how big was the edge?

One consideration in the question of what drove the Great Divergence [when Europe’s power and wealth came to greatly exceed that of the far East] is the extent to which Europe was already ahead in science, mathematics, and engineering. As I have said, at the highest levels European was already much more intellectually sophisticated than China. I have a partial list of such differences, but am interested in what my readers can come up with.

What were the European advantages in science, mathematics, and technology circa 1700? And, while we’re at it, in what areas did China/Japan/Korea lead at that point in time?

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209 Responses to how big was the edge?

  1. rzg says:

    For one thing, the Royal Society was formed in 1660.

    The process and norms which they formalized was a kind of technology in and of itself.

  2. In terms of technology, Europe was ahead in time keeping. David Landes “Revolution in Time”. This had surprisingly wide consequences.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Clocks and bells from the later Middle Ages onward helped make entire towns in Europe more efficient: much less Hurry Up and Wait. People could make appointments or call meetings and start on time.

      The Chinese emperor had an ancient water clock, but they treated it as a curiosity.

  3. JMcG says:

    Shipbuilding. Navigation.

    • David Pinsen says:

      The Chinese had pretty impressive ships under Zheng He, and were able to navigate around the Indian Ocean. Their ships were larger and may have been more advanced in some ways than European ones. But the Chinese weren’t big on exploration.

      • Slush Fund Puppie says:

        Europeans were first to circumnavigate the globe. Junk sails are less efficient.

        “The junk rig typically produces less drive than a similarly sized Bermuda rig at low angles of attack … and this is especially pronounced in light wind.”

        “No matter what we did, Whisper – the Bermudan-rigged Splinter – was by far the quicker boat. She felt lighter, more powerful and more eager to go. She was also faster through the tacks, carrying much more speed into them and accelerating rapidly on the exit.”

        • Bob says:

          Magellan’s carracks were lateen and square rigged, which generally weren’t better than junk rigs. The very fast Bermuda rigs you have in mind were developed in the 19th century and more recently out of yacht racing.

      • dearieme says:

        I have an acquaintance who is a historian of that affair; he doesn’t believe the reported sizes of the ships. I tend to agree: into which harbours could they have sailed? Against which quays would they have been moored? How would a wind-powered fleet of such disparate sizes have been kept together at sea given the naturally different sailing speeds of the vessels?

        My own feeling is that the fact that China spent its money on a show-the-flag cruise of well-known waters rather than on a bit of exploration into the unknown is part of the reason that the GD occurred. The fact that poor, tiny, powerless Portugal could achieve so much in oceanic exploration – thus enabling the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Columbus – but that huge, powerful, rich China achieved nothing in that direction, is very striking.

        • Jim says:

          Of course the geography of poor Portugal tended to focus it on sea-navigation somewhat like the Ancient Greeks. China was a continental power.

        • Frau Katze says:

          China lacked a motive to make long sailing trips. Portugal and Spain wanted to trade with the East but there were two obstacles: 1) North Africans were furious over being kicked out and refused to have anything to do them and 2) there was trade via places like Lebanon but the Italians had that route sewed up and charged a fortune to trade with Portugal and Spain. Portugal also had one king that kicked it off…he was really interested.

  4. RJW says:

    Draft power. Milk. Hay.

  5. marcel proust says:

    RE – The last question: right off the bat, cotton technology, urban sanitation.

    Wall building 😉

    • teageegeepea says:

      Greg Clark has claimed that England was far filthier than China or Japan, although most people back then didn’t live in cities (which were death traps until sanitation improvements).

      • Urbanization says:

        Urbanization (as a % of the population) tended to be a fair bit more intense in core Europe, particularly in Italy across the period of the Divergence and prior to it, per Maddieson – – compared to China or Japan as a whole. In England it was beyond China as a whole (this said, some subregions of China may have been quite urbanised).

        Aside, if cities were death traps and European cities particularly so, Maddieson’s rates of urbanisation imply quite a bit higher death rates from illness in Italy and the Benelux than China as a whole all through the period. I wonder if this was the case?

  6. DataExplorer says:

    1700? I thought they were already rushing ahead by the 1300s, only to be delayed by the onslaught of the Black Death.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      James Belich thinks it was the Black Death which actually caused the Great Divergence. It halved the population, but without doing any other material damage, as a destructive war or natural disaster would have. People started applying existing labour-saving technologies more systematically, as well as inventing new ones.

      His argument’s a bit more complicated than that. Here it is in full:

      • Abelard Lindsey says:

        I subscribe to this theory. Halving the population without the collateral damage that results from wars or natural disasters helped to break up the guild system. The guild system is what prevented innovation as well as upward mobility prior to the Plague.

  7. Gord Marsden says:

    Optics ,glass making,fine machining , and with Newton alone mathematics and physics and all derivative sciences like astronomy .

  8. Gord Marsden says:

    Newcomen had a working steam engine running in Cornwall by 1712, indicating better casting, forging and machining.

  9. The Z Blog says:

    1) The Western belief that it is man’s destiny and duty to master the rules that govern the natural world.

    2) The inability of one tribe to dominate the others for an extended period. Thus, constant warfare.

    3) Ashkenazi Jews.

    • Jim says:

      How significant were Ashkenazi Jews in European science and technology in 1700?

      • gcochran9 says:

        Totally insignificant, then.

      • The Z Blog says:

        Hofjude were common enough in the 16th century to have the term. Vivelin of Strasbourg financed the English in the 100 Years War. Josef Goldschmidt was major financier in Europe in the 16th century.

        I don’t think you can discount the role of banking and finance in the growth of Europe.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Before 1700, Ashkenazi Jews did not contribute to the growth of mathematics, science, or technology in Europe. As for the idea that they played a crucial financial role in this period – not so. Medicis, Fuggers.

          • The Z Blog says:

            I don’t wish to quarrel over it, but I think you may be missing my point. Early banking and finance allowed for capital formation in order to invest in math, science and technology. I’d also throw in seigniorage, which allowed the crown to focus excess capital toward technological progress.

            Your other commenters seem to be looking for a eureka moment when someone in the West stumbled on a doo-dad that launched the West into a technological revolution, relative to the East. Instead it was long strands that evolved over time to form a rope which the West used to hoist itself ahead of the East.

            • Rosenmop says:

              The number e was discovered by the bankers, in conjunction with interest.

            • j mct says:

              The Medici were financiers. Until the 1700’s Jewish financiers were called pawnbrokers by their contemporaries and Jewish merchants were called peddlars by their contemporaries. They didn’t contribute much to what was then Christendom, until it wasn’t Christendom anymore.

            • jackmcg says:

              Ingenious finance certainly helped, but Ashkenazi jews had little to do with it. Much of the progress was chiseled very early in Genoa, with its strong merchant marine culture and strongly enforced restrictions on usury. Advanced contract law and risk-pooled marine insurance allowed for exploration and entrepreneurship. Also corporations owned by shares had roots in Genoa. The true Joint-Stock Corporation came later and undoubtedly is of Anglo-Saxon credit.

              The type of finance and banking Ashkenazi Jews are most known for, mostly usury and tax farming, was obviously far more controversial and many places in Europe accumulated capital just fine without it.

          • josh says:

            The Jews lent to the lower classes who were tax-farmed by the land lords who owed compound interest to the Medici and Fuggers. A vital role.

    • kennt says:

      1) The Western belief that it is man’s destiny and duty to master the rules that govern the natural world.

      When it comes to human belief systems and ideologies, before the modern era there is absolutely nothing more anthropocentric than Confucianism.

    • savantissimo says:

      Jews contributed far less than Quakers up to the 20th century.
      Here are some Quaker inventions: the fixed-price shop, banking for the middle class, interchangeable parts (ploughshares), making iron with coked coal (and the major parts for the first few decades of steam engines), cast steel, rail transport (unpowered wooden and iron, powered passenger rail, rail timetables) the timepieces of Quare, Tompion and Graham (and funding the Harrison chronometer), the atomic theory of chemistry (Dalton), and the wave theory of light (Young), antiseptic surgery (Hodgkin). There are quite a few more.

      All the Quakers in American and English history from the mid-1600s on were only about six million in number (difficult to calculate exactly), so relative to their numbers it is even more impressive.

      • savantissimo says:

        Correction:antiseptic surgery was invented by Joseph Lister. His father Joseph Jackson Lister worked with fellow Quaker Thomas Hodgkin (pioneer of histopathology) in inventing the achromatic microscope objective.

  10. pyrrhus says:

    Canal building and scientific agriculture, both of which were in full swing by 1700. Northwestern Europe was far ahead of China in agricultural productivity. The Black Plague probably played a significant part in this process…

    • gcochran9 says:

      I’m not so sure about China being behind in agricultural productivity.

    • bbartlog says:

      I think some of this disagreement about agricultural productivity may be the result of some people talking about productivity per unit of labor (where Europe was ahead) while others are looking at productivity per unit of land (where China was ahead). But technologically, the former is more relevant.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        There are a lot of ways to measure productivity. People probably measure average productivity, either per land or per labor. But those depend not just on the quality of the labor, land, and technology, but also on the ratio of labor to land. With more people, they cultivate more intensely, subdividing good land and opening up bad land. To isolate the effect of technology, you really want to hold the labor and land constant.

