Joseph Needham Research Paper

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Joseph Needham was not only an excellent scientist, but also an eminent historian. He became famous for his impressive achievement embodied in the massive series Science and Civilisation in China (SCC), published in many volumes since 1954. His work on this subject has not only deeply influenced research on the history of China, but also studies in the history of science, technology, and medicine in general. Although the exploration of the history of traditional Chinese science, technology, and medicine had begun already before him, he is certainly the scholar who contributed most to the institutionalization of these studies, resulting, both in East and West, in the foundation of specific academic research disciplines and institutes. One of his basic convictions was that modern science and technology, as they arose in the West, owed much to ideas and inventions originating in East Asia or China. He conceived of modern science as an outcome of an universalistic process, like a sea into which the rivers of various cultures had flowed, making their contributions. In his opinion, the reason that modern science did not arise in China was because it was hindered by external factors, that is, the structure of Chinese feudal-bureaucratic society.

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1. Life

Needham was born in London on December 9, 1900, the only son of a physician and a musically talented mother. In 1918 he went to Gonville and Gaius College in Cambridge to study biochemistry, where he became a student and collaborator of Frederick Gowland Hopkins, a subsequent Nobel Prize winner in medicine. In 1924, he married the biochemist Dorothy Moyle. In 1931 Needham published Chemical Embryology in three volumes, a description, definition, and historical account of a new scientific discipline in which he had increasingly specialized. This was followed, in 1942, by Biochemistry and Morphogenesis. Already at an early stage in his career, Needham engaged in public debates about the relationships between science, religion, philosophy, history, and politics. In the period from 1925 to 1946 he wrote or edited such works as Science, Religion, and Reality (1925), The Sceptical Biologist (1926), The Nazi Attack on International Science (1941), History is on Our Side (1946), etc., the latter two attacking the Nazi abuse of science.

In 1937 a group of young Chinese scientists came to Cambridge, among them Lu Gwei-Djen, who later became one of his collaborators and, two years after the death of Dorothy Moyle in 1987, his second wife. These Chinese scientists aroused in him a deep interest in and fascination for Chinese culture and language. Needham started to learn Chinese privately with the help of a Cambridge professor of Sinology. In 1942 the British government commissioned him to go to China to establish the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing, the city to which the Chinese government had withdrawn in the face of the Japanese invasion. He spent more than three years in China, where, apart from his official duties, he started to collect information, literature, and source material on the history of science, technology, and medicine in China. From 1946 to 1948 Needham was appointed director of the department for science at UNESCO in Paris. In 1952 he was severely criticized for joining an international scientific committee, which on the invitation of the governments of North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the communist sponsored World Peace Council was commissioned to investigate charges of US biological warfare in the Korean War. The committee concluded that the US military had experimented with biological weapons, and Needham was subsequently reproached as having been deluded by communist propaganda and his love for China. As a consequence, he was shunned by many in the academic world, and was not permitted to visit the US in the coming years.

After his return to Cambridge in 1948 Needham all but gave up his scientific research, and turned instead to his great project SCC. The first volume was published in 1954. In the course of time, more than twenty collaborators from all parts of the world joined Needham to participate in this project. In 1968 Needham founded in Cambridge the East Asian History of Science Trust to preserve his library and continue his work. By 1987, funds had been raised to build a home for his library, the Needham Research Institute, which was finally completed in 1991. Together with his first wife he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (science) in 1941. Thirty years later, he also became Fellow of the British Academy (humanities). In 1968 the Society for History of Science and the Society for History of Technology honored him with the George Sarton Medal and the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, respectively. He was bearer of the Order of the Brilliant Star conferred on him by the People’s Republic of China. Finally, in June 1992, his achievements were given official recognition when he was made Companion of Honour by Her Majesty the Queen. He died in Cambridge on March 24, 1995, at the age of 94.

