Why was Science So Successful in Europe?

Based on Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

In the time between the Scientific Revolution and World War II, almost every major advance in modern science was made by scientists who were culturally European. These scientists guided us along the path from a divinely created universe with the Earth sitting placidly at its center, to a universe whose chemistry and physics were determined in the unimaginable fury of the Big Bang. They cracked the atom and the genetic code, traced human origins back to the brink of life, and made time itself malleable. They recast chemistry on atomic principles and filled in the blanks in the periodic table. They discovered the bacterial and viral causes of disease and developed ways to fight them.

As amazing as scientific progress was during this time, it is also understandable. Each discovery opened the way for further discoveries, so that scientific progress behaved like a chain reaction, or like some magisterial trick with dominos. Thinking about scientific progress in this way is helpful but leaves some interesting puzzles unresolved. Why was modern science so closely associated with Europe for so long? China and the Islamic world had been at different times the most scientifically advanced parts of the world. Why did neither of them experience a cascade of knowledge like the one that Europe experienced? Why did science eventually stagnate in both places?

The answers to these questions have to do with social structures, not with science itself. Joseph Ben-David has argued that

the persistence of a social activity over long periods of time, regardless of changes in the actors, depends on the emergence of roles to carry on the activity and on the understanding and positive evaluation (“legitimization”) of these roles by some social group.1

Ben-David called this process “institutionalization.” As an example, consider the men who dress up in strange costumes and take part in faked fights. This activity has persisted for longer than I would have thought possible because society has a role for these people (WWF superstar), and because a social group (the fans) provides a positive evaluation of their behaviour (goes bonkers). The strange dressing / fake fighting combo has been “institutionalized” and will persist for as long as fans buy the tickets and raise the rafters.

The success of science in any society likewise depends upon its institutionalization. Science is institutionalized if it is integrated into society in a way that allows scientists to practice and refine their craft, train the next generation of scientists, and be recognized for their work. Recognition includes enough income and prestige to make a life of science appealing to a critical mass of scientists. Toby Huff argues that science was successfully institutionalized in Europe in the early Middle Ages, but not successfully institutionalized in China and the Islamic world during their respective periods of scientific dominance. As a result, science thrived in Europe but eventually stagnated in China and the Islamic world. Its institutionalization in Europe is the subject of this post.

Philosophical Foundations

European science could be institutionalized in the early Middle Ages only if natural philosophers were granted enough intellectual elbow room to carry out their work. It was not obvious that they would get it. Natural philosophers were primarily interested in the nature of the world and the cosmos, but these things were God’s creation and theologians had their own stories about them. Conflict between the theologians and the natural philosophers was certainly possible. Could matters of natural philosophy be separated from matters of theology? Could predictive statements about the world be made without crossing some theological line in the sand? These issues were worked out during the twelfth century.

Plato’s Timaeus, which had been translated into Latin in the third century and endorsed by Augustine, resolved the first question. Plato argued that each thing had a cause and that the cause was either the creator or nature. The creator was the cause of things that appeared without precedent or without pre-existing material. Nature, on the other hand, caused things that were already inherent in the universe. Nature could cause trees to produce seeds, and seeds to grow into trees, but it could not produce anything that was original. This distinction allowed all phenomena to be separated into a supernatural sphere and a natural sphere. The supernatural sphere was the preserve of the theologian, but the natural sphere was open to investigation.

The natural sphere was open in three senses. First, it could be studied without trespassing on the territory of the theologian. Second, it was harmonious, orderly, and understandable through reason. The idea that the universe is a machine (and therefore capable of being “reverse engineered”) appeared at this time. Third, humans were endowed by God with reason, and therefore have the ability — perhaps even the obligation — to understand the order of the universe.

The second question was the validity of causal statements such as this one: “If the temperature falls enough, water turns to ice.” If this statement precludes God’s ability to prevent water from turning to ice even though the temperature has fallen, God is not omnipotent, and no medieval scholar was willing to entertain that idea. If it does not preclude this ability, two logical positions remain. One position is that God not only can prevent the water from turning to ice, but might do so at any moment. This position, if adopted by the theologians, would have seriously impeded natural philosophy. Causal statements that describe natural events wouldn’t necessarily describe the observable world, because the observable world could be riddled with supernatural events. But the theologians did not take this position, settling instead on the alternative position: God can prevent the water from turning to ice, but chooses not to do so. The theologians argued that God, in creating the world, had implemented a plan or a design, and that He would not now deviate from it. He had created the machine of the universe and set it in motion, and would not tinker with it. (These theologians appear not to have known any actual mechanics.) This position implies that the observable world consists only of natural events, and these events are describable by causal statements.

