View Full Version : Why Europeans Conquered the World?

Friday, December 26th, 2008, 03:18 PM
JARED DIAMOND, a researcher at UCLA, has been doing fieldwork in New Guinea for over 25 years. New Guinea is home to some of the last hunter-gatherers in the world. A long time ago, one of his New Guinea friends asked Diamond why white people had so much and New Guineans had so little.

That's an obvious question, but Jared was surprised to realize he didn't know the answer. In fact, he didn't know of anyone who knew the answer. When Europeans were busy conquering the Americas and Australia and New Zealand and parts of Asia and Africa, the obvious answer was that white people were superior. Either they were genetically superior, or their culture was superior. They were smarter or more capable. That explanation is clearly bad, but a good one has failed to take its place.

Why did Europeans conquer the world? Why, when Europeans came into contact with other places in the world, did they almost always conquer?

Jared Diamond had spent enough time with the New Guineans, living among them, to know that they were intelligent and resourceful people — in Diamond's opinion, more intelligent and resourceful than people living in modern societies, both because of natural selection (unintelligent and unresourceful people don't live long in the New Guinea wilds) and because the New Guinea environment is so difficult, and the death rate is so high, that they must smarten up as they grow up, or they don't make it to adulthood.

But if they are so smart, why hadn't they invented guns? Why hadn't they forged steel? Why were they so outmatched when Europeans landed on their island?

Diamond decided to find out why. And the way he started was a stroke of genius. He decided to go back to a time in history when all humans were equal. About 13,000 years ago all humans on the planet were hunter-gatherers. No group had much more than any other group. There were no civilizations, no cities, no rich people. They all had pretty much the same technology. Then what happened?

The first thing that changed was the domestication of animals and plants. Agriculture. That is the beginning of global inequality because agriculture wasn't invented everywhere at the same time. Some places started earlier than others. The first place people started farming and tending animals was in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East near present-day Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Agriculture was invented in other parts of the globe much later.

The people on the Eurasian continent got a huge head start. They started farming 2000 years, 4000 years, and in some cases 6000 years earlier than other places!

Now the question is again, why? Were people on other continents not as bright? Why didn't they start farming earlier? The answer is that in order for a people to settle down to agriculture, they need a complex combination of factors, and those factors happened to arise first in the Fertile Crescent, by the pure luck of geography. Those people happened to be living in the right place at the right time.

What it takes to start agriculture

Some groups of hunter-gatherers in New Guinea are semi-farmers. They cultivate banana trees. But the semi-farmers don't stay put. They haven't settled down and built cities. They don't live permanently in the area because their farming has never allowed them to. They have to keep moving. They come back a couple of times in the year, once to pull weeds, and once to actually harvest the bananas, but they have to keep moving in order to get enough to eat. Why?

The reason is simple: You can't store bananas. To settle down permanently, finding a food source you can farm isn't enough. It has to be the right kind of food source. The food source has to be something you can store, and it has to contain some protein. Bananas have very little protein. People can't live on it. They have to eat other things.

It turns out that in the Fertile Crescent, wheat grew wild. It lent itself to domestication in many ways, and because the growing season was so short in that area, the seeds were rather large and had evolved to remain dormant for a long time. In other words, here was a food you could store for a long time and it wouldn't rot. It also is pretty high in protein.

Jared Diamond and many others have scoured the globe for other potential plants that could fulfill the same requirements. They are very rare.

Not only that, but even a storable plant seed wasn't enough to switch from hunter-gatherers to farmers. They also needed an animal. They needed a good source of protein. People don't survive very well eating only grain, so wheat was not enough. And again, just by luck, in the Fertile Crescent, there was an animal that could be domesticated, and again, that wasn't true in most other parts of the world.

Wherever farming has taken hold around the world, the farmers had at least one domesticated animal to provide protein, at least one storable source of carbohydrates, and a legume (peas, lentils, beans, etc.). Legumes are also storable. They dry hard and don't rot readily. And they are higher in protein than grains, so they can be used as a protein supplement if animal protein becomes scarce.

With enough sustainable food like this, people could stop roaming, and form villages.

There are very few places in the world where a domesticatable animal, plus a storable carbohydrate, plus a legume all exist in the same place. Can you see why it is not enough just to have one of these items? If all you had was one, it wouldn't be enough food to sustain you.

There are places in the world where a grain grows. But farming didn't start and people didn't settle down because that isn't enough. To have a sustainable and complete agriculture, you need the combination, and it was rare. But it was available first in the Fertile Crescent, and it allowed people to settle down into villages.

