THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
WHY DID THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION OCCUR WHEN IT DID and WHERE IT DID? 1500 -1800 IN PARTS OF WESTERN EUROPE?
The scientific revolution in Europe from 1500 to 1800 involved the overthrow of an old entrenched orthodoxy and its replacement with a new coherent evolutionarily stable alternative.
During this period science in Europe emerged in its modern form as the systematic, predominantly mathematical, description and explanation of natural phenomena. It employed a methodology based on accurate observation, logical reasoning and quantified experiment to develop theories which produced falsifiable predictions or repeatable validations. Characteristically science accepted no prior authority; rejecting prejudice and focusing on the evidence of cumulative co-operative effort which was reviewed by peers.
1 Breaking the grip of established authority
Before the old orthodoxy could be questioned and challenged the grip of established authority had to be broken. Historically such power had been imposed by various agents employing their monopoly; the Bishops with ‘Catholic Scholasticism’, Princes seeking arbitrary grandeur, the Generals and their military dictatorships or ‘democratic’ majorities with ‘popular political’ interference; all had identical inhibiting effects on science and innovation. These agents of control almost invariably employed two incapacitating instruments, proscribed beliefs and oppressive taxation. The problem was the power to impose prejudiced curricula and taxes.
However, from 1500 monolithic territorial massifs were seldom established in Western Europe and power centres tended to be broken up by a mixture of luck, the Renaissance, the Reformation, war, revolution and printing.
A lucky unintended consequence of the Constantine split of the Roman Empire was the disintegration of the Western part. While the Eastern Emperors and Patriarchs maintained their demobilising grip, the Western empire crumbled into the dark ages. Charlemagne’s attempt at unification in 800 lasted in name for 1000 years, but in reality his empire was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire. Boundaries were not defined by central authority but by the sea and encroaching Islam and Norsemen. Garibaldi and Bismarck had yet to unify their countries.
The focus of the Renaissance and the birth place of the scientific revolution was Northern Italy, a bastion against central power. City states flourished with long traditions of independence and fierce competition. The merchant Medici family ruled Florence and although the Priests ruled in Rome, the Venetian tradition of Papal rivalry and the Neapolitan flirtation with Spain secured the dispersion of power. Genoa had long been a republic and the Duchies of Milan, Savoy and Tuscany were natural rivals keeping Italy without central authoritarian control.
The absence of a Western Emperor did give the Pope a free run but the Reformation kept England, Scotland, Sweden, Central Europe and parts of the Low Countries free from Catholic Scholasticism.
When Charles V lost the 30 Years War in 1648 and failed to hold the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire together, Spanish domination of the low countries collapsed. Rivalry amongst the German Princes kept 300 states independently competing in Central Europe and political control in France was secularised.
In England the triumph of common law over the debilitating effects of Royal taxes and catechisms, together with the euphoria of the1688 revolution gave added impetus to tolerance and freedom of thought established during the Reformation. This at a critical time for the development of science.
Even the more centralised Catholic states of France and Spain found censorship difficult as printing, minorities and neighbouring safe havens kept free thought alive. However, without doubt, the Counter Reformation and burdensome taxes inhibited the development of science in these countries.
2 Opening up diversity and choice
Once the grip of established authority had been broken, different choices were available and diverse spontaneous activity followed.
A sequence of scientific activity can be traced from the Aquinas synthesis, the Renaissance, the Gutenburg press, the voyages of discovery, to the Reformation and the blossoming of science during the Enlightenment.
Symbolically these activities started with the fall of Toledo in 1085, which sparked the rediscovery of the Greek miracle of ancient science and emergence from the dark ages. This led to the embracing of Greek reason by Aquinas and the new thrust of the humanist Renaissance. Christianity, culture and the Laws of Nature were opened up for investigation. The debates revolved round two tensions -
faith or reason
ancients or moderns
Once mass communication through printing was available and the stories told of new and unimaginable lands across the seas, the ground was fertile for new knowledge and science. The Reformation confirmed the idea of tolerance and the questioning of authority, it also added significantly to diversity.
