Society and Culture

The 6 killer apps of Western Civilization, Part 2: Science

See part 1, Competition, here.

Why was Western civilization able to achieve dominance over the rest of humanity for the last several hundred years? That’s the subject of British historian Niall Ferguson’s excellent TED talk, in addition to his book Civilization: the West and the Rest.

Basically, he says it comes down to six key characteristics that defined the West but not the Rest—to put it in 21st century terms, six “killer applications” that the West had and the Rest didn’t. In this space I’d like to examine the status of these killer apps in modern America.

Today, I’m focusing on the second killer app: Science. Here’s Ferguson’s short definition:

Science – a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest.

Note Ferguson’s emphasis on the military application of scientific advancement. While the new knowledge gained during the Scientific Revolution “may be said to have given birth to modern anatomy, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, geometry, mathematics, mechanics, and physics,” the biggest practical difference it had was in making Western military forces far superior to Resterners. The greatest advances came in artillery, the accuracy and power of which benefitted greatly from the application of physics, and in handgun technology, as can be seen in the chart below.

Source: Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. p. 82

Europe’s superior military technology is what enabled it to defeat and eventually conquer Resterners. As the charts below show, in 1500 the West controlled about 5 percent of the world’s territory and 16 percent of its population. In 1913, it controlled 58 percent of the territory and 57 percent of the population. This radical expansion can be explained primarily by the fact that Europe’s militaries were able to defeat those of the Rest and thereby gain political control over their lands and peoples. And if it wasn’t for scientific advancement, Europe’s militaries would never have been able to accomplish this.

Source: Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. p. 6

So it’s very concerning that modern America is moving away from innovation and technological advancement in the military. Mackenzie Eaglen, a new scholar at AEI, reveals that America’s military is becoming outdated as we spent the last decade focused on low-technology conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. She explains in another piece that “the U.S. military has lost ground in innovation this past decade, accelerating a trend that began in the early 1990s.”

Nick Schulz, editor-in-chief of The American and an expert on innovation policy, also bemoans the lack of innovation in today’s military, highlighting the fact that military technologies often transform into extremely useful civilian products. For example, interchangeable parts were originally designed for rifles, but became common practice for a wide variety of civilian goods. More recently, technologies such as microchips, which were originally designed to guide missiles, are now used in a plethora of consumer goods.

Yes, America’s military is still by far the most technologically advanced and powerful armed force in the world. And yes, it will likely take many years, if not decades, before other countries catch up to us, even if we continue decreasing innovation.

But America’s status as the lone superpower is not guaranteed in perpetuity. If we allow ourselves to be content with the technology we already have, we will eventually be overtaken. It’s important to note that Western powers were technologically inferior to Resterners prior to the advances of the Scientific Revolution. Eastern powers such as the Ottoman Empire were a very real military threat as late as 1683, when an alliance of Poles and Austrians barely stopped the Turks from conquering Vienna. Prior to that date, Europe lived in fear of “the Turk” and his unstoppable military, epitomized by elite forces such as the Janissaries. But the Ottomans grew content with their military’s technology (perhaps because they were so successful in the past) and, over time, Europe reversed the technology gap. America runs the risk of following in the Ottomans’ footsteps.

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