Fjordman Fjordman Report


Fjordman files the following book review with the Tundra Tabloids. KGS

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History from 2003 is an attempt by Robert McNeill and William H. McNeill, a father-and-son team of historians, to outline the major trends of human societies from Paleolithic times until the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The authors state that the Scientific Revolution was to have great consequences for all of mankind. Its emphasis on observation, experiment and unfettered reason – potentially subversive ideas that were often resisted by the political and religious establishment – has continued to flourish until the present day. While they agree that the creation of a network of universities was a uniquely European achievement, they also claim that “Ibn al-Shatir (died 1375) and others had challenged Ptolemy in much the same ways that Copernicus did later.”

This is not quite true. Yes, Ibn al-Shatir, working in Damascus, Syria and possibly the most gifted member of the Maragha school of astronomy, challenged certain aspects of Ptolemy’s models, especially his complex system of epicycles on top of circular orbits to account for apparent variations in the speed and direction of the motion of the planets. It has been speculated whether his ideas may indirectly have influenced Copernicus as a student in Italy.

Be that as it may, while a handful of the most talented astronomers in the Islamic-ruled world might question some of the technical details of Ptolemy’s models, none of them ever seriously questioned the notion that the Earth is the center of the universe. This was far more than a minor mathematical detail; it related to man’s place in the cosmos in very fundamental ways.

The Mongols under the leadership of Hulegu Khan (ca. 1217-1265), a grandson of the powerful Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan (ca. 1162-1227), sacked Baghdad in 1258 and ended the Abbasid Caliphate. Hulegu believed that many of his military successes were due to the advice of astronomers who were also astrologers (astrology was very important in Mongol culture) and was persuaded to found the Maragha observatory in present-day Iran by the Persian mathematician Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274). His brother Kublai Khan (1215-1294) constructed an astronomical observatory in Yuan Dynasty (Mongol-ruled) China.

Some have claimed that scientific advances in the Islamic world were halted by the Mongol conquests. This is historically inaccurate. The conquests affected Syria, Egypt, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula rather little, yet these regions didn’t make any more progress than did the Islamic East. Besides, science had already stagnated in many fields prior to this. In astronomy, achievements peaked after the conquests, and partly with Mongol encouragement.

The Maragha observatory from 1259

Astronomy in the Islamic world remained fundamentally Ptolemaic and Earth-centered. The Maragha observatory from 1259 was destroyed already in the early 1300s. The fact that it “not only stopped functioning within fifty years but soon thereafter was completely obliterated suggests that there were very strong antipathies against it and its activities” because of their alleged association with astrology, which was considered a challenge to the omnipotence of Allah. Ultimately, the observatory as a scientific institution failed to take root in the Islamic world due to religious resistance. In the Ottoman Empire, the observatory in Constantinople/Istanbul created by Taqi al-Din (1526-1585) “was razed to the ground by a squad of Janissaries, by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti.”

Among major regions or civilizations, the two with the most similar medieval starting points were the Middle East and Europe. Superior Greek geometry was virtually unknown in East and Southeast Asia. This constituted a major disadvantage for Chinese, Japanese and Korean scholars in optics and astronomy. The only regions where clear glass was extensively made were the Middle East and Europe. Clear glass was used by Europeans to manufacture eyeglasses for the correction of eyesight and later for the creation of microscopes and telescopes, facilitating the growth of modern medicine and astronomy. The Maya in Mesoamerica did not know how to make glass and could consequently not have made glass lenses for telescopes. Muslims could have done so, but they didn’t. Likewise, medieval Europeans invented mechanical clocks while Muslims did not, despite a similar starting point.

A few Middle Eastern scholars were decent observers, as exemplified by the star catalogue of Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) in Central Asia or the lunar observations of Ibn Yunus (950-1009) in Egypt, but they never made any conceptual breakthrough comparable to that of Copernicus when he put the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of our Solar System. Combined with the pre-telescopic work of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, Ptolemaic astronomy was outdated in Europe even before Galileo had introduced telescopic astronomy by 1610. Muslims resisted Copernican heliocentrism, in some cases into the twentieth century. One of those who rejected it was the Islamic activist and alleged reformist Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (ca. 1838-1897).

Just to keep things in perspective, we need to remember that the observations made by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) in Denmark probably surpassed anything ever achieved before anywhere in the world previously, and were just about as accurate as was humanly possible to do before the telescope. “Much of his early work is reliable to three or four minutes of arc, and his later accuracy is often better than a minute of arc for star positions, and hardly much less for those of the planets. This was better, by a factor of five or even ten, than the level of accuracy of the best Eastern astronomers, even than that of Ulugh Beg’s observatory in Samarqand.”

