An Answer to the Needham Question

Yong Yang
7 min readNov 11, 2021


A new perspective

Joseph Needham (Credit: Semantic Scholar)

Joseph Needham, a late renowned British biochemist and polymath, had dedicated his life to understanding the history of Chinese science and technology, alongside his scientific career. His famous Needham Question has hitherto sparked contentious debates on China’s history in scientific and technological developments.

In Needham’s words, “Why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilisation but only in Europe?”

The question, for many, is simple but difficult to answer. Numerous scholars have attempted to provide answers, though not all were widely accepted.

In this article, the author will attempt to offer a fresh perspective.

What drove the development of modern science?

“The condition for the development of science is democracy.” is a commonplace answer most people would probably think of.

However, this had no basis in the history of science.

The development of modern science was in fact driven by the want to dominate sea routes, followed by the national policies of harnessing science and technology to becoming superpowers.

And it began with astronomy, in which civilisations had completely different interests.

Astronomy served an agricultural purpose in China. The annual production forecast was based on the astronomical phenomenon and the corresponding solar term 节气, one of the twenty-four periods in the Chinese lunisolar calendar.

What about the West?

That brings us to the question of why Copernicus, Kepler and Newton appeared in the West but not China.

The answer could possibly lie in the differences in coastline directions.

China’s coastline generally covers from north to south. During coastwise navigation (within the vicinity of the coast), voyagers were able to ascertain where they wee by looking at the landmarks on the coast; offshore navigation, (a distance from the coast), they had to measure latitudes, the geographic coordinates which specify the north-south position of a point on the Earth’s surface. Latitudes were, fortunately, able to be measured using instruments such as navigational protractor triangles, later the cross-staff, also known as Jacob’s staff, as well as the sextant.

As such, marine navigation, to the Chinese, did not require any quantitative theoretical model in astronomy.

On the western side of Eurasia, however, the geography was different. The Mediterranean Basin extends from Macaronesia in the west, to the Levant in the east.

The greatest challenge in finding the eastern route to China and India lay in the determination of a ship’s longitude.

A compass was not helpful enough as one could only tell where the north is but could not find the longitude, hence the precise location cannot be determined.

In the history of science, there were only two viable ways to solve this.

First and foremost is to observe the motions of planets. If a theoretical model of the planets’ location could be created, the observer’s location could also be determined. The other method is to measure the time difference between two locations. For example, one brings two clocks along with him on a voyage that begins in Britain. One shows the Greenwich time and the other shows the time of another location. The latter’s longitude could be found by comparing the time difference.

Interestingly, both methods of measuring longitudes gave birth to scientific and industrial civilisations.

Claudius Ptolemy, an Egyptian Mathematician and astronomer, postulated the geocentric model, under which the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets all orbit the Earth. The complex mathematical model describes planetary motions by superposing hundreds of circles which represent the planets which orbit around the Earth. A planet revolves in a small circle called an epicycle which also revolves around the Earth in a bigger circle, known as a deferent, creating a complex mathematical model. The highest recorded number of circles was 80.

About 1,400 years later, Nicolaus Copernicus, the proponent of heliocentrism, simplified the Ptolemaic model significantly by changing the frame of reference of the Earth to that of the Sun, in describing planetary motions. This reduced the number of circles from 80 to a “mere 34”.

In less than a century, Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, derived the Kepler’s Laws of planetary motion. He thought that planets orbit the sun in paths described as ellipses, instead of a circles. This further simplified the theoretical model of describing planetary motion. Newton’s Laws of Gravitation built upon these laws and led to the establishment of Newtonian Mechanics, which spurred the development of natural sciences.

It is now patently clear that the acceleration of the development of Physics was incidentally caused by the problem of measuring longitude, which begs the question why there was a need to measure longitudes. The answer is to find the navigational route to the east. Why navigate eastward or westward? To search for new markets and resources.

The European royals and financiers were chief among those who supported these discoveries. For example, Christopher Columbus was an Italian but he sought financial support from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain for his voyage after being rejected by Portugal, England and France. The British government’s Longitude Prize was awarded in 1773 to John Harrison who invented “remarkably innovative” clocks which enabled sailors to calculate their ships’ longitude accurately. In short, it was the economic gains and political power to be had in oceanic exploration, and not scientific and technological curiosity, drove the development of modern science.

Such method of measuring longitude eventually led to the flourishing of the timepiece industry in Britain. It was, in fact, one of the key drivers of the prosperity the industrial revolution brought Britain.

Consequently, the dawn of scientific revolution in Europe had amplified the influence of mechanism, which perceives the universe as a machine made up of matter dating back to Ancient Greece, on western philosophy. Organicism, a philosophy which centres on the living, characterises Chinese philosophy. The idea that man should live in harmony with nature has hitherto been shared by various schools of Chinese philosophical thought, which seeks to take a more holistic understanding of the world.

The differences in philosophical focus has resulted in divergent paths of development. Western navigation and trade gave rise to the early developments of analytical sciences and mechanism. And it also explains why the holistic perspective in Chinese philosophy did not enable the Chinese to conceive analytical sciences’ quantitative models.

Harnessing science and technology to becoming superpowers

From Napoleon to the two world wars, arms race, and science and technology were the western powers’ national priorities, as their leaders knew claiming the high ground of the latter would shape their destiny in becoming GREAT powers.

Napoléon Bonaparte, prior to becoming the Emperor of France, had rigorous training in projectiles as a mortarman. When he was in power, he gave special attention to higher institutes of learning in science and technology such as École Polytechnique. He even had an entourage of French scientists during his invasion of Egypt, which is in stark contrast with the Chinese who only brought scholars and strategists, not scientists along during their military campaigns.

École Polytechnique (Credit: École Polytechnique)

Another example would be that the ship Charles Darwin was on during his voyage was owned by the British Navy. His task was to investigate animal species in various British colonies, which contributed to his huge collection of research samples, upon which his theory of evolution rested.

What did the Prussians depend on to defeat the French in order to restore their pride during the Franco-Prussian War?

The short answer, of course, is science and technology. Prussians underwent science education and built a refined military to master new weapons.

Although the British were the first to build railways and invented telegraphy, the Prussians were the first to discover their potential uses in war. The expansion of Siemens, a German technology company, was therefore closely related to the rise of Prussia. Forces and weaponry were also mobilised by train. Railways were central to the Prussian military campaigns. The Prussians, also known as Germans, essentially emerged victorious on the railways before their armies and the French had had an opportunity to confront one another.

Science has thus become a national priority after the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars. Many western powers began establishing their national research institutes of science after World War I.

The United States of America’s domination in the world is not because of its huge population but its superior scientific and technological capabilities which led to powerful military technologies. These enabled it to embark on any military campaign as it wished for. Of course, without a strong industrial economy, America is unlikely to sustain its military expeditions in the future.


All in all the desire to dominate the world economically and politically was the overarching reason for why modern science developed in Europe, instead of China. The influence of other factors such as differences in philosophy was less pronounced.

A pitfall we often fall into when we study history is that we often could not resist the temptation to apply our contemporary moral values, subjectivity, likes and dislikes in evaluating historical figures or events.

Hence we should never be quick to judge whether it was morally right for the European powers to dominate the world as subjectivity could paralyse us from being able to study the matter objectively. Similarly, one should also not be quick to conclude that the absence of western liberal democracy was responsible for the absence of modern scientific revolution in China.

This article is nothing but a simple answer to the question that takes the contexts of China and Europe into consideration.

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