David Cosandey

The Secret of the West
A 4-Page Summary
(David Cosandey, Le Secret de l'Occident, Arléa, Paris, 1997, Flammarion, Paris, 2007, 2008)
Résumé d'1 page (français)

Le Secret de l'Occident ("The Secret of the West") unveils an economic and political theory about scientific & technological progress. The theory gives the reasons why the scientific and industrial revolutions originated in the West, and not in the Middle East, India or China. It succeeds in explaining the European "miracle" in the IInd millenium as well as the Greek "miracle" in Antiquity. It unravels the causes for the declines and rises of India, China and the Middle East across the centuries.

That theory was brought together, like a jigsaw puzzle, from many pieces of previously unconnected historical research. To my knowledge, it is the first united scheme able to explain the main booms and slowdowns observed in the scientific and technological evolutions of the main civilizations.


Chapter 1 – Debunking Traditional Explanations
The usual "internalist" explanations for the European originality – religion, culture, genetics, climate, third-world abuse, Greek heritage, pure hazard – are dismissed. None of these elements 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 backward, 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, ethnical, 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 searching for an answer.

Chapter 2 – The Economic and Political Theory (European case, 11th to 18th century)
Chap 2 discloses the theory. 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 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 wealthy economy fosters scientific and technical progresses in several 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, (ac-)counting, weighting, timeliness, measurement. When successful, they impose gradually this kind of science-friendly mentality upon their social environment.
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 several ways:
1) It generates freedom. No center has a monopoly of power, no government can control or suppress everything. A scientist or a technician who are prosecuted in a given country can shelter in another one. Same for ideas and techniques.
2) Competition between states generates a profitable stimulation. Every government wants 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. War does not wreak too much havoc in the case of durable states, hence the need for a stable political division.

In particular, the smart European scientific professional structure, the institutions that allowed scientists to make a living while doing research – universities, royal academies, private mathematical schools, etc. – could come to life and survive only thanks to the existence of the wealthy and stable Western European states system.

In this context, the XVIth-XVIIth century Scientific Revolution can be interpreted as the logical outcome of the economic and military revolutions that Western Europe underwent in the same period 1500-1700.

The difference between the two parts of Europe becomes clear 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 economic and political conditions. Eastern Europe's states were unstable, they underwent fast boundary moves. Moreover, most of the time trade was weak and manufacturing was rickety. Merchants never thrived half as well as their Western counterparts.

Chapters 3, 4, 5 – The Economic and Political Theory (Middle East, India, China)
Chap 3, 4, 5, demonstrate that the rich states system theory explains quite well the different stages of the scientific evolutions of the 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.

Each civilization is studied century after century, period after period, because they do not experience a constant economic and political situation. So, to get a clear picture, one must consider each period separately.

The book devotes 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. This is arguably the most original element in the book's approach, since, generally, authors studying scientific history focus on the West, devoting only a few pages to other civilizations, without distinguishing between the (very) different periods.

For example, the rich states system theory neatly solves the mysterious ups and downs in Chinese scientific history. 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, political unity set in and science stopped.

Chapter 6 – The Coastline Shape Hypothesis
In chap 6, I find out why only Western Europe benefited from prosperity and stable division during such a long time: the main cause is 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 cases in point. The long-term stable political division stems from that advantage, as the sea is the best possible boundary for a state.

In mathematical terms, the quality of a coastline is measured by Mandelbrot's fractal dimension of the coastline. The higher the dimension, the better the shore articulation. I made some measurements on maps and obtained that Europe has a fractal dimension of 1.46, much higher than China (1.26), India (1.14) and the Middle East (1.13). Those differences are significant because this fractal dimension figure can only take values between 1 and 2.


The coastline shape difference between Western Europe
and Northern Africa shows up clearly on that map

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; to make things worse, 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.

Chapter 7 – The Greek Miracle Explained
Chap 7 shows that the rich states system theory explains the ancient Greek miracle as well. 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 mirrors 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 Greek states formed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia minor, which could go on with the competition, but only for a while: the new territories did not have an articulated coastline. The economy slumped down (this was compounded by demographic decline) and a more and more unstable division settled, ruining the Greek world and ending the "miracle".

Greece has a nicely articulated coastline at smaller scales than Western Europe

Chapter 8 – Evolution of the West, 19th and 20th Centuries
In chap 8, I apply the theory 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 first part of the 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. The USA and USSR, luckily, were there. They continued the battle until, again, the military technology (thermonuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles) exceeded the possibilities of the geographical platform. But this time, technology was so powerful that war simply became impossible on Earth between great powers, ushering in the nuclear peace era in which we still live now.

Chapter 9 – Present Situation and Near Future
In chap 9, I develop several contemporary topics, like the Asian boom and the sharp drop of science in Russia. I show that, 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, assisted fecundation, and so on). Furthermore, inter-state prestige or trade competitions are a crucial motivation behind that financing.
As a consequence, one can take scientific progress for granted in the future as long as some region in the world will enjoy prosperity and stable division – this progress shall be a bit weaker, however, with the waning of the military pillar.

Finally, the epilogue generalizes the theory for 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. I briefly study 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 "planetographies" foster such lush combination at the space age level. The result of this investigation is that, unfortunately, our neighbouring planetary environment seems hopelessly forbidding. We are not going to experience in the future another full-fledged "miracle", like the Greek and the European ones in the past.

The coastline shape difference between Western and Eastern Europe
shows up clearly and vividly on that map

Created: 06 Oct 2007 – Last modified: 04 Feb 2018