The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.
This post is adapted from Fjordman’s comments on earlier posts here and here.
I’ve been reading Greek Thought, Arab Culture by Dimitri Gutas, which is a surprisingly boring book. Gutas treats the Arabic translation movement in Baghdad as a major achievement. It was an achievement in some ways, but he admits that they benefited greatly from the pre-established Zoroastrian Persian ideology of translation and libraries. He also admits that Muslims only translated scientific works, not the Homeric epics, for instance. He does briefly mention that they translated some Sanskrit and Persian works, but says almost nothing about the Indian ones. The Indian numeral system was important and should be mentioned, although the Greek texts were clearly the most important.
Muslims had access to Greek, Persian and Sanskrit works. Theoretically speaking, they could have explored the Indo-European linguistic tree. But they didn’t. Europeans did. It is true that Muslims made some worthwhile works in mathematics, but we should remember that the three most important mathematical traditions in the ancient world were the Greek, the Mesopotamian (which the Greeks head learned from, and which the Persian continued) and the Indian. This means that Middle Eastern Muslims had direct access to all of the most important mathematical traditions on Earth simultaneously. They did make some progress in algebra, but it would almost be surprising if they didn’t manage to produce any significant mathematical works.
One book on my reading list which I haven’t read so far is The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies by Thomas McEvilley. My impression from what I have read about it is that he places too much emphasis on the Indian influence on Greek culture. Everybody says nowadays that Greek culture was “really” invented somewhere else (think Black Athena). We do know that the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Phoenicians influenced the Greeks, but the Greeks openly admitted this, and these cultures all belonged to the Eastern Mediterranean world whereas India was far away.
There is a school of thought which claims that Plato’s political system in The Republic mirrors the Hindu caste system, and that Greek atomism was imported from Indian atomism. I haven’t seen convincing evidence of this so far, and it’s difficult to see how this influence should have been transferred to Greece prior to Hellenistic times, but the question is worth exploring. We can find traces of a commonly shared Proto-Indo-European mythological heritage with India, however faint.
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The Chinese mathematical tradition was significant, but less influential than the Indian one. I would be tempted to say that China was a hardware civilization whereas India was a software civilization. The truth is that given the size of their economy and their population, the Chinese were surprisingly weak in mathematics and in the abstract sciences in general. This proves that although some minimum level of wealth is certainly a necessary cause for the growth of modern science (extremely poor people concentrate on surviving, not on inventing calculus or comparative linguistics), it is by no means a sufficient one. The Chinese believed the Earth was flat until the seventeenth century AD, and they only corrected this error after their astronomy had been virtually displaced by European astronomy. This was after European (Greek) astronomers had known that the Earth was spherical for more than two thousand years, a knowledge which, despite popular myths to the contrary, was never lost during medieval times.
Asian rockets weighed a couple of kilograms at most and were powered by gunpowder. None of them would have been able to challenge the Earth’s gravity, leave the atmosphere and explore the Solar System. In fact, Asians never coined the concept of “gravity” in the first place. Space travel is the invention of only one civilization, the Western one. None of the Asian nations ever came remotely close to achieving something similar on their own, not even the Japanese. In fact, without Europeans mankind might not have been able to explore the Solar System for many centuries yet.
From the fourteenth century AD, which is to say the Italian Renaissance, until the twentieth century, almost all important global advances in mathematics were European. I would be tempted to say that European leadership was stronger in mathematics than in any other scholarly discipline. Perhaps the simplest explanation for why the Scientific Revolution happened in Europe is because the language of nature is written in mathematics, and Europeans did more than any other civilization to develop — or discover — the vocabulary of this language.