Saturday, February 11, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Rotter

In the second chapter of Civilization According to Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson, the author discusses the "killer app" of Science, and how it explains the expansion of Western civilization relative to the Rest of the World - to the Islamic World, in particular. The most powerful Islamic empire of the early modern period, Ferguson observes, was the Ottoman, which dominated the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe, and whose armies twice laid siege to Christendom's eastern bastion, Vienna. The second of these sieges, however, ended in what turned out to be a "long Ottoman retreat," as the empire was undermined, apparently, by its inability to replicate European science and technology. In the Muslim world, Professor Niall tells us, there was no separation of church and state, and the former had paramount power in matters of the mind; if religious leaders denounced European innovations as blasphemous, the state had no choice but to suppress them. In Western Europe, meanwhile, Europeans benefited from a lack of Church restraint on science, from state support for science in the form of royal scientific societies (an important point, actually), and from the printing press, which allowed scientists widely to disseminate their findings. (Also helpful, though Ferguson doesn't mention it, was a common learned language, namely Latin, which allowed researchers from different nations to communicate.) The result was a "scientific revolution" that made Europe more powerful, in the long run, than the Ottomans and other Islamic states, even though the Ottoman Empire routinely tried to copy Western technology and military science in the 1700s and 1800s.

The biggest problem with this chapter is Ferguson's failure to establish a convincing connection between science and state power, apart from a two-page digression on the scientist Benjamin Robins and his invention of the science of ballistics. Artillery is important, but inferior artillery and underdeveloped technology were not the most important causes of the Ottoman Empire's decline. Our Man Niall actually identifies one of these later in the chapter: inefficient taxation and the consequent inability of the Ottoman regime to pay for a modern army without heavy borrowing, at usurious rates, in Europe (p. 89). Another cause of Ottoman distress was the empire's loss of the northern shore of the Black Sea to Russia (ca. 1768-91), which opened the possibility of a Russian seaborne assault on Constantinople and forced the empire to devote precious resources to home defense. In sum, it was those old culprits, imperial overstretch and financial difficulties, that sickened the Sick Man of Europe.

Along the same lines, the Sexiest Scotsman fails to demonstrate persuasively the relationship between European science and European power. He discusses ballistics and rifled artillery, of course, but neither had much of an impact on European war-making until the mid-nineteenth century. May I suggest that a more important European scientific discovery than ballistics was the discovery of atmospheric pressure and the energy that one could generate by creating a vacuum? (I believe I may.) In the seventeenth century Otto von Guericke discovered that an evacuated sphere could not be pulled apart by two teams of horses, and in 1680 Christian Huygens proposed generating a vacuum in a piston to perform work. Guericke and Huygens' experiments helped lead to the first functional steam engines, which used a partial vacuum, generated by condensing steam, to produce a 5-horsepower "power stroke." Thomas Newcomen, who designed said engine, doesn't seem to have read about Guericke and Huygens' work, but his predecessors, Denis Papin and Thomas Savery, had certainly done so. Some decades later the inventor Nicholas Appert made another important discovery about vacuums, which is that a vacuum combined with high levels of heat helped inhibit organic decay, which Appert applied to the invention of canned food. The steam engine made steam-powered transport possible, and facilitated the mass-production of consumer goods like clothing. Canning made it possible adequately and reliably to feed very large non-rural populations, like city-dwellers and soldiers. Both technologies helped turn Europe into the most urbanized and industrialized part of the world by 1900. This, I would argue, was a more vital component of European power than big guns.

