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Book Review


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. 1
     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) 2
     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. 3
     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. 4
     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) 5
      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. 6
     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. 7
     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. (13) 8
     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 beliefs. (92) 9
     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. 10
     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. 11
     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. 12
Cynthia Ross
Washington State University

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