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Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
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Farzana Hassan
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toby huff's

reviewed by


Farzana Hassan is the author of Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest. Please visit her website at:

Ever wondered why Western civilization progressed far beyond others in the realm of scientific discovery, technology and education? Dr. Toby Huff, Research Associate at Harvard University’s Astronomy Department, answers this intriguing question in his well written and scholarly book entitled Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

In his book, Huff compares the scientific achievements of three civilizations: Western, Chinese and Islamic. He examines the economic, educational, political, religious and cultural backdrop of the developments that set the West apart from the other two civilizations.

It was at the turn of the seventeenth century that Europe embarked on a scientific quest unprecedented in human history. Much of the knowledge gained would somehow come to be connected with the invention of the telescope. The invention of the spyglass in 1608 propelled the Western world towards even greater technological advances resulting in “Europe’s scientific ascendancy.” Across the continent, scientists worked diligently and enthusiastically to reproduce the telescope, often with the result of greatly improving the instrument. In no time, the cosmos and all the vast possibilities it contained would come within the reach of mankind.

The telescope was also exported to China and parts of the Islamic world. However, interest in the new invention there remained perfunctory. Huff calls this indifference a “curiosity deficit” that plagued both the Chinese and the Muslims of the seventeenth century.

The Chinese resisted the telescope as it often yielded information that conflicted with their age old beliefs. Professor Huff states that “the problem was that the new, Western astronomy was embedded in a very different metaphysics. The unity of heaven and the Chinese imperial throne was not in it . . . ”

Indeed the Chinese proved to be conservationists rather than innovators. Furthermore, widespread suspicion of the foreigner led the Chinese to doubt the motives of the Jesuits who brought the telescope to China. In the middle of the 17th century, the Chinese scholar Yang Guangxian led a campaign against the Jesuit priests who had undoubtedly come to his country in the hope of converting the local population to Christianity. The reaction resulted in Anti-Christian sentiment and a vehement rejection of the scientific advances of the missionaries. Limits were set on free inquiry and the free flow of scientific ideas. Western science and Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy were hence banned in China, resulting in intellectual stasis and limited scientific progress. China remained a traditional society leery of anything foreign or Western.

The telescope was transported to Islamic empires as well. One would imagine that with Islam’s long tradition of scientific inquiry in the Middle Ages, Muslim scientists would receive the telescope with enthusiasm. However, this was not the case. The telescope failed to spark interest amongst the Ottoman and Mughal scientists and rulers. As in China, the work of the Jesuits was viewed with suspicion by Muslims. Certainly, converting to Christianity would be deemed an act of apostasy. Moreover, according to Huff, “when the telescope arrived in India, the rulers and their officials were preoccupied with other things such as building monument gardens and conducting military campaigns.”

In the meantime, science flourished in the West. The invention of the telescope was followed by the invention of the microscope. Soon the microcosms and macrocosms were revealed to the curious Europeans who continued indefatigably to build upon each additional discovery and invention.

Seventeenth century Europe also witnessed an immense growth in literacy. This proved to be another factor in the spectacular scientific achievements of the West. The Protestant Reformation had fostered a desire in Europeans to acquire knowledge so as to enable them to understand and interpret the Bible. Education was hence made accessible to all citizens, rich and poor. Widespread literacy further nurtured a love of learning, research and exploration, which consequently created a large talent pool, and what Professor Huff refers to as Europe’s “intellectual surplus.”

Some might wonder if religious sentiment in Europe stifled scientific creativity. According to Huff, the Catholic Church originally reacted to Galileo’s heliocentric model of the universe, but it failed to exercise influence outside of Italy. Among Muslims on the other hand, religion sometimes acted as an impediment. For example, dissections of the human body were deemed un-Islamic by Muslim scientists based on hadith that prohibited the mutilation of bodies.

The educational experience of Western Christians and Eastern Chinese and Muslims can further explain the differences in their attitudes to scientific inquiry. Madrassah education was focused largely on Quranic knowledge, while Chinese education lacked the methodology to undertake natural studies. The Europeans on the other hand developed strong secular curricula geared towards understanding the intricacies of the natural world. “Put differently, the Europeans institutionalized the study of the natural world by making it the central core of the university curriculum,” Huff writes.

European universities also enjoyed autonomy as a result of legal reforms enacted in the twelfth century. Huff states:

As noted earlier, the legal revolution of the twelfth century and later, along with the communal movement that acknowledged the legitimate collective character of human associations, created the framework for legally autonomous entities -- namely, universities. As these new educational institutions were founded all over Europe from this era onward, the leaders of the movement imported the great scientific and philosophical heritage of the Greeks, along with supplements by Arab commentators.

Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution offers keen insights on the enormous success of Western civilization. The book is both detailed and focused. It contains valuable information for readers desiring to understand the evolution of cultures and the conditions that lead to their success or downfall.



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by Farzana Hassan:
The Islamist
The Grand Design (review)
The Jew Is Not My Enemy (review)
To Ban the Hijab?


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