One of the reasons why the term “westernization” carries with it such negative connotations is because it harkens back to the colonialist theories of eighteenth and nineteenth century European cultural anthropologists about the progression of civilizations being linear and unidirectional. One of the ways that the imperialist colonization of Africa, the Americas and Southeast Asia were rationalized was because the prevailing theories in anthropology held that human civilizations existed not on a spectrum but rather in a hierarchy. Needless to say, these Western European anthropologists placed their own culture and society at the “peak” or “pinnacle” of this hierarchical power structure.
The problem with this was that the overwhelmingly vast majority if not all of the criteria that these anthropologists utilized to delineate “advanced” human civilizations from “barbaric” and “savage” ones were for the most part if not entirely arbitrary. Before the advent of archaeology as we know it as a discipline of systematic methodological scientific study, for example, European anthropologists rationalized placing Western European societies “above” those of the Americas by asserting that Europeans lived in cities with stone buildings, whereas the Native Americans only ever lived in wooden huts. The discoveries of cities like Cahokia, Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan dispelled this illusory distinction.
That having been said, however there are, I believe, some objective ways by which the relative advancement and progress of a given civilization can be measured objectively. The first and foremost of these is knowledge. Rather than asking how large or populous a give society’s cities are or how tall the buildings in those cities are, a vastly more dispassionate, and accurate gauge of how advanced a civilization is would be to ask how much they know about their world, about life, about the earth and about the universe. By this measurement Europeans, at last in the post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial Revolution era were not on the whole entirely incorrect when they judged the nineteenth century Western Europe whence from they came to be more progressed than the indigenous native cultures they were encountering in Africa.
However, here is where we run into why the term “Westernization”, in the twenty-first century, is a misnomer.
In his 1997 book “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies: A Short History of Everybody For the Last 23,000 Years” University of California—Los Angeles Professor of Geography and UCLA Medical School Professor of Physiology Jared Diamond theorizes that the relative advancement of Eurasian civilizations such as those of the eighteenth century Western European colonial empires as compared against the relative civilizational retardation of civilizations such as that of the Native Americans had significantly less to do with hemispheres or sides of the Atlantic Ocean than on latitude. The shape assumed by the Eurasian supercontinent after the final breakup of Pangaea landmass in the Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era 175 Million years ago was highly conducive to the lateral movement across its breadth and width from East to West or vice versa with precious little change in latitude. The shape of the Americas, by contrast, was much more aligned along vertical lines of longitude, meaning that any traveler from North to South America would pass through both the tropics and the equator.
In 1817, Prussian geographer and naturalist Friedrich Humboldt discovered that the biogeographical variation of plants and animals at different levels of elevation above sea level was closely mirrored by their distribution at differing degrees of latitude above and below the equator. As such, whereas travel from East to West or vice versa across the Eurasian supercontinent meant maintaining relatively the same latitudinal coordinates and thus broadly speaking a comparably similar biome or ecosystem throughout, travel from North to South America through the tropics and across the equator would have been comparable biogeographically to constantly climbing up and down to and from wildly different elevations.
According to Professor Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel”, the relative constancy of the biogeography and ecology across Eurasia aided the civilizations thereof to advance relatively unimpeded by their environment and to move and trade freely with one another across the continent. The Native American civilizations, by comparison, such as the Aztec and the Maya, who built the largest cities in the Americas such as Tenochtitlan; which at its height in the fifteenth century before the Spanish conquest of Mexico surpassed any city in Western Europe at that time in size and population; were forced by their environmental constraints to remain relatively isolated to one very specific latitudinal region such as the Yucatan Peninsula of Central America. If indeed any trade or even communication ever took place between the Maya of the Yucatan and people of Cahokia in the Mississippi River Valley of North America, or between the Aztec of Tenochtitlan in Mexico and the Anasazi people of Mesa Verde in Arizona, no record of it has survived the centuries since.
