Friday, May 23, 2008


There’s a flash new museum in Beijing called the Capital Museum. It’s an architectural showpiece, presumably created to cash in on the influx of overseas visitors for the Olympic Games, but I found it a bit of a bore when I spent a few hours there last year. Except for one thing.

One floor is occupied by a large gallery that traces China’s history in the form of a timeline marking significant developments. Opposite each exhibit, there’s a small display showing what was happening contemporaneously in the West.

For Western visitors, the contrast is striking. You soon realise that despite China’s early achievements in fields such as astronomy, Chinese culture stood still for centuries while Europe forged ahead.

China experienced no Renaissance, no Age of Enlightenment, no democratic reform and no Industrial Revolution. While the great inventors, scientists, engineers, explorers, philosophers and writers of Europe and America were redefining the world, China remained a closed, insular and largely stagnant society.

The countries of the West had steam power, electricity, democratic government and the internal combustion engine while China remained a feudal culture whose technology had barely progressed beyond the horse and cart.

All the while, the Chinese rulers blindly continued to regard China as superior. This placed the country at an enormous disadvantage when it was eventually forced to engage with Western imperial powers such as Britain and France, whose military forces staged punitive expeditions into China during the 19th century and forced the Chinese into signing humiliating treaties (which helps explain Chinese attitudes toward the West, but that’s another story).

Needless to say the Chinese are making up for lost time now, with a vengeance, but the Capital Museum of Beijing set me thinking. What makes some cultures forge ahead when others stand still? Why do some restless individuals constantly push against the boundaries while most of us are content to accept the status quo?

I’m not sure of the answers, but they’re fascinating questions.

If it weren’t for the human urge to explore, discover and push forward, often at great risk, civilisation as we know it would not exist. We would still be living in caves and hunting with primitive stone tools. Skilled and adventurous Polynesian explorers wouldn’t have found New Zealand and James Cook would probably have been content to become a farmer in Yorkshire. Orville and Wilbur Wright wouldn’t have flown and we would still be gazing in wonder at the moon, wondering what’s up there.

Coal and oil, which drove the greatest economic expansion in the world’s history, would still be lying in the ground. Electricity would have remained a mysterious force that periodically flashed around the sky unharnessed. Edison wouldn’t have invented the electric light that made it possible to defy the constraints imposed by the diurnal cycle and Pasteur wouldn’t have made the discoveries that led to countless millions of people being saved from avoidable diseases. I could go on, but you get the picture.

To me, the pioneering of flight best encapsulates the human urge to break free of the shackles of the status quo. Something caused imaginative men like Leonardo da Vinci (the definitive Renaissance Man) to look at birds in flight and think: “Why can’t we do that?”

Risk-taking was common to all the great discoverers. Pioneers of flight risked falling to the earth and being killed; explorers risked being lost or wrecked; scientists and astronomers risked being persecuted and imprisoned because their discoveries challenged religious orthodoxy.

The puzzling thing is that this impulse isn’t universal in mankind. Over great swathes of the globe, men were content to go on existing pretty much as they always had, with no curiosity about what might lie over the horizon and either no inclination or no ability to find better ways of doing things.

Of course not all people from European cultures share the same motivation to find new and better ways of doing things. If everyone were as lazy and complacent as me, for instance, humanity would never have progressed beyond idly wondering whether there might be a way to avoid mowing lawns. But there’s no doubt that the human desire for scientific, artistic and technological advancement is unevenly distributed in geographical terms.

In looking for explanations for this discrepancy, it’s tempting to come to conclusions that, in today’s politically correct climate, might be seen as racist. But setting aside the ticklish issue of ethnicity as a factor in determining a culture’s inventiveness, it seems obvious that the societies that have been in the vanguard of human achievement have certain characteristics in common.

The most dramatic progress was made in countries that were simultaneously evolving as capitalist democracies which respected private property rights, observed the rule of law and practised market economics. All this, in combination with democratic government and mass education, unleashed human potential which in previous ages had lain dormant.

Interestingly the most progressive societies were also Christian, and remain so, though less so now than in the past. There’s surely a moral there somewhere.

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