Of course much of this can be debated on what you mean by the word “modern”

But most of us would agree that the Arabic World and places like India were the leading mathematical and scientific civilizations way beyond Europe for centuries, all throughout the middle ages and even beyond that.

But then suddenly that all completely shifted. Starting with Copernicus, and then Galileo and Kepler and culminating with Newton, Europe started to become the main powerhouse of science and mathematics.

Why wasn't the Arabic World and India able to maintain their “scientific dominance” why couldn't they stay on level with Europe's increasing scientific hold? Why did someone like Newton emerge in the West and not the Arabic World or India

Cultural reasons? Cultural shifts? Was European society structured differently that allowed people to flourish in the sciences. what are the main reasons Europe become the leading scientific power?

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that's exactly how it went. The perceived dominance tends to follow the dominant civilizations - Greeks before Persians, and so on. Prior to the advent of widespread written records, there may well have been other technologically dominant areas that we don't know (much) about. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ Conjecture: “Leading science” is produced in the most hospitable regions to inhabit. These move with improvements in technologies such as heating, irrigation, or more recently air conditioning. Hence successive centers in e.g. Mesopotamia, Egypt (Alexandria), Southern Europe, Northern Europe, America,... (Illustration: hit “next” at timemaps.com/history/world-3500bc/.) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sure there are books and scholarly articles written about this question. It would be interesting if some answers could point them out. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Is the Scientific Method uniquely Western? $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ I don't feel qualified to answer, but I can add a historical opinion: Aristotle attributes the flourishing of sciences in Egypt to leisure, which might still be a zero-order term. In my own view, another reason one might think of modern science as (mainly western) European, is that in the modern era, the ease of communication has steadily increased and transform regions with somewhat isolated intellectual communities into a global economy and community, once with the U.S. and Soviet Union as principal leaders, but also now with leaders in China, Japan, Australia, S. America, India, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Michael E2
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 11:34

6 Answers 6


It's hard to put a precise date without generating debate, but I'd put forward that Europe took the lead at some point between the early 14th to late 15th century.

Several processes were in full motion around then:

Medieval Scientific Dynamism

Where there was indeed a dearth of books and literate scholars in the Early Middle Ages, science and technology in the Mid- to Late Medieval Europe actually was a lot more dynamic than is often credited. It saw developments such as the Three Field System, plowing-related technologies, mill-related technologies, etc. - all of which contributed to significantly boost the agricultural output.

Also worth highlighting during the period are universities, which began to appear between the 11th and 13th century depending on the region.

My point here is that it's incorrect to assume Europe was roamed by uneducated peasants only. And the Byzantine Empire to the East was far from backwards, and still interacting with Western Europe. Science never really died during the period.

Hindu-Arabic Numerals

Fibonacci is known nowadays mostly for the sequence named after him, but the latter actually is a mere example problem he gave in passing within Liber Abaci, a book he published in 1202.

Liber Abaci introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and place value to Europe, enjoyed a very wide success. It was transformative for both science and finance in Northern Italy and then Europe.

Being a savvy marketer in his time, he followed it with a shorter, more to the point version for use by merchants. One could argue that it laid the foundations that were necessary to lift Europe out of the middle ages.

The Reconquest of Spain

When one thinks Renaissance, one usually thinks about the rediscovery of Classic arts and literature. But this is actually hiding the reality that preceded it in the late Middle Ages.

Numerous scholars went to Spain to study the very large collection of scientific literature that the Muslims had left behind - particularly after Seville fell in 1248. (Sicily arguably was a major cultural gateway before that.)

The Printing Press

Gutenberg's invention of metal movable type around 1440 allowed to mass print books.

The bible was, of course, the top seller. Most titles below it were scientific in nature. (In particular works based on Fibonacci's book.)

Byzantine Refugees

Waves of Byzantine scholars and émigrés came to Italy in the aftermath of the Turks conquering Constantinople and dismantling the Byzantium Empire in 1453.

They brought numerous manuscripts with them, ultimately setting the stage for the Renaissance.

Change of Muslim Attitude Towards Science

Depending on the historian you ask, the pivotal point occurred between the 14th and the 16th century. Whichever date it is, what's clear is that the period saw the "rise of a clerical faction which froze this same science and withered its progress".

The Tarqi ad-Din observatory in Istanbul, for instance, was ultimately destroyed by a squad of Janissaries "by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti" around 1577.

  • $\begingroup$ A simple case in point that medieval Europe was not so backward is the mechanical clock invented around the end 13th century. This could "easily" have been invented in any of the other major civilisations but it wasn't. Why? Good metal-working, gears, locksmiths? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps you should add the discovery of the New World. It opened vistas and changed attitudes towards established figures like Aristotle, who was now shown to have got it wrong on many counts. For example, he had said that people cannot live near the equator. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Chrystomath: That people lived near the equator had been know for a while. Back in Aristotle's days, Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa. Before Columbus' expedition, the Portuguese had begun trading with the Gold Coast region. It's not so clear at first glance to me how the discovery of the New World had that much impact on how Europeans viewed Aristotle, but it's probably because I'm less familiar with that period. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not an expert but see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_zone (History section). Herodotus mentions the Phoenicians but I think the Greeks took that as a legend and doubted its veracity. Only in the 16th century did scholars start to directly oppose the Classical dogma, eg Vesalius, Copernicus, etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 11:35

Europe had an advantage which is often overlooked: the fact that it was (and it is) divided into many countries. As far as intellectual pursuits are concerned, this is an advantage, because whenever a scholar was in an environment in which he was in risk of being punished because of his ideas, he could move to somewhere else. Or, at least, his texts could be published somewhere else.

