The Unbound West
Today, thunderous matters of cosmic import: why has the West dominated scientific and technological advance practically forever?
This has certainly been the truth for many years. From—take your pick: 1500 on?—the West has produced both the scientific giants and the fields in which they flourished. Many of the towering figures are unknown today, but they towered. The modern world is almost totally a Western invention. This is not a politically correct view, but it is undeniable. Name any field of note—genetics, electronics, computers, anything. The West invented it.
Now, we—I am assuming a mostly white European readership—could think that, well, we pale folk are just smarter than those mere wogs—though of course we are too kind to say so. The problem is that, on the evidence, the wogs often seem to be smarter than we are. On a great thicket of IQ tests, East Asians come in with IQs ahead of those of whites. At Harvard, roughly a quarter of the students are Asian.
Then why has the West regularly out-invented them? It isn’t an inability to handle technology. Spend an afternoon in downtown Bangkok, and you will see a city that seems as modern as any. The Skytrain (the elevated subway) is efficient, clean, and in no way inferior to Washington’s Metro. Phones work, broadband is taken for granted.
But it was all invented by Euro-civilization. Other places just borrow it well or, often, not very well.
Ponder the Chinese. Hong Kong is New York City with slanted eyes—as smart, hard-nosed, and go-for-the-throat as Manhattan. The Chinese can play in that league. Taiwan is a major high-tech power for its almost nonexistent size. Ask a round-eye kid at Berkeley what it is like to compete with the Asian students. But the engineering, math, and so on were developed in the West.
The Japanese are geniuses at engineering. I don’t drive a Toyota or shoot with a Canon SLR because they don’t work. The Japanese can take a Western invention, improve on it, and manufacture it cheaper than Westerners can. No, it isn’t a matter of lower wages. My Corolla was built in California. The Japanese are just plain good.
But cars and cameras, the Internet, integrated circuitry, radar, the double-helix, and so on for five times the length of this magazine were invented or discovered in the West. Read the history of mathematics. It is littered with massively gifted men of a type who seldom appeared elsewhere: Galois, Gauss, Newton, Lagrange, Euclid, Archimedes, and so on for pages. Only in the West. Why?
I can only guess, but I suspect that folk wisdom explains it well. There is an Asian saying, “The nail that stands up is beaten down.” Then there is the Johnny Paycheck song “Take this Job and Shove It.” Which culture will produce the student who drops out of college because he would rather wing it and try to start a business? (For example, a fellow named Gates. Or Dell.)
Western culture appears to embrace a salubrious anarchy. Westerners do not seem as bound by tradition or as acquiescent to society’s expectations. A powerful individualism keeps breaking out. It may change, but so far it hasn’t.
When I lived in the alleys of Taiwan, children sat on wooden boxes in front of dirt-poor houses and studied. (This was in 1976. Today Taiwan is no longer poor.) They were bright and disciplined and in any competition would have eaten American kids alive. But it was rote. The orderliness and discipline were, I thought, a sort of prison.
Recently, my wife Violeta taught Spanish to foreigners. Her Asian students, she says, were smart and studious, but would never question the teacher. My ex-wife, a harpsichordist out of the Indiana School of Music, studied for a while at Peabody Institute in Baltimore with Asian students. She described them as technically perfect and practiced to death but … it wasn’t quite musical. (Her standards are high, granted.)
In Taipei, I used to go to the national museum, which housed priceless art that Chiang Kai-shek, thank God, rescued from the communists. It was lovely, subtle, just plain wonderful. But, but…
Take the painting. Generation after generation, artists treated the same themes in the same manner. Compare this static quality to the progression in Western painting from Neoclassicism through Impressionism, Cubism, Modigliani, Hopper, what have you. All good, but stylistically from different planets. The difference is between “this is how you are supposed to do it” and “this is how I am going to do it.”
Call it bullheadedness, self-indulgence, disdain for authority, or independence of mind. Westerners seem disposed to try anything they can think of and see whether it works. Often it does. A salubrious anarchy.
September 10, 2007 Issue