How come Europeans dominated the rest of the world and not vice versa?

In a column ( of the same title as the subject of this thread, Cecil makes a statement often made, erroneously so in my humble opinion. Speaking for Europeans, he takes pride for the achievements of the Greeks and Romans, annexing these two great nations. Even worse, he uses the term “white folk”, although after a humorist fashion. Allow me to ascertain one thing: while all Western Europeans are affiliated to, indeed take pride in the achievements of, the Greeks and the Romans (although only as of the renaissance, when they were no longer identified with the hated Byzantine, did they take pride of the former), this was not true the other way around. I know not whether they were closer in coloration to Britons or to Egyptians, but I can assure you that every Roman asked would have replied that, culture-wise, he is closer in kind to the Egyptians. The Romans and Greeks both belonged to the Older World, one stretching from Rome to Mesopotamia, encompassing what is modern-day Turkey, Egypt and even-then Northern Africa. Western Europe, if at all, was merely a fractured borderland of this world, not anything a Roman would take pride of.

Just making a point.

Yes, but France, Britain, Spain, and the Italian states were succesors to the Latin classical civilization. The other areas of the Roman empire…Egypt, North Africa, the Near East, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia were all conquered by the Muslims, and their historical development after that was non-Roman. Sure, absent Islam, those areas would now be considered part of western civilization. But of course, Islamic people did conquer those parts of the world, and for better or worse they lost their identification with the western classical world.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is an excellent book on this very question. A lot of the answer is geography, the presence or absence of large draft animals, continental orientation and climate, and has nothing to do with the inate gifts of the population. And it’s a great read, too.

Europeans wrote the history books, which are at best one-sided and at worst a pack of racist lies.

Yes, Europeans wrote the history books. Yes, the history books are in some sense biased. But how did it come about that the Europeans wrote the history books? They won the wars, right? So how did they win the wars? Why did European countries conquer the world and not African countries?

Regardless of who wrote the history books, it is an undeniable fact that the Europeans arrived in large sailing vessels with a technology far advanced beyond the native residents of North America. It is an undeniable fact that while the population of Asia was responsible for many inventions, and developed a high culture with fine arts of all kinds, they did not expand to Europe or the Americas. The inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, despite having essentially the same brains as Europeans, did not develop the technology to travel to other continents.

The Middle East, northern Africa, and Europe did develop an advanced technology, written language, and did travel to every other continent on the planet.

In the book I cited, Diamond points out the following:

The Middle East and Europe had large draft animals: horses, oxen, cattle. They had other easily domesticated food animals such as sheep and goats. The east-west orientation of Eurasia provided a large expanse of land with a similar temperate climate, across which animals, plants, culture and technology could spread and flourish.

Africa has not a single domesticatable large mammal. With the exception of the llama, neither do the Americas. The llama, moreover, is much smaller than the Eurasian draft animals, and is limited to South America. North America, like Africa, had no domesticatable large mammals. Because of the north-south axis of the Americas, divided by hostile climate in Central America and southern North America, neither the llama nor the culture and technology of the various peoples could easily spread very far. Although the South American people did develop an advanced culture, without large mammals they had no incentive to develop the wheel, nor did they develop other technology. Without draft animals for plowing or transportation, the incentive for the invention of wheels and other technological developments is limited.

Asia does have some large mammals, and did develop an advanced civilization. There were times when the Asian cultures were far ahead of the European ones. Why did the Asians not sweep westward and conquer Europe? Why did they not sail around Africa? One possible reason is, again, their geography. The huge land mass is not as broken up by mountains as Europe. So it was easier for a single ruling group to dominate the entire area. When an emperor decided that there was to be no more exploration of barbarian lands, there was an end to such activity.

In Europe, however, the terrain led to there being many smaller nations. For example, when Columbus wished to go exploring, he was turned down time after time before finding a sponsor. But there was always another king to make his pitch to. And all he needed was one. And each nation had the incentive to explore and to advance in other ways, in order to outdo their rivals. This would have been impossible in Asia.

