For most of history, China was the center of civilization. It had the biggest cities, the most complex government, the highest quality manufacturing, the most industrial capacity, the most advanced technology, the best historical records and the largest armies. It dominated East Asia at the center of an elaborate tribute system for a thousand years.

Western Europe was a backwater's backwater. It had few cities. Most people lived on the countryside. Technology regressed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

And yet, in recent centuries, it was Western Europe (along with Russia and the USA) that conquered the world. When a Chinese exporter sells lead-acid batteries to an Argentinian importer they wear European clothes, speak English and settle accounts in USD.

Why?

Guns, Germs, and Steel

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond divides the human-occupied world into four regions: Eurasia (including Mediterranean North Africa), Subsaharan Africa, America and Australia. One of these is not like the others. Eurasia is the biggest and had access to the most domestic animal species. Large interconnected trade networks of people evolve diseases faster, develop technology faster and can support more complex economies.

Native America never stood a chance. Most Native Americans were killed by Eurasian communicable diseases. European empires just finished the job. Australia suffered a similar fate.

In Africa, the disease situation was almost reversed. Africans are resistant to European diseases but Europeans are susceptible to African diseases. Europeans' better technology and organization defeated Africans on the battlefield but it wasn't until after the large-scale manufacture of quinine beginning around 1850 that the scramble for Africa really took off.

Jared Diamond makes a persuasive case for why Eurasian (including Mediterranean North Africa) people dominated the peoples of America, Subsaharan Africa and Australia. But why Europe? Why not China or India or the Muslim Empires? Why did Europe dominate Asia?

The Opium Wars 1839–1842

The Opium Wars were a conflict between the United Kingdom [of Europe] and the Qing Dynasty [of China]. Britain didn't just win. Britain swiftly crushed China. Britain dominated for two reasons: one technical, the other political.

The technical reason Britain won was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain. Guns and ships require lots of iron. The Industrial Revolution gave Britain the best guns and the best ships.

But the Industrial Revolution is only half of the story. China goes through dynastic cycles of unification and dissolution. At the height of a dynasty's power, the ruling dynasty is able to field enormous resources. At the depths of a warring states period, Chinese states are toughened by the pressures of war. If an outside power wants to conquer China, the best time to do so is while a dynasty is crumbling.

Britain started the Opium Wars right after the China had just finished fighting both sides of multiple civil wars including the Taiping Rebellion and the Dungan Revolt. The Dungan Revolt is among the ten biggest wars in human history. The Taiping Rebellion was (at the time) the biggest war in human history. It was surpassed only by World War II. The financially-exhausted Qing Dynasty was barely holding on to power.

At the height of the Qing Dynasty's power, Napoleon called it a "sleeping dragon". Britain didn't attack the Qing Dynasty at the height of China's power. Britain attacked when the Qing Dynasty was weakest. Britain could choose to attack when the Qing Dynasty was weakest because Britain had long-range ships. Britain could sail to China and attack whenever it wanted to. The Qing Dynasty lacked the naval capacity to attack Britain. Britain chose the conditions of engagement.

In this way, the British conquest of China was not unlike the British conquest of India.

India

India was the crown jewel of the British Empire. Europeans didn't just land in India and immediately conquer it the way they destroyed Mesoamerica. It took centuries. The Portuguese had been establishing trade ports in the Indian Ocean for a hundred years before the British even arrived.

The Dutch, Portuguese and French avoided trading in India because the Mughal Empire was so powerful it could set the terms of trade. Capitalism comes from the barrel of a gun. The Dutch East India Company had 150 merchant ships, 40 warships and 10,000 soldiers but even that wasn't enough to overpower the Mughal Empire. The Dutch East India Company concentrated on the Indonesian spice trade instead of the literal Indian spice trade because the small kingdoms of Indonesia were weaker than the Mughal Empire of India. Britain set up trade ports in India because it was the only spice-producing region in the Indian Ocean where the trade terms were so bad that the other European powers didn't care enough to fight the British for the right to operate there.

In 1685, the English East India Company got into a trade spat with the Mughal Empire. How dare the sovereign Indian government impose taxes on British merchants trading on Indian soil! King James II dispatched twelve modern warships loaded with troops. The English East India Company lost the war and was fined 150,000 rupees (roughly equivalent to $4.4 million USD today) by Emperor Aurangzeb.

The Industrial Revolution was just getting started. It hadn't yet exploded into unstoppable exponential growth. The empires of Europe were weaker than the empires of India and China all the way up until the Industrial Revolution.

It wasn't until later, when the Industrial Revolution had progressed in Britain and the Mughal Empire was falling apart that the British Empire began taking control of India.

Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Europe?

It makes sense that the Industrial Revolution would start in exactly one place because it happened fast (by previous historical standards) and because the Industrial Revolution increased iron production which is useful for making good ships. While doing research for this post, I interviewed a sailor who worked for months on a three-masted clipper ship. He explained to me how Napoleonic worm gears required metal of a quantity and quality available only well-into the Industrial Revolution. The British Empire build factories which built ships which expanded the British Empire.

Heavy industry was not distributed evenly throughout the British Empire. Manufacturing was concentrated in England. Mercantilist trade policy compelled the British colonies to send raw materials to the British Isles where they would be turned into manufactured goods to be sold to the colonies. Heavy industry were built in London at the expense of development in the colonies. The United States' manufacturing exploded after the American revolution. India was plagued by famine after famine while the United States turned itself into a global superpower.

Here is a snapshot of the world in 1700, right before the Industrial Revolution.

The Asian empires are contiguous. The European empires are discontiguous. Think about the economic pressures that promote mechanization. Optimal conditions combine tremendous wealth with a labor shortage. In ancient China, technology was used to harness excess human labor. Paul Polak built a poverty-alleviation program out of harnessing cheap labor in modern India. You're not going to invest in primitive steam engines when human labor is cheaper than coal.

When a country gets rich, peasants walk to the big cities. But that that doesn't work when the big city is separated from the countryside by a thousand miles of ocean. European technology (except long-range ships) wasn't overpoweringly better (yet) than the Asian empires' in 1700. European hegemony was caused by the Industrial Revolution was caused by high labor value relative to material costs was caused by discontiguous empires was caused by long-range trade.

Why was it Europeans who developed long-range cargo ships?

My Scottish relatives are fond of this joke: Why did the English conquer the world? Because there is nothing of value in the British Isles.

Picture the trade networks in 1485 from the perspective of a Portuguese merchant. Tea, spices and manufactured goods all come from the opposite end of Eurasia. The Mamaluke Sultunate controls Egypt. The Suez Canal has not been dug yet. If you lived in Western Europe and you wanted Indian trade goods you had to sail across the Mediterranean, get off your ship, pay the Mamalukes' toll, cross Egypt on foot, get on a new ship, sail to India and then reverse the entire process (including paying the Mamalukes' toll a second time).

Overland trade is expensive, especially when it all goes through a single choke point controlled by greedy infidels. Europe was desperate for an alternative trade route to Asia. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias made the dangerous journey around the Cape of Good Hope in 1486, connecting Europe to Asia via water.

Why didn't the Mamaluke Sultunate do this? Because they didn't need to. They controlled the Sinai peninsula. Muslims weren't about to sail in a full circle around the entire continent of Africa just to avoid interacting with themselves.

Why didn't India and China experiment with long trading voyages? China did. The Portuguese weren't the only 15th century oceanic explorers. The Ming Dynasty built the greatest fleet the world had ever seen and sent it west in seven voyages of exploration. They made it all the way to Arabia and Africa. Despite conquering Ceylon, the Ming treasure fleet discovered nothing of sufficient value to justify its expense. The Chinese wrote the expeditions off as a loss and returned home. India and China didn't need to sail halfway around the world to get trade access to Indian spices and Chinese porcelain.

They didn't need to conquer either. China plus India encompassed between one third and one half of the world's population. Overseas expansion would be an unprofitable logistics nightmare. The Delhi Sultunate was not about to send a trade voyage to Scotland just to obtain a bit of wool. All they wanted from Europe was silver and gold. They could obtain that just fine sitting at home in their trade ports. Let the Europeans come to them.

Christopher Columbus

Shortly after Bartolomeu Dias succeeded in connecting Europe to Asia via water, a Spanish explored named Christopher Columbus used the power of European science to calculate that it would be shorter to travel west from Europe to India than to travel east around Africa as Bartolomeu Dias did.

He didn't know about America. Nobody (except the Americans) knew about America. They all assumed there was just a big ocean between Europe and Asia. We suspect (but are not sure) that Columbus accepted Ptolemy's estimate that Eurasia spanned 225° longitude (most scholars accepted Ptolemy's estimate that Eurasia spanned 180° longitude). Actually, it's 130° from Europe to Japan and 150° from Europe to China.