That was the beginning. It doesn't seem like much, but agriculture brought into existence a whole chain of effects that allowed farmers to advance their technology far beyond hunter-gatherers.

The chain of effects

Here's what happened: People settled down. They had a more reliable source of food throughout the year (because it was storable), so they had more kids. A hunter-gatherer woman only gives birth every five years or so because hunter-gatherers move around a lot and until a child can walk on his own at a pretty good pace, the mother cannot afford to have another child.

But once people settle down into a village with a steady supply of food, they start having children at a rate close to one per year.

So the population of farmers grew faster than hunter-gatherers, allowing the farmers to outnumber and defeat hunter-gatherers in war.

Also, because settled farmers are settled, they can have more possessions, like tools and weapons. Hunter-gatherers had to carry their stuff with them, so they were limited in how many possessions they could accumulate. This has a long-term, limiting influence on the development of new technologies because often new inventions are built on previous inventions.

As farming techniques improved, farmers had more food excess to store, so some people no longer had to do the work of producing food. Specialists could then develop. Tool makers. Weapons makers. And because they were specialized and spent more time on their craft, they invented more. Technology improved faster.

So farmers had better weapons and greater numbers and could defeat hunter-gatherers even more effectively.

Another very important factor is: The more people you have together, the more ideas they exchange. The process of innovation began to accelerate when people settled down into towns and cities.

Hunter-gatherers hardly changed at all. They were relatively isolated, relatively small groups of people who didn't have the time or incentive to invent new technologies, and they couldn't carry much with them anyway, so their technologies remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years.

The importance of latitude

One important advantage the Eurasians had was a large piece of land stretching across the same latitude. Look at an atlas and find the Fertile Crescent. See how far land stretches in both directions on that latitude. It is enormous. So the combination of the domesticated plants and animals — the self-reliant, self-sustaining, and complete agricultural package — could (and did) spread east to Asia and west to Europe. To add to the advantage, that encouraged a constant interchange between these far-flung places, which also accelerated the pace of invention.

In the Americas, Australia, and Africa, the spreading was much more limited along the same latitude.

The reason latitude is important is that if you go east or west at the same latitude, you have similar lengths of day, somewhat similar climate and weather, which means plants and animals that survive well at one spot are more likely to survive well east or west of there, but not usually north or south of that spot.

Added to that, there were significant barriers to traveling north and south in Africa and the Americas. Huge deserts and impenetrable forests prevented one area from having much contact with other areas. So, for example, in Mesoamerica, they had invented the wheel. Down in South America, they had domesticated llamas. The people in Mesoamerica never got the llamas and the South Americans never got the wheel. Had both civilizations lived on the same latitude, it is likely both would have used the wheel and the llama.

So the width of the Eurasian continent is a huge factor in the acceleration of technology. But there was another factor that gave the Europeans a back-breaking advantage when they encountered Native Americans and Africans (and Hawaiians and Australian Aborigines, etc.). Whenever Europeans in the Age of Discovery encountered anyone from any other continent, they brought disease.

Why didn't diseases go both ways?

Why is it that when Europeans landed on the shores of the Americas that the Native Americans were devastated by so many diseases brought by the Europeans? And why didn't the Native Americans have their own diseases to give to the white man? Why did Europeans have such a huge collection of deadly diseases that they had a resistance to, but the Native Americans didn't have very many diseases that Europeans had no resistance to?

Interesting question, isn't it? The answer is that most of our diseases — smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, flu, etc. — originally came from the animals Europeans had domesticated.

Here's how it works: First, an animal has a microbe that infects it, say cowpox (an actual case). Because humans are hanging around cows a lot, some of the microbes jump to the humans, but generally speaking, they can't survive. But a little random mutation here and there and all of a sudden smallpox comes into existence and wipes out huge portions of the European population. It mutated to become a human disease. This happened again and again. Plague after plague swept through Europe over the centuries, killing off everyone who didn't have some resistance to it.

Native Americans hadn't domesticated very many animals. They didn't have cows, horses, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, geese, oxen, donkeys, etc. But Europeans had all these any many more.

That's why the disease exchange was so one-sided. Disease did far more to create an imbalance between Europeans and Native Americans than all the other factors put together.

Why not the Chinese?

So far, this explains why people on the Eurasian continent dominated people on other continents. But the Eurasian continent is very wide. Why wasn't it the people from the Middle East or China who did the conquering? Why was it Europeans?

