Scientific Superiority of Europe

The Foundations Of European Global Dominance

Scientific Superiority


The word imperialism has come to mean many things to many people. Broadly speaking, the term refers to the extension of authority or control, whether

direct or indirect, of one nation over another. But we use the term imperialism in a more restricted sense to refer to the period from 1870 to 1914 when western Europe, which controlled much of the world's finance, commerce, military power, and intellectual life, extended its power over many of the peoples of the world.

As we will see, Europeans gained control over most of Asia, Africa, and the Americas in the nineteenth century. They achieved their domination by sending their people to settle, their armies to conquer, or their merchants to trade.

Scientific and economic superiority harnessed to efficient state structures provided the strength for the European expansion and domination. The nations of western Europe justified their imperialism with a number of rationalizations. Imperialism was variously defended as an attempt to spread

civilization, to bring Christianity to the "heathen," and to introduce progress to the "less fortunate." Some inventive thinkers distorted scientific discoveries and theories to devise self-serving arguments for the supposed inevitability and eternal nature of their dominance.

Not all Europeans approved. Some observers saw in Europe's inability to deal with the rivalry surrounding the exploitation of the Ottoman empire a portent of approaching disaster. Some critics warned that the imperialistic rush was the prelude to the capitalist world's death struggle.

Scientific Superiority

Europe's world dominance in basic scientific research began with Copernicus in the 1500s and extended through the nineteenth century. The major difference between sixteenth-century work and modern discoveries was that the effects of the latter research had almost immediate and widespread economic and intellectual implications.

Darwin And Evolution

In the mid-nineteenth century Charles Darwin (1809-1892) formulated a major scientific theory in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). This theory of evolution, stating that all complex organisms developed from simple forms through the operation of natural causes, challenged traditionalist Christian beliefs on creation and altered views on life on earth. The theory contended that no species is fixed and changeless. Classical thinkers first stated this view, and contemporary philosophers such as Hegel had used the concept of evolutionary change. In the century before Darwin, other research supported the concept of change, both biological and social.

Darwin built on the work of Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) when he began his investigations. Lyell's three-volume Principles of Geology (1830-1833) confirmed the views of the Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-1797), who stated that the earth developed through natural rather than supernatural causes. Lyell helped popularize the notion of geological time operating over a vast span of years. This understanding is essential to the acceptance of any theory of biological evolution, based as it is on changes in species over many thousands of generations. Lamarck, a naturalist, argued that every organism tends to develop new organs to adapt to the changing conditions of its environment. He theorized that these changes are transmitted by heredity to the descendants, which are thereafter changed in structural form.

Though he had originally studied medicine at Edinburgh and prepared for the ministry at Cambridge University, Darwin lost interest in both professions and became a naturalist in his twenties. From 1831 to 1836 he studied the specimens he had collected while on a five-year surveying expedition aboard the ship Beagle, which had sailed along the coast of South America and among the Galapagos Islands. The works of his predecessors, plus questions that he had about the theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, as presented in Malthus' Essay on Population, helped him define the problem he studied. When Darwin's book finally appeared, it changed many basic scientific and social assumptions.

In his revolutionary work, Darwin constructed an explanation of how life evolves that upset the literal interpretation of the Bible taught in most Christian churches.

... Species have been modified, during a long course

of descent ... chiefly through the natural selection of

numerous successive, slight, favorable variations; aided

in an important manner ... by the direct action of external

conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our

ignorance to arise spontaneously. ^1

[Footnote 1: C. Darwin, "The Origin of Species," in Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, II (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1955), pp. 453-454.]

His explanation radically affected the views of the scientific community about the origin and evolution of life on the planet. The hypothesis, in its simplified form, states that all existing plant and animal species are descended from earlier and, generally speaking, more primitive forms. The direct effects of the environment causes species to develop through the inheritance of minute differences in individual structures. As the centuries passed, the more adaptable, stronger species lived on, while the weaker, less flexible species died out. Additionally, a species may also be changed by the cumulative working of sexual selection, which Darwin saw to be the "most powerful means of changing the races of man."

