For better or for
worse, we’re in a period of history when technology, innovation and
industry are roaring ahead as if there’s no tomorrow. It’s easy for
me to forget how different the world in which I now live is, compared
to the one in which I was born. 1942: Stalingrad, El Alamein, Midway;
computers and the digital age were in the future; the turbojet plane
was three years old; the first mobile phone four years away; the
Manhattan atomic bomb project was just getting underway; and for
every living person then, three are alive now. In the 78 years
since—barely a lifetime—the rate of invention has been one
headlong rush. It hasn’t always been so. History tells us of times
when scientific inquiry and technological ingenuity pretty much came
to a halt. Here are three of those times.

Bronze Age Collapse

The most celebrated of
these occasions is probably the “Bronze Age Collapse,” around
1200 BC (or exactly 1177 BC, “the year civilization collapsed,”
according to historian Eric Cline, when the so-called “sea-peoples”
invaded Egypt). Prior to this time, the world of the Bronze Age had
been thriving and growing in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle
East. And then, in the space of a couple of decades, Old World
civilizations went belly-up. Virtually all the great Bronze Age
cities of the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Trojans, Hittites and Babylonians
were destroyed, most by fire—archeologists point to blackened
layers of debris. Trade essentially stopped. Writing mostly
disappeared (to be revived much later, around 750 BC, allowing the
lliad and Odyssey epics to be recorded for posterity after four
centuries of oral transmission).



What caused this
comparatively sudden, widespread collapse? Probably a perfect storm
of events—drought, climate change, overpopulation,
disease—historians have been arguing about it for decades. For what
it’s worth, my vote for the proximate cause: the tin trade routes
were cut by brigands. Without tin, no bronze (tin + copper), no new
weapons, leading to a crisis economy. (Copper was abundant in Cyprus,
hence the name, while the source of tin is still debated.)

Dark Ages

Much later, the western
world went through another hiccup, the Dark Ages, aka Early Middle
Ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire. Learning only survived
by “the skin of our teeth,” in the words of the late historian
Kenneth Clark, whose 1969 BBC Civilization series presaged Ken Burns
and all other TV historical documentaries; it’s still well worth
watching. By Clark’s reckoning, remote Irish monasteries in the sixth
and seventh centuries kept the flame of civilization burning. (His is
now a minority view. Most historians give more credit to Arabic
scholars centered on Baghdad during the Golden Age of Islam. Their
efforts ensured survival of the works of Greek and Roman philosophers
and inventors, via the 700-year-long Umayyad occupation of the
Iberian Peninsula. Very little to do with Christian monks in
Ireland.)



13th century depiction of Abbasid caliphate scholars, Yahya ibn Vaseti, (“Zeresh.” Public domain. Via Wikipedia)

12th Century Reversal

Then there was a
curiously synchronous 40-year period when, far apart, several
disconnected cultures turned their backs on scientific curiosity and
inquiry. Consider three unrelated events that took place between 1100
and 1150 AD: (1) In medieval Kaifeng, China, the most sophisticated
mechanical device up until that time, Su Song’s astronomical clock,
was destroyed; (2) In France, freethinker Peter Abelard of the
University of Paris was attacked by St Bernard of Clairvaux, the guy
who preached the disastrous Second Crusade; (3) In Baghdad,
philosopher-mystic Al-Ghazali’s attack on learning was (arguably)
responsible for the beginning of the end of Islam’s “Golden Age”
of scientific inquiry.



Su Song’s astronomical clock, drawn in 1877 per contemporaneous descriptions, via John Christiansen. (Public domain. Via Wikipedia.)

Despite all these
setbacks, the human capacity for novelty and invention survived and
flourished, bringing one revolution after another: printing,
industrial, mechanical, electrical, digital and—just around the
corner—AI and cybernetics.

I wonder if the
anti-scientism of our time will prompt the next collapse?



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