Why Europe Conquered the World: A Modest Booklist

It was in Europe — and the extensions of Europe, above all, America — that human beings first achieved per capita economic growth over a long period of time. In this way, European society eluded the “Malthusian trap,” enabling new tens of millions to survive and the population as a whole to escape the hopeless misery that had been the lot of the great mass of the human race in earlier times. The question is: why Europe? __ The European Miracle

Look at the exponential growth of human population after 1500 – 1650 and ask yourself “Why was it Europe that pulled humanity out of the Malthusian trap?”

Each book in the following list answers this question in various ways. The explanations change, but it is the presented data and the substance of the arguments that matter.

China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt all had ancient empires and thriving societies long before western Europe was more than roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small settlements of subsistence farmers. The Greek city-state empire was productive in producing important knowledge and concepts, but “Greece” was absorbed by the Romans — and then the Roman empire was shattered by barbarian tribes. Most of the ancient knowledge of Greece was then lost to Europe until after the crusades, after the reconquista of Spain, and after the onset of direct trade between Europe and the east (including India and China).

False Dawns

The ancient Greeks were inventors and discoverers. Among their inventions were the water wheel, the odometer, the alarm clock, important contributions to map-making, geometry, modern philosophy, democracy, and applying systematic thought to early science and mathematics. More But the culture of ancient Greece was absorbed by the dynamism of Rome, and human history had to wait for a better opportunity to break the trap.

For a magical 300 years between AD 960 and AD 1279, China’s Song Dynasty promised to develop into a lasting renaissance. Many remarkable inventions — including the military use of gunpowder and the compass — were developed then. But even gunpowder weapons could not hold off the invading Mongols, and so the Song Dynasty became another false dawn for “modern civilisation.” Humans had to wait until more systematically thinking Europeans were reunited with ancient Greek knowledge — and got their first glimpses of ancient knowledge from China, India, and Islamic scholarship — before they would begin to escape the Malthusian trap.

Finally, once the systematic thinking of Europeans met the ancient knowledge of China, India, and scholarly Islam — and was re-united with the ancient knowledge of Greece — the growth of knowledge, technology, exploration, and the arts, grew unstoppable. Humans had escaped the Malthusian trap, for now.

From Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment

More books will be added to the above list as we become aware of their existence and relevance to this specialised topic.

It should be mentioned that part of ancient Greek knowledge was kept safe by European monastics through the dark ages after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. How the Irish Saved Civilization is one account of this monastic preservation of old, deep knowledge until the dawn of systematic thinking, and men like Bacon, Galileo, and the other giants who prepared the way for the revolutions that would sweep everything before them.

How the scientific revolution facilitated the technological and industrial revolutions:

Early inventions may not have been based directly on scientific theories, but they did require general literacy and knowledge of measurement and mathematics. The Scientific Revolution created a market for this kind of knowledge:

By the start of the eighteenth century … mechanics, artisans, and millwrights, who had been taught not only to read but to measure and calculate, started to apply the mathematical and experimental techniques of the sciences to their crafts.

… a market had emerged in which an English ironmonger could learn German forging techniques, and a surveyor could acquire the tools of descriptive geometry. …

The dominoes look something like this: A new enthusiasm for creating knowledge led to the public sharing of experimental methods and results; demand for those results built a network of communication channels among theoretical scientists; those channels eventually carried not just theoretical results but their real-world applications, which spread into the coffeehouses and inns where artisans could purchase access to the new knowledge.

Put another way, those dominoes knocked down walls between theory and practice that had stood for centuries.

__ Relationship between the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions

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12 Responses to Why Europe Conquered the World: A Modest Booklist

  1. info says:

    I think an important point to be made is Christianity’s move away from slavery starting in the middle ages which helped spur mechanization. That mechanization got accelerated by the black death.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    We should not understate the importance of prior agricultural advances — which necessarily took centuries because of slow trial & error processes in a world where the weather varies drastically from year to year and selective breeding to improve animals & crops took many generations. Improved agriculture had to come first, to free up labor for other pursuits.

    Nor should we understate the importance of the fossil fuel powered steam engine — which freed mankind from always shaky & inefficient reliance on intermittent wind and water power. It was coal which freed the slaves, and oil which saved the whales. The steam engine itself relied on prior centuries of painfully slow progress in improving metallurgy and manufacturing techniques.

    This advance by a thousand little steps was going to happen somewhere, sometime on the face of the Earth. Perhaps we should not read too much into the fact that the threshold was finally crossed in Europe. We should not forget that many civilizations have risen & fallen over the ages — with the common theme being that a successful society eventually develops an unsupportable level of governmental overhead (as is happening now to the West). That was what brought down the Roman Empire, and the barbarian tribes simply took advantage of the situation.

    To add to the reading list:
    Mancur Olson, “The rise & decline of nations” (1982)
    Joseph Tainter, “The collapse of complex societies” (1988)

  3. bob sykes says:

    A good deal of the ancient Greek knowledge was sitting in Constantinople up until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

    • alfin2101 says:

      Too true.

      The Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries resulted in the capture of a lot of ancient Greek manuscripts. Fortunately early Islam soon experienced a “Golden Age” in which many Greek and earlier ideas of math, science, and medicine were saved, usefully developed and extended.

      [The Islamic golden age] is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into Arabic and Persian. _ Islamic Golden Age

      I suspect that a lot of monasteries outside of Constantinople also possessed many manuscripts from the Greeks. Church authorities were not always happy to see those ideas made public probably resulting in the suppression and loss of many of the manuscripts.

      The flow of information from east to west had already started as a result of the several crusades, and the many returnees to Europe who carried back treasure of a more cerebral kind. But it was not always safe to display that knowledge outwardly and thus it ended up lost or locked away in monasteries.

      An interesting time map of 1453 Europe with interactive geographic info captions: https://www.timemaps.com/history/europe-1453ad/

  4. Sher Saka says:

    So basically because you were insulated from nomadic hordes you now believe you’re magic?
    Have fun being replaced.

  5. John K says:

    Way off topic but a subject you touched on years ago, Thorium still a beliver or just a pipe dream.
    I listened to Mark S ???? for quit a few hours but am not a PHD in anything so was not sure if it was possible or not. But if they could do it in the 1960’s/ 70’s with the materials and understanding of physics they had then it seems today it would be a cake walk today.

    • alfin2101 says:

      Any approach to industrial scale power that comes from outside of the mainstream will be a tough sale. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it will be done at any particular time. It won’t be cheap, easy, or quick. And it has a lot of competition.
      Thorium power needs a wealthy champion who will hire the right people and pay all the costs of development.

      • John K says:

        Totally agree, but the way Mark made it sound it was already a running operation and just needed refinement, both nations and rich people are throwing billions at development of unproven or up and coming technology and that was a proven one that looked like it had a lot of promise, way easier to improve on something that has been done then come out with something new.
        That is my basic question, in his presentation he made it sound like it was a done deal and just needed refinement rather then chasing after cold fusion or super fast reactors or ect.
        Just seems like the price of entry is a lot cheaper on thorium.

  6. Borepatch says:

    Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel is an interesting look at how the “Dark Age” was pretty innovative from a technology perspective. However, this doesn’t seem definitive as a cause of the “Great Divergence”.

    The David Landes book is excellent. He wrote the Industrial Revolution section of The Cambridge Economic History and so was a history big wig but this book is very readable for the general public. The section on the Ming dynasty treasure fleets is surprisingly appropriate as an explanation why NASA hasn’t taken us back to the Moon, and isn’t likely to.

    I’m about a third of the way into Scheidel’s book which is excellent. You can listen to him describe the general thesis of why another empire never rose to replace Rome in the west in this episode of The Fall Of Rome podcast. He extends this in his book saying that the extended political fragmentation that resulted in the west was unique in world history. This led to an inability to suppress ideas subversive to a central state; over the course of a thousand years this led to a distinct advantage in military, scientific, and economic development.

    • alfin2101 says:

      Thanks. The topic of medieval technology development is very important when looking at international contributions to “the great breakaway.”

      The different Chinese dynasties took different approaches to exploration and discovery, probably explaining why “The European Miracle” caught China napping. If they had all been like the Song dynasty, things may well have happened differently.

      Scheidel reminds us that competition tends to spur innovation.

      The different books in the list tend to focus on different explanations for the divergence.

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