Simple theories regarding the conditions necessary for scientific and technological progress have largely failed. It might be thought that where life was desperately hard, as in the deserts or the Arctic, humans, spurred by necessity as the mother of invention, would have developed technology. They did not, or not what is recognisable as technology in the modern sense.
Experiments in labour-saving technology
were not always free of conceptual difficulties.
It might be said that the Australian Aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen, the Inuits, the Bedouin Arabs and others living in extreme conditions adapted themselves to the environment. They did not adapt the environment to themselves. Many things they just endured: Charles Darwin recorded in 1832 that the Patagonians and natives of Terra Del Fuego, inhabitants of a bitterly cold climate, had not even taken to wearing clothing.
The dwellers at extremities showed great ingenuity in surviving where other humans could not, though with scanty populations and short life-spans (I have personally seen Australian Aborigines – and perhaps even more amazingly white men initiated into Aboriginal techniques – perform what, had I not seen them, I could only say were literally unbelievable and impossible feats of tracking, hunting and communication – for example, reaching up to unerringly pluck venomous snakes from the rafters of a flooding house, standing in a bobbing rowing boat in the dark. I was there in the boat).
The construction of an Inuit boat or a throwing-spear can show great complexity and sophistication in the use of material to hand. But a helicopter is qualitatively different to a kayak as a means of crossing the Arctic Ocean, as a rifle, with or without the aids of telescopic sight and spotlight, is qualitatively different to even the best spear or boomerang for hunting kangaroos.
(Not forgetting the famous scene in the Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. A gloating, expert Egyptian swordsman wielding a huge scimitar threatens an American who he is obviously looking forward to carving up with many flourishes. The American, with even a weary sigh, pulls out a revolver and shoots him.)
A certain storage of water in a dry climate (though often polluted by nematodes etc.) can be obtained by making a fire on a granite outcrop to crack the rock surface, digging away as much broken rock as possible with hands or hand-tools, and filling the resultant cavity with damp sand (not open rain-water as this would evaporate, be drunk by animals or be polluted by dead animals falling into it). This is an ingenious process, but it does not really compare with the Hoover Dam.
Reductivism is simplistic
Reductivist theories like those of Max Weber and R.H. Tawney about the rise of civilisations, or Spengler’s about their fall, are simplistic and flawed. Weber linked industrialism and capitalism with Protestantism, as did many others such as the 20th-century English historian Arthur Bryant, whose column for many years in The Illustrated London News probably had considerable influence on the thought of what may perhaps be called without patronage the news-magazine-reading classes.
However, there is in fact no hard and fast rule. The New World was opened up initially by Catholic seafarers and adventurers, the primitive economic and legal systems of countries like Spain crippled their development fatally. The bookkeeping and accounting practices developed in Catholic Italy were necessary for the success of James Watt in Protestant England. The Catholic Church’s direct contribution to universities and to sciences such as astronomy, irrigation and genetics was enormous and unparalleled. America developed hugely between 1840 and 1925, from a backwater to a great world power, in part because of the large immigration of Catholics and Jews as well as Protestants from Europe.
Historian Arnold Toynbee believed civilisations arose in “hard” conditions, but again this is not borne out by facts. As well as the great Mediterranean civilisations, the civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia and of the Nile and Indus valleys and the great rivers of China, arose in fairly kindly environments.
Counter examples abound
An idea current for a while that either racial or climatic factors made Italians indolent and incapable of prolonged application was not really helped by the examples of the Roman Empire, Columbus and Napoleon, nor by the fact that much of modern capitalism originated in northern Italy and Venice.
Conversely, it might have been thought that where, as in some areas of the tropics and subtropics, life can be relatively easy and leisurely, with plentiful food growing naturally, and with little need for energies to go into cultivation, hunting or making clothing and shelter, this greater leisure would provide time for creative thought.
Again, this did not happen. Forest-dwellers like the Pygmies and the South American Indians remained forest-dwellers. People like the Bugis, the Australian Bardies and the daring and adventurous seafarers of Polynesia took navigation and aspects of seamanship to a high level, but again remained below the “ceiling” of human, animal and wind power. There was never a Polynesian war canoe clad in metal or propelled by steam.
The happy medium, the temperate climate, or the savannah where human beings probably first arose, was also not of itself sufficient to spur technological change. Nor was a mixture of climates. The Aborigines inhabiting the temperate and sometimes quite cold areas of Australia – including Victoria and the southern parts of New South Wales and Western Australia – were free to wander over the whole continent with its rainforests in the north-east and mountains of very rich iron ore in the north-west (these were not in close proximity to coalfields, but there were considerable coalfields elsewhere). Their failure to develop any metal technology was in spite of the fact that Asian traders and fishermen probably acquainted them with metal trade goods, as well as pottery, tools, glass and cloth, none of which they took to manufacturing themselves.
The Americas offered every sort of climate and environment for their human inhabitants – tropic, temperate, arid, arctic, alpine, forest, savannah – yet even the great pre-Columbian civilisations of Mexico and South America were technologically stagnant (the societies of post-Columbian South America were not exactly beacons of progress either). Climate may be a contributing factor to technology but it is not a sufficient one.
Geography may also contribute – rivers may stimulate technologies of irrigation and trade, for example. However, this advantage seems incremental. The great river-based civilisations of antiquity never achieved technological takeoff sufficient to lift them past the ceiling. It has also been argued that the shape of coastlines is important, some coastlines, like that of the Mediterranean, lending themselves to navigation and sea-borne trade, and therefore to cross-cultural fertilisation and generally higher levels of prosperity more readily than others.
Generalisations are apt to be disproved by particular examples. Nepalese Ghurkas serving in the British Army in the 20th century rapidly became adept at handling complex military machinery, despite having no traditions in this.
George Orwell wrote to the effect that civilisation must be defended by men who are themselves less civilised, and at times a ruthless streak appears necessary, as heroes and champions from Leonidas and Stilicho to Pilsudski, Franco, Churchill or Patton witness.
While no single factor is sufficient, it seems many are necessary. The attempts to associate technological progress or the lack of it with any single cause look like attempts to deny the significance and complexity of cultural factors and to assert a variety of determinism almost as irrational as astrology. Civilisation is guaranteed nowhere, scientific and technological civilisation least of all – it is not the rule, but the unique exception.