Columbus used the Arab astronomer Al-Farghani's estimate that each degree of longitude spanned 45⅔ miles. Al-Farghani was correct. However, Columbus didn't realize that Arabic miles are shorter than Roman miles. Columbus therefore underestimated the circumference of the Earth by 25%.

Put all of this mistakes together and Columbus underestimated the distance from Europe to Asia by between 2× and 5.4×. He should have died because no 15th century ship could travel the actual distance westward from Europe to Asia. European overseas expansion was kicked off when he landed in America by accident, believing (possibly to his dying day) that he had reached India.

The discontiguous European overseas empires started with Christopher Columbus. Europeans conquered the world because their technology was so awful that everything of value was located somewhere else and because one specific European was bad at science that several of his misassumptions and miscalculations happened to perfectly cancel out by sheer luck.

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This post seems to be riddled with inaccuracies and misleading statements. I'll just name a few here, since documenting all of them would take more time than I'm willing to spare.

For most of history, China was the center of civilization. It had the biggest cities, the most complex government, the highest quality manufacturing, the most industrial capacity, the most advanced technology, the best historical records and the largest armies. It dominated East Asia at the center of an elaborate tribute system for a thousand years.

This is simply false. China sometimes had the biggest cities and sometimes did not. In the early Roman imperial period, for example, the biggest cities in the world were Rome, Alexandria, Seleucia and Luoyang. Only one of those cities was in China. The same pattern holds later in history also; for example, at the height of the Abbasid Caliphate Baghdad was the biggest city in the world, at the height of the Ottoman Empire Constantinople was the biggest city in the world and so on.

It's also a big stretch to say that China "dominated East Asia" for a thousand years. Sometimes China was dominant, sometimes it was not.

Western Europe was a backwater's backwater. It had few cities. Most people lived on the countryside. Technology regressed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

There's no evidence for the claim that technology regressed after the fall of Western Rome. There were not as many big cities in Europe as there were in the time of Western Rome, but where do you get the impression that technology went backwards in this period?

The technical reason Britain won was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain. Guns and ships require lots of iron. The Industrial Revolution gave Britain the best guns and the best ships.

This is misleading at best. In most cases the reason European armies were able to defeat local armies was not that the locals lacked the equipment the Europeans had; indeed they could buy that equipment from Europeans on the open market! Both sides in the Taiping rebellion were armed with modern equipment for the time, for example. Especially when it came to land battles, the reason European armies were superior was for organizational reasons. They were better led, individual soldiers were better trained and more capable, soldiers were better able to coordinate their actions with each other, et cetera.

This is still true, by the way: the United States and Saudi Arabia often use the very same equipment for their military since the Saudis buy the equipment from the US, but if the US army actually had to fight the Saudi army the Saudis would lose without even putting up much of a fight. That's what happened when the UK went to war with China in 1839.

Britain started the Opium Wars right after the China had just finished fighting both sides of multiple civil wars including the Taiping Rebellion and the Dungan Revolt.

This is incorrect. The Taiping Rebellion began in the early 1850s, while the First Opium War (as you cite in your post) began in 1839 and ended in 1842. Ditto for the Dungan Revolt, it occured well after the end of the First Opium War.

European hegemony was caused by the Industrial Revolution was caused by high labor value relative to material costs was caused by discontiguous empires was caused by long-range trade.

This explanation clearly would have been extremely unpersuasive ex ante, so there's no reason for us to take it seriously ex post unless we somehow got a lot of detailed evidence about all the causal links mentioned in this speculation. We didn't get any such evidence, so this explanation should just be dismissed unless someone can give a stronger argument for it.

What I don't like about this post is that everything in it is stated as fact, while at best it consists of implausible speculation (at worst of outright falsehoods).

This is simply false…. In the early Roman imperial period, for example, the biggest cities in the world were Rome, Alexandria, Seleucia and Luoyang…. The same pattern holds later in history also; for example, at the height of the Abbasid Caliphate Baghdad was the biggest city in the world, at the height of the Ottoman Empire Constantinople was the biggest city in the world and so on.

I'd be happy to be corrected if I'm wrong. Do you have more precise numbers?

There's no evidence for the claim that technology regressed after the fall of Western Rome. There were not as many big cities in Europe as there were in the time of Western Rome, but where do you get the impression that technology went backwards in this period?

Roman concrete fell out of use after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It is my impression that not many aqueducts were built either.

My reference point for technological regression after the fall of the Western Roman Empire comes from science rather than technology. My understanding of the Renaissance (from reading Destiny Disrupted) is that much of European philosophy (including science) only survived because it was preserved by the Arabic-speaking world.

In most cases the reason European armies were able to defeat local armies was not that the locals lacked the equipment the Europeans had; indeed they could buy that equipment from Europeans on the open market!

I agree. This is why Europeans choosing the terms of engagement was so important. They won when the Mughal and Qing empires were at their weakest.

I'd be happy to be corrected if I'm wrong. Do you have more precise numbers?

There's obviously quite a bit of uncertainty when it comes to ancient city populations, but Wikipedia has a nice aggregation of three different sources which list the largest city in the world at various times in history. Estimates of city populations can vary by a factor of 2 or more across different sources, but the overall picture is that sometimes the largest city in the world was Chinese and sometimes it was not.

My reference point for technological regression after the fall of the Western Roman Empire comes from science rather than technology. My understanding of the Renaissance (from reading Destiny Disrupted) is that much of European philosophy (including science) only survived because it was preserved by the Arabic-speaking world.

I'm not an expert on the subject but this has always appeared highly implausible to me. I'd need to see strong evidence, ideally from multiple different sources, to be convinced that this really happened.

I agree. This is why Europeans choosing the terms of engagement was so important. They won when the Mughal and Qing empires were at their weakest.

I'm not sure why we should think the Qing empire was especially weak in 1839 compared to, say, 1789. On paper they look stronger: China's population was bigger in 1839 than it was in 1789. If the criterion for judging whether China is weak or not whether they lose in wars against foreign countries, then tautologically whenever China is doing badly it will be because they are "at their weakest".

What I think actually happened is that the Qing dynasty of 1839 was either about as strong as the Qing dynasty of 1789 or even slightly more so, but the Europeans were much more so. The Europeans also had a greater ability to project power at a long distance in 1839 than they did in 1789. If the Qing dynasty had to fight the armies of the Napoleonic era in 1789, it's clear to me that the Qing dynasty would have been massacred, and I don't think the reason would have much to do with technology.

Thank you for the link. I'm curious what the table would look like if we examined the top 10 or 20 cities instead of just those tied for the top position.

If the Qing dynasty had to fight the armies of the Napoleonic era in 1789, it's clear to me that they would have been massacred, and I don't think the reason would have much to do with technology.

Who does "they" refer to in this sentence? It could mean two very different things.

Thank you for the link. I'm curious what the table would look like if we examined the top 10 or 20 cities instead of just those tied for the top position.

I think this is quite a tall order for ancient times, but a source I've found useful is this video by Ollie Bye on YouTube. It's possible to move his estimates around by factors of 2 or so at various points, but I think they are correct when it comes to the order of magnitude of historical city populations.

Who does "they" refer to in this sentence? It could mean two very different things.

Edited the parent comment to make it clearer. "They" refers to the Qing dynasty.

It is my impression that not many aqueducts were built either.

My understanding is that not many were built because they didn’t have much need for them (since they didn’t have the huge cities that needed water imported). They did eventually lose the specific knowledge of building aqueducts, much like we today have lost the knowledge of how to make Dhaka muslin, but it represents a single datapoint not an overall regression.

Cathedrals are an example of a engineering project that was possible in medieval Europe but not in Roman Europe.

Europe 1300 A.D. was more advanced both technologically and scientifically than the Roman empire in a lot of ways. Europe 1000 AD is more debatable and Europe 700 AD surely was not more advanced.

 

Jared Diamond makes a persuasive case for

Note that GGS is considered very poorly by historians as far as I understand, see e.g. this AskHistorians comment:

The quick and dirty answer is that modern historians and anthropologists are quite critical of, if not borderline/outright hostile to, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Put bluntly, historians and anthropologists believe Diamond plays fast and loose with history by generalizing highly complex topics to provide an ecological/geographical determinist view of human history that, in the end, paradoxically supports the very racism/Eurocentricism he is attempting to argue against. There is a reason historians avoid grand theories of human history: those "just so stories" don't adequately explain human history.

Given our natural tendency to avoid speaking with authority on topics outside our expertise, academic analysis of GG&S is somewhat wanting. To work around this issue, /u/snickeringshadow and I constructed several point by point refutations in another history-related community. I will quote a bit from both analyses because they illustrate many of the critical issues permeating GG&S, though I'll just discuss three of the issues.

