Book Review of The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala

The book "The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science" by Arun Bala introduces a dialogical perspective on the birth of modern science and lists a great number of contributions made to the development of intellectual thought during the European ‘Dark Ages' by great scientists from Arab, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese backgrounds in a range of fields from mathematics to astronomy. By challenging the Eurocentric view, the author provides a wider perception on the Copernican Revolution, highlighting that continuing dialogue can help the future of science and modern world

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Reviewed by Ruveyda Ozturk*

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Figure 1: Front cover of The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science, by Arun Bala (Source).

Review of The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Hardcover ISBN-10: 1403974683, Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0230609792. 242 pages, Dimensions: 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches.

The book published recently by Arun Bala under the significant title The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science examines the grand question of the roots of modern science and the contributions of different cultures to its genesis and development. Bala presents the view that modern science initiated through the ‘dialogue' of various civilizations and opposes the Eurocentric view that it's essentially rooted in Europe. He offers arguments against a number of historians of science and major studies created on this topic that undermine the contributions of many non-European cultures to the birth of modern science by giving specific and detailed historic examples throughout his book.

The study by Bala, developed through 20 years of research and experience, identifies the unique and critical inventions and developments achieved by Egyptian, Chinese, Indian and Arab civilizations and the influence these have had on the findings made by scientists throughout the birth and rise of modern science. Bala emphasises that recognising the non-European roots of modern science will not over-shadow the European achievements but rather reflect the great achievements of European scientists in combining and integrating discoveries across different fields, from a number of civilizations in order to create and establish modern science.

He identifies a number of benefits of recognising and acknowledging the non-Western roots of modern science, arguing that it as an opportunity to open new dialogue with traditional knowledge holders to create future opportunities for the growth of science and to ensure that scientific history is not used erroneously to glorify one nation or point out the limitations experienced by other cultures. In this regard, Bala argues that proving the interaction of cultures in the development of modern science can show that civilizations can avoid confrontation through scientific dialogue and benefit from sharing knowledge and learning from one another.

Bala tackles the question on the birth of modern science by dividing it into two parts, dealing first with "Why did modern science fail to develop in civilization X?" and later addressing why it developed in Europe. Consecutively, he argues that praise for the development of modern science should be distributed justly and that non-European cultures should be acknowledged for their contributions while blamed for being ineffective in achieving modern science. Similarly, the European civilisation should be blamed for not fairly recognising the importance of such traditional discoveries for the birth of modern science.

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Figure 2: Diagram from Kitâb al-manâzir (Book of Optics) by Ibn al-Haytham, showing a chiasm (the joining nerve) from the Arabic manuscript at the Sulimaniye Library (Fatih Collection), Istanbul (Source).

In the book, a number of important past studies carried out in this field is criticised for being Eurocentric and ignorant in arguing that modern science could not have developed in any other culture due to an absence of cultural factors present in Europe such as the Christian religion, Greek heritage or the Roman concept of law. Many texts identify a number of "cultural deficiencies and obstacles" that stopped each nation from achieving modern science even though they had realised great scientific breakthroughs. However, Bala strongly argues that many of the great discoveries and findings such as the Chinese inventions of compass, paper and mechanical clocks, could not have taken place if these arguments reflected the truth especially as many non-European cultures were scientifically more advanced then Europe over long periods of time.

Bala also suggests that some of the factors put forward by historians of science as negative elements that disabled the birth of modern science in non-European cultures like the Islamic religion in the Arab context, provide a very biased view as when examined closely, most of those factors actually guided and encouraged the scientific process and had a positive influence. He argues that many studies on the topic pick only on the negative sides and aspects of these cultures instead of taking an overall view and realising the importance of these factors on the growth of science initially. He shows this by pointing out at the different approaches taken towards Greek science as opposed to other cultures, as it is highly praised and recognised for its positive influence even though it did not contribute much to the birth of modern science and certainly did not achieve it. Bala states that even though the cultures are praised for individual scientific achievements in many studies, their overall impact and contribution is marginalised to maintain and strengthen the Eurocentric view. He criticises the studies on modern science for the delay in recognising the contributions of non-Western cultures and still lacking the initiative to accept a dialogical perspective on modern science due to the firm belief in "Western priority in this field".

