A Short History of Nearly Everything White by Bill Bryson

Article published on Aug. 23, 2007
community published
Article published on Aug. 23, 2007
Upon being given license to splatter my random thoughts across these “pages”, I began to think about what my first “post” would be about. Would I begin with an attempt at humour, should I seek to evidence my intellectual ability or should I just write what comes to mind?
My now final decision on content, as laid out below, is none of these – not funny, not intelligent and did not just come to mind.

While undertaking my two-stage commute to work, a bus to Hackney Central and the Silverlink to Highbury and Islington, I decided to listen to one of the many audio books I had downloaded onto my iPod but never listened to as I have never really craved intellectual stimulation at 8am in the morning or 6pm at night. However, in my determination to listen to try out an audiobook I decided to not scroll past ‘artist’ Bill Bryson for the 1000th time and started what appeared to be a 4 hour audio journey on the history of ‘Nearly Everything’.

Halfway through listening to many interesting facts and discoveries by a slew of no doubt honourable men (and Marie Curie), it occurred to me that the narrator had yet to mention anyone except for Americans and the British and scattered with a couple of other Europeans for good measure. It amazes me that given the diverse range of inhabitants of this planet, only white males really deserve to be mentioned when telling its history. Now, Bill tries to avoid criticisms of omission through his book’s rather catchy title, but when you omit the vast population of the earth and indeed many of the discoveries by those people you start thinking either Bryson is right and all discoveries have been made by white men or Bryson is a short sighted idiot who seems to think that white people are responsible for everything we know.

At this stage you might be thinking two things. Firstly, it’s not Bryson’s fault that white people discovered everything and secondly, what does this have to do with the aims and objectives of this wonderful website. I will deal with these questions in order.

I am not a historian of scientific discovery, nor do I wish to compile a comprehensive list of omissions in Bryson’s book. Instead I will provide a few examples of Bryson’s omissions.

Bryson quips about the first law of motion as discovered by Newton. Actually, it was first discovered by the Chinese in 4th Century BC by the Mohists. Similarly, he neglects to mention that “Newton’s” third law was first stated in the 12th Century by Islamic scholar Ibn Bajjah, whose theory of motion was an important influence on Galileo Galilei. Bumbling Bill also neglects to mention that al-Khazini (12th Century) was the first to propose that the gravities of bodies vary depending on their distances from the earth – later 'discovered' by Newton 6 centuries later. In Bryson’s musings on astrology he fails to mention 4000 years of Chinese astrology, Islamic innovations, and the role of Indian astrologers such as Aryabhata, who made accurate approximations of the earth’s circumference and diameter in 500 and was the first to discover that the orbits of the planets around the sun are ellipses. Finally, Bryson names James Hutton as the founder of modern geology, while many historians are of the opinion that modern geology began in the Muslim world with Abu al-Rayan al Biruni (973-1048AD).

Of course I am not the first to note the bias toward Western discovery in Bryson’s tome. Mr M.A. Patel, reviewer rank 224,947 on amazon.co.uk said of the book, “This Book is so American and Euro-centric it’s unbelievable.” Unfortunately only 5 out of 42 people found this comment useful. Mr Patel will be pleased that this has now gone up to 6.

I am also not the only one to note that these biases go beyond the pages of Bryson’s best-selling book. John Hobson provides a further example, in his book The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, “It is especially noteworthy that our common perception of the irrelevance of the East and the superiority of Europe is reinforced or ‘confirmed’ by the Mercator world map. Crucially, the actual landmass of the southern hemisphere is exactly twice that of the northern hemisphere. And yet on the Mercator, the landmass of the North occupies two-thirds of the map while the landmass of the South represents only a third. Thus while Scandinavia is about a third the size of India, they are accorded the same amount of space on the map. Moreover on the Mercator, Greenland appears almost twice the size of China, even though the latter is almost four times the size of the former. To correct for what he saw as the racist privileging of Europe, in 1974 Arno Peters produced the Peters projection (or the Peters–Gall projection), which sought to represent the countries of the world according to their actual surface area.” (This map became slightly more famous after appearing in a West Wing episode.)

The second question that I had assumed might pop into your mind – if I had indeed maintained interest long enough for you to still be reading and more importantly I had actually managed to provoke some thought on the content – was does this have anything to do with Cafe Babel? My answer is - nearly everything.