Cover Image
close this bookSouthern Lights - Celebrating the Scientific Achievements of the Developing World (IDRC, 1995, 148 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentChapter 1 - A northern misconception demolished
View the documentChapter 2 - Is there really science in the south?
View the documentChapter 3 - How the south got left behind
View the documentChapter 4 - Third world achievements
View the documentChapter 5 - Marching to a different drummer
View the documentChapter 6 - Solving global problems together
View the documentChapter 7 - What needs to be done
View the documentAcronyms
View the documentBibliography
View the documentAcknowledgements

Chapter 3 - How the south got left behind

Abdus Salam disputes the popularly held Northern idea that science is the creation of the Western, democratic, Judeo-Christian tradition. To substantiate his view, he quotes science historian George Sarton: “The main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the Middle Ages was the creation of the experimental spirit and this was primarily due to the Muslims down to the 12th century.”

Modern science, with its insistence on observation and experiment, is not really the legacy of Greece, contends Salam. “If anything,” he has written, “it is truly a Greco-Judeo-Christian-Islamic legacy” (Lad and Kidwai 1989).

The Contributions of Islam

Barely 100 years after the Prophet Mohammed’s death, Muslims were founding institutes of advanced study. The observatories of Baghdad, Cairo, and Samarkand played a major role in the development of astronomy from the 9th century onwards, as we know for example from Arabic names of heavenly bodies such as the supergiant star Betelgeuse. Muslims were prominent in the sciences until about 1450 AD, when Constantinople fell before the Turkish assault.

Salam contends that the Golden Age of science in Islam was around 1000 AD. He calls Ibn-al-Haitham “one of the greatest physicists of all time,” who anticipated by many centuries Fermat’s Principle (an optical law concerning the time it takes light to travel from one point to another). Ibn-al-Haitham also enunciated the law of inertia, which later became part of Galileo’s and Newton’s law of motion.

Professor Ahmad Y. Al-Hassan, former Director of the Institute for the History of Arabic Science at the University of Aleppo, Syria, and Dr Donald R. Hill, Honorary Research Fellow of University College, London, note in their 1986 book, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History, that “AI-Khuwarizmi, whose name has produced the word ‘algorithm,’ was also responsible for laying the foundations of Islamic [and hence Western] algebra. Umar Khayyam [who died in 1131 AD] now more famous in the West as the poet ‘Omar Khayyam,’ made considerable progress in this field.”

In The Arabs (1955), the great scholar Edward Atiyah says that without the work of Khayyam and Al-Khuwarizmi and other Arab mathematicians, “it is doubtful whether the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century could have taken place when it did...and since it was this scientific revolution, together with that other revolution we call the Renaissance, and to which the Arabs also contributed, that produced the modern mind, or Western civilization, the importance of the Arab link in the chain of history is evident.”

Charles Singer argues in A History of Technology that the major achievements in science and technology that are called Hellenistic and Roman were mainly achievements of the Near East (Singer 1958). Singer writes that in skill and inventiveness during most of the period 500 to 1500 AD “the Near East was superior to the West.... For nearly all branches of technology the best products available to the West were those of the Near East.... Technologically, the West had little to bring to the East. The technological movement was in the other direction.”

The Rich and the Poor

Nor was the North always richer than the South. In fact, the reverse was once true.

“At its prime, Mughal South Asia enjoyed a standard of living higher than that of contemporary Europe,” wrote Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui (1988). “Even in the post-Renaissance period, marking the beginning of Europe’s recovery and subsequent mutation of science, trade between the North and South proceeded on an even keel and the two enjoyed a comparable standard of living.”

Europe started to appear on the scientific scene only after 1100 AD. By that time, science had flourished at different periods in many different parts of the globe, including Egypt, Greece, southern Italy, Syria, Turkey, and later, Afghanistan, Arabia, China, India, and Persia. China and the Islamic countries had already made major discoveries in magnetism, acoustics, and optics.