Why doesn't N.D.C.E. Ferguson spend more time discussing the relationship between scientific research and economic (and military) power? I suspect this is because he doesn't actually know that much about science, a pity given the premise of this chapter. Rather than describe the accomplishments of the European Scientific Revolution, Ferguson contents himself with summarizing the 29 "most important scientific breakthroughs" of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (65-66), discoveries which are apparently important because the author tells us so, not because he explains their impact on Europeans' worldview and approach to the physical world. Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Ferguson's summary of Bernard Lewis's book on Islamic scientific backwardness, along with a paean to Ferg's Secret Boyfriend, Frederick II of Prussia, and a somewhat overwrought linkage of modern Israel with seventeenth-century Vienna - Jerusalem, he writes, is "the modern equivalent of Vienna in 1683" - accompanied by dark mutterings about the threat posed to Israel by the sinister lights of Perverted Muslim (Nuclear) Science. It’s worth noting that Ferguson’s curious reference to the 1683 Siege of Vienna is a “dog-whistle” to some conservative European nationalists, who believe that Christendom is once again under siege by the Turks – this time, by Turkish guest workers and by Turkey’s drive to win admission to the EU. Professor Niall, to his credit, tells these European nativists that they have nothing to fear from the Turks, who began "downloading" European secularism in the 1920s. Instead, they need to worry about defending Israel, the Besieged Vienna of the twenty-first century, from the nuclear forces of the devilish Iranians. This effort to create an alliance between old European nationalist conservatives and American neo-conservatives appears to be Ferguson's chief intellectual goal in this chapter. That's the Scientific Method, you see.

Sources: Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Harper Perennial, 2003); John Darwin, After Tamerlane, 174-75; Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun, 71-76; Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776-1914 (Grove Press, 2007), 50-52; Andrew Wheatcroft, The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Struggle for Europe (Basic Books, 2008), 266-267; Tom Standage, An Edible History of Humanity (Walker & Company, 2009),159-163; Niall Ferguson, Civilization, 50-95.


Jenni Nicole Roman said...

On a slightly related note, I never realized how much tension existed in Western Europe between Turkish visitors/immigrants and the German and Dutch citizens until last summer when I spent my final week in Europe at a conference in Antwerp. Unfortunately, after a month of traveling (and bringing clothes that were far too skimpy for an unseasonably cold summer) I got sick. And because I was flying out that coming Sunday, I decided to skip sessions and rest a bit (i.e., I hung out in a chocolate cafe, set out souvenir shopping, and soaked up the beauty of the Cathedral of Our Lady which is not only full of Rubens paintings but also a perfect example of Gothic architecture. The way the building's structure causes light to spill on the alter is breathtaking. During that week, however, what I learned was that if I went around town on my own then store owners were quite nice to me and if I went round with other Western Europeans everyone was still kind, but when I hung out with the Turkish postdocs, those same store owners (we stayed in the old historic center for the most part) didn't want to serve us. One woman actually yelled at us while we were ordering drinks. Furthermore, the Turkish conference participants seemed to expect this sort of reaction. I was shocked. Personally, I think Turkey belongs in the EU.

KO said...

I am not surprised Dr. Rotter fails to draw adequate causal connections between the appropriate accomplishments of the Scientific Revolution and the rise of European hegemony, David. As a Paleo-Conservative, Our Man Niall holds certain articles of “faith” as passionately as any practitioner of fundamentalist religion. One of these unquestioned core beliefs is that military power is the primary signifier of national greatness. Also note how he links the Ottoman’s national decline to taxes and debt and bemoans the poor besieged Israelis. Throw in a diatribe about gay marriage and the man could be on the stage in the insufferably eternal cycle of Republican debates. (Please God, make them stop!) Of course, his credulous reasoning has long been evident in the venue in which I know him—his wrath-inducing columns in Newsweek (mercifully, my gift subscription is about to run out) in which he completely dismisses any suggestion that the American economy has any structural inequities, asserting instead that the poor and unemployed simply lack the proper “work ethics” and “role models” to profit from the American Dream. I am not surprised that his historical analysis is similarly myopic, and it is indeed a delight to see his tiresome tome impaled on your incisive intellect.


Dave Nichols said...

Thank you, Jennifer and Katherine, for your comments. K.O., I know what you mean about Ferguson's Newsweek columns - they are depressingly shallow and substitute derision for argument. I had thought his books would be better, but perhaps I thought wrong.

Brett Steele said...

Since you express skepticism about the relationship between early modern science and state power in Christian Europe, then perhaps you should do some research on the topic to better enlighten yourself and read __The Heirs of Archimedes: Science and the Art of War through the Age of Enlightenment (MIT Press, 2005). Sorry, but when it comes to warfare, having scientifically educated artillery officers and gunnery tables based on Newtonian science of Robins and Euler had a huge strategic impact, as the Turks, Indians, and Chinese discovered to their horror in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dave Nichols said...

Thank you for your comment, Mssr. Steele. I will place Heirs of Archimedes on my reading list.