The Middle East is too dry for intensive farming now. Most of the forests have been cut down and didn't grow back. The place is like a desert these days, which was not the case 13,000 years ago when agriculture was just getting started. So their ability to survive well, much less produce surplus food, diminished over time. At the time Europe began its Age of Discovery, around 1500 AD, the Middle East was agriculturally past its prime and not in a position to compete.

China, on the other hand, could have been a potential rival for world exploration and dominance around 1500, but right about that time, the ruler of China decided to dismantle all the shipyards in China! No more exploration by sea, he said. One of the things that prevented China from being the people who conquered the other continents, in other words, was China's unity. A single ruler could decide the fortunes of the whole region. Not so in Europe.

Europe has lots of natural barriers: It is divided by water and mountains and lots of jutting landmasses. So Europe has been continually divided into states. In the 1500's, those states were all competing with each other. Even if you had a ruler or two who didn't want to explore the world, you would have other rulers who would, and they would become rich and essentially force the other states to jump in or fall behind (or even be conquered).

This is the answer to the question

Our original question was, why did Europeans conquer the world? The answer is, because they happened to live on the Eurasian continent, so they were lucky enough to start agriculture earlier than any other place on earth. Just by luck, they were at the right latitude with the right combination of available animals and plants that could be domesticated. And with a head start of thousands of years, their technology was more advanced. And because of their close association with their domesticated animals, they carried many diseases to which they had resistance but people from other continents did not. Because of their head start, Europeans possessed guns, germs, and steel and they conquered the world with them.

Much of the global inequality seen today comes from this original source.

Source (http://www.youmeworks.com/why_europeans.html)

Friday, December 26th, 2008, 03:52 PM
ahhh right, so living in a place where for 6 months of the year no crops grow or anything off the trees, the whole farming land is covered in snow, where for most of the year there is about 5 hours of daylight, where it was so cold people used to literally freeze to death and so did the land...These are perfect farming conditions are they? Where in contrast a tribe of Negros in Africa who squat under bananna trees and have them litrelly fall on there head but carn't seem to manage to feed themselfs properly still are hard done by geographiclly?

Friday, December 26th, 2008, 06:31 PM
Schusspulver- Gunpowder....

The Chinese Invented Gunpowder, but it was a german who invented the cannon. While the Idea was quickly picked up by the turks and used to great effect in the bombardment ans siege of constantinople, the continueing adaptations and improvements were mostly German until the 15th century.

All of Europe proffited from the Spanish conquest of Peru which would never have been possible without the Boom- Booms. For the conquest of Peru, wich doubled European gold holdings in 25 years, the Spanish brought in medium artillery, falconetes (small cannos firing flechette ammunition sort of like giant shot guns)and a number of arquebuses (an arquebus was a spanish invention, basically a percussor to the musket). The cannons and falconets were indespensable.

"Berthold Schwartz invented the cannon in Freiburg, Germany, in 1320. Called "Berthold the Black" . , the monk combined charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate)--the ingredients of gunpowder--in a mortar, which he covered with a stone slab. A stray spark accidentally set off the powder, hurling the stone slab through the roof of Berthold's laboratory. He recognized the military importance of his discovery and proceeded to construct the first cannon.

And Germany is still making the best cannons.

Saturday, December 27th, 2008, 01:36 PM
I read his book a long time ago. He probaly has some points but it's not the complete story. Geography is only part of rthe eqaution. Let's do a thought-experiment. We take two island with roughly a moderate climate and plenty of natural resources. On one island we put 100 Germanic men and women and an the other 100 Blacks. What would be the outcome ather let's say 3/4 generations?

Saturday, December 27th, 2008, 02:01 PM
I read his book a long time ago. He probaly has some points but it's not the complete story. Geography is only part of rthe eqaution. Let's do a thought-experiment. We take two island with roughly a moderate climate and plenty of natural resources. On one island we put 100 Germanic men and women and an the other 100 Blacks. What would be the outcome ather let's say 3/4 generations?

Jared Diamond is just another man, with another book and another theory. The exception being, his theory fits into the cookie cutter "We're all Human Mold" and as a result was given the publicity to succeed.
Had Jared Diamond not written this book, surely someone down the road would had copied his footsteps. I think it can be best summarized as rhetoric.

