Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Geography and History

I was searching for this for yesterday's post and finally found it. Since that post was a bit long, I thought I'd throw it into a new post. It makes many of the same points as yesterday - that many impersonal factors such as climate, geography and invention drive history. This one centers on geography:
Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world's first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story - that the West got an early lead and held onto it - there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world's empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World's great empires - from Rome in the West to Han China in the East - all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so...

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century's finest sailors - the Chinese - who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science's insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world's first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.
Location, location and how the West was won (BBC)


  1. This is Jared Diamond's thesis in "Guns, Germs, and Steel." I was surprised that the article wasn't written by Diamond and that the author didn't even mention him in the excerpt. Perhaps he does in the book itself.

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