The Rise of the West: Science and Ideology



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When I switched my research interests from biology to social sciences and history, one big adjustment I needed to make was to learn how to deal with heavily ideologized or politicized subjects. Politics, of course, intrudes everywhere (after all, as Aristotle said, humans are political animals), but compared to biology most social sciences are veritable minefields.

Although such issues cannot be completely avoided (and should not be, see my recent blog Keeping Science and Ideology Apart), my tendency has been to stay away from the most heavily ideological issues. The case in point is the vast literature on the ‘Rise of the West’ – in some of the more extreme and self-congratulatory versions, the ‘European Miracle’ the ‘Uniqueness of Western Civilization.’


The Great Exposition: London 1851. Source

Most contributions to this literature, even those on the more extreme, exuberant end of the spectrum, adopt the form of a scientific argument. But the overall goal is to pass a value judgment on the achievement, creativity, significance, vigor, excellence – indeed, the miracle! – of Western Civilization. Of course, if ‘the West is the Best’, then the ‘Rest’ is inferior in one way, or another.

At the other end of the spectrum is the opposite view that Western Civilization is the source of much that is wrong with the modern world. The overall opinion tends to swing back and forth, with the unapologetic, and even unconscious Eurocentrism holding the sway in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, while the opposing Multiculturalism gaining the upper hand since the 1960s.

The problem with both of these extremes is that ultimately they care about what is good and what is bad. But such questions belong to the realms of moral philosophy, religion, and ideology, rather than science. Science is ultimately concerned with truth (and, yes, we can never achieve the absolute truth, but the goal is to approach it as closely as we can).

This is not to deny that scientists are motivated by other considerations – including, certainly, goodness (unless one aspires to become a mad scientist of the comic books) and also beauty, prestige, etc. Theories, for example, can be elegant and even beautiful. However, when these other considerations come in conflict with truth, they are always trumped by it. Many a beautiful theory has been slayed by ugly facts…

Similarly, sometimes the application of the scientific method leads us to conclusions that we may find unpalatable from the moral point of view. The temptation is to allow a consideration of goodness to trump that of truth. However, the logical mistake of mixing up descriptive statements (‘what is’) with normative or prescriptive statements (‘what ought to be’) has been known to philosophers at least since David Hume. Furthermore, in practical terms we have a much better chance of changing the deplorable state of things to what they ought to be, if we have a clear and unbiased understanding of what they currently are and why so. Generally speaking, when considerations of ideology are allowed to trump those of science, we end up with bad science.

There is a second problematic aspect in most of the literature on the ‘Rise of the West.’ There is a universal agreement among scholars and pretty much everybody else that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of European societies pulled away far from the rest of the world in terms of power, technology, economy, and science. The disagreements center on explaining how and why this happened. However, science is not really about explaining the unique and the peculiar.


The iron steam ship HMS Nemesis of the East India Company destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay (1843) Source

In particular, the goal of History-as-Science – Cliodynamics – should not be to explain why the Roman Empire fell, or why the Sassanian Empire succumbed so easily to the Islamic conquest. Rather, we need to develop and empirically test general theories about why empires decline and fall.

This does not mean that the question ‘Why Europe?’ (see Jack Goldstone’s excellent book on it) or, even better, how do we explain the Great Divergence (following the landmark contribution of Ken Pomerantz), cannot be addressed scientifically. What we need to do is put any particular instance (such as the Rise of the West) in a generic category, e.g. ‘efflorescences’ (in Goldstone’s formulation), or ‘upsweeps’ (in Chris Chase-Dunn and coworkers formulation). We can then test various explanations using the comparative method or, more formally, construct a database with which to test theories. Naturally, there are many difficulties with conducting such a research program, and it is not guaranteed to succeed (for example, if there are too few cases for a statistical analysis). But at least such an approach is on a firm logical ground.


Image source

Most of the literature on the Rise of the West, on the other hand, approaches this question in a reverse mode (which, I would argue, is logically flawed): starting with the observation itself, noting something peculiar about Europe, and building an explanation based on that. However, any world region, or any human society has a multitude of peculiarities that distinguish it from other regions, or societies. Thus, different explanations favored by particular authors often focus on that which they are expert on (e.g., demography or geography), or on explanations that they are primed to favor on ideological grounds. There is a kind of  ‘inverse cherry-picking’ flavor to such exercises. Whereas the usual cherry-picking works by selecting only those facts that fit one’s favored theory, in this case it is the explanations that are cherry-picked to fit what needs to be explained. Neither approach, needless to say, is consistent with the scientific method.