  11. SD says:

    David Landes’s ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ lists out a whole lot of things that caused the divergence. One of them being making time keeping devices accessible to all, another being the invention of eyeglasses, almost doubling the productive years of experienced craftsmen. Even something as simple as the invention of screws and bolts made a huge difference..

    • Jim says:

      China also had eyeglasses.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Well after they were invented in Italy.

      • Karl K says:

        Brad DeLong says they didn’t make their own:

        Seventeenth-century China was well aware of growing European technological developments. It was “Peach-Blossom Fan” author land and lord-scholar-bureaucratic notable Kong Shangren who wrote:

        White glass from across the Western Seas Is imported through Macao: Fashioned into lenses big as coins, They encompass the eyes in a double frame. I put them on—it suddenly becomes clear; I can see the very tips of things! And read fine print by the dim-lit window Just like in my youth.

        Yet neither Kong Shangren nor any of his relatives and descendants ever thought that the optical glass business was worth studying or researching or entering or even financing. It was simply not the kind of thing that a Confucian gentleman would do.

    • Cantman says:

      Sounds like reverse causality. Possession of superior technology is a result not a cause of superior technological development.

  12. Gord Marsden says:

    Accurate division engines to facilitate telescope transits, rifling in barrels and artillery tables. A new mode of war. Rifles would eventually subdue masses of lesser arms and facilitate empire buliding .while Europe looked out and conquered, China fell back into itself . Early rifling is circa 1500.

    • AppSocRes says:

      Rifled barrels were a technical novelty until well into the eighteenth century. Their first widespread civilian use were the Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifles developed by immigrant German craftsmen in the British North American colonies towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. Rifling techniques for mass production and widespread use of rifled weapons for military applications didn’t occur until the mid nineteenth century, i.e, about the time of the War between the States.

      But I think you’ve hit on something important here. An earlier poster remarked on the fractured political structure of Europe which resulted in an almost continuous state of warfare in Europe and among its colonial possessions. This encouraged a concomitant constant striving to improve military and naval technology dating back into the fourteenth century. By the sixteenth century the resulting advances in military and naval technology gave Europeans a significant advantage over other civilizations, e.g., the Turks and the Chinese. This edge steadily increased from that time forward well into the early twentieth century.

      • AppSocRes says:

        One amendment: There were specialized rifle units in European armies, particularly the British, from the late eighteenth century forward but the rifle didn’t achieve mass use in armies until the invention of the Minie ball made muzzle loading as easy for rifles as for muskets.

        • Paul Washington says:

          One reason for the slow loading was that the bullet had to be cranked (along the grooves) into the rifle with a wooden ram-rod, which could easily break if pushed too hard. An iron ram-rod would damage the rifling. Therefore, loading rifles was very slow, compared to muskets. Since military doctrine called for massing firepower by massing soldiers, rifles weren’t used much except for hunting.

          • Tom Bri says:

            Americans improved on this by wrapping the ball in a cloth or leather patch, making loading much easier. With a dab of fat on the bore, loading a ball is easy. I occasionally shoot blackpowder rifle, and use a wooden ramrod.

      • Well, this is going to be a long comment, so pull up a chair.

        I study Western (Medieval and Renaissance martial arts) and sword physics, and might be the first person since the 1600’s to explain how a sword works (with equations). I learned a great many things along the way. So here are some of my thoughts on the question of why the Europeans were ahead of everybody else.

        The Western approach to martial arts developed into something quite different from most other places, perhaps because of the mindset and amount of money and thought Europeans were putting into military problems, perhaps as a natural outgrowth of Ancient Greek and Western thought, or maybe their approach to logic and theology . I’ll just focus on the result of those influences, the mindset of Medieval and Renaissance fight masters. Most are familiar with modern fencing, and earlier rapier teachers applied math and geometry to the practical and theoretical problem of their form of sword combat. But there were earlier and really much better systems of swordsmanship (single hand and two hand) that had reached a high state of development since the 1300’s. Those techniques were extremely sophisticated and very effective.

        As an example of these earlier masters, Liechtenauer was a German fight master in the 1300’s whose influence in Germany was profound, and a small part of his system, his approach to a fight, was based on making mental simplifications in order to reduce the size of a fighter’s decision tree, and thus his decision time (speeding up the OODA loop). He had a lot of theories and knowledge that had a lasting influence, much certainly coming from even earlier masters.

        One thought found in many of the manuals is that new techniques can come from a deep understanding of theory, observation, or experience, but the techniques must be tested, tested, and tested, looking for flaws, counters, or exceptions, and they must be especially replicated by third parties.

        That last part is very important because it’s all too easy for a master and his students to fool themselves, because in practicing the technique to show it works, the students are also learning how to fail at countering it – so as to show that it works, and thus a master and his own students aren’t a good independent test. A technique that works must work when used by people trying to show that it will fail, not by students who are cooperatively failing to defend against it so as to make their master’s idea look good. (Various modern martial arts are full of techniques that really only work on students. Browse Youtube for obvious examples.)

        That marriage of theory to practical experiment is the scientific method, and the people using it were examining data, motions, times, and decision trees to propose new theories, based on earlier theories, and then requiring third party experimental verification. And even one counter to an accepted technique could be a disproof of the technique. Martial arts manuals from the 1400’s through the 1600’s have many examples of a long accepted technique just disappearing. Someone had developed a counter to it, or found a better method, or found a flaw. The attitude of the masters was both “prove it to me”, “let me prove it to myself”, and “I will prove a disproof and refute it.” Western martial arts was a science before we had science.

        Another stark difference between Western and Eastern martial arts is that in the West didn’t have the idea that there was some ancient “perfect” technique. The Western approach was that there is a sort of universe of possible techniques, and by theory and experiment a master has to sort through them to find new possibilities, or a theory whose explanatory power reduces a wide range of techniques to the application of a few core principles, which once understood allow a lot of predictive power. They also viewed techniques as transient, based on which enemy is using what. A set of techniques may be the greatest thing ever, a war-winning set of knowledge – until the enemy learns it and develops counters, and then a new set of techniques will have to be developed. There is no static, universal apex of truth, only new and better insights.

        Martial arts weren’t viewed as a static set of knowledge, but a dynamic one, yet all based on the underlying truths of things like time, motion, geometry, leverage, power, mass, armor, and psychology. And the quest for knowledge was adversarial. Your enemies are innovating and coming up with new techniques and new weapons, and to stay ahead you had to innovate faster. You need to render their innovations obsolete by developing better ones. It’s a mindset we’re extremely familiar with because we inherited it. Galileo in one paragraph will be talking about the relative velocity and impact angle in a spear attack, citing what “everyone knows”, and then turns right to cannon ball impacts, talking about angles, cosines, relative masses, and relative velocities, material strength and resistance. To him, swords, spears, and bullets are all the same thing.

        Advice from the period fight masters included such gems as “Learn everything your master knows, then study under other masters, because they will know other things. But the human mind cannot hold all the information in the martial arts, so you must consult all the books. written by the masters. Eventually you will get good enough to develop new techniques, which you will add as comments in existing books, and when you become a true master you will write your own book, correcting the errors of prior masters.”

        That is very important, because it shows that they had the mindset (shared today in science), that you’ve really mastered your field when you’ve gone beyond your own teachers, and that true genius is shown when you positively refute something important they taught you. We call those revolutions, and they are a great thing.

        In contrast, I read a very interesting article from a Chinese professor who was on a cruise with a bunch of geologists, and the most revered was the one who confirmed plate tectonics. What amazed the Chinese professor is that the man’s own professors were there and praising him to the moon as their best-ever student, even though he had refuted what they’d taught him and shown them to be completely wrong!

        In Chinese thinking, he explained, a student becomes a master because he carries on the unbroken lineage of knowledge, tracing back through master after master. Even today many Eastern martial artists are obsessed with the chain of masters, tracing their own school’s lineage all the way back to the original Shaolin temple. But this mindset also means that if you refute your own master’s teaching, then that master couldn’t have been a true master, and if he wasn’t a true master then you couldn’t also be a master because your master wouldn’t have had the “true knowledge” to pass along to you, so you can’t know anything yourself, and you are just a fool and an idiot. Consistent revolutionary and serious innovation, in both Asian science and martial arts, couldn’t occur under such a system because they had no way of rejecting mistaken knowledge without discrediting the innovator, and all knowledge is in part mistaken.

        Col. John Boyd (who led the development of the F-15 and F-16, among other tremendous things) developed a theory of how intelligent beings think in an essay he titled “Destruction and Creation“. In it he explains how we build a mental theory of the world based on our senses, and that mental map will contain gaps and flaws. Over time entropy accumulates because when we encounter exceptions to our mental theory, we most easily just make a note of the exception (A coconut is furry and makes milk, but is not a mammal). But when that entropy gets too large, we realize the mind doesn’t match reality and we reexamine everything we know, destroying the old model, reexamining all the raw data, and forming a newer, more elegant theory that better explains the observations, and we do this by expending tremendous mental effort. People sometimes call this an epiphany, and some of them are emotionally devastating.

        The flaw in the Eastern approach to knowledge (it all comes from a chain of masters who knew the truth), is that a person who goes through Boyd’s “destruction” phase, tearing down his old understanding of the world, even when it’s followed by the epiphany of the “creation” phase, leaves the person who had the key insights in a discredited heap, shunned and reviled as the fool who tried to discredit his own master instead of honoring him like a good student should. They can still add and expand on knowledge, the can still innovate by building upon what was previously known (a new way to use the snake strike!), they just can’t go through the “destruction” phase where they reject prior knowledge, prior worldviews, as wrong. They can add to the temple, they just can’t tear it down and rebuild it in completely different way.

        The Western (European) martial artists sought out these kind of insights, actively looking for flaws in accepted theories and explanations, “models of the world”, through direct observation and testing, never standing pat, while refining their theories and models and practice of combat, everything from training to tactics.

        Now, how does this tie in to other European advances? Simple. The smartest, richest young men in Europe really had two basic life paths, the church or the army. Kingdoms lived or died on the skills of their weaponeers and martial artists, and one such man named Galileo got a job in the Venetian Arsenal. He did a lot of experiments on weapons, looking for the underlying truths of things like sword impacts and projectile motions. While he was there he was of course working with lots of Europe’s brightest minds on the martial arts (which in Europe was a broader term that encompassed pretty much everything a military man might need to know). Their experience was one of observation, test, test, independent replication, and letting the data take you where it goes. That’s a smart way to discover truths about the world. Galileo used it in full.

        Among some of his extraordinary studies were ingenious methods to study the force of impact, a perplexing problem, which he reduced to impulse to learn such things as mass times velocity = force times time, and that in an impact between an infinitely hard hammer and infinitely hard anvil, the impact force would be infinite. In my studies I learned more real knowledge about sword impacts from reading Galileo’s “Two New Sciences” (1638) than existed on the Internet prior to 2000. But of course a man’s IQ generally drops 50 points when you put a sword in his hand, so perhaps that was to be expected.

        Anyway, Galileo talked up a fascinating problem with Marin Mersenne, head of the Paris Academy who was the center of all physics communication in Europe. The problem was this, as reported by Christian Huygens: Find the center of percussion of a triangle hung by its vertex or its base by purely analytical means, and that Fermat and Descartes and all the rest had already tried and failed at the problem. They already knew the answer for about 20 plane figures, but nobody had a really good understanding of why nature worked the way it did. I wrote to the head of science history at Princeton, explaining that what Huygens was talking about was a sword because I’d had to solve the same problem in my studies, and he went through the letters between Huygens and Mersenne and confirmed that the most famous problem in all of physics was that of finding the center of percussion of a sword.

        And it’s a fascinating problem because one of the ways of experimentally finding it was to swing the sword as a pendulum and find the length of the simple string pendulum that swings in time with the blade. The other method is to make an impact along the blade and observe the resulting center of motion. The sword will pivot around some point, ideally somewhere in the handle, and the distance between the impact point P and the sword’s center of mass and the resulting center of motion (pivot point Q) and the sword’s center of mass, when multiplied together, form a constant (PQmass = moment of inertia). If you rotates the line between the center of mass and the pivot point 90 degrees, it would form a rectangle with the line between the impact point and the center of mass, and in the plane of impact that size of that rectangle will be constant for all possible impact points and pivot points.

        Further, if you view the resulting motion, you could put a fulcrum at the pivot point and the sword would be simply rotating around that fulcrum, applying no force at all. But it’s still a fulcrum. The mass of the sword is the load, and the distance to the impact point is the length of the lever arm, or moment arm. All sword impacts can be analyzed as a type 3 Archimedes lever, from which you get an “apparent” mass at the impact point, which is the sword’s total mass divided by the mechanical advantage of the lever. That apparent mass is the blade’s inertia at that point. Combined with the mass of the target, that lets you reduce the impact to the simple case of two colliding point masses. Approaching the problem this way gives us terms like moment arm, moment of force, moment of inertia, and inertia (the resistance to acceleration).

        Knowing that, the next problem is figuriing out the physics of two colliding objects, in elastic and inelastic impacts. Combined with the studies of pendular motion used to experimentally determine a sword’s percussion point (which also determines how it swings when considered like a rock on a string) you realize that impacts and pendular motion are key to understanding how a sword works. All major advances in physics in the 100 years prior to Newton were advances in the study of impacts and pendular motion. As confirmed by Huygen’s letters with Mersenne, they were studying swords.

        And the sword masters had for centuries held that theory, testing, refutation, and independent experimental replication were the keys to finding new knowledge and fundamental truths. The brightest minds in Europe applied those techniques to quetions of natural philosophy, so I’d assert that science is an outgrowth of Western martial arts.

        That is something the East couldn’t do, because their approach to martial arts isn’t conducive to producing fundamental breakthroughs or innovations, it’s designed to pass down, unaltered, a “truth” from an ancient temple. Those who think they know the truth stop seeking it, and don’t try to prove themselves wrong. They stagnate. We innovate. Part of innovating, not surprisingly, is abandoning old methods. As we developed and refined guns we forgot about our prior sword techniques because they’d been rendered useless. We forgot it so thoroughly that even simple things like “what is the center of percussion” got lost. By the 1800’s sword folks thought it referred to the node of oscillation you see when you slap the side of a blade. Period swordsmen would have called that something like “the node of oscillation.” It is not generally the center of percussion except on cavalry sabers. (BTW, you move the center of percussion, relative to the hand, out towards the tip by adding a weight on the end of the handle, and we call that weight a pommel.)

  13. deuce says:

    On the “screws and bolts” front… the Chinese never went in for olives or wine, thus they never developed the press technology which came in so handy for the printing press revolution and in other applications. Lactase persistence and dairy farming were “edges” as well, though the lactase thing isn’t “tech” or science.

  14. China was the most scientifically and technologically advanced civilization for most of history, but Europe had clearly pulled ahead in many important respects long before 1700. Europe began exporting precision machinery to Asia, for example, by the early 14th century (Clocks and Culture, 1300-1700, by Carlo M. Cipolla describes how technology pioneered in Europe facilitated her eventual rise to world power). Matteo Ricci astonished the Chinese sages by predicting the solar eclipse of 1592 with far greater accuracy than they did. “Backwards Europe” is neo-Marxist mythology. I don’t know of any specific areas in which China/Korea/Japan still led the west in 1700–there may well have been some–but I have read that rocket technology was pioneered in southern India, and introduced to the west through the conflict between the British and kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I would say that although the Chinese discovered and invented many things, they never developed science, anymore than they developed axiomatic mathematics.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        China: Magic and Technology
        Europe: Theology and Science

        The European emphases take longer to get going.

        • Anchises says:

          I don’t read Chinese and I’m fairly ignorant of Eastern history, but people presumably smarter than me have pointed to different types of academic institutions. European universities, based in the Trivium, emphasized argumentative logic and debate. Chinese schools, according to this theory, emphasised graceful literary style and the subtle interpretation of wise proverbs. (Compare the approach of an “Eight-Legged Essay” with that of the Summa Theologica). The European system supposedly also churned out a lot more graduates per capita, and the schools were more fixed and permanent, so knowledge was at least preserved during hard times like the 14th century, while in China technological innovations tended to get lost or forgotten about during the bad years.

      • Whyvert says:

        “although the Chinese discovered and invented many things, they never developed science”
        This implies that the decisive thing, the most important event, in history was the scientific revolution.

    • mtkennedy21 says:

      Joel Mokyr makes the point that the Ming Dynasty, in reaction to the end of the Mongol period, stopped the technological progress of China and got very conservative about such things as ships and metallurgy. Also, the rice culture of China prevented much progress in agriculture since it was so efficient in feeding the population.

  15. engleberg says:

    Cod fishing was how Western Europe conquered the world. As the Vikings chased the cod harvest from inside the Baltic to the Grand Banks they went from round ships to tall ships, and were joined by Basques, Portugee, Dutch, English. Tall ships that could handle the North Atlantic could travel the world: Guns, Sails, and Empires. The concentrations of wealth in the East provided a huge incentive. Not that Europe was dirt poor, just not enough concentrated wealth for a fleet of Chinese junks to come back from looting Rome or Venice piled high with enough to draw more fleets. European cannon were better at knocking ships apart, and heavy ships that could handle the Atlantic held up better to cannonballs.

  16. Bob says:

    I think they were well behind by 1700.

    China seems to have been ahead of Rome in many areas of technology, mainly in mechanisms. I don’t know how long that lead persisted though.

  17. The Monster from Polaris says:

    I believe Chinese steel production led the world until late in the 18th century, though I haven’t found any references to support that.

  18. Bob says:

    Maybe the junk rig, which was arguably better than the sloop and gaff rigs. They were slower upwind, but had many advantages overall and were more reliable. They were generally pretty fast and very easy to operate, maintain, and build, and cheaper because of the lack of standing rigging.

    This may seem trivial, but schooners and clippers dominated the international economy for the next century and a half until the Industrial Revolution.

    Of course, the junk rig had been developed long before 1700, and they didn’t end up exploiting it for major enterprise during the 18th century.

  19. Sean says:

    The Dutch invention of the publically traded company has a claim to being of overriding importance.

  20. Del Gue says:

    Casting bells for basilicas and cathedrals allowed the West to exploit gunpowder by creating cannons.

  21. Whyvert says:

    Around 1700
    (a) Europe had invented modern science and formulated its basic ideas of experimentation and discovery. So it was far ahead in that realm.
    (b) In technology there was overall parity I would say. BUT Europe was clearly on an upward trajectory, whereas China was not.
    (c) Science was on the cusp of advancing technology. For instance, during the 1700s science enables accurate cannon fire (due to knowledge of air resistance and the math of ballistics), and artillery officers (like young Bonaparte) have to know their mathematics. In the 1700s science also contributes to inventing the steam engine (plus tinkering inventors play a role too).

