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Chapter Twelve


Chinese novel," I said. "That must be rather curious. "Not as curious as one might be tempted to think," replied Goethe. "These people think and feel much as we do, and one soon realizes that one is like them." --Goethe's conversations with Eckermann, January 31, 1827


Western scholars have spent a lot of time puzzling over the East. Why, they ask, was it Europe, not Asia, that launched the industrial revolution? How could China and India and the Near East—all homelands of great ancient empires—be so outclassed, technologically and economically, during the past half-millennium?

Sometimes the answers have focused on spiritual matters. Max Weber touted Europe's "Protestant work ethic" and said India and China had been stymied by "magical traditionalism." Sometimes the answers have focused on politics. According to the theory of "Oriental Despotism," Asian civilizations, from Mesopotamia to China, were often built around large irrigation systems, which invited centralized bureaucratic control, leading to top-heavy governance that continued to stifle initiative for millennia.

But, whatever the various explanations for the pace of Asian development, their upshot tends to be that Asian cultures are strange things. The eminent economic historian David Landes, pondering China's erratic, seemingly futile pattern of technological ups and downs ("almost as though the society were held down by a silk ceiling"), declared it simply "weird."

Of course, weirdness is a relative thing. From the standpoint of nineteenth-century Asia, the industrial revolution, as heralded by menacing European ships, may have seemed weird. And since there were more Asians than Europeans, maybe this is the perspective that should prevail: maybe what needs explaining is not the apparent stagnation of Asia, but rather the oddly explosive advance of Europe.

This, at least, is a frequently drawn conclusion. Etienne Balazs, after pondering China's sluggishness, suggested that the series of events which led to capitalism in Europe and thus "set in motion the industrialization of the entire world"—may have been "a freak of fortune, one of history's privileged occasions, in this case granted solely to that tiny promontory of Asia, Europe." In much the same spirit, E. L. Jones titled his influential study of economic history The European Miracle. As little Europe steamed along the highway of industrial progress, wrote Jones, the bulk of the Eurasian landmass was heading into "a demographic cul-de-sac"; had modernity not been imposed on China, India, and the Ottoman Empire, they would have faced "stagnation at the best, or Malthusian crisis at the worst." As miraculous as Europe's economic revolution was, "comparable development in Asia would have been supermiraculous."

Is that true? Does a look at Asian culture and history reveal indefinite inertia, suggesting that the industrial revolution was a fluke? Or does it show us, rather, that the supposedly inscrutable Orient is actually quite like the Occident—prone to harness new technologies and follow them to deeper and vaster social complexity?


Landes spent part of his magnum opus The Wealth and Poverty of Nations trying to figure out why the westernmost of Oriental cultures, the Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages, had not been destined for industrial greatness. His answer, in part: short time horizons. Whereas Europe's pragmatic medieval Christians coolly pursued "continuing, sustainable profit," the rampaging Muslims were propelled by "fighting zeal" and paused "only for an occasional digestion of conquest and booty."

It's true that many western Europeans pursued profit smartly. In the previous chapter, we saw how some basic elements of capitalism coalesced in Europe during the late Middle Ages—notably the justly celebrated contralto di commenda, used to pool capital for trade.

But the idea of the commenda may well have come from the Islamic world. Before the commenda appeared in Italy in the tenth century, the very same tool, under another name, was used by Muslims as they turned Baghdad and Basra into centers of world commerce, trading goods ranging from paper and ink to panther skins and ostriches. As early as the late eighth century, texts of the Hanafite school, one of four Islamic legal traditions, discuss the commenda—and the business partnership, another capital-pooling tool. (At about the same time, checks drafted in Baghdad could be cashed in Morocco, a convenience not offered by European banks until centuries later.) Over the years, Hanafite scholars would again and again defend the legal infrastructure of finance on grounds of "the need of trade" or "the attainment of profit." In this light, Landes's simple dichotomy—that European Christians were moved by sustainable "profit," whereas those zealous Muslims were just "doing God's work"—begins to blur.

Indeed, one of Muhammad's great accomplishments, and one key to Islam's potency, was making the larger world safe for commerce. In the early seventh century, before he started preaching in Mecca, the town's main commercial lubricant was its sacred shrine, the Kabah; violence was forbidden in its vicinity, so otherwise contentious Arab tribes could meet and trade. Muhammad and his successors, metaphorically speaking, expanded that sacred realm across much of the known world. For him—as for other great leaders before and since waging war turned out to be a way of waging peace.

Of course, during the early Islamic expansion, the war part predominated. In that sense Landes's cartoonish sketch of the Muslim mind has a kind of time-bound truth. But as the Middle Ages progressed, and the Islamic empire grew and crystallized, stretching from Spain across North Africa to Pakistan, its formative mind-set faded. With the trust barrier between distant lands now eroded by a common religion, and communication barriers penetrated by the spread of the Arabic language, this huge swath became a low-friction zone for commerce. Taxation replaced booty as the empire's financial base.

The Muslims, as people are wont to do, retained and refined information technologies that further reduced the friction, including some early algorithms of capitalism, ranging from the commenda to basic accounting. (Speaking of algorithms: the word "algorithm" comes from the name of the ninth-century Islamic astronomer and mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who also popularized the term al jabr, or algebra.)...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at