Of course, there are other factors, such as a level of economic prosperity which allowed some individuals to focus their minds in intelectual matters, but this happened also at another times and another places.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting hypothesis.. Is this not a little similar to the ancient world of Greek Cities-States? $\endgroup$
    – Widawensen
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ It is very much similar to that. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ How is this different from the other civilisations? The Muslim world and India were divided for long periods of time. China prospered most when it was united during the Tang and Song dynasties. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 8:55

One cannot give a definitive answer to this question, because we do not have an "alternative history" to compare. I can repeat what I answered on a somewhat similar question here: Why were 20th Century German scientists so impressive? Development of science correlates with strong economic and social development. I mean that since 16 or 17 century Europe rushed ahead not only in science but in "everything else". But what is the cause and what is the outcome, is open to speculation. Fast development of science, capitalism and technology start almost simultaneously, and clearly they are interconnected. Probably the root of all of this lies in the organization of society which made this development possible. Possibly this is the general idea of individual freedom which evolved in Europe for historical reasons.


Leaving aside ambiguities and vagueness, let’s say that there are at least three scales at which to look for an answer. At the largest one are Jared Diamond’s books or Ian Morris’ Why the West rules - for now. More modestly one can look through some books about the Scientific revolution which is still a fashionable topic among hsm writers. Lastly one can develop a narrative about some kind of cultural shift . Thus one could identify three major factors: in the economy, a revival brought about by Spanish Empire (see e.g. Braudel’s Mediterrannee), a new effective circulation of information and ideas due to the printing press and in the European society the shattering of traditional religion caused by the Reformation. Perhaps a good word should be said here for Steven Toulmin’s books (Cosmopolis, Return to Reason) which offer a revisionist narrative, pointing that Renaissance humanism with its interest in art and letters has degenerated into a quest for certainty and effectiveness. According to him the SciR is actually a counter-revolution to the Renaissance, that is a relapse into a new single dimensional ideology without alternatives.

Of course there are also different other accounts insisting more on ‘intrinsic factors’ and perhaps they look more satisfying. There is an analogy between the s.c. Greek miracle and The SciR: soon after inventing the phonetic alphabet, ancient Greeks were writing books on philosophy and other forms of theory; soon after the German cossists and the logistica speciosa Europeans were developping theoretical physics. There is perceptible line from Viete’s logistica, which is algebra, to Descartes’ Geometrie, which unified algebra and geometry, and further to Leibniz’ extended work on mathematics and its symbols. In his own view what emerged was a kind of autonomous infallible reason, which he called sometimes cognitio caeca, that is the ability to arrive at valid knowledge about the word from purely formal operations. Leibniz is famous (Toulmin also insists here) for stating that disputes could be resolved by calculations - which supposedly would avert disputes and even wars (in his time the 30 years war, most murderous in European history, was still present in memories).

So narrowing down the scope one could arrive at the figure of Rene Descartes who decided to believe nobody and published his Discourse examplified by the Geometrie. Newton started by disagreeing with Descartes’ physics (and philosophy), just as Leibniz who never stopped criticizing him. Actually it was a badly shaken society which produced the resonance to such work. The Enligthment lasted as long as science was more comprehensible and/or convincing than the mysteries of religion, a balance than appears to have shifted lately.

  • $\begingroup$ so essentially, europe became dominant in those fields because in essense they tended to be in conflict more so than other civilizations? i hope I didn't butcher your argument, sand1, im just trying to understand here $\endgroup$
    – user4281
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ It's messy, I agree: what I tried to convey is that there was an intrinsic factor /mathematical formalism/ which is necessary but would not have produced much without the historic conjoncture of economy-Reformation- wars. The following 'Enligthenment age' helps to see retrospectively what was behind this 'European phenomenon', even if today things look pretty murked. $\endgroup$
    – sand1
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 19:08

To complement Denis de Bernardy's excellent answer I would mention Francois Vieta. Vieta's introduction of symbolic algebra was the decisive catalyst of the transformation of natural philosophy/science that took place in the 17th century. Had Vieta lived in North Africa, who knows, the dominant role of Western Europe that we take for granted may have turned out to be the result of historical factors more contingent than we like to admit.


http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9308.pdf is about history of maths. It has 3 diagrams.

Figure 1.1: Thee “classical” Eurocentric trajectory

Figure 1.2: A modicied Eurocentric trajectory

Figure 1.3: An alternative trajectory for the “Dark Ages” (the real thing)

The main message of figure 1.3 is that it is dangerous to characterize the history of mathematics solely in terms of European developments. The darkness that was supposed to have descended over Europe for a thousand years before the illumination that came with the Renaissance did not interrupt mathematical activity elsewhere. Indeed, as we shall see in later chapters, the period saw not only a mathematical renaissance in the Islamic world but also high points of Indian and Chinese mathematics.

This figure includes history of knowledge transmissions through the ages.

The link is http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9308.pdf figure 1.4 The author is CK Raju. Sorry. I couldn't figure out how to insert the figures. But you can see them in the pdf file.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer does not really address the original question which was specific to 16-17th century. $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ I would say that no development is independent of previous history. What happened in 16th century had a whole lot of events earlier, for example, dark ages and a collapse of European civilization $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 22:39

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