After the announcement of Darwin's theories, others, such as the German biologist August Weismann (1834-1914) and the Austrian priest Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), worked along similar lines to explore the genetic relationships among living organisms. Weismann proved that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited. Mendel's investigations into the laws of heredity, based on his experiments with the crossing of garden peas, proved to be invaluable in the scientific breeding of plants and animals and demonstrated that the evolution of different species was more complex than Darwin had concluded. Based on their work, biologists hypothesized that there are chromosomes that carry the characteristics of an organism. Darwin had hinted at and now further research supported the mutation theory, which states that sudden and unpredictable changes within a chromosome can be transmitted by heredity to produce new species. Scientists began to work with the very fundamental building blocks of life, establishing the groundwork of contemporary biotechnical research.

Darwin and his colleagues carefully researched and cautiously stated their findings. Unlike earlier discoveries however, their work came to be widely reported in popular journals and applied by commentators and politicians. The newly ascendant middle classes responded enthusiastically to their understanding of evolutionary theory, finding in it a comfortable reassurance of their own upward mobility and Europe's dominance in the world.

Medicine, Chemistry, And Physics

Important advances in medicine, chemistry, and physics contributed to a population explosion on the continent and had significant economic implications, further strengthening the bases of Europe's dominance. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, medical practices were making the slow transition from the use of leeches and bleeding. By 1900, fairly sophisticated and much safer surgical procedures were available. In the 1840's, physicians began to use ether and chloroform to reduce pain during operations. The Scottish surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912) developed new antiseptic practices that made major advances against the spread of infection. Probably the most important single advance came with the substantiation of the germ theory of disease by Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Robert Koch (1843-1910). During his search for a cure to anthrax - a disease that in the late 1870s destroyed over 20 percent of the sheep in France - Pasteur established the principle that the injection of a mild form of disease bacterium will cause the body to form antibodies that will prevent the vaccinated individual from getting the severe form of the particular disease. Koch discovered the specific organisms that caused eleven diseases, including tuberculosis. The work of Pasteur and Koch placed the sciences of bacteriology and immunology on a firm footing and gave promise that the end of such deadly diseases as typhoid and smallpox might be in sight.

Modern chemistry gained its foundations during the ninteenth century, founded on the atomic theory advanced by an English Quaker schoolmaster, John Dalton (1766-1844). In 1869 the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) drew up a periodic table in which all known elements were classified according to their weights and properties. From gaps in this table, chemists were able to deduce the existence of undiscovered elements. Other researchers made advances in the field of nutrition, discovering significance of vitamins. Biochemical research threw light on the presence and function of the ductless glands. Chemotherapy advanced with the discovery of a chemical that could destroy the syphilis bacteria and of procedures that woud lead to the discovery of sulfa drugs, penicillin, and other antibiotics.

Revolutionary strides in physics came in the areas of electricity and thermodynamics, of which the First Law was formulated in 1847. Michael Farady (1791-1867) prepared the way for the dynamo, a device that made possible changes in communications, the transmission of current over long distances, and the development of the electric motor. The Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) and the German Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) conducted basic research into the nature of electromagnetic phenomena such as light, radiant heat, and ultraviolet radiation.

Pierre (1859-1906) and Marie (1867-1934) Curie made major strides toward the discovery of the X-ray and radioactivity. When they extracted radium from uranium ore in 1896 the scientific world became aware of the strength of radioactivity. Marie Curie was the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) helped develop the electron theory. It had been postulated that the atom contains particles known as electrons. Rutherford contributed the idea that each atom has a central particle, or nucleus, that is positively charged and separate from the negatively charged electrons. These discoveries destroyed one of the foundations of traditional physics - that matter is indivisible and continuous.

New Certainties

The territory opened up by the scientists seemed to complement the global claims of the imperialists. The optimism generated by science in the laboratory and Europe's advance across the globe supported the commonly-held belief in inevitable progress. It also buttressed the theories of a new breed of social scientists known as the positivists. Positivism is a mechanistic way of though that uses the methods and principles of science to define the laws of a strictly material world that presumably may be scientifically verified.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857), an engineer who was formerly secretary to Saint-Simon, established the foundations for the philosophical approach known as positivism in a series of lectures and publications in the 1830s and 1840s. He stated that one could find and verify the laws that controlled society in the same way that a scientist discovered physical laws. For Comte humanity was a part of a machine, possessing neither free will nor a divinely infused spark of life. Comte's goal was to understand the machine and to devise a science to discover the laws of history and society. He developed the social science of sociology and stated that once humanity could base itself on science, and not on opinion, harmony would arise.