First, Diamond notoriously cherry-picks data that supports his hypothesis while ignoring the complexity of the issues.

In his chapter "Lethal Gift of Livestock" on the origin of human crowd infections he picks 5 pathogens that best support his idea of domestic origins. However, when I dived into the genetic and historic data, only two pathogens (maybe influenza and most likely measles) on his hand-picked All Star team could possibly have jumped to humans through domestication. The majority were already a part of the human disease load before the origin of agriculture, domestication, and sedentary population centers. Diamond ignored the evidence that didn't support his theory to explain conquest via disease spread to immunologically naive Native Americas.

Also, he cherry-picks history when discussing the conquest of the Inka...

Pizarro's military advantages lay in the Spaniards' steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns, and horses... Such imbalances of equipment were decisive in innumerable other confrontations of Europeans with Native Americans and other peoples. The sole Native Americans able to resist European conquest for many centuries were those tribes that reduced the military disparity by acquiring and mastering both guns and horses.

This is just patently false. Conquest was not a simple matter of conquering a people, raising a Spanish flag, and calling "game over." Conquest was a constant process of negotiation, accommodation, and rebellion played out through the ebbs and flows of power over the course of centuries. Some Yucatan Maya city-states maintained independence for two hundred years after contact, were "conquered", and then immediately rebelled again. The Pueblos along the Rio Grande revolted in 1680, dislodged the Spanish for a decade, and instigated unrest that threatened the survival of the entire northern edge of the empire for decades to come. Technological "advantage", in this case guns and steel, did not automatically equate to battlefield success in the face of resistance, rough terrain and vastly superior numbers. The story was far more nuanced, and conquest was never a cut and dry issue, but Diamond doesn't mention that complexity. The Inka were conquered when Pizarro says they were conquered, and technology reigns supreme in Diamond's narrative.

This brings us to a second issue: Diamond uncritically examines the historical record surrounding conquest.

Pizarro, Cortez and other conquistadores were biased authors who wrote for the sole purpose of supporting/justifying their claim on the territory, riches and peoples they subdued. To do so they elaborated their own sufferings, bravery, and outstanding deeds, while minimizing the work of native allies, pure dumb luck, and good timing. If you only read their accounts, like Diamond seems to do, you walk away thinking a handful of adventurers conquered an empire thanks to guns and steel and a smattering of germs. No historian in the last half century would be so naive to argue this generalized view of conquest, but European technological supremacy is one keystone to Diamond's thesis so he presents conquest at the hands of a handful of adventurers.

Finally, though I do not believe this was his intent, the construction of the arguments for GG&S paints Native Americans specifically, and the colonized world-wide in general, as categorically inferior.

To believe the narrative you need to view Native Americans as fundamentally naive, unable to understand Spanish motivations and desires, unable react to new weapons/military tactics, unwilling to accommodate to a changing political landscape, incapable of mounting resistance once conquered, too stupid to invent the key technological advances used against them, and doomed to die because they failed to build cities, domesticate animals and thereby acquire infectious organisms. When viewed through this lens, I hope you can see why so many historians and anthropologists are livid that a popular writer is perpetuating a false interpretation of history while minimizing the agency of entire continents full of people.

Instead of GG&S try...

Restall Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Mann 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

MacQuarrie Last Days of the Inca

And if you would like to hear more about infectious disease spread after contact... Kelton Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715

or this one: 

Yours is a common conundrum. Look through any /r/history thread mentioning Diamond and you will see dozens of people who find our critiques pedantic, and that, in a general sense, Diamond’s thesis makes sense. This is a very difficult attitude to address, because it’s rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how social sciences work. The attitude evaluates the ideas of popular authors from a utilitarian, practical approach: if the thesis is useful and helps makes sense of the world, it has value. We researchers take an inductive approach: if your methodology and facts are wrong, your thesis can't be right, no matter how much it "makes sense."

For this reason, I’m kind of sick of talking about Diamond’s theoretical bents and ideologies. The standards by which scholars and the public evaluate them are so different that we have to address an entire epistemological orientation.

But before we get anywhere, let’s start at the very beginning: the central thesis of GG&S:

  1. Europeans decisively conquered the Americas
  2. with a potent combination of guns, germs, and steel
  3. which they had, and the Americans did not, because of several ecological factors.
  4. This is why white people have all the “cargo.”

Anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians critique this thesis because numbers 1, 2, and 4 are simply incorrect.

  1. The European conquest was hardly decisive. Furthermore, the difference between hemispheres wasn’t all that great.
  2. The greatest weapon Europeans had was neither guns nor steel, but native alliances, which you seem to have read about. Similarly, the titular germs were not inherently devastating. Epidemics started after European intervention in the form of slave trades, forced resettlement, or the like. Diamond's depiction of European arrival is mostly incorrect.
  3. White people having the “cargo” is a result of colonial practices of the newly globalized world. Colonialists typically worked with local elites to exploit already disadvantaged populations

That leaves us with number 3, which is what I presume you are asking about. How do local mammals, available crops, etc. play into the development of civilizations? The shorthand for this mechanism of historical processes is environmental or geographical determinism. As I’m sure you’ve seen on the sub (if not, do a quick search for “determinism”), there’s dozens of questions that pop up regularly:

  • How much does Diamond rely on it? How central is it to his thesis?
  • Where do we draw the line between “were able to” and “did?” If Diamond proves the ability to conquer, how does that relate in any way to the actual conquest event?
  • What then is the reason the Spanish had ships and the Aztecs didn’t? And so on.

Again, I’m kind of sick of this. I and many other flairs have discussed these questions in good faith with people whose ideas are not going to change, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve dug myself into some holes. You’re right. There’s not many books or articles out there that offer a sound, thorough rebuttal of Diamond’s brand of environmental determinism.

And I, for one, couldn’t care less. Why?

I have better things to do than critique explanations for events that never happened.

Let’s suppose I’m reading a lab report from a student. Tommy writes that when he mixed two clear liquids together, a purple solid formed at the bottom of the beaker. Tommy determines that this solid is a chemical called Purple. The report has some figuring to show that the only two clear liquids that combine to form Purple are Chemical A and Chemical B. “Great job!” I write on Tommy’s paper.. and then I turn to the photographs he has attached of the lab. Silly Tommy! The solid in the photos is obviously green, and there are bright yellow bubbles.

I’m now stuck with a dilemma. What do I make of the reaction Tommy’s come up with? Is he a good scientist? There’s sound internal logic in the reaction he has plotted. Chemicals A and B do make Purple when mixed. But at the same time, thinking the solid was purple and missing the bubbles is so outrageously ignorant and unobservant that Tommy obviously has some work to do. Did he even do the experiment?

This is where we stand with Diamond. Just as Chemicals A and B do in fact make Purple, environmental determinism is not inherently a flawed historical mechanism. Abundant, stable, and nutritious fish populations on the Peruvian coast encouraged early sedentism in South America. Close access to obsidian, iron, gold, or other commodities gave many polities trade privileges. Wheels are dumb in mountains. The divergent developments of cultures across seven continents can of course, in some ways, be attributed to their environments- wild seed sizes, protein content centrality, and all.

At the same time, Diamond pins the present state of the world, the difference in “cargo,” on events that never happened. Just as Tommy’s report extrapolated causes from a flawed version of an event, Diamond extrapolates causes for a conquest that didn’t happen. (Let’s not get into the teleological flaws of such histories.) In a world where conquistadors bested Aztecs with with guns and Spanish friars set up missions in communities devastated by plague, Diamond’s arguments would matter. But this is a world where Tlaxcalans bested Aztecs, and Spanish friars set up many failed missions before gaining a foothold and witnessing entirely disrupted populations fall to disease afterwards.

Thus, even if we validate with absolute certainty that the Eurasian continent gave its residents greater contact with domesticated animals, and that larger wild seed sizes were able to support larger urban populations, and that these in tandem gave Europeans a increased resistance to disease it wouldn't matter. History as Diamond describes it still would not have happened. It never did. The given effects did not happen, so we must question the validity of the causes.

If you're arguing that Ross Perot became president in 1992 instead of Bill Clinton, it doesn't matter if you think that Clinton's campaign was sabotaged by the Chinese or that Perot personally changed all ballots to votes for him: he didn't win, so why debate what made him win? In the same way, I'm not going to waste my time critiquing Diamond's brand of environmental determinism because it explains events that never happened.