  22. MawBTS says:

    Military-wise, the Portuguese look way ahead of the Ming Chinese by the mid 16th century.

    Arquebuses, matchlock muskets, and breech loaded cannons. We know this stuff was better than the Chinese equivalents, because they copied them. After the battle of Xicaowan, the Ming captured some swivel guns and started making their own imitations, which they called “Folangji”. Apparently some Ming prince received a shipment of Folangji to deal with a seditious local lord, and he literally wept for joy.

    It’s crazy, considering that China had the first guns, rockets, and cannons. It’s like if Apple’s next iPhone was a reverse-engineered Huawei.

    One explanation I’ve heard is that cannons weren’t hugely useful in China due to the strength of Chinese walls. European fortifications were made of stone. Rigid, hard, and inelastic. Fire a cannon at stone, and it cracks. But Chinese fortifications tended to be a single course of stone or brick, backed by several meters of packed earth. A very strong design against sharp, sudden force.

    So where the Europeans were firing early cannons at their castles and thinking “Yay! Let’s make these weapons even better!” the Chinese were firing early cannons at their castles and thinking “Nope. Dead end.” The Europeans had a logical hill-climbing path while the Chinese didn’t. Similar to the argument that the wheel never took off among the Incas because unless you have gearing it’s of limited utility in the mountainous Andes.

    …But this doesn’t explain why it wasn’t just Chinese artillery that fell behind, but Chinese everything.

    • Patrick L. Boyle says:

      It is a mistake to imagine that the Chinese invented gunpowder. You can only believe that if you reverse the idea of invention.

      Normally we speak of an invention as the final product of a long series of innovations that didn’t quite yield the desired effect. So Edison who tried hundreds of filaments wasn’t credited with the light bulb until he found one that worked. Let’s say he had first tried bamboo. We don’t credit him with inventing the light bulb because he first used a bamboo filament. So the Chinese who had early on made a combustible compound of salt peter and honey shouldn’t be credited with gun powder.

      Gun powder – meaning that manufactured powder which was used in guns – was invented in Europe probably by the French or Germans around the end of the Hundred Years War,. There had been many concoctions with nitrates floating around Europe, the Near East and Asia for centuries. But they were not militarily effective. When gunpowder was first corned it became important at once. Corning was the last technique needed for the development of true gunpowder. and it kicked off what military historians call the “Gunpowder Revolution”. By an accident of climate and geology salt peter is more common in India and China than Europe. So combustible nitrates were discovered rather late in Europe. This is similar to the reason that China had iron casting first. The iron ores in China had lower melting temperatures than European ores. This allowed China to have cast iron while Europe only had forged (wrought) iron.

      The Gunpowder Revolution swept from the West to the East not from the East to the West. When Lord McCartney visited China at the end of the eighteenth century, he found that China’s armed forces were innocent of guns and gunpowder. The Chinese troops used crossbows – weak crossbows.

      In the fifteenth century gunpowder factories were state run monopolies. They were the high tech munitions industries of the day. They manufactured gunpowder. They didn’t just mix it up.

      Gunpowder was not just a simple mixture of Charcoal. Salt Peter and Sulphur. Captain Kirk used that to kill the Gorn but in the real world uncorned powder just shakes apart into its constituent parts and is useless.

      • David Pinsen says:

        He wounded the Gorn with it, but didn’t kill him.

      • Whyvert says:

        “The Gunpowder Revolution swept from the West to the East not from the East to the West.” All this is false. It is easy to go to google images and find Chinese paintings depicting gunpowder weapons and pictures of surviving guns from the 1200s.

        • engleberg says:

          It is easy to find images of things that might have been guns or might have been ‘fire-siphons’ or might have been ‘trumpets’- flame-throwers, that is, not so much bullet-throwers. They threw bullets or arrows too, but a mass of burning sulphur in your face is bad. A mass of burning charcoal in your face is bad. A mass of burning poo and saltpeter in your face is bad. Lots of mixtures were tried, along with burning oil and burning brandy. The Egyptians had burning sulphur, everyone with wood fires knew about charcoal, everyone with dung fires knew the dry stuff burns more especially nitrates or saltpeter.
          But the Great Divergence was when thousands of ships and tens of thousands of sailors capable of handling high seas were available for cheap bulk transport. That was the cod harvest of Western Europe. A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World/

    • Whyvert says:

      Yes, the Chinese copied European guns in the 1500s-1700s, as did the Japanese and others in Asia. And of course European nations were copying from each other. But the ability to copy something is itself a sign of competence. (Hence it indicates a kind of parity.) Lack of ability to copy is the real sign of waywardness. Japan never lost its ability to copy whatever the Euros might come up with. China did lose this in the 19th century. In the late 20th century it regained much of it, but there are indications that China is still today unable to implement some forms of advanced precision engineering. (It goes without saying that most of the rest of the world has never had the ability to copy advanced technology.)

    • akarlin says:

      There’s an interesting theory that the reason China was very late to adopt gunpowder is that it went further in the development of the war bow than any other civilization (so QWERTY effect, essentially).

      I recall reading that China did use gunpowder weaponry extensively in its final wars to subjugate the Central Asian nomads in the 18th century, but then just regressed for much of the 19th century.

      • Whyvert says:

        China was the first to invent gunpowder weapons: it used bombs/grenades and guns in the 1200s. Europe did move ahead somewhat especially in cannon around 1400-1500. But China was quite capable of casting copies of Portuguese or Dutch cannon. China did not however understand how to build or besiege the star fortresses that were the response to cannon. (I think because they required geometry to design.) China fell behind not because of its lack of technology but its lack of science. The scientific revolution was what set Europe apart in my opinion.

        • Peripatetic commenter says:

          China was the first to invent gunpowder weapons: it used bombs/grenades and guns in the 1200s.

          Have you read the document that everyone claims proves this assertion? Do you even know what gunpowder is or what fire pots were?

          The document you want is: 武經總要

          If you search the web you can find it. When you do and if you can read the Chinese, you will find that there are three ‘recipes’ in it that look like gunpowder and several sites point to the first two. The surprising thing is that neither of the first two contain charcoal despite containing lots of other crap. The third has coal and not charcoal. Their titles are also dead give aways.

          Further, similar to the Milemete gun, it looks to me like many of those so called pictures were executed by people who were not actually familiar with the technology. See this article for a discussion of why the depiction of the Milemete gun is probably wrong.

  23. Steve Sailer says:

    It’s an observation of Charles Murray’s “Human Accomplishment” that Chinese, South Asian, and Islamic civilizations were stagnating about 500 years ago. The Japanese, in contrast, made steady but not spectacular progress even during their closed off period from 1603-1853. For example, the keeping of sports statistics seems to go back to professional sumo wrestling in Japan in the 1700s.

    • David Pinsen says:

      The Japanese also developed commodity futures trading with rice in the 17th century.

    • Patrick L. Boyle says:

      I think you have missed the main thrust of Togugawa rule. They were anything but progressives. The Tokugawa Shogunate was established based on the use of Western guns. But shortly thereafter they established policies that rid Japan of virtually all firearms. They also tore down bridges and put the people on foot. The Samurai had been mounted lancers and archers but the Togugawa rule made them foot troops with swords only. The Japanese were retrogressive for this long Tokugawa period.

      When Perry and the Black Ships sailed into Tokyo harbor it was a huge shock. For more that two hundred years they has been taking their civilization apart. They reversed the main vector of their efforts and decided to be modern.

      I wonder if Americans or indeed any Europeans could have managed a turnaround as fundamental as the Meijii restoration.

      Anyway what would the Sumo sports statistics have looked like? Fat guy goes boom. Fat guy goes boom. etc…

  24. akarlin says:

    It’s worth strongly emphasizing that key parts of Europe (Italy, the Low Countries) probably surged ahead of China in general literacy as early as the late 15th century, with much of the rest of core Europe following in the 16th century.

    Book production in Europe from the 16th century was an order of magnitude higher than in China.

    The literacy rate in England approached 50% by the middle of the 17th century (even higher in the United Provinces). In China, it was around 10% as late as 1900 (according to the results of later censuses).

    This was in large part due to the structural difficulties of attaining literacy in a character based writing system. From my article Intro to Apollo’s Ascent:

    One critical consideration is that not all writing systems are equally suited for the spread of functional literacy. For instance, China was historically one of the most schooled societies, but its literacy tended to be domain specific, the classic example being “fish literacy” – a fishmonger’s son who knew the characters for different fish, but had no hope of adeptly employing his very limited literacy for making scientific advances, or even reading “self-help” pamphlets on how to be more effective in his profession (such as were becoming prevalent in England as early as the 17th century).

    No matter how clever you are, you’re not going to accomplish much without literacy.

    And more speculatively, even the IQ differential between Europeans and Chinese back then was lower or non-existent because of: (1) Lower quality of life in China; (2) greater parasitic load; (3) Modern Europeans having been subjected to a good century of so of dysgenic decline, versus only since the 1960s in China.

    • AppSocRes says:

      As an adjunct to literacy, the development of perspective in painting and the formalization of these techniques via perspective geometry created the art and science of technical illustration which gave Europeans an enormous advantage in recording and communicating scientific and technological advances,

    • Causality says:

      I think the causality is a bit wrong here – you get “fish literacy” because the fishmonger’s son has no cultural curiousity outside that sphere, and no groups of young men with intellectual curiousity and schools working together to learn outside it.