More generally, all over Western Europe, towns had been established by new free men fleeing from feudal oppression. This triggered the rise of a merchant class as independent trade developed and wealth accumulated. Significantly the towns were able to ‘purchase’ from the authorities, by means of charters and licenses, an important degree of independence. Rich merchants swapped gold for freedom! Immunity from taxation was the deal the authorities offered in return for immediate revenue.
These dynamic autonomous towns, with population concentrations and good communications, formed a network of competing units without imposed authority and debilitating taxes. The towns became centres for expansive trade and quite distinct from backward rural self sufficient agriculture centres and very different from the old capital cities of the Royal courts.
Sustaining urban populations also required solutions to the problems of poverty, food and disease - an agricultural revolution; enclosures, turnips, clover, crop rotation and a public health revolution; potable water, sewage disposal, cotton and soap.
Such concentration, competition and diversity was a consequence of the particular history of Western Europe, it did not happen in China, the Islamic lands nor in the Orthodox East, they remained largely rural monoliths.
3 Emerging co-operative institutions
Of course, diversity and freedom of association in the towns produced the bad as well as the good. In the same way as the Church sold indulgences, the Princes, gambling to retain some control and tax revenues, sold Guild licenses and charters to compliant traders who hoped to benefit from monopoly profits. But money was made from innovation not restrictive practices. From 1600 diversity and competition led to the emergence of more efficient forms of association, the independent joint stock companies, and the eventual collapse of the Guilds system and charters.
Struggling to survive the new urban communities spawned a host of rival institutions, scientific academies and universities. Seeking new knowledge and opportunities, the debate was intense.
The new institutions were independent of the established universities. Many of the latter were still in the grip of central control and Aristotelian Scholasticism and only training grounds for clerics, however, others were innovative and sponsored by rival municipalities, merchants and Princes. Even the London coffee houses became a focus for discussion and exchange. Through meetings and printed publications these scientific communities developed communication, co-operation and peer review; they also championed a new scientific method.
4. Establishing scientific method
Importantly the new knowledge was systematically acquired. It was new, there was no requirement for the Ancients. The start was not books or philosophy but observation of reality, this was followed by the formulation of mathematical theory, and consequential falsifiable predictions, validate by experiment and controlled by peer review. Science was reducible, refutable and reproducible, and publicised through lectures and experiment theatres, it was pushing into every nook and cranny of urban life.
Bacon’s empirical method involved standards of proof and credibility which were unprecedented, discussions and debate could resolve problems. The new acquired knowledge became the basis for further innovations and an upward self feeding spiral.
5 Rewarding innovators directly
The thirst for knowledge was slaked by the prize of health and wealth. The search for the elixir of life and the philosophers stone were the motivations of early science, underpinned by a belief that laws could be discovered.
But there was another more subtle driving force - private property. From Royal confiscation to Magna Carta, from serfdom to free men, from church land and Royal estate to private landowner, from arbitrary statute to protective common law; private property emerged as a moral right in law. A moral right against arbitrary confiscation which evolved and became ingrained in the warp and weft of society, from Magna Carta, to Cromwell’s insurrection, to the most articulate expression in the Constitution of the USA and the Declaration of Human Rights.
It was private property which ensured that the rewards for innovation flowed directly to the innovators, undermining oppressive taxes and instigating a surge of activity to secure the prizes.
Significantly it was not Royal feudal estates nor Church land but enclosed private property that enabled Europe to feed it’s growing urban populations.
6 Enabling economic growth from tort law, trade and technology
The preconditions necessary for scientific progress were exactly the same as those for economic growth.
Tort - freedom within the law
Freedom to diversify and experiment could never have evolved in the absence of acceptable law to protect folk from harms.