To provide some resources about your other questions:

  • The simplest and most common critique of Diamond is that he’s reliant on environmental determinism exclusively. There are 5000 ways to study history, and choosing just one is never good.
  • Beyond Germs which you can pick up for a decent price, dismantles the idea that pre-existing factors caused native depopulation by disease. Diseases killed, yes, but primarily as a result of European practices post-contact. Mass resettlement into compact and unsanitary reduccion towns, disruption and destruction of traditional foodways, abusive forced labor in mines and hacienda plantations, and other factors all enabled diseases to assault an already weakened populace. Resistance had little to do with.
  • On a similar note, the most deadly diseases did not originate from domesticated mammals.
  • The “unequal development” of Eurasia and the Americas was not that unequal. There’s also no reason to assume they should have followed similar, and most “advanced” things are really just “more European.”
  • I would take a look at “World Systems” theory as an idea behind the development of the modern balances of power and wealth.

or this one:

I thought I’d throw in my 2c’s and tell you exactly why I, personally, have issues with Diamond. I’m mainly going to focus on the Conquest of the Americas, because it is my area, and this was also the ‘turning point,’ as identified by Diamond himself.

The big challenge with debating Guns, Germs, and Steel, is that Diamond is not exactly wrong. The points he raises are valid. Disease and technology did play a role in the European domination of the world. The problem is that Diamond makes several basic, let’s call them assumptions, regarding some parts of his argument, especially revolving around agriculture and writing. In addition, there are several points that Diamond completely ignores or dismisses, such as Native disunity and human agency.

Let’s begin with the big set piece, Cajamarca. Diamond uses this set piece as a vehicle to demonstrate his arguments. To him, the Incas are defeated by a combination of technology and literacy. However, his portrayal of the incident is incomplete, and myopic. My first question is, why this incident? Why Cajamarca, and not Otumba, a battle against the Aztecs? This might seem like a bit of a nit-picky question, but the Aztecs were the first major Native American Empire to fall to the Spanish. This war basically created stereotypical views on the clash of culture. However, dealing with the Aztecs would bring up two points that contradict his argument. First, there is the belief that Motecuhzoma mistook Cortes for a returning god. Now, historians have largely dismissed the idea that the Aztecs thought the Spanish gods. However, dealing with the issue brings up the question of human agency. Second, the Conquest of Mexico took place in the midst of an Indigenous civil war, with the Tlaxcalans playing a prominent role in the conflict. Both of these challenge Diamond’s thesis of Environmental Determinism. It doesn’t help that the Aztecs inflicted some serious defeats on the Spanish, most notably La Noche Triste, questioning his technological argument. So he shifts his attention to Cajamarca, where these issues are less noticeable.

As for Cajamarca itself, Diamond makes two big mistakes. First, he presents it as a battle, when it really was not. Atahualpa’s retinue was unarmed and unarmoured. It was less a battle and more of a massacre. At that point the technological difference hardly matters. Second, he makes assumptions about Atahualpa’s intentions, blaming his decision to meet Pizzaro on a lack of a literate culture. Atahualpa could not see the obvious trap because he was not well read enough to know about deception. This view is problematic for several reasons, but the most important here is that it makes assumptions about Atahualpa’s intentions. The truth is, we don’t really know what Atahualpa was thinking. However, I have read some (secondary) sources that imply that Pizzaro and the Inca were discussing rebellions in Peru, and Atahualpa may have thought that Pizzaro was a mercenary offering to fight for him. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on the Incas, so I’ll leave the guesswork there. Suffice to say, Diamond’s assertion that Atahualpa was ignorant is highly dubious, to say the least.

There are lot of other little things wrong with Cajamarca. For example, Diamond states that Conquistadors wore steel armour (most did not), that Native armour couldn’t protect indigenous warriors (it could), and the idea that technological adaption was restricted to a few indigenous groups, (it was actually pretty common). Basically, Diamond’s demonstrative example is a pretty poor choice. But let’s change tracks here and look at his points more generally.

Guns and Steel:

The easiest part of Diamond’s argument to understand are his technological points. After all, the power of a sword of gun can be demonstrated, tested, measured. However, the issue is much more complicated than it seems. While there is no doubt that Spanish steel swords were effective weapons, the Conquistadors were definitely better off with them, there is the question over exactly how effective they were in practice. The Aztecs for example, had the macahuitl, their obsidian swords. Although not as effective as a steel sword, they were still dangerous weapons that were capable of killing a horse in a single blow. They also came in two-handed varieties, which were longer than Spanish swords. Thus, the Aztecs fought the Spanish on relatively even terms, and it is not clear that the steel (though stronger than obsidian), would have been enough to make up the difference.

A lot of other Spanish weapons were much less clearly advantageous, often having serious limitations. Gunpowder weapons were slow, inaccurate, clumsy, and frequently lacked powder. They were useless in the wet, and noisy. Crossbows were more effective, but suffered from slow fire rates. Native bows were not quite as damaging, but nevertheless, they were still powerful. Furthermore, they could be fired several times for each crossbow bolt. Horse too, often regarded as the Spanish ‘ace up the sleeve,’ were much less effective than reported. Central Mexican warriors often stood their ground against cavalry, even to the point of grapping the riders’ lances. In any case, the Spanish only had a limited supply of these weapons, so it is hard to know if they really had an appreciable effect.

Conversely, Native societies proved far more adaptable than Diamond realizes, both technologically and tactically. Although Diamond is well aware of technological adaptation (he has a whole chapter on it), he tends to downplay it with the Spanish Conquest. Yet, many native peoples, especially Mesoamericans, responded to Spanish technological challenges with technological and tactical innovations of their own. The Aztecs used captured Spanish swords to make pikes to counter enemy cavalry. They also armoured their canoes to protect them against bolts and gunshot. They even attempted to use Spanish crossbows against them. Tactically, they switched to raids, urban warfare, night attacks, and ambushes. Nor were the Aztecs unique. The Mapuche in Chile rapidly adopted Spanish arms, eventually fielding pike and cavalry squadrons in battle. In general, it took less than two decades for Native Americans to be as heavily armed as their European opponents. Obviously, technology was an advantage for the Spanish. But it became less of an advantage every moment of those critical years. Eventually, European technology pulled ahead, but the Conquest of the Americas was already over at that point. Of all the factors, it was probably the least decisive.

Germs:

Germs seems like a slam dunk for Diamond’s arguments, and to be clear, I don’t doubt that Diamond is right here. Diseases did play a major role in the Spanish Conquest. My objection is that Diamond portrays a very simplified narrative. By which I mean he notices the disease, but does not seem to fully realise its consequences. Let’s look at the Inca civil war. Now Diamond certainly acknowledges that the Incas were in the midst of internal strife. Yet he doesn’t use this knowledge to better understand the events of Cajamarca. He seems to regard the Inca civil war as a simple and completed affair, a side show to the Spanish Conquest. Yet, the Inca nobility was still fighting each other when Atahualpa was imprisoned. Atahualpa even had his rival, Huscar, killed despite being a hostage at the time. Atahualpa’s successor himself was assassinated. This may explain why Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizzaro. It may explain why the Inca army did not immediately attack. They didn’t know who was in charge.

A similar pattern occurred in other conflicts, such as the Conquest of the Aztec Empire. The smallpox plague did not just kill Aztecs, it broke apart their political system. The same pattern repeated across the Americas. Native states could never form a coherent defence against Europeans because disease kept undermining their political structures.

But wait, there’s more. The way historians, Diamond, and people more generally, have regarded disease is also kind of problematic. The great plagues are usually viewed as somehow separate, from the rest of the colonization process, even though Europeans are acknowledged to be the ultimate source. However, even as disease facilitated the conquest, the conquest facilitated the germs. Generally, disease was devastating in the short term, but populations, if left alone, could recover in time. Spanish policies, including slave raiding, mission systems, coercive labour, and congregation, prevented this. Famine that resulted exacerbated the plagues, as starving people fell vulnerable to illness. In the US, thousands of Native peoples died as a result of US policies, even if the killer was technically a germ. Those who died in the reservation system were not the victims of virgin soil epidemics, which had long since passed. Colonial policies often created conditions for pathogens to thrive, even if the Europeans had no real control over the bacterium itself. This complicates Diamond’s argument, as this particular problem is rooted in the Colonial experience, and not from the origins of agriculture, as Guns, Germs, and Steel argues.

Books:

One part of Diamond’s argument revolves around the benefit of literacy. Personally, I find this assertion questionable. The first problem is that there is no way to quantify the advantage of writing. Especially as most conquistadors, including Pizzaro himself, were illiterate. Second, how does this argument account for peoples such as the Mongols, who routinely crushed (not just defeated), literate societies. In the context of the Americas, groups like the Mapuche resisted fiercely, despite being supposedly illiterate. Third, many indigenous groups, illiterate or not, used advanced and complex tactics. Fourth, the Inca were literate, using their quipu as a form of book. This argument is weak, and I think should be dismissed.