2. Contribution To Knowledge And Intellectual Environment

Based on his ecumenical and universalistic view of the history of science and technology, in which the Old World must be taken as a whole, one of Needham’s crucial and seemingly paradoxical problems was why modern science, the mathematisation of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, made its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo. Of equal importance for him was the question of why it was that between the second century BC and the sixteenth century AD East Asian culture was much more efficient than the European West in applying human knowledge of Nature to useful purposes. How could it have been that the weakness of China in theory and geometrical systematization did not prevent the emergence of technological discoveries and inventions often far in advance of contemporary Europe? What were the inhibiting factors in the Chinese case that prevented a rise of modern science in Asia analogous to that which took place in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards? And finally, how was it that Chinese backwardness in scientific theory coexisted with the growth of an organic philosophy of Nature, closely resembling that which modern science (in Whitehead’s sense) had adopted after three centuries of mechanical materialism?

In order to find answers to these questions, Needham carried out enormous comparative research, not only dedicated to internalist interpretations of science and technology, but also taking into account influences from philosophy, language, religion, and ideology as well as social, economic, and geographical conditions. It was likewise important for him to fix dates of discoveries and inventions, aiming to ‘titrate’ the great civilizations one against another and to find out and give credit where credit was due. In many cases where Needham and his collaborators were able to ascertain an earlier date of a discovery or invention in China than in the West, he concluded that this must have been a case of direct borrowing, indirect transmission, or diffusion stimulus, even if no other concrete evidence was available. Basically, he shifted the onus of proof onto those people who doubted that such a transfer had taken place. Generally speaking, however, Needham was never thinking in simplistic terms, as he did, for instance, admit the possibility of independent discoveries and inventions. From very early on he concluded that until the Scientific Revolution in the late Renaissance the West was not only deeply influenced in the field of technology by Chinese or East Asian technological inventions and scientific discoveries, but was also deeply affected by them in its social structure. For instance, the adoption in the West of the Chinese invention of gunpowder and firearms dealt a fatal blow to castles and hence to Western military aristocratic feudalism.

Needham drew a clear distinction between modern science on the one hand and ancient and medieval sciences on the other. Modern science, as it developed only in Western Europe at the time of Galileo, is based on five fundamental characteristics, namely the application of mathematical hypotheses to Nature, the full understanding and use of the experimental method, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, the geometrisation of space, and the acceptance of a mechanical model of reality. Primitive and medieval sciences distinguish themselves clearly from the modern type, as, for instance, their intrinsic and essential vagueness always made them incapable of proof or disproof. As far as numerical figures entered into them, these numbers were manipulated in forms of numerology or number-mysticism constructed a priori, and not employed as the stuff of quantitative measurements compared a posteriori.

During his years of study and research in Cambridge, Needham’s worldview was characterized by four conceptual clusters that substantially influenced his work for SCC:

(a) Needham had a strong antipathy against the mechanical concepts upheld by many physicists of his time. His philosophy of science was influenced by Whitehead’s organicism. He was, however, not a rigid defender of Neo-vitalism, but together with Lancelot Hogben argued for its ‘mechanical’ or ‘materialistic’ aspects. Needham considered Whitehead’s theory of organicism a synthesis of mechanism and vitalism.

(b) Needham espoused the idea of evolution as a concept of wide application. For him evolution was not only a phenomenon of the biological order, but could also be observed in social organization. Social organizations necessarily followed a linear course of evolution, for which the Marxist stage theory of social development was an indispensable explanative tool. Social development cannot be explained by biological theory, but needs its own unique approach. Needham’s concept of evolutionary development of social organizations did, however, not deal with a socio-Darwinist ‘survival of the fittest,’ but aimed at overcoming the excesses of capitalism. ‘Collectivism,’ as it would manifest itself in a worldwide communist society, was seen by Needham as the next higher stage of social organization.

(c) Needham sympathized with Marxist dialectic materialism. Most of the researchers in Hopkins’s laboratory were politically left wing. This was typical of many British biologists of the twenties and thirties, like J. B. vs. Haldane, J. G. Crowther, and J. D. Bernal. During his youth Needham was impressed by the events of the Russian Revolution. Moreover, in 1925 he read Engels’s Dialektik der Natur [Dialectics of Nature] which fascinated him. During one of his stays at the Roscoff Marine Biological Station Needham and his wife met Louis Rapkine, a biochemist born in Lithuania who grew up in Canada. Rapkine introduced Needham to the Marxist classics. Moreover, he learned much of him about the living conditions of the lower strata of the working society for which Needham had always entertained great sympathy. Like Julian Huxley and the adherents of a ‘scientific humanism,’ Needham expanded his interests from biological problems into the social field. Due to his rational, antireductionist attitude towards science, he was convinced that scientists also had social and ethical responsibilities. Democratic, socialist, and populist elements were the main constituents of his political stance. Needham, however, did not count himself an orthodox Marxist because he was not dogmatic with regard to the question of which aspects of human action constituted foundation or superstructure. He belonged to a generation of the 1920s who adhered to Marxism because of ideology and romantic ideals, in contrast to the generation of the 1930s which was characterized by a more realistic attitude towards politics and tactics. In his later years Needham never gave up his hopes for the realization of an ‘ideal socialism’.

(d) Needham stressed synthesis over analysis. It was his basic conviction that dialectic materialism was the synthesis between mechanical materialism and idealism. Religion was for him something that need not be got rid of in favor of materialism, but which should be absorbed by it. On the one hand, he stated in 1936 that communism possessed a higher sense of the numinous than any of the traditional religions, and that, on a higher stage, a synthesis has to be carried out between religion and Marxism. Communism could provide the moral theology of our time. On the other hand, Christianity was necessary for him to help redeem the ruthlessness of science. In an autobiographical account published in 1973 under the pseudonym ‘Holorenshaw,’ Needham informed the public about three antitheses which had determined his life. The first is the antithesis between deep religiousness and science, the second between deep religiousness and his sympathy for socialism, especially in its Marxist form, and the third referring to the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. He declared it to be his duty to transform these antitheses into syntheses. This also shows that Needham was not an adherent of scientism. He was of the opinion that different molds of human experience (e.g., religion, art, history, philosophy, and science) coexist and all have claims for validity, and that science could not do without ethics.

During their tracing of the history of discoveries and inventions Needham and his collaborators unearthed an impressive array of early Chinese achievements in technology and science. One example is the mastery of cast iron in China, a millennium and a half before it was known in the West. This Chinese expertise which started in the fourth century BC and which required substantial empirical knowledge of the properties of iron was based on a highly developed bronze casting technology. Cast iron was not only mass-produced for weapons, agricultural tools and cooking utensils, but was also put to such innovative uses as chain suspension bridges (first century AD) and deep-drilling for brine (eleventh century AD) and, later, natural gas. The double-acting piston bellows producing a constant flow of air both during the pushing and pulling of the piston was probably a crucial device enabling the Chinese to achieve superiority in metallurgy for so many hundreds of years. In metallurgical processing also the crank and the piston rod were developed. In agriculture, row cultivation and intensive hoeing were adopted from about the sixth century BC. By the third century BC frameplows were equipped with cast-iron plowshares and moldboards which substantially reduced friction and allowed the cultivation of heavy and waterlogged soils. These plows were far in advance to the ards used in the Western world.

About the same time, the equine breast-strap and collar harnesses emerged by which the efficiency of animal power was improved. Other agricultural innovations adopted centuries prior to the West included various types of rotary-fan winnowing machines for the efficient separation of grain and chaff as well as multitube seed drills especially in row cultivation. Both these technical devices were known since the second century AD. All these inventions spurred agricultural production and provided the economic basis for social differentiation and state building.

