Sunday, July 31, 2005The airing of a Guns, Germs, and Steel documentary has sparked some interesting discussion. The book itself is attempting to explain why Europe, the Middle East, China, and India developed economically and the rest of the world didn't. Some people are wondering why Diamond didn't also answer why, among the civilized regions, it was Europe that ended it being the most advanced region by the time of 1600 or so (via Kevin Drum).
I agree with Kevin that this is an interesting question but not a fair critique of Diamond's book, since it's a question he never really asked. But the "geography as destiny" principle at the heart of Guns, Germs and Steel can also be applied to question of Europe's modern success. India, the Middle East, and China are dominated by river valleys and great plains. This means that whenever one military power gains a marginal advantage, it can usually control the entire region. So there has been a tradition of political unity in those three areas of the world. Rulers tend to like as little change as possible in order to preserve their authority, and as such promote cultural homogeneity and encourage ethics of hierarchy and subordination. Such cultural patterns tend to inhibit commercial or intellectual development in any truly radical ways. Hence the basic continuity of Indian, Middle Eastern, or Chinese civilization.
Europe's history is very different, in part because its geography is so different. Rather than a region dominated by a few big river valleys, it is divided by mountain ranges, has a lot of large peninsulas (Spain, Italy, the Balkans, Scandinavia), and a bunch of islands. This phenomena has made Europe a region characterized not by political unity but political pluralism. The diversity of politics has prevented any one cultural, ethical, or religious model from maintaining any real long-term dominance. The competition between these states created a motive for continuous improvement given the permanent military and technological "arms race." If you as a ruler are constantly at war with states just as strong as you are, you're always going to be ready to try new things and will always need a lot of money - making merchants and industrialists a heck of a lot more important than they would be with no local rivals. Finally, this political fragmentation & competition probably had something to do with European exploration, since all of the European Great Powers were always on the lookout for any extra territory or trade that might give them an edge.
Now I don't think that geographic determinism is the only reason why some regions prosper and others stagnate. Europe could have gone in a very similar direction if the Roman Empire hadn't collapsed (a fall which was in no way inevitable) or if someone like Charlemagne or Charles V had managed to create a durable political supremacy (which they very easily might have done).
So dumb luck and individual leaders can also make a difference in the fate of civilizations. But geography is one very important explanatory factor, one Diamond is simply using to analyze the grand sweep of human history. As such it's something we shouldn't minimize when wondering why even individual nations, like the United States or Britain, have done as well as they have.