restricted access Knowledge—Not Capitalism, Faith, or Reason—Was the Key to "The Rise of the West"
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Historically Speaking March/April 2006 Knowledge—Not Capitalism, Faith, or Reason—Was the Key to "The Rise of the West" Jack Goldstone ^ odney Stark is a remarkable scholar, ^ whose insights into religion, its origins , and its spread have changed the thinking of sociologists and economists. Yet Stark is now advancing onto new ground, arguing about the consequences ofreligion. It pains me to say that the results are a tissue of gross historical errors and illogical conclusions . It is hard to know where to begin. His numerous mistakes on the history of technology ? Serious errors about the role and importance of capitalism? Or his wholly false conclusions about the role of Christianity and capitalism in world history? Typical is the first paragraph , grounded in an earlier generation of European historians who saw everywhere evidence of European superiority . In fact, Europeans who traveled to the New World or Asia from the 16th to the 18th centuries were astounded not by backwardness but by the commercial wealth and complexity of these societies. When Cortés recorded his impression of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, he wrote: "The City has many squares where markets are held and trading is carried on. There is one square, twice as large as that of Salamanca, all surrounded by arcades, where daily more than 60,000 souls buy and sell, and where are found all the kinds of merchandise produced in these countries." Cortés's companion Bernai Díaz added: "We were astounded at the great number of people and the quantities of merchandise, and at the orderliness and good arrangements that prevailed, for we had never seen such a thing before."1 Tenochtitlan had a population ofover 200,000 people; the largest Map of Tenochtitlan in Praeclara Ferdinadi, Cortesii de Noua maris Oceani Hyspania Narratio ... 1 524. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. city in Spain at that time, Seville, was less than one-quarter that size. More than 200 years later, when the British conqueror of India Robert Clive contemplated Mushidabad, the capital of Bengal, he wrote "this city is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London."2 Europeans were able to defeat the Aztec and Inca empires not because oftheir technology (the Spaniards were driven out of Tenochtitlan and nearly wiped out on the "sad night" of June 30, 1520; two-thirds of the Spaniards were killed along with over 1,000 of their Tlaxcalan allies), but because they made astute alliances with the Aztec's Native American enemies, while European microbes wiped out over half oftheir foes in a matter of months. As Diaz further noted upon their return to Tenochtitlan: "When we entered the city every house was full of corpses. The dry land and stockades were piled high with the dead." It was not European technology that achieved this result, but European diseases. Further, Europeans were not—as Stark claims—the first to study chemistry. In fact, the 9th-century Islamic chemist Jabir Ibn Haiyan wrote the first treatises on experimentalchemistry, coined our current word for "akali," developed the experimental apparatus and techniques for distillation and calcination , and discovered nitric, hydrochloric, citric, and tartaric acids. Later translated into Latin, his work was the foundation for serious chemistry for centuries to follow. But Europeans were at first much more interested in using his theories of the composition of metals to pursue transformations ofbase metals into gold. Alchemy was thus a European degradation of Islamic chemistry, which took March/April 2006 · Historically Speaking almost a millennium to reverse.3 As to eyeglasses and heavy cavalry, by the mid-17th century Japanese books (e.g., KyoSuzume [Swallows ofKyoto] written in 1665) showed spectacle shops and described how to polish lenses.4Heavy cavalry was invented by the ancient Persians under Cyrus the Younger, then copied by the Greeks. The Romans, however , had to leam about it again from the Sassanid Persians, who were using fully armored horses and riders from the 3rd century A.D.5 So many errors in just one paragraph. Moreover, one could also easily (and correctly ) ask: Why was it that for so many centuries Asian societies, but not Europeans, had the magnetic compass, knew how...


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