[Marxism] Charlie Schwartz and Richard Levins exchange

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 16 20:23:58 MST 2006

(Fascinating exchange between Richard Levins and Charlie Schwartz on the 
Science for the People Mailing list connected to a thread on Islam and 
science. Schwartz is physics professor emeritus at Berkeley. Levins is at 
Harvard. Co-authored "Dialectical Biologist" with Richard Lewontin.)

Richard Levins trying to explain the rise of Europe:
"Yes, but also recall that incipient developments toward capitalism in 15th 
century China ( with the explorations of Cheng Ho) were suppressed by the 
court and crushed definitively by the Manchu conquest."

Charlie Schwartz resonds:
There is a story I heard many years ago about something that happened in 
Portugal in the 15th century.  It seems that a low ranking son of the king 
was interested in science and he established a research center which 
specialized in developing techniques for more effective ocean travel.  One 
of their successes was learning how to keep water drinkable for longer 
voyages: 500 miles was the new span of their ships and you can see on a map 
how they (the Portugese) then established colonies in Africa at 
Guinea-Bissua, Angola and Mozambique - colonies that lasted for 500 
years!  And when Columbus did his thing, the experts at that research 
enclave immediately understood what it meant and were able to get Portugal 
effective in the New World.

So much for the (impotent) role of the ruling class in science.

But there is a second chapter to this story.  It seems that England decided 
that this Portugese science laboratory was important. So they sent a 
military expedition down there to steal everything they thought valuable 
and destroy what was left.  And that, according to this story, led to the 
birth of the most esteemed Royal Society.

Where did I hear this amazing story?  It was from my an MIT classmate, Hans 
Mark, who went on to be Secretary of the Air Force and Chancellor of the 
University of Texas.  When he told this ripe old tale in my class many 
years ago, I congratulated him for his sophisticated Marxist view of 
history; to which he responded with all sorts of denials.

Does anyone else know this story?  Is it accurate? What does it mean in 
terms of this debate over the understanding of how science became 
most  powerful in Europe?


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