the plan for the future

Part IV: The Scientific Revolution I


11. The Discovery of Ignorance

11.1. Admitting ignorance


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 11.1

The Scientific Revolution is the name of the phenomenal growth of human power over the last 500 years, which resulted from the discoveries and inventions of modern science. In speed and magnitude, nothing like it has ever happened before. If for example, a peasant who lived in the year 1000 AD fell asleep and woke up 500 years later in the year 1500 AD, the world which the peasant would have encountered, would have seemed very similar to the world which he left 500 years previously. Despite many changes in technology, political boundaries, and beliefs, on the whole it was the same world.

The lives of most people, the simple peasants, were almost exactly the same in the year 1500 as they were in the year 1000. But, if a person from the year 1500 would have fallen asleep, and woke up today in the early 21st century, he or she would have found himself or herself in a completely different world that was strange beyond comprehension. They might well have thought of themselves that they are no longer on Earth and ask themselves whether this is heaven or this is hell.

Things which we today take for granted, like nuclear bombs, airplanes, vaccination, cellular phones, or computers, were completely beyond the wildest dreams of people 500 years ago. Abilities which we today take for granted, like talking on the phone with somebody on the other side of the world, or reaching the other side of the world in 24 hours, were considered 500 years ago to belong to angels and gods. For instance, now I'm talking to you over the Internet to maybe tens of thousands of students at the same time. Try to explain this to somebody living in the age of Columbus.

Take for example lamps. If I want light, I simply press a button and there is light, and if I don't want this light anymore, I again press a button and the light disappears. For us this is trivial, but try to explain this power and where it came from to our ancestors 500 years ago. It's completely beyond their means of understanding, and even beyond their dreams and fantasies. How did humans obtain all these powers, from lights to nuclear weapons, internet, airplanes, and things like that? Above all humans obtained these powers by investing resources in scientific research.

Until the early modern period humans all over the world invested very little effort in scientific research because they doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military or economic powers. Kings and emperors gave money to education and scholarship, but the main aim was to preserve existing capabilities and not to acquire new capabilities. The typical king gave money to priests, philosophers, and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, to invent new weapons or to stimulate economic growth.

In the last five centuries however, humans increasingly came to believe that they could gain new, more and more powers by investing money and resources in scientific research. This wasn't just blind faith. It was repeatedly proven in practise. Investing resources in scientific research indeed gave people more and more power. And the more power that it gave them, the more resources they were able and willing to put into more research.

For example, the government of the United States has allocated billions of dollars to study nuclear physics. The knowledge made possible the construction of nuclear power stations that provide cheap electricity to american industries. These industries now pay more taxes to the United States government which uses some of these taxes to finance even more research in nuclear physics. This is the basic feedback loop of the Scientific Revolution in action. The basic message of this feedback loop is that science needs more than just research in order to make progress.

Science and scientific research depend on mutual reinforcement between science, politics, and economics. Political and economic institutions provide resources, without which scientific research is almost impossible. In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used among other things to obtain new resources. Some of these new resources are reinvested back in research. This is the basic feedback loop of the Scientific Revolution, and in order to understand the Scientific Revolution, it is therefore not enough to study science only, but also the bonds between science, politics, and economics.

Modern science is different from previous traditions of knowledge. At least since cognitive revolution, humans have tried to figure out how the universe works. Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways. First and the foremost, it differs in its willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the admission that we do not know everything. Even more importantly, modern science accepts that the things that we think we know, could still be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. In modern science no theory is considered sacred and beyond challenge.

The second unique characteristic is the centrality of observation and mathematics. Modern scientists try to obtain new knowledge by gathering observations on the world and using mathematical tools to connect these observations into comprehensive theories. The third unique feature of modern science is that it aims to acquire new powers. Modern science is never content, just with creating theories, and understanding how things work. Modern science uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular in order to develop new technologies. The real aim of modern science is not truth but power.

The first characteristic is the willingness to admit ignorance. In this sense, the Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge as it is usually the depicted, but a revolution of ignorance. The greatest discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution forward was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions.

Pre-modern traditions of knowledge like Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism, asserted that everything that is important to know about the world, was already known. The great gods or the one almighty God or the wise people of the past knew everything there is to know, and they revealed whatever we need to know in their scriptures and oral traditions. If you want to know the answer to a important questions, all you need to do is read these ancient texts and understand them properly. It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Quran, or the Vedas were missing out on some crucial secret of the universe.

Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, a particular individual might well be ignorant about something very important, but in that case, to obtain the necessary knowledge, all that he or she needed to do, was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody knew. For example, if a peasant in some mediaeval European village wanted to know how the human race originated, he assumed, and everybody assumed that the Christian tradition held the definitive answer. If the peasant himself didn't know, all he needed to do in order to receive an answer was to ask the priest.

Secondly, the other option for there being ignorance in the world is that all people might be ignorant of unimportant things. By definition, according to the traditional religions, whatever the great gods or the wise people of the past didn't bother to tell us in the sacred texts and traditions, was unimportant. For example, if a mediaeval peasant wanted to know how spiders weave their webs, it was pointless to ask the priest or the bishop or the Pope because they didn't know and there was no answer to this question in any of the Christian scriptures.

This did not mean that Christianity was deficient. It meant that understanding how spiders weave their webs was unimportant. After all, God knew everything perfectly well, including how spiders do it. If this was a vital piece of information necessary for human prosperity and salvation, God would have taken care to include a comprehensive explanation of spiders in the Bible, but there was no such explanation, so this showed that this was unimportant. Christianity didn't forbid people to study spiders if they liked, but people engaged in the study of spiders had to accept their peripheral role in society.

They had to accept the irrelevance of their findings to the eternal truths of the Christian religion and society. In reality things were never quite so simple. In every age, even in the most pious and conservative ages, there were always people who argued that there were important things of which their entire tradition was ignorant. Yet such people were usually marginalised or persecuted or they founded a new tradition and began to argue that they now knew everything that there is to know.

For example, the prophet Muhammad began his religious career by condemning his fellow Arabs for living in ignorance of the divine truth. Yet, Muhammad himself very quickly began to argue that he knew the whole truth because it was revealed to him by God. The followers of Muhammad therefore began calling him the seal of the prophets or the last prophet. Because after Mohamed, there is no need of further revelations as his revelations contain all the truth humanity needs to know.

Modern day science is very unique because it openly admits our collective ignorance regarding non-trivial matters and the most important questions of all. When scientists say that previously we didn't know, they usually do not start arguing that now they know everything. Darwin, for example, never argued that he was the seal of the biologists, the last biologist and that has solved, once and for all the big questions of life. Even after centuries of extensive scientific research, biologists, physicists, and chemists, admit that they still don't have any good explanation, for example, for how the brain produces consciousness.

Physicists admit that they don't know what caused the Big Bang and they don't know how to reconcile quantum mechanics with the theory of general relativity. The first characteristic of modern science is its willingness to say we don't know. This willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science far more dynamic and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. But modern science does not stop there. Once it admits ignorance, it begins to seek new knowledge. And the second unique characteristic of modern science is the way in which it seeks knowledge.

11.2. Empirical observations and mathematics


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 11.2

The first characteristic of modern science is its willingness to admit ignorance, but scientists don't just say that they don't know. Once ignorance is admitted, they begin looking for new knowledge. How do they do it? They look for new knowledge by collecting empirical observations and putting them together with the help of mathematical tools. Empirical is something that we can observe with at least one of our senses. We can see it, hear it, smell it, or something like that. The second unique characteristic of modern science is its reliance on empirical observations glued together by mathematics.

People throughout history have collected empirical observations, but the importance of these observations was usually limited because people in most traditional societies believed that they already had all the essential knowledge in the holy scriptures and traditions. Everything people need to know was already known to Jesus, Confucius or Muhammad. The most important means for gaining knowledge was therefore to study and practise the traditions established by Jesus, Confucius or Muhammad. Why waste precious resources trying to obtain new observations when we already have all the answers we need?

As modern culture tends to admit that we do not know the answers to some very important questions, it became necessary to start looking for completely new knowledge that nobody previously had. Therefore, we can study what's in the books and what the old people of the past were saying, but the emphasis must be placed on new observations and new experiments because we need new knowledge. Whenever present observation contradicts past tradition, modern science says that we should give precedence to the observation over the past tradition, no matter how venerated.

New observations are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect many observations about the world to form comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions of knowledge like the big religions usually formulated their theories of the world in stories. Modern science tends to use mathematics and not stories in order to build its theories of the world. The Bible, the Quran, and the Vedas, contain very few equations, graphs and calculations, because traditional religions and mythologies tried to explain the world and to lay down general rules of behavior in narrative form and not in mathematical form.

For example, the fundamental principle of Manichean religion, one of the most important dualist religions, asserted that the world is a battleground between good and evil. An evil force created matter and the body, while the good god created spirit. So, humans according to many Manichean religion, are caught between these two forces, and should choose good over evil. However, the founder of the Manichean religion, the prophet Mani, made no attempt to offer a mathematical formula that could be used to predict human choice or to quantify the respective strength of the forces of good and evil.

In contrast, modern science is full of exact mathematical formulas. In 1687, Isaac Newton published the book, The Mathematical Principle of Natural Philosophy, arguably the most important book in modern science, and perhaps in modern history. Newton presented in that book a general theory of all movements and changes in the world. The greatness of Newton's theory was that it wasn't full of all kinds of stories about Jesus did that, and Abraham said that, but tried to explain and predict all the movements of all the bodies in the Universe, from an apple falling from a tree to a shooting star, using just three, very simple mathematical laws.

Newton calculated, for example, in the second of his three famous laws of motion, that the force acting on a body is equal to the mass of the body multiplied by it's acceleration. Henceforth, anyone who wished to understand and predict the movement of an apple, a cannonball, or a planet, simply had to make measurements of the mass and the acceleration of the object and of the forces acting on the apple or the planet. And inserting these numbers into the equations provided by Newton, the future position of the object could be predicted. And it worked like magic.

Not all phenomena in the world can be reduced so neatly to an exact equation. We don't have exact equations, at least not yet, to understand evolution, economics, or human psychology. But in these fields too, scientists combine empirical evidence to form general theories by means of mathematical tools. The main difference between psychology and Newtonian mechanics in physics, is that psychologists use statistics and probability instead of exact equations. If you wish to understand the growing importance of mathematics in the modern world, you simply need to take a brief look at the history of education.

Throughout most of history, in almost all cultures, from ancient Egypt, to mediaeval Europe, China and India, mathematics was considered an esoteric field, that even educated people rarely studied at length. In mediaeval Europe, the call of the educational curriculum consisted of logic, grammar and rhetoric. The teaching of mathematics seldom went beyond simple arithmetic calculations and geometry. Nobody in mediaeval Europe studied statistics. And the undisputed queen of all the learning in the Middle Ages was theology, not mathematics.

Today very few students study theology or rhetoric. Logic is restricted mainly to philosophy departments. Very few people in other departments study logic, but more and more students in more and more departments are motivated or forced to study more and more mathematics. There is an irresistible drift towards the exact sciences. They are called the exact sciences because they use mathematical tools. Courses in statistics are now part of the basic requirements, not just in the department of physics or biology, but also in the departments of psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and international relations.

