News & Politics » Straight Dope

The Straight Dope



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

--P.H. Armbeck, Sweden

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

White people are smarter than everybody else. Maybe. But consider the following white (or mostly white) entities:

George Steinbrenner;

Professional sports team owners generally;

The Conservative Party in Britain;

U.S. congressional leadership;

Computer programmers who figured the arrival of the year 2000 might somehow be circumvented.

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

White people are more obnoxious than anybody else. The evidence:

George Steinbrenner, pro team owners, etc.

Admit it, I'm onto something. To put it a bit more elegantly, western Europeans ruled because they were ruthless, well armed, and in your face. Fine, but how did they get that way? Historian Paul M. Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), says western Europe had three big advantages:

(1) Political and military pluralism. In contrast to the empires of the Orient, no single power dominated Europe. European states never got fat and happy but rather searched for ever more efficient ways to snuff their enemies.

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

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

But we still haven't gotten to the heart of the matter. Why was Europe pluralistic? Setting aside the inevitable element of randomness and dumb luck, you gotta look at geography. Europe lent itself to the creation of a lot of small states. Following Kennedy (loosely) again:

(1) The climate and terrain were extremely varied. There were lots of minor barriers, such as mountains, forests, bodies of water, etc, but no impassable ones. It was easy to set up a principality that was defensible but impossible to create one that was impregnable. No European crown ever rested easily.

(2) Strategic resources were distributed fairly uniformly. No state was ever able to gain a monopoly on the manufacture of firearms, for instance.

(3) Europe had been invaded repeatedly over the millennia and by 1500 consisted of numerous distinct cultural and language groups that could not be readily amalgamated and in many cases hated each other's guts. (Hello, Bosnia!) Their main goal was dominating their neighbors. The incidental result was that they dominated the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

Add a comment