Science, Empire, and Money: The Trinity of Progress

According to Harari, the link between science, empire, and capitalism boils down to one main focus: progress. This progress comes in many forms. Expansion of empire, the discovery of new species, and the creation of new technology are a few examples. Progress was fueled by the idea that knowledge was the key to power. As Harari says, “Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance. They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.” (Harari, 284) The shaping of scientific discovery by political and fiscal interests can be exemplified by an invention of the industrial revolution: the steam engine. Initially just used in mines and textile looms, it was soon used to create the first steam-powered locomotive to transport coal. The economic and political potential of the steam engine was quickly realized, and improvement of the technology soon followed. Commercial use trains easily transported goods and people across the British empire, building the economy. (Harari, 337-38) Easier transportation also meant easier expansion. If Britain could quickly move large amounts of supplies and manpower to the farthest reaches of their empire, they could build up underdeveloped areas to increase their political grasp.  The development and improvement of the steam engine was fueled by economic interest, and in turn, the engine helped further political and economic gains by expanding the British empire.


I find Harari’s argument of progress as the link between science, empire, and capitalism to be rather convincing. But I ask, “What does progress mean?” To me, the role of progress in the science, empire, capitalism trinity means having more. More wealth, a bigger empire, and a larger base of scientific knowledge. Furthering just one of these also seems to further the other two. If we funnel money into some scientific research to create or improve some technology, that technology may be useful in the expansion of our empire. Expanding our empire means we have more resources. More resources may mean more scientific research can be done on new ideas. The cycle can then continue, and more progress can be made. We must then ask who benefits from this progress? Is it the scientist? Is it the businessman? Is it the leader of the empire? What about the common people or those whose labor and land enables the wheel of “progress” to turn? Who gets a slice of this “economic pie” that Harari mentions? I believe we must understand what progress means in order to understand what role it plays in the science, empire, capitalism triangle.  

1 thought on “Science, Empire, and Money: The Trinity of Progress”

  1. Great Work Ty. I also find Harari’s ideas on the science, empire, and capitalism cycle to be compelling. I appreciate your question about “what does progress mean?”. Harari’s definition seems very focused on European Imperialism, but I think it’s crucial to understand all facets of progress and its effects across all continents and generations. The world is complicated, and like a trophic cascade, I fear that progress for one group has unintended consequences for others. The rapid increase in standard of living for Western Europeans displaced indigenous peoples and kick-started environmental changes that we and future humans will have to remedy. No matter how benevolent progress may seem in the moment, there is always the possibility that it disregards a group or creates unforeseen problems.

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