If Europe did not exist, would human societies be more equal?

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Days of Rice and Salt, the author posits that the Plague of the 14th Century killed almost all Europeans instead of just one-third of them, and them imagines how history may have developed after that. There is plenty of Islamic and Chinese hegemony, but nevertheless, by the present day, the world looks more equal than it does IRL. There are economic and technological differences between nations, to be sure, but not so stark. There is no “Third World.” There are 160-story skyscrapers in Burma, but nuclear weapons haven’t been invented yet, and the Iroquois Navy protects the last surviving white people :slight_smile:

So, what if there had been no Europe, and no Christianity? In Mr. Robinson’s novel there is very little non-state global capitalism – maybe he believes that, too, is a characteristic of Europe? Would there be such a gulf between different parts of the globe?

I think Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) might say that it wouldn’t matter in the long run, because he believes geography is the root of inequality between nations, i.e., continents on an “east-west axis” came to dominate the world. I do give a lot of credit to Mr. Diamond, because he has attempted to give one of the best non-racist explanations for the development of history.

What do you think?

Well, I don’t think a fourteenth century plague would eliminate Christianity, or even all of European culture. If you just fiat the end of all European culture from the beginning, that would eliminate the Roman Catholic Church, and the Helenic influence over Christianity. Different history for sure.

Blaming the white man for all the evils of history is a pretty tired set of prejudices though. Are we assuming that Norse culture would have evaporated as well? Do the Rus get to spread out over what is now Europe? Or how about the Celts, or the Huns? Is it whiteness that dooms us to the mysterious history plague, or Romano/Helenic culture? Obviously the Franks have got to go, and the Saxons. Even without Roman influence, they are just too darned white. Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, all die of sunburn, I suppose.

So the benign wisdom of Ghengis Kahn brings Pax Panasia to the uncivilized west. Hmmmm. I wonder if the primarily internal problems that stopped him last time would still happen without white men to blame it all on? Would the Arabian culture be permitted to survive? The blessed peacefulness of brown folks would certainly apply at least in some measure on the southern Mediterranean peoples. The Turks are toast, of course. Not to mention the Slavs, Boyars, Magyars, and associated Eastern Europeans.

Of course without Alexander, the Gypsies would never have migrated westward from India, and their continued presence there would probably influence the culture of the subcontinent. No Alexandrine Egyptian period. Are we considering Alexander to be European, or does he get a coat of suntan lotion? I suppose that it depends on how you divide the continent.

Do the Basques get to play? Does the portion of the slave trade that took place between the Ashanti Empire and the Oman Caliphate still happen? Do the Mongols stop at Egypt?

Wait, what happened to the Carthaginians?! They certainly didn’t have to bother with those pesky Romans. Without the legions to stop them, Ghengis baby is gonna run smack into hoards of Carthaginians on freakin’ Elephants, when he gets to Hungary! And the Persians! Oh, no, wait, they’re white guys. Never mind.

Well, it would certainly be different. So much more peaceful, and benign without all those damn white folks committing atrocities all the time. And by fifteen hundred, the Iroquois would suddenly look up and say, “Hey, where the fuck are the English? Let’s build some boats, and go over to Europe!”

And the Incas, man, would be piling into their Kon Tiki reed boats, and fixin’ to stomp some Conquistador ass.


“It was a woman drove me to drink and I didn’t even have the decency to thank her.” ~ W.C. Fields ~

Kon Tiki was a raft of logs in the Pacific. Ra and Ra II were reed boats in the Atlantic.

I’d think you’d have to stick with the original premise to have any hope of speculating a future. If you try to blow away “white” people at some early stage, you’d have to figure out who would move into their locations. Diamond’s premise regarding European domination had more to do with the multiple peninsulas and cross-grained mountain ranges of Europe than who lived there.

If we do stick with the OP’s premise, I suspect that we really wind up pushing back the Industrial Revolution and world interdependency by a couple of hundred years.