One of the most frequent objections to the projection map made by Belgian cartographer and geographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, which pioneered the use of straight lines of latitude and longitude is that it, and all maps and globes manufactured from it in the centuries since, places the Northern hemisphere at the top of the map and the Southern hemisphere at the bottom. The argument, made by analysts of globalization such as University of Peking Professor Gao Shangquan, is that this leads to the adoption of “North and South” attitudes . Indeed, it does seem in the 21st century as though the difference between the developed first world and the underdeveloped third world is no longer so much one of East versus West, since there are now nations in the East such as China which are just as industrialized as those in the West such as the United States of America, but rather instead between North and South.
Like “Westernization”, “Colonialism”, too, has negative connotations that it carries along with it to this day, but it is notable that the places in the world where critics of globalization are most concerned about “colonialism” are not countries such as the United States, even though North America was colonized by half a dozen different European empires over the course of more than three hundred years from the time of Christopher Columbus through the Louisiana Purchase and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, but instead in former colonies in the Southern hemisphere such as in Africa.
In anthropology and history, one of the defining characteristics of a civilization is the division and specialization of labor, stemming from a sedentary urban lifestyle and an agrarian agriculturally based abundance of natural resources. It is notable that the first agricultural revolution in human history, the “Neolithic Revolution” of circa 10,000 BCE occurred in the very heart of the Eurasian supercontinent, in the “fertile crescent” of Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and Tigris and independently in the Indus River valley near the western border of the Indian subcontinent. This is notable because, with the notable exception of the Anasazi, Aztecs, Inca and Maya, even as late as the European conquest in the 15th Century CE the majority of tribes in the Americas remained nomadic hunters and gatherers. This lends credence to Professor Diamond’s theory of the growth civilization being dependent upon longitudinal consistency.
As the title suggests, one of Diamond’s theories as to why the Europeans were able to conquer and colonize the Americans has to do with technology. The word “Neolithic” means “New Stone Age”, but 11,500 years later when Christopher Columbus and Conquistador Hernando Cortez arrived in the Americas, they were armed not with stones, but with steel. Very few of the kings and emperors of the Aztec, Inca and Maya had metal weaponry of any kind, and the majority of their warriors were armed with wooden clubs tipped with obsidian blades. In other words, while a few of the civilization of Central and South America were in the early stages of what in Eurasia was called the Bronze Age, the majority of Native American tribes were still in the pre-Neolithic Stone Age as late as five hundred years ago. The technology of the Western European Empires was due, once again, to their knowledge, in the form of science.
In the late fifteenth century when Columbus reached the Western hemisphere, Western Europe had just experienced the Renaissance, which in turn had brought it out of the nearly millennium-long period that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth Century CE called the “Dark Ages”. Fifteenth century figures such as German Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and sixteenth century scientists such as Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei would very soon thereafter launch what is called the “Scientific Revolution” [the scientific method was pioneered by English philosopher Francis Bacon in 1620, though the term “scientist” would not be coined until 1833 by English historian and philosopher William Whenwell].
Unfortunately, in no small part, I believe, due to the lingering unpleasant shadow cast by those early European colonial cultural anthropologists, outside of the developed First World in places such as Africa, “Western Science” evidently still has negative connotations to it, as was on display when the leadership of the student body at the University of Cape Town in South Africa called in an address to the University’s faculty for, as part of “decolonialization”, among other things, the abolition of science, calling it the “product of Western modernity” .
Indeed, since the Civil Rights movements of the late twentieth century, it has become increasingly common for those in Western developed first world nations such as the United States complaining of racism and other forms of discrimination and prejudice to, as a sort of colloquial shorthand, place the blame for such ills at the feet of what they derisively refer to as “Western civilization” or “Western Culture”. It is ironic, however, that more often than not these self-proclaimed “Social Justice Warriors” choose to voice their disenchantment with “western civilization” over the world wide internet, one of the dozens of technologies they utilize in their everyday lives that are a monument to the very western science that the smartphone-bearing student leadership at Cape Town University calls to be abolished. Indeed, far be it from being a system of oppression as the South African students assert, scientific knowledge and technology, as a means of measuring a civilization’s relative advancement is both dispassionate and accurate.
