No matter the time or the place, religion has acted as both a negative and positive influence in shaping peoples’ actions. The age of exploration underscores this point, for Europeans used religion as an ethnocentric kind of justification for their domination over and exploitation of non-Western societies. In Machines as a Measure of Man, Michael Adas adds a unique perspective on the issue by contending that, in addition to religion, Europeans’ technological advancements perpetuated Europeans’ feeling of superiority to those they encountered. While Adas constructs a convincing argument and, even, understands the importance of religion, he could have strengthened his argument by delineating a more explicit connection between technology and religion.
In his book, Adas makes the compelling argument that Europeans’ perception of non-Western societies’ technology served as the crux of their ethnocentrism and feeling of superiority. Adas starts the introduction of his book with an account from William Smith, a European explorer who runs across a group of “ignorant Savages” along the Gambia River in Africa. In his clearly biased account, Smith describes the inability of the Africans to use his surveying instruments. According to Adas, Smith found “the awe and fear evoked by his innocuous surveying equipment [was] the main source of the power he [was] able to exert over the African townspeople” (Adas 3). While this may seem a minor incident, Adas argues that this encounter epitomized how Westerners had begun to ethnocentrically gauge the ability and value of non-Western societies through their technologies, most particularly during the height of European development of technologies from 1450 to 1700 (Adas 2). Adas names sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China as the main places in which Europeans projected this sort of ethnocentrism, noting that all were “major targets of early European exploration and remained primary centers of European overseas trade, proselytization, and consequent or informal domination” (Adas 9). As Europeans gained more and more control over their environment through technological development, they began feeling more and more confident that their superiority over other societies was self-evident. Technological innovation, then, had undeniable political, social, religious, and economic implications, for it perpetuated ethnocentric and racist sentiments that justified colonization and Western dominance.
Adas asserts that Europeans’ perceptions were problematic for a variety of reasons. For one, Asian and African societies frequently hesitated in sharing their technologies with outsiders, which meant that they might have had “advanced” technology but were simply unwilling to reveal it (Adas 22). Moreover, Adas argues that many of the people who wrote these accounts had little to no knowledge about their own societies’ technological or scientific breakthroughs, thus making it difficult for their accounts to be informed assessments (Adas 22). Since these Europeans were, however, clearly proud of their Christianity, Adas writes that the accounts often turned into ruminations on the inherent superiority of the Westernized, enlightened Europeans over the primitive, pagan “savages” (Adas 22). For Adas, Europeans problematically used these accounts and records not only to “demonstrate the innate superiority of the white ‘race’ over the black, red, brown, and yellow” but also to justify their consistent exploitation of others’ land, people, and cultures (Adas 8). Europeans were most ostensibly critical of the Africans, who were “perceived to be the most different from Europe and the most unsettling” (Adas 33). These accounts frequently juxtaposed technological evaluations with descriptions of the Africans as “half-man, half-beast” and assertions that these odd societies ran rampant with “political chaos, legal corruption, and social formlessness” (Adas 34). Adas claims the bifurcation that Europeans had begun to set toward Africans cruelly perpetuated and justified systematic forms of oppression such as the African slave trade and colonization (Adas 3).
While I find Adas’s general argument quite compelling, I thought that he should have spent more time considering the potentially close relationship between religion and this ethnocentric European feeling of technological and cultural superiority. I do not doubt that Adas understands the importance of religion in the age of exploration, but he often talks of the Christian fervor of the time as if it were unrelated to Europeans’ ethnocentric arrogance toward their technology. For example, after Adas discusses the anecdote about Smith he writes, “Taken in isolation, the incident overstates the importance of technology in an age when religion was still the chief source of western Europeans’ sense of superiority” (Adas 3). But, I ask, why he cannot see the two—technology and religion—as being inextricably linked? Can they not coexist as forces that worked together to perpetuate Europeans’ ethnocentrism?
