In one of my first posts, I mentioned that studying the rise and fall of medieval Islamic science might provide interesting neoreactionary insights into the way societies optimize or fail to optimize for intelligence and culture. What did the Caliphate do correctly, where did the Islamic world go wrong, and why did it never return to a Golden Age while its neighbors to the West awoke to new heights of enlightenment? Before Christian Europe took up the mantle, the light of rational inquiry sparked by the Greeks and Romans enlightened the Islamic world. Why was it snuffed out and can we learn any relevant lessons for the contemporary West?
Rather than provide a concrete answer just yet, I’ll post some of the best resources and discussions I’ve discovered so far:
1. “The Religious State of Islamic Science.” An interesting interview with Turkish-American physicist, Taner Edis. He cautions against placing medieval Islamic science on a pedestal, reminding us that it was still thoroughly medieval, closer to classical Greek philosophy than to the empirical science developed in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. (However, he does recognize that Islamic scientists made prominent discoveries in medicine and astronomy and optics.) Edis’s general sense is that while Church power in Europe weakened or, at least, while the Church granted a measure of legal autonomy to systems outside the Church, the Islamic world never experienced a “reformation” or formulated a “separation of church and state.” The co-mingling of religious and legal power in the Islamic world was a fertile ground for science so long as the religious leaders were secular; once they became fundamentalist, however, the fertile ground dried up. Edis also talks here about the fundamentalist blinders that keep Islamic science from developing today. (Also enjoy the section in which the interviewer tries to get him to blame Western imperialism for the state of scientific research in Muslim countries; Edis refuses to play that game.)
2. “Tolerance, Religious Competition and the Rise and Fall of Muslim Science.” Written by Harvard economist Eric Chaney, this article argues that Muslim science flourished when theological competition made the study of Aristotelian logic a valuable enterprise, but that logic and rational inquiry became less important as Islam became more fundamentalist and homogenous. (At the same time, European Christianity was becoming more fractured, and theological debate was running rampant.) Islamic fundamentalist rulers, of course, had an interest in keeping their societies fundamentalist and theologically homogenous. Goodbye, rational inquiry. The results of Chaney’s study “highlight how religious groups, like their secular counterparts, can block innovation when they regard it as a threat to their interests.” Look past the eager uses of “diversity” and “tolerance” in this essay; it’s more interesting than its buzz words indicate. It also demonstrates that religion per se is not a detriment to an advanced, intelligent culture; indeed, Chaney argues that competition of religions (or, more accurately, sects within religions) encourages people to hone their logic skills, which lays the groundwork for rational inquiry outside of the theological arena. Perhaps its no mere correlation that the Enlightenment and the Reformation occurred more or less in tandem; it seems there is an optimal temperature for religious schism that is generative rather than destructive.
3. Here’s a video of George Saliba, a Professor of Arabic Studies at Columbia. According to Saliba, most historians, as well as Neil Degrasse Tyson, assume that the influence of anti-rational mystic Al-Ghazali (who refused to believe in cause-effect reasoning) in the 12th century and the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century were the primary causes behind the quick decline of medieval Islamic science. Saliba argues, however, that extant treatises prove the continuation of some level of Islamic scientific development until the 15th and 16th centuries (apparently, an observatory was even built just after the Mongol invasion). So, he posits that the best question to ask is not “what went wrong in Islam?” but “what went right in Europe?” Now, Saliba is clearly a Leftist, but I think he makes an interesting point nonetheless: he argues that the discovery of the New World in 1492 completely re-aligned the trade routes of the Old World. Prior to the Age of Discovery, trade routes went from West to East through the Islamic world, meaning that a lot of human and monetary capital flowed into the Middle East—and excess capital is vital for scientific development. Once the New World was discovered, trade routes shifted into Europe and out into the Atlantic, and capital began to flow through Europe precisely at the same time that religious control was becoming more fundamentalist in the Muslim world and more de-centralized in Europe. Saliba also discusses how Europeans were intelligent enough (my words, not his) to re-invest their new capital into scientific development, both in the New World and in the Old. Saliba, with his Leftist spin, implies that Europeans just stole discoveries made elsewhere, but even his spin can’t hide the fact that what Europe did right was to systematically fund science in order to aggregate, use, and develop the basic discoveries of Islamic science, which never had a practical, experimental edge. (What Saliba tries to do is similar to scholars who say that natives ‘discovered’ penicillin just because they knew fungus could heal wounds. In reality, it takes the funding, empiricism, and high-IQ culture of Western science to isolate and package penicillin.) Also, Saliba overstates the extent to which trade routes ceased running through the Middle East. The trans-Atlantic slave trade into Arab lands was as extensive as it was through Europe and the New World. Rather, Saliba’s contribution is to demonstrate that it’s not enough for a culture to make theoretical discoveries; they also need to have the incentives, the funding, and (as neoreactionaries know) the IQ to figure out how to put those discoveries to work toward practical, material ends.
4. A short but interesting section about the Golden Age under the Abassid Caliphate from a book by John Esposito, a Cornell professor whose life seems to have been dedicated to Muslim-Christian relations. The most interesting tidbit from this chapter, from a neoreactionary perspective, is that Persians (i.e., white Muslims) played a major role in the bureaucracy of this period. (Persians also constitute a majority of the period’s prominent Muslim scientists.) Esposito also points out that the Golden Age was made possible, in part, by generous funding of culture, art, and science.
So what’s the take-away at this point? First, the consolidation of religious and state power is detrimental to scientific development because any knowledge that challenges the religion will itself be challenged—e.g., not funded or completely eradicated—by the state. Paging Dr. Jason Richwine. (Religion itself is not the problem; indeed, in both Europe and the Middle East, science flourished amidst vigorous religious debate; it’s no accident that most early scientists in both places were religious.) Second, science needs to be funded so that it can be perfected and put to use. As I’ve mentioned before in comments threads, I honestly have no problem with government expenditures so long as the money is spent on the advancement of science and technology—which will have material and fiscal returns—and not on programs that incentivize social pathology and failure. And finally, and most offensively, it appears as though the Golden Age of Islamic science was actually the Golden Age of Persian science . . . So, one way we can optimize for intelligence is to give more power to high-IQ populations and less power to low-IQ populations. That’s the current trend in America, right?
[Update: Per the comment thread, Islam’s contribution to science in the 21st century will be its continued jihad against the West, which will push the West to develop more and more sophisticated weapons technology for killing all the jihadis.)