Cover image for Machines as the measure of men : science, technology, and ideologies of Western dominance
Machines as the measure of men : science, technology, and ideologies of Western dominance
Adas, Michael, 1943-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Ithaca, N.Y., [publisher not identified], Cornell University Press, . 1990

Physical Description:
xii, 430 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library T15 .A33 1989C Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Over the past five centuries, advances in Western understanding of and control over the material world have strongly influenced European responses to non-Western peoples and cultures. In Machines as the Measure of Men, Michael Adas explores the ways in which European perceptions of their scientific and technological superiority shaped their interactions with people overseas. Adopting a broad, comparative perspective, he analyzes European responses to the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China, cultures that they judged to represent lower levels of material mastery and social organization.

Beginning with the early decades of overseas expansion in the sixteenth century, Adas traces the impact of scientific and technological advances on European attitudes toward Asians and Africans and on their policies for dealing with colonized societies. He concentrates on British and French thinking in the nineteenth century, when, he maintains, scientific and technological measures of human worth played a critical role in shaping arguments for the notion of racial supremacy and the "civilizing mission" ideology which were used to justify Europe's domination of the globe. Finally, he examines the reasons why many Europeans grew dissatisfied with and even rejected this gauge of human worth after World War I, and explains why it has remained important to Americans.

Showing how the scientific and industrial revolutions contributed to the development of European imperialist ideologies, Machines as the Measure of Men highlights the cultural factors that have nurtured disdain for non-Western accomplishments and value systems. It also indicates how these attitudes, in shaping policies that restricted the diffusion of scientific knowledge, have perpetuated themselves, and contributed significantly to chronic underdevelopment throughout the developing world. Adas's far-reaching and provocative book will be compelling reading for all who are concerned about the history of Western imperialism and its legacies.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Adas's theme is the West's assumption of superiority over non-Western peoples because of advanced Western technology. He concludes that, "European judgements about the level of development attained by non-Western peoples were grounded in the presuppositions that there are transcendent truths and an underlying physical reality that exist independent of humans (and that) both wre equally valid for all peoples (and that) Europeans better understood these truths or had probed more deeply into the patterns of the natural world that manifested the underlying reality." The wealth of information on the West's shift from religion, physical appearance, and social practice to scientific and technological dominance as sources of presumed superiority in the Enlightenment and the 19th century has not previously been drawn together so completely or imaginatively. The writings of the European upper and middle classes on China, India, and Subsaharan Africa clearly spell out the ideas behind the technological changes in Third World countries as described in such works as Daniel Headrick's The Tools of Empire (CH, Nov'81) and The Tentacles of Progress (CH, Oct'88). Two of Adas's subsidiary claims are likely to stir more controversy. Did Europe really begin to doubt the wonders of its technology as the result of the trench warfare of WW I? Did the US really keep a technological fixation because it escaped these horrors? And two matters not covered by Adas would need delineation before the picture was complete. Did not the Japanese and quite a few other non-Europeans share the urge to technological dominance? And were the European (and American) lower classes not viewed with the same technological disdain as the non-Western peoples? In short, Adas has by no means sorted out the conundrum of who benefits from technological determinism as an intellectual and political force, but he has added much new information to the debate that has animated all the ideologies of modern times. Graduate level. -T. J. Knight, Colorado State University

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