According to Abdus Salam, “it was only after 1450 AD that the countries that are now called the Third World started losing ground with respect to Europe.”

The Beginnings of Science

Third World achievements in science and technology occurred very early in time. There is evidence that inhabitants of Old Testament Jericho in Jordan cultivated emmer wheat and barley as early as 8000 BC. The earliest civilizations - based on complex and productive agriculture - developed in the river valleys of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile. Hard wheat was one of the crops diffused by the Arabs through the Middle East and the Muslim Mediterranean and, from there, to the Christian West. In all likelihood the Italians are indebted to the Arabs for the invention and transmission of pastas made from durum wheat.

In 2500 BC, science began in another practical form in Babylonia, with what science historian William Cecil Dampier (1966) calls “the coordination and standardization of the knowledge of common sense and of industry.” An early sign of this was the issue under royal command of standards of length, weight, and capacity.

Alexandria was a centre of science before the advent of Islam, and scientists came from the Near East and eastern Mediterranean to live and study there. Engineering was represented in the extensive irrigation systems of Egypt and Iraq, and the textile factories of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires were examples of technology.

The beginnings of astronomy occurred in the Euphrates and Nile basins. In the Indus Valley in South Asia, there is evidence that, at about the same time, scientific knowledge was used in town planning, metallurgy, medicine, and surgery. In Egypt, the invention of the wheel and sailing ship advanced the country’s transport system. And in India during the time of Buddha, medical schools were founded and physicians performed cataract and hernia operations.

Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas had advanced knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, agriculture, and medicine. In the New World, the first university to be founded was not in Boston, but in Santo Domingo (in the Dominican Republic).

Early Technological Advances

Ivan L. Head, former IDRC President, argues in his book On a Hinge of History (Head 1991) that:

The very language of modern technology - mathematics - is a product of Southern genius. The decimal system originated in India. It was assimilated by Arab travellers during the first, golden century of Islam (630-730 AD, a period in Europe described as the Dark Ages) and carried to the Moorish territories in Spain about 750. The essential concept of zero was first derived in China. Without it, none of the great advances in theoretical mathematic and scientific reasoning would have been possible.

Three major inventions that revolutionized world history - printing, gunpowder, and the compass - came from the South. Francis Bacon said of them: “No empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.”

The Chinese dominated technology until the 1 5th or 1 6th century. Printing began in China some 2 000 years ago, long before Gutenberg invented movable type (which the Koreans greatly exploited). The Chinese first used carved seals of stone, then page-sized blocks of wood in printing, and also manufactured paper 1 000 years before it was made in Europe. And in Chinese literature there are references to early forms of the compass. Beginning in the 1st century AD, there are references to south-pointing spoons carved from lodestone, and from the 11th century, there are descriptions of a fish-shaped piece of magnetized iron floated on water. The Chinese also developed the stern-post rudder for ships.

What Caused the Decline?

Why then did the South begin to lose its pre-eminence in science and technology?

The great impetus toward modern science and technology in the North began mainly in the 17th century. First came the “scientific revolution,” as the North began to change the way it viewed the world. This was followed by what H.G. Wells has called the “mechanical revolution,” when mechanical power began to replace muscle power and, finally, by the “industrial revolution” (Wells 1958).

This sequence was largely absent from the countries of the South. But long before, the North had begun to colonize the South, leading to what Kenyan scientist Thomas Odhiambo calls, in the case of Africa, “a 500-year hiatus” - a cultural freeze that lasted half a millennium (Odhiambo 1993). Says M.G.K. Menon (1993), immediate Past-President of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU): “Due to internecine conflicts, feudal structures, a lack of tolerant and liberal attitudes, and colonial domination, the regions of the globe now known as the Third World fell behind, and except for occasional brilliant scientific work, still suffer from a lack of knowledge-based development.”

Other factors, too, were at play, says Menon. Science and technology are deeply rooted in the West, but “by contrast, in the developing world there has been a lack of tolerance toward science. There has also been a lack of formal education for large segments of the population, who continue with their traditional work as in bygone centuries.”

