I recently finished reading Why Did Europe Conquer the World? by Philip T. Hoffman. Hoffman proposes a new explanation for the perennial question, Why Europe? Why did that cultural and technological backwater, Western Europe, suddenly embarked on the path to global domination. By 1914 the Europeans essentially controlled the globe. The few countries that were not colonies (only 16% of the world by Hoffman’s calculation), like China and the Ottoman Empire, were not truly independent. In the case of China, for example, we have two Opium Wars to attest that.
Many explanations have been proposed for this remarkable turn of fortune. Geography and crop domestication loom large in the writings of Jared Diamond and Ian Morris.
Other authors invoke special explanations. Thus, Francis Fukuyama assigns a large role to Catholicism and the division of power between the Pope and territorial rulers, like the Emperor. Jack Goldstone thinks that the development of science and technology was the crucial difference. Actually, there are so many different hypotheses and eminent authors, who have written about Why Europe?, that reviewing this literature in a blog doesn’t make sense.
Now the economist Phillip Hoffman enters the fray. His focus is more narrow than others. The question he asks is why Europe acquired military preponderance of power in the world by 1900. I must say that I really enjoyed the book and, in my judgment, it’s one of the better argued and empirically supported hypotheses. Things I like about the book are that there is an explicit mathematical theory underlying the argument (although I have some issues with the model), that Hoffman explicitly engages with the new discipline of Cultural Evolution, and that he brings a lot of data to bear on various issues. In short, it’s a fine example of Cliodynamics in action.
Not that I agree with everything Hoffman says. For example, one of his major premises is that Europe was different from the rest of the world in that military competition between European powers was particularly intense. And this was in a large degree due to the way European rulers were brought up—to them glory was a primary reason for war.
I don’t buy it, and I think that a comparative study using sources in non-European languages will show that “glory” was not a peculiarly early modern European motive for going to war. If you think about famous conquerors—Alexander, Caesar, Chinggis Khan, Timur Lenk, Toyotomi Hideyoshi—did they glorify war less than Carl V, Louis XIV, Friedrich der Grosse, etc?
Furthermore, it’s unnecessary to make this premise. When war is intense enough to create an existential danger to societies, such evolutionary pressures select for militaristic societies that glorify war—because they are the ones who are left once the dust settles. And between 1450 and 1914 war was clearly intense enough in Europe for this, since the number of independent polities shrank from more than 500 to around 30.
So the question is how we understand where and when war intensity waxes to the point where it becomes the most important evolutionary force affecting everything—governance forms, economy, technology, culture… and also driving the quest for conquest, because conquest and resulting large size is your best bet of surviving under the conditions of intense war (assuming you can reach large size without splitting up, more on these dilemmas in Ultrasociety).
The question then becomes how do we understand where and when war waxes in intensity. And here’s where Hoffman’s book develops quite a convincing argument. What I am going to do is filter it through my own theoretical lens, and mix in ideas from Victor Lieberman and Kenneth Chase.
The basic driver is technology. Just like horse technologies revolutionized warfare and drove the evolution of large-scale states before 1500, gunpowder played the same role after 1500. Actually, gunpowder-based weapons, which were invented in China of course, became an important military technology from c.1000 CE. In China, however, guns developed not continuously, but only during periods of political fragmentation and conflict between agrarian-based polities. Once a new unifying dynasty established itself, gunpowder technology stagnated, because it was not particularly useful against the main enemy—steppe horse-riders. In China periods of intense warfare using guns, and rapid gun development were concentrated in the periods associated with the Yuan-Ming and Ming-Qing transitions.
In Europe, where gunpowder technology arrived around 1300, it was continuously useful, because Europe was insulated from the influence of the Great Steppe. As guns become better, they turned into game-changer around 1450. After that we have continuous warfare in Europe with continuous evolution of artillery, muskets, etc. Europe was not unified as a result of being insulated from the Steppe pressures. Yes, there were several credible attempts to unify Europe, but all these empires rapidly disintegrated because they did not have the unifying threat represented by some overwhelming external force like the steppe horse-riders.
Because inter-European warfare was constant, gunpowder technology was developed without breaks, and by 1700 or perhaps even 1800 (later than most people think), the Europeans pulled ahead of the Chinese in the sophistication and power of their weaponry. And the rest was history.
Hoffman also discusses the other very important aspects of European military supremacy—the sailing ship, which you should read about in his book. But essentially, this is it. A very simple model (which many historians won’t like), and also general; and even better, testable with historical data. Testing this theory is something that we definitely should do with the Seshat data.