      It’s not because there are no Chinese dictionaries, and so unfamilar characters are just incomprehensible to groups of people who are interested. You’d also get a push towards phrasing texts explaining complicated concepts with limited Chinese character sets, if there was curiousity.

      • akarlin says:

        No, you get that because acquiring (and maintaining!) general literacy in a character-based writing system is far harder than in an alphabetic one.

        China has never had any shortage of schools and schooling in the past millennium (relative to other societies at the time) – even commoners had some access to it.

        “You’d also get a push towards phrasing texts explaining complicated concepts with limited Chinese character sets, if there was curiousity.” –> this happens when you get widespread general literacy, e.g. technical pamphlets began to proliferate in England in the 17th century. The reason there were much fewer of them in China is due to the absence of a mass readership for them.

        • Causality says:

          The hard part of learning anything new is the concepts and finding teachers and other students. Learning a new symbol for each new concept would be annoying, but less of a constraint than I think you believe. You’re overrating how difficult characters are, as you’ve not yourself been raised in the system. No question the alphabet is more efficient, but I doubt it’s that of a major advantage to being literate in topics outside the basics.

          IRC thriving markets in “self help” books, botany, medicine, poetry all by the Song, which didn’t cease before the Wing.

          • akarlin says:

            You’re overrating how difficult characters are, as you’ve not yourself been raised in the system.


            Having studied Mandarin for a year, I agree with virtually everything in David Moser’s essay. Telling example:

            I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether “abracadabra” is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on “rhinoceros”, but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.

    • Jim says:

      I’m confess I’m skeptical of your statement that the literacy rate in England in 1650 was 50%. Perhaps it was in London but the entire population?

  25. The West: musical instruments, musical notation, composition
    Japan: Sanitation. Human waste was collected, stored for long periods, which reduced parasite transmission (but not odor), and used as fertilizer. Very little waste-borne disease. Japanese also kept cleaner. Reference: Alan Macfarlane: The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan, and the Malthusian Trap

    • Slush Fund Puppie says:

      LOL. They fertilized their fields with human poop, therefore they were more sanitary than the filthy Europeans.

      • Peter Akuleyev says:

        Yes, they were. It is certainly better to cart human feces off to fields rather than dump it out the window onto city streets. Europeans in the 17th century were filthy even compared to Muslims or American Indians.

        • ursiform says:

          “even compared to”

          Europeans were commonly filthy when Muslims and American Indians were generally more hygienic. Why express this in a way pejorative to Muslims and American Indians?

  26. akarlin says:

    Couple of things that haven’t been mentioned yet in which China retained a long lead:

    (1) Porcelain. Big Chinese export item to Europe. Apparently, by the mid-18th century, you could create your own design, send it to China, have the object made, then have it shipped back to you, all within a few months. Basically a proto-Ali Baba, though only accessible to the very rich.

    (2) Agriculture. Some Chinese agricultural techniques were more advanced than in Europe up to the end of the 19th century. I don’t have the reference on me, unfortunately.

    The absolute converse would probably be astronomy – China never even came close to catching up with Ptolemy’s Greece.

  27. kennt says:

    It depends on what you mean by “intellectual sophistication” – I don’t think China ever ceded ground to the West when it comes to literature, high art or speculative metaphysics.

    They likely produced humanity’s greatest and most copious body of lyric poetry in the Tang and Song dynasties, they independently invented the play and operetta during the Yuan Dynasty, and then the novel during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It’s true to say that China has never produced novels as great as the Russians have – but then again no one ever has.

    But I’d certainly consider the Dreams of a Red Mansion, Journey to the West and the other Classical Chinese novels to be the equal of the best Victorian literature, and it was created one to several centuries in advance of the latter. Victorian novels are not a super high benchmark.

    Chinese painting never created the myriad techniques for reproducing convincing lifelike appearances that the West developed, but is unsurpassed in terms of composition and conception, and is to my mind more sophisticated in its theory of what visual art should be – i.e. something expressive as opposed to just mimetic.

    • gcochran9 says:

      They did pretty well, considering that they were just butterflies dreaming that they were men.

      But… there is a real sense in which the Elements, or the New Astronomy, or the Principia, are more sophisticated than anything Confucious ever said.

      They’re not just complicated – they’re correct.

      • kennt says:

        “But… there is a real sense in which the Elements, or the New Astronomy, or the Principia, are more sophisticated than anything Confucious ever said.”

        I’d completely agree, which is why I didn’t include empirical science or mathematics in my statement, and made reference instead to speculative metaphysics. There’s not much in British Idealism or even Kant that the Chinese Buddhists or the Neo-Confucians didn’t ponder, touch upon, or explore better (Wang Yangming vs. Berkeley for example on why things continue to exist when no one perceives them).

        Confucius isn’t the be all end all of the Chinese intellectual tradition or even Confucianism – Neo-Confucianism produced a plethora of metaphysical thinker during the Song and Ming Dynasties (which is unusual given that metaphysics is at odds with the Confucian tenor)

      • kennt says:

        “But… there is a real sense in which the Elements, or the New Astronomy, or the Principia, are more sophisticated than anything Confucious ever said.”

        Following further consideration I might have to disagree with this assertion actually – you have to define what you mean by “sophisticated.”

        The Elements and Principia pertain to mathematics and physics, the Analects talks about the human condition, ethics and governance. They’re two completely different things – is it more sophisticated to talk about how life should be lived than it is to elucidated the correct movement of bodies? Who is more sophisticated – Gauss or Dostoyevsky, given Einstein liked them both equally.

        With respect to correctness, The Analects is definitely right about somethings.

        • Bob says:

          He means systematic, analytical, etc. Chinese treatments of these topics tended to be highly literary and metaphorical.

          If you’re really interested in comparative philosophy, read Brook Ziporyn’s “Ironies of Oneness and Difference”, which shows that the Chinese dealt with basic ontological concepts in a very different way, and in a way which was averse to systematic and analytical treatments.

        • Deckin says:

          In the area of governance, find any notion of rights (moral, political or otherwise) in Confucian thought. Surely the recognition and development of those in the West counted for (and still counts) for something.

    • David Pinsen says:

      The Derb isn’t impressed by Chinese literature. I recommended the Three-Body trilogy to him, but he was skeptical. It’s actually top-notch sci-fi, but China still punches below its weight in literature, judging by what’s available in translation.

    • Timing says:

      Though rather prompts the question to me of what the Chinese were doing when the Romans and Greeks had classical theatre, and the novel, and why it took so long.

      • Difference Maker says:

        There are short stories from the Tang dynasty

        That reminds me, I think the examination system was fatal

  28. Earl Benton says:

    “The Astrolabe, Equatorium, Quadrant, lathes and Traversing Tools, Ball Bearings, Gudgeons, Gig Mills, Barometers, Jacks, Hammer Forges and Drop Forges, Printing, Steel that was more than puddled Iron, Logarithms, Hydraulic Rams, Screw Dies, Spanner Wrenches, Flax Solder, Telescopes, Microscopes, Mortising Machines, Wire Drawing, Stanches (Navigation Locks), Gear Trains, Paper-making, Magnetic Compass and Wind-rhumb, Portulan Charts and Projection maps, Pinnule-sights, Spirit-Levels, Fine Micrometers, Porcelain, Firelock Guns, Music Notation and Music Printing, Complex Pulleys and Snatch-blocks, the Seed Drill, . . . ” R. A. Lafferty from the short story “Among the Hairy Earthmen.”

  29. Gord Marsden says:

    Large scale coking furnace, shrimpshire, , soon plate iron a nd steel

  30. Eugine Nier says:

    Access to Greek logic, mathematics, science.

    • j says:

      By 500 BC the Greeks were ahead in everything: arts, philosophy, maths, astronomy, navigation, warfare. The Renaissance was exactly that – building upon the half-lost Greek legacy. For some reason, Chinese visual and dramatic arts under-impress me, and The Red Chamber novel seems second rate to me. Matteo Ricci was promoted to Imperial Astronomer as he set foot in the capital and soon the Jesuits were teaching the Chinese how to write essays for the Imperial exams.

      • Bob says:

        Ricci and other Jesuits introduced mnemonic techniques which originated in classical Greece to Chinese students and imperial exam candidates. I don’t believe they actually taught them how to write essays. At any rate, the techniques didn’t end up being widely adopted, likely because they tended to focus their instruction and missionary activity on specific elite officials, rather than the wider populace.

  31. tommy says:

    “I recall reading that China did use gunpowder weaponry extensively in its final wars to subjugate the Central Asian nomads in the 18th century, but then just regressed for much of the 19th century.”

    Given that Texans reportedly weren’t able to deal very effectively with their own nomadic enemies, the Comanches, until the invention of the Colt .45, maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising. Once the enemy got over their fear of the loud bang of gunpowder, they would have discovered that early firearms were awfully slow and cumbersome to use on horseback compared to the bow. The Comanches themselves quite effectively ditched their rifles in favor of their traditional weapon for quite some time.

    • Jim says:

      It was not unusual for Plains Indians fighting the US Army to have better firearms than the US soldiers. In general US soldiers fighting the Plains Indians were poorly equipped. US Army requisition was highly corrupt at the time and the general public had little interest in how well the Army was supplied.

