Looking for good geography. Credit
There is a current theory that the West has far outstripped the rest of the world and come to commercial and cultural dominance because Europe and others who developed early were in the “lucky latitudes” and had a preferred land and climate. I think you should hear that argument presented, before we cross-examine its premises. The following video lecture (2013), “Why the West Rules—For Now,” by Ian Morris of Stanford University introduces the subject, and suggests various avenues to support it. He starts at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and takes us through the period we have been studying (LGM through the Bronze Age in the Middle East, Eurasia, South Asia, and Northeast Africa) and up to the present, while expanding the geographical scope from the Middle East to the “lucky latitudes” around the globe. It’s a splendid presentation made at the Oriental Institute and will introduce you to his theories. I urge you to view it, if you haven’t already or read his book with the same title, before proceeding.
Morris emphasizes accelerated development in various places was not due to factors previously taught in Western Civilization courses: great men, religions, institutions, culture, nor in the “last refuge of desperate historians i.e. ‘accident.’” Rather, he flatly attributes it to geography, including climate. Moreover, he credits other sources beyond his own books, notably Guns, Germs, and Steel and Plagues and People, both titles being self-explanatory. I haven’t read these yet, but I’ve put them on my to-do list. We’ve discussed the impact of innovative weapons and unpredictable plagues in previous posts.
“Guns” and “Steel” are obvious game-changers, as innovative military technology has been pivotal in virtually all world-changing battles e.g. incoming granite and ceramic sling balls on defenders using simple bows, Assyrian siege ramps, Alexander the Great’s coordinated cavalry and infantry, Nazi blitzkrieg vs static defenses, and ICBM delivered nuclear weapons vs any defense.
Dr. Morris presentation is convincing, especially from a purely materialistic point of view. However, I have some questions, and I’m sure you do too. Now that you’ve seen the video and heard Morris’s arguments, let’s examine issues that he didn’t touch, or side-stepped.
- Why didn’t this happen in the prior interstadials or prior interglacial? There is no claim of major genetic changes of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) since their earliest out-of-Africa migration (130-115,000 years ago). However, to be honest, the Toba event at 75,000 BP may have wiped out a lot of progress—maybe they were just getting started when that “roof fell in” on their first steps. However, the Chinese claim Toba did not stamp out AMH which have been there at least 80,000 years. But, and it seems likely, there would’ve been a huge population and cultural setback.
- Why wasn’t there commensurate indigenous progress in sub-Saharan Africa? Did they not have land, rain, and a workable climate? European Colonialism prodded that part of the world out of its stasis. The same can be said regarding North and South America, which include Morris’s prime swath of land, the “lucky latitudes” from Mexico to Peru (Olmec, Toltec, Maya, Aztec, Inca) and regarding India’s Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) which was progressing but stalled around 1900 BC. All these remained stuck millennia behind Europe, the Fertile Crescent, and China.
- If China was a parallel success story, why were East and Southeast Asia in stasis until European Colonialism prodded them out? After seagoing ships and gunpowder, clearly revolutionary, what innovations came from China (accomplishments comparable to those from the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.) Perhaps China’s early successes led to complacency and inward focus? Whatever the reason, Europe was soon knocking at their door with better ships and better guns.
- What happened in the Fertile Crescent to stall its earlier progress and present its subsequent history as the model for Ozymandias? Salinization of irrigated farmland brought Mesopotamian farming down from the West’s leader. But, what about Egypt, where nothing physical can be blamed for the screeching halt and fall from its role as the Mediterranean Bread Basket under Rome? The bigger question is, what factor(s) have stifled this region for the past 1400 years?
- What about the power of the Indo-European languages, and their contributions to the formulation of ideas and administration of ventures? We can’t ignore the present global dominance of the English language. English has become the global language of science, commerce, and culture. That dominance grew out of its superior power of expression, and owes its roots to the 22-character Phoenician alphabet and the Proto-Indo-European-speaking horsemen of the Eurasian Steppes. Counterpoised to English, there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and functional literacy in written Chinese requires competency with 3000 to 4000 characters, which is a non-starter for widespread literacy and international commerce.
- In keeping with modern academia, Morris excludes the cultural contribution of religion at the outset. What ideas promoted greater general welfare in Europe, and not elsewhere? What kinds of gods were worshiped in Europe? What kinds elsewhere? What kinds of societies grew out of the worship of their gods? What do their scriptures say about treatment of one’s fellow man? What kinds of behavior was encouraged by their gods? What kinds prohibited? What imprint did their gods make upon the public face of their respective civilizations? Does a civilization permit freedom of worship to their people? When all the nations are laid out with their religions, can we see a correlation of the spiritual beliefs of those which are advancing and of those declining? Do their gods restrain greed and tyranny? Do their gods promote generosity and charity? Are their highest beliefs enshrined in their laws? Do factions within them differ widely about their beliefs? Besides loving their gods, do their scriptures and laws focus upon loving or providing for their weaker neighbor? How do they define love? Practice it? These are inescapable core issues that are largely ignored by modern scholars, whose philosophies have led to crimes of unspeakable behavior perpetrated on a huge scale in the past two centuries. What you believe, the fundamental basis of your character, really does matter.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke