Power and Progress: Imperialism, Capitalism, and the Scientific Revolution

HSTR 207 – Science and Technology in World History

Mary Hill Young




Harari links the areas of science, empire, and capitalism with the common thread of power. By the industrial revolution, it was clear that whoever had the most advanced technology would gain a significant edge in military, agriculture, and societal infrastructure. These scientific advances allowed for the growth of empire. However, it did not cause it, capitalism, and the concentration of this power in the hands of the few, lead more the to the advancement of empire than the advancement of military technology, as according to Harari, “Most empires did not rise thanks to technological wizardry and their rulers did not give much thought to technological improvement… In fact, in all these cases the vanquished enjoyed superior military and civilian technology.” (Harari, Sapiens, 262) The concentration of these technological advances into the hands of the few is then begun, and the process of empire started. As more wealth is funneled through an empire there is an increasingly hierarchical structure that develops, leading to the march of capitalism. Though this trend became most obvious around the time of the industrial revolution, it was first made apparent when Genghis Khan conquered an empire that stretched across the expanse of Europe and Asia with only the bow and stirrup.

Progress as Harari defines it developed a cascade effect as humanity’s advancements in science, medicine, and industry began to suggest that technology was capable of solving any problem. “Poverty, sickness, wars, famines, old age and death itself were not the inevitable fate of humankind. They were simply the fruits of our ignorance.” (Harari, Sapiens, 265) This certainty in the efficacy of technology made conquest and capitalism the clear next step, particularly when rooted in a sense of nationalism. Personally my opinion of progress would relate it more to the hubris inherent in the hierarchical structure. What we call progress occurs with the greatest efficacy and destruction among those societies which prize patriarchy and power above all else, and fail to grasp the value of community.