As noted by both Diamond and several posters on this board, Chinese culture invented a huge number of critical inventions before they were distributed to or re-invented in the West. However, China’s massively homogeneous political influence meant that any politically ordered retrenchment immediately stopped those developments throughout its entire region. When the Emperor (or his regent) ordered the Chinese fleet destroyed in the fifteenth century, he effectively took the Chinese out of the “world discovery” business forever, because within one generation, all the knowledge was lost. (As a small counter-example: When the papacy negotiated a settlement between Spain and Portugal regarding which half of the world each could dominate, that treaty had no effect on the English, French, Dutch, and Swedes.)

Knocking out Europe in the fourteenth century leaves the Chinese hegemony in place in the East and provides for Ottoman hegemony in the West, meaning that the inhabitants of the European sub-continent have to begin their fractionalization over again from the point at which they were around 200 CE. There is no incentive for the technological “arms race” that began after Europe had been divided into self-sustaining nation-states large enough to sponsor inquiry and stable enough to support diversity.

Now, if the OP’s scenario further posits that the Chinese never turn in upon themselves, and they and the Ottoman empire begin to clash on the coast of Africa with the Indian sub-continent playing king-maker and with Indochina and the Indonesian archipelago as rebellious pawns, we might have the beginnings of another “what if” flight of fancy that would allow for the competition to spur future developments.

(Does the plague eliminate Gutenberg and his peers before they can demonstrate movable type to the Turks, or after?)

I’m afraid that regardless of the other devcelopments, however, the Americas are still pretty much doomed by Eurasian disease.

If you didn’t mention Guns Germs and Steel in the OP, I’m pretty sure 50 people would have called you on it.
Agreeing with all the posters so far, we need to ask when Europeans die. Before or after meeting the Aztecs and Incas?
Realize that population density is one of the biggest factors in the spreading of disease so even if ALL of Europe died, there’s a likely chance that whatever country, nation, or continent takes its place would develop its own disease and kill themselves off too.

Then, bringing back up the supply argument, there are many materials which the area of Europe has and other areas do not have. So, in order to get those materials, some society would have to travel to Europe and set up a society there.
Understand that if you’re claiming that Europeans caused what happened to the world, you’re not saying that persons X, Y, and Z did it. Rather, it was done by the people that lived in the area known as Europe. The society that moves into Europe after all the original Europeans are dead is just as likely to make the same choices given the same materials with which to work with.
Maybe nothing changes.

Without the major conflicts in europe, weapons research would be hindred, and we would see major wars between different islamic sects. China would be the world power and the new world would be explored much later ’ try 1800’s ’

Basically tecnological advancement would be slower.

What tomndeb said :). Especially this last sentence:

The Turks and Chinese had smallpox too. Whoever discovered the New World, it was doomed to the same level of damage as you are positing for Europe. And if the “East” ( China, India, whoever ) are posited as being expansionistic, the Americas would probably have still become a resource horse and been colonized, though perhaps from the opposite direction.

But really, if the Black Death was so infectious and virulent as to virtually wipe out Europe, it’s very hard to imagine it not taking out at least the Near East as well, if not every “civilized” region of the world. Remember the Black Death of the 14th century originated in the steppes of Central Asia, not Europe, and almost certainly killed more “Asians” ( including the Near East here ), than Europeans.

  • Tamerlane

Tris, calm down, I don’t think Robinson intended his scenario to be anti-white, in fact he certainly doesn’t present the Chinese or the Muslims as any more peaceful or moral than Europeans.

In this scenario, the plague takes out everyone on the Continent, white or not, Christian or not, all the way up to the territories ruled by the Golden Horde. (And Tamerlane is killed by lightning just before invading the empty continent :slight_smile: The Muslims in southern Spain also die, as well as the Turks in the Balkans. The Gypsies (known as “Zotts”) and Armenians and North African Muslims repopulate Europe. The Scientific Revolution takes place in Samarkand, the Chinese conquer Japan and discover America from the West, and the Iroquois are saved from being wiped out by refugees from the Japanese diaspora who warn them about the diseases and weapons of the Old World. (The practice of “scabbing” saves most of them, but many still die.) India takes the place of America as a force for enlightenment and democracy.