The ideas of - prior acceptance of independent arbitration, a duty of care, the reasonable man, intention and negligence, harms and wrongs, judgement by 12 good men and true, guidance from precedent and damages and injunctions - were all essential prerequisites for stable freedoms. Not only were people and their property protected but a functioning system of law with appropriate remedies provided a much cheaper and quicker system of dispute settlement than the violent, time consuming expensive alternative. Free to choose but responsible the consequences of actions.
Thus protected the economics of the scientific revolution leads from trade to technology to self sustaining growth. The virtuous circle of competitive capitalism was emerging in Western Europe from 1500 - a rising urban merchant class, experimenting with social institutions, seeking the benefits of trade and technology and investing profits in innovation. Printing was an innovative activity in wealthy merchant towns.
Trade - navigation and comparative advantage.
Trade, voyages and the search for new wealth initially drove the scientific revolution. Those who ventured to the towns or to the oceans took risks and could make money, those who stayed on the land or at home remained the rural dormant poor.
Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage explained the benefits of specialisation and wealth creation. Mercantilism, war mongering and pilfered Spanish gold was a cul-de-sac, traders discovered how to make money.
Worthless rotting peppers at the foot of the vines in the East Indies became valuable seasoning for salted unappetising meat when transported back to Europe. Arbitrage created wealth.
Astronomical measurement, magnetism, time keeping and maps were essential innovations for navigation. The realisation that the old authority was incomplete and erroneous followed from the ‘shock’ of the discovery of new flora and fauna and the new stars in the heavens! It was not elitist reasoning but the experience of his own eyes that made ‘uneducated sailor Joe’ question the philosophising of the Ancients. Not armchair physics now but experiment, discovery and experience; a new method. Opening up the geographical and celestial globes caused the opening of a new intellectual globe. A new empirical conversion.
Cloth, pepper, silver, manufactures ... the trade web flowed from Venice and Genoa, to Bruges and Lubeck, to Antwerp, to Amsterdam, to London, to New York ...
Technology - investment and total factor productivity.
At the same time as the burgher was actively trading, practical problems were being solved with technology without recourse to philosophy. Mechanistic explanations were proving more useful than teleology.
Trade made big money, and big money was subsequently invested in science and technology which fed economic growth in a virtuous circle of innovative utility.
Robert Solow much later explained how technology shifts economic output much more dramatically than other factors of production.
Navigation, mining, medicine, machines ... compasses, astrolabes, balances, telescopes, microscopes, barometers, air pumps, pendulums, thermometers ... the technology web encompassed Seville, Cracow, Augsburg, Padua, Oxford, London ...
7 Defending wealth from internal and external parasites & predators
The institution of private property backed by Common Law rights protected scientists from internal parasites, but what role did defence against overseas Nation State predators play?
Military aggression tended to pursue wealth, the motivation was to steal other peoples wealth not create it but waging war invariably meant higher taxes with a consequential denuding of innovative options.
The new wealth had to be defended against theft by the envious and there are many examples of science being deployed to help military ambitions from canon boring to navigation.
Crucially cooperative institutions evolved which encouraged the benefits of cooperation while deterring parasites and predators, ‘tit for tat’ strategies were –
nice - cooperating & avoiding unnecessary conflict
retaliatory - discouraging predators
clear - making long term cooperation understandable
forgiving - restoring cooperative opportunities
educational - learning from outcomes for input into the next deal
8 Underpinned by appropriate values, culture and policies
There had been a scientific miracle in Greece from 500 BC to 200 AD, but it did not last. Confined to an elite and without the help of printing nor widespread community, it withered when Greek fashion turned to art and indulging and they neglected defence.
China fared little better. Remarkable inventive achievements – paper, printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass were established centuries before they appeared in the West. But in China there were no explanatory theories, nature was inscrutable, there was no ‘creator’, no Laws of Nature to discover. The bureaucracy became the pinnacle of ambition, there was no merchant class, no capitalism.
Knowledge was important for Islam but dominated by knowledge in the Koran, the ‘vision’ was already known, the only obstacles were emotions and temptations. Perhaps most importantly Islam never had a questioning ‘Reformation’.
