Friday, October 23, 2009

science and superiority

I found chapter ten, on the changing nature of science, to be the most interesting part of the reading this week. It seems to me that Hobsbawm's observations about how science evolved during the period before World War II had interesting parallels with the history of globalization. Secularization was a centuries long process but it sped up quite a bit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And this secularization and the evolution of science had an impact on the way global societies interacted with one another. Intellectuals of this time period, particularly in the western world, went through "the process of divorcing science and institution" (245). That was quite a feat- one that unfortunately wasn't matched elsewhere in the world. In chapter eleven Hobsbawm notes that "over most of the non-white world, religion still remained the only language for talking about the cosmos, nature, society and politics" (264). The fact that science “remained in a geographically concentrated community” (260) of western Europe and the United States had important political and historical consequences.

While western countries secularized and adopted the idea of the separation of church and state, the rest of the world clung to religion and kept it in their government. Those in which religion continued to be central, such as India, resented western secular countries like Britain. And western countries, whose secularization and embrace of new scientific ideas allowed them greater access to technology, felt themselves to be superior to backwards countries that resisted this evolving science. Westerners had come to the conclusion that “facts are stronger than theories” (249), especially vague religious theories whose only basis was faith.

Without a doubt one of the greatest contributors to western progress in technology was the availability of electricity. But more important was the intellectual curiosity that drove this. Many scientist were interested in the social aspects of different branches of science, and thus new branches and new theories emerged- eugenics, genetics, Social Darwinism, etc. However, in the non-white world, religion continued to be the inspiration for action- without the strong bond of faith that Hindi Indians shared, they may never have gained independence from Britain, and they didn’t need new technology to do that. Though the educated elite of India may have embraced modern science, they often managed to reconcile it with their faith, and when they could not, they kept it to themselves and the masses remained ignorant of it.

When I read this chapter I immediately thought that the fact that western countries chose secularization and scientific evolution over religion gave them a sense of superiority and they used this as justification for imperialism/colonization. Agree?


  1. sorry this is late piotr- the website was not letting me post last night or this morning for some reason

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I like your post, Alicia, and I do agree with you. Science was observable truth, as opposed to doctrinal creeds in print. From this perspective, religious followers -- and the nations they comprised -- were blind believers, and therefore considered less intelligent. By comparison, secularized nations would have certainly considered themselves superior in this sense and allowed them to act with the conviction that the "knew better" how to govern nations and use other nations' lands better than the natives. They could easily convince themselves following this line of thinking that they even had a right to invade (since they were more intelligent and more powerful) or an obligation to civilize less intelligent peoples by conquering them.