      In addition to being better equipped the Plains Indians had much better horses.

      Comanches were never afraid of loud bangs.

      • Jim says:

        At first the Plains Indians were poor shots because they tended to aim high as if shooting an arrow. But those who survived improved their marksmanship to the point that they were about as good as US soldiers in this regard.

        • Jim says:

          Not that US soldiers at the time tended to be great at shooting ability.

          • Gord Marsden says:

            This discourse above indicates military schools were a must. Organized troops and tactics vrs masses chaos. .

            • Jim says:

              Most US Army officers at the time of the Indian Wars in the West were West Point graduates but what they were taught there was as completely useless in the fighting against the Plains Indians as was the sabers they were issued.

              What saved the US Army then were civilian scouts both white and Indian who actually had a clue as what to do.

  32. teageegeepea says:

    Timur Kuran’s “The Long Divergence” is an interesting take on how the Ottomans fell behind. I’m unaware of an equivalent book from a far eastern perspective.

  33. James Richard says:

    The list of 17th century European mathematicians is nothing short of awesome.

  34. benespen says:

    Much earlier than 1700, the Venetian arsenal was capable of mass-production of galleys using specialization, standardized parts, and minimizing the amount of time you spent moving stuff around or looking for things.

    • Difference Maker says:

      Though not unique, their flying bridges and naval assault towers in the siege of Constantinople are impressive. Confess at being envious of what must have been an exciting and glorious enterprise.

      A Greek might feel differently of course

  35. swampr says:

    Piston pumps, from antiquity. Boyle’s Law, 1662. Of course those were irrelevant if you buy that Newcomen’s engine was just the inevitable result of higher labor costs in Cornwall than Shanxi.

    • bdsc says:

      That’s a very pithy refutation of Pomeranz et al.

      • myb6 says:

        Always felt labor-cost argument needed to be far more specific. The cost-benefit of automation isn’t going to be driven much by the overall economy’s silver or wheat wages. Invention is probably dependent on (# of very-high-IQ workers working in an industrial cluster), innovation seems to mostly happen face-to-face even today, but adoption probably needs high-IQ workers to be cheap relative to typical labor (not necessarily “unskilled”).

        Somebody’s probably tested this and gotten nowhere as is the case with most of my purely-intuitive, poorly-elaborated ideas, so if I’m totally off and you know it please send me a pointer.

        Opportunity cost for high-IQ: I’m not the first to wonder if the Mandarin system hurt China by having their best competing to manage the state rather than market production.

  36. Slush Fund Puppie says:

    Technically, antiquity Athens and Rome were located in Europe.

  37. James Higham says:

    All the above are correct but don’t discount religions/belief systems, which influenced mindsets.

    The way Christianity influenced men and women, even in something as apparently irrelevant as momogamy had no issue with the financial and scientific advances. A close look at Islam in Persia shows advances despite, not as a result of Islam, which was antithetical to advancement not dedicated to Allah.

    The Chinese mindset had a whole lot to do with it, as people pointed out above.

    • MawBTS says:

      The church’s rulings on consanguineous marriage may have influenced European social structure for the better. As far as I know, hbdchick’s theories are plausible but unproven.

      Simply believing in Christianity doesn’t seem to correlate to much. Anyone who says otherwise has to play whack a mole with inconvenient facts. Where’s the scientific renaissance ushered in by the Coptic Church in Ethiopia? Or the Nestorian Church in China?

  38. whyteablog says:

    Off topic: I had a question about viruses adding new DNA to animal genomes.

    I was TAing for a high school biology lab today, and after class I chatted biology with the teacher. He shared the idea that viruses may have added a real big chunk of the human genome. I’ve been introduced to this idea before, but for some reason my gears got turning this time.

    What might happen if a virus injected its DNA into the germ line of a human, and the resulting gamete ended up becoming a zygote and getting born? For example a virus adds genetic information to chromosome 14 in a spermatogonial stem cell, it becomes a sperm cell, it becomes a kid, etc.

    I’d have to guess that, if ever the viral DNA was expressed in the testes/ovaries at any point in their lifetime, their future offspring could become homozygotes for the new gene, right? Rinse and repeat until the entire species had a brand spankin’ new gene, probably not a good one, but yeah. Could explain why some genes dominate during meiosis. Could explain theoretical “empty zones” of inactivity in the genome, if we still think they exist, because knockout copies of those genes would probably undergo positive selection. Could explain transposons maybe?!?

    (Some scientists are planning to use CRISPR to pull this stunt on mosquitos as you probably already know, with the goal of getting rid of malaria. Sounds dumb.)

    Is there any reason my thinking on this is wrong- does this not work? It requires a pathogen that wouldn’t kick up a fatal immune response if it got expressed all over your body, or which wouldn’t get expressed all over the body. And it can’t be too common, or else our percentage of homologous genes with other mammals would have to be lower.

    • says:

      Just heard a belated BBC podcast on this. To confirmed what was said, I found this paper,
      “””Retroviruses and the Placenta”””

      “””Infectious retroviruses possess an RNA genome that is reverse transcribed into double-stranded DNA, which is then inserted into the genome of a host cell as a provirus.
      Once inserted, the retrovirus replicates by transcription of new RNA genomes from the provirus or by DNA replication of the provirus as part of the host genome. Because of
      a long history of retroviral insertions into germ cells, mamma-ian genomes contain a substantial proportion of retroviral sequences in various stages of mutational decay [1].”””

      In short, the RNA genome transformed into a gene in animals when activated started the process for the formation of placenta.

      • whyteablog says:

        Amazing. I wonder if there are tons of important mutualist viruses which help us, and are nearly ubiquitous in humans, just like bacteria in our gut, skin etc. And that we haven’t noticed them because they look like “ordinary” genes and don’t kick up an immune response.

  39. st says:

    The Big Edge? Greg, do you realise that in the 1650-es China was invaded by the Manchu people (after a war that lasted for more than 30 years) – semi tribal, semi nomadic, altaic speakers from eastern siberia, kin to tungusic tribes, lending military supports from the mongolian tribes? Manchu formed military and political elite in China ever since, for several centuries, almost until the times of Mao (chinese communism had nationalistic, anti manchurian element in it, perhaps substantial to its success, as it was in part a national rebellion against the manchu military elites, still in charge for the army, thus appealing to the chinese nationalism).
    Now imagine bands of inuits (or comanches, or berbers of whatever..) invading England in 1650, imposing their lifestyle, worldviews and value system on their highly advanced intellectually, but unfortunately lacking desire for military resistance subordinates and ask yourself if the Great Divergence would have happened in the 1700. It would not. I can say this in many different ways, but anyway – your question is either misleading or so ill informed that is meaningless.

    • James Richard says:

      Equating 17th Century Manchus who lived in towns, raised crops and livestock, and famously worked steel (Manchu arrows were especially prized) with a bunch of stone age hunter-gatherers is ridiculous. And the Berber Almohad Empire did in fact invade Europe and ruled southern Spain in the 12th Century.

      • AlanL says:

        Not to mention that Europe was still in real danger of being overrun by the Turks at the same time as China was being overrun by the Manchus.

        (When my son was smaller we visited some of the Bavarian castles on the Austrian border that were supposed to be the next line of defence after Vienna. They weren’t going to stop anybody for long.)

    • poster says:

      This is backwards. If anything, the Manchus were changed more by the conquering of China than the Han were, they became quite Sinicized. Historically this was the normal pattern when barbarians conquered China.

      Also the Manchu military elite if anything did more to wipe out traditional Chinese enemies than many past dynasties which were forced to negotiate with groups from the north. Look what happened to the Dzungars. The settlement of Manchuria by Han Chinese, which demographically overwhelmed Manchus, also happened under the Qing dynasty.

      Mao’s movement featured anti-Manchu feeling, but he of course did more to destroy traditional Chinese culture than the Manchus ever did.

  40. dearieme says:

    I once came across an interesting discussion of the wheelbarrow. Apparently the Chinese had the wheelbarrow long before us. Apparently their wheelbarrow was grossly inferior to ours. Anyone here know anything about that?

  41. Pingback: Why the west advanced faster – Orphans of Liberty

  42. Greying Wanderer says:

    surplus labor reduces the need for innovation (which is part of the problem we have now imo) so if a culture has all the elements needed for innovation but a surplus of labor preventing it and then has a sudden, dramatic drop in labor supply (eg Black Death) then that might spark a divergence.

    maybe combined with the point made above about the Mongol invasion maybe knocking China back e.g. a fortified mounted elite might not be so keen on gunpowder

    also, synchronicity makes me wonder if the plagues were somehow a domino side-effect of the earlier Mongol conquests

    • Jim says:

      The Mongols did inflict devastation on much of Eurasia particularly China so Western Europe was fortunate to have been not directly affected. Of course they were other areas such as North Africa and Southeast Asia that were also spared.

      • James Richard says:

        They have now made it all the way to Washington D.C. if the First Lady’s visage is any indication!

        • Gringo says:

          My father used to joke that a family friend of Slovenian background had a trace of Genghis Khan in his visage.

  43. Abelard Lindsey says:

    The Chinese continued to believe the world was flat up until the 17th century. That the world is a sphere has been known to the West since Roman times.

    • Is that true? How could it be? Generally not thinking about, or not having the background of geometry to understand why a ship’s sail disappears over the horizon? Not guessing that the earth was probably similar to the sun and moon? Not playing games that involved balls? No marbles or building snowmen? No rolling stones? I mean, they had the wheel, didn’t they? Or was that the problem with their wheelbarrow?

