Of the various centres where urban civilisation developed—the Andean mountains and coasts, Mesoamerica, North-East Asia, South-East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe—why was it the cultures of the Atlantic littoral of Europe who first created global history (by connecting all parts of the globe so that, for the first time, human civilisations and cultures were directly aware of the entire rest of the globe) and then transformed human societies by that explosion in the creation and use of capital we call ‘the Industrial Revolution’? Why was Japan the first culture not of the Atlantic littoral (or descendant societies) to achieve industrialisation?
Why not … ?
Why not the Middle East—where the original production revolution, the agricultural revolution, first began and which dominated human invention until about 500BC? Why not China—the continental civilisation with the strongest history of political unity and which dominated human invention for about two millennia (from 500BC to about 1500AD)? Why not India, long a world-leader in metallurgy and mathematics? For, in history, why x? questions come with linked why not y? questions.
We can dismiss the urban civilisations of the Americas as contenders, for they were too isolated. At the time the conquistadors arrived, their civilisations were at about the level of early Pharonic Egypt. The wheel was in very limited use, they had little metal technology while the Andean cultures had not yet developed writing. They had generated states capable of generating considerable economic surpluses beyond subsistence and applying them to vast building projects; projects which both expressed elite power and ensured the surplus was directed to the purposes of the elite. In protein-starved Mesoamerica, this included a ready supply of protein to the elite. (You didn’t think they wasted all those human sacrifices, did you? Religion, like other human ideologies, has a way of selecting for elite convenience.) But the urban civilisations of the Americas were not contenders for anything but being laggard civilisations; witness their devastation by disease and massive disruption by small but much better equipped (both technologically and in range of experience) European forces.
Which leaves the Eurasian contenders. The question is: how did the selection processes of history act in a way that selected for the relevant characteristics? We know the who; the question is how and why?
Selection in history
For the selection processes of history to work, there had to be social possibilities to work upon and pressure to select for the relevant characteristics. Viewed in this way, clearly the post-Roman Atlantic littoral cultures had major long-term advantages. They were on the edge of Eurasia, protected by geography from regular conquest by outsiders; this gave time for long-term institutional learning to take place rather than suffering regular institutional “flattening”. Geography worked against political unity, setting up strong, sustained competition between polities, creating competitive pressures. They represented a range of cultures that developed a variety of institutional forms, which gave a wider range of possibilities for the selection processes of history to work from. They had enough commonality (such as a shared scholarly language—Latin—and a shared religion—Latin Christianity) for movement of people, ideas and capital between polities to be comparatively easy. This intensified the selection processes. Being on the Atlantic littoral—given, prior to railroads, transport by water was enormously cheaper than transport by land (probably by a factor of about 15: i.e. it cost the same to go 100km by land as it did 1500km by sea)—was an enormous exploration, trade and conquest possibility advantage. (One might argue that this water advantage persists.)
Other centres of urban civilisations had some of these features, but none had the full package. The Middle East and China had too much political unity, which greatly lessened competitive pressure and selection possibilities. Northern India suffered too many invasions: also something of an issue for the Middle East and Northern China. South-East Asia had a long period of a dominant polity (the Khmer Empire: see also) and, ironically, both too much institutional similarity (so less for selection processes to work upon) and insufficiently permeable cultural links (so less intensity in competitive processes).
The area of urban civilisation that had the next highest combination of these factors to Atlantic littoral Latin Christendom was—surprise, surprise—Japan. While notionally a unitary state, in practice local provincial lords had sufficient power for Japan to experience a form of “competitive federalism” while the split between Mikado and Shogun, between tenno and bakufu, added to the legal pluralism. It had less cultural and institutional diversity to work from than Europe. But once it was able to “piggy-back” on the results of historical selection processes on the Atlantic littoral and descendant polities, it was away.
Why not India?
A region that might have been something of a contender was southern India, which was largely shielded from the regular invasions that northern India suffered. India certainly developed a technologically, intellectually and religiously vibrant set of polities and cultures—India had a richer tradition of mathematics and philosophy than China, while its metallurgy was as good as or better than anywhere else’s. It was never, however, a serious contender for the “break out” that Atlantic littoral Europe achieved.
[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied.]
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