Objects of unequal weight fall at the same speed. An object in motion continues in motion unless acted upon by some external force. The orbit of a planet is an ellipse with the sun at one focus. These laws of nature and many others were proclaimed during the Scientific Revolution, but the concept of a law of nature was established hundreds of years earlier, by the theologians and natural philosophers of the early Middle Ages.2

Legal Foundations

These philosophical debates sanctioned the natural philosopher’s inquiries, but they did not establish his position in society. The institutionalization of science followed from the overhaul of Europe’s legal systems during the twelfth century. The new legal systems facilitated the development of the university, an institution of higher learning quite unlike any that had come before it, and gave natural philosophers unprecedented control over their craft.

Before the twelfth century there had been no comprehensive legal systems in Europe. The law consisted of a variety of overlapping and often conflicting law sources, and these laws were often trumped by the dictats of princes and kings. The idea of the law as an organized body of knowledge, held together by fundamental principles, was absent. There were no professional jurists, judges, or lawyers.

The first comprehensive legal system, canon law, appeared as a consequence of the investiture crisis (1050 – 1122), in which the Church sought to free itself from the influence of secular authorities. By the end of the crisis the Church had acquired legislative, administrative and judicial powers. The Church was the first modern state, a model for the nation states that would soon appear in Europe.

The creators of canon law (the canonists) had begun with a number of disparate and often contradictory law systems. Their aim was to deduce the common principles that underlay these systems, and to create a consistent and comprehensive system of laws built around those principles. The canonists formulated the idea of natural law to aid in this task. Natural law was based on reason and conscience, and was judged to be less compelling than divine law but more compelling than human law. Natural law was invoked by the canonists to decide what should be kept, rejected, or reformed.

The concept of natural law is the first acknowledgement that humans can use reason and conscience to decide what is just and what is unjust. It appeared at roughly the same time as other scholars were arguing that human reason is sufficient to understand the order of the universe. Europeans were gaining confidence in their intellectual power and extending its reach.

Europe’s new legal systems introduced the concept of a corporation or universitas, an entity that had the same standing before the law as a single person:

Legally a corporation (universitas) was conceived of as a group that possessed a juridical personality distinct from that of its particular members. A debt owed by a corporation was not owed by the members as individuals; an expression of the will of the corporation did not require the assent of each separate member but only of the majority. A corporation did not die; it remained the same legal entity even though the persons of the members changed.3

The corporation had a legal right “to own property, to have representation in court, to sue and be sued, to make contracts, to be consulted when one’s interests were affected by the actions of others, especially kings and princes.”4

Examples of corporations included guilds, businesses, cities and villages, monasteries and convents, states, and schools. The term universitas, meaning “totality” or “whole,” initially referred to a guild that represented all of the practitioners of a craft, but over time it came to be applied exclusively to guilds of scholars of a particular type (say, medicine). The term studium generale was used to refer to all of the scholars collectively, and more closely corresponds to our use of the word “university.”

Several aspects of corporations would have major consequences for Europe. First, the corporation had to be represented, before the courts and in all of its dealings, by one individual. That individual was elected by all of the members of the corporation. This practice marks the beginning of political representation. The English would take the next step, political representation within a Parliament, in the thirteenth century. Second, the powers of the representative were clearly delineated by explicit powers of attorney, foreshadowing the idea of constitutional government. Third, each corporation had a jurisdiction within which it was empowered to act. It could write rules and regulations to control its members, and to determine the way in which it would carry out its operations.

The legal concept of the corporation turned Europe into a network of overlapping and competing (and sometimes head-butting) jurisdictions. The importance of this innovation is best understood by comparing Europe to China and the Islamic world. There was precisely one jurisdiction in China: that of the emperor. Nothing was outside his purview. There was also precisely one jurisdiction in the Islamic world: that of the faith. There was no separation of the temporal and spiritual spheres, and “the law of the realm consisted precisely of those commands the believer must follow if he was to pass the reckoning on the day of judgment.”5 Neither society was able to institutionalize science.


The concept of a corporation made the institutionalization of science possible; the university was the vehicle through which institutionalization actually occurred. Universities provided natural philosophers with a livelihood, and allowed them to practice their craft, set the standards for that craft, and train the next generation of scholars. Universities also exposed all educated persons to natural philosophy, ensuring its social acceptance.

Higher education in the early Middle Ages had been carried out by “cathedral schools” that were primarily intended to train clergymen. These schools emphasized subjects that would be of value to a member of the clergy (such as Latin and rhetoric) but paid little attention to ideas of a scientific or mathematical nature. They would also have taught the doctrine of occasionalism (imported from the Islamic world) under which God is the immediate cause of every event.

