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The Straight Dope




Just read your response to P.H. Armbeck about why Europeans were able to dominate the world [June 20]. I was surprised that you didn't comment on Armbeck's incorrect allegation that "Europeans were cave dwellers (more or less) when Arabs, under Islamic reign, were astounding philosophers and scientists." Islam didn't begin spreading until around 600 AD. This was long after the Greek and Roman civilizations flourished (well, maybe not so long after Rome). True, the Middle Ages weren't the highlight of Western civilization, but it was far from a complete slide back to the Stone Age, as Armbeck suggests. As for Islamic science and philosophy, a lot of it was based on Greek and Roman works that the Arabs discovered, translated, and researched.

--Arnold Wright Blan, Sugar Hill, Georgia;

similarly from many others

As far as European dominance goes, you're best off reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. [Paul M.] Kennedy's points on the subject [in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which Cecil cited] are rather weak:

(1) "Political and military pluralism." The Orient is a misleading example, since everybody thinks of China and forgets about Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc. Also, most other regions (e.g., Africa) were politically diverse.

(2) "Intellectual liberty." At what point in time? The Middle East was much more open than Europe for most of history. And why did the Chinese invent everything?

(3) "The climate and terrain were extremely varied." Compared to where? Africa? North and South America?...All in all Kennedy's arguments sound more like a shill for Adam Smith than a well-thought-out theory of what happened. --Tom Bitterman, via the Internet

See what I get for cutting Armbeck some slack? I will never be a nice guy again.

As for Diamond's book, I'll confess I hadn't read it. Sounds like none of the folks who urged it on me read it either. Diamond and Kennedy address two related but distinct questions. Diamond asks why Eurasia and North Africa dominated the world; he mainly considers developments from prehistory through 1500 AD. Kennedy asks why Europeans specifically, out of all the Eurasian societies, dominated; he mostly looks at things from 1500 on. The answers they come up with are similar--they both blame environmental factors--and insofar as they address European dominance, their answers are pretty much the same.

Diamond says the Americas, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, and other non-Eurasian regions had several major deficiencies: (1) a lack of animals and plants suitable for domestication (the New World, for example, had no horses or other draft animals until Europeans arrived); (2) geographic isolation, which prevented the fruitful exchange of technology, goods, and ideas between cultures, e.g., the alphabetic writing that spread through much of Eurasia; and (3) fewer people than Eurasia, and thus fewer inventors and inventions, fewer competing societies, etc.

Finally, the New World and to some extent other non-Eurasian cultures lacked exposure (and thus immunity) to the germs carried by domesticated animals, which were the source of some of Europe's deadliest diseases. Cumulative result: in the long run Eurasians were the rulers, non-Eurasians the ruled.

As for objections to Kennedy's arguments on why Europe dominated other Eurasian societies--Tom, dude, you gotta read the books:

(1) China wasn't the only state in the Far East, obviously, but it was unquestionably the dominant force. The other important state, Japan, also chose to isolate itself. In contrast, no state dominated pluralistic Europe, and isolationism usually wasn't an option. The need to compete drove advances in technology. Sub-Saharan Africa lacked Eurasian resources and wasn't even in the running.

(2) Whatever may be said for Islamic culture prior to 1500 AD, few would dispute that Europe was more open intellectually than other Eurasian societies after that date.

(3) My point about European geography was that it was varied but not too varied; thus it supported a group of states that were continually competing with one another. Diamond agrees, writing: "Technology may have developed most rapidly in regions [such as Europe] with moderate [geographic] connectedness, neither too high nor too low."

The point is that environmental conditions in Europe favored pluralism, which in turn led to the rapid diffusion of technology and eventually world dominance. Sorry if Kennedy's faith in pluralism sounds too much like Adam Smith for your taste, Tom, but it's hardly a belief in which he's alone.

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

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