John Derbyshire has long been an interesting writer to me. In some ways similar to Theodore Dalrymple, they are both Englishmen of similar age, with acerbic styles. Derbyshire has a more solidly middlebrow view of life, having come from the lower orders of the English middle class, which formerly had grander aspirations. Both of them espouse a peculiarly English agnosticism, although Dalrymple's is far more sophisticated. This too I think is a product of the England of their youth, one where the established Anglican church was rapidly losing credibility and active congregations, but no one yet seriously doubted traditional morality. Genteel humanism, I think it has been called. Both have traveled widely in the world, living in strange and dangerous places.
Derbyshire wrote an article for the New Atlantis titled: In Search of Chinese Science. Derbyshire is one of my China experts, I look to him to better understand life in China, and the Chinese point of view. He lived in China for a time, and married a Chinese woman. The question here is why did China never develop modern science? In many ways, China had the tools, and the people, to do so. Joseph Needham, the biochemist whose biography gives Derbyshire the excuse to ask this question, came up with the same answer advanced by Stanley Jaki, non-Christian religions inhibit the development of science.
A cheeky thing to say, but there does seem to be some evidence for it. Derbyshire also looks at political explanations. Stable empires are said to stifle creativity. The burst of creativity that accompanied the rise of modern science occurred during a period of European history when there were several competing power centers. There is also something to be said for this. However, it fails to take into account that China has had periods of contending states like that of Western Europe after the High Middle Ages. Several times in fact. Also, from what I know of metahistory, the stable empire is less a cause of mental stagnation than one of its effects. Empire, in the sense of a universal state, comes about when the potentials latent in a civilization have been realized [or exhausted]. Empire is thus a kind of relaxation into a ground state.
Derbyshire quotes a controversy in the journal Evolutionary Psychology between Geoffery Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa that touches on this subject. There is a lot of technical stuff here, but Miller says that Asians should dominate the future scientifically and technologically because they have higher average IQs and sufficient Openness to Experience [a technical term from the currently ascendant model of personality though to be related to creativity], whereas Kanazawa says that cultural and institutional factors make this unlikely. A further complication is that personality tests are less reliable than IQ tests, in part because if you are smart, you get a high IQ score, which is the desired result. On a personality test, a smart person can make any result they want. Also required are sufficient conscientiousness and willingness to participate, which are things the test is supposed to measure....
Thus, the matter might be said to be unsettled as of yet. As Derbyshire notes, conditions on the ground in China are not precisely conducive to creativity, although they are just fine for making money. To say that the Chinese and Japanese are better engineers than scientists is not really all that bad of a thing. After all, that is how the Romans saw themselves in relation to the Greeks. Making bridges that stay up and administrating a far flung empire is no small feat either.