Europeans of this time were aware of Greek and Islamic scholarship, but their knowledge of it was fragmentary. That situation would change as they pushed back the boundaries of the Islamic world in the eleventh century. Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085 as part of the Spanish reconquest, and the island of Sicily was retaken by Christians in 1091. Both places had extensive libraries containing Arabic translations of Greek works, commentaries on these works by Muslim scholars, and original Muslim research. The Greek works were mostly Athenian, with a heavy emphasis on Aristotle. As the books were translated from Arabic into Latin (a task to which some scholars devoted the remainder of their lives), hundreds of years of natural philosophy became available to European scholars. They spent decades studying and organizing these books and writing commentaries on them. European scholars also engaged in the philosophical debates, discussed above, that would ultimately allow natural philosophy and Christianity to co-exist.

When universities began to appear in the middle of the twelfth century, their curriculum was built around the works of Aristotle and the “new” way of thinking that was to be found in them. Some universities grew out of cathedral schools, but many were entirely independent ventures. By 1200 there were universities in Bologna, Paris and Oxford. More than seventy universities were founded over the next 300 years.

University of Paris, 14th century illustration
University of Paris, 14th century illustration

In 1500 the largest universities were taking in 500 new students each year. There were usually four faculties. Students first entered the arts faculty, where they studied Aristotle and natural philosophy. Students who successfully completed the arts curriculum could enter the faculty of theology, law or medicine. This schema ensured that everyone who went to university — including every aspiring theologian — became familiar with natural philosophy.

The university’s jurisdiction was higher education. The university designed the curriculum, and the university gave degrees signifying the holder’s competence in his area of specialization. Society’s recognition of that jurisdiction gave natural philosophers a place in society. While there were certainly natural philosophers who were not associated with universities, it was the university that integrated natural philosophy into Europe’s social fabric.

Border Skirmishes

If there are many jurisdictions, there will be disputes about where one jurisdiction ends and another begins. Natural philosophy and its successor, science, have often encountered this problem.

In 1215, for example, the Pope banned the reading and teaching of Aristotle at the University of Paris. The ban must have been imposed at the request of the Bishop of Paris, because it did not apply to other universities. It was rescinded by 1255 at the latest, and it is unlikely that it was ever entirely effective.

In 1277 the Bishop of Paris issued a condemnation of 219 propositions thought to be included in, or implied by, the teaching of the University of Paris. One of these propositions was Aristotle’s assertion that the world is eternal, which clearly contradicts the Church’s assertion that God brought the world into being and will bring it to an end. Another condemned proposition was Aristotle’s claim that a vacuum could not occur naturally, which implies a limit on the power of God. Although the Bishop’s condemnation was never repealed, it appears to have had little impact on the university. The arts faculty believed that natural philosophy was the right way to understand the world, and continued to advocate it. They had jurisdiction over the university’s curriculum, the Church did not, and in the end the arts faculty won out.

Such skirmishes have continued over the centuries. Among the most famous instances are the trial of Galileo and the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Skirmishes continue to this day, particularly with respect to the teaching of evolution in schools. Science has not been derailed by them.

Science and Society

There is a tendency to think that science’s dominant role in society was inevitable, that its insights were so valuable that no society could ignore them. Yet, there are enclaves within Western society, such as the Amish and the Mennonites, that actively shun much of modern science and technology. These groups decided many years ago that the benefits of science were outweighed by the attendant social disruption. The growing gap between the lives they lead and the lives led by outsiders has not caused them to question their decision.6 Science continues to be a source of dissonance in the Islamic world, where medicine and engineering are respected professions, paleontology and particle physics less so. The establishment of science within a society is not inevitable: it is something that must be negotiated. That negotiation was successful in the West, and the West owes a large part of its prosperity to that success.

  1. Joseph Ben-David, The Scientist’s Role in Society (Prentice-Hall, 1971), quoted in Huff, p. 17.
  2. Describing the world with causal statements seems obvious from the perspective of the twenty-first century, but it was neither obvious nor inevitable in the twelfth. Islamic theology of that time did not liken the world a machine; instead, it argued that the world is held together from moment to moment by the will of God. The concept of causality becomes much more difficult when God intermediates every event, and Al-Ghazali, one of the greatest Islamic philosophers, argued vociferously against its acceptance. For him, a stone released from the hand would, God willing, fall to the ground.
  3. Pierre Michaud-Quantin, Universitas: Expressions du mouvement communautaire dans le moyen-age Latin (J. Vrin, 1970), quoted in Huff, p. 133.
  4. Huff, p. 134.
  5. Huff, p. 120.
  6. It has been estimated that more than 80% of Amish youths choose to become full members of their church and emulate their parents’ lifestyle.