.All cultures are not equal. A review of Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective by Toby E. Huff – The European Perspective

All cultures are not equal. A review of Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective by Toby E. Huff

Toby E. Huff is a sociologist by training, research associate at Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy and Professor Emeritus in Policy studies at the University of Massachusetts. He has written extensively about cultural comparisons in the history of science.

His first book on the topic, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West is now in its third edition. Its focus is on the Middle Ages, comparing developments in science in the three cultures. That book also examines the differences in cultural and societal background Huff deems relevant for the advancement of science in these cultures: in particular religion, law and education.

Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: a Global Perspective is a kind of follow up on the previous book, focusing on the 17th century and giving in-depth examples of the differences between the three cultures. The main message of both books is that cultures are, in fact, not equal. Western culture is different from other cultures and, as a result of these differences, it experienced—as the only culture in the world—a Scientific Revolution in the 17th century.

The telescope in Europe

Part I of Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution describes the invention of the telescope in 1608 in the Netherlands, and its influence on the science of astronomy in the Western, Islamic and Chinese cultures. In Europe, the telescope was at once applied to scientific investigation: based on the Dutch design, Galileo Galilei made his own telescope in 1609 and started looking at the moon, where he discovered mountains—resulting in the idea that the moon might actually be similar to the earth, instead of being a crystalline sphere, the predominant opinion at that time. Within a few more years he discovered four moons of the Jupiter and the rings of the Saturn. He also noticed the phases of Venus which were difficult to be explained by the old Ptolemaic model of the Universe, but fit well into the Copernican view of the solar system. This latter discovery was particularly important in creating the revolutionary change from a geocentric towards a heliocentric world view (though Tycho Brahe’s hybrid “geoheliocentric” model of the solar system was also able to explain these results). Galileo’s discoveries caused a huge flurry of activity in Europe. Many other scientists—among them Johannes Kepler—acquired telescopes, tried to confirm Galileo’s discoveries, and made new discoveries themselves.

What was the effect of the invention of the telescope on the rest of the world? Within a few years telescopes were exported to the two great Muslim empires—the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire in India—and to China. The military relevance of the device was at once recognized in these regions of the world. However, the effect on scientific investigations of the Universe was essentially nil.

The telescope in China

This is particularly striking in the case of China because Jesuit missionaries living there made a huge effort not only to introduce the telescope there but to also transfer large chunks of European scientific knowledge by translating many European scientific texts into Chinese. Between 1632 and 1635 and later in 1669 competitions were held between the traditional Chinese astronomical methods and the new European ones to predict the positions of various planets and solar and lunar eclipses. All results favored the European methods and the model of the Universe they used—Tycho Brahe’s hybrid model. For example when predicting the date and time of a conjunction between Venus and Mars, the European predictions were spot on, while the Chinese system predicted that the event will take place eight days later. Europeans also trained dozens or maybe hundreds of Chinese in the European methods.

All this meant that the Chinese had a unique chance to acquire and to use much of the available European astronomical knowledge which was clearly proven to be superior to the traditional Chinese knowledge. There was interest in the new methods at the Chinese Imperial Court , mainly because they provided an improved basis for horoscopes. However, opposition among bureaucrats and traditionally minded scholars arose who could not contemplate accepting the new European ideas about the Universe which didn’t contain traditional Chinese beliefs like the Mandate of Heaven for the Chinese emperor. As the scholar Yang Guangxian wrote:

It is better to have no good astronomy than to have Westerners in China (page 110).

Thus, the new knowledge was never transferred into the highly centralized Chinese education system and into the Civil Examinations.

The telescope in the Islamic world

The reception of the telescope in the Muslim world was not much different.
In the Mughal empire in India, the first telescope was apparently introduced by the British in 1615. After that, telescopes were owned by a number of Europeans living in India at the time (some of whom used it to make astronomical discoveries) and they were also known to some high profile Indian officials. In spite of this, as Huff writes:

In the end, no Mughal scholars undertook to use the telescope for astronomical purposes in the seventeenth century (page 126).