Dr A.M. Sharafuddin, 1983 winner of Unesco’s Kalinga Prize for Popularization of Science, wrote in 1986 in Impact of Science on Society of how, in the absence of the factors leading to the industrial revolution in the Third World, they generally remained immersed in their past traditions:

Some of these countries had glorious traditions indeed - in music and dance, arts and crafts, poetry and drama, philosophy and religion; but modern science, which flourished in the West, simply did not have a chance to take root in these countries. Thus, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the west mastered the forces of Nature and excelled in practical matters, the East - having lost much of its past glories - concentrated more on matters of the spirit.

The Arabs

In the Arab states, the decline of science was associated with weakening of the central Muslim concept of one nation unifying all Muslims, according to Fakhruddin al-Daghestani, Director of the Centre for International Studies at the Royal Scientific Society in Jordan.

“When the learned in society associated themselves with despotic leadership, freedom of expression was suppressed and the role of Ijtihad [independent judgment based on reason] was reduced,” he wrote in Unesco’s World Science Report 1993. “Consequently, inductive reasoning took a marginal position in culture and the motivation for scientific inquiry dwindled.”

Abdus Salam says “no one knows for certain” why creative science died out in Islamic civilization, but he blames internal causes such as “the inward-turning isolation of our scientific enterprise,” and “active discouragement to innovation [taqlid] by the fanatical attitudes of the religious establishment. The later parts of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries in Islam [when this decline began] were periods of intense politically motivated, sectarian, and religious strife.”

Authors al-Hassan and Hill (1986) also blame the rise of a fanatical clerical faction with freezing science and withering its progress. The irony was that this happened just about the time scientific progress in the North was beginning.

“The tragedy of the demolition of the last observatory in Islam, established in Constantinople by Taqi al-Dine in 1580, exemplifies this victory of the clerical faction over science,” they write. “And it is deplorable to note the inherent irony of the fact
that the first observatory in the West was built around the same period, by Tycho Brahe.”

Following the Second World War, when the Arab states became independent, the educational system began to emphasize the learning of facts and storing of information rather than developing the power of observation and analysis. And once again the scientific ethic withered.

Latin America’s Case

The evolution of science and technology in Latin America was different. Marcel Roche, President of the Interciencia Association in Washington, DC, and Editor of Interciencia, says that although colonial science there was not negligible, it was on the whole highly practical, not highly regarded locally, and limited to the richer colonies such as Colombia and Mexico. “There was no theoretical work comparable to that, say, of Benjamin Franklin on electrostatics,” he writes in Science (Roche 1976).

Raimundo Villegas, Chancellor of the Academia de Ciencias de America Latina, and Guillermo Cardoza, Assistant Professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, write: “Science as it is known today in developed Western countries, reached the region many years after Columbus and the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, among other reasons because science was only just beginning in Europe at the end of the 1 5th century.” But from the end of the 15th century until the end of the 19th century, “Latin America witnessed the arrival or the emergence of naturalists, investigators and students of nature who initiated a growing interest in science” (Villegas and Cardoza 1993).

E. Jeffrey Stann, Director of the Western Hemisphere Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), noted in an interview that Latin America is “a creation of the modern age,” and like the United States received an important part of its culture from Europe. But why “science somehow didn’t take as it did in the United States is a mystery.”

Roche has also written: “Traditionally, and following the Spanish historical model, scientific research has not been an inherent part of the Latin American culture. Learning has been by rote.... Our countries have suffered from what I have termed a ‘peripheral complex,’ which makes us feel that, unlike Germans, Frenchmen, Britons, and North Americans, we are not fit to do research.”

Because Spanish American scientists were isolated from their European counterparts and had few research facilities, they felt it was more difficult for them than for Europeans to do science, Roche says. “They also felt keenly the disdain with which their science purportedly was being treated in the central countries.”

