Joseph Needham, biochemist and historian, is ninety-two and has not yet completed the most remarkable academic career in twentieth-century England. His memorial will be Science and Civilization in China, which ranks with Toynbee’s A Study of History, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Havelock Ellis’s The Psychology of Sex among the monuments of liberal scholarship. Like all such monuments, Needham’s major work drives a small number of ideas about thought, politics, knowledge, and religion through an extraordinary range of material. The questions that arise are about the continuity between the vatic quality with which Needham has surrounded his interest in China since the 1940s and the vatic quality of his interest in biochemistry, science, religion, and politics before that.

By the time he began a four-year stint as Scientific Counsellor to the British Embassy in Chungking in 1942, Needham...


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