The McNeills suggest that a “confluence of circumstances” explains why the Scientific Revolution took place in Europe, not elsewhere. For instance, greater political fragmentation made it more difficult to censor ideas there than in China. This may be true, yet the Middle East, India, Africa and Southeast Asia could be sometimes be fragmented, too, and nothing similar happened there. Fragmentation can at most provide only a partial explanation for this.

Their conclusion when it comes to science is that “Europeans alone developed a culture of scientific inquiry that after 1500 provided immense practical knowledge. Navigation and astronomy came first. Physics and ballistics – useful in artillery – followed, as, more slowly, did systematic sciences of medicine, botany, and chemistry, among others. Slowly, these sciences yielded practical advantages in military affairs, agriculture, mining, metallurgy, and elsewhere. These, particularly the military sciences of fortification, artillery ballistics, and mathematically precise organization of men and supplies, made even small European states increasingly formidable from the late sixteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, science in Europe (and the United States) systematically informed technology, generating a self-sustaining process of technological change to which no end is in sight.”

Just out of curiosity, I searched for the word “jihad” in the index of The Human Web and found a single reference to it. Arab Muslims had laid siege to Constantinople in AD 674-678 but failed to take the city. They tried again in 717-718, but once more the Byzantines, assisted by Bulgars, managed to repel them. On both occasions they were crucially aided by so-called Greek fire, a mysterious, but highly effective flammable substance possibly similar to modern napalm that was successfully employed to set ablaze the attacking Muslim fleet. They lost several important provinces, but had managed to salvage Constantinople for the time being.

If you believe Robert and William H. McNeill, after this event in the year 718, “Subsequent fluctuations of the military-political balance between Christendom and Islam, though substantial, never shook each side’s commitment to their respective versions of the one True Faith. Consequently, Crusade and jihad – raid and counter-raid – came to prevail in Christian-Muslim borderlands, even though trade and intellectual contacts were never broken off.”

Describing the Crusades, which were of limited duration in time and space, with the peculiar Islamic institution of Jihad, which is valid for all times and all places, is grossly misleading.

The authors also describe the emancipation of slaves, and of the serfs of the Russian Empire:

“As in Arabia, slavery on a small scale survived its legal abolition in colonial Africa. After independence, Mauritania banned slavery again in 1980, and it has yet to disappear entirely, especially in the country of Sudan. Even if never totally extirpated, the abolition of slavery and serfdom represents a great liberation for humankind. Between 1790 and 1936, an arrangement that for millennia had seemed normal, moral, indeed natural and necessary to most societies, came to seem immoral, uneconomic, and/or politically imprudent. What the harnessing of fossil fuels achieved in the sphere of work itself – a historic liberation from muscular toil – abolition achieved in the social sphere. They were connected events and roughly simultaneous. The use of inanimate energy gradually made labor less scarce, and forced labor less appealing. It made communication of antislavery ideas easier. It made the imposition of European antislavery morality upon Asia and Africa easier.”

They left out the fact that the stiff resistance to abolishing slavery in Islamic and Islamized African countries was due to the fact that slavery is permitted according to sharia law and remains so to this day. Only relentless Western pressure has kept it down until now, and if that external pressure should disappear, open Muslim slavery could resurface once more.
In the index of the book, scientific names listed include Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, Gregor Mendel and Ernest Rutherford, which is fine, but among those who are omitted can be mentioned Maxwell, Lavoisier, Pasteur and Huygens. Al-Khwarizmi is there, but not Gauss, Leibniz, Fermat, Euler or Pascal. Remarkably, Newton’s name is left out entirely. For that matter, the Indo-European expansion is virtually ignored.

All things considered, The Human Web contains some interesting chapters. It is a fairly decent work on global history given that it tries to cover all of human existence in just over three hundred pages, but frankly, including non-European figures of relatively minor importance such as Ibn al-Shatir while completely ignoring Isaac Newton seriously strains credibility.

3 Responses

  1. Hi. I’m partially convinced by Spengler’s ‘morphology of history’ thesis and would love to read Fjordman’s thoughts on this and on Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West’ – and maybe his thoughts on Islam and how it confirms/revokes Spengler’s thesis. Any chance of this sometime – cheers.

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