As theoretical astrophysicist Doctor Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space pointed out in his 2005 Natural History Magazine article “The Perimeter of Ignorance”, the Arabic-speaking world of the Near East and West Asia experienced a nearly half-millennium-long “Golden Age” from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries CE [786-1258 CE], during the overwhelmingly vast majority of the stars in the night sky and mathematical principles such as algebra and algorithms were all given Arabic names. Tyson points out that, for a variety of various reasons, the Muslim world then fell into a “technological Dark Age”, an intellectual black hole from which it has yet to emerge centuries later. It is, I believe, for this reason above and beyond all other that for the past few centuries, European imperial powers have conquered, colonized and divided up amongst themselves in various contentious temporary arrangements the states and territories of the Middle East again and again. And while the nations of the Near East and West Asia, as well as those of Africa, gained their independence in the twentieth century just as the United States did more than a century and a half earlier, the United States has joined the nations of Western Europe and East Asia as the primary drivers of scientific and technological progress through the turn of the millennium whilst the former colonies of the Middle East and Africa have yet to emerge from their respective scientific and technological Dark Ages.
So contrary to the assertions made by the student leadership at Capet Town University, the scientific gap is not between what they called “African science” and “Western science”. It is instead, as Professor Shangquan implies, between Northern science and the third world South.
One hallmark of science and technology, and a particular target for the anti-Western advocacy of the South African students, is modern medicine. Medical science and technology, in turn, provides what I believe to be quite a useful benchmark for the measurement of a given society’s scientific progress, which might otherwise prove exceedingly difficult to accurately quantify in easily-understandable terms. After the discovery of smallpox vaccination by English physician Edward Jenner in 1796 the global eradication of smallpox was formally officially announced by the World Health Organization less than two centuries later in 1980. Since 1900, the world average life expectancy has more than doubled from 31 years to more than 67 years as of 2010. The country with the longest life expectancy for males is Switzerland at more than 81 years. The lowest life expectancy both form females [48 years] and overall [49 years] according to the United Nations as of 2015 is in Swaziland, just 1,700 miles from the University of Cape Town in South Africa whose students called for the abolishment of science. For males, the lowest life expectancy is in the Central African Republic at 47 years.
The fact that the life expectancy for males in the Western European developed industrialized nation of Switzerland is nearly double that in the sub-Saharan equatorial Central African Republic presents a clear a qualitative as well as quantitative difference between the developed first world in the North and the underdeveloped third world in the South that is not, as the South African students accuse science of being, “racist”, but is instead dispassionate in its objectivity. Living longer is as definitive a measurement of the relative advancement of a given civilization as any conceivable.
A disproportionate percentage of the deaths in the equatorial underdeveloped third world such as the Central African Republic are due to malaria, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease that kills more people than all others put together combined…and that western medical science and technology is even as we speak well on its way towards eradicating as it did Smallpox three and half decades ago [as of 2015, a malaria vaccine had already been developed and was being tested]. Another killer in equatorial Africa is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or HIV/AIDS. As of now, medical scientists are working on developing a vaccination against AIDS as well. This is partially at least what makes South Africans of all people being the ones to be calling for the abolition of science all that much more paradoxical, as such an abolishment of medical technology would arguably damage the populations of the nations of sub-Saharan Africa more so than anyplace on planet Earth.
- Claymore, Ezra. “UCT Student Says Science Must Be “Decolonized”, The South African. October 14, 2016: http://www.thesouthafrican.com/sciencemustfall-goes-viral-after-uct-student-says-science-must-be-decolonised/
- Shangquan, Gao. “Economic Globalization: Trends, Risks and Risk Prevention”. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Development Policy and Analysis Division Committee for Development Policy. 2000: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/cdp/cdp_background_papers/bp2000_1.pdf
- Tyson, Neil. “The Perimeter of Ignorance”. Natural History Magazine. November 1, 2005: http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2005/11/01/the-perimeter-of-ignorance http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/universe/211420/the-perimeter-of-ignorance