While Christianity does not explicitly endorse technological innovation, many keenly point out that the heart of this religion calls for humans to seize control over their environment and reap its benefits. In his famous essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White, Jr. writes, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. … Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions …, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (White 3). Though many find this claim largely unfounded, others keenly point to Genesis’ Chapter 1 verse 26 as direct evidence for White’s claim: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ ”
Regardless of my agreement or disagreement with White, I think that his argument is at least one worth considering, especially with Adas’s thesis in mind. In searching for a definition of “technology,” many view it as a system of inventions that aims to achieve some purpose by manipulation of the environment. (It is worth remembering that the agricultural and industrial revolutions, two of the most notable technological shifts in history, directly exploited the land and the environment.) Since Genesis anthropocentrically calls for humans to “have dominion” over nature, Christian Europeans may have felt compelled to develop technology not only for pragmatic reasons but also for religious reasons; it was, as White claims, living up to God’s design. At very least, the dualism of man over nature endorsed by Christianity could have served as justification for exploiting the environment for technological benefit and exploiting the land of others for colonial benefits. Since I am not a historian, I do not know how true this supposition could be. Nevertheless, it is something that I wish Adas would have explored more.
Adas at other times implies that Europeans were motivated by religion but never succinctly or explicitly states this. The most striking instance of this is when he discusses the progression of humans’ interaction with nature:
European travelers, even educated ones, shared with peoples overseas a sense of the helplessness of humans in the face of nature’s awesome power. This attitude contrasts sharply with the Europeans’ belief, embraced centuries later when the process of industrialization was under way, that the degree to which a society has mastered its environment reflects the extent to which it has ascended from savagery to civilization. (Adas 24)
Adas obviously contends here that technological advancement fostered confidence for Europeans. What he oddly leaves up to inference, however, is how closely religion must have played a part in this attitudinal shift. In other words, it only makes sense that Europeans would feel helpless before industrialization because, under God’s design, humans were supposed to be above nature and in control of the land. Once humans were finally able to seize this kind of control through industrialization, they ostensibly would have become more confident because it fulfilled God’s design of man over nature, as outlined in Genesis.
In addition to failing to make this connection, Adas also fails to highlight the religious undertones implicit in his phrase “from savagery to civilization.” Ostensibly, this phrase parallels other social dichotomies of the time, such as wilderness versus settled town, darkness versus lightness, and ignorance versus enlightenment. All of these dichotomies not only construct a contrast of what one should fear over what should aim for but also, in turn, place all of these contrasts in religious terms. After all, God would not want to see humans living in a savage wilderness as ignorant being. Instead, He would want a group of enlightened individuals who have cleared the pagan wilderness to make way for a Christian civilization. Consequently, it may not be enough for Adas to say that Europeans felt less helpless and more confident simply because of technological advancement. Instead, the very reason that they felt helpless was out of fear that they had not taken dominion over the land, as God had said they should; an inability to gain control over the environment would mean that Europeans were no better than the unenlightened savages in Asia and Africa. Since Christians revered enlightenment and “civilization” so highly and feared savagery and “wilderness” so greatly, it is easy to see why they would want to distance themselves from non-Christian, non-Western societies that seemed to fail at following suit. Adas has a clear understanding of how important Christianity and technology were in the age of exploration and colonization, but when it comes to drawing a more concrete connection between the two he, for whatever reason, resists.
Overall, Adas’s argument offers convincing, unique perspective on the age of exploration and colonization. Nevertheless, I believe that he could have delved further into how technology and Christianity were linked. After all, Christianity calls for man to live above nature, and technology, in a similar vein, actually enables people to seize control over nature. While the similarities may seem oversimplified, they are nevertheless worth exploring.
Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Man: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.
The Book of Genesis. Chapter 1. The Bible.
White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” http://www.uvm.edu/~gflomenh/ENV-NGO-PA395/articles/Lynn-White.pdf. Accessed 5 March 2010.
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