Pomeranz argues, in a book which has become quite influential of late ( -- Martin Jacques, for example, relies on Pomeranz' revisionist history), that the 'great divergence' of China and the West only occurs about 1800; that before that time, China was -- if anything -- ahead; and that the divergence came as a result of fortuitous and purely material circumstances… viz. as the world exhausted its supplies of energy (wood), England had ready access to large deposits of coal that lay near its industrial heartland, while China had coal, but it was in the north and northwest, and at a distance from the industrial areas; and because Europe also had a sudden access to large quantities of natural resources in the New World.
Of course, this begs the question as to why it was Europe, and not China, that engaged in a period of Discovery; that Europe (as Mokyr has argued) was already ahead in early forms of industrialization well before 1800, during the 16th and 17th centuries; why it was Europe that built and then USED guns (e.g.), and not China (which had invented gunpowder), etc. etc.
While there are many factors -- there can be little question that Europe brought something 'cultural' to the table. 'The 'Spirit of Protestantism', of course, was Weber's answer. But there is something more to be added to this -- namely, to use J.H. Parry's brilliant phrase, "an extreme readiness to apply science in immediately practical ways" (Age of Reconnaissance, p. 15).
The Chinese had technology (gunpowder) and they had theory (science), but like the Greeks of the Hellenistic period who only used their knowledge of steam-power to power toys at the court of the Ptolemies, they largely failed to combine the two -- which is precisely what was accomplished, to a degree previously undreamt of, in the Europe of the 15th-18th century.
What Europe had, of course, that was unique -- was a fully developed and formalizable theory of induction, which had been developed by logicians in Oxford at the time of Robert Grosseteste (see, e.g., A.C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100-1700; also http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/731391.The_History_of_Science_from_Augustine_to_Galileo), which itself was developed directly out of the concept of analysis (which Descartes describes in the Regula as the method of discovery, as opposed to Synthesis, which is the method of exposition), which was in turn derived from early Greek mathematical writers (the notion is already in Aristotle) who passed it on to the Greek commentary tradition (the so-called Aristotelian Commentators of the CAG), and thence to the Arabs, from whom it passed (via Averroes) to the West under the Latin name of 'regressus'. This concept of analysis (by which one passes from the confused whole presented in sensation to the elements that compose it -- and then, via synthesis, back to the whole) -- this concept of analysis, however, as Francis Bacon and only a few others have seen, was derived directly from the Socratic dialectic -- which itself is inconceivable without the highly articulated and inflected nature of the ancient Greek language. Thus the seeds of the 'Great Divergence' lay far in advance of British coal mines.
(I read this book about a year -- no, maybe two years ago -- and was not impressed. Of course, this is not my field, and it was the first book I had read on the topic of the great divergence -- so the following needs to be taken with large heapings of salt….
First of all the writing was turgid and repetitive -- it had all of the vices, and none of the graces of good academic writing. But more than that (though that is a lot), I recall feeling that the book underweighted the advantages that Europe had in terms of a culture of rational analysis -- that must have been critical to the development of industrialization.
I also could not believe that the mere proximity of coal could be a distinguishing characteristic of importance, since access doesn't necessitate use. It is well known, for example, that the Alexandrians (in the Hellenistic period) knew how to harness steam power, but used it only to make toy battleships for the Ptolemaic court to play with; the Greeks knew all about induction and deduction, had a full grasp of the hypothetical method as early as Plato's Meno, and knew the difference between analysis and synthesis as early as Plato and Aristotle, and yet STILL never developed the experimental method -- which had to wait upon Roger Bacon (who himself had to learn of it, of course indirectly, from Averroes and from the Arabic translations of the late Greek commentaries on Aristotle; see, e.g., the works of A.C. Crombie). Indeed, the Greeks did have the concept of zero (ouden), despite what is often said -- they just didn't use it in mathematics as a place holder -- which was the key innovation made by the Arabs.
So knowledge of a thing does not necessarily mean that a thing gets used. There has to be some sort of intellectual catalyst, as well as a material one.
Anyway -- all this by way of preface to the claim that this article by Joel Mokyr (h/t caseyang) offers a very nice introductory critique of Pomeranz' oft-cited book -- though I am sure that Mokyr's argument will be unwelcome to many in the Academy: http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jmokyr/Riverside.PDF
But the merit of a book rests upon its method, not upon its implications -- a fact generally overlooked by contemporary scholarship in *many* a field.)