Agriculture:

Agriculture is an incredibly important part of Diamond’s argument. Yet, even here he makes some critical errors. First, he greatly underestimates the amount of land in the Americas that was under cultivation. Partly, Diamond is a victim of recent archaeological discoveries, which show that Indigenous societies throughout a much larger portion of the Americas (including Brazil, Columbia, and large parts of North America), farmed. Not only that, they were much more connected than Diamond realises, complicating his east/west, north/south argument. However, a bigger problem is that Diamond does not fully understand the nature of agriculture in the Americas. He seems to think that it was less productive and efficient (largely due to animals) than European agriculture. The opposite is true. European agriculture was typically unproductive and underdeveloped, partly because of animals. Using Spain as an example, many Spanish lords preferred to raise stock, including sheep, because it was more profitable than agriculture, using prime agricultural land for their private wealth. Mesoamericans on the other hand used chinampas and wetland agriculture to produce huge food surpluses. The Aztec Empire may have had double the population of Spain.

The Aztecs were not unique in this. High intensity agriculture was practises all over the Americas, including in Peru. In the American South-East Hernando de Soto claimed to have passed through 12 towns in a single day. Even Brazil was filled with densely populated communities. So why is this important? Two reasons. First, it complicates Diamond’s deterministic narrative. After all, if the Americas were ‘blessed’ with superior crops (such as maize and sweet potatoes), then why didn’t this count for more? Second, because it was the introduction of these crops that fuelled a population boom in Early Modern Europe. Maize in particular became an essential part of the diet in the Mediterranean, while the potato became the staple of northern and central Europe. Without these crops, Europe may not have been able to sustain its colonisation of the rest of the world, although I admit this point is debatable. This is a problem for Diamond’s argument, as it implies that one of the key components of European superiority does not rest with the origins of agriculture, but on events that occurred after 1492.

Native Disunity:

Of course, this is only what Diamond talks about. There is also a huge amount that he barely addresses. The main issue here is Native disunity, a topic Diamond dismisses relatively quickly. Fortunately for me, a lot of research has gone into this question, and so I don’t need to belabour it too much. Suffice to say, native assistance, either passive or active, was present at almost every step of the Spanish Conquest and was also a feature of North American colonisation. The most famous example is of course, Tlaxcala, however other groups were just as important. Another example may be the Mohawk in New England. During King Philip’s War, the aforementioned King Philip attempted to recruit the Mohawk as allies. However, the British managed to flip them to their side, by claiming that Philip intended to attack them. The resulting Mohawk attack was the worst defeat Philip ever suffered, and it probably cost him the war. I could list more examples, but enough has been said of this. Diamond barely even tries to explain this away.

Agency and Opportunity:

And this is the most difficult section to talk about. There is a problem with ascribing events to ‘culture’ as such arguments can easily descend into racism. To avoid this, we perhaps should think of these events in terms of circumstances. So how did individuals make their choices, and how did this affect the outcome of European colonisation? Well, Motecuhzoma may be a good person to start with. Why didn’t he respond more aggressively to the Spanish? The general explanation (he mistook Cortes for a god) has long been discredited. Perhaps we should ask, why would he? Motecuhzoma’s Empire was powerful and prosperous, why would he feel threatened by a motely bunch of adventurers. Furthermore, Cortes presented himself as the ambassador from the King of Spain, and so Motecuhzoma treated him as such. On the other hand, the Spanish had a long history of befriending, and then betraying, friendly native lords, which Motecuhzoma couldn’t have known. This came to a head during the Toxcatl massacre, where several thousand unarmed Aztecs, many of them high ranking officials and officers, were slaughtered. The Spanish also seized Aztec nobles as prisoners, only to execute many of them during their flight from Tenochtitlan. These strategies, developed during the early years of the Spanish Colonial enterprise, played a key role in weakening native societies.

In north America, the settlement at Massachusetts was facilitated by Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag had been weakened by disease and subjugated by the Narraganset (again we see a disease having an effect greater than the casualties it caused). To regain his political and economic strength, he allowed the English settle in his territory, so he could control trade with them, a decision that eventually backfired on the Wampanoag.

The problem with the agency argument, is that it contradicts Diamond’s determinism. In theory, though we may never know for sure, it was possible for Indigenous people to make different choices, that would have changed the outcome of the Conquest. If Atahualpa had taken armed men to Cajamarca, maybe his body guard could have put up greater resistance, enough for the Inca to escape, or even defeat the Conquerors. Maybe if Motecuhzoma had sensed the danger posed by Cortes, he could have intervened before it was too late.

Conclusion:

The ultimate problem with Guns, Germs, and Steel, is that it treats the European domination of the globe as a single, albeit drawn out, event, whose outcome was determined more than 10, 000 years ago. The colonisation of the world was not a single process, but lots of little ones, between which the position of Europe to the rest of the world keeps changing. Europe encountered the Americas before it became modern, and was a very different place after the mid-17th century than when colonisation began. Indeed, it was transformed by its colonisation of the Americas. The ‘Europe’ that met the Aztecs was different from the ‘Europe’ that colonised Africa. As a result, it is hard to argue that there was a set group of factors that explained Europe’s eventual victory. The USA defeated the Plains Indians thanks to its population and technology, but these factors were irrelevant during the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan three and a half centuries earlier. Conversely, native allies and disease were not critical in the defeat of the Sioux or Comanche, while they were all decisive against the Aztecs.

To expand on these points, we are used to the narrative of history pointing to European supremacy, yet there were many times when Indigenous people defeated Europeans, and I don’t just mean in the odd battle, here or there. I’ve already mentioned the Mapuche and how they were never conquered by the Spanish. Well here is an example where Guns, Germs, and Steel did not win. It wasn’t until the 1880s that modern Chile came to dominate Mapuche territory, long after the virgin soil epidemics had ended and the population was fully familiar with European weaponry. A similar set of events played out in Northern Mexico during the Chichimeca War. The nomadic peoples of Northern Mexico defeated the Spanish in a 60 year war and had to be culturally absorbed. Even then, nomadic peoples like the Comanche and Apache plagued New Spain for centuries. This presents an important irony in Guns, Germs, and Steel. The people closest to the Spanish (in terms of technology and society) were ‘easier,’ to defeat than nomadic people who were much further ‘behind,’ them. Diamond’s argument doesn’t really account for this, as it implies that a ‘break in the chain,’ could have changed the outcome, contradicting its essential determinism.

None of this means that Diamond’s points are completely wrong. Disease certainly weakened native societies. Weapons gave Conquistadors some important victories. However, the impact of these factors varied between conflict and over time, and Diamond ignores other critical factors that help explain Europe’s rise.

I read some of Diamond's books as a teenager, and not much else on the topic. It's unclear to me if those critiques are saying "It would have been better if you hadn't read anything at all" or if they're saying "Diamond oversimplified things a lot." 

The rhetoric in the critiques seems to imply the former, but then the specific arguments are more about details of case studies rather than something that necessarily refutes the general thrust of Diamond's thesis? 

I mean, I think it's a common view that if you tell a just-so-story and get empirical claims importantly wrong, your entire view is now refuted. However, I think there are occasions where the point of just-so-stories is more like "Something along those lines has to be true" rather than "This is how it must have happened." And it seems possible to me to know enough about a topic to make a claim like "Geographical determinism is mostly right" even while being mistaken about some of the specifics. It's kind of similar to evolutionary psychology and claims like "Women are more likely to cheat with high-testosterone men" and then later it turns out that this finding doesn't replicate. Does that now mean that evolutionary psychology is wrong? Not really.

Of course, it's obviously important to have good scholarship skills and get the details right! I'm just wondering about how far-reaching the update should be from learning of these critiques. 

I've taken some anthropology classes at uni before social justice culture went more mainstream and already found the field (or at least the corners of it that I had access to) to be very "ideological" with respect to anything related to power/conquest, etc., and I got the same impressions more recently from broader observations. From what I remember, Diamond made it clear in his books that he thinks geographical determinism is an antidote to racist or colonialist thinking. The first person you quote seems to acknowledge that with the phrase "though I do not believe this was his intent." Still, the author of that passage seems to think that Diamond was subconsciously motivated to paint some groups as inherently inferior, or something like that. And I don't understand why they think that. For instance, there's this part of the passage: 

[..] too stupid to invent the key technological advances used against them, and doomed to die because they failed to build cities, domesticate animals and thereby acquire infectious organisms.

Isn't the whole point that stupidity has nothing to do with (e.g.) not domesticating an animal you cannot find in your region? If your continent only has useless marsupials you're not gonna be able to domesticate a mammal, no matter how clever you are.