Germs: The people of the Americas, in particular, being relatively isolated, did not have the same resistance to a variety of diseases that the Europeans did. North America, in particular, being less densely populated, had very little resistance to diseases like tuberculosis and cholera, which need large groups of people together in order to proliferate. Many native American populations were almost entirely wiped out before any European settlers arrived, having been exposed, fatally, to virulent germs by passing traders and explorers. Of course, many tropical areas had diseases of their own which did, in fact, keep the Europeans at bay for a while.

Guns and Steel: The Asians, we know, did invent gunpowder, but did not use it for weapons. The Europeans, given their constant internal warfare, advanced their weaponry at every opportunity.

There is no evidence, according to Diamond, to support any idea that groups of people vary greatly in native intelligence from one part of the world to another.

So it comes down to geography. Not some magical superiority. Just geography.

Read the book.

Here’s two earlier discussions on this topic, if anyone is interested ( which I remember, because they are what helped lure me out of lurkdom ) :

I get what you’re saying, but I’d have to disagree to at least a limited extent. The classical Caliphate in terms of intellectual milieu pursued a fair bit of classical thought. More concretely, late Roman/Byzantine ( as well as Sassanian Persian, of course ) administration and instituitions were adopted wholesale during the conquest of the Middle East ( the Arabs having limited native expertise in such matters at the time ). Even later developments in that regard were more evolution than revolution, really.

While there was certainly a divide between the Christian West and Islamic East in certain respects, both were heir to the classical tradition and the difference is perhaps less stark than is commonly supposed. Certainly people like the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, among others, were very aware of the evocative strength of the Roman Imperial tradition and sought to emulate it ( quite deliberately at times ).

Also the alpaca, bred in different breed standards for different qualities and textures of wool and to a more limited semi-domesticated state, the vicuna.

Slight overstatement ( so is the comment about lack of cultural and technological diffusion - it did occur, but was just much more difficult and constrained ). Certainly Andean metal-working in terms of silver and gold ( even bronze ), was superb. There are other examples to cite as well. Of course your overall point about a lower technological level in Americas is certainly on the mark.

This is also inaccurate. I can’t remember if Diamond specifically made this point or not, but since there were a few things I thought he got slightly off, this might have been one of them :). Rocketry was developed reasonably early by the Chinese and was used in a military context.

Otherwise, I think Diamond’s book is excellent.

  • Tamerlane

A few points to make:

“Africa has not a single domesticatable large mammal. With the exception of the llama, neither do the Americas”

I thought there were cattle in Africa - and buffalo in North America. The buffalo were never domesticated, but I see no reason why they should not have been.
"Why did the Asians not sweep westward and conquer Europe? Why did they not sail around Africa? "

I thought they did! Gengis Kahn certainly gave a good impression of it. And Zheng He’s fleet in 1405 sailed round most of the known world.

"Rocketry was developed reasonably early by the Chinese and was used in a military context. "

A reference would be useful - I have looked for the invention of gunpowder weapons and found it hard to get useful attributions. Translation is such a problem - there appear to have been many early incendiary weapons based on sulphur, petroleum and the like - these often get translated as rockets or guns when they may have been nearer to ‘Greek Fire’. True gunpowder projectile weapons seem to be associated with the Germans (or Roger Bacon) in the 1200s
The argument that geography pre-disposed the Europeans to continuous wars is a good one, but North American and African tribes also had a history of continuous raiding of neighbours territories. I really see the difference being one between essentially static societies and dynamically expanding ones. Medieval Europe, for instance, was a static feudal system, and did not expand, though it had horses and weapons. It made little sallies out to El Dorado, or the Spice Islands, but these were much the same as local raiding.
Major European expansion (well, British, initially) seems to me to be associated with the rise of a rich middle class, about the time of the Industrial Revolution. This is associated with factories, and the need both for stable sources of raw materials, and stable markets to sell to. Tribal raiding is bad for this, so it needed subduing. If I was to pick a single invention which produced the political hegemony of Western Europe, it would be the Steam Engine.

