Joel Mokyr
The Lever of Riches

Iron suspension bridges, seed drills, and porcelain are examples of Oriental ideas that were taken up by Europeans and subsequently improved and perfected. Europeans had no sense of shame in borrowing foreign technologies, as illustrated by the many products and processes named after their alleged foreign origins. Thus we have Europeans producing chinaware, calicoes, satin, damasks, and Japan (a black varnish); using Arabic numerals; eating turkeys (or d'lndes)', and rigging lateen sails. An attempt to close a country to foreign influences, as took place, for example, in Japan and the Islamic world, would never have succeeded in Europe even if it had occurred to anyone.

As Landes put it (1969, p. 28), 'good innovators make good imitators.' But in the final analysis good innovators and good imitators are both produced by a society in which material and practical values are held in high esteem. If something works, it does not matter where it came from. When Europeans were exposed to new information, their sense of wonderment was, so to speak, soon replaced by the thought of how to exploit the new knowledge. When they 'discovered' the world after 1450, their chief purpose was to acquire wealth, either directly or by way of new information used to produce goods creating wealth. Gold, silver, spices, sugar, tea, and furs were directly imported into Europe; potatoes, tobacco, and maize were successfully transplanted. The test was always: is it useful? can it enrich me (or my king)? Typical of the Europeans' approach was the great Leibniz, who implored a Jesuit traveling to China 'not to worry so much about getting things European to the Chinese, but rather about getting remarkable Chinese inventions to us; otherwise little profit will be derived from the China mission' (cited in Bray, 1984, p. 569). Newton wrote that neither pride nor honor should stand in the way of the principle that the important thing was 'to learne, not teach' (Landes, 1969, p. 33). This approach to newly found lands differs radically from that of the Chinese, who toured parts of the world a few decades before Europe's explorations began in earnest. For the Chinese, the purpose of long voyages was to demonstrate the wealth and glory of China to the barbarians by means of lavish gifts, a laudable but ultimately prohibitively expensive policy. No wonder the Chinese terminated their explorations, while the Europeans carried on.

Equally important, the Europeans were willing to learn from each other. Inventions such as the spinning wheel, the windmill, and the weight-driven clock recognized no boundaries. The printing press was no more a German invention than the telescope was a Dutch one or the knitting frame an English one. European shipbuilders often travelled on board ships to see the types of ships in use elsewhere (Unger, 1980, p. 23). From the fourteenth century on, sons of northern European merchants traveled to Italy to study the arte delta mercadanta, including commercial arithmetic and bookkeeping (Swetz, 1987, p. 12). In spite of the seemingly high barriers to long-distance communication, technological 'news' traveled well and fast in Europe, except, as we have seen, in the case of agriculture. Technologically creative societies started off as borrowers and typically soon turned into the generators and then the exporters of technology. In the seventeenth century, England was regarded as a backward society that depended on foreigners for its engineering and textile industries; by the nineteenth century, the directions were reversed. Modern-day East Asia finds itself in the same position.

Societies also differed in their willingness to challenge the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations and in their tolerance toward 'heretics' who did. Some societies, especially Islam and Judaism, eventually developed a notion that earlier sages had already discovered everything there was to discover, and that challenging their knowledge was sacrilegious. Lewis (1982, pp. 229-30) argues that Islamic tradition eventually came to believe that all useful knowledge had been acquired and all questions had been answered so that all one had to do was repeat and obey. From the later Middle Ages on 'Muslim science consisted almost entirely of compilation and repetition.' The inferiority complex vis-a-vis earlier generations imposed a constraint on the generation of new knowledge. Lewis points out that in the Islamic tradition the term bidaa (innovation), acquired the same negative connotation as 'heresy' did in the West. A particularly bad form of bidaa was imitating the infidel; the only exception allowed was military technology used in a holy war. Whether this conservatism can be blamed for the slowing down of technological progress is not entirely clear. It is possible that both scientific and technological progress ran into a barrier of conservatism that had causes outside religion, and this barrier was reinforced by reactionary religious elements. After all, in its early centuries the Islamic world had been curious and almost obsessive in its thirst for the learning of other civilizations, including technological knowledge. Moreover, new ideas could have emerged under the guise of exegesis.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.