Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and
Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
430 pp, $29.95.
Michael Adas began his research in comparative history and cross-cultural
orientation as a graduate student under the tutelage of Philip Curtin's
Comparative Tropical History Program at the University of Wisconsin. During
his career as a world historian, Adas has authored numerous books and textbooks
related to World, African, and Asian history, with a special focus on imperialism
and the important role of the civilizing mission. He is currently a faculty
member at Rutgers University as the Abraham E. Voorhees Professor of History.
In Machines as the Measure of Men,
Adas narrows his focus on certain aspects of world history in order to create
an impressive treatise on the fluidity of European perceptions of the 'other'
over time. Published in 1989, this book is one of the most important recent
works on the development of Western hegemony and is sure to be a classic
piece for years to come. The author's extensive research on the role of
scientific thought and technological innovation examines how these elements
created an ideology of Western superiority with regard to non-Western peoples.
In fact, Adas argues that this ideology of Western superiority is an integral
part of the imperial justification for both the paternalistic civilizing
mission and the rapid spread of European hegemony. (4)
Adas spent over ten years compiling five centuries
of writings in multiple languages in order to create this book. Despite
the absence of a bibliography that would certainly facilitate a scholarly
consultation of his source material, the wealth of information contained
in the footnotes is very useful. While focusing on a variety of middle and
upper class intellectuals such as Julien Virey, John Barrow, and Karl Marx,
the author also includes such philosophical greats as Rene Guenon, Voltaire,
and John Stuart Mill. The predominance of French and British authors is
no coincidence, as these countries held the most extensive and long lasting
empires during most of Adas' temporal focus. However, other European texts
are generously interspersed as needed.
The author begins his work with the late fifteenth
century and concludes with the twentieth century, limiting his focus to
China, India, and Africa. Other world peoples subjected to specific types
of 'othering' by the West are noted by Adas in the introduction, but his
limitation to the three areas noted ensure a manageable and cohesive scope
to the project. The book contains three sections: 'Before the Industrial
Revolution', 'The Age of Industrialization', and 'The Twentieth Century.'
In the final chapter, the author reflects on the future of Western dominance
ideology, which has continued to shape relations between Western and non-Western
countries since the end of World War II.
Adas begins by showing the first steps Western
explorers and missionaries took toward creating an ideology of non-Western
inferiority. For example, Westerners traveling to Africa noted the indigenous
adherence to 'heathen' religions most of all and when a certain handicraft
was noted as exceptional in quality, the subsequent lamentation was that
the process was somehow limited in productive capacity and in general 'primitive'
from a European perspective. (38)
Other cultures Europeans encountered, such
as those in India or China, were initially met with awe at their size, wealth,
and complexity. The vastness and seeming perpetual tranquility of the massive
Asian continent must have also dazzled Europeans traveling from their much
smaller countries that had been engaged in a string of brutal and bloody
wars for the last few centuries. Many of the technological innovations in
China, such as shipbuilding, and India's production of fine cotton textiles,
could not be matched by any European state at the time. As a result, instead
of using overall technology as a benchmark, establishing concepts of non-Western
inferiority in those regions often related to religion, scientific learning,
or technology that was important within a European context. As an example,
weapons technology previously developed for warfare prevalent in Europe
was cited as a basis for non-Western inferiority if absent in that society.
| As time progressed,
a small number of Europeans mastered Chinese or Indian languages in order
to decipher texts. Through this process, a certain amount of 'Orientalism'
was apparent. For example, European scholars determined through reading
religious Hindi texts that Indian medicine was not in parity
with European practices, as though a religious text was an authority on
medicine or vice versa. The European scholars' reliance on inappropriate
texts, often because of limits in translator abilities or simple accessibility
issues, to act as a litmus test of European technological and scientific
superiority is a frequent occurrence in Adas' book.
| During voyages
to establish trade connections or to search for valuable commodities, Europeans
did not have the resources required to study the minutia of a particular
culture. Primarily the focus was, instead, on ceremonies, marriage customs,
warfare, and physical appearance; those elements of a culture that stand
out to all but the most inept observer. Once the Scientific and Industrial
Revolutions were in full swing, however, this changed to a preoccupation
with the level of technological 'advancement' in a society. As noted in
the author's explanation of the book title, the Western concept of scientific
thought that came out of these 'revolutions' was based on precise observation
and measurement, allowing Europeans to practice the measurement of men.
| The diffusion
of Western technology is an especially pertinent question Adas explores
throughout the book. Because of Western dominance ideology and its effect
on policies, some colonial areas received European tools and technology
early while other areas lagged behind because of supposed incapability to
accept such 'advanced' concepts and items. In addition to the actual lag
in technology diffusion were lagging perceptions within different groups
of Western society, as one group placed a high value on something from the
non-Western world while another ridiculed the same non-Western country for
its supposed inferiority. One example is the popularity of chinoiseries
in Europe at the same time as many Jesuit missionaries dismissed China as
a perpetual 'backwater', ruled by a "despotic authorityî full of superstitious
| Changing Western
perceptions of non-Western people meant that 'othering' occurred in a variety
of ways that reflected the cultural situation of the Europeans. When technology
or scientific thought were either equitable or more 'advanced' in the non-Western
region, the inferiority was based on abstract elements of the culture such
as religion or 'barbaric' customs. When European science and technology
provided a definite advantage in one respect over the non-Western people,
such as the previously used example of weaponry, that 'progress' was seen
as a testament to Western superiority and extended to encompass more than
the actual benefit of that particular innovation.
| After the devastating
psychological and societal effects of World War I on the European population,
many ideas of superiority based on technology came into question. The United
States, however, did not suffer effects of the Great War to the same extreme
and beginning in the inter-war period, it assumed the position of dominance
through modernization theory. This theory holds that Western ideas of scientific
rational thought, mass production, and a focus on efficiency and strong
organizational management of resources through the application of innovative
technology is the answer to political and social stability for non-Western
countries. This most recent manifestation of superiority and dominance still
rests on the idea that Western knowledge is the closest approximation of
reality – the West knows best. Modernization theory, however, has
not always worked to the benefit of the 'Third World,' and Adas seems to
view it as the latest form of an imperialist civilizing mission.
| By using a substantial
amount of documentation combined with a keen mind for determining how perceptions
have shaped the course of world history, Michael Adas has made a significant
contribution to the literature on Western dominance. Rather than a standard
text regarding the 'rise of the West,' Machines as the Measure of Men
is a different sort of work that shows that previous focuses on 'pluck or
luck,' or even racism and all it encompasses (slavery, white supremacy,
miscegenation, etc), are only facets of a much larger issue. Culture and
the process of 'othering' by observation through the lens of the self is
at the heart of imperial policy-making and the long-standing civilizing
mission of Western dominance.
Washington State University