Civilisation and Progress : why our intellectual histories are wrong

World Civlisation League : the best vs. the rest

The standard narrative of intellectual history, until not so long ago, went like this. First, came the Greeks, who invented Philosophy. Then, the Romans, who created the republican polity. Then there was a long dark ages, during which, as Morgan Freeman informs us, God took a holiday. This was followed by a Renaissance, an Enlightenment, then a Scientific Revolution leading to an Industrial Revolution. Europe, as was preordained, conquered the world, recreated it, and laid the foundations of the modern age.

So, is there any dispute about the question of which one civilization has contributed the most to the development of intellect in the world? The West, right? Actually, there is lots to dispute, but only if one has the ‘time’ to look at, to put it mildly, the facts.

Origins and Ideas in the Old World

Gobekli Tepe – archaeological site in Turkey established around 10th millennium BC

Now the ‘fact’ is, ‘civilisation’ began at least 7-8 thousand years before the Greek Classical age. By civilisation, using the small ‘c’ very intentionally, I mean human habitation in cities, based on intensive , settled agriculture, and some sort of political organization, all this entailed. Amongst the earliest archeological sites, some are even more than 10,000 years old. Moving forward, while the Greeks still hadn’t yet invented the Greek language script, civilisations in the neigbourhood, such as in Egypt and the Middle East, had already created theirs vast literatures. These were, in fact, thousands of years old before the Greeks began to write.  In fact, now it is established almost beyond doubt that the Greeks took the rudiments of their culture from the Egyptians, a ‘black’ people who had established their much older civilisation to the south, across the seas.

(Does it matter then that the Egyptians were, compared at least to the image of the Classical white Anglo-saxon man, black. The ‘epithet’ of ‘black skinned’ actually signifies ‘not as white as us’ rather than a specific skin-tone. So, even the Greeks, though somewhat politely, could be referred to as ‘olive-skinned’ – nobody wants to call the great Hellenes black! Incidentally, Indians were very often referred to by many racist Britishers as ‘niggers’, especially when they asked too vociferously for some sort of freedom, but Indians themselves, even now, show remarkable obstinacy in continuing usage of the word ‘negro’ for Africans. On another note, the identification of the Greeks with the Greek peninsula is also wrong, since much of what we call Ancient Greek civilization actually developed in what is now Turkey.)

Just as the Greeks took much of the foundations of their philosophy from the Egyptians, their mathematics was initially learned from the Mesopotamians. Take for example what we call the Pythagoras theorem. The a square, b square, c square proof had existed hundreds of years before Pythagoras was even born. In fact, there are hundreds of independently proven Pythagoras theorems from around the world, ranging from the Mayans, to the Indians, to the Chinese. Of course, my intention is not to deny the achievements of Hellenic Greece. But it definitely is to undermine them!

Clay tablet from Ancient Mesopotamia showing proof of ‘Pythagoras’ theorem

The idea that any civilization ‘invents’ an idea is patently wrong. Ideas cannot be invented. They grow, from dialogue. Just as the Greeks did not invent the first idea of anything, neither did the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Chinese, the Indians, or even the Mayans, who the popular belief goes developed in total isolation until Columbus ‘discovered’ them and told them – you exist and you are, actually, Indians.

The Not-so-New World

Columbus was not the first person from the ‘old world’ of Eurasia to discover America. Neither were the Vikings in the Middle Ages, nor, as some ludicrously claim, were Arab or Chinese sailors. It was, in fact, the ‘Americans’ themselves who discovered America – even though anachronistically. It is now, in fact, almost wholly established that the ‘natives’ in America did not spring out of the earth, but actually migrated mostly across  a land-bridge, from eastern Eurasia, during the period of the Ice Age, ending about 10,000 years ago. These migrations continued for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as Eurasia and America continued to be connected by a Siberian ice-bridge. Even when the bridge was submerged, the two land masses were mere hundreds of miles apart, which is no distance at all for human beings who had been crossing vast waters, thousands of miles across, for tens of thousands of years, peopling Australia and the vast Polynesian world of the Pacific. In fact, it is not wholly irrational to propose that Polynesians maintained some sort of contact with Americans throughout history, since they did reach as far as Hawaii in the early years of exploration. (Hawaii, of course, is the site of the Pearl harbour, which most people know from school history.)


What is fascinating that despite being cut off from the main circulation networks, both the Americas and the Afro-Eurasian world developed in remarkably similar trajectories, developing cities, empires, economic and intellectual systems that, as we come to realize more and more, were very sophisticated. Of course, populations moving into new lands carry remnants of ideas from the past, but even then the developmental trajectories of American civilizations ran almost parallel to those in other regions of the world. In agriculture, in politics, in mathematics, and in trade, American civilizations were  nominally speaking almost as advanced as their Eurasian counterparts for long periods of history. Even during the initial years of Colonialism, it was not as much European arms that ‘defeated’ the ancient civilizations of the Americas, as diseases carried from the ‘old’ world. A horrible statistic attests to this, within a hundred years of European contact with the Americas, all within the 16th century, native American population has fallen from roughly 15% of total global population to less than 2%! This was one of the most devastatingly horrible things imaginable. Not just genocide, something much much worse.