This is not meant to be a wholesale condemnation of the entire literature on the Rise of the West. Over the last two decades much progress has been made in understanding both the theoretical and empirical issues involved in this difficult question (difficult because of methodological issues, and because it is so heavily ideologized). One particularly useful approach has been to focus on a particular theory, to amass comparative data relevant to the theory, and then to analyze whether the explanation, proposed by the theory, is supported, or not. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this approach is the use of general theories. For example, the new understanding on the role of institutions in sustaining economic growth and political stability has provided a theoretical basis for two recent and influential contributions to the debate: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Frank Fukuyama and Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Note, however, that both books chose to address general questions of why nations succeed or fail, rather than focus on a unique instance of the Rise of the West.

As a result of this work, especially by the scholars belonging to the Californian School (Pomerantz, Goldstone, Bin Wong, and others), much of the theoretical and empirical debris has been cleared off. It is possible to make progress by rejecting theories on the basis of their logical or empirical failings (or both). Still, I personally don’t see myself contributing to this literature any time soon – there are too many other issues that are more readily amenable to the scientific method.

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Al West (@AlWest13)

I don’t see any reason why we can’t scientifically address particular issues. Science is about understanding the world, and most of history happened only once. The rise of European power between the late-fifteenth and twentieth centuries is something that happened only once in response to a unique set of variables. A general theory is useless here – there is far too much historical stuff in the way. If we ask specific questions like, ‘why did the Spanish conquer the Inka, and not vice versa?’, then the answer has to include all kinds of things, from the invention of the sail in Egypt and the mutation of smallpox in India to the geographical position of Europe, far away from the great Indian Ocean trade routes, encouraging westward voyages in search of easy access to them. We just can’t rely on a general theory, and it is difficult to think of other scenarios – any other scenarios – in which a general theory would be worthwhile. What other questions would it solve?

That doesn’t mean it isn’t scientific, to attempt to answer these sorts of questions. It’s just that we can’t really have a single predictive model, unless it’s one so vague as to be effectively useless.

Peter Turchin

Science is not just about any understanding, it aims at valid understanding. Anybody can propose an explanation for an event, but how do you know it’s right? That’s where science enters: it’s main job is to separate bad explanations from good ones.

Most of history did not happen just once. There are generic events – many empires rose and many fell. We only have one universe, but physicists still study classes of events.

Each particular event happnes because of a combination of specific and general explanations. Take Mars. Newton explained its trajectory around the Sun by advancing theory that explains the motions of all planets. But he did not explain why Mars is red, or why Saturn has rings.


@Al – I think that questions such as “why did the Spanish conquer the Incas” can be addressed through a general theory of “why does A conquer B” – maybe a general theory isn’t going to cut the mustard in any particular case and the incident in question is going to need a particular explanation, but always best to start from an assumption that the present resembles the past and to see if the case in point is explicable through a general theory.

The rise of the West is a different kettle of fish altogether that can’t be boiled down to why does A conquer B – it could be stated as something like the following: why did we see a geographical cluster of strong imperial powers which conquered the rest of the world and assumed economic and political hegemony over the globe from the 16th century onwards. In this case it’s really easy to form theories (property rights, rule of law, capitalism, geography, climate, technology…) but almost impossible to judge which of them was actually important and which were side-effects.

Peter Turchin

Chex, you are too pessimistic. There is much more scope for testing theories in history than is generally appreciated. As Martin below points out, there were a number of major transformation in human history. Furthermore, within Europe some countries were first, others lagged.

More generally, as you point out we have theories about how property rights, rule of law, etc affect economic growth and political stability in general, not just in Europe during the Early Modern period. I have a proposal in the works to test such theories by building a comprehensive database of cultural evolution, so I certainly think it is possible to test them. Of course, we will only know if it is possible when we build and analyze the database.

Martin Hewson

“What we need to do is put any particular instance (such as the Rise of the West) in a generic category, e.g. ‘efflorescences’ (in Goldstone’s formulation), or ‘upsweeps’ (in Chris Chase-Dunn and coworkers formulation).”

Are those the right generic categories? One problem is that phenomena like the Rise of the West, the great divergence, the transition to modernity, etc are like venn diagrams, overlapping to be sure, but covering slightly different content.

So another generic category is: major transformations — like the agricultural revolution, or even the paleolithic cognitive revolution, or maybe the “axial age” too. Another generic category is simply regional divergences — like Diamond’s Eurasia vs the Rest.

If I could, I would abandon the phrase “Rise of the West.” I think it obscures and obfuscates.

