The Spread of Western Science

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Science  05 May 1967:
Vol. 156, Issue 3775, pp. 611-622
DOI: 10.1126/science.156.3775.611


There is no need to summarize the features of this simplified model, which describes the manner in which modern science was transmitted to the lands beyond Western Europe. The graph of Fig. 1 and the examples drawn from science in various lands should have made them clear. It may be in order, however, to reiterate that there is nothing about the phases of my model that is cosmically or metaphysically necessary. I am satisfied if my attempt will interest others to go beyond my crude analysis and make a systematic investigation of the diffusion of Western science throughout the world.

Such an investigation would include a comparative appraisal of the development of science in different national, cultural, and social settings and would mark the beginnings of truly comparative studies in the history and sociology of science. The present lack of comparative studies in these disciplines can be attributed to the widespread belief that science is strictly an international endeavor. In one sense this is true.As Sir Isaac Newton remarked in his Principia (49), "the descent of stones in Europe and in America" must both be explained by one set of physical laws. Yet, we cannot ignore the peculiar environment in which members of a national group of scientists are trained and carry on their research.

While I do not hold with the Nazi theorists that science is a direct reflection of the racial or national spirit (50), neither do I accept Chekhov's dictum (51) that "there is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table. . . ." In emphasizing the international nature of scientific inquiry we have forgotten that science exists in a local social setting. If that setting does not decisively mold the conceptual growth of science, it can at least affect the number and types of individuals who are free to participate in the internal development of science. Perhaps the effect is more profound; only future scholarship can determine the depth of its influence.