The Rich States System Theory
The following theory is disserted at length in Le Secret de l'Occident (1997, 2007, 2008) .
The usual "internalist" explanations for the European originality religion, culture, genetics, climate, third-world abuse, Greek heritage, pure randomness have to be dismissed. None of them can pretend to shed light on the long-term European success. They basically fail at the two following stumbling blocks: Eastern Europe backwardness and leadership fluctuations among civilizations.
Eastern Europe is religiously, culturally, ethnically, climatically very similar to Western Europe. Nonetheless, it has always been lagging behind it, for centuries if not more, painfully catching up with Western advances, but never leading the way.
During some periods of time, China, India or the Middle East led the way in science and technology. This does not fit well with the idea of an inherent (religious, cultural, genetic, etc.) superiority of the West. If, on the other side, one admits important changes in those inherent abilities, these remain to explain.
Greek heritage must be rejected because the Romans, the Muslims, the Indians too could benefit from it. Randomness is not an acceptable answer, it merely amounts to giving up looking for an answer.
A Political and Economic Theory of Scientific Progress
For science and technology to advance in a given civilization, two conditions are required: a thriving economy and a stable political division. That is, a rich and stable states system is needed. Western Europe enjoyed a growing trade and manufacturing, and was divided between long-lasting competitive kingdoms during the whole 2nd millenium; this is why it succeeded the way it did.
A rich economy allows scientific and technical progresses in many ways:
1) it generates a surplus which can be invested in non-immediately profitable activities, as science and arts.
2) merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs have a strong bent towards accuracy, numbers, counting, weighting, timeliness, measure. When successful, they impose gradually this kind of science-friendly mentality upon their social environment. Furthermore, their dominance over society is not threatened by scientific discoveries, as opposed to a religious class.
3) merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs have a vested interest in science and technology: they support development in mathematics (accounting arithmetic, higher-degree equations for interest rate calculations, statistics for stock exchange trading and insurances, etc.). In the Middle Ages, they supported the development of accurate clocks for measuring manufacturing and travelling times, of accurate maps for travelling, of astronomy for navigation, and of course of all sorts of new technical devices, since increasing manufacturing productivity and decreasing transport costs brings profit. The mercantile community, when successful, would financially support individuals active in those fields.
Stable political division helps science and technology in many ways:
1) It generates freedom. No center has a monopoly of power, no government can control everything. The diversity of legislations grants a much larger overall freedom to science. Suppressed in a given country, a scientist or a technician can shelter in another one. Same thing for ideas and techniques.
2) Competition between states generates a profitable stimulation. Every government want to do better (or at least not worse) than neighbouring countries. Hence governmental support for science academies.
3) War exercices a continuous pressure towards modernization, it creates a strong government interest for new technical devices and for improving technical knowledge and education. But unfettered war wreaks havoc, thus the need for stable political division.
The same is true for the smart European scientific professional structure the institutions that allowed scientists to make a living while doing research universities, royal academies, private schools of mathematics, etc. All of them could come to life only thanks to the good economic and political situation of Western Europe.
In particular, the Scientific revolution appears as the outcome of the economic and military revolutions that Western Europe underwent during the interval 1500-1700.
The difference between the two parts of Europe is explained here. Western Europe had a favourable economic and political background during the whole 2nd millenium, that is, it enjoyed a rich and durable states system. Eastern Europe suffered from bad conditions. Eastern European states were unstable, they underwent fast boundary moves. Moreover, trade was weak, manufacturing rickety. Merchants never thrived half as well as their Western equivalents.
The rich states system theory explains quite well the different stages of the scientific evolutions of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Middle-East, India and China. Each time prosperity and stable division are there, scientific knowledge flourishes. In all other cases (political unity, fast-changing boundaries and/or economical doldrums), science recedes.
In Le Secret de l'Occident, I devoted 110 pages to analyze the political and economical histories of the Middle East, India and China in relation to the evolution of science and technology much more than is usually done in such comparative history books. Indeed, each civilization is studied century after century, period after period, because, unlike Europe, it does not experience a constant economic and political situation. For the four civilizations, within the limits of existing documentation, one observes a good match between the evolution of science and the two political and economic factors.
In particular, the theory neatly solves the mysterious drop of Chinese scientific development around 1300. The interval from 750 to 1280 was highly productive in scientific and technical progress because China enjoyed a rather stable division and a very dynamic trade and manufacturing. After 1280, scientific advance stopped because China united, then fell into civil war, then united again all conditions quite remote to stable political division.
The Coastline Shape Hypothesis
But why did only Western Europe benefit from prosperity and stable division during such a long time? The answer is: this is is probably due to the shape of its coastline.
The Western part of the European continent is the only densely populated area on Earth boasting as many peninsulas, gulfs, straits, inland seas, while still being for the most part an interconnected land. Such an articulated coastline enhances trade, because sea accessibility makes maritime transportation easier. The sea route is much better than river or land transportation. Before modern times, it was safer, quicker, freer and tremendously cheaper. Moreover, an articulated coastline defines naturally limited core areas within which polities can live their lives without being too much disturbed Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Italy are regions well delimited by the sea. The long-term stable political division stems from that advantage, as the sea is the best possible boundary for a state.
Eastern Europe does not enjoy as good a shore profile as Western Europe: it is a mainly landlocked area. Vast surfaces are deprived of sea access: the seas are too far-away, they are often closed or ice-blocked seas. Hence, trade could not take off, and no natural boundary protected the regions's states, which were brittle and short-lived. This is the reason why this region did not perform well in science and technology.