Such comments mirror the feelings of many Third World scientists today, as shown in Chapter 6.

The progress made in Latin American science during the past 20 years suggests that Roche’s remarks about Latin American scientists’ lack of self-confidence are no longer entirely valid; nonetheless, they help explain the history of science and technology in Latin America.

Africa’s Long Dark Night

Thomas Odhiambo, who is President of the African Academy of Sciences, blames the beginning of the slave trade in 1442 for plunging Africa into five centuries of darkness and despair. While “science has always been in Africa...ever since the dawn of human society,” the slave trade depopulated and wrecked its centres of civilization (AAAS 1991). That dark age was extended by the colonial imposition of European imperialism, which lasted for a century and a half.

“The disjunction between the European-introduced education system, which eschewed science and the practical arts and broke the link between formal education and the African child’s social environment, completed the descent of the Dark Age over the continent for five centuries and a half,” he said. “One by one, the lights of civilization and technical progress were extinguished.

The centres of learning and scholarship in Timbuktu [in Mali] and Lamu [in Kenya], the concourse of industry and commerce in Axum [in Ethiopia] and Benin [in Nigeria], and the great centres of communication and international trade along the Guinea coast and the East African seaports - all expired and became mere legends.”

These cataclysmic events led to a sociocultural and psychic pall that began to recede only in the 1950s, when Africa began to regain its independence, says Odhiambo.

India and the Far East

Colonialism also caused the development of science and technology to go awry in India and the Far East. Speaking of the scientific and technological milieu of his childhood in British India, Abdus Salam says: “The British set up something like 31 liberal high schools and arts colleges in what is now Pakistan, but for a population then approaching 40 million people, just one college of engineering and one college of agriculture...in the entire liberal arts dominated educational history of British India, there never was anything analogous to the British National or Higher National Certificates in Technology.

“The results of these policies could have been foreseen. The chemical revolution of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture touched us not. The manufacturing crafts went into complete oblivion. Even a steel plough had to be imported from England.”

Indigenous science and technology did not then exist in Pakistan, Salam says. “Any technology we needed, we bought.” But even this came hedged with restrictions: “For example, no product which used this [imported] technology could be exported. And in any case, not all technology was for sale. Pakistan, for example, could not buy the technology of penicillin manufacture in 1955. My brother, together with a few other young chemists from Pakistan, reinvented the process, producing as a result of their inexperience penicillin at 16 times the world price.”

The Birth of Organized Science

The organization of science in the North changed during the 19th century, when it was realized that science could no longer be left to individuals, no matter how talented. Research institutes were created and funded by governments, and industry established its own research laboratories. Such trends were foreign to the nonscientific orientation of the cultures of the South. In any case, the South was prohibited from building similar facilities because of insufficient resources and the constraints of colonialism.

The history of colonialism and exploitation of much of the Third World goes a long way to explain why the South lagged behind the North in science and technology. But however much the North can be blamed for this, the South’s own responsibility for the current state of affairs must not be ignored.

As Menon and others have indicated, culture, religion, and politics were at least partly responsible for the widespread social inequalities and the massively uneven distribution of wealth and privilege seen in much of the Third World, and contributed to the lack of development of science and technology among Third World countries. Technological developments such as machines to lighten physical labour and improve the quality of life were completely unimaginable in countries where many had not only to fend for themselves, but also to perform menial tasks for the rich. And with a permanent supply of cheap human labour, the rich had no need for such machines.

Interviewed at ICTP, Pakistani physicist F. Hussain said: “There are only a few countries in the Third World where the governments have really gone out of their way to help the development of science.... In most of the Third World countries, like my own, the governments have never given any priority to education or to science. Mostly they don’t want to spend money on universities and schools.... So the universities and the education system hardly gets any [money]. And they really don’t care about science.”

Under the circumstances, it is remarkable that the Third World has achieved anything of significance in recent years. Yet that is certainly the case, as the next chapter shows.