Indians did have an interest in astronomy, but apparently not in new methods or tools which might challenge age old astronomical models (or were maybe not interested in detailed scientific models of the universe at all). Thus, the famous Jaipur observatory, built during the first half of the 18th century by Jai Singh didn’t employ telescopes despite the fact that the telescope had been invented in Europe more than 100 years before. Instead, it emulated the Samarqand observatory built 300 years before and it used a giant sextant to measure the height of the sun. A somewhat nitpicking critic might say that, as Huff points it out himself, Jai Singh was a Hindu and not a Muslim and thus the relevance of the Jaipur observatory—mentioned by Huff on page 126 in the context of the telescope’s reception in the Mughal empire—is doubtful. But then again, India, including Jaipur, had been under Mughal domination for a long time and Jai Singh’s observatory was modeled after the Samarqand observatory built by Ulug Beg—a Muslim ruler.

The other great Muslim empire, the Ottoman empire, was more in contact with the great traditions of Arab astronomy than were the Mughals. Sultan Murad III built an observatory in Istanbul in 1577 but it was destroyed in 1580, apparently partially due to religious opposition. After that, no significant observatories were built in the Ottoman empire until the 19th century.

The first mention of a telescope in the Ottoman empire is from 1630, when a Venetian merchant was hanged because he used a telescope to spy at the harem of the sultan. By the 1650’s telescopes were used in the Ottoman navy. Turkish and European travellers in the Ottoman empire used telescopes and they could be bought in Cairo, Egypt, too. However, similarly as in India and China, there is no record of telescopes used for astronomical observations until much later.

Huff summarizes the reception of the telescope in Muslim cultural areas:

When the telescope arrived in the early seventeenth century, Muslim astronomers paid no attention to it. There is no indication that Middle Eastern scholars used the telescope for astronomical exploration … [or] that Muslim scholars were in search of or open to new theoretical ideas in astronomy. Indeed, the shift to a Copernican or Newtonian worldview was greatly delayed in both the Middle East and in China (page 133).

What is described here is a lack of “intellectual curiosity” in the Islamic culture during the 17th century. As shown above, the Chinese culture of the period suffered from the same deficit. This had grievous consequences for these cultures: their knowledge about the world  remained hopelessly backward as compared to the fast progressing European worldview.

But where did these differences in “intellectual curiosity” come from?

Why the differences in “intellectual curiosity”?

In Part II of the book Huff attempts to identify the reasons for these differences between the three cultures. Being a sociologist, he focuses on differences in social institutions, in particular in legal infrastructure and higher education.

For Huff, the important difference between the legal infrastructure of the European, Muslim and Chinese cultures was that in Europe, thanks to Roman law, the concepts of corporation and “legal autonomy” existed. The concept of a corporation allowed collections of individualsto have the same rights and duties as single persons. Importantly, corporations were allowed to autonomously legislate their internal rules and regulations. Examples for such corporations were cities, towns and guilds. Universities, after they emerged in Europe in the 12th century, also had corporate status. This allowed them to determine their own curricula and very soon they started to teach the natural philosophy of Aristotle. The main benefit of this was not the answers and explanations that Aristotle delivered—which were often plainly wrong—but the spirit of asking questions about the real world. This resulted in many discussions and debates about scientific questions.

Neither in the Muslim world, nor in China did universities exist with the same sort of autonomy as in Europe. In China there was a very sophisticated upper level education and examination system, preparing students for higher office. However, the almost exclusive focus was on learning the Confucian classics. The spirit of asking scientific questions about the real world was completely missing. As we saw above, this system was extremely resistant to change, even after Jesuits spent decades transmitting European knowledge to China in the 17th century.

In the Muslim world, higher education was organized in madrasas from the 11th century onwards. These institutions were religious trusts (waqf) where teaching was focused on religion and religious law. Grammar and history were also taught. By the 13th century logic, mathematics, and even astronomy—which was thought of as a mathematical science, not something necessarily to do with how the universe really worked—were also taught in some madrasas. However, emphasis was put on rote learning of religious texts. The “foreign sciences”, like Aristotelian natural philosophy, were not taught; people who were interested in those were forced to study them privately.

The conclusion, then, suggests itself:

All this absence of training in the natural sciences helps explain why reaction to the arrival of the telescope in Muslim lands was so muted. The idea of using the telescope to gather new observations or to test the assumptions of existing astronomical knowledge did not occur (page 157).

“Infectious curiosity”

Part III examines, in three chapters, three areas of scientific advancement during the Scientific Revolution: “Anatomy and Microbiology”, “Weighing the Air and Atmospheric Measure” and “Magnetism and Electricity”.