    • Jim says:

      The Greeks believed the Earth to be spherical as far back as the sixth century BC. Rome was in existence then but of little importance so knowledge of the true shape of the Earth goes back to long before what is usually called “Roman times”.

      The late Hellenistic astronomers had fairly accurate estimates of the size of the solar system out to Saturn. They know that the “fixed stars” were far more distant and correctly guessed that they were distant suns.

      • says:

        Proto Rome and ancient China shared common believes on heaven and earth and it most probable originated from common source in pre-history before the splitting of R and O yHg lines.

        Historically Plutarch asserted that Romulus constructed the Roma Quadrata (Square Rome) and the circular pomerium. The square and the circle can clearly be seen from the plan view. This most probably came from the Indo-European concept of mandela concerning heaven and earth,
        “””mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. In common use, mandala has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe.”

        If you think that this is old tale just look at what you have when you graduated, a square mortar board with circular holder for your head, a noted headwear since ancient times for the intellectuals on the square earth under the round heaven, a manifestation of the mandala. In ancient China only the emperors were privileged to wear that. The different being that the graduate mortar board has only one tassle while the Chinese emperors’ have nine tassles.

        All graduates are inherently representatives of that believes.

  44. Philip Neal says:

    The philosopher Peter Geach pointed out an important difference between ancient and modern science. The Greeks did not know that cold is the absence of heat, darkness is the absence of light and so on: less of a quantity called heat was supposed to be more of a quantity called cold. This style of thinking plainly lingered in China: they had the compass, but it was – is even – labelled with hexagrams, cyclical signs and the mansions of the moon. Perhaps they were conceptually backwards, stuck at a level equivalent to Ptolemy and Aristotle?

    • Bob says:

      Ptolemy’s work resembles modern mathematical science. He develops mathematical models to describe empirical observations. Aristotle was highly systematic and formally studied logic. By contrast, the Chinese are more like some of the anti-metaphysical, postmodernist philosophers of the 20th century who are obscure and difficult to make sense of.

    • Jim says:

      The fundamental difference between Greek science and the cosmology of prior civilizations is that Greek science was based on a belief in natural law not on the will of supernatural beings. In this their science was basically similar to ours. The conceptual level of Aristotle and Ptolemy is basically the same as modern scientists. Ptolemy’s system involves mathematical laws not gods.

    • random observer says:

      Now that was a noteworthy observation.

      There is something in that style of thinking that seems to me innate in humans, that it has to be taught out of us, and therefore it was a correspondingly huge cultural accomplishment to have both thought our way out of it and be able to teach each generation to do so, early on in our education.

      Or am I wrong? I bet that most kids think that “heat” and “cold” are equivalent, competing ‘things’ once they hear adults speak those words, and until taught otherwise. And then when they hear about the Kelvin scale and the concept of ‘absolute zero’ defined by absence of heat, probably have one of those eyes-wide satori moments.

      Or maybe that was just me…

  45. says:

    When Europe was ahead China was entering a long period of anti-intellectual time during the Yuan, Ming, Qing dynasties and early communist China.

    The Mongol Yuan dynasty was hell bent on destroying the Chinese elite families. And from what were left the Mongol practiced the policy of sending the Chinese officials to their far flung conquered lands in central Asia and people from there to China. For example the Mongol calvery did not know how to conquered fortresses and the seige of Bagdad was by Chinese generals and seige equipment engineers.
    “””About 1,000 Chinese artillery experts accompanied the army”””

    The grand-father of Admiral Zheng He was from Urbezkistan transferred to China. Thus there was significant intellectual exterminations and brain drain.

    The founder of Ming Dynasty passed the throne to his pro-intellectual grandson but the throne was taken away by his martial uncle Emperor YongLe, the one that sent Zheng He on the sea voyage. In ancient time the most severe punishment was that anybody within 9 degrees of kin seperation would be executed. YongLe added a tenth for the teacher/mentor/classmates/students of the accused. Since then the intellectuals tended to become businessmen which in ancient times were regarded as the lowest class of profession.

    Things did not get better with the Manchu Qing dynasty even at the peak with Kangxi emperor. Intellectuals who had books from Ming era were considered to be anti-Qing. Previously I got a paper from JStor but was lost during a disk crash and cound not be found again, it was from a western author and reported the pathetic poor response from the Chinese intellectuals with the imperial court examinations.

    The cultural revolution was simply an anti-intellectual movement where many intellectuals died.

    • Jim says:

      The mathematician Chen was imprisoned and although he survived he never fully recovered. His work in mathematics was mostly published after the cultural revolution.

  46. says:

    The most significant Chinese industrial invention from 347 CE or earlier was the development of the oil and gas well drilling technology and the transportation of the products.
    “””The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China in 347 AD or earlier. They had depths of up to about 800 feet (240 m) and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles.[2][3] The oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs. The ancient records of China and Japan are said to contain many allusions to the use of natural gas for lighting and heating.”””

    Though surface oil and tar had been harvested in historical times the Chinese drilled substatially underground to extract them. More detail,

    Someone mentioned the wheelbarrow. Military size wheelbarrow for carrying supplies through mountain passes was invented during the Three Kingdom Period (220–280 CE)

    “””Technology advanced significantly during this period. Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox,[7] suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow,[8] and improved on the repeating crossbow.”””

    At that time there were also rocket propelled carts. The world would be different if they improved that with carts powered by the abundant oil supply. The ancient oil wells were also in the kingdom of Shu.

    There did not seem to be any further development after the Yuan dynasty. In a way if the Chinese did find other uses of oil and gas other than boiling brine to obtain salt they would had occupied the Central Asia. It is also not a case of the Chinese were not aware of it. Oil was bubbling at the surface.

    “””Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in … Hyunhee Park – 2012 – History (Under the) Mongol … can be found in the biography of a Chinese general who fought for the Mongols, Guo … whose territory comprised modernday Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, …”””

    I think he might be the general commanding the van guard in the seige of Bagdad.
    Oh yes,

    “””The Mongols under Chinese general Guo Kan laid siege to the city on January 29, 1258,[9] constructing a palisade and a ditch and wheeling up siege engines and catapults. “””

    There was a question if Guo Kan was Chinese. Well, few or none of the Mongol general on horse back were expert in seige warfares. Mongol generals tended to exterminate the conquered city’s residents and most probably only a Chinese general would propose to tax the residents instead. Guo submited to the Mongols and the Chinese historians would prefer not to claim his as Chinese unless that could be easily refuted. Only a Chinese general would persuade the Mongol khan to adopt the Chinese way of governance. Without his guidance the Yuan dynasty in China only lasted 97 years, well short of the norms of about 400 years.

    • says:

      “””drilling was not reported in Europe until the Middle Ages. Using the primitive springpole method, brine seekers did nearly all well drilling in America until the middle of the 19th century. “””

    • Difference Maker says:

      Wonder about the difference between Mongols and Turks. At first glance very similar but their languages are evidently not obviously closely related. They both had steppe empires and eventually menaced Europe.

      But the Turks seem much more assimilationist, in China, in Europe, and the middle East, though keeping their language, whereas the Mongol first move seems toward extermination. In the Tang dynasty the emperor was initially also the Khan of the Turks, imperial family members could speak Turkish and Turks were settled en masse in China (that is until one of their number organized an attack on the imperial palace). After the dynasty’s end it was briefly “restored” by a Turkish tribe

      And of course we have the example of Turkey, of Azeri et al. in Persia. The Cuman Khanate also switched from Mongol to Turkic language, though it may be a simple matter of being a vassal to Constantinople and having an existing population of Turks

      A Sui dynasty source describes the Turks as appearing to have no military organization. Perhaps this could easily be the case, with the Mongols being much more organized and instantly successful, rather than long term close contact with civilization

      I think it is a combination of Turks
      1) being relatively less advanced, e.g. being imported into the Muslim world as “slave” soldiers at first, only the first in a long line of slave soldiers being the real rulers of the middle East, coming to appreciate benefits of ruling civilization rather than exterminating it

      2) being early adopters – Mongols would find already in place a very similar Asiatic steppe people

      Indeed, the Mongols may have benefited in military organization from the extensive contact the earlier steppe peoples had with civilization, especially the Tang dynasty, which ruled the Turks for a while in what is now Mongolia, did not even use the Wall, and inspired multiple nomadic entities patterned after the Chinese state in the steppe

      It is my suspicion that there is successive improvement of the composite war bow in the East as well. The Scythians used composite bows, but were defeated by the melee oriented Sarmatians, who were in turn displaced by the bow using Huns.
      The Goths of the time were mounted melee horsemen as well in the East, and they had a lot trouble with Hunnish cavalry

  47. Difference Maker says:

    Back on topic, I think it has a lot to do with imperial examination system implemented during the Tang. The promotion of conformist ideologues. Somewhat akin to our own situation

    It is telling that after the Tang there is no Golden age. In the literature of the Tang we find a very different mindset, an extroverted and martial world view. Many great officials had both military and civil careers, in contrast to later eras where the civilian sphere attains supremacy and the is a sharp delineation.

