Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Science and Empire

The latest week of Prof Harari's lectures are devoted to what he calls the Marriage of Science and Empire. The theme is the mutually beneficial influences that had on each other. Science, he claims, provided not just the material tools to construct the empire, but also some of the rationale for their justification, especially through the sort of racist theories popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

He makes a big deal about the fact that the European imperialists, unlike the earlier empires of the world, always included scientists. Geographers first, to catalog and classify the world, but then geologists, biologists, archeologists, anthropologists, historians and linguists. Nobody, he says, had been able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics since perhaps the first century AD until Napoleon's troops found the Rosetta stone. His expedition contained scientists who recognized its importance at once. It was an important enough piece of war booty that the British demanded it when they won Egypt from the French.

European scientists, investigating Native American folk medicine, found quinine, and it became the key tool for european conquest of Africa and other malarial climes which had always decimated European expeditions before.

European scientists also discovered and excavated the ancient Indus valley civilization, long since forgotten in its home territory - though that last claim might be a bit controversial in India.

Lastly, he says, the European empires made the world we have today. Of course a statement like that is at best an exaggeration, but they certainly had a huge influence on almost every aspect of modern culture.