Among the nautical innovations of the Chinese, apart from the well-known compass, the sternpost rudder (first century AD) and watertight compartments in ships (second century AD) should be mentioned. The Chinese were also great masters in the building of irrigation works, canals, and canal poundlocks. Some of these ancient infrastructure achievements can still be admired today, like the Dujiangyan irrigation system north of Chengdu in Sichuan Province built in the third century BC. Some of these feats of engineering, however, fell into disuse and were forgotten, like the modern-type canal pound-locks with two gates of the tenth century, which were later replaced by the much more ordinary flash-gates with one gate only.

In the military field, Needham noted that gunpowder had arisen from the investigations of Taoist alchemists in about AD 850. About two centuries later it was used for fireworks, bombs, grenades, land mines, and sea mines. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries gunpowder served the production of rockets, and only about a century later it provided the propelling force in guns, cannons, and mortars. In China, however, gunpowder and firearms were not further developed to occupy a position as dominant as that which they did later in European warfare.

Woodblock printing on paper and silk arose in China around the seventh century AD. This allowed the mass production of all kinds of scriptures and texts. However, only few experiments were made with movable-type printing. Paper, another revolutionary product, was invented in China already in about the first century BC. It spread from China to Korea and Japan in the seventh century and to Central Asia, the Arabs and Europe one century later. Another famous Chinese invention that in the eighteenth century was imitated in the West was porcelain.

The decimal system was already in use in archaic China. It also seems that the Chinese were the first to use a blank space for zero and to recognize and use negative numbers as well as decimal fractions. They were also in the possession of a refined value for pi (third century AD) and were the first to note the hexagonal structure of snowflakes (second century BC), to mention only the most important inventions and discoveries. Many of the Chinese findings described by Needham and his collaborators in SCC have stood the test of time and thus have to be considered historical facts.

3. Assessment And Impact

Needham’s work in the framework of SCC was frequently the object of criticism that can be summarized as follows: because Needham took modern science in its final result as a guideline, there is a tendency in his work to highlight those Chinese developments and events best suited to be interpreted as antecedents to modern science. Those currents, however, which did not show universalistic characteristics were neglected by him or even considered obstructive to the development of modern science, without his having undertaken a serious attempt at interpreting them as culturally specific and integral systems of thought and action. It has been pointed out that in his earlier works his linguistic capabilities were not of the highest standard, sometimes reading modern scientific ideas and virtues into traditional Chinese texts. Some reproached him for not having differentiated clearly enough between science and technology, because he sometimes regarded technology as nothing more than applied science. Clear conceptual differentiation was also lacking with regard to such concepts as the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, as well as invention and innovation.

 Others criticized the encyclopedic structure of SCC. The first volumes, at least, were said to be largely characterized by a timeless, even static, sense of history, to provide only a blurred picture of the world of thought and social interaction in the fields of science and technology, and to be inadequate in pointing out temporal and spatial differences. Discussions arose also with regard to individual findings of Needham. This in particular concerned his history of traditional Chinese astronomical clockworks and their linkwork escapement mechanism that he interpreted as the missing link in the development from clepsydras to mechanical clocks, the production of crystalline synthetic sexual hormones from the urine of pubescent boys by Chinese alchemists, or his identification of traditional Chinese concepts of Nature as precursors of Whitehead’s organicist view. Moreover, it was shown that cross-and intracultural transmissions of ideas and devices may have been more complex processes than imagined by Needham.

More fundamental criticism addressed Needham’s explanations of the socioeconomic and political reasons why the Scientific Revolution did not take place in China. Nathan Sivin repudiated this as an inadmissible contrafactual question that would diminish in interest as soon as it became clear in which social, economic, political, and cultural environments, and for which purposes traditional Chinese scientists carried out their activities. Benjamin Nelson stated that Needham had underestimated the complexity of social, political, cultural, and intellectual processes leading to the Scientific Revolution in the West. Needham’s juxtaposition of Europe’s mercantile bourgeoisie and commercial capitalism as conducive to the rise of modern science and China’s Confucian ‘feudal bureaucracy’ as obstructive was considered by many critics as simplistic—as was his characterization of the Taoists as promoters of science and the Confucians as exerting a rather negative influence on it. In conclusion, Needham’s work is often considered to be a mixture consisting to a large part of solid findings, plausible, but not always incontestable interpretations, personal speculations, and, sometimes, errors.