Though I must enjoyed his second book. It's just the first one that bugs me. Amazing enough, how many people do you know own his "Collapse" book? Not anyone I know. But the Gun, Steel and Germs seems to be all the rage.
In theory, the United States could be compared to the China in his book. The United States is effectively the strongest world power and has no direct competition (invading Russia might be a problem. But the US is #1 in Power Projection and conceivably could win a war against any opponent).

But the United States has been nevertheless continuing to progress. We have Drones that can shoot pinpoint missiles onto target, don't tell me that was invented in 1989 to fight the Soviets!
Had Jared Diamond published his book back in the 1950's, or even much earlier, he would had been the laughing stock of the anthropology community

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009, 03:20 PM
For more on this subject I highly recommend the articles Fjordman writes: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/blog/4556

He covers a lot of ancient historial topics in great detail and examines who invented what, etc.

Thursday, May 18th, 2017, 08:34 PM
I read his book a long time ago. He probaly has some points but it's not the complete story. Geography is only part of rthe eqaution. Let's do a thought-experiment. We take two island with roughly a moderate climate and plenty of natural resources. On one island we put 100 Germanic men and women and an the other 100 Blacks. What would be the outcome ather let's say 3/4 generations?

Diamond was criticised by Greer (China) and Frost (Africa). He himself had trouble from Cultural Marxists by the way. This is because he endorses sociobiological theories placing him on the nature side of the nature vs nurture debate.

Like Charles Murray, Diamond chooses China as a counterpoint to the West. This is understandable since China under the Ming and Qing was the exact opposite, as civilisations go, to Europe at the time. Both authors however oversimplify Chinese history to demonstrate a point. Diamond is also guilty of distorting Chinese geography by comparing it as less difficult than Europe's for Mongol invaders (a common misunderstanding). Frost pointed out certain factual errors in GGAS whilst agreeing in principle with Diamond. Unfortunately Frost's rebuttal of Diamond's worse claims is offline at the moment whereas Greer's consideration of the fractured land hypothesis is available however.


Interestingly phytoliths show that PNG was domesticating crops back before the Holocene. Somehow they had stalled at that point and remained as horticulturalists. Early innovators did not stay so and people who seem backward can advance forwards fast - Classical Greece, early Rome, the rise of the West, 19th century Japan and so on.

The rise of the West is of particular interest but the Agean and Italy had been backwaters of the Mediterranean, as had Japan within East Asia.

Friday, May 19th, 2017, 01:17 PM
I have red Jared Diamond's book and I can agree it. The rise and hegemony of the Modern Age Europe was the product of many combination of accidental.

Friday, May 19th, 2017, 08:17 PM
I have red Jared Diamond's book and I can agree it. The rise and hegemony of the Modern Age Europe was the product of many combination of accidental.

The problem is the lack of valid explanation for his chosen counterpoint: China. Geography scarcely cuts it. I think the reason Europe didn't unite like China is because of the implications of kinship and inheritance for culture. Carlemagne came close but the Franks lacked primogeniture. Before that time Europe had no states or cities except as part of the Mediterranean oikumene. Naturally the most China-like state of the Mediterranean - the Roman Empire - was fixated upon the coasts not the transalpine interior.

The great diffrence between Europe and China, then, is the failure of the Franks to adopt primogeniture. And had they not divided their empire the Franks would inadvertently have prevented the competition between European states that contributed to the Age of Exploration in OTL. Modernity as we take it for granted is butterflied away by political unity and medieval values are permanent as they were in Islamic and Hindu culture. Europe would have had les military competition and less military innovation as a result. this may have had an effect on even the development of the gun: although gunpowder is demonstrated by Moorish and Persian terminology to have arrived west from China, the earliest European mention of an actual gun is Iberian fuelling speculations that the Western gun was an independant European invention. I could go either way on this, but guns borrow from the concept of the blowdart which has one or two origins in the tropics, the nearest being in southeast Asia not the African tropics which lack blowdarts. So there must be an eastern connection both for the chemical composition and the use of windage to propel a projectile. And without the competition between European states that accompanied the rise of Protestantism, Europe might have stayed under Catholic dogmas as regards some fields of science.

Incidentally Frost used rapid cultural innovation at points in New World history to counter Diamond's emphasis upon diffusion. In Mesoamerica he claims innovation was five times faster until it stalled (without giving a reason). From such observations Frost blames the ease of acquisition by cultural contacts for stunting native innovations. If he is correct innovations in a global world will diffues wider faster but there will be less innovation in future. This is the opposite of liberal ideological predictions including those of clasical liberalism.