Getting back to the OP, this scenario certainly seems to show material and technological advances as lagging behind real life in some areas, for instance no nuclear weaponry and no space exploration; so maybe this is an acknowledgement of the role of political control in retarding science. (The destruction of the Ming overseas fleet does take place in the book.) However, the relative slowness of progress seems to lead to greater material equality between nations. Also, nobody has commented on the effect on global non-state capitalism – is that a European phenomenon?

I guess I should be more specific about the OP: under Kim Stanley Robinson’s scenario, with all Europeans vanishing at least six hundred years ago, would economic and technological progress have been more regionally balanced and nations therefore more materially equal?And does Jared Diamond’s hypothesis refute that?

I’m a fan of these two authors, Robinson and Diamond, one fiction and one non-fiction, but both with something to say about the same theme: the reasons for the different levels of material progress in different societies. I’m not anti-white, I’m just a geek. Thank you.

Bolding mine.

I think you mean Bulgars. Boyar is simply the term for the nobility in Roumania and Russia-(back in the days of the Grand Principality of Muscovy).

I don’t think it would make a difference Tc. Humankind would still find a way to act like assholes to each other.

What agent does Robinson suggest would initiate any sort of “modern” capitalist notions.
If the Chinese went through their retrenchment, destroying their fleet and shipyards, what (in Robinson’s book) then prompts them to invade Japan? (How do the non-seafaring Japanese get to North America?)
If the seat of the Ottoman empire was destroyed along with Europe, it would seem that the Asian Turkish empire should have fragmented, then re-assembled under the next powerful war leader.

This gets too much into requiring a critique of the book, but it seems to me that Robinson has removed most of the triggers and prompts for European expansion, then assumed that the world expansion would have occurred, regardless.

Ignoring his scenario, for a moment, the Chinese were quite capable of seeing themselves as the superior peoples of the Earth (and whenever a group took ascendancy in China, they willingly accepted the mantle of “superior” from whomever they had just deposed). I would have expected them to drift into the same sort of colonizing habits that the Europeans pursued. For all the disparate groups on the Earth to develop equally, one has to assume that the diffusion of technology will occur over much of the Earth in a gentle flow. I do not see that happening.

The Japanese were able to make the 400 year leap in technology in the late nineteenth century because they already had a tightly ordered society, that was only technically “backward” in a few select areas. (And they were basically “ordered” to advance themselves by the U.S.–so that the U.S. could develop Asian markets–with China the striking example of what would happen to them if they chose to “disobey.”)

Without Europe’s bursting into the world’s harbors, technological diffusion probably would have happened more gradually, leaving more societies on a generally equal footing. On the other hand, humans would simply not have achieved their current technological advancement by the end of the 20th century.

I’ll still hold out for Diamond’s fractured/fractious Europe and the development of the nation-state as the impetus for the sort of technological “race” that got us to our current situation. There needs to be more than just free-floating knowledge to push technological development.

For example, both the windmill and the water wheel were developed at various times in the Roman Empire, yet they both languished as oddities that never moved away from the locales where they were developed until the post-Roman Europeans began to employ them. Why? Because the slave-powered Roman civilization perceived no need for labor saving devices. Need work done? Get a slave.

How could you justify this statement? Europe was hardly always the center of scientific and technological discovery. Much of the knowledge that was lost in Europe was maintained and continued in the Islamic world (allowing ancient Greek texts, for example, to be re-introduced into Europe later), and some of the major technology of the 14th century period (like gunpowder) came from the far East.

Europe did not have the edge on technology until well after the 14th century.

Honestly, the only reason people would have less difference in power/wealth between nation would be because we were all poorer together.

The whole idea postulates such an unthinkable and far-reaching change that no one can give any reasoned answer.

In any event, this is a little like trying to predict the face of Planet earth 700 years from now. That is, its a pointless excercise.

If we remove Europe from world history circa 1300, what are we REALLY removing? Why Europe? What makes Europe so special? Well, for reasons that we really don’t understand, Europe was where the scientific/industrial revolution happened. We could argue that, say, ancient Greece had a scientific revolution, but what were the effects? A bunch of books got written, a bunch of mathematical knowledge was created, but it didn’t spark a technological revolution.

