Eurocentric history of science

This text is based on the chapter ‘Eurocentrism’ of the book ‘Science a four thousand year history’ by Patricia Fara. The images are from Wikipedia.

From the time of the Renaissance onward, because Europeans were politically and financially powerful, they placed themselves at the centre of everything, and wrote accounts of the past that confirmed their supposed superiority. In wishful thinking versions of the past, science leads to Absolute Truth – and moreover, it started in Europe. Classical revivalists located the cradle of European civilization in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle (and they ignored the fact that even the cultural achievements of ancient Athens were themselves built upon knowledge developed in still older civilizations of Sumeria and Egypt). Artists, scholars, and politicians imbued this small and remote city-state with the quasi-mythical aura of a bygone golden age, linking themselves directly to ancient Greece, and dissociating themselves from everything in between.

Black and white printed Chinese text with a Buddha-like figure in the centre, surrounded by attendants.Frontispiece to the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty of China, i.e. 868 CE. It is the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.

The Eurocentric interpretation of history ignored the so-called Dark Ages, a vaguely-defined period which ran roughly from 400 CE to 1400 CE. For both China and the Islamic civilization this was a period of technical innovation and economic growth, yet by ingeniously eradicating a millennium, historians made it seem that the torch of scientific knowledge had been handed on directly from ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe.

A page from a medieval European bibleThe first page from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455 CE. It was the first major book printed with movable type in the West.

For example, from a Eurocentric perspective, Venice appears to be the site of many innovations. However, because it traded both eastwards and westwards, the city imported and then modified techniques that had originated in China, India, or the Islamic civilization. These included not only practical devices, such as improvements in navigation, but also more effective methods of marketing and accounting. Western Europeans boasted about a famous trilogy of Renaissance inventions – printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass. In reality, all three had been invented centuries earlier in China.