The election in the United States on Tuesday is the inspiration for this blog entry, a bit different from others I have written. That’s because science and technology are on the line in this election and I fear that one outcome may create an agenda for a wave of creationists and those who place belief before scientific evidence. If what I am about to say you find offensive then please stop reading here. Otherwise I invite you to consider what follows.
It has always been a mystery to me how creation science came to be called a “science.” It certainly can be described as religious dogma but to equate it with science is dubious to say the least. That’s because “creation science” is biblical and the museum dedicated to its reasoning is located in Petersburg, Kentucky. The moniker for the museum is it “brings the pages of the Bible to life.” In its interpretation dinosaurs and humans co-exist in an Antideluvian World. You learn about the “true time line of the universe,” that “biblical history is the key to understanding the dinosaurs,” and find out “what natural selection can and cannot do.” For a mere $8.99 U.S., you can buy “The Lie: Evolution,” whose author, Ken Ham, also the founder of the museum, espouses the “evil of evolution” in today’s society.
So evolution is evil and the Judeo-Christian biblical text is the revealer of universal truth. Does that mean all other religious texts with their creation myths should be treated as not true or should we give them equal weight to biblical truth? Should this be the way of science and the technology it inspires in the 21st century in America?
The Thesis I am Proposing – Learn From History
The greatness of a society is a measure of its openness to scientific discovery and new ideas. European history provides us with a good example. Europe embraced science and technology in its pursuit of economic and military supremacy. Invention and innovation were products of necessity. In the end Europe mastered the globe by the end of the 19th century. The experience of the Americas, rightly or wrongly, was Europe’s greatest experiment. From exploration, to conquest, to genocide practiced on the native population of North and South America, Europe succeeded. The United States is the product of that experiment, today, the predominant nation of the planet. Embracing science and technology played a significant role in the outcome that is the United States today. But through its entire history the United States, as has happened in Europe, has always had an anti-science and anti-technology minority who fear new knowledge and discovery and who question its pursuit. Such are those who espouse creation science. Those who home school because secular education is considered dangerous. Those who put “belief” before anything else, and particularly their own belief, not the belief of others. And those who have the ear of those who legislate.
Herein lies the lesson that history reveals.
Nations that don’t embrace science, technology and scientific discovery are societies that will ultimately fail.
When I was a student at University of Toronto I studied history. The range of my inquiry began with the late Roman Empire and ended at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The geography I studied extended from Europe to East Asia. My undergraduate theses were on the Mongol Empire, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and the evolution of Islam and religious syncretism. From my studies I share with you two historic examples.
Lesson One – China
China at the beginning of the 15th century was mining coal, had developed paper, moveable type and printing, gunpowder, the seismometer, water clocks, the compass, the dry dock for building ships, and advanced astronomical tools for studying lunar and solar eclipses. The Ming Dynasty, successor to the Mongols who connected China to the rest of Asia and Europe through conquest, enjoyed institutions of governance that existed nowhere else. Government was managed by a professional civil service who advised the emperor. Financially China developed a central bank and paper currency backed by its treasury. The empire enjoyed an extensive infrastructure of canals and roads, and a national army to protect it from invaders. China was well connected through trade with Central Asia, India, Persia, and through Arab intermediaries with Europe and Muscovy.
This was the China that embarked on a series of great expeditions to sail the Indian Ocean and find and meet other cultures for the purpose of trade and to share with them China’s national success. Zheng He, a court eunuch and Muslim, was the leader of these voyages of discovery. Hundreds of ships participated exploring from East Africa to Indonesia. These were multiple-masted ocean going vessels that made the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria look like rowboats. The expedition brought back ivory, exotic woods and exotic animals including a giraffe. The China of Zheng He was outward looking, embraced science and technology, was innovative, inventive and highly successful. And then something happened.