In spite of these criticisms, Needham’s work undoubtedly embodies a number of tremendous achievements. First of all, due to his work not only is much more now known about the history of science, technology, and medicine in China, but it also triggered a dramatic increase in the research activities and institutionalization of the academic disciplines concerned. At the same time, a specialization took place, as it is hardly possible anymore for an individual researcher to deal with all the various disciplines to the same depth. Furthermore, as Nelson pointed out, Needham was much more interested in historical processes than Max Weber, one of the great scholars who had attempted to explain the uniqueness of the Western rise of modern science. Needham’s work also underlines the importance of intercivilizational encounters and points to the inevitable drive towards universality and thus the overcoming of all local particularities. This is another difference to Weber who was much more interested in a differential typology and the establishment of ideal types, and thus more or less treated each civilization as a discrete unit. These and other insights of Needham therefore provide important elements for a comparative historical and differential sociology of civilizational complexes and intercivilizational encounters (Nelson 1986). And although much criticism was voiced against his notion of the universality of modern science because potentially this might be invoked to justify a blanket modernization, one should not forget that Needham not only ascribed social values to this notion, but also perceived it as a sharp tool of critique directed against Eurocentric internalism.


  1. Blue G 1997 Joseph Needham: A publication history. Chinese Science 14: 90–132
  2. Brook T 1996 The sinology of Joseph Needham. Modern China 22(3): 340–8
  3. Elvin M (ed.) 1980 Symposium: The work of Joseph Needham. Past and Present 87: 17–53
  4. Gazagnadou D 1991 Joseph Needham, un taoıste d’honneur, autobiographie. De l’embryologie a la civilisation chinoise. Editions du Felin-UNESCO, Paris
  5. Habib S I, Dhruv R (eds.) 1999 Situating the History of Science: Dialogues with Joseph Needham. Oxford University Press, Delhi, India
  6. Holorenshaw H [pseudonym of Needham] 1973 The making of an honorary Taoist. In: Teich M, Young R (eds.) Changing Perspectives in the History of Science: Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham. Heinemann, London
  7. Li G H, Zhang M W, Cao T Q (eds.) 1982 Explorations in the History of Science and Technology in China: A Special Number of the ‘Collections of Essays on Chinese Literature and History,’ Compiled in Honour of the Eightieth Birthday of Dr. Joseph Needham. Shanghai Classics Publishing House, Shanghai, China
  8. Nakayama S, Sivin N (eds.) 1973 Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition. MIT, Cambridge, MA
  9. Needham J 1970 Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  10. Needham J 1979 The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, 2nd edn. Allen & Unwin, London
  11. Needham J et al. 1954–2001 Science and Civilisation in China. 16 and more vols. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  12. Nelson B 1986 Der Ursprung der Moderne: Vergleichende Studien zum Zi ilisationsprozeß. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany
  13. Sivin N 1983 Chinesische Wissenschaft: Ein Vergleich der Ansatze von Max Weber und Joseph Needham. In: Schluchter W (ed.) Max Webers Studie uber Konfuzianismus und Taoismus: Interpretation und Kritik. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany
  14. Sivin N 1988 Science and medicine in imperial China—the state of the field. Journal of Asian Studies 47(1): 41–90
  15. Vogel H-U 1993 Naturwissenschaften und Technik im vormodernen China: Historie, Historiographie und Ideologie. Studienbrief fur die FernUniversitat—Gesamthochschule Hagen, Fachbereich Erziehungs-, Sozialund Geisteswissenschaften


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