I think this will be the first topic we’ve done suggested by Ali. It’s a good one. Already I’m learning that how Europe came to dominate the globe in the last 200 (as opposed to another region of the world, like Asia or Africa or Latin America) is a hugely controversial topic. You may, like me, know a bit about the “how the West beat the rest” issue from reading one of the popular history books on the subject that have been written in the last 20 years. Maybe you read Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond), or Civilization: The West and the Rest (Niall Ferguson), or maybe you’re old-school and prefer Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic theory. There are many other theorists and theories, it seems.
Even if you’ve never pondered the reasons for the West’s century+ of dominance, you’ve got to admit it’s an intriguing question. Why did Cortes and Pizarro sail west and conquer the Aztecs and Incas and not the other way around? Why didn’t India colonize Great Britain? What lurched Europe forward and held the rest back? And, what do the answers tell us about the 21st century, with China and India and others becoming major powers in their own right while other countries still lag or go backwards?
There are many theories. Ali asks us to consider one that has been debated for a century, albeit sometimes with discomfort: Was the key reason for its success simply that the West had a superior culture – or at least a culture that led much more quickly to industrial and military development? Other theories discount culture. They say the reason for Western dominance had more to do with geography, resource endowments, financial organization, or just plain luck or path dependency (I’ll explain what that is).
Anyway, I’m looking forward to another good meeting that integrates history, sociology, and politics. Ali: If you want to open the meeting just let me know. Otherwise, I’ll do a brief summary of the main schools of thought to the extent I’m familiar with them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The West got there first because it had…
- Favorable geography and natural resources: The Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis. Recommended.
- Two specific resources: Coal to fuel their machines, and access to the vast resources of the New World. If not for these, Europe would not have surged ahead and conquered.
- No (Niall Ferguson). It was six big cultural and technical advantages: Competition among its many small nations, rule of law and property rights, science, medicine, consumerism, and a better work ethic. Recommended.
- More detail on Protestant work ethic.
- These six other/same factors (Jack Goldstone).
- Colonialism. Colonization destroyed indigenous scientific revolutions and infrastructure. Recommended.
Next Week: Why are so many rhetorically–valued jobs so low-paying? (Zelekha’s idea)