Cattle seem to have entered sub-Saharan Africa from the north, so aren’t really native ( same with goats, horses, etc. ). The African Cape Buffalo and the American Bison are by and large not amenable to simple domestication efforts. Most large mammals aren’t for whatever reason. Africa has zebras for instance, but they are simply no substitute for a horse.

Good points :). Though for clarification sake, Zheng-He ( despite that recent book, which seems based on very dubious scholarship from what I’ve read ) mostly sailed in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans - he never crossed the Pacific, nor rounded the tip of Africa. And Genghis/Chingiz Khan was dead before the serious penetration of Europe began, though towards the end of his life, his generals Subedei Bahadur and Jebei Noyan did make a reconnaisance in force through the Caucasus and the Caspian Steppe, smashing a couple of armies, including a combined Cuman/Russian force on the Kalka that purportedly outnumbered them four-to-one.

The Wu-ching Tsung-yao of Tseng Kung-Liang, written in 1044 or 45 detailed the use of arrows fired by a gunpowder charge and Robin Yates at McGill University claims to have found a Chinese drawing of a primitive cannon dating to 1127. Though it is unproven, it is often supposed that the Mongols brought gunpowder to the west ( if true, a fitting gift :wink: ). I’ve read that the earliest use of gunpowder weapons in Europe dates to 1313, but won’t swear to that.

  • Tamerlane

Another vote for Guns, Germs, and Steel.

I think it’s fair to assume that ancient man of Europe and the middle-east did not stumble into a heaven of useful animals and plants, but that they were in fact created by those men.

I remember reading in Darwin’s Origin of the Species, a passage about why there are so many more useful plants in some areas of the world that in others; it all boiled down to the people of those area having carefully cultivated wild species to become useful – they were not there to start with.

It has been said that the original wild or just domesticated horse has slight resemblance to a modern horse, that it looked more like a wild donkey. For one, it was much smaller - properly barely able to carry a grown man. E.g. not at all an obvious candidate for a domestication effort. The reason it turned out to be such a useful animal is because of long and meticulous breeding. Is there any reason why you assume a zebra or a lama or a bison cannot likewise be domesticated and bred?


Well, the llama is domesticated ;).

But for the other two - Yep. Most authorities that have studied the matter have come to the conclusion that you need the right combination of behavioral traits to begin with, to even make domestication ( which isn’t the same as taming ) possible at all. Most animals simply don’t fit the bill ( or aren’t obviously useful, if they do ). The aforementioned Jared Diamond goes into this a bit.

Zebras are simply too damn nasty - they won’t tame down in any meaningful way and modern attempts to try and domesticate them have failed. Even over multiple generations, the captive-bred zebras will still try and kick in your brains, if possible and rthey’re in a bad mood. By contrast even the wild horse breeds of Central Asia ( now virtually gone ), like the Przewalski’s, are apparently tameable right out of the wild.

Cheetahs are very tractable and tame readily right out of the wild, becoming quite doglike - the Mughul Padishahs kept hundreds in their stables to course game. But they are simply extraordinarily difficult to breed in captivity - it is only relatively recently that modern zoos have been able to figure out what it takes. Despite their presumed desirability they are now extinct in India.

There is certainly the possibility that given enough time these sorts of difficulties could be overcome. Part of the issue may be that the most easily domesticatable animals diffused across cultures so rapidly, they preempted the need to try and work with the harder to domesticate species. For example, the introduction of more tractable cattle and horses into parts of Africa, may have greatly decreased any internal pressure to try and domesticate the cape buffalo or the various species of zebra. More isolated societies may have lacked sufficient incentive to overcome the problems inherent in trying to domesticate big, powerful, and thoroughly pissy bison.

But whatever the reason, it does appear some species were much more amenable than others to being domesticated and some ( perhaps many, perhaps most ) are quite possibly impossible to domesticate at all ( at least in a non-modern setting ).

