Islamic Science

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.)


16 responses

  1. There is no Islamic science, and there never was a golden age of Islam. After taking over other cultures, some science remained for awhile, but once thoroughly Islamicized there was no science. We don’t use Arabic numerals, these are Hindu numerals, transmitted to Europe through the Middle East because the Middle East mediated all exchange between Europe and Asia until Vasco de Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa and made sea trade possible, after which the Moslems had nothing to leech off of and became irrelevant to the rest of the world. They reverted to being bandits, which is all they really ever were.

    May 15, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    • Ha. That’s all very possible. Actually, George Sariba makes a similar point, albeit in much more PC and Islam-friendly terms: that being at the crossroads of East and West made it easy for science to develop in these ‘middle-east’ crossroads.

      Still, I’m less interested in who developed science first than I am in what conditions allowed various levels of culture to flourish. Clearly, the Europeans were the first to develop modern, industrialized, high-tech science. Everything before that was, as my first link discusses, medieval tinkering and philosophizing. However, even those first steps were important, so I think they’re valuable to think about.

      May 15, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      • Science can occur if there is enough wealth for some people to have leisure to think and enough political stability that doing so isn’t a threat, or that all the upper class people don’t have to be focused on maintaining control. Islam had firm political control over the MENA and Southwest Asia, and beyond agricultural surplus had the profit from the Europe/Asia trade that had to go over the Silk Road or by sea to the Arabian peninsula, then overland in caravans to the Mediterranean. Math and science are fundamentally anti-Islamic but under those conditions some scientific activity didn’t bother them.

        May 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm

  2. Science can occur if there is enough wealth for some people to have leisure to think and enough political stability that doing so isn’t a threat, or that all the upper class people don’t have to be focused on maintaining control.

    That’s certainly a big part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Haven’t there been plenty of cultures in history with leisured elites who didn’t do all that much in the way of science or development, especially in North and South America? Hell, forget history. There are plenty of cultures today with leisured upper classes who aren’t contributing much to global research or development. There are only about 10 nations who are currently productive.

    Also, I’m not sure about the importance of political stability. Sure, if mobs are burning down all the labs and universities, that’s one thing, but the Occident has seen plenty of political instability since 1500, but it has never seriously impeded progress. Hell, nuclear science was forged during the world wars. Newton was born the same year the English Civil War started, and wrote his Principia right around the time of the Glorious Revolution.

    May 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm

  3. “Hell, nuclear science was forged during the world wars.”
    Nuclear fission, computers, rocket engines, jet engines, radar, sonar, remote control, and countless narrower military applications … It’s truly terrifying how techno-science positive large-scale warfare proves to be. There’s almost no chance that the Technological Singularity would NOT arrive during a global military cataclysm.

    May 16, 2013 at 12:53 am

    • What do we do with that? As a purely descriptive matter, it’s absolutely true. But I’m not sure that pushing for military cataclysms should be a plank in the reactionary platform.

      Perhaps one way to deal with the moral dilemma (the only time you’ll hear me utter that phrase) is to hope that military tech continues to be about pinpoint accuracy and targeted, local destabilization (e.g, drones and cyber warfare) rather than large scale mass casualty events. I can imagine a lot of beneficial sci/tech development coming out of such a program, especially if it means (as Pinker suggests in his new book) that warfare becomes less deadly overall.

      May 16, 2013 at 2:18 am

    • During the ultimate ethno-nationalist war, mind you

      May 16, 2013 at 4:07 am

  4. “I’m not sure that pushing for military cataclysms should be a plank in the reactionary platform. ”
    — it gets delegated to Islam, which can then be properly appreciated for its contribution to techno-scientific progress. (I think Spandrell is envisaging a rather more unfortunate eventuality, however)

    May 16, 2013 at 5:36 am

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  6. Jim

    Regarding the development of positional notation –

    In the Old World this goes back to Ancient Mesopotamia where a sexigesimal positional system for numerals was used. At first spaces were used in lieu of a zero but eventually a special symbol was used in place of a space. There was no “sexigesimal point” but instead numbers were scaled by context.

    This system was taken over by Hellenic astronomers who of course replaced the cuneiform symbols with Greek letters. They also introduced the use of an accent mark as a means of scaling. The Hellenic astronomers used a sexigesimal base for measuring angles and a decimal base for measuring chords.

    This system was only used in astronomical writing. In everyday life and business the Greeks used a non-positional system similar to Roman numerals.

    Hindu astronomy was derived in large part from the Greeks, the most famous Hindu astronomical text is largely a translation of Ptolemy. The positional system of the Hindus was directly derived from the Greeks who in turn had obtained it from the Babylonians.

    From the Hindus the Arabs in turn acquired a decimal positional system which was adopted by Europeans. Although the invention of positional notation is often attributed to either the Hindus or the Arabs this is not correct. These various sytems can be traced back to the Babylonians.

    The Meso-Americans developed positional systems of numeration completely independently of the Old World.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:03 pm

  7. Jeff

    I was just thinking about this topic this morning. It seems to be that an ideal geopolitical situation would be a cold war between multiple poles. War always leads to new advances/the application of new advances. Necessity is mother, etc. As an aside, the parts of our military that see combat are almost always better run and more efficient than the others (life and death struggles seem to cut red tape).

    Ideally, we can break down the US into a series of nuclear nation-states and let regional competition (and mutual assured destruction) focus the scientific efforts.

    May 16, 2013 at 8:14 pm

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  10. This site doesn’t afford Islam any quarter but its version of the Islamic golden age may be a good premise to explore.

    Basically that there was no real golden age. The Islamic golden age was only golden relative to the decline of the west at the same time as the flourishing of the mid-east. The cause of this is Islamic aggression. The mid-east grew rich through trade between the east and the west. This was a necessary evil. The mid-east used its riches for conquest. Along the way they absorbed and refined some of the west’s cultural achievements. Eventually, though, the more fundamentalist Islamic factions crushed this corrupting western influence.

    I don’t know enough to confirm this story but it fits the narrative very well. If Islamic nations make for such poor trading partners (as they still do) Columbus would have that as the true impetuous for finding a better trade route (i.e., one that cuts out the Islamic middle man).

    It is ironic that as soon as the west discovered how to cheaply bypass the mid-east our technology required the fuel that just happened to be abundant in the mid-east. That and the obvious fact that oil money is often funneled to terrorists.

    Have you came across anything which would confirm this account?

    June 14, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    • Yeah, your second full paragraph is essentially what Saliba is trying to say (albeit with a more pro-Muslim bent). And I think you’re also right that the “Golden Age” only looks golden because Europe still hadn’t gotten its shit together. Compared to the Enlightenment, the Golden Age was still only a few steps above classical Greek philosophy and medieval medical tinkering. The second link in the post, Eric Chaney, says something quite similar about not romanticizing Islamic science.

      June 15, 2013 at 12:29 am

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