Peter Turchin

But we can also analytically separate the different parts of the process that were involved in the “Rise of the West” – economic, political, technological – and study them separately.

BTW, the Rise of the West also makes me cringe. (Not as bad as the “European Miracle”). I prefer Ken Pomerantz more neutral “The Great Divergence”.

Martin Hewson

I prefer “the great divergence” too. Maybe “the great divergences” in the plural may be even better, if less memorable.

Peter Turchin

‘Plural’ is right. Looks like there is another divergence happening right now, with the resurgent China.

Al West (@AlWest13)

Those are fair ideas, but the ‘rise of the west’, so-called, is due largely to events like the conquest of the Americas channeling wealth to Europe and kicking the economy into gear. Why the Spanish conquered the Inka just is why Europe became powerful, because Spaniards conquering Inka is part of the cause of Europeans becoming powerful. A general theory would be useless to explain this, and there doesn’t seem to be another analogous event in the entire history of earth. European imperialism was effectively sui generis; the conquest of the Americas, largely enabled by Eurasian microbes, caused such a great economic and political imbalance in the world that no similar case can even come close. The general theory would be so much less useful than any specific theory could be.

The most important variable in Europe’s supposed rise is clearly the conquest of the Americas. Without that, Portugal’s conquests could have become just another minor event in Eurasian history. Think of what the Americas gave sixteenth century (autocratic, non-market-oriented, extremely religious, excessively divided) Europe: land to work; slaves to work it; gold, silver, and other metals; furs; coal; wood; a series of new and constantly expanding markets for produce… In explaining Europe’s rise, we need to explain Europe’s wealth, and to do that we need to explain the conquest of the Americas. The wealth gave them the ability to fight unprofitable wars and fight on all continents.

No other event in history is like this. Nothing else channeled so much wealth in such a short burst to a single group of economies. It was enabled by a series of innovations that were not inevitable in themselves coming from across Afro-Eurasia.

Peter Turchin

Conquest of the Americas is just one of the theories, favored by some representatives of the California School.

I repeat, every event can be looked at as unique, sui generis, or as a representative of a general class of events. If you are a typical Historian, everything is unique and specific (I say this without irony – it’s a valid stance to take). From the Cliodynamics point of view, events are mixtures of specific and general, and the general part is what we can get at.

Al West (@AlWest13)

In this case, it is difficult to think of any analogue at all, and it seems much harder to get at the generalities than the specifics. I want to be able to formulate a general theory, but I’m not sure how useful it would be at all. What else could it even begin to explain?

Conquest of the Americas may be only one theory, but the other theories can’t even begin to compete. Europeans in the sixteenth century had few unique institutions, almost nowhere was democratic, and all that really marked the place out as different was that there was more warfare than elsewhere. Markets were under-developed and states were autocratic. No institutional approach seems able to explain it. The one big variable is the conquest of the Americas. Remove that and Europe would never have become so disproportionately powerful.

What we need is an accounting for all of the variables, not a general model applicable elsewhere. A model appropriate to explain the 500-year development of European power can’t apply to, say, modern China, because China today doesn’t seem to be becoming disproportionately powerful at all. In terms of population, it is becoming proportionately powerful, and there is no reason to see its supposed rise as anything like the long-term, 500-year trend that European and Euro-American domination of earth has been, something which depended on plundering other lands instead of developing mutually beneficial trade with them. China is not diverging from ‘the West’, so-called, but converging to become more like it. And this is why I say that this event in particular is sui generis with no real comparisons, unlike the development of sedentary lifestyles, agriculture, urbanisation, and states, which can be compared productively across the globe in terms of a set of readily-applicable models.

Peter Turchin

America being nearby and available for conquest is far from the only difference between the West and the Rest. There is literally an endless list of differences. Frank Fukuyama, for example, in his recent book zeros in on the role of the Catholic Church. Europe was the only place where the religious and political authorities were not only separate, but in conflict, according to him. He builds his explanation of the Great Divergence based on this observation. But this is just one example. See Jack Goldstone’s Why Europe? for many more.

This is why methodlogically your approach is wrong. There are too many differences between a unique event and the rest to be able to capitlize on for the purposes of doing good science.

Al West (@AlWest13)

I didn’t say it was the only difference (nor do I believe in a difference between the ‘west’ and the ‘rest’ in this way). It’s not just proximity to the Americas, either; there had to be a need to go west, a distance from the main Eurasian trade routes, in addition to the technologies to get there, which came from all over the super-continent.