Darwin's hypotheses were very attractive to the positivists, who, along with their imitators, distorted the British scientist's findings by applying them to areas Darwin never dreamed of discussing - human social, economic, and political activities - to justify the fantasies of eternal progress, the dominance of science, the perfectibility of humanity through obedience to the supposedly unchanging laws of society, and the assumption of Anglo-Saxon racial dominance. The Social Darwinists, positivists, and others of their kind followed a simplistic approach to the world based on their comforting belief that humanity is a cog in a machine and that the possibilities of individuals are predetermined by their place in the larger scheme of things.

The most popular Social Darwinist was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who applied Darwin's theories to all aspects of human social and political life. Spencer had a deep influence in both Europe and the United States. As a convenient doctrine to justify the actions and philosophies of those newly arrived at the top of the social and political structure, Social Darwinism dominated Western social thought in the late nineteenth century.

Stressing the role of change and chance in nature, the broadly applied Darwinian theory reinforced the trend away from absolute standards and procedures. The American physicist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) broke new philosophical ground in this area. In the late 1890s, William James (1842-1910) popularized Peirce's approaches in his philosophy of pragmatism. James stated that "an idea is true so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives." In effect, the pragmatists rejected any concept of truth or reality as an absolute and favored a more flexible, result-oriented approach.

New Identities

The rapid political, social, economic, and intellectual changes that shook Europe and the world led to new ways of defining individuals and groups. Even before Darwin publicized his theory of evolution, pseudo-scientists such as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) laid the foundations of modern racism, justifying the domination of one group over another for "scientific" reasons. Gobineau applied biological theory to politics, regarding nations as organisms. He argued that different races are innately unequal in ability and worth and that the genius of a race depended upon heredity, not external factors. Gobineau stated a widely held belief among Europeans that white peoples alone were capable of cultural creativity and that intermixture with other races would destroy that creativity. Social Darwinist arguments and Gobineau's theories in support of white superiority gave "rational" justifications to blatant bigotry and provided a reassuring sanction for European domination over Asians and Africans.

Supported by the new pseudoscience and the belief that Europeans alone bore the burdens of progress, European nationalism took on a more blatant and bellicose form. Aggressive nationalism was adhered to almost as a religion; it served as a powerful vehicle for politicians to mobilize their constituents.

Nationalistic pressures became especially strong in eastern Europe and the Balkans, where political instability and economic underdevelopment created insecure conditions.

One of the manifestations of the identities was the Anglo-Saxon movement. In Britain and Germany writers and speakers presented the case for the superiority of northern Europeans. They stated that world leadership should naturally reside in London and Berlin because the people living there possessed the proper combination of religion, racial qualities, and culture to dictate the world's future. People as diverse as Kaiser William II and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson were affected by this outlook.

Another manifestation of a regrouping on the basis of new principles came with the so-called pan-cultural movements. Pan-Slavic movements had begun before 1850. These were based either around the Orthodox Slavs' foundation in Moscow or the Catholic Slavs' center at Prague. In the latter part of the century the Russians would use their Pan-Slavic movement to expand their influence into the Balkans in pursuit of their "destiny" to create and rule a great Slavic empire. The Pan-Germanic League was organized in Berlin in the 1890s to spread the belief in the superiority of the German race and culture.

Anti-Semitism - hatred of the Jews - had been a part of European history since the legalization of Christianity. But the movement attained a new strength and vigor in the last part of the nineteenth century. In Germany, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) stated that "the Jews are our calamity." In France, anti-Semitism played a significant role in the Dreyfus affair. In eastern Europe, the Jews suffered many injustices, while in Russia many Jews died in organized pogroms. Anti-Semitism became stronger because of the economic dislocation that modernization introduced and of the work of bigoted cranks who turned out pseudo-scientific tracts and forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In response, a desire for a homeland grew among the Jews. In 1896 Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) came forward with the program of Zionism, which had as its purpose the creation of an independent state within Palestine. The first general congress of Zionists was held in Switzerland in 1896 and a small-scale emigration to Palestine, which had been settled for centuries by Arabs, began. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the election of Karl Leuger (1844-1910), who ran and stayed in power on an anti-Semitic platform, as mayor of Vienna, foretold the tragic genocide that would occur later in the century.

It was in this atmosphere that the young Adolf Hitler spent some of his formative years, reading racist, Social Darwinist, and Pan-Germanic tracts.

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