How Blind Is Love?: Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China

Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China revolutionized conventional views of the history of science and technology. The first volumes were welcomed as works of astonishing erudition and intellectual daring, but later Needham was increasingly criticized for promoting an outdated model of how science, technology and society are related, and for exaggerating the scientific achievements of premodern China. Winchester is neither a historian of science nor a historian of technology, still less a committed Marxist philosopher of science as Needham was. His popular biography of Needham presents his great enterprise almost as a caricature of the shortcomings for which it was criticized and ignores many of its most significant and enduring strengths. This essay considers the positive legacy and reworkings of Needham's critical crusade to present science and technology as a common human project, always and everywhere a product of intercultural flows and exchanges rather than the unique fruit of Western superiority.