A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How come Europeans dominated the rest of the world and not vice versa?

June 20, 1997

Dear Cecil:

During this century we in the West have slowly begun to realize that there have been many other cultures that were on par, in many respects, with our own. It's well known that Europeans were cave dwellers (more or less) when Arabs, under Islamic reign, were astounding philosophers and scientists. How is it, then, that western Europeans were able to dominate the globe? Naturally, technical breakthroughs played a leading role, but why all these breakthroughs among people from the Western Hemisphere? Note: I do not wish to raise a racial issue, rather a cultural one. Praise, by the way, to the Internet for bringing the light, i.e., Uncle Cecil, overseas. Keeping in touch with your column from the other side of the Atlantic was a bitch.

Cecil replies:

Yeah, the net's OK. But as a longtime print guy I'll never be totally comfortable with a medium you can't fold up into paper hats. As for why the West dominated the globe so long, I know you want to keep this on an elevated plane, but one hates to pussyfoot. Let's examine the following blunt hypothesis.

1. White people are smarter than everybody else.

Maybe. But consider the following white (or mostly white) entities:

  • George Steinbrenner.
  • Professional sports team owners generally.
  • The Conservative Party in Britain.
  • U.S. congressional leadership.
  • Computer programmers who figured the arrival of the year 2000 might somehow be circumvented.

On the face of it these people don't make an overwhelming case for white genius. So let's try a different hypothesis:

2. White people are more obnoxious than anybody else.

The evidence: George Steinbrenner, pro team owners, etc.

Admit it, I'm on to something. To put it a bit more elegantly, western Europeans ruled because they were ruthless, well armed, and in your face. Fine, but how did they get that way? Historian Paul M. Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), says western Europe had three big advantages: Political and military pluralism. In contrast to the empires of the Orient, no single power dominated Europe. European states never got fat and happy but rather searched for ever more efficient ways to snuff their enemies.

3. A free-market economy.

Merchants and entrepreneurs made money, which kings needed to buy pikestaffs and cannonballs. They were oppressed everywhere by the ungrateful warrior class. In pluralistic Europe, however, hassled entrepreneurs could simply move to some neighboring state, which became prosperous and powerful as a result. Eventually even the stupidest European princeling realized it was in his interest to leave the business types alone. Merchants were also quick to grasp the moneymaking potential of colonial trade.

5. Intellectual liberty.

As another consequence of pluralism, scientists and other scholars were (relatively) free to advance the arts and sciences. This had obvious benefits for the economy, and occasionally some genius allowed to do his thing would come up with an atom bomb.

But we still haven't gotten to the heart of the matter. Why was Europe pluralistic? Setting aside the inevitable element of randomness and dumb luck, you have to look at geography. Europe lent itself to the creation of a lot of small states. Following Kennedy (loosely) again: The climate and terrain were extremely varied. There were lots of minor barriers, such as mountains, forests, bodies of water, etc., but no impassable ones. It was easy to set up a principality that was defensible but impossible to create one that was impregnable. No European crown ever rested easily. Strategic resources were distributed fairly uniformly. No state was ever able to gain a monopoly on the manufacture of firearms, for instance. Europe had been invaded repeatedly over the millennia and by 1500 consisted of numerous distinct cultural and language groups that could not be readily amalgamated and in many cases hated each other's guts. (Hello, Bosnia!) Their main goal was dominating their neighbors. The incidental result was that they dominated the world.

Why Europeans ruled

Dear Cecil:

Just read your response to P.H. Armbeck about why Europeans were able to dominate the world. I was surprised that you didn't comment on Armbeck's incorrect allegation that "Europeans were cave dwellers (more or less) when Arabs, under Islamic reign, were astounding philosophers and scientists." Islam didn't begin spreading until around 600 AD. This was long after the Greek and Roman civilizations flourished (well, maybe not so long after Rome). True, the Middle Ages weren't the highlight of Western civilization, but it was far from a complete slide back to the Stone Age, as Armbeck suggests. As for Islamic science and philosophy, a lot of it was based on Greek and Roman works that the Arabs discovered, translated, and researched.

Dear Cecil:

As far as European dominance goes, you're best off reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Kennedy's points on the subject are rather weak: "Political and military pluralism." The Orient is a misleading example, since everybody thinks of China and forgets about Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc. Also, most other regions (e.g., Africa) were politically diverse. "Intellectual liberty." At what point in time? The Middle East was much more open than Europe for most of history. And why did the Chinese invent everything? "The climate and terrain were extremely varied." Compared to where? Africa? North and South America? …

All in all Kennedy's arguments sound more like a shill for Adam Smith than a well-thought-out theory of what happened.

Cecil replies:

You're right, Arnold, I should have called Armbeck on his misleading generalization. We white folks need to be more aggressive in defending the achievements of our people.

As for Diamond's book, Tom, I'm afraid you misunderstood it (and me). Diamond and Kennedy address two related but distinct questions. Diamond asks why Eurasia and North Africa dominated the world. He mainly considers developments from prehistory through 1500 AD. Kennedy asks why Europeans specifically, out of all the Eurasian societies, dominated. He mostly looks at things from 1500 on. The answers they come up with are similar — they both credit environmental factors — and insofar as they address European dominance, their answers are pretty much the same.

Diamond says the Americas, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, and other non-Eurasian regions had several major deficiencies: (1) a lack of animals and plants suitable for domestication (the New World, for example, had no horses or other draft animals until Europeans arrived); (2) geographic isolation, which prevented the fruitful exchange of technology, goods, and ideas between cultures, e.g., the alphabetic writing that spread through much of Eurasia; and (3) fewer people than Eurasia, and thus fewer inventors and inventions, fewer competing societies, etc.

Finally, the New World and to some extent other non-Eurasian cultures lacked exposure (and thus immunity) to the germs carried by domesticated animals, which were the source of some of Europe's deadliest diseases. Thus they were devastated by said diseases following European contact. Cumulative result: in the long run Eurasians were the rulers, non-Eurasians the ruled.

As for objections to Kennedy's arguments on why Europe dominated other Eurasian societies — Tom, dude, you gotta read the books. China wasn't the only state in the Far East, obviously, but it was unquestionably the dominant force. The other important state, Japan, also chose to isolate itself. In contrast, no state dominated pluralistic Europe, and isolationism usually wasn't an option. The need to compete drove advances in technology. Sub-Saharan Africa lacked Eurasian resources and wasn't even in the running. Whatever may be said for Islamic culture prior to 1500 AD, few would dispute that Europe was more open intellectually than other Eurasian societies after that date. My point about European geography was that it was varied but not too varied and thus supported a group of states that were constantly competing with one another. Diamond agrees, writing: "Technology may have developed most rapidly in regions [such as Europe] with moderate [geographic] connectedness, neither too high nor too low." The point is that environmental conditions in Europe favored pluralism, which in turn led to the rapid diffusion of technology and eventually world dominance. Sorry if Kennedy's faith in pluralism sounds too much like Adam Smith for your taste, Tom, but it's hardly a belief in which he's alone.

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