The emperor who sponsored Zheng He died. The court located in Nanjing, the Ming capitol, moved to Beijing where an isolationist group became a powerful court faction eventually seizing the agenda and ending the voyages of discovery. Where Zheng He’s China looked outward and forward, the “reformed” court looked backward for precedent inspired by a cultural adherence to Confucianism. The end result a society that no longer innovated. Within a few years Chinese were forbidden to voyage abroad. Ship building was restricted to single-mast ships and anyone caught building anything larger was subject to execution.
China stood still while Europe and one of its neighbours, which we will talk about next, embraced science and technology, soon surpassing the Middle Kingdom. China is only now recovering from the short-sightedness that began in 1424, almost 600 years later.
Lesson Two – The Ottoman Empire
In the 13th century, the founder of the Ottoman Empire settled on the shores of the Bosporus as a mercenary in the internicine wars being fought between the Latin Crusaders who had conquered Constantinople in 1204 and the Greek-led resistance attempting to restore the Eastern Roman Empire that we know as Byzantine. The Ottomans were refugees from the devastating success of the Mongols who had invaded and acquired much of Southwest Asia including the eastern portions of modern Turkey, Iraq, and Persia. The Mongols ended the caliphate in Baghdad. Islam had lost its religious leader. What set the Ottomans apart from other Turkish refugees was the ability to learn from neighbours, to adopt new methods of governance, to embrace technology and scientific discovery, and to use all of this pragmatically for the purpose of building an unequaled military presence. In this the Ottomans succeeded.
By 1453 when Constantinople fell to them the Empire had grown to embrace the Balkans, the Crimea and Southern Ukraine, all of Turkey and the Caucasus, and Iraq. By the mid-16th century the Empire had expanded to include all of coastal Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Cyprus and Algeria. The Ottoman navy was the most powerful in the world. The Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean were its sphere of influence. Ottoman ships had reached the Canary Islands. And even after a defeat by a combined Spanish-Venetian fleet at Lepanto in 1571 the Ottomans launched an even larger battle fleet of galleys the following year laying siege to Toulon in France, seizing Madeira from the Spanish and harassing Sicily and the Italian coastal cities.
The Ottomans embraced multiculturalism, tolerating any religion within their borders. They perfected the cannon as a siege weapon and fielded musket-equipped brigades in their wars with European neighbours. One of these was Hapsburg Austria. At the height of the Ottoman conflict with Europe, the Empire besieged Vienna in the heart of central Europe. Several times the city was the subject of attack with the last ending in 1683 with the Ottoman army withdrawing. The Ottomans were very much focused on military technology and on building a professional and permanent army. They united the Middle East and North Africa in a pan-Islamic empire. They were trade intermediaries between Europe, India, Persia and China. The restoration of Constantinople, as Istanbul, made the city the centre of the Islamic and Eastern Orthodox Christian world. And then something happened.
The Empire which had enjoyed effective leadership through a series of rulers was suddenly beset with weak rulers who succumbed to interest groups and factionalism. The leadership turned inward no longer vested in innovation, in embracing multiculturalism, in progressive reform, and in retaining leadership in military technology. The pragmatism that had been a key to the Empire’s success vanished as power devolved to regional interests and sects. The infrastructure began to break just at the point when the Empire’s neighbours in Europe were developing centralized nation states backed by banking and financial institutions to fund innovation and invention.
The Empire suffered a slow collapse picked over by European states who had little in common with the local cultures but asserted themselves militarily, establishing colonies and spheres of influence. The colonization was disruptive to a point that it created the destructive seeds that continue to be sown in that part of the world to this day.
The Lessons of History Revealed
On Tuesday the United States votes to elect a President. What can we learn from Ming and Ottoman history? Several things including:
- Leadership matters. Leaders need to have good ideas and the conviction to carry them out regardless of the obstacles.
- Factionalism, ideology, dogma and self-interest do not serve a nation well.
- Science and technology are important for any nation’s long-term success. All the bible makes good reading it doesn’t make good science.
- Education is key to national success and not just an education in science and mathematics. Einstein discovered relativity while playing the violin because that’s how he thought through his “aha” moment.