In each of these chapters, the idea is to demonstrate an “infectious curiosity” in Europe to learn more about these topics and to describe the progress they made. Huff uses the term “infectious” to characterize the spread and growth of scientific curiosity in Europe as more and more people were involved in scientific research, exchanging ideas and sharing discoveries with each other and with the public. These chapters also demonstrate and explain how and why both the Islamic world and China were left far behind in these areas.  


Regarding anatomy, the main advantage Europeans had was a flexible attitude towards dissections of human bodies. This allowed gathering knowledge about the inner workings of the body. As new instruments—in particular the microscope—were introduced, more and more detailed investigations, for example of capillaries, became possible. The microscope made also the discovery of microorganisms possible by the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

In Muslim countries, in contrast, Islamic law prohibited dissections, based on a saying of Mohammed. In China dissections were prohibited as well. There the reason seems to have been simply the arbitrary decision that dissections could only be made by central authority, for forensic purposes. Also, there was just as little interest in microscopes in these two cultures as there was in telescopes.  

Weighing the air

There was a long standing belief—based on Aristotle—among Europeans that vacuum is impossible. The chapter on “Weighing the Air and Atmospheric Measure” shows how this belief was challenged by European “natural philosophers” and scientists, at first in thought experiments and later, in the 17th century, in experiments done in the real world. More and more evidence was gathered that the sucking power that occurs when air is pumped out from air tight containers is not because “nature abhors vacuum” but because of the weight of air and the pressure of the atmosphere. The crucial experiment demonstrating the weight of air was made by the French scientist Blaise Pascal who hypothesized that values on a barometer will vary with the height of the location where the measurement is made: on top of a mountain the value should be lower, because there is less air pressing on it. When the test was made, the results supported Pascal’s hypothesis. Other long standing puzzles could be explained by atmospheric pressure, too, in particular the fact that suction pumping can pump water upwards only to a specific height (about 10.3 meters).

Although both Muslims and Chinese were familiar with water raising technology, they never came to recognize the real reason behind its limitations.

Magnetism and electricity

The last demonstration of “infectious curiosity” in Europe is about “Magnetism and Electricity”. Magnetism had been known and used in Europe for hundreds of years before the 17th century; European sailors were apparently using magnetic compasses already in the 12th century. Magnetism was investigated by Peter Peregrinus in the 13th century, but the first systematic experimental investigation was done in the 17th century by William Gilbert. In addition to magnetism, Gilbert also did experiments on electricity and tried to separate the two types of phenomena from each other.

One of the ancient Chinese inventions often mentioned is the compass. It is well possible that the Chinese used compasses for navigation before Europeans did (though there is no evidence of a transfer from China to Europe). Muslims also used compasses already in the Middle Ages. However, there is no evidence of an experimental investigation of magnetism in either cultures. Again, as in all the other areas mentioned by Huff, scientific curiosity was seemingly missing in these two cultures. In contrast, in Europe there was a high level of curiosity which resulted in accelerating scientific activity and in increasingly correct descriptions of the world.

The knowledge gathered in these three areas of inquiry during the 17th century soon had momentous consequences. The discovery of microbes and microscopic investigations of the human body caused a revolution in medicine. The new knowledge about vacuum and air pressure served as the basis for developing the first steam engines. And the research about magnetism and electricity led to the harnessing of electric power.

My conclusions

The book left me wondering: how inevitable is scientific progress? Had European civilization not existed—or had been maybe eradicated by non-European conquerors, for example by Muslim Arabs or Ottoman Turks—we could have been left on Earth with civilizations where science would have been as stagnant as in 17th century Turkey, India or China.

Would it have been possible for these civilizations by themselves to overcome the cultural forces which limited their scientific progress? We’ll never know. However, it seems probable that a Scientific Revolution, comparable to the one which occurred in Europe wouldn’t have happened in the Islamic and Chinese culture for several more centuries, at least. The forces of religion in Islam and of tradition in China were extremely strong. Neither the open availability of Western knowledge—which in China has been proven in controlled tests to be clearly superior to traditional knowledge—, nor the availability, for hundreds of years, of Western technology like the telescope and the microscope, ignited an “infectious curiosity” in these cultures. It seems that the only reason these civilizations started slowly to modernize and to develop their own science in the 19th and 20th centuries was because of Western political and military influence.

Thus, not only was curiosity about the world missing in these cultures but also curiosity about what other cultures had to offer. This is particularly puzzling with regard to the Islamic culture because, during its “Golden Age” between the 8th and 10 centuries, it eagerly absorbed large amounts of ancient Greek knowledge, in many areas like philosophy, astronomy, medicine and geometry. Building on this knowledge, Muslim scientists and scholars then added many new creative contributions. Why was none of this curiosity present by the 17th century? The short answer is that religion got the absolute upper hand over the “foreign sciences”. But how could religion acquire such an overwhelming role?

Huff’s book gives some short tentative answers (page 154), mentioning, for example, the role of the theologians al-Ashari and al-Ghazali. The question of how intellectual curiosity in a culture can disappear over time is of course relevant for a book comparing intellectual curiosity between cultures, and Huff’s answer is very probably that this happened due to the overly religious nature of Islamic education in the madrasas. But how did Islamic education become so overwhelmingly religious? Maybe the process would have deserved more space in the book.

Another interesting related question is: why did not European science succumb to the same sort of religious pressures that were present in Islam? European civilization in the Middle Ages was also highly religious, and, just like Islam, Christianity was a monotheistic religion with an omnipotent God in the center. In fact, there was a backlash in Europe, too, against the pagan sciences of the Greeks, similarly as there was in Islam. For example, in 1277 a large number of Aristotelian theses that had been discussed at the University of Paris were condemned by the bishop of Paris. Ultimately, however, these “condemnations” didn’t suffocate Aristotelian style natural philosophy in Europe. Why not?

Huff doesn’t mention this religious backlash in Europe at all, and maybe he should have, at least to illustrate that the path to science wasn’t that clearcut in Europe, either, and that this backlash had to be overcome for science to progress.

But then again, investigating these questions probably would require a separate book.

As mentioned previously, Huff has been accused of having a “cultural superiority” bias. I don’t agree with this accusation. He is ready to acknowledge great contributions in art, architecture, literature, etc. of the Islamic and Chinese cultures. He is also very much aware of the achievements of Arab science during Islam’s “Golden Age”. However, he is not led by the cultural-relativistic, multiculturalist ideology prevalent nowadays at many social science university departments and in other areas of society which tend to diminish the role of the West and of Europe, sometimes to the extent of open racism against Europeans. He is a scientist, and one who takes evidence seriously. To him the historical evidence shows that Europe clearly had a leading role in the emergence of modern science. Europe displayed an amount of “curiosity” about the world not matched by either the Islamic or Chinese civilization.

Huff’s writing style makes the book an easy read. There are many illustrations which also make some of the more complex issues easier to understand. Unfortunately, there are a few inaccuracies. There are errors in some Figures, as in Figure 11.4. on page 284, where the caption wrongly explains a proof by Isaac Newton (this same Figure is also included in the 2017 edition of Huff’s other book on cultural comparisons, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, happily with the corrected capture). As another example, on page 270 he writes: “The new observations were those meticulously compiled by Tycho Brahe at his Uraniborg observatory off the coast of contemporary Sweden (then controlled by Denmark) between 1584 and 1601, when he died”. This is inaccurate: Brahe went to exile in 1597, was invited by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to Prague, and he built a new observatory near that city between 1600 and 1601—when he died. In other words, he didn’t “meticulously compile” data at Uraniborg between 1584 and 1601 because since 1597 he was not in Uraniborg any more. A further error, probably just a typo: on page 256 he writes about Copernicus’ Commentariolas, which is incorrect: it should be Commentariolus.

I also see some issues with the general structure of the book. Part I, the cross-cultural comparison of the telescope’s reception is the real meat of the book. Part III continues the cross-cultural comparison, this time showing how European science progressed in three areas and how the other cultures were left behind. Part II explains the differences between the cultures but it is put, awkwardly, between the two Parts describing these differences. The general impression is that maybe Huff started up with the telescope story, but along the line felt that it might not fill a whole book, so he added Part III and stuck Part II inbetween.

Most of these criticisms are minor. I can warmly recommend the book. It is a breath of fresh air in the current climate of cultural relativism and political correctness which tends to downplay Europe’s positive role in history, and magnify its “sins” like colonialism and imperialism. The book shows an alternative narrative and it presents convincing evidence for the unique importance of this civilization in the history of mankind.

Two-part YouTube video series

This is a two part video series about intellectual curiosity in Europe and the Muslim world:

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