The centrality of mathematics to modern science is one of the main reasons why many people have such a hard time understanding science. The human mind is not adapted to thinking in numbers. Therefore, out of the seven billion people today in the world, only a few understand quantum mechanics, cell biology, or micro economics. Science nevertheless enjoys immense prestige, not because people understand it, but because science gives us immense new powers. Presidents and generals may not understand nuclear physics, but they have a good grasp of what nuclear bombs can do.

This is the third unique and important characteristic of modern science. Modern science is not interested just in formulating theories about the world. The real aim of modern science is to gain new power. In modern science, the real test of knowledge is not whether something is true, but whether something empowers us. Scientists today usually assume that no theory is 100% correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test for knowledge is utility. Something is considered real knowledge, only if it gives us new powers and new technologies, and enables us to do new things.

This connection between science and technology is today so strong that people tend to confuse the two. We think of science and technology as the same thing. We tend to think that it's impossible to develop new technologies without scientific research. And, that there is little point, in doing research, unless it results in some new technology. But the close relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally different fields of activity. They became connected only gradually in the early modern era, and only in the nineteenth century they became truly inseparable.

Even in the year 1800, most rulers who wanted a strong army, and most businessmen did not bother to finance research in physics, biology, or economics, because they didn't see the connection between scientific research and technological power. There were a few exceptions to this rule. And similarly, most thinkers and philosophers did not try to translate their findings into technological gadgets.

Rulers did finance educational institutions like universities and monasteries, but the aim of these institutions was to spread and preserve traditional knowledge for the purpose of supporting the existing order, not to develop new technologies. New technologies did appear here and there but in the pre-modern world they were usually the outcome of the efforts of uneducated craftsman using trial and error. They were not the outcome of scholars pursuing systematic scientific research. The very concept of research and development department was alien to the mindset of early modern kingdoms, churches, armies, and businesses.

For example, cart manufacturers produced the same model of cart, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. They did not try to invent and develop new models of carts. And even if a new model of a cart or a wagon was developed, it was done by some very good carpenter who came up with a new idea. It did not result from somebody in the university studying physics or chemistry coming up with a new design for carts. Similarly, most armies in the pre-modern era, even in the early modern era, were uninterested in science and technology, up until the nineteenth century.

Even in the period of Napoleon, the vast majority of military revolutions were a product of organisational, not technological changes. When alien civilisations met for the first time, for example when Europeans reached America for the first time, technological gaps between them sometimes played a very important role, but even in such cases, the technological gap was not intentional, and very few generals or kings sought to deliberately create or enlarge such technological gaps.

Most empires in history did not rise, thanks to some kind of magic weapon or technological wizardry, and the rulers of most of these empires did not seek to invest more and more money in creating new wonder weapons. For example, the Arabs id not defeat the Sassanid and Byzantine empires because they had say superior bows or better swords. The Seljuks had no technological advantage over the Byzantines. The Mongols did not conquer China because they had better technology. In fact, in all of these cases the vanquished, the Chinese, the Byzantines, and the Sassanids, enjoyed better military and civilian technology than the victors.

For example, the Roman army was probably the best army in the world in its day, but its advantage rested only on efficient organisation, iron discipline of the soldiers and huge manpower reserves. Technologically, Rome had absolutely no advantage over its rivals like Carthage, Macedonia or the Seleucid Empire. And the Roman army never set up a research and development department, and its weapons were more or less the same for centuries, because science was not seen as something that gives humans new powers, and because people thought that all the major discoveries have already been made.

Once modern science argued that there are many important things which we still don't know and, that new knowledge can be translated into new power, everything changed. People began to believe in the possibility of progress everywhere, in medicine, in economics, in politics. It revolutionised, not only science itself, but also politics, economics, society, and culture.

11.3. The revolution of progress


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 11.3

Before the modern age, people did not think about science as something that gives humans new powers. They thought that all the major discoveries that can be made, have already been made. Consequently, people did not believe in progress. As even Mohammed, Jesus and Confucius, who knew everything there is to know, were unable to abolish famine, diseases, poverty and war, how can humans expect to do it by themselves? Some religions expect a messiah to come and solve these issues, but the notion that ordinary people could do it themselves by discovering new knowledge, and inventing new tools, was seen as hubris.

In the modern age, humans began to admit that they still didn't know many important things, and progress suddenly seemed possible. If new knowledge can be discovered and translated into new powers, then maybe this can solve problems that previously were seen as impossible to overcome. As science, over the centuries, really began to solve one unsolvable problem after another, many people became convinced that humankind can overcome any problem, simply by acquiring and applying new knowledge. Poverty, sickness, famine, wars old age, even death, are not the inevitable fate of humans but the result of ignorance.

A famous example for the new belief in progress, is the case of lighting. Many cultures in history believed that lightning was the hammer of an angry god and that gods use lightning in order to punish sinners for bad things we do. In the middle of the 18th century, lightning drew the attention of Benjamin Franklin, one of the leading thinkers of America. In one of the most celebrated experiments in the history of science, Franklin flew a kite during a lightning storm, in owner to test the theory that lightning is simply electric current.

The empirical observations that Franklin made, coupled with the knowledge about electrical energy, enabled him to invent the lightning rod, and basically disarm the gods. Another case is the problem of poverty. Many cultures in history viewed poverty as an inescapable part of this world. But today it is more common to see poverty as a problem that can be solved with knowledge. Most people assume that with policies based on the latest findings in economics, medicine, and sociology, it is possible to eliminate poverty. And indeed, in many parts of the world today, the worst problems of poverty have been solved.

Biological vesus social poverty
Biological vesus social poverty
Throughout history societies have suffered from two distinct kinds of poverty. Social poverty is the gap in possibilities between the poor and the rich. Social poverty is relative. Biological poverty means the situation in which the lives of individuals are at immediate risk due to lack of food and shelter. Biological poverty is absolute. Social poverty may be impossible to solve because it's relative, and even if humans have more wealth and power, there will always be gaps between the poor and the rich.

Biological poverty does not longer exist in many countries around the world. People in many parts of the world no longer die because they are poor. Until very recent time, most people in most countries in the world lived very very close to the biological poverty line. The biological poverty line is measured by the number of calories that a person needs in order to sustain life for a few more days.

Small miscalculations or misfortunes could easily cause people to die of hunger. For instance, if you sowed your field in the wrong season or a flood came and washed away your field, you and your family died from hunger. On the collective level, natural disasters and man made calamities often could cause entire populations to die from hunger. In contrast, today most of the people in the world have a kind of safety net to protect them from hunger and poverty. Individuals are protected from personal misfortune by insurance or state-sponsored social security, and by all kinds of local an international organisations.

People still suffer from degradations, humiliations, and all kinds of poverty related illnesses, but in most countries in the world nobody is actually starving to death because they don't have bread or rice to eat. Actually, today amy more people are in danger of dying from eating too much than from starvation.

The most important remaining problem is death. Before the modern era, most religions, ideologies and philosophies took for granted that death is the inevitable fate of humans. Moreover most philosophies, religions and ideologies turned death into the main source of the meaning of life. Just try to imagine Islam, Christianity or the religion of ancient Egypt with all their pyramids in mummies in a world without death. Traditional religions taught people that they must come to terms with death and not seek to live forever.

This is also the theme of the most ancient known epic from Sumer from 5,000 years ago, the story of Gilgamesh. According to Sumerian mythology, Gilgamesh was king of the city of Uruk. Gilgamesh was the most powerful, the wisest, and the most beautiful man in the world. He could do anything. He fought against giants and monsters, and everywhere he went he gained victories, and he did what he wanted. Until one day the best friend of king Gilgamesh, Enkidu, died of some disease that the gods sent to punishing him. Gilgamesh refused to believe this and refused to allow the people to bury the body of Enkidu.

He just sat near the body of his best friend for seven days and just kept guard, thinking that Enkidu was just sleeping and would wake up, until after seven days Gilgamesh saw worms starting to fall from the nostril of his friend. Gilgamesh was then horrified for his own fate, because he realised this was going to happen to himself too. He decided then and there that he would not let it happen and will find a way to defeat death as he already defeated so many giants and monsters. So he left Uruk and went around the world searching for a cure to death.

The epic tells how Gilgamesh crossed oceans, deserts and mountains, and fought against all kinds of horrendous monsters, but his quest ended in failure. He came home with over realisation that death is the inevitable fate of humankind. When the gods created men they set death as the limit of men. Even if you were Gilgamesh, the most powerful and wisest person in the world, you still had to accept it.

Believers in scientific progress do not share this attitude. For them death is not the inevitable destiny of humankind, but a technical problem like any other technical problem. According to science people die, not because the gods decreed that people must die, but due to all kinds of technical failures, for example heart attack, cancer, or infection. And according to scientific wisdom, every technical problem has a technical solution. For example, if the heart stops functioning a well, you can implant a pacemaker or replace the heart with a new one. If somebody is suffering from cancer, you can kill the cancer cells with drugs or radiation.

At present, in the year 2013, not all the different technical problems that cause death can be solved, but the best minds in the world are no longer wasting their lives trying to find meaning to death. They are busy investigating how the body works and the how the DNA works to find cures for all the diseases and even for old age itself. They are developing new medicines, new treatments, and all kinds of artificial organs, that are lengthning our lives and may one day enable us to defeat death itself and live indefinitely.

Until very recently you would not have heard scientists or anybody else speaking so bluntly about defeating death, probably because the goal seemed to too far away. and why create unreasonable expectations that may not be a fulfilled anytime soon. But now in the second decade of the 21st century, scientists and doctors start to say that the leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life, and not just to live forever, but to live forever young. How long this will take is not yet clear.

Some experts think that by the year 2050 some humans, especially the rich, will already become amortal. Amortal is not immortal. It means that you can still die of an accident, but if that doesn't happen, your life extended without limit. Nobody would like to live forever but everybody wants to live for just another 10 to 20 years in good health. And this is what some experts say is going to happen by 2050. At least rich people will have the money to pay every 10 to 20 years for a treatment which will extend their lives for another 10 to 20 years.

Even if it sounds outrageous to defeat death completely, what already has been achieved in the last two centuries, is inconceivable in terms of what people knew and expected just two hundred years ago. Today all kinds of pills, injections and sophisticated operations save people from illnesses and injuries that two hundred years would have been an inescapable death sentence.

There are also new treatments that against countless daily aches, ailments and diseases which pre-modern people simply accepted as part of life. If your tooth hurt two hundred years ago, even if you were a very powerful king, somebody had to take the tooth out without anesthetics because there weren't any anesthetics. Today, even quite poor people can afford to go to a dentist who will give them an injection, and take out the tooth without feeling anything.

Human life expectancy
Human life expectancy
Because of all these new discoveries, the average life expectancy of humans in the world jumped from about thirty years over the last century to about sixty-seven years in the whole world and eighty years in the developed world. A baby born today in the world in a developed society and in the middle class or the upper class has a very good chance of living to be more than a hundred.

Most of this jump in the life expectancy was not caused by solving the diseases of old people but by overcoming child diseases and decreasing child mortality. About a quarter to a third of children born in pre-modern and even in nineteenth-century societies died before reaching 20.

If you want to understand what life was like and how people raised families in the centuries and millennia and before the triumph of science, then a good example is the family of king Edward I of England and his wife queen Eleanor, that ruled England in the late 13th century. Their children enjoyed the best conditions that could be provided in mediaeval Europe. They lived in palaces, had as much food as they like to eat, had plenty of warm clothing, the cleanest water available, servants, and doctors that looked after their health. Most of their 16 children died as a child.

Their 16th son Edward was the first of the boys who managed to survive the dangerous years of childhood. When his father, king Edward I died, this boy in his twenties, became the new king of england, king Edward II. To the best of all knowledge, Eleanor and Edward were very healthy people, and they had no hereditary illnesses. Nevertheless ten out of these sixteen children died when they were children. Only six of their children managed to leave beyond the age of 11 and only three managed to live beyond the age of 40. For parents today, it's impossible to conceive of such a loss, but back then, this was not uncommon.

Whether or not science will really succeed in defeating death, from a historical perspective it is fascinating to see that most modern religions and ideologies, are already ignoring death. Until the 18th century, most religions considered death and what happens to you after you die as central to the meaning of life. Beginning in the 18th century, religions and ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism, lost all interest in the afterlife. It was pointless to look for the anwer about what happens after death in the writings of Marx Karl or Adam Smith.

The only modern ideology that still gives death a central role, is nationalism. Sometimes at least, nationalism promises that after you die for the nation, you will continue to live on in the memory of the nation, but even nationalists don't really know what this means. Only religions like Christianity or Islam are giving clear answers on what happens to you after you die. You will be judged and sent to heaven or hell. In contrast, the nationalist idea of living on in the memory of the nation is very hazy.

We are living then in a technical age. What our ancestors saw as political, ethical and spiritual dilemmas, are just technical problems for us that the scientists can solve. The amazing achievements of modern science in finding solutions, have caused more and more people to become ardent believers in the ideal of progress. Many people today are convinced that science works for the benefit of humankind and that we can trust science wholeheartedly. Just let the scientists go on with their researches and they will create heaven here on earth, not in the afterlife, but on earth in this life. This view is quite naive.

11.4. The economics and politics of science


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 11.4

Many people have become convinced that science works for the benefit of humankind, and we just need scientists to go on in working in their laboratories and research projects, and they will create heaven here on earth. But if you think that science is simply working for the benefit of humankind, you don't understand much about the history of science or about what science is doing today. Many scientists are indeed motivated by the wish to help humankind or by a pure scientific curiosity, but what really governs the history of science, is all kinds of political, economic, and ideological interests.

Science is governed by politics and economics, for the very simple reason that most of science is a very expensive affair. If you are a doctor or a biologist who is trying to uderstand cancer, you need labourotaries, test tubes, microscopes, and a large staff. If you are an economist, trying to understand what to do about the economic crisis, you need to collect a lot of data about the economy. You need helpers and computers to store the data, and you need to develop all kinds of sophisticated data processing programmes. All these things cost an awful lot of money.

For thousands of years there may have been many people who wanted to study diseases or the laws of economics, but without proper funding they couldn't get very far. In the last 500 years, modern science has managed to achieve wonders, thanks largely to the willingness of governments, businesses, all kinds of foundations and private donors, to channel billions and billions of dollars to scientific research. All these governments and private donors, donate this money they believe that they can help to attain some economic, political, or ideological goal.

For example in the 16th century, kings and merchants, they channeled enormous resources, to finance geographical expeditions around the world, while they gave no money to, for example, studying child psychology. This was because kings and merchants assumed that the discovery of new geographical knowledge could enable them to conquer new lands and to set up trade routes. whereas they couldn't see any profit in understanding child psychology better.

Similarly, in the middle of the 20th century, the governments of the Soviet Union and the United States invested enormous resources in the study of nuclear physics, but very little in underwater archaeology because these governments assumed that by understanding the secrets of nuclear physics, they would be able to develop nuclear weapons, whereas they didn't see how underwater archaeology could help them win the Cold War or do anything useful for them.

Scientists themselves are not always aware of the political, economic or religious interests that control the flow of money. Many scientists sincerely act from intellectual curiosity, but it's very rare that scientists by themselves dictate the agenda of of science. This agenda is dictated by whoever gives the money. Financing pure science that is unaffacted by political, ideological or economic interests, would be impossible because the resources of every society, every university, and humankind are limited. Deciding what to do with these limited resources, requires answering basic questions like what is good or important?

These are ethical questions and science does not answer them. Only religions and ideologies give answers to such questions about what is good, what is important, and what should be done. Consider for example the following dilemma. Two biologists from the same department have exactly the same professional skills. Both apply for a million dollar grant to finance their current research. One professor wants to study a disease that infects the udders of cows, causing a 10% reduction in the milk production of dairy cows. The other professor wants to study whether cows suffer mentally when they are separated from their calves by the dairy industry.

Assuming that the amount of money is limited, which one of them should receive the million dollar grant? There is no scientific answer to these questions. This question has only political, economic, religious, or ideological answers. In today's world, it's pretty obvious that the first research has a much better chance of getting the money, not because other diseases in cows are scientifically more interesting or more important than the mental state of cows, but because the dairy industry, which stands to benefit from this research, has much more political and economic power than the animal rights lobby.

The only way in today's world that the second professor might be able to win the grant, is if she can show that her project can have economic benefits. For example, she might state in her application for the grant that, when cows are depressed, this leads to a decrease in milk production, and if we understand the mental world of dairy cows, we can develop all kinds of new psychiatric medications for dairy cows that will improve their mood and thereby raise milk production, and that the annual market for psychiatric medications for dairy cows is estimated to be $250 million.

The priorities of science are always set by the political and economic system, for political and economic reasons. Science is not only incapable of determining its agenda, but also of determining what to do with its discoveries. For example, from a purely scientific viewpoint, it is unclear what to do with our knowledge of genetics. Should we use this new knowledge in order to cure diseases, to create a race of genetically engineered supermen, or perhaps, to engineer dairy cows with super-sized udders.

A liberal government, a Nazi government and a capitalist business, would use the same discovery for completely different purposes. Science has no morality of its own and scientific research can flourish only when it has found an alliance with some religion or some ideology. The ideology justifies the cost of the research and determines where the money should go, and in exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries.

Hence, in order to comprehend the cause of the Scientific Revolution, it is not enough to survey the thoughts, lives and achievements of famous scientists. In order to really understand the development of science in the last few centuries, we have to take into account, ideological, political, and economic forces. Two forces in particular are important to understand modern science, European imperialism and Capitalism. The feedback loop between science, empires, and Capitalism has arguably been the chief driver of history for the last 500 years.

12. The Marriage of Science and Empire

12.1. An insignificant corner of the world


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 12.1

To understand the Scientific Revolution and its development, you have to take into consideration the ideological, the political, and the economic forces that shaped the sciences of physics, biology, and economics. Of all the ideologies and all the political and economic forces that have shaped modern science, the two most important ones are European imperialism and Capitalism. This chapter deals with the relations between science on the one hand and European imperialism on the other hand. Capitalism is discussed in the next chapter.

Before the modern era, Europe, and in particular Western Europe, was a poor and marginalised area of the world. Nothing of importance ever happened in Europe previously. Western Europe was never as a centre of any great empire prior to the modern age. Even the Roman Empire, the only important pre-modern European empire, derived most of its power and wealth from its North African and Middle Eastern provinces. The Western European provinces of the Roman Empire contributed little to the power and wealth of the empire, except for minerals and slaves.

Northern Europe was so desolate and barbarous that the Romans didn't even bother to conquer it because they didn't think that there was anything there worth conquering. Similarly, no important religion or ideology came from Europe before the modern age, and no great technological invention or economic system. Only at the end of the 15th century did Europe start to become a centre of important military, political, and cultural development. Between 1500 and 1750, Western Europe gradually gained momentum and became the master of the outer world, meaning the two continents of America and the oceans.

Even in the 18th century European states were still weaker than the great powers of Asia. Europeans managed to conquer America and the ocean mainly because the great Asiatic powers of the Middle East, India and China showed very little interest in these areas. The early modern era was in fact a golden age for the non-European empires like the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Mogul Empire in India and the Chinese Empires of the Ming and Ching dynasties. Even as late in 1775, the combined economies of India and China alone represented about two-thirds of global production.

The global centre of power shifted from Asia to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when in a series of conflicts the European powers defeated and humiliated the Asian powers, and conquered large parts of Asia itself. By the late 19th century, Europeans firmly controlled the whole world and the world's economy. In 1950, Western Europe and United States together accounted for more than half of global economic production while China was down to just 5%. The Europeans controlled not only the economy. They created a new global political order and a new global culture.

Today, all humans are to a large extent European in their thoughts, their tastes, and in the way that they see the world and behave. They may be fiercely anti-European, anti-Western in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics, medicine, the economy and war through European eyes. Even the Chinese economy of today is built today on European models of production and finance.

So how did Europe manage to conquer the whole world in no more than two or three centuries? European technology is often given much of the credit for this. It's unquestionable that from about 1850, technology gave Europeans and Americans of European descent a clear superiority over everybody else. There was a common saying, for example, among European soldiers who fought in Africa against African enemies. These European soldiers used to say, whatever happens we have machine guns and they don't, so don't worry.

Technology was far less important before 1850. Even as late as 1800, the technological gap between European, Asian, and African powers was relatively small. If in the year 1800, Europeans did not have a significant technological advantage over Muslims, Indians and Chinese, how did they manage in the following century to create such a huge technological gap between themselves and the rest of the world? When Britain began to build railways and modern industrial factories, why were France, Germany and the United States able to follow quickly whereas China lagged behind?

When the gap between industrial and non industrial nations became a very obvious economic and political factor, why did European countries like Italy, Russia and Austria close the gap and join the industrializing club, while Persia, Egypt and the Ottoman empire failed to do it. After all, the technology of the first industrial wave was relatively simple. Was it so hard for Chinese or Persians to engineer steam engines, manufacture machine guns or to lay down railroads?

The first commercial railroad in the world opened for business in 1830 in Britain. It led between Manchester and Liverpool. Twenty years later, in 1850, western nations such Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany were criss-crossed by almost 40,000 kilometers of railroads. At the same time in the whole of Asia, Africa, and Latin America had only 4,000 kilometers. In 1880, 50 years after the beginning of the railroad age, the western countries had about 350,000 kilometers of railroads. The rest of the world together had only 35,000 kilometers, and most of these railroads were built by the British in India.

For example, the first railroad in China was opened only in 1876, 50 years after that railroad leading from Manchester to Liverpool. This first railroad was 24 kilometers long, and it was built by Europeans in China, and the Chinese government destroyed it, a year after it was opened. In 1880, 50 years after the beginning of the railroad age, the Chinese Empire did not operate a single railroad line. Were 50 years too short a time for the Chinese to understand how important railroads are, or to learn how to build and operate them?

In Persia the situation was roughly the same. The first railroad in Persia was built only in 1888, almost 60 years after Britain. It connected to Heran, a Muslim Holy Site, about 10 kilometers outside the capital Tehran. This first railroad in, in Persia was constructed by a Belgian company. In 1950, the entire railway network of Persia amounted to only 2,500 kilometers, in a country which is seven times the size of Britain. What the Persians and the Chinese lacked was not technological inventions, but the values, the judicial apparatus and the social political structures that took centuries to form and mature in the west.

These could not be so easily copied and internalised. France, the United States, and Germany could follow very quickly in the footsteps of the British in the Industrial age, because they already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese as well as the Persians could not catch up with the British so fast because they thought and organised very differently. Between 1500 and 1800 or 1850, Europe did not enjoy any obvious technological or other advantage over the Asian powers, but Europe was gradually building a unique potential whose importance became obvious in the 19th century.

The apparent equality between Europe, China and the Muslim world in 1750 was a mirage. They might have been equal in their power at that time, but their potential was very different. What exactly was the unique potential that developed in Europe during the early modern period which enabled Europeans to suddenly take over the world? There are two complementary answers to this questions: modern science and Capitalism. Europeans already in the early modern area before the 19th century became used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way, even before they enjoyed significant technological advantages.

When the big technological inventions of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution came along, Europeans were in a much better position than anybody else to harness them and to use them. Science and Capitalism are not only the basis that gave Europe primacy, but they're also the most important legacy that the European Empires left behind them in the post-European world of the 21st century. Europeans no longer rule the world today, but science and capital are still the keys for economic and political success in the world.

12.2. Why did it happen in Europe?


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 12.2

Europeans managed to conquer the whole world and change it, partly because they began to think in a scientific way. What exactly the connection between thinking scientifically and the establishment of the European empires all over the world? Modern science owes a huge debt to the modern European empires as well as to the ancient scientific traditions of classical Greece, China, India, and the Islamic world. Yet, the unique character of modern science began to take shape only in Europe of the early modern period. At the same time there was the imperial expansion of Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia.

During the early modern period, Chinese, Muslims, native Americans and Polynesians continued to make important contributions to science. European economists like Adam Smith and Karl Marx studied the books of Muslim economists, native Americans' treatments of diseases influenced European doctors, and data gained from Polynesian informants in the Pacific revolutionised Western anthropology, zoology and biology. But until the 20th century, only the ruling elites of the global European empiress brought together all these different data, discoveries and experiments, and in so doing they created the scientific disciplines and theories.

China, India and the Islamic world produced people as intelligent and as curious as those of Europe. However, between the 16th century and the middle of the 20th century non-European civilisations did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or to Darwinian biology in terms of scientific theories. This does not mean that Europeans have some unique gene for doing science. Just as Islam began as an Arab monopoly, and was subsequently taken over by non-Arab people like the Turks and Persians, modern science began as a European specialty, and is now turning into a global multi-ethnic enterprise.

What exactly forged the historical bond between modern science and European Imperialism? What forged this bond was that, both the scientists and the conquerers of early modern Europe, shared the same basic basic view of the world. They both began by admitting ignorance. Both conquerors and scientists began by thinking that they didn't know what's out there in the world. They both then felt compelled to go out into the world and make new discoveries, and they both hoped that new knowledge they would acquire, would make them masters of the world.

This connection between scientific research and imperial conquest is best visible in the great European voyages of exploration in the early modern period. These voyages were both scientific voyages of exploration and imperial voyages of conquest. European imperialism was in this way very different from all previous imperial projects in history. Previous conquerors assumed that they already understand the world perfectly.

For example, when the Arabs conquered Egypt, Spain and India, they didn't do it in order to discover something that they didn't know. When the Mongols and Aztecs conquered numerous countries in Asia and America, they were looking for power and wealth. They were not looking for knowledge. In contrast, European conquerors in the modern age set out to distant lands in the hope of not only conquering them, but also in the hope of obtaining new knowledge. The process of obtaining new knowledge was intertwined with the process of conquering new lands.

Already in the 15th century, Portuguese voyagers explored the coast of Africa and simultaneously seized control of all kinds of islands and harbors along the coast. Christopher Columbus went on a voyage to gain new geographical knowledge and he discovered America. Immediately he also claimed sovereignty over the lands that he discovered. Ferdinand Magellan was the first person who managed to circle navigate the whole globe, but simultaneously he also laid the foundation for the Spanish conquest of the Philippines and many other territories.

The conquest of knowledge and the knowledge of territory became ever more tightly connected as time went by. In the 18th and 19th century, almost every important military expedition that left from Europe to distant lands, had scientists on board who set out to make scientific discoveries. And almost every important scientific expedition that left Europe to some distant land also had political ambitions of conquest.

The most famous example is the expedition of James Cook to the South Pacific Ocean and Australia in 1778. The Cook expedition included a team of about 10 scientists from various disciplines headed by the famous astronomer Charles Green and the botanist Joseph Banks. In three years this expedition made numerous scientific discoveries and collected an immense amount of new empirical observations on geography, astronomy, botany, zoology, anthropology, medicine and so on. The Cook expedition brought back to Europe, the first detailed accounts of Australia, New Zealand, and many of the Pacific Islands.

Its findings made major contributions to a number of scientific disciplines and it sparked the imagination of generations of European scientists with astonishing tales about the South Pacific and the cultures that can be found there. Perhaps most famously, the expedition also helped to find a cure to scurvy, a disease that had cost the lives of millions of people in the early modern period.

This scientific expedition of James Cook had another purpose too. James Cook was not only a geographer but he was also a naval officer in the British Royal Navy. The ship in which the expedition sailed, was provided by the British Royal Navy, which also provided 85 well armed sailors and marines, and equipped them with artillery, and muscats, gun powder and all kinds of other weapons. Much of the information which the expedition collected had obvious political and military usages. Most importantly, Cook claimed sovereignty for Britain of many of the islands and the lands that he had discovered, most notably Australia.

In this way he laid the foundation for the British conquest of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, and the settlement of millions of Europeans in these new colonies, as well as the extermination of the native cultures of Australia, New Zealand, and much of the Pacific islands. In the 100 years that followed the Cook expedition, the most fertile lands of Australia and New Zealand were taken from the previous inhabitants by European settlers. The native population of Maori's in New Zealand, and Aboriginals in Australia dropped by more than 90%, and the survivors were subjected to a very harsh regime of racial oppression.

The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were simply inseparable. For people like Captain James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks who handled these expeditions, science and empire were basically the same thing. Another of the numerous examples of how this worked, is the famous expedition of the ship Beagle. The ship Beagle also belonged to the British Royal Navy. It was sent in 1831 to map the coasts of South America, the Falkland Islands and the Galapagos Islands in expectation of war in these areas. The British Navy needed this knowledge to prepare for war in South America.

The captain of the Beagle was not only a an officer in the navy but he was also an amateur scientist. He wanted to take a geologist on the ship because he was interested in studying geological formations that the expedition might encounter. The captain approached several professional geologists but they all refused the invitation. He finally offered the chance to a 22 years old Cambridge graduate, named Charles Darwin. Darwin studied in Cambridge to become an Anglican parson, but during his studies he discovered that he was far more interested in geology and natural sciences than in the Bible.

Darwin jumped on this opportunity. While the captain of the Beagle was spending his time drawing military maps of South America, Darwin was busy collecting empirical data about geology, botany and zoology. This was the basis of his insights, which became later on known as the Theory of Evolution. So, one of the most important of scientific theories of the modern age had it had its origin in a military expedition.

Peoples all over the world, such as for example the Indians, found out that Europeans came with all kinds of ideas about science and exploration, but in the meantime were also coming to steal their lands. In the modern era, European scientists and European conquerors both had the same mentality, a mentality of exploring and conquering. They wanted to explore new territories and simultaneously conquer them.

12.3. Discovery and conquest


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 12.3

Europeans developed the kind of explore and conquer mentality that drove them to explore and conquer the whole world. This unique mentality is best illustrated by the development of a new type of world maps in early modern Europe. Many cultures prior to modern Europe also drew maps of the whole world. Obviously, no human culture really knew the entire globe. No culture in Africa and Asia, for example, knew about America, and no human society in America knew about Africa and Asia. This did not prevent them from imagining the whole world and drawing maps of the entire planet.
World map from Europe of 1459
World map from Europe of 1459
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfamiliar areas were simply left out of the map or they were filled with all kinds of imaginary monsters and wonders. These pre-modern world maps had no empty spaces and they gave the impression of familiarity with the entire world. Such maps were drawn by the Muslims, Chinese, Japanese, Indians and mediaeval Europeans. To the left there is a world map from Europe from the year of 1459.

The most interesting thing about this map is that it is complete even though Europeans in 1459 didn't know much about Africa and Asia, and they didn't know anything about the existence of America, Australia and Antarctica. The map still gives the impression that the Europeans were familiar with the whole world.

During the 15th and 16th Century, one of the first indications of the Scientific Revolution and of European imperialism was that Europeans began to draw world maps of a new type, with lots of empty spaces. The maps with empty spaces were a psychological and ideological breakthrough. They were a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world. The most important change in this respect occurred in 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain seeking a new trade route to East Asia.

According to the calculations of Columbus, which were based on world maps from the Middle Ages, Japan is located about 7,000 kilometers west of Spain. Assuming this to be true was what caused Columbus to set sail. The the maps were wrong as there are than 20,000 kilometers and an entire unknown continent America that separated Spain from Japan. But Columbus didn't know that. On the 12th of October 1492, in the middle of the night, the expedition of Columbus arrived at this unknown continent, and landed on the Bahamas.

This was the moment that the world was basically united and changed beyond recognition. But this wasn't realised at first. When Columbus saw this island in the Bahamas, he believed that he had reached a small island of the coast of East Asia somewhere in Indonesia or the Philippines or Japan. He called the people on the islands Indians because he thought that he had reached the Indies. In mediaeval Europe East Asia was called the Indies after India. Columbus was wrong but he stuck to his error for the rest of his life and never realised that he discovered a new continent.

The idea that he discovered a completely unknown continent was simply inconceivable for Columbus and for many of his generation, because for thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers of Europe and the greatest scholars, but also holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, knew only about Europe, Africa and Asia. There is no mention of America in the Bible, and for Columbus and his generation it was inconceivable that the Bible could have missed half the world. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a man of the Middle Ages. He was convinced that he knew the whole world.

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several of the first expeditions to America around the year 1500. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts of Amerigo Vespucci, which describe the expeditions to America, were published in Europe. These texts, argued something revolutionary, namely that the new land that Columbus discovered, were not islands off the coast of China, Japan Indonesia, but that this was an entire continent unknown to classical geographers, the Bible and contemporary Europeans.

Five years later, in 1507, the famous German map maker Martin Waldseemüller was convinced by this argument, and published the first world map in Europe that shows that the new lands discovered by Columbus were a separate continent which has nothing to do with Asia. Waldseemüller mistakenly believed when he drew this new map, and had to give this new continent a name, that Amerigo Vespucci had been the first person to discover America and not Columbus. He named the new continent in honour of Amerigo Vespucci and called it America after the name Amerigo.

The Waldseemüller map became very popular and many other cartographers and map makers copied his map along with the name that he gave to the new continent. America was named after a little known Italian who was the first person to say that he didn't know, and that there was an entire continent which he simply knew nothing about. This was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution because it taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions and sacred texts. And the desire to conquer and control America obliged the European conquerors to start searching for new knowledge very quickly.

If the Spaniards, Portuguese, and later the English, Dutch, and French, really wanted to control the vast new territories they found in America, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climates, the animals, the people, the languages, the cultures of this new continent. All previous knowledge in the Bible, in old geography books, and all the ancient traditions, were of little help to find a way in the new world of America.

Map drawn in Italy in 1525
Map drawn in Italy in 1525
The depth of this revolution can be shown by another world map drawn in Italy in 1525, about 30 years after Columbus. Whereas the previous map from 1459 is full of continents and islands and very detailed explanations of all the places in the world, the 1525 map is mostly empty. The area which contains America, there is an incompleted coastline. There are huge blank empty spaces on the map and the map does not give any answers as to what's there. The map admits that this is unknown, and the map invites the observer to set sail and find out what's out there.

From that point onwards, not only European geographers, but European scholars in almost all other fields of knowledge and science began to draw maps with blank spaces. They begin to admit that their theories about physics, biology or economics were not perfect. In the following centuries, the Europeans were drawn to these blank spaces on the maps. During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, European expeditions circumnavigated Africa, explored America, crossed the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and created a network of bases and colonies all over the world.

They established the first truly global empires and united the entire globe into a single trade network. The European expeditions transformed the history of the world from many histories of isolated peoples and cultures into a history of a single integrated human society. These explore and conquer expeditions of the Europeans are so familiar to us that we tend to overlook just how unique and extraordinary they were. Nothing like it had ever happened before in history. Long distance campaigns of conquest are not a natural undertaking for people, not even for big empires.

Throughout history, most human societies, even most kingdoms and empires, they were so busy in local conflicts with their neighbors, that they never considered exploring and conquering unfamiliar distant lands. Most of the great empires of history extended their control only over familiar lands around them. They reached very far places simply because, as they kept growing and growing, they came in contact with more distant lands and, and conquered them too.

For example, the Romans at first controlled only the city of Rome, but then in order to defend Rome against invasion from the North, they conquered Etruria. Then, in order to defend Etruria, they conquered the Po Valley and subsequently they conquered the Provence in Southern France to defend the Po Valley. They conquered Gaul in order to defend the Provence. And finally, they conquered Britain in order to defend Gaul. It took the Romans about 400 years to get this far. But in the beginning of the process, in the 4th century BC, no Roman would have imagined to explore and conquer Britain.

It did happen from time to time, that an ambitious ruler or an adventurer would embark on some very long range campaign of conquest, but such campaigns were usually tried to conquer an existing and familiar empire, not completely unknown lands. For example, the campaigns of Alexander the Great did not result in the discovery of new lands and the establishment of a new empire, rather they were simply a successful attempt to conquer the empire of the Persians.

The closest precedence to the voyages of discovery of the modern Europeans were the voyages of discovery the Chinese empire sent in the early 15th century. Between 1405 and 1433, a Chinese admiral, Zheng He, led seven huge fleets from China to explore the Indian ocean. The largest of these seven expeditions contained almost 300 ships and carried close to 30,000 people. Zheng He visited and explored to some extent Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red sea and East Africa. In the early 15th century, Chinese ships reached Malinde on the shore of Kenya in East Africa.

Compared to the fleet of Zheng He, the fleet of Christopher Columbus in 1492, which consisted of only three small ships and 120 sailors, was insignificant. Even though the Zheng He expeditions were formidable, there was a crucial difference between Zheng He and Columbus. Zheng He, explored the ocean and assisted the pro-Chinese rulers in southern Asia, but he did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited. And more importantly, these expeditions of Zheng He 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 faction of the Chinese empire changed in the middle of the 15th century, the oversea expeditions were terminated. The great fleet that Zheng He built was dismantled. The technical and geographical knowledge was lost. And no explorer of such ambition or stature ever set sail again from a Chinese port. The Chinese rulers in the following centuries, like most Chinese rulers in previous centuries, restricted their interests and ambitions only to East Asia.

The Zheng He expeditions are nevertheless very important because they prove that Europe did not enjoy any outstanding technological or economic advantage over the Chinese or other people. What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled ambition to explore and conquer the world. Other empires like the Chinese, the Muslims or the Indians, did not send expeditions to explore and conquer distant and unfamiliar lands, not due to lack of abillity but simply due to lack of interest. And it didn't make any sense to conquer far and distant lands.

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 to immediately claim all this land for their country. Even after the Europeans began to send these expeditions of exploring and conquering the world, the other main powers in the world like the rulers of the Middle East, India, and China, still did not try to compete with them. The rulers of China and the Ottoman Empire heard pretty quickly about the discovery of America and other new lands, but even then they had very little interest in these discoveries.

They continued to believe that the world revolves around Asia, and that nothing of importance exists in America or Africa, and therefore they made no attempt to compete with Europeans for control of America or for control of the new ocean trade routes in the Atlantic and the Pacific. At the same time, even very small European kingdoms like Scotland and Denmark tried to send a few exploring and conquering expeditions to America, but not no expedition to America was ever attempted by the Muslims, the Indians or the Chinese.

That Chinese didn't think that there could be something important for China in some place in the new world. The first Chinese world map that actually showed America as part of the world was published only in 1602, more than a hundred years after Columbus, and even that map was published by a European missionary. For 300 years after Columbus, the Europeans enjoyed undisputed mastery in America, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. There were many struggles for controlling these new territories, but all the struggles were between different European powers, or between the European powers and the local population.

The big powerful kingdoms and empires of Asia and Africa did not try to intervene. It was the resources and the wealth that the Europeans accumulated in these new lands and the oceans that eventually gave them enough power to compete with the Asian empires in Asia itself and to defeat them. When the Ottomans, the Persians, the Indians and the Chinese finally understood that America and the oceans of the world were important, it was already too late as they were already too far behind the Europeans.

What united modern science and European imperialism was the urge to discover and conquer new things and new lands. The empire supported scientific explorations because these explorations proved themselves very useful. The first really important science of the Scientific Revolution was geography, not physics, chemistry or biology. Geography received the biggest investments as it gave the biggest results. It gave the Europeans mastery over new lands and new oceans. But what began with geography soon spread to other disciplines such as medicine, physics, logistics, economics and anthropology.

12.4. Modern science and European empires


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 12.4

What united modern science and European Imperialism was the edge to discover and conquer. At first the European empires supported mainly geographical explorations, but soon research spread to many other fields. Even studies which seemed completely useless were often supported by the European empires, because they might discover something what might be useful. For example, in the 19th century botanists and anthropologists who studied the folk medicines of local shamas and witch doctors of American tribes, discovered a treatment for Malaria, which was then used to conquer Africa and other tropical lands.

When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring archaeologists to systematically study Indian history. They did not bring anthropologists to study Indian culture. They did not bring geologists and zoologists to study the soils and the animals of India. But, once the British conquered India, this is exactly what they did. The British explored, not only things with obvious utility, such as where the main roads of India pass or where the location of the gold mines is.

The British also took the trouble to collect information about Indian spiders and butterflies, and to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages. They researched all kinds of forgotten ruins in order to better understand the ancient history of India. A good example of what the British did, is the discovery of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. The Indus Valley civilisation was the first great civilisation of India. It was destroyed around 2,000 BC and then completely forgotten. No Indian knew anything about it, until the British came.

Another example of the European scientific curiosity is the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The last person who was able to read hieroglyphic script probably died sometime in the early first millennium AD in the Roman Empire when Egypt was ruled by the Romans. Since then, the inhabitants of Egypt frequently encountered hieroglyphic script on all kinds of monuments, ancient ruins and broken pots, but they had no idea how to read these strange writings, and as far as we know very few of them if any tried to do so. The Arabs and the Ottoman Turks made no serious attempt to decipher hieroglyphics.

Rosetta stone
Rosetta stone
Hieroglyphics were eventually deciphered when the Europeans conquered Egypt. In 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt, his soldiers were busy building a fort at a place called Rosetta. They discovered a stone with three inscriptions on it: one in ancient Greek, one in Demotic Egyptian script, and one in Hieroglyphics. Napoleon had taken with him 160 scientists from different disciplines to study Egypt, and when the soldiers discovered this stone, it was quickly brought to the attention of these scientists.

They immediately recognised the crucial importance of this stone as it could be the key to deciphering the lost writing of ancient Egypt. They had three inscriptions, one of which they could easily read, the Greek, and if they assumed the three inscriptions contained the same text, they could use the Greek to understand the hieroglyphics. Two years later, in 1801, the French army in Egypt was defeated by the British and, as part of the surrender terms, the French had to give up the Rosetta Stone to the British.

The British also recognised the importance of this stone for science, so they took it from the French, and put it in the British Museum where it is still standing. But the British allowed scholars from all over Europe, not just Britain, to come and try to decipher the Rosetta Stone. After 20 years of attempts, a French scholar called Champollion finally managed to decipher the hieroglyphic part of the Rosetta stone. This was the crucial breakthrough which enabled scientists to read countless other ancient Egyptian inscriptions and to explore the forgotten world of ancient Egypt in detail.

What we know today, not only about the ancient history of Egypt, but about the ancient history of the whole world, about all kinds of animals and plants all over the world, about outer space, about the structure of atoms, all owes a very huge debt to the contributions of the European empires. The empires of did not support everything. They supported mainly scientific projects which they thought could be of some use to them, not necessarily by inventing new technologies. Science could also be useful by allowing the Europeans to get to know better the lands which they ruled or by giving ideological support to the European empires.

That the European empires supported scientific projects because these could give them ideological support can be seen, for example, in the support that the European empires gave to the study of history and archaeology and biology. These fields of science enjoyed a lot of help from the European empires, while they developed historical and biological theories that gave justification and legitimacy to the European control of the world. In the 19th century and in the early 20th century, historians and archaeologists argued that most of the great achievements of humankind were due to the efforts of the white race of the Europeans.

Biologists at the same time argued that the white race according to those studies is biologically superior to all the other races. According to these scientific theories, which were very widespread in the 19th and early 20th century, Europeans had the right and even the duty to conquer and rule the world. The historians and biologists tended to give their support to the empires, first of all, because the empires financed them, but also because the scientists really saw the empires as engines of progress and working for the betterment of humankind by bringing the light of reason, science and progress to the dark regions of the world.

Reality was often far away from these fantasies. On many occasions, the European empires brought war, famine, exploitation and racism, and not medicine, roads or schools. For instance, the British conquered Bengal in 1764. It was the richest province of India. The new British rulers were only interested enriching themselves. They adopted a disastrous economic policy that within a few years led to the outbreak of the great Bengal famine, which began in 1769, five years after the British took control. It reached catastrophic proportions in 1770 and lasted until 1773. About ten million Bengalis died from this calamity.

This did not prevent the British and the British scientists from saying that they were bringing progress to Bengal and India. On the other hand, we shouldn't jump to the opposite extreme and conclude that all this talk about progress was just nonsense, and that the European empires did nothing of value. The European empires did provide better healthcare, better economic conditions and greater security from violence to their subjects. The issue of European imperialism is complicated. The European empires did so many different things that they provide plenty of evidence for anything you want to say about them.

If you want to argue that the European empires brought death and injustice, you can find many examples to support this view. If you want to argue that the European empires improved the conditions of the subject populations by bringing new medicines and technology, you can find plenty of examples to support this view as well. Due to their alliance with science, the European empires wielded so much power and led to so many changes, that perhaps they simply cannot be labelled as either good or evil. The European empires in alliance with science created the world of today, including the ideologies which we use in order to judge them.

Without the contribution of scientific methods and knowledge, the Europeans could not have conquered the world, but the conquerers provided scientists with information and protection, supported scientific projects, and spread the scientific way of thinking over the world. Without imperial support, it is doubtful whether modern science could have progressed very far. There are very few scientific disciplines that did not begin as servants to imperial projects and do not owe, even to this day, many of their discoveries, collections, buildings and scholarships, to the generous help of army officers, navy captains and imperial governors.

Science was supported by other institutions in addition to the empires, and the European empires rose and flourished partly thanks to factors other than just science. Behind the meteoric rise of both modern science and the European empires, there is one particular force that is important. This is Capitalism. Capitalism provided the financial means that were vital both for doing science and for building empires. Without this financial support, Columbus could never have reached America, James Cook could never have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong could never have reached the moon.

13. The Capitalist Creed

13.1. Trust in the future


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 13.1

There was a close relationship between science and European imperialism. Without the contribution of scientific methods, knowledge and ideology, it is hard to believe the Europeans could have conquered the world. On the other hand without imperial support, it is doubtful that modern science would have progressed very far. The rise of the capitalist economy was closely connected with both modern science and the European empires.

Economics is often seen as a notoriously complicated subject but understanding modern scientific and economic history and the rise of the capitalist system is actually quite easy. All you really need to do, in order to understand modern economic history, is to understand growth. The most unique and important characteristic of the modern capitalist economy, is that it's growing all the time. Every year we produce more than last year and we have more goods and more money and more of everything.

Global production 1500 AD versus now
Global production 1500 AD versus now
In 1500 global production of goods and services in the entire world together is estimated to have been equal to about $250 billion dollars in 2013 dollars. Today, in 2013, global production hovers around $60 trillion dollars. More importantly, in 1500 annual per capita production, the production of a single person on average, was $550 dollars per year. Today, on average, every man woman and child on Earth, produces 8,800 dollars.

To understand how a modern economy grows at such an astounding rate, let's begin with a simple example. Suppose you want to open a new business, for example a bakery, and you don't have the money, then you go to the bank and ask for a loan. The bank has money to give you because people put their earnings into the bank. Let's say that in your city there is a big contractor who has just finished a big project, the building of an Italian restaurant, and earned one million dollars so he takes this one million dollars and puts them in the bank on his account. The bank has now 1 million dollar.

As you go to the bank, and you tell a banker about your dream of opening a bakery, the bank has money to give you. You present your business plan to the banker, and explain to the banker what you want to do, how much money you will make, and that you don't have the money at present, so you need a loan from the bank. And if the banker is convinced by what you tell her, she can take the one million dollar and loan them to you so you can build your bakery. You hire the same big contractor to build your bakery. When you pay the contractor a million dollar, he deposits this money also in his bank account.

Now a simple question is how much money does the contractor have now in his bank account? The answer is two million dollars, the one million dollars from before, and the one million dollars from you that you know paid him to build your bakery. But how much money or cash is there actually in the bank? There is only one million dollar because the bank loaned the previous million dollars to you, and this is the million dollars you gave the contractor.

Now it becomes more strange. Let's assume that two months after beginning to build the bakery, the contractor comes to you and tells that all kinds of unforeseen problems and expenses emerged, and that the cost of building the bakery is not one million dollar but two million dollars. You go back to the bank and explain what happened. If you're lucky, you get another million dollar loan from the bank, and you transfer this money to the contractor. How much money does the constructor have in his bank account? Now he's got three million dollars. But in the bank there's still one million dollars.

In fact, it's the same million dollars that's been there all along. According to current US banking law, the bank can repeat this exercise seven more times. It can seven more times loan you 1 million dollar so that eventually the contractor would have 10 million dollars in his account, when in fact the bank has only 1 million dollar in its safe. Banks are allowed, according to today's banking laws, to loan ten dollars for every dollar that they actually possess.

If you go to the bank and deposit one dollar, the bank is allowed to loan other people ten dollars. Where the other nine dollars come from, is very important to understand. More than ninety percent of the money in all the bank accounts today in the world, is not covered by anything. If all the account holders at your bank will come to the bank and say, give us our money, the bank will immediately collapse because the bank doesn't have all the money. The same is true for all banks. None of them have in their possession the money that appears in the bank accounts.

This may sound to you like a giant fraud, but if this is fraud, then the entire modern capitalist economy is a fraud. Some people say it is, but the fact is that it's not a fraud. It's been working an amazing way for hundreds of years. It's a tribute to the amazing abilities of the human imagination. What enables banks and the entire capitalist economy to survive and too flourish, is our trust in the future. What cover almost all the money in the world, is just trust in the future.

For example, in the in the case of the bakery, the gap between the account statement of the contractor which says three million dollar, and the money actually in the bank, which is just one million dollar, is covered by your bakery and its future revenue. The bank loaned you the missing money, trusting that one day your bakery will be built and will be profitable. The bakery hasn't baked yet a single loaf of bread or a single cake, but you and the banker think that a year from now the bakery will be selling thousands of bread loaves and cakes and cookies every day, and will make a lot of money.

Then, in this imaginary future, you will be able to repay the loan along with the interest, and the bank will then be able to give the contractor all the money in his account if the contractor demands it. The entire economy is just based on our trust in our imaginary future, and the trust that you and everybody else have, and the trust that the banker has in the bakery that may exist in one year, along with the trust the contractor has in his bank. This is why he puts the money in the bank because he trusts that in the future the bank will give him back his money plus interest.

This is how the capitalist economy functions by trusting the future, and this is why it grows so rapidly. This secret or the magic of Capitalism is that it finances present expenses with make-believe money that has no covering in the present and only may have cover in the future. This is why it is able to grow so fast. For most of history the economy was frozen, and it hardly grew at all because it was very hard to finance new enterprises because people did not trust in the future.

Imagine that you wanted to open a bakery in the Middle Ages, before the rise of the capitalist system. To build your bakery, you need to pay a builder and you need to buy an oven, pots, pans, knives, spoons and everything else you need for a bakery, but you didn't have money. Once the bakery would be open then you could earn a lot of money by selling bread and cakes. But how could you start earning that money if the bakery doesn't exist? And how can you build the bakery in the first place if you don't have money? This is the trap that froze the human economy for centuries and millennia.

Without a bakery you can't bake cakes, so you can't make money, so you can't pay the builder, and without a builder there is no bakery. Humankind was trapped in this vicious circle for thousands of years. This meant that economic growth was very limited because it was very hard to start new businesses or to expand existing businesses. The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era with the appearance of the capitalist system which is based on credit. In a capitalist system people agree to represent imaginary goods, goods that don't exist at all in the present, with a special kind of money which we call credit.

This is what enables the economy to grow so fast. The crucial thing to realise about credit is that it is based on the trust in the future. Money in general is based on trust, but money before the modern age was based on the trust in things that exist in the present. For example, you trust in the power of the king in the present, and therefore you trust his coins. Credit, on the other hand, is much more sophisticated as it is money which is based on trust in the future and in things that don't exist at all anywhere in the present, but may exist someday in the future.

There has been credit before the modern age. People have been loaning money to one another for thousands of years. We have written evidence of loans from ancient Sumer from 5,000 years ago. The problem in previous eras was not that nobody could imagine what credit is. The problem was that people did not want to extend much credit because they didn't trust the future would be better than the present. People in traditional societies did not believe in progress. They tended to assume that things were better in the past and that the future will be worse than today. At best, the future will be just like the present.

To put this in economic terms, people believed the total amount of wealth in the world is limited and stable, if not dwindling. People therefore considered it a bad bet to assume that they personally, or their kingdom, or the entire world, would be producing more wealth ten years from now. Of course, the profits of a particular bakery might rise, but only at the expense of another bakery. One city might flourish, but only if another city became impoverished. The king of England might enrich himself but only by robbing the king of France. The idea was that the economic pie of the world is of a given size.

You could cut this economic pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger. That's why many cultures concluded that making a lot of money and being rich was sinful and bad. Jesus in the New Testament said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And many people still today don't understand how Capitalism works and they still think that the economic pie is static and that if I have a bigger part of the pie then it must be because I took a slice from somebody else.

And if the economic pie stays the same size then you cannot enrich yourself except by robbing other people, and it also means that there is little reason to extend much credit to people. Credit is actually is the difference between the size of the economic pie today, and the size of the economic pie tomorrow. If the pie stays the same, why extend credit? Why assume that whoever you loaned money to would be able to repay you if the economy doesn't grow? This is why in the pre-modern pre-capitalist world, it was very hard to get loans, and if you did manage to get a loan, it was usually small, short term, and subject to high interest rates.

This made it very difficult to start new enterprises like new bakeries. Because credit was limited, people had trouble financing new businesses. Because there were very few new businesses, the economy indeed did not grow, and because the economy did not grow, the trust in the future remained small, and people didn't want to extend much credit. And this is how the expectation of stagnation fulfilled itself because people did not believe the economy will grow. Mankind eventually broke this vicious circle.

13.2. The capitalist religion


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 13.2

In the pre-modern world credit was very limited so people had difficulty in financing new businesses or expanding existing businesses. Because there were few new businesses, the economy didn't grow, and because the economy didn't grow, the trust in the future remained small, and people didn't want to extend much credit. This is what froze the economy. Then came the Scientific Revolution and the idea of progress that is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance, and invest resources in research, things can actually improve.

This idea was translated into economic terms. Whoever believes in progress, believes that the geographical discoveries, technological inventions, and organisational developments can increase the total of human production, human trade and human wealth. If you really believe in progress, it means that you believe that the entire economic pie can grow, and that everybody can enjoy more food, more clothes, and more wealth at the same time, and becoming richer is not at the expense of somebody else. In the last 500 years, the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future.

This trust created credit and credit brought real economic growth and new businesses. And growth strengthened the trust in the future and opened the way for giving even more credit. It didn't happen overnight and there were many economic crisis on the way, but over the long run the general direction was unmistakable. Today there is so much trust in the future, and there is so much credit in the world, that governments, business corporations and also private individuals can obtain quite easily large long-term and low-interest loans.

The rising belief in progress and credit also led to dramatic ethical and political revolutions. In 1776, the Scottish economist Adam Smith published the book The Wealth of Nations, which is probably the most important economics book of all times. In his book Adam Smith made the revolutionary argument that when the owner of a factory, or the shoemaker has greater profits than what he needs in order to maintain his own family, he will tend to use his profits to employ more assistance in order to further increase his profits.

It follows from this, that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity. When someone becomes richer, he or she can employ more people, and therefore these people also have more money. Adam Smith's claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for the collective wealth and welfare of society has been one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history, not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective.

Adam Smith in fact was saying that greed is good, and that by becoming richer, you help everybody, not just yourself. What Smith actually was saying, is that egoism is altruism, and that when you're being egoist and pursuing your own wish to make more and more money, you're actually being altruistic, and help all the people around you. Smith taught people to think about the economy, not as a zero-sum game, but as a win-win situation, in which my profits are also your profits. If I am poor then you probably will also be poor because I cannot buy any of your products or services.

Smith denied the traditional contradiction between wealth and morality. While Jesus said that a rich man cannot enter the kingdom of God, Smith said that the rich are the best people in society. Being rich, according to Capitalism, means being a good person. According to Smith, people become rich, not by robbing their neighbours, but by increasing the overall size of the pie. They open new bakeries and new factories, and when the pie grows, everyone benefits. The rich are accordingly the most useful and most benevolent people in society, because they are the ones who create growth for the advantage of everybody else.

This only works when the rich use profits to open new factories and to hire new employees, and not waste them on all kinds of non productive activities. Consequently, a crucial part of the modern capitalist economy was the emergence of a new ethical code of how people should behave. According this code, profits must be reinvested in production. Production brings profits and these profits must be reinvested in production, which will bring you more money and this money must also reinvested in increasing production further, in order to have more money and so forth.

You can invest your money in many ways. You can open a new factory, you can enlarge an existing factory, you can conduct scientific research, which leads to new products, you can explore new markets, but all these investments must somehow increase production, and translate into larger profits in the future. In the new religion of Capitalism, the first and foremost sacred commandment is that the profits of production must always be reinvested in increasing production. This is why Capitalism is called Capitalism. Capitalism distinguishes between capital and just wealth.

Wealth is all kinds of things. Capital means money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is something that is wasted on unproductive activities. A pharaoh in ancient Egypt, who pulls resources into building a pyramid that is not productive, is not a capitalist. Similarly, a pirate who loots a treasure such as a chest full of gold coins, and then buries it on the beach of some island in the Caribbean, is very wealthy but he's not capitalist because he didn't invest his money in anything productive.

On the other hand, a hard working factory hand, who invests some of his monthly salary in the stock market, is a capitalist. He treats his money as capital because he is investing it in production. He's not a big capitalist because he has only little money, but he's still thinking like a capitalist. This idea that the profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production may sound quite trivial now, but it was a very strange idea to most people throughout history. In pre-modern times people believed that production was more or less constant so there was no reason to reinvest profits in production.

This is why the nobility in the Middle Ages did not believe in the capitalist ethic of investment. They believed in ethic of generosity and conspicuous consumption. They had money and spend it on tournaments, banquets, palaces, walls, charity, and building churches, which are all kinds of things that don't improve production. Very few nobleman in mediaeval Europe tried to reinvest their profits increasing the productivity of their estates, for example by developing better kinds of wheat or by looking for new markets.

In the modern era this nobility was gradually replaced by a new elite of true believers in the religion of Capitalism. The new capitalist elite was not made up of dukes, kings, queens and princesses, but managers, stock traders, industrialists, and people of the middle class. These people were far more rich than the mediaeval nobility but they were far less interested in extravagant consumption, and they spent a much smaller part of their income on non-productive activities.

Noblemen in the Middle Ages wore very colourful robes of gold and silver. They devoted much of their time to all kinds of banquets and carnivals. In comparison the elite of nowadays wears dull black and grey suits. They have very little time for carnivals and banquets. Most rich people today spend their days rushing from one business meeting to another, trying to figure out where is the best place to invest their capital, and trying to find out what happened to their previous investments.

It's not just multimillionaires who invest their income in the hope of increasing productivity. Ordinary people and governments also think along very similar lines. For instance, in many modest neighbourhoods people spend lot of their time to discuss where to invest money, for example in the stock exchange, in real estate or internet startups. So even if you don't have much money, but you spend time thinking about where to put your money, then you're thinking like capitalist. This is something that the mediaeval nobility rarely did.

Also governments try to find out where to invest their tax revenues in the best way in productive enterprises that will increase the future income of the government. For example, one government may decide to invest in infrastructure such as a new port in order to make it easier for factories to export their products. This government hopes to tax these factories and get more money, which the government will then able to invest in more infrastructure. Another government may think that education is a better investment based on the assumption that educated citizens will develop high-tech industries which pay lots of taxes.

Today Capitalism is no longer just a way to manage the economy and to invest money. It has turned into a religion. It now includes a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children, and even think. The principle maxim of the capitalist religion is that economic growth is the supreme good because everything in the world depends on economic growth. Even if you want justice or freedom or happiness, you can have them only if there is economic growth.

Ask a capitalist how to bring to justice or political freedom to a place like Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, and you're likely to get a lecture on how economic growth and a thriving middle class are essential for having stable democratic institutions, and about the need to educate Afghan tribesmen to appreciate the capitalist values of free enterprise, hard work and self-reliance.

This new capitalist religion has had a decisive influence on the development of modern science. Scientific research is usually funded by either governments or private businesses. When capitalist governments and businesses consider whether to invest money in a particular scientific project, the first question they usually ask is whether this project will enable them to increase production and increase profits. A project that does not contribute to economic growth has very little chance of finding sponsors in the world of today.

Any history of modern science that leaves Capitalism out of the picture is not worth much. You won't understand the history of science if you don't take Capitalism into account. Conversely, the history of Capitalism is unintelligible unless you take science into account, because Capitalism is founded on the belief in perpetual economic growth. This belief flies in the face almost everything we know about the universe. A society of wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep with keep on growing and growing indefinitely.

The economy nevertheless managed to grow exponentially without limits in the last 500 years because scientists came up with new discoveries and new gadgets every few years. Banks and governments create the money, but ultimately the scientists will have to foot the bill. Over the last few years, since the beginning of the last economic crisis, governments and banks all over the world have been creating staggering amounts of money because everybody is terrified that the economic crisis that began in 2008 will stop the growth of the economy and cause the collapse of the entire system. If the system doesn't grow, it collapses.

Trillions of new dollars, euros and yens have been created to a give more credit and boost economic growth. What allows the governments and the banks to create all this new money? It is our trust in these governments and banks, but this trust is eroding. There is a limit to how many new dollars the US government can just create out of thin air without eroding the trust of people, not only the United States, but all over the world. Ultimately, what really gives cover to all this new money created from nothing, is our trust in science. Only new scientific discoveries can cover these trillions of dollars and save the economy from collapse.

Everybody hopes that all the researchers that are being financed by all this new money in fields like biotechnology and nanotechnology would lead to new technological inventions, which will create new businesses in new products, and the profits from all these new businesses and products must cover the trillions of dollars that governments and banks have created from thin hair over the last five years. If that doesn't happen then we are facing collapse because most of the money today in the world doesn't exist anywhere. It's just based on hopes for the future.

If these hopes are not realised then more than ninety percent of the money can just disappear. All the money in the bank accounts, pension funds and insurances can disappear if there is no growth. This would cause the collapse of the entire system. This is why Capitalism has such close links with science.

13.3. Capitalism and the modern European empires


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 13.3

Credit and Capitalism were not unique European inventions. In early China, India and the Muslim world, there were quite a few merchants and bankers who also thought along capitalist lines. However, the kings and generals in the palaces and forts of Asia tended to despise merchants and their mercantile way of thinking. Most non-European empires of the early modern era financed the walls and activities by taxing the subjects and plundering the enemy. They owed little to credit systems and they cared little about interests of bankers and investors.

In Europe, on the other hand, kings and generals gradually adopted the capitalist way of thinking, until kings and generals moved aside, and merchants and bankers became the ruling elite in politics as well as economics. The European conquest of the world was increasingly financed through credit and not through taxation, and it was increasingly directed by capitalists whose main ambition was to receive maximum returns on their investments. The empires built by bankers and investors managed to defeat the empires built by kings and noblemen because they had a much stronger financial base.

It's better and easier to finance an empire from investments than from taxation because nobody wants to pay taxes but everybody is very happy to invest. England, France, Spain and the Netherlands were much poorer and smaller countries than China, India or the Ottoman Empire, but they financed the conquest of empire not with taxation like the Chinese but with credits. European conquerors took loans from banks and investors in order to buy ships, cannons, and to pay soldiers. Profits from the new trade routes and from the new colonies enabled them to repay the loans, and thereby build trust and receive more credit next time.

Thanks to this trust, the credit that the Europeans could gain, grew more and more over the centuries, and this fuelled the growth of empires. Another major difference between the European empires and the Chinese and Ottoman Empire, is that the European empires were created and run, not by states and governments, but to a very large extent empires like the English, the French, or the Dutch Empire, were created and managed by private businesses, or more accurately limited liability companies. The early modern age was the era in which the limited liability company rose to power and became a central player in history.

Exploring unfamiliar oceans and conquering new colonies was a very risky affair. Few people wanted to take the risks only on themselves, so the Europeans created limited liability companies, and spread the risk of building an empire between many investors. If you wanted to explore the Pacific Ocean, or to conquer a new colony in America, you set up a company that sold shares on the stock exchange to investors In this way, the company collected money from a large number of investors, each of whom risked only a small portion of his capital, and there was no need to tax anybody in order to do it.

Map of Indonesia
Map of Indonesia
The stock exchange could finance campaigns of exploration and conquest far more easily and efficiently than any kingdom or empire that taxed its subjects. This is how even very small European nations like England or the Netherlands could build giant empires. For example, the Dutch Empire was built by Dutch private companies. The most famous one was the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), established in 1602.

VOC got money by selling shares in the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, and it used the money to build ships and send them to Asia and bring back Chinese and Indonesian goods, which were then sold in Europe. Later on, VOC began using the money to finance military actions against competitors and pirates which threatened the trade routes. Eventually VOC money financed the military conquest of Indonesia, the largest archipelago of Islands in the world. It has thousands of islands, which in the early seventeenth century were ruled by hundreds of different kingdoms, principalities, sultanates and tribes.

When VOC merchants from the Netherlands first arrived in Indonesia in 1603, their aims were at first just commercial. However, to secure their commercial interests and to maximise the profits of the shareholders, VOC merchants began to fight wars against local rulers who charged too much money in tariffs, as well as pirates and competitors. VOC armed its merchant ships with cannons, it recruited European, Japanese, Indian and Indonesian mercenaries, and it built forts, and conducted full-scale battles and sieges and military campaigns.

In the 17th century it was acceptable for a private company to have armies and wage private wars. VOC, over the years, conquered island after island, until it eventually conquered almost the whole of Indonesia. A private company ruled Indonesia with millions of people in it for close to 200 years. Only in 1800 the Dutch state assumed control of Indonesia and made it a national colony of the Dutch state. Today some people warn that corporations are accumulating too much power. Early modern history shows how far that can go. Businesses back then could actually have armies, fight wars and build empires.

Another Dutch company, the Dutch West India Company (WOC), was operating in the Atlantic Ocean. In order to control trade on the important Hudson River in North America, it built a settlement on the entry of the river, called New Amsterdam. The colony was threatened by Indians and repeatedly attacked by the commercial rivals of the Dutch, the British. The British captured New Amsterdam in 1664, and they changed its name to New York. The remains of the wall that the Dutch company built to defend its colony against the British and the Indians, today gives name to the most famous street in the world, Wall Street.

The British too built their empire largely with the help of private companies that raised money in the London Stock Exchange. The first British settlements in North America were established in the early 17th century by companies such as the London Company, the Plymouth Company, the Dorchester Company, and the Massachusetts Company.

Also the British conquest of India was the work of a private company, the famous British East India Company. From its headquarters in Little Hull Street in London, the British East India Company ruled a giant Indian Empire for about a century. It maintained a huge military force of about 350,000 soldiers. The army of this company was much bigger than the army of the British state. Only in 1858, the British Crown nationalised India along with the company's private army.

The nationalisation of Indonesia by a Dutch state and the nationalisation of India by the British crown hardly ended the close relationship between Capitalism and empire. On the contrary, the link between Capitalism and the European empires grew even stronger in the nineteenth century. The reason why the private companies no longer needed to establish and govern private colonies, and could allow the government to nationalise these colonies, is because in the nineteenth century, the managers and the stockholders of the companies controlled the governments.

Once they controlled the state, they could count on the state to look after their interests. Karl Marx famously said that Western governments, at least in the nineteenth century, were actually the trade unions of the capitalists. The most notorious example of how in nineteenth century governments were controlled by capitalists, and looked after their interests, is the famous Opium War fought between Britain and China in the early 1840s. In the first half of the 19th century, the British East India Company and other British businesspeople, made huge fortunes by exporting drugs, particularly opium, to China.

During this period, millions of Chinese became opium addicts, and this harmed China both economically and socially. So in the 1830s the Chinese government made drug trafficking illegal. The British drug merchants like the British East India Company simply ignored the Chinese law and continued to export opium and other drugs to China. The Chinese authorities didn't like it and they began to confiscate and destroy the drug the cargoes. But the drug companies had very close connections with the British government. Many members of parliament and cabinet ministers in London held stocks in the drug companies.

The managers of the drug companies like the British East India Company pressed the government to take action against the Chinese. In 1840 Britain declared war on China in the name of free trade. The British won an easy and decisive victory. The Chinese were extremely confident of themselves, but they had no answer to the new weapons of the British. The British in the middle of the 19th century had heavy artillery, steamboats, and rapid firing rifles.

In the peace treaty that ended Opium War, China agreed not to constrain the activities of British drug merchants, and also to compensate the drug dealers for the damages that were inflicted prior to the war by the Chinese police. The British also demanded and received control of the port of Hong Kong, which was they used as a secure base from which to sell opium and other stuff in China. It is estimated the about 14 million Chinese or 10 percent of the population were opium addicts in the late 19th century.

Today this link between capitalist and credit, and politics and government, is still very close. This is demonstrated by the fact that the success of a country in today's world depends much more on its credit rating than on its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will repay it's the its debts. In addition to purely economic data, credit ratings also take into consideration the political situation, cultural factors, social factors and so on.

For example, a country that is rich in oil, but has a despotic government and suffers from a lot of crime and a corrupt judicial system, usually receives a very low credit rating. Because it has low credit rating, it will be hard for this country to borrow money, and if it borrows money the interest rate will be high. Because it can't borrow money easily, it will be difficult for this country to develop its oilfields, and it will probably remain a poor country even though it is rich in resources.

On the other hand, a country with no natural resources, that it has peace and a good judicial system, and a free government, is likely to receive high credit ratings. This means that it will be able to borrow money cheaply. This capital can be used to develop a good education system or to develop a flourishing high-tech industry. So simply by having a good credit rating, a country that is poor in resources can become prosperous. Many of today's richest country's have few natural resources.

Capital and politics influence each other to such an extent that how the relation should be is a matter of very heated debates, among economists, politicians and the general public. One of the main issues today in politics is how exactly to manage the relations between the political system and the a capitalist system of credits, banks, and the stock exchange. Capitalists usually think that capital should be free to influence politics but politics should not interfere with business. They usually argue that when you allow political interests to influence the economy too much, the result is unwise economic decisions and slower economic growth.

For example, governments tends to tax industrialists and capitalists, and use the money for unemployment benefits to the poor, which is very popular with the voters. But many businesspeople believe that it would have been much better if the government kept taxes low and leave the money with the industrialists, because then the industrialists could use this money to open new factories and hire the unemployed, which is much better than giving them unemployment benefits.

In this view, the wisest economic policy is to keep politics out of the economy, to reduce taxation and government regulation to a minimum, and simply to allow the forces of the free market to take their course. It is argued that private investors when they are not influenced by political considerations will always know to invest their money where they can get the most profit, and this insures the fastest economic growth possible, and fast economic growth will benefit everybody, the rich as well as the poor.

This doctrine of the free market is today the most common and most important variant of the capitalist religion. The most enthusiastic advocates of the free markets criticise almost everything governments do, whether it is wars outside or welfare programmes at home. They always tell the government that they must simply do as little as possible and the markets will take care of the rest. This view of the economy suffers from several very serious problems when taken to the extreme. Thi has caused terrible calamities over the last few centuries.

13.4. Criticism of Capitalism


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 13.4

In its most extreme form the belief in free markets is naive. There is simply is no such thing as a market completely free from politics and political intervention because the most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans. Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft and violence. It is the job of the political system to ensure continuing trust by regulating the markets and punishing people who violate these regulations.

When governments fail to do their job of regulating markets properly, it leads to loss of trust in the market, dwindling credits and economic depression. There is however an even more fundamental reason why it is dangerous to give markets completely free reign. If markets are not properly regulated then there is a very real danger that powerful players in the market will exploit and oppress the less powerful in the pursuit of profits. For example, a shoe factory owner may try to increase his profits by paying his workers less while increasing their work hours.

The standard capitalist answer to this criticism is that a really free market would protect would protect even the weak. If a greedy factory owner pays too little to his workers and demands too much from them the best workers would abandon him and go work for his competitor. The tyrant boss would find himself left with the worst workers or with no workers it's all. He would have to improve the conditions of the workers or he will go out of business. His greed would then compel him to treat his workers well.

This sounds very good in theory but in practise it doesn't always work. In a completely free market, which is not supervised by kings, priests and governments, greedy factory owners can establish monopolies or cooperate together against the workforce. If there is a monopoly controlling all the shoe factories or if all the owners of shoe factories conspire together to reduce wages simultaneously, then workers cannot protect themselves by switching jobs, or even worse, greedy bosses might use their power to term turn workers into slaves.

At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe. In the only modern period, the rise of European Capitalism went and hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Unrestrained market forces, and not tyrannical kings or racist ideologies, were responsible for slavery in the European colonies. When the Europeans conquered America, and opened gold and silver mines, and established sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations, these mines and plantations became the centre of American production and export.

In order to work the mines and plantations, the owners started to import slaves from Africa. From the 16th to the 19th century about 10 million African slaves were imported to America. Labour conditions were horrible. Most slaves died in agony and millions more died during the wars waged in Africa to capture slaves, and also during the long voyage from inner Africa to the shores of America. The slave trade it was not controlled by any state or any government. It was a purely economic enterprise organised and managed and financed by the free markets according to the laws of supply and demand.

Privately owned slave trading companies sold shares on the stock exchanges of London, Amsterdam and Paris. Middle-class Europeans looking for a good investment, bought shares in the slaving companies. Relying on this money the companies bought ships, hired sailors and soldiers, went to Africa, bought slaves and transported them to America. People invested money in the slave companies simply because it was good business. In the 18th century, the profits from investing money in the shares of slave trading companies was about 6% each year. This was extremely profitable.

The real problem of a completely free market capitalist system is that it cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that night stand in the way. When growth becomes the supreme good, and it is unrestricted by any other ethical and political consideration, this can easily lead to catastrophe. Some religions in history such as Christianity or Nazism killed millions of people out of hatred. Capitalism also killed millions of people out of indifference.

The Atlantic slave trade did not result from racism or hatred against Africans. The individuals who bought the shares, the brokers in the stock exchanges that sold the shares, and the managers of the slaving companies, rarely thought about Africans at all. They were only interested in shares and money. Similarly, the owners of sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations in America, didn't hate Africans. Many of them lived far away from the plantation, and the only thing they wanted to know was how much money they made.

The Atlantic slave trade was perhaps the biggest crime of Capitalism but it wasn't a single aberration in an otherwise perfect record. There are many other similar examples like the great Bengal famine where the British East India Company cared much more about its profits then about the lives of 10 million Bengali's. Countless other crimes accompanied the growth of the modern economy in other parts of the planet.

The end result was that the economic pie kept growing but their benefits are distributed in such an uneven way that many African peasants and Indonesian and Chinese labourers even today come home after a very hard work in the factory or the field with less food and less money then their ancestors 500 years ago, even though the economy as a whole grew exponentially over these five centuries. Much like the agricultural revolution, the growth of the modern economy may turn out to be a colossal fraud. The global economy as a whole may well keep growing but many individuals still live in hunger and in very difficult conditions.

This is a very common criticism directed against the capitalist system. The capitalists have two main answers to this criticism. First, it is argued that Capitalism has created a world which nobody but capitalists are capable of running. The only serious attempt to manage the world differently, communism, was so much worse in almost every conceivable way, that nobody really wants to try again something different from Capitalism. It's like the Agricultural Revolution. In 8,000 BC you could regret the Agricultural Revolution, but it was too late to give up agriculture. Nobody today in the world has an idea of how else to run the economy in the world.

The second answer that capitalists give to the critics is that we just need to be more patient. Paradise is right around the corner. In the past mistakes have been made such as the Atlantic slave trade, but we have learned our lesson from these mistakes, and if we just wait a little longer, and allow the economic pie of the world to grow bigger, everybody will in the end received a bigger and fatter slice of the pie. The division of the profits will never be equitable but there will be enough to satisfy everybody in the world.

Standard of living
Standard of living
The are indeed some positive signs, at least when we use purely material criteria such as life expectancy, child mortality and the numbers of calories that each person in the world on average receives. The standard of living for the average human being in the year 2013 is significantly higher than that of a hundred years ago or five hundred years ago, even though there are many more people around. Capitalism allows economic pie to keep growing. Keep your trust in growth and everything will be okay.

But the big question is whether the economic pie can grow indefinitely. Every pie needs raw materials and energy. There're many prophets of doom who warn that sooner or later the raw materials and the energy sources of planet Earth will be exhausted. And what will happen when there will be no more oil and coal to fuel the economy? Will everything just collapse?