Other Matters : masters of the mind

Returning to the Greeks, as all things tend to do so often in modern intellectual history, of course Socrates, Plato and Aristotle left great intellectual legacies for mankind. But we should also keep in mind that almost simultaneously as Socrates was put to death for preaching slightly subversive ideas in Greece, the Buddha was preaching what were by comparison revolutionary ideas all through the northern plains of India and Confucius was developing a systematic philosophy of the state and society in China. Not only were the Buddha and Confucius not murdered, showing the level of tolerance and sophistication in these ‘Oriental despotisms’, they were actively supported by Kings, Princes, merchants and traders and Republics – surprisingly they did exist before Rome! Also, their philosophies did not die with them, not only did they persist, they grew, spread, flourished and through dialogue with other systems of thought, such as  a revived Hindu philosophy in India and Daoism in China, reached levels of intellectual sophistication that the ‘West’ would not achieve till well into the 20th century, in systems of thought such as postmodernism and constructivism.

The intense dialogue among these philosophies, both in India and China, but in different degrees, resulted in the creation of systems of society which would persist for hundreds of years, forming the foundations of what is arguably the greatest period in human intellectual development. In India, the dialogue produced great thinkers in philosophy, mathematics, logic, astronomy and science. China began to develop ideas of social science, political organization, and public administration which would form the basis of a great technological leap forward, an Asian industrial revolution, around the turn of the first millennium, inventing among other things, the compass and the printing press, new processes for smelting ore, and, crucially, gunpowder.

Coming to this absolutely revolutionary, transformational age, a small exploration of ‘facts’ will, if you were not aware of them before, blow your mind. We have been taught a very narrow genealogical lineage of Scientific development. The story resembles the Greek civilisational story I began the essay with. Here it goes. First, there were Copernicus and Gallileo who proved that the world was not flat. Then. Newton showed us how round things moved about in heaven. Then came Darwin, who explained that there was actually no ‘heaven’ and we were all evolved from the monkeys. Everything moves from thereon, planes, trains and automobiles, television, radio and the internet.

Let me introduce you, the reader, to three other people whom you most probably haven’t heard of: Al-biruni (10th century), Shen Kuo (11th century) and Bhaskara II (12th century). (I’ve added links to their Wikipedia pages. It is worth checking out the magnitude of their contributions for oneself.)

The Arab, the Chinese and the Indian, were three polymathic individuals whose work predates almost all the major achievements associated with the canonic saints of Western science. Al-biruni’s work in mathematics and astronomy, building on previous ideas, resulted in working, mathematical model of the known solar system. Shen Kuo, who among many things was a geologist and a UFO hunter, actually sought out and collected ancient fossils and hypothesized the existence of ancient forms of life on earth. Bhaskara II created a mathematical system that predated Newton’s calculus, and even created a theoretical model of a mercury ‘clock’, with spokes and gears.

Now these are only a few example of a few contributions of a few men. Arab and Persian intellectuals, building on the legacies of ancient Mesopotamia and other Middle eastern civilizations, Indians and Chinese, building on their dialogic traditions, ensured that the first millennium was far from a dark age. It was, in fact, a period of intense technological and intellectual achievement, which laid the foundations of almost everything claimed by Europe as its own achievements.

Of course, it was Newton who gave us the laws of gravity and it was Darwin who proposed the theory of evolution. And, of course, they were European. But, my point is, there was nothing intrinsically great in European civilization which produced a Newton or a Darwin. In fact, it is actually the other way round, it is the thinker who makes his civilization great, but hardly ever ‘one’ civilization which makes a great thinker.

The false idea of civilisation

The whole idea of civilisation as some sort of idea producing factory is, in fact, wrong. Al-biruni could not have worked out his systems without a dialogue with Aristotle’s ideas, Shen Kuo was perhaps inspired by many Arab thinkers, and Bhaskara based his clock on Chinese water clocks. Ideas travel, they communicate, and they fuse together in the minds of those that receive them. A thinker, is much like a fertile animal. He must accept the idea in the womb of the mind, nurture it within, until it is ready to be born into the world. But unlike an animal, an idea does not have one sole father. It is, actually more like flowers in a garden, with pollen coming from everywhere, wherever humans go, or wander, or are lost.

Civilisation has long been treated as a unit of world history. This has created a false perception of a civlisation as something real, an entity with objects and boundaries. This has also created in our mind some sort of world league, in which these bounded units called civilisations compete with each other, fight, to dominate and grow, subdue their rivals. As I hope this essay has shown, this idea is patently wrong. Firstly, what we call civilization is only an amalgamation of cultures. This is a post hoc idea, created by historian and politicians. No person living in any era of the past would have identified with the civilization that we slot them in. Yes, they would have claimed belonging to a culture, a region, a place. What we need to do then, is look at history from this new, actually old, perspective. Rather than civilisations as mega-units of world historical order, let us look at cultures, regions and places, at the people who inhabit them, and how they view, and talk, to each other, and those who are far away.