Your editor just finished reading an interesting book. The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester is, as it says on the cover, “The fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom.”
It tells the story of Joseph Needham, a British biochemist who created the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China – a series of books that revolutionized how the West viewed China’s contributions to science, technology and civilization itself.
Before Needham, the general feeling of people in the West was that, while the Chinese might have known about things like gunpowder before Europeans did, their science and technology hadn’t amounted to much. One American expert on Asia even declared that the Chinese had no knowledge of botany as a science.
Using extensive research with Chinese and other sources, Needham was able to prove that a long list of important inventions had originated in China.
These included the axial rudder in the 1st Century AD, ball bearings in the 2nd Century AD, the earliest dated printed book in 868 AD, coinage in the 9th Century BC, and the crossbow in the 5th Century BC.
So far there have been 27 volumes (and parts) of Science and Civilization published, and the project continues.
Needham was born in 1900 and died in 1994, and had an unusual personal life.
He is also known for the Needham Question: Why did the West, despite its earlier successes, overtake China?
Needham blamed government bureaucracy. The scholar-bureaucrats constantly inhibited progress after the 15th Century, he felt. Needham called it “bureaucratic feudalism.”
Your editor’s understanding is that China has had a long history of cycles of centralized rule followed by disintegration into “warring states” periods. Paradoxically, it has been the chaotic, “warring states” periods that have been the most creative.
A period of centralized rule allowed the knowledge created during the previous chaotic period to diffuse throughout the empire. However, it also quickly sought to clamp down on the creation of new knowledge as being too disruptive to the status quo.
Much the same situation developed in Japan during the Togukawa shogunate (1603-1868), with its rigid social stratification and limits on trade and knowledge.
This brings us to an important present-day paradox: How can we bring in the global governance we need to solve our global problems, but at the same time avoid the sterile centralization that so inhibited China and Japan?
According to another book your editor is reading, The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris, in 1946 Needham argued that, “… there is a distinct connection between interest in the natural sciences and the democratic attitude.” He felt that democracy could, “… in a sense be termed that practice of which science is the theory.”
In other words, we need a stronger United Nations and other international agencies, but we also need to ensure that those agencies become more democratic.