There’s a thought-provoking review in today’s New York Times of Lost Discoveries, a book on “the ancient roots of modern science – from the Babylonians to the Maya”. In the reviewer’s opinion Lost Discoveries is a “timely reminder of how much of the foundation of modern scientific thought and technological development was built by the mostly overlooked contributions of Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Polynesians and Mesoamericans,” a piece of vaguely PC boilerplate that is a little misleading both in the detail (is it really fair to say that, for example, the Arab contribution to mathematics has been “overlooked”?) and in another, critical, respect: it underestimates the intellectual effort in, so to speak, reinventing the wheel and, indeed, the consequences of that reinvention. Physicists in Third Century BC China may well have “pretty neatly summarized Newton’s first law of motion”, but I would be very surprised if they were the source of Sir Isaac’s ideas – and it was Newton’s discovery (or rediscovery) that was to prove infinitely more important in the development of contemporary technology.
Other civilizations can, clearly, boast of some astonishing scientific achievements. To claim (as some have done in the past) that the West has some sort of monopoly on scientific creativity would be nonsense, but it is equally absurd to try to downplay the West’s massive contribution to the foundation of the world as we find it today.
To put it somewhat simplistically, the Mayans may have been superb astronomers, but they played almost no part in the chain of events that took Neil Armstrong to the moon.