But it is clearly the biggest and most important difference. In order to fund overseas adventures – i.e, empires – you need money and a consistent supply of wealth. Conquest of the Americas supplied this. It is hard to see how any other institutional advantages could have amounted to more than a small hillock of beans had the Americas not been conquered, given that the ability to capitalise on these advantages rested on money and trade, which Europe lacked when compared with other societies around the Indian Ocean.

It is hard to tell what it even means to say that religious and political authority in Europe in the late fifteenth century was separate or in conflict. The idea of the divine right of kings was pervasive and was not overturned for a good century and a half after Colombo’s voyages to the Americas. Wealth was clearly flowing into Europe, making it a wealthier place than much of the rest of the world, well before such things were overturned, and it is notable that English colonies in the Caribbean, north America, India, and the Moluccas had all been founded decades before the Civil War (meaning that in the king was still invested both political and religious authority).

It is also clear that Catholic (or, for that matter, Orthodox, much the same structure) authority was also prevalent in many societies that failed to benefit from the so-called ‘great divergence’, including Ragusa, in Serbia, and the many states of both Catholic and Orthodox eastern Europe. What set these apart from the nations with Atlantic coasts was just that; they had no easy access to any of the main sources of wealth in the sixteenth century, and the Indian Ocean trade on which they had previously relied had been put firmly in the hands of the Portuguese, who had not only conquered many Indian Ocean entrepots but also had the wealth of their American conquests behind them. It seems to be proximity to wealth from the Americas and Indies that determined the relative success of European powers, among other variables (population density is also one). Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, and, to a lesser extent, the Scandinavian countries were those that developed empires and dominated the globe before either steam power or industrialisation. They all have coastlines close to or on the Atlantic.

Empires rely on money. Europe in the fifteenth century had less of it than much of the rest of the world. Europe in the sixteenth century began to have much, much more of it than the rest of the world. This was not because of institutions per se, but because of the conquest of places rich in resources and land and lacking the ability to effectively resist the Europeans and their technologies.

Of course it’s not the only variable – all the variables have to be accounted for, after all – but it is the most significant. Even if you don’t accept this as a cause right away, at least accept the correlation: Europe only became a truly significant region in its own right after the conquest of the Americas, and all of its structural advantages – those present in the sixteenth century, at any rate, including the division between political and religious authority, relatively high levels of literacy, and a large and diverse agricultural surplus – had been present for hundreds of years before this point without significant impacts on the rest of the world. While it wasn’t an absolute backwater in the fifteenth century, the European peninsula was hardly the centre of the world in any meaningful sense.

There are plenty of variables, but remove the conquest of the Americas and it is hard to produce a causal mechanism of any kind.


@Al West

I’m kind of baffled at your insistence on the conquest of the Americas being the one true explanation for the Rise of the West. It doesn’t strike me as being that important at all!

The reason Europe was able to impose its will on so much of the world has to do primarily with two things: technology and population. And since the second of those is in large part a consequence of the first, the question of “Why the West?” really resolves to “Why Western Technology?”

So how do the Americas help with this? Many of the goods exported from the Americas — gold, silver, tobacco, sugar, furs — were relatively useless luxury items. Did Europe have a shortage of wood or coal? Was European population growth ever supported by food imported from the Americas? Did conscripts from the Americas help conquer India?

I’m not saying the Americas had no importance whatsoever, just that for the first few hundred years after their discovery they were something of a sideshow. I do not see the conquest of the Americas as a primary driver of Western technological innovation or population growth, which are the things that really need to be explained.

Al West (@AlWest13)

Wealth! Wealth is how. Suddenly Europeans had more gold and silver than any other group of people on the planet and they were not shy about trading it. It also shored up the power of states – see, for instance, the ‘royal fifth’. Europeans could steal it, melt it down, and use it to buy arms, food, and artisans. It wasn’t just a useless luxury item, because you can buy things with gold. Gold and silver gave unparalleled access to Asian markets, where the money had previously been. Sugar was also important – you say it is only a luxury product, but it isn’t, and besides any nutritional value (which is significant), it is also a valuable item for trade. Honey was once a ticket to wealth – we forget this today. The Mordvins in what is now Russia became wealthy in the medieval period because of their large beekeeping industry. Likewise, the British and French became wealthy through the trade in sugar, among much else. The first sugar mill in the Caribbean opened for business in 1509, barely two decades after Colombo first went there. Why? Because of money. People in the sixteenth century knew it would be profitable.

The wealth taken from the Americas, and the boom in potential markets for European products in the Americas as a result of European conquest (the American colonies demanded European products and paid taxes, too), couldn’t help but expand the European economy. This, combined with Europe’s political fragmentation, allowed for greater competition between powers in their attempts to gain command of the new wealth, resulting in a multi-century arms race that spurred the development of military and non-military technologies. It was the money from the Americas that allowed this to happen on the scale that it did.