This example reinforces my expectation that books like GG&S are generally poorly received in fields that react allergically to any investigation into the underlying causes of conquests or of inequality, whether that research is ill-motivated or not. That doesn't automatically say that the critiques are overstated, but it contributes to my uncertainty about how to update.

tl;dr I've read those quotes but feel unsure how much to update, partly because it's common for people to have probably-misguided methodological objections to the type of thing Diamond was trying to do (ambitious theorizing about underlying drivers of history) and partly because of ideological currents in the fields of anthropology and sociology.
 

[..] too stupid to invent the key technological advances used against them, and doomed to die because they failed to build cities, domesticate animals and thereby acquire infectious organisms.

Isn't the whole point that stupidity has nothing to do with (e.g.) not domesticating an animal you cannot find in your region?

Yes. This is what Jared Diamond was arguing against. He is very clear and explicit about it.

The main point of Diamond books seemed to me to be that European dominated the world because of sheer geographic luck and emphatically NOT because they were more intelligent than Asian, American or African. Accusing him of latent racism seems really disingenuous to me.

Still, the author of that passage seems to think that Diamond was subconsciously motivated to paint some groups as inherently inferior, or something like that. And I don’t understand why they think that.

In fact, he explicitly said this, just not in the direction that critic thinks. Diamond thought Europeans were inferior.

From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners.

... Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry. For example, people with blood group B or O have a greater resistance to smallpox than do people with blood group A.

That is, natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent. Besides this genetic reason, there is also a second reason why New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults.

... This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans. That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up. ... The same two genetic and childhood developmental factors are likely to distinguish not only New Guineans from Westerners, but also hunter-gatherers and other members of technologically primitive societies from members of technologically advanced societies in general.

Thus, the usual racist assumption has to be turned on its head. Why is it that Europeans, despite their likely genetic disadvantage and (in modern times) their undoubted developmental disadvantage, ended up with much more of the cargo? Why did New Guineans wind up technologically primitive, despite what I believe to be their superior intelligence?

(Editing note: paragraph breaks got lost when I copied from kindle, I've added some back in but probably not the original ones.)

A lot of this is about modern Europeans and Americans versus modern New Guineans, but I've bolded a couple of passages where he says he thinks it was true historically too.

You bring up several points. I don't think the livestock transmission theory of disease creation is very important. I think what matters is that Eurasia had large, interconnected cities than America, Subsaharan Africa and Australia. That alone is enough to explain the evolution of pandemic diseases.

If we interpret the title literally as describing just "guns", "germs" [from livestock] and "steel [swords and armor]" then yes, there was more to the conquest of the Mesoamerican civilizations than (literally) steel, guns and horses. European steel production wasn't that great. Early guns sucked. Horses were quickly adopted by Native Americans. I don't doubt that those technologies helped, but I think disease, long-range ships and deep symbiotic connections to the more sophisticated Eurasian transcontinental civilization were the most important factors.

The point about "Native Americans…unable react to new weapons/military tactics" seems like a strawman to me. The Plains Indians (just to name one example) were extraordinary combatants famous for their efficient use of rifles. To defeat them, the United States had to terraform the entire Great Plains, and that was a hundred years into the Industrial Revolution. Incidentally, I did read 1491. It's on my list of the top 13 history books I recommend.

I think the quotes you link mostly attack Jared Diamond's case, not mine. For example the idea that "“advanced” things are really just “more European.”" feels at odds with my opening sentences "For most of history, China was the center of civilization. It had the biggest cities, the most complex government, the highest quality manufacturing, the most industrial capacity, the most advanced technology, the best historical records and the largest armies. It dominated East Asia at the center of an elaborate tribute system for a thousand years."

A common theme in the arguments you quote is that Europeans defeated the Mesoamerican civilizations because the Mesoamerican civilizations were divided. I think this fits in neatly with how long-range ships gave European powers the ability to pick advantageous terms (and times) of engagement.

I think the quotes you link mostly attack Jared Diamond's case, not mine.

Yeah, I included them because the line of yours that I quoted made it sound like you endorse his case overall (separate from your own argument).

To clarify, I agree with Jared Diamond's overall thesis that the interconnected trade networks linking giant cities on the Eurasian biome (including North Africa) produced network effects that gave Eurasia an unassailable advantage over America, Australia and (probably) Subsaharan Africa. In this context, I think of "guns" and "steel" as catchy concrete shorthand for the the more verbose and abstract "technology and heavy industry". I think that Eurasian (including north African) dominance over America and Australia (Subsaharan Africa is more nuanced) was so overdetermined by the 15th century that it doesn't matter to my core thesis whether Jared Diamond was right or wrong about all of his particulars.

Do you disagree with my core takeaway from Jared Diamond that Eurasian (including north African) dominance over America and Australia (and, to a lesser extent, Subsaharan Africa) was overdetermined by the 15th century due to Old World network effects related to technology, disease and industrial capacity stemming from large interconnected population centers?

Do you disagree with my core takeaway from Jared Diamond that Eurasian (including north African) dominance over America and Australia (and, to a lesser extent, Subsaharan Africa) was overdetermined by the 15th century due to Old World network effects related to technology, disease and industrial capacity stemming from large interconnected population centers?

I don't feel competent enough to have an opinion about it, but Deveraux said a similar thing in the post I linked in the other comment, so it seems plausible in general.

I would take a look at “World Systems” theory as an idea behind the development of the modern balances of power and wealth.

Ironically, World Systems Theory is discredited in economics departments with similar reasoning as this criticism of Diamond=both ignore the established practice of an academic field and both explain things that never happened.

According to statista, Eurasia had a strong or overwhelming majority of world population even as far back as 10,000 BCE. If we just assumed that certain aspects of dominance follow "winner-take-all" dynamics, such as the spread of a trade language or currency, and that every population had chance of victory in winner-take-all dynamics proportional to its size, then Eurasia was the probable conqueror for this reason alone.

Europe had 1/5th of Asia's population by 1500, and Europe + the Americas had about 1/4th of Asia's population by the 1800s, so it is more surprising to me that Europe was the victor rather than some part of Asia. But maybe it shouldn't be more surprising than getting heads 2-3 times in a row when flipping a coin.

I find myself more intrigued to learn more about the messy and nuanced historical details than to get an answer to the titlular question. Here's an analogy to explain why. Let's say that I flipped a coin, and it landed on heads. We could spend an hour or two doing some quick calculations and estimates of approximately where I flipped the coin from, how hard, the material properties of the surface it landed on, and so on, and come up with some stories that "explain why the coin landed on heads." But I would be very unlikely to feel confident that whatever story we could tell would truly explain why this coin flip resulted in it landing on heads. Instead, I would feel that we've started to make a tiny bit of headway on understanding the physical causes of coin-flipping dynamics in general. This would be an field of study in its own right, and it would probably be wise to focus less on the original motivating question of explaining why this one coin flip came up heads, and more on, say, measuring the modulus of elasticity of the table or the range of force measurements applied by the thumb.

I think that this is maybe where some of these historians' frustrations come from. They want to take a mainstream scholarly approach to the study of history, asking and answering the kinds of questions that motivate historians. By contrast, the public wants answers to questions that touch on their own lives and identities, regardless of whether these questions are possible for historians to answer with any confidence. Historians are looking for answers that hold up to scholarly scrutiny, while the public is looking for answers they can understand, that "make sense," and "explain everything." Historians would like the public to adopt the motivations and goals of historians. The public doesn't care about what historians do, but they want somebody to help them with their own project of sense-making. So we get two different projects of "history," with different motivations, methods, and goals, but touching on similar source materials and getting into each others' turf. I'll leave it to others to judge whether this post is written more in the "sense-making" or "scholarly" mode.

I think this post presents a plausible explanation for why Europe colonised the world. I think my problem is that there are numerous other explanations with a great deal of supporting literature and argumentation and I don't see much if any engagement with the alternative explanations in this post. In other words, I feel this post is trying to convince me of a certain answer without acknowledging the existence of other answers.

A few more specific thoughts:

Your model of why Europe wins:

  • Europe could choose when to fight by virtue of having long range ships = fights China.India at the most opportune times
  • Industrialisation => geographically separated empire => more industrialisation due to labour shortages and cheap raw resources
  • Christopher columbus = discovery of the new world = colonisation begins

I think there are a few problems with this model. First, long range ships and being able to devote enough resources to fight and win wars half way around the world are stupendous technological feats other civilizations were not capable of. I think you need an explanation for why Europe was first able to do these things while China/Arab states were not.

Secondly, the idea that a colonial empire speeds up industrialisation may or may not be true but a few things don't line up:

  • European states without empires also industrialised rapidly
  • Britain started industrialising well before it had a substantial empire. in 1740, the "empire" was basically some parts of the US and Canada with negligible economic output compared to the mainland.

Finally, the idea that Columbus was necessary for colonisation to happen is something I'm skeptical of. Yes no discovery of America = no colonization of America but I don't quite see why European colonization of other parts of the world was contingent on columbus.

