, science is not really about explaining the unique and the peculiar.


The iron steam ship HMS Nemesis of the East India Company destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay (1843) Source

In particular, the goal of History-as-Science – Cliodynamics – should not be to explain why the Roman Empire fell, or why the Sassanian Empire succumbed so easily to the Islamic conquest. Rather, we need to develop and empirically test general theories about why empires decline and fall.

This does not mean that the question ‘Why Europe?’ (see Jack Goldstone’s excellent book on it) or, even better, how do we explain the Great Divergence (following the landmark contribution of Ken Pomerantz), cannot be addressed scientifically. What we need to do is put any particular instance (such as the Rise of the West) in a generic category, e.g. ‘efflorescences’ (in Goldstone’s formulation), or ‘upsweeps’ (in Chris Chase-Dunn and coworkers formulation). We can then test various explanations using the comparative method or, more formally, construct a database with which to test theories. Naturally, there are many difficulties with conducting such a research program, and it is not guaranteed to succeed (for example, if there are too few cases for a statistical analysis). But at least such an approach is on a firm logical ground.


Image source

Most of the literature on the Rise of the West, on the other hand, approaches this question in a reverse mode (which, I would argue, is logically flawed): starting with the observation itself, noting something peculiar about Europe, and building an explanation based on that. However, any world region, or any human society has a multitude of peculiarities that distinguish it from other regions, or societies. Thus, different explanations favored by particular authors often focus on that which they are expert on (e.g., demography or geography), or on explanations that they are primed to favor on ideological grounds. There is a kind of  ‘inverse cherry-picking’ flavor to such exercises. Whereas the usual cherry-picking works by selecting only those facts that fit one’s favored theory, in this case it is the explanations that are cherry-picked to fit what needs to be explained. Neither approach, needless to say, is consistent with the scientific method.

This is not meant to be a wholesale condemnation of the entire literature on the Rise of the West. Over the last two decades much progress has been made in understanding both the theoretical and empirical issues involved in this difficult question (difficult because of methodological issues, and because it is so heavily ideologized). One particularly useful approach has been to focus on a particular theory, to amass comparative data relevant to the theory, and then to analyze whether the explanation, proposed by the theory, is supported, or not. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this approach is the use of general theories. For example, the new understanding on the role of institutions in sustaining economic growth and political stability has provided a theoretical basis for two recent and influential contributions to the debate: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Frank Fukuyama and Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Note, however, that both books chose to address general questions of why nations succeed or fail, rather than focus on a unique instance of the Rise of the West.

As a result of this work, especially by the scholars belonging to the Californian School (Pomerantz, Goldstone, Bin Wong, and others), much of the theoretical and empirical debris has been cleared off. It is possible to make progress by rejecting theories on the basis of their logical or empirical failings (or both). Still, I personally don’t see myself contributing to this literature any time soon – there are too many other issues that are more readily amenable to the scientific method.

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