  • Tamerlane

emmm… But only as a pack animal as far as I know; not as versatile as the horse (he said trying to save face).

But then I don’t see the inherent superiority of the European geographical position? Most of Europe’s domesticated species were introduced from Asia or the Middel-East, domesticated species were introduced south of the Sahara. Both places they learned to live and thrive. What is the difference? Maybe they arrived a little earlier in Europe – but that can hardly the crux of the argument?

I think Jared Diamond introduce some very interesting theories, and I will get around to reading his book (any day now). It’s just that, for a man that claims to have answers to Europe’s historical supremacy without resorting to racial explanations, to start out with a description of how to him Madagascan children seem so much more intelligent that European. Well that’s something of a put off for me.


You mean in terms of Africa vs. Europe? Well, I think the absense of large draft animals is probably a bit more significant in terms Old World vs. New World. With Africa the problem is that large belts of Africa are effectively closed off to those non-native draft animals by a complex of animal trypanosomyases related to the organism that causes ‘Sleeping Sickness’ in humans. It’s not universal - the states of the West African savanna mounted impressive armies of mailed calvary. But approximately 1/4 of the continent ( and a much larger proportion of the sub-Saharan region ), maybe 10 million square miles, is a bad place for domestic critters. There are numerous strains, varying in virulence, but Trypanosoma brucei brucei is devastating to horses, camels, donkeys and dogs. Trypanosoma vivax, the most common, hits cattle, sheep, and goats. Trypanosoma simiae has been called “the lightning destroyer of the domestic pig.” Trypanosoma congolense, probably the most important, gets everything.

But this is hardly the only issue that Diamond ( or others ) raise. Africa’s relative ( note, not total by any means, but relative to the Eurasian connection ) isolation from cultural diffusion, more limited soils on average, relative lack of good internal communication or movement corridors ( having to do with dense forest belts and the structure of major rivers and coastlines ), perhaps somewhat more limited food crops in terms of bulk production for much of history ( millets and sorghums vs. rice and wheat - not an issue in terms of nutrition so much as in terms of accumulation of excess and concommittant agricultural revenue, which can affect state structure ) - All of these factors and others I’m doubtless forgetting combined to confer a long-term advantage to the Europeans.

  • Tamerlane

"Kim Stanley Robinson’s ambitious exploration of alternative history in The Years of Rice and Salt poses the daunting question “How would our world have developed without Europe?” (Or, rather, without European culture?) When the scouts of the Mongol leader Temur the Lame (Tamburlaine) enter Hungary in 1405, they find only emptiness and death. Plague has swept Europe off the gameboard of history. "

Damn fine book.

Checks to see if Jared Diamond has been mentioned yet.

Leaves thread.

Euro’s deposited syphlis, pox, TB, plague, and rot everywhere they visited. I suspect half of their conquests were purely by viral accident.

> Euro’s deposited syphlis, pox, TB, plague, and rot everywhere they visited. I suspect half of their conquests were purely by viral accident.

Syphilis was deposited on the Europeans from South America, plague introduced to Europe from Asia – so I suppose they took as much as they gave.

TB devastated the natives of America which had no natural protection; however it’s absurd to suggest that the natives, had they not been so affected, would have been able to successfully fight off the European incursion.

BTW the plague (Bubonic Plague) is not a viral sickness but a bacterium.


Another factor that I’ve heard mentioned (forgive me if it was long ago and I have no cite), was the ready availability (or lack therof) of an obvious progression of metals of increasing usefulness but increasing difficulty of smelting. In the middle east/Europe there was copper, tin (for bronze), and iron. And since copper can be melted with an ordinary campfire, it’s an easy way to learn about metals.

Whereas North America has great iron ore and coal deposits in fairly close proximity, but relatively scarce tin and copper, thus no way for people to learn how to work with metals.

I believe I’ve also heard that beans were key, as part of an improved agriculture system in western Europe that produced enough food to allow many people to do other things besides farm, leading to the middle class, learning, science, and lots of spare people to sail around the world, form armies, etc.