There were dozens of civilizations that had technical and/or theoretical accomplishments rivaling or exceeding 14th Century Europe. India, the Ottoman Empire, Arabia, Persia, the Incas, the Romans, the Chinese. But for some reason Europe fell into a positive technological-social-political feedback loop that created the global civilization we see today.

Without that, we’d still have Imperial China…with paper, printing, gunpowder, etc, but still focused on China. Japan the same. Moghul India the same. Perhaps a few fishing boats blown off course to North America, and perhaps they return, but with the same impact on history as Leif Eirikson’s expeditions. Maybe Chinese archivists know that a large continent filled with barbarians lies somewhere far to the east, but so what? Just like they knew India existed, and like they knew the Roman Empire existed. They knew, but it didn’t inspire them to go out and conquer the world.

For unknown or debatable reasons, Europe was the site of the first industrial/scientific revolution. Modernizations in China, Japan, and India were a reaction to the European modernization. Steam engines, factories and gunpowder weapons were copies of european ones.

Without Europe, there is no reason to believe that the modern revolution would occur anywhere else in the world, until at some future point undetermined local conditions sparked one somewhere else. But there have been many civilizations that were ripe for such a spark. Look at Japan…once the idea for such a spark and the reason for such a spark presented themselves they became modern in only a few generations.

Once one place modernizes, in forces every other place to modernize unless they wish to be conquered. Some didn’t have the necessary preconditions for modernization (dense populations, centralized government). But any New World civilization is going to be decimated by any repeated contact with an Afro-Eurasian civilization, no matter when or where it happens, for reasons documented by Diamond.

But, going back to the OP. I don’t think there could be any plague that would totally wipe out Europe but leave Asia, N Africa, the ME and India essentially untouched. All the epidemics that hit Europe were Eurasian epidemics that went from one side of Eurasia to the other. There weren’t any naive populations like there were in the Americas.

Well, that is pretty much the heart of the discussion. China, India, and the Islamic nations/empires between the Mediterranean and India were more technologically advanced than Europe for a very long period.

So the question is actually one of what determined the European breakout (posed in terms of what would have happened if Europe disappeared).

You are right that China had gunpowder, superior metallurgy, a form of movable type, a magnificent shipbuilding industry (and seasoned mariners), and a host of other technological developments. However, China did not build on that technology and use it to conquer the world. It also appears that the inventions were spaced out over a fairly long period, without the extremely rapid development that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century.

Jared Diamond’s response (that I find compelling) is that the presence of multiple competing nation-states in Europe spurred on development that certainly might have occurred, but would have progressed at a slow rate as it did in China. (Note that Garibaldi did not claim that there would have been no development. He indicated that the rate of accumulated advance would have been slower.)

If you believe that the rate of technological advances would have increased in regions outside Europe, you will need to indicate why they actually did not in the several areas that were ahead of Europe up until the 16th Century when Europe began interfering with the development in other regions.

Why did China destroy their fleet again?

It was considered unnecessary and a visible reminder of the “folly” of the voyages. It was later recommended that many of the records related to the voyages of Zheng-He be burned so as to prevent future rulers from being tempted to make the same “mistake”. Basically the voyages of Zheng-He was the pet project of an unusually independant-minded and aggressive Emperor - Many elements of his court opposed him from the start, seeing at as an unnecessary expense ( and they were expensive, though the returns in presitge, “gifts”, and safe seas were more than worth it ). After that Emperor’s death in 1424, the “inward-looking” faction began to reassert themselves and after Zheng-He’s death in 1434, they completely regained the upper hand. Their status was reinforced by the disastrous Mongol campaigns of the 1440’s, which seemed to point to the folly of activist and expansionist foreign policies.

In point of fact, the very substantial Chinese overseas trade and the smuggling industry declined not an iota. But these were all independant operations by Chinese merchants with smaller vessels. Their is ample evidence ( including a lot of foreign observation ) that not only was the governmental “Treasure Fleet” of Zheng-He dismantled, but ALL Imperial naval asets declined throughout the latter half of the fifteenth and the 16th centuries, leading to devastating recrudescense of piratry ( much of it Japanese ) along the coast. It was singularly bad decision all the way round.

  • Tamerlane