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Figure 3: Frontispiece of the Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham's Book of Optics printed by Friedrich Risner in 1572 with the title Opticae thesaurus: Alhazeni Arabis libri septem, nuncprimum editi; Eiusdem liber De Crepusculis et nubium ascensionibus. (Source). Digital online version of the 'Opticae Thesaurus' (Strasbourg University).

Another problem of the Eurocentric approach that Bala identifies is that where as the adaptation and improvement without any damage to its fundamentals of the Greek heritage of knowledge by the Arabic civilisation is downplayed and criticised for lacking a result (i.e. the birth of modern science), the initial European failure to accept it and develop it is not considered. Bala states that the recognition of the progress of modern science as having multicultural roots would enable us to take a different approach towards the future of science in regards to its relationship with the traditional knowledge and practices.

Bala also deals extensively with the issue of transmission of ideas to Europe from other cultures, strictly underestimated by many historians of science who argue that European scientists were not significantly influenced by scientists and thinkers of other nations before or during their time. He presents a number of historical evidence to show the influence non-Western cultures and their ideas had on the European scientists and the great effect to which this resulted in the modern science. The study also provides the suspicion through the narrative of the development of the Renaissance in Europe, that the phenomenon of the ‘Dark Ages' were created in a political aim to undermine the Arab-Muslim contributions in science and Chinese contributions in technology in an aim to Euro-centralize the scientific revolutions.

The book establishes that the ‘Wider Copernican Revolution' which essentially led to the birth of modern science could not have been achieved without the great studies and findings made by a number of scientists from the Arab, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian cultures such as the Alhazen Optical Revolution, The Modern Atomic Revolution, the development of universal mathematical rules, and various studies on fusing solar and cosmologies which are discussed in depth. By referring to the writings of leading European scientists of the Scientific Revolution including Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton and drawing attention to the extent to which they were influenced by scientists of non-European cultures and their findings on a great variety of fields ranging from the numerical system developed by the Indians to the notion of the central status of the sun in the Egyptian tradition, Bala asserts that modern science was fundamentally achieved by the contributions of these cultures. However he clearly states:

"Nevertheless, the revolution itself was not a mere adding of notions from diverse cultures. The makers of the revolution – Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes. Newton, and many others – had to selectively appropriate relevant ideas, transform them, and create new auxiliary concepts in order to complete their task… In the ultimate analysis, even if the revolution was rooted upon a multicultural base it is the accomplishment of Europeans in Europe."

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Figure 4: Front cover of Ibn Al-haytham: First Scientist by Bradley Steffens (Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2006). Click here for sample chapters and resources.

Bala concludes his book by clearly stating that the main reason modern science could not develop elsewhere but in Europe was due to the fact that these cultures individually were not in a position to obtain and absorb the different branches of knowledge from a number of different cultures including the Egyptian, Indian, Chinese and Arab as Europe was. This essentially reflects that the success of Europe in achieving modern science laid in its ability to bring together this knowledge and develop it thereon within the framework of the Copernican model.

As a whole, this comprehensive and well-structured book provides an almost indisputable alternative view on the birth of modern science. Bala's extensive research and use of resources is impressive as the long list of notes and bibliography at the end is alone worthy of reading and consideration for anyone interested in the topic. Even though it is an academic text that gets into fine detail and becomes hard to comprehend at times, it nevertheless is a great resource for any reader who is willing to discover the real roots of modern science.

About the Author

Arun Bala is a physicist and philosopher. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto, Canada and Visiting Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, where he is coordinating a project on Asia-Europe dialogue and the making of modern science.

Table of contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Why Did Modern Science Not Develop in Civilization X?
  • The Eurocentric History of Science
  • Multicultural Histories of Science
  • Towards a Thematic Approach to Multicultural History
  • What Made the Renaissance in Europe?
  • The Narrow Copernican Revolution
  • The Alhazen Optical Revolution
  • The Modern Atomic Revolution
  • Integrating Hellenic and Indian Traditions
  • Universal Mathematical Laws in a Mechanical Universe
  • Fusing Solar and Stellar Cosmologies
  • The Wider Copernican Revolution
  • Contrasting Competitive Plausibility
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index

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* Reviewer, FSTC, Sydney, Australia.

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