Many Far Eastern cultures were mystical and religion focused on life after death. Meditation of the next life deflected effort from the real problems of today.
Many communities in the interior of Asia, Africa, South America and the sub continent remain, even today, essentially rural agrarian economies, subject to the whims of Gods and myths; a self sustaining scientific revolution is a pipe dream.
Even in parts of Europe it was all too easy for the progress of science to falter.
In Italy the trial of Galileo suppressed the freedom to theorise.
In Portugal the expulsion of the Jews and the Jesuits control of education conspired to squeeze science from the curricula and undermine early promise.
In Spain, after a auspicious start, the Counter Reformation led to the demise of science.
In France the mirage of the philosophising and theorising of Descartes was counterproductive. Science was a top down deductive design not a bottom up empirical evolution. A problem which also caused set backs in Sweden.
Even Germany became preoccupied with the 30 years war at a critical time.
The progress of science is fickle.
Did Christianity play a role? Certainly post Reformation Christianity was not a codified set of rules proscribing innovation. Christians believed that, although veiled in mystery, whatever the problem, love will find a way. A God who, through the Incarnation, lived amongst people in the real world, giving, through the Crucifixion, freedom from fear, freedom to experiment, and through the Resurrection gave hope, a belief in progress. A God who taught, via Aquinas, that the way to understanding was through reason; God’s universe was discoverable, there was one God and universal laws.
In the Orthodox East, Christianity remained ritualistic, magical and unreasonable, there was no Renaissance, no necessity for Aquinas, no Reformation; new ideas were heresy. Christianity became twisted the wrong way.
The tension between faith and reason was a constant stimulus for science. Newton was typical of many scientists who were inspired by faith in a rational creation, constructed by Laws of Nature, discoverable by the human intellect.
Broad historical generalisations are a trap and easily countered by particular events in particular places at particular times. However, events are not random. As the Greek philosopher scientists believed, there is an underlying order in the universe. The task of historians is to uncover the patterns of the past, to seek the statistical uniformities, a process of gradual illumination and reinterpretation in the light of new insights and evolutionary scientific knowledge.
Historical analysis is most productive when detecting differences rather than similarities, and locating context and not simply content.
One difference between parts of scientific Europe and the rest of the world was that the scientific revolution in Europe was sustained and stabilised by useful innovations which produced a context of self sustaining economic growth. These innovations resulted from the application of science as technology, within co-operative urban communities. This characteristic was peculiar to scientific Europe.
Europe was different and something new and dramatic did happen, science and capitalism together, inextricably linked, not cause and effect but parallel manifestations of a particular cultural mix.
Thus, the necessary causes of the scientific revolution can be listed -
breaking the grip of established authority
opening up diversity and choice
emerging co-operative institutions
establishing scientific method
rewarding successful innovators directly
enabling economic growth from tort law, trade and technology
defending wealth from internal and external predators
Without these elements there would have been no scientific revolution in Europe. However, in themselves they are not sufficient causes; they were all present and necessary but not a sufficient explanation.
Sufficient causes are much more difficult to find, they remain hidden in the underpinning beliefs and culture of particular communities in parts of Europe around 1750.
Eventually in 1859 Darwin explained the process, there were no meaningful ‘causes’, only a long protracted evolution. Innovations survived and developed where the values, culture and organising policies in the environment were encouraging.
Such prerequisites are not easily assembled and science and prosperity remain the privileged possession of the few as a list of Nobel laureates perhaps indicates -
Physics 1901 - 1980
USA – 121
England – 61
Germany – 49
France – 22
Sweden – 11
Russia – 10
Netherlands – 9
Switzerland – 9
Austria – 8
Denmark – 7
Italy – 5
Belgium – 5
Japan – 3
China – 2
Pakistan – 1
Ireland – 1
India – 1
Spain – 0
Sources and further reading – bibliography ...
The evidence mounts. New sources continue to be published confirming, supporting and expanding on the universal relevance of Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics.
john p birchall
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