Also, a few other popular explanations of why Europe pulled ahead:

  • Many competing states with a natural geography full of barriers stopping any single empire from forming and dominating = more competition/experimentation = more progress
  • Property rights and a strong trader/merchant class with a large degree of influence on government vs religious+millitary rule in the arab world. (Note this doesn't apply to all of europe, more to the UK and netherlands. Doesn't explain the success of other European nations)
  • Unique geographic features such as minimal natural disasters, large amounts of arable land, good climate, lots of large animals and good crops => higher pop density => more innovation and growth
  • European christianity being in a better state, somewhat de to the reformation, and that having ripple effects throughout society in terms of norms etc...

Other explanations include things like the superiority of the Aryan race and the divine right of kings. There are too many bad explanations to refute. In my personal experience, it's more productive to only engage with explanations I think actually make sense.

You make good point about how "European states [including Britain] without empires also industrialised rapidly". I think this has to do with their proximity to the centers of power of European empires.

I do agree that the European powers still would have set up trading posts in the Indian Ocean if it wasn't for America. I think the discovery of America was like pouring gasoline on a fire that's just getting started. Was it necessary? Maybe not. But technology is a race and I think the American colonies helped European power a lot.

You list four popular explanations (not including mine). Which ones do you think are true and why?

Many competing states with a natural geography full of barriers stopping any single empire from forming and dominating = more competition/experimentation = more progress

I think this theory explains the rapid advancement of European weapons technology and the consolidation of European nation-states. It also explains the advancement of weapons technology in China prior to the consolidation of Ming power.

Property rights and a strong trader/merchant class with a large degree of influence on government vs religious+millitary rule in the arab world. (Note this doesn't apply to all of europe, more to the UK and netherlands. Doesn't explain the success of other European nations) [sic]

It's an interesting theory. This certainly helps explain the lack of commercial development in Japan. (Though commercial and technological development still happened (albeit slowly) in Japan despite the Tokugawa Shogunate's best efforts.) I am skeptical there has ever been a strong trader/merchant class without a large degree of influence on government because wealthy merchants can often buy their way into the lower aristocracy.

The European invention of limited liability companies is especially interesting, not least because of how it sets Europe apart from the Muslim world. But Muslims have invented many imaginative workarounds to escape their religious restrictions. I don't think they'd suddenly draw the line at corporate financial structures.

Unique geographic features such as minimal natural disasters, large amounts of arable land, good climate, lots of large animals and good crops => higher pop density => more innovation and growth

I think this theory is backwards. Europe had fewer natural disasters but its population density is way lower even today. Europe's urbanization rate was below China's until 1800. This is an explanation of why China had better innovation and economic growth for most of history.

European christianity [sic] being in a better state, somewhat de to the reformation, and that having ripple effects throughout society in terms of norms etc...

I am very skeptical of this theory. Christianity and Islam are (compared to Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism) almost indistinguishable from each other. A schism within Christianity is hair that has been split twice.

You can add Black Death to the list. Popular theory is that disease killed so many people (around 1/3 of Europe's population) that few remaining workers could negotiate higher salaries which made work-saving innovations more desirable and planted the seeds of industrial development.

 

I think you need an explanation for why Europe was first able to do these things while China/Arab states were not.

I think I did address this point. While not "halfway around the world", China did "devote enough resources to fight and win wars half way around the world" first. The Portuguese exploratory voyages started at the end of the 15th century. The much bigger Ming treasure voyages started in the beginning of the 15th century.

The technical reason Britain won was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain. Guns and ships require lots of iron. The Industrial Revolution gave Britain the best guns and the best ships.

See also the post "Why Europe" where historian Bret Deveraux possible factors other than just the industrial revolution that affected Europe having better guns than Asia, e.g.:

Chase notes, very persuasively, that firearms just weren’t a very good answer if your major threat was steppe nomad horsemen. Sure, firearms c. 1800 would do the job, but no one directing resources in 1550 could know that. So societies where the major threat was other agrarian states with big infantry armies invest heavily in firearms while states whose major threats are nomads do so to a lesser degree. Since – in a way no one could realize in 1550 – firearms had the potential for much greater power in the long run, Western Europe (one of the few areas of the belt of complex agrarian societies running over Eurasia that did not have major steppe nomad threats due to Eastern Europe being in the way) found itself, by mostly dumb geographic luck with the ‘killer app’ of the 1600s and following. In short then, Chase argues that Europe’s military advantage (and thus its dominant position) was a consequence of environment – being relatively shielded from regions of Steppe which would give rise to dangerous nomads – which in turn motivated European to embrace the new technology (guns) with greater long-term growth potential. The weakness of the thesis is that other places similarly insulated (namely Japan) didn’t have an indigenous military revolution (though they adopted it enthusiastically when it showed up), while Mamluk Egypt, which in this formulation ought to have been as eager on firearms as the Ottomans very clearly wasn’t for what seem pretty clearly to be cultural reasons (Chase anticipates and attempts to fend off this argument, but it is one of his weaker arguments in an overall excellent book).

His overall view:

my own view of the evidence is something of a hybrid of most of these models explaining the rise of Europe. The rapid European development of firearms-based warfare created a feedback loop in terms of state centralization (cannon and muskets broke the power of the rural nobility, enabling centralization, which enabled more cannon and muskets, repeat until state-building complete then let dry; see Lee, Waging War (2016), ch. 7&9), while the fragmented agrarian state-on-state warfare in Europe encouraged firearm development particularly leading to an uncommonly effective military package (though not an unbeatable one in the 1600s and early 1700s) corresponding fairly substantially to the elements of Parker’s military revolution. That package enabled European states to set up and hold on to port-and-fort toeholds on other continents they might otherwise have lost (though early on, often only at the sufferance of local rulers, a balance of power that shifts almost imperceptibly until it shifts all at once). The networks of global trade and exploitation that created – because empire must be a product of military strength first – in turn fed a second feedback loop, providing the resources for greater intensification of both state power and economic development which then fed into the industrial revolution. The products of that second cycle, emerging in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, at last proved sufficient to overwhelm the large, complex agrarian states of Eurasia which had, up until that point, generally been able to maintain rough parity with Europe.

I like Bret Deveraux's series on Europa Universalis. I like his current series on fortifications even more. I like it so much I'm reading one of the sources he used The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade. According to that book, "By the 1480s, all types of European guns had become better, so much so that when Portuguese mariners brought them to China in the early 1500s, China acknowledged their superiority and began copying them."

European guns were better than Chinese guns for 200 years leading up to the Industrial Revolution. My argument is that those better guns weren't superior enough for the European empires to overcome the great powers of India and China until after the Industrial Revolution.

I think Bret Deveraux and I agree on the following point:

The networks of global trade and exploitation that created – because empire must be a product of military strength first – in turn fed a second feedback loop, providing the resources for greater intensification of both state power and economic development which then fed into the industrial revolution. The products of that second cycle, emerging in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, at last proved sufficient to overwhelm the large, complex agrarian states of Eurasia which had, up until that point, generally been able to maintain rough parity with Europe.

Yeah, to be clear my comment was meant as an "here are some added details" rather than a strict counterargument.

Mercantilist trade policy compelled the British colonies to send raw materials to the British Isles where they would be turned into manufactured goods to be sold to the colonies. Heavy industry were built in London at the expense of development in the colonies.

In A Farewell to Alms, economic historian Gregory Clark argues otherwise. IIRC he says Britain tried setting up factories in India, but found the workers there too unreliable, so the very inefficient alternative of shipping the materials to the UK then back again as finished goods was a fall-back position.

His wider thesis is that worker productivity was higher in the UK due to cultural and genetic changes which had spread 'middle-class values' down through the population and led (in part) to the Industrial Revolution.

This would be very interesting, if true. Imperial powers (including the USA and Japan) definitely did attempt to industrialize their allies and subject populations. Japan industrialized Manuchuria. The USA helped industrialize South Korea and Taiwan.

My personal theory is that the relative (in absolute terms) prosperity of Japan and USA is what gave them the excess capacity necessary to industrialize a foreign land.

His wider thesis is that worker productivity was higher in the UK due to cultural and genetic changes which had spread 'middle-class values' down through the population and led (in part) to the Industrial Revolution.

I have not read Gregory Clark. What kind of "genetic changes" and "middle-class values" does Gregory Clark write about?

I have not read Gregory Clark. What kind of "genetic changes" and "middle-class values" does Gregory Clark write about?