    In the early Tang a nobility existed, some claiming ancient pedigree and owing their survival to their military practices, others newer families incorporated from the nomadic tribes. Service in the imperial guard was a high honor, and early mobilization often called on the sons of the nobility with their military panoply

    Though we have the example of the later forbidden city, the capital and cities generally of the Tang were much more organized and controlled than those of later date. There may be implications for urban sanitation and toilet paper was after all invented in the Tang dynasty

    Lest there be the fallacy of treating all humans as fungible I will state that genes determine everything including adaptation to environmental stimuli
    In this era there was a lot of exposure to the steppe and to the west, and the societies to the west were yet Indo European

  48. Difference Maker says:

    Breaking up for readability
    pt 2:

    The Tang came after a long period of turmoil, where book learning surely had to take a backseat to more pressing matters. Therefore, they were more free and less constrained by the thoughts of the ancients. The initial official state philosophy if there was one, was actually Daoism, not Confucianism. Daoism, from what I understand, despite its seemingly empty pithisms, implies letting nature run its course; room for being practical.

    It is telling, however, that in on one of the early diplomatic communiques, by its famous second emperor no less (assuming it was not a fabrication of a later date), he states to a restive subject nomadic tribe that “China loves righteousness”.

    The infamous An Lushan rebellion at the midway point and its aftermath is perhaps more catastrophic in its consequences than the obvious. The failure to reestablish central control led to a remilitarized populace (only recently disarmed) outside of the State and an extremely violent culture. Regular mutinies and murder of commanders, would be officials engaging on campaigns of conquest to get promotions were the features of such a society. I wonder if the parallel disintegration of imperial control in Japan, only recently modeled and “enlightened” by the Tang, was encouraged by such developments

    The pacifism of the Song and its neglect of frontier commands is a response to such militarism. The cultivation of the Confucian classics formed an intellectual basis and the imperial examination system selected for its conformity. Even early in Song’s history, closer to Tang and recently post militarism, there was already talk of not fighting against an aggressive state because of the burden on the people. Not a meritless position, to be sure

    Though the Song continued to advance in some areas, there was now a much stricter stranglehold on elite promotion, with a very conformist and inward looking ideology. The military weakness contributed to Mongol conquest with its consequences. And here we are

    To be developed with more sleep. But I trust this gets the gist of it

  49. There is a very interesting history of the ideas of both chance and free will as causal agents. It starts with Aristotle (who thought that cause was found in the nature of a thing), goes through Christian philosophers (Augustine to Duns Scotus) who eventually considered man’s free will to be and inevitable “gift” from God, and ends with Smith’s influence on Darwin (and Ferguson’s on Hegel, and, then, unfortunately, Marx). Ultimately, there is a fairly radical break between Aristotle and Newton’s classical causation(*) and Smith & Co’s belief in chance and freewill as causal agents(**).

    How big of an edge was that break? What did the Asians think about freewill?

    (*Aristotle, for instance, thought that it was in the nature of woman to serve man, as it was in the nature of a hot rod to heat water, and that in order to get an egg, you must have a cause which has an egg-producing nature. On this view, it is chickens all the way back. He never grasped the possibility of explaining the existence of chickens by appeal to differential reproductive advantages operating on randomly occurring variations in the evolutionary ancestors of chickens.)

    (** It does more than argue, trivially, that human history and futures are unpredictable, in contrast to the idea of Laplace’s demon. It supports all of the modern methods of research in science. If you only believed in the type of causation that is exhibited in classical physics, it would not make any sense to talk about performing experiments to test a hyporthesis and it certainly would not make sense to believe that one could conduct double-blind experiments using randominzed samples.)

  50. I’m surprised no one has stated the obvious, Medicine or at least medical outcomes were better for the patient in China. If you were rich enough to afford a doctor in either place. Which is more survivable when you are ill bleeding or acupuncture? Both primitive but pre 20th century the system that does the least harm wins. For a radical example homeopathic clinics had a comparatively good survival rate in the 19th century because they kept things neat and tidy and well lit.

  51. MawBTS says:

    If we’re talking about the Mongols…you know, the Hungarians don’t get nearly enough respect. They fought what was probably the most successful defense against the Mongols, except for the Mamluks at Ain Jalut.

    The Battle of Mohi was surprisingly hard-fought. Crossbows proved effective against horse archers, and the Mongols had difficulties fighting mounted knights in plate armor.

    The battle ended in a horrible defeat for Béla IV’s forces, mostly thanks to an encircling action from Subotai, But when you compare it with the insanity of the Battle of the Badger Mouth (300,000 Jin soldiers KIA) and the sack of Urgench (potentially 1.2m civilian casualties) …Mohi seems like it could have turned out differently if a few cards had fallen.

    What happened next was interesting. With the Hungarian army annihilated, the Mongols rampaged across the country. It was now a very bad time to be a Hungarian. You can watch Hungary’s population decline by about 25% over just a few years.

    …But the country itself was never actually conquered. The Hungarians holed up in castles and fortified positions, and despite their successful sieges in China and Khwarezmia, the Mongols didn’t know how to take a stone European castle. The invasion bogged down into a frustrating war of attrition, with the Mongols trying to starve out Hungarian positions. Then Ögedei Khan died in 1241, and the Mongols pulled out.

    Béla IV had a feeling they’d be back, and spent the rest of his reign preparing the country. More crossbows. More armored knights. At least 66 new stone castles. When the Golden Horde returned, they were repulsed.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      well done, them

      • j says:

        Maw, Your narrative of Hungarian “success” against the Mongols is different from the traditional story that the Mongols suddenly left to participate in the election of the new Khan. It mirrors the Wiki story which is based on the hypothesis that they could not know of the death of Ogedei since it takes five months to the news to arrive. That is patently wrong, as the Mongols had a well organized system of communication with posts with fresh horses. The operation in Hungary itself was perfectly synchronized by three Mongol forces moving at tremendous distances. Which is not to say that the Hungarian resistance was not among the most effective, as they still remembered the steppe tactic of fake flight while shooting arrows from horseback. But we may never know exactly what happened.

  52. Salmed says:

    Ayo hol up you not on we wuz kangz n shieet

  53. Larry, San Francisco says:

    OT question for you Greg. In my Amazon feed the book by Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Kindle Edition by Yuval Noah Harari came up. It looks interesting but he does have a plug from Jared Diamond which makes me suspicious. Since Razib stopped blogging I need someone else to help me find quality books.

  54. dave chamberlin says:

    I miss the good old days when Razib had more time and wrote long thought pieces. He still has a long list of books he can guide you towards.

  55. Marcus Sextus says:

    Having all your cities sacked by Manchu Hordes and losing a huge chunk of your population doesn’t do wonders for scientific advancement. I am pretty skeptical of supposed East Asian IQ superiority to whites. Most of the data came out of Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, etc. When they started pulling data from the countryside as well they more or less equaled out to us.

  56. d0jistar says:

    Sorry to kick an old thread, but this is a major area of interest to me.

    China’s metals production per capita reached a high in the Southern Song dynasty that was not exceeded until the 19th century. The Polos found China unimaginably wealthy and advanced; early Portuguese explorers found it poor and shabby. The significance of the Mongol invasion should not be underestimated (also for why the Middle East got taken down a notch).
    Zheng He’s expeditions, while impressive, didn’t result in an Indian Ocean trading empire 50 years ahead of the Portuguese. Unlike mercantile European expeditions, the Chinese voyages were designed to show the flag and spread the glory of the Middle Kingdom by spreading the tribute trade system. Far away places would sort of vaguely acknowledge how kewl China was by sending the Imperial Court lavish gifts — but in exchange for even better stuff back. When the Confucian bureaucrats got the upper hand over the eunuchs in the early Ming, they killed off the program as enormously expensive boondoggle and a waste of money.
    Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence posits that the most advanced parts of Asia (Pearl river delta, Edo) were, around 1780, no less advanced than the most advanced parts of Europe. Remember, the early Industrial Revolution was quite isolated to parts of England and the Netherlands and only spread slowly. And this was due to the fact that 1. England had coal near the surface and 2. Europe had mercantile-system colonies to harvest for unlimited amounts of raw resources so that major cities back home could become hyper-specialized in early industry rather than, say, grow their own food.

    I don’t quite buy this theory as Europe had been marching on the path of labor efficiency for a long time and China had not. Many Chinese projects were simply not useful for industrialization, e.g. digging cellars to spin cotton in the winter in North China was clever — but unscalable vs. looms in Manchester. And they could have had colonies, or forced the outer provinces to specialize in resource production to let the advanced coastal cities develop. But they didn’t. Europe had moved onto the path of labor efficiency centuries before. Look at homegrown European Middle Ages inventions (as opposed to imports like zero, the compass, paper, horse stirrups): horse collar, good windmills, highly advanced watermills. And those were pre-Black Plague also (labor costs skyrocketed after that)!

    I’m going to throw out one of the major differences was simply that China reunified after the Han Dynasty fell apart into the 3 Kingdoms and stayed mostly unified since, with no real civilized rivals and living alone in splendor at the center of the Confucio-sphere, which, clearly, is the entire world. Han culture was TOO successful. Even if Charlemagne’s descendants unified Europe and combined with the Byzantine Empire, they probably still would have had the pressure of the Islamosphere to incentive some competition and advancement. As it was, the European continent was a teeming petri dish of competition between feudal lords, later nations, cities, ethnicities, religions, and social classes. But not so divided that they wiped each other out.

  57. Pingback: April 2017 Lightning Round: Reasonable Doubt – quas lacrimas peperere minoribus nostris!

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