And yes, European population growth was partly supported by American products, including, importantly, potatoes, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sugar was also important here. Maize less so, but go to northern Italy and tell me it isn’t important there. American products provided variety in diet, and variety is generally a sensible strategy when it comes to agriculture (as we can see in the plight of the Irish in the wake of the potato famine).

The idea that any other variable is even remotely as important as this is bizarre. What on earth could compete with this massive influx of wealth?


Wealth may be a necessary condition, but it is hardly sufficient. Both India and China were quite wealthy, but this didn’t spark a technological revolution in either. Would even further wealth have done so? I don’t see it, but if you think it would have then that is a point you should be arguing.

Gold and silver really are intrinsically quite useless. You can’t eat them, or build a house with them, or use them to till your fields or fight your enemies. The only thing you can do with them is trade them. If you are trading with other Europeans, you are not increasing European wealth at all, you are just moving it around. You can trade them outside of Europe, and this was certainly done, but largely for other luxury items, like silk or spices. Yes, increasing the supply of gold or silver will probably have an impact on the social structure, but it isn’t obvious whether this will be on balance positive or negative. For example it’s been argued that the influx of American gold and silver was in fact quite a negative thing for Spain. (I’ll note here that at least one big trade good, tobacco, was a clear negative, since it makes people less healthy).

I forgot about the potato. Yes, that mattered, so if you want to argue that the potato is the explanation for Western dominance then go for it. But even that wasn’t a trade good; it was a one-time introduction of a new crop into Europe. Sugar does have some nutritional value, and corn certainly does. But did crops grown in the Americas and shipped to Europe ever account for a significant percentage of European caloric intake?

Checking my copy of the Atlas of World Population History (McEvedy & Jones, 1978), I see that Europe’s population in 1750 was 140 million, while the population of the Americas is listed as 16 million. So while the Americas did provide a new market for European goods, it wasn’t a particularly large one.

Again, I am not saying that the Americas had no impact. And since history is chaotic, there is not way to say what would have happened if they had not been there. But I see no obvious reason to think that European technology would not have continued to advance, creating all the wealth and population growth necessary for European dominance. The technological revolution in Europe is the thing needs to be explained, and although you may find “bizarre” the idea that anything else was important, wealth from the Americas is hardly a complete explanation.

Al West (@AlWest13)

You’re right: wealth from the Americas is not a complete explanation, which is not how I treat it. Likewise, wealth from China and central Asia is not a complete explanation for the success of the Mongol empire – it is merely one of several necessary points that provided the impetus for further conquests. And it is the conquests that enriched Europe and gave it power, not some other thing.

My explanation for European technological progress is the same one that plenty of other people have espoused: a) that the foundations of European technology are to be found across the Eurasian continent, with wheels invented on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, sails invented on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, writing invented in Egypt and transmitted through a dozen intermediaries before arriving at the Latin-Carolingian script we use today, gunpowder invented in China, guns as we know them invented somewhere in western Asia, etc, b) that competition between European states led to an arms race that had begun before Colombo travelled and was exacerbated afterwards by the need to progress technologically to stay ahead of the game, and c) that the wealth provided by the conquests in the Americas provided the impetus for technological progress in two ways, one of which was the desire to control more of the newly-found wealth, and the other of which was the money to pursue novel ideas without the fear of collapse. An imperial project would have bankrupted any individual European power in the fifteenth century, but the extraction of wealth by effectively private actors working under nominal European royal authority cushioned the blow of any imperial failure.

It isn’t necessary to be rich before you start conquering things – Babur was a poor man with a tiny retinue before he conquered Delhi, and Albuquerque’s Portugal was not the richest country even within southern Europe. But those conquests provide the wealth to pursue more. The Tibetan empire collapsed because the conquests stopped, and the conquests stopped because of lack of money, with wealth siphoned off to tax-exempt Buddhist congregations instead of flowing into the imperial court and army. In sixteenth century Europe, that was only possible if you were isolated from the effects of conquests in the Americas, which provided immediate capital to finance further conquest, insulating inefficient states from the effects of their inefficiency.

Capital confers its own competitive advantage. An inefficient corporation with lots of capital behind it can sustain heavy losses and even the total failure of a product to generate profit. It can even use this to its advantage, destroying the competition while negating its own profit by selling products at a vastly reduced price before jacking it up again once it has a monopoly. This is the key to European success: