August 11, 2021
Why did Europeans come to dominate the world from roughly 1492 onward?
We live in an age increasingly resentful of the world-historical achievements of white men over the last six or eight centuries. Therefore, it’s worth trying to understand better how and why Europeans accomplished so much. Was it due to their vices, which surely our brave new world can do without? Or was it due to their virtues, about which we ought to think twice before discarding?
For example, during the racial reckoning and the not so great reset, American institutions are jettisoning willy-nilly their time-tested selection systems such as standardized testing. What if rather than a malign white-supremacist conspiracy, IQ-like tests are instead one characteristic development of a long Western tradition of progress that has, among much else, reduced infant mortality by a couple of orders of magnitude?
Jared Diamond’s 1997 best-seller Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies offered a straightforward materialist explanation for why Europeans conquered so many non-Europeans.
Much of Diamond’s analysis was prefigured in books by historian Alfred W. Crosby about the impact of Christopher Columbus on world history, such as The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (the West sent wheat, smallpox, and yellow fever to the New World and brought home potatoes, corn, and syphilis), Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, and Germs, Seeds and Animals.
In Crosby’s little-noticed 1997 book The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250–1600, however, he dared take a step beyond what Diamond was writing at the same time and ask: Could it be that Europeans won because they developed better ways of thinking?
Crosby wrote that the old Social Darwinist genetic explanation for the rise of the West
…seems hilariously unlikely today, but what other explanations are there?… Their diseases mowed down American Indians, Polynesians, and Australian Aborigines. Their animals and plants, cultivated and wild, helped them to “Europeanize” wide expanses of the world and make them comfortable homelands for Europeans. But as I played out my role as a biological determinist, I was nagged by the impression that Europeans were incomparably successful at sending ships across oceans…that they were more efficient at operating joint-stock companies and empires of unprecedented extension and degree of activity than anyone else…. Why?
This is especially curious because Europe north of the Alps, where the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire came from, had been the ragged fringe of the civilized world not many centuries before.
How, between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, had these bumpkins managed all that?
The usual answer is science and technology. But almost all the science followed the West’s great leap forward in what the French call mentalité. And much of the technology (with the exception of early Europe’s countless water mills) was more or less concurrent.
Rather, Crosby argues, around 1250 at the peak of the Middle Ages, when the West had finally achieved an impressive level of civilization after its long Dark Ages, instead of subsiding into self-satisfied stagnation as most civilizations would, Europeans kicked off a new revolution in habits of thought.
For example, around this era, people began reading silently to themselves. The first library rules stating that patrons must be quiet date from the 1400s. Before then, almost everybody read out loud all the time. One famous exception to this rule in late antiquity was the theologian St. Ambrose, who, as St. Augustine marveled, read without speaking.
Not surprisingly, silent reading is faster. So it’s plausible to speculate that if there had been written verbal IQ tests back then, the spread of silent reading over the last millennium would have led to a sizable Flynn Effect of rising test scores.
But Europeans’ new, improved ways of thinking extended beyond simple tricks like silent reading. By the 16th century, according to Crosby:
But Westerners’ lead in the way they perceived reality and could, thereby, reason about and then manipulate it was enormous.
To a Foucault or a Said, the West’s vast enhancements in the practical power of its habitual ways of thought were sinister. What matters is not how well a task is done, but who holds the whip hand. To Crosby, though, better styles of thinking are…well, better.
According to The Measure of Reality, Europeans began replacing their emotionally satisfying qualitative model of reality, which had been good enough for Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, with a quantitative approach that was globally unprecedented.
Outside of astronomy and practical matters such as tax collection, intellectual habits in the ancient and medieval world were rather averse to quantification. Geometry was prestigious, but statistics was not.
For example, Aristotle had his students carry out the modern-sounding political science research project of collecting the constitutions of 158 city-states, which he made use of in arriving at his famous qualitative taxonomy of types of government, good and bad: monarchy vs. tyranny, aristocracy vs. oligarchy, and polity vs. democracy.
But one thing Aristotle didn’t do in his Politics was what every contemporary social scientist would automatically do today with 158 data points: tabulate how many fall into each of his categories.
As far as I can tell, the data-nerd impulse just didn’t much exist until fairly recently. Crosby suggests that the Italian invention of double-entry bookkeeping around 1300 gave Europeans a much-needed handle for dealing precisely with masses of numeric detail, and thus the rise of business did more than anything else to introduce Europeans to the quantitative turn of mind.
Crosby’s portrait of Western thought before his late medieval/Renaissance revolution, what he calls the Venerable Model, is amusingly reminiscent of the most sophisticated contemporary criticisms of IQ testing:
[Plato and Aristotle] thought more highly of human reason than we do, but they did not believe our five senses capable of accurate measurement of nature.
Plato, Aristotle, and their followers weren’t stupid. They had sophisticated reasons for not thinking quantitatively.
Like 1970s Harvard professors objecting that you obviously can’t reduce intelligence to a single number, that there are different kinds of intelligence, that different cultures have different ways of being smart, the ancients and medievals tended to see the world as too diverse, too much in flux and flow, too lacking in homogeneity and standardization to measure accurately.
The Venerable Model sounds like a more philosophically sophisticated version of the increasingly dominant worldview of our current Great Awokening. While we are instructed to trust the “lived experience” of the Good People, such as black women, but not of the Bad People, such as white men, the old philosophers doubted that anybody, even the most methodical of measurers, could achieve sufficient accuracy for their purposes.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously asserted, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” which is wiser than it is helpful for the statistician.
Quantification, of course, can’t function well with too much highbrow Heraclitean quibbling: For purposes of enumerating, say, the average number men of stepping into the average number of rivers, the Scamander River has to be assumed to be the same river and Achilles the same man each time.
Beginning in the later 13th century:
The West’s distinctive intellectual accomplishment was to bring mathematics and measurement together and to hold them to the task of making sense of a sensorially perceivable reality, which Westerners, in a flying leap of faith, assumed was temporally and spatially uniform and therefore susceptible to such examination.
Crosby attempts to sum up this revolution in a practical recipe:
…reduce what you are trying to think about to the minimum required by its definition; visualize it on paper, or at least in your mind, be it the fluctuation of wool prices at the Champagne fairs or the course of Mars through the heavens, and divide it, either in fact or in imagination, into equal quanta. Then you can measure it, that is, count the quanta.
Then you possess a quantitative representation of your subject…. It can do for you what verbal representation rarely does: contradict your fondest wishes and elbow you on to more efficacious speculation.
Of course, during the Woke Era, contradiction of your fondest wishes is intolerable, so this 750-year-old white male legacy of quantitative thinking is fading in prestige.
One of Crosby’s more difficult concepts is the revolution in thinking about time. In the 1200s, after centuries of untimed Gregorian chants that lasted as long as it took to intone their words, French musicians began to conceive of:
…not time as its contents, but time as a measuring stick of independent existence with which you could measure things or even their absence—abstract time…. Time measured its contents, not contents times.
Crosby argues that Europeans invented the first really effective way to measure time—the mechanical clock—around 1300 because they gave up trying to measure time as a flow:
Time had seemed to most people an unsegmented flow. Therefore, experimenters and tinkerers wasted centuries attempting to measure time by imitating its flowing passage, that is the flow of water, sand…. Solving the problem becomes possible when one stops thinking of time as a smooth continuum and starts thinking of it as a succession of quanta.
Thus, Northwestern Europeans were inspired to invent the escapement that makes clocks tick. (Many of the subsequent awe-inspiring discoveries of the Western mind, such as Mendelian genetics, quantum mechanics, and Claude Shannon’s demonstration of all that electronic machines could do just with digital 1s and 0s, reflect how fundamental reality is often more discrete and less of an analog continuum than we assume.)
Another arduous conceptual development was the West’s slow, grudging acceptance of the existence of voids. The Venerable Model hadn’t thought much of nothingness. It famously saw the heavens as stuffed with crystalline spheres.
Similarly, Roman numerals didn’t have a zero. While European merchants enthusiastically latched onto the more convenient Arabic numerals one to nine, it took longer for them to overcome their suspicion of the strange Indian zero.
The 13th century saw the first written music, and, eventually, rests, different lengths of silence.
And until the Florentine Renaissance men Brunelleschi and Alberti revived the technique of perspective, paintings lacked much sense of space.
A good example of the trends described in The Measure of Reality is the slow evolution of the concept of temperature, which took even longer than the time period covered in Crosby’s book to become accepted as a valid category of measurement. Historian John McCaskey writes:
In the Middle Ages, temperature meant how much hot and cold tempered each other. It still did even after the thermometer was invented. Only after Fahrenheit’s thermometers (1720s) did people start thinking of temperature as degree of heat….
Even with reliable mercury thermometers, it took more than a century for theory to catch up with the instrument.
The big change was when Kelvin defined degree as a unit of measure (1850s).
Similarly, there’s a famous wisecrack by Edwin G. Boring that: “Intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.”
Arthur Jensen responded that that’s like stating that temperature is what thermometers measure (which is not a wholly derisible thing to say). Jensen recounted the reasons for skepticism about measuring temperature offered by the leading sages of the Venerable Model, who sounded like 17th-century Stephen Jay Goulds:
Judgments of temperature are imperfectly correlated among different persons, or even the same person at different times, depending on the humidity, the person’s activity level and age, surrounding air currents, and so on. The idea that anything as subtle and complex as all the manifestations of changes in temperature could be measured and quantified on a single numerical scale was scoffed at as impossible, even by the leading philosophers of the sixteenth century…. Temperature was then confounded with all the subtleties of subjective judgment, which easily seem incompatible with a single numerical scale of measurement. How could the height of a column of mercury in a glass tube possibly reflect the rich varieties of temperature—damp cold, dank cold, frosty cold, crisp cold, humid heat, searing heat, scalding heat, dry heat, feverish heat, prickly heat, and so on?
It should be pointed out that Crosby’s (admittedly speculative) history of Westerners developing new cultural techniques for more effective thinking can offer some hope that the current racial gaps in IQ can be ameliorated by the wider spread of better habits of thought.
After all, there was probably a sizable Flynn Effect going on in Europe in the half-dozen centuries before the invention of the IQ test. And after 1853 the Japanese imported many of these Western styles of thinking and became perhaps the most graph-crazed culture on earth.
On the other hand, in this Age of George Floyd, does it really feel as if the people currently on top of the totem pole of intersectionality, African-American women, are suddenly going to wholeheartedly adopt the white man’s ways of thinking about reality just because they are more useful, accurate, and honest?
In tomorrow’s America, it seems at least as likely that blacks will prove the dominant personality, and that whites will slowly shed their centuries of unfair cognitive progress in the sacred name of racial equity.
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