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More to science than war

Yesterday evening, Niall Ferguson presented the second part of Civilization on Channel 4, a companion to his new book of the same title. Starting in the 15th century, when the Asian countries were much more developed than those in Europe, he focuses on what he terms six killer apps that brought the West to its position of global dominance, and why the development, or downloading, of these apps elsewhere more recently will likely mean the decline of this dominance, to be passed out particularly by China.

Ferguson could possibly be described as a Westernist, and in its broad scope, it is an ideology that I could comfortably identify with. But it has two strands, two ways we can emphasize its value. I see the Enlightenment project that slowly led to the growth of free inquiry, individual ingenuity and self-government, against subjection to the general will, as something to be proud of, while cognisant of the difficulties in achieving this along the way. It is also something we should be happy to export, because of our sense of common feeling for our fellow man. Unfortunately, as Ferguson presented the case, its value seems to rest in the case that one of our own, a Western country with individualist values, whether it be Prussia, Great Britain or the United States in a given century, is number one.

Yesterday’s segment was ostensibly on the subject of science. I was looking forward to an expostulation of the development of the scientific enlightenment, the great stories of the correspondence between scientists across the Continent, and the series of their inventions and discoveries. We could follow through to the wonders of the modern world, how much our standard of living has improved through a series of inventions, even how much we can do with a small handheld device these days, and how that depended on a culture of discovery through the centuries. Though I have had no education in science beyond taking physics and chemistry for the Leaving Cert, it is something I maintain a small interest in. My idea of a date has been to go to an amateur production of the life of Galileo.

Instead, Hooke, Newton and Wren got no more than a cursory mention from Ferguson. What science seems to mean for him was the military advantage one nation had over another. He ended, with very little segway, with praise for the development science and innovation in Israel, besieged by its backward neighbours. Whatever positive developments in the country, the state of Israel cannot be seen as the epitome of Western civilization today. The rights and wrongs of this question could not have been explained in the ten minutes he had left for himself, but the situation there is tied to one of the negatives of Western civilization, the idea that those in more nomadic, less technological societies, without our concept of property, can be relocated without compunction. This was true before of the Enlightened Revolutionary American colonists, most of whom felt free to relocate native tribes further west, not to mention the stain of colonization throughout past centuries by Europeans.

Not that we should feel obliged to continually apologize for a whole list of grievances when we devote books and programs on great historical developments, but to touch on a continuing part of the harmful part of the legacy and assume Westerners must be on the side of Israel shows poor judgement in trying to convince viewers of the value of Western dominance.

He also glosses over the difficulties scientists had at times faced with a comment that religion was by then less of a obstructive force. Just as in the history of political liberty, part of the glory is in the struggle. To appreciate the historical importance of the era of the Royal Society, we should be conscious of the execution of Giordano Bruno in the 16th century and imprisonment of Galileo Galilei in the 17th century for their work on the cosmos.

Let us celebrate the developments of science, for its practical impact on the daily lives of so many across the world, and for the glorious fact that we know so much about the world, from the working of an atom to the development of species and the nature of far-off galaxies. We do need to guard ourselves against undue skepticism of science, and reminding ourselves of this legacy is dearly valuable. But the noble part of this legacy is the increase of our knowledge, not national advantage.

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