Origins of European Knowledge Systems

The European tradition of physical science was created in the context of economies of extraction. For example, if you have an employee who is highly skilled, you have to pay them a lot. But if you break the job into a bunch of little tasks (“deskilling”), each one takes very little training. You don’t pay them much, and if they go on strike you just replace them. For example, Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (1776) described how to use deskilling to optimize profit for the pin factory shown here. Notice that by deskilling the job, you create demand for specialized tools. Physics and engineering evolved in that context of extracting the maximum work for the minimum wage.

Conversely, economists borrowed language from physics. For example, you can measure “efficiency” in physics: how many miles a car moves per gallon of gas, how many lumens of light a bulb makes from a watt of electricity. So to pay workers as little as possible, economists used physics words like “efficiency” and “optimization”. That allows some cruel arguments: “Poor people? Well, that’s just part of nature. You cannot argue with the laws of physics!”

In other words, there was co-evolution. European economies of extraction inspired the kinds of science and technology that serve that purpose. And if you believe that is the only kind of science possible, then optimizing for the extraction of value from workers seems like an inevitable law of the universe. But Indigenous societies offer evidence that there are other ways of doing science, technology, and economics.