The Fractal Dimension of the Coastline
In mathematical terms, the quality of a coastline is best measured by Mandelbrot's fractal dimension. The higher the dimension, the better the shore articulation. I made some measurements on maps and obtained that Western Europe has a much higher fractal dimension (1.47) than China (1.26), India (1.19) and the Middle East (1.12). These differences are significant because these figures can take values only between 1 and 2.
The results of different coastline quality measurements are displayed in the table below.
|Development indice||Max. distance to the sea||Fractal dimension|
The measuring method for the fractal dimension was to approach the coastline with smaller and smaller segments on the map. The lengths varied between the equivalent of 100km and 1,000km, the scale range judged relevant for long-term history.
Therefore, the fractal dimension measured here is not such a dimension in the proper sense: it is not the limit for the segment tending to zero. It is the value obtained within a given segment range.
The convention in the measurement are as follows. "Western Europe" includes the land west of the line Lubeck-Venice, with the Swedish-Norwegian peninsula added. "Main Europe" contains all of European territory except the pre-1990 Soviet Union.
The length of the European coastline is repeatedly measured using 1000km, 316km, and 100km segments (logarithmically equally-spaced), and more segments in between if wished. A graph is built plotting increasing coastline length versus decreasing segment length. A best fit for the slope is obtained. This slope is the fractal dimension or rather the "local fractal dimension" in the range 100-1000km.
For each length of segment, the broken line starts at one end of the coastline and ends at the other end, the remaining, non-integer, segment being counted and added to the total length of the broken line. The broken line follows the continental coastline. Islands receive separate broken lines if they are large enough for the segment to "see" them. In such cases, the island coastline lengthes are added to the continental length.
The other indices for coastline quality are the distance to the sea of the farthest-away point inland, and the "development index": the ratio of coastline length to total area, where the coastline lengths are measured for the four regions with the same very short segment.
The Greek Miracle Explained
The rich states system theory and the coastline hypothesis also explain quite well the ancient Greek miracle. The Greeks formed a lasting states system, enlivened by a brisk trade, both element thriving on the very indented and articulated coastline of the Aegean sea. Only the Southern part of Greece nurtured the miracle, because it had abundant access to the sea. The mostly landlocked Northern part of Greece stayed apart from the scientific adventure. So the Southern/Northern opposition in ancient Greece mirrored the Western/Eastern opposition in modern Europe.
The miracle lasted until military technological progress overshot the possibilities of the Greek geographical platform. Then, the scene extended to the whole Eastern Mediterranean region, which the Greeks conquered. Huge states formed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia minor, which could follow the competition, but only for a while: the new territories did not have an articulated coastline. The economy slumped down and a more and more unstable division settled, stopping Greek science. The "miracle" was over.
Evolution of the West, 19th and 20th Centuries
The theory also applies to the 19th and 20th centuries. The states system of Western Europe continued on its course, generating scientific progress at a fast pace, until the early 20th century, when technological progress in the military domain (essentially tanks and airplanes) rendered the European continent too small. At this stage the states system destroyed itself (2nd world war). Greater states were required for the competition to continue. Luckily, the USA and USSR were there. They continued the battle until military technology (thermonuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles) again exceeded the possibilities of the geographical platform. But this time, technology was so powerful that war simply became impossible on Earth, be it a chaotic or a unifying one. A new era has set in: the era of nuclear peace. The superpowers are paralysed by a cold war due to remain for ever cold, while small chaotic conflicts develop everywhere between the powerless great powers.
The Asian scientific research boom of the 1980s and 90s and the sharp drop of science in Russia both abide by the political and economic rules described in this paper. Namely there was in the first case intense inter-state competition and fast growth, in the second case a terrible economic drop and the end of the intense (cold war) competition.
Today as ever, only two forces prop up science: stable division and prosperity: governments, companies and donators are the funders of science. They can assume that role only if the necessary ressources are there, hence if the economy fares well. Also, only the freedom of a multicenter world allows research to go on unfettered (think of cloning, embryo research, fertility treatment, genetically-modified plants, and so on). Furthermore, inter-state prestige or trade competitions are a crucial motivation behind that financing.
As a consequence, scientific progress can be taken for granted in the future as long as some region in the world enjoys prosperity and stable division this progress shall be a bit weaker, however, with the waning of the military pillar.
Finally, the theory can be generalized to the space age that never came. Planet Earth has become too small to stand large conflicts between great powers, but wars with missiles and nuclear bombs could still be waged in the interplanetary medium. What about the quality of our stellar system in that respect? In the same way as not all coastline profiles allow for long-lasting rich states systems, similarly, not all planet configurations foster such lush combination at the space age level. Unfortunately, our neighbouring planetary environment seems hopelessly forbidding. We are not going to experience in the future another full "miracle", like the Greek and the European ones in the past.
Scientific progress shall go on, however, albeit more slowly and less greatly than had a new "miracle" occured, so long as some part of the world shall be characterized by a thriving economy and a division into several competing stable states. This is luckily the configuration we are enjoying now, at global level. The slowing down of technological progress that we have been globally suffering since the 1970s, because of nuclear peace, has a bright side, however. The end of large-scale wars between great powers vastly enhances our quality of life. This is important, too.