This is my memory of reading it years ago, and perhaps I'm wrong in details. That said, the book roughly argues:

England has very good records for wills, which tell you both 1) how rich someone was at death and 2) how many surviving children they had. Also, England had primogeniture, where the bulk of parental wealth passes to the oldest child, instead of being split (as is more common in China). So he's able to figure out the relationship between wealth and fertility, and roughly finds that there's significant downward social mobility in Britain over this time period, as richer people have more surviving children, and later children are more likely to become members of the lower social strata (the third son of a wealthy landholder themselves becoming a smallholder, as they don't inherit any of the major estate, for example). As well, he has evidence that things like the death penalty for murder was pursued somewhat more effectively in Britain than other places, further having an effect on the distribution of ancestors.

The punchline is that the "nation of shopkeepers" quote (from Napoleon) is sort of genetically accurate, in that today's farmers were more likely to be descended from people one social strata higher than farmers, and so on.

I think the weakest part of the book is his analysis of China; some commentary I've seen is that we should expect the situation in China to be even more this way than the situation in Britain.

Think about the economic pressures that promote mechanization. Optimal conditions combine tremendous wealth with a labor shortage. In ancient China, technology was used to harness excess human labor. Paul Polak built a poverty-alleviation program out of harnessing cheap labor in modern India. You're not going to invest in primitive steam engines when human labor is cheaper than coal.

I guess I don't see why I would expect mechanization to be important, given this argument. If labor is expensive, I get why it makes sense to invest more in substitutes for labor. But... shouldn't that just lower the cost of labor to the point of places where labor is cheap? If labor is cheaper than coal, why didn't the other places make the things with labor that Britain made with coal?

I think there's an argument that the ceiling for mechanization is much higher, because you can plug machines into other machines more easily than you can plug human laborers into other human laborers, and there's transfer between applications for different machines, or something like this. But I somehow think this is the interesting story, and the 'but they had cheap labor so they didn't need machinists' isn't the interesting story. Like, I almost have an easier time buying "Britain, as a colder country, had higher demand for domestic use of coal than the Ottomans / China / India, and so invested more heavily in coal mining tech, which then turned out to be useful for industrialism more generally." Or, "Britain, as a country with more useful water power, had an easier time making powered machines and had more of a maritime culture than those three countries."

I don't think the facts support the 'discontiguous empire -> peasants can't walk to the capital -> labor shortage' argument. The British Empire had continual migration from Britain to the colonies. Enslaved labor was likewise sent to the colonies.

Rather than a contracted labor supply, I think Britain experienced an increased labor demand due to quickly obtaining huge amounts of arable land (and displacing the former inhabitants rather than subjugating them).

That makes a lot of sense. I forgot about the whole "emigration from Britain" thing.

You may also enjoy Why the West Rules - For Now, which also addresses environmental, rather than institutional, factors. As Kaj_Sotala notes, these kinds of books are often entertaining reads but just-so stories.

If you like entertaining reads and don't mind just-so stories, you yourself might enjoy my Song Dynasty alternate-history parody post in the style of Why the West Rules (I did enjoy the actual book).  Here's "Why the East Rules".

Thanks for writing this up, the link between mass production of quinine and the scramble of Africa certainly stood out to me as an immensely obvious causal link in retrospect, but nearly mysterious before I read it. So kudos for that.

I think the reason why India got conquered was something similar to what happened with China. The Mughal Empire was in its twilight years and there were many states and princely kingdoms fighting with each other trying to establish their own dominance.

Some Indian kingdoms even formed alliances with the English East India Company hoping to gain an advantage over their neighboring kingdoms. That is why with India, the British conquered it gradually, one kingdom after another - until they effectively were rulers of the whole subcontinent. 

There is much to discuss here, but I'll just focus on what's missing: Rome. Unless you agree with Donna D2 from TikTok, Rome existed, it's a civilizational ancestor of America, Russia, and Western Europe, and it's an essential part of why Europe conquered the world. 

Yes, and to this I would add Christianity. Rome -> Christendom -> Enlightenment/Industrial Rev

Rome had a system of competing consuls->generals->dictators that evolved into a system of constrained competition between kingdoms, with political competition tempered by loose religious/cultural unification under the RCC which was a partial continuation of late rome's legacy.

Christianity was also unusual in other potentially key dimensions - it dramatically promoted outbreeding (by outlawing inbreeding far beyond the typical), which plausibly permanently altered the european trajectory. It invested significant resources in education and the preservation of (esp Greek/Roman) knowledge (monastic libraries).

Europe was already significantly ahead by the time of the enlightenment - a predictable explosive reaction against the church's monopoly on knowledge/education.

Just to clarify, with this sentence: 

Christianity was also unusual in other potentially key dimensions - it dramatically promoted outbreeding (by outlawing inbreeding far beyond the typical), which plausibly permanently altered the european trajectory.

are you proposing that Christian Europe was historically successful in significant part due to inbreeding less than non-Christian-European civilizations? Is there somewhere I can read more about that thesis? I'm not familiar with it.

To clarify:

1.) Fairly high confidence: The RCC/christendom was unique in that it banned cousin marriage between 4 and 7 degrees of consanguinity (depending on the time period), and had the record tracking infrastructure to implement such a ban.

2.) Also reasonably confident that 1.) had long term genetic/cultural consequences after a millennia. Eg: medieval europoean societies were more outbred than most middle eastern societies (where 1st degree cousin marriage was/is the norm).

3.) Less confident that those changes gave a significant edge, but it seems plausible.[1][2][3][4].


  1. (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/11/roman-catholic-church-ban-in-the-middle-ages-loosened-family-ties/) ↩︎

  2. Schulz, Jonathan F., et al. "The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation." Science 366.6466 (2019). ↩︎

  3. Schulz, Jonathan F. The Churches' bans on consanguineous marriages, kin-networks and democracy. No. 2016-16. CeDEx Discussion Paper Series, 2016. ↩︎

  4. Akbari, Mahsa, Duman Bahrami-Rad, and Erik O. Kimbrough. "Kinship, fractionalization and corruption." Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 166 (2019): 493-528. ↩︎

I appreciate the clarification, at first #1 seemed dissonant to me (and #2 and #3 following from that) given the trope of highly inbred European nobility, but on further reflection that might be mostly a special case due to dispensations. I hadn't thought of worldwide consanguination/marriage norms as a potential X factor for civilizational development, but it's an interesting angle.

Yeah the European nobility couldn't follow the stringent outbreeding constraints (and naturally could pay for exemptions) because the dating pool was too small, but the attempts to do so still intermingled the european bloodlines. It's historically wierd/unusual too - if you consider that the more common alternative would be intra-clan marriage within national/cultural borders.

In most other times/places cultures/nations/tribes engaged in total warfare and then destroyed/enslaved/conquered each other, vs constrained warfare combined with intermarriage alliance mingling. Marriage between people who spoke completely different languages was common for the european nobility, vs uncommon throughout most of history. But the europeans were semi-unified under a shared roman catholic cultural heritage.

Why was the Western Roman Empire, which fell in 476, instrumental in helping Europe conquer the world in the late 1400s?

The Roman empire didn't suddenly disappear, it evolved into christendom. See my other comment for some more specific details, but Rome was unique, and christendom more so.

Rome gave Europe, and also Russia and America, its religion, its politics, and much of its intellectual culture. It is the ancestor of those modern societies, just as much as ancient China is the ancestor of modern China. The only difference is that for Europe, like India and Islam, political unification has been the exception rather than the rule. 

If I just go by the beginning and the ending of your essay, its tone is: China was always the center of the world, Europe is a bunch of hillbillies who conquered the world by accident. It emphasizes a handful of economic and geographic contingencies, rather than the continuities of European political and cultural history. It's interesting looking for obscure and ironic turning points, but one shouldn't forget the big picture. 

The Industrial Revolution was just getting started. It hadn't yet exploded into unstoppable exponential growth. The empires of Europe were weaker than the empires of India and China all the way up until the Industrial Revolution.

I haven't heard about the industrial revolution being exponential, and that word gets thrown around a lot now.

It's a lovely word. Exponential. Exponential exponential. Exponential exponential exponential exponential.

European hegemony was caused by the Industrial Revolution was caused by high labor value relative to material costs was caused by discontiguous empires was caused by long-range trade.

You catch some flak in the comments for making big claims like this, but I wanted to chime in and say that I wish more people would take stabs at macro-historical hypotheses like this one.  So, strong upvote from me for hypothesizing about a difficult, often avoided-on-status-grounds(?) domain.

China goes through dynastic cycles of unification and dissolution. At the height of a dynasty's power, the ruling dynasty is able to field enormous resources. At the depths of a warring states period

Seems a bit odd to write this in the present tense, as though it is currently happening in China, or is an eternal fact and inherent property of China. (As opposed to just a pattern that happened to have repeated a number of times. Or that held for a specific period of time due to specific conditions being satisfied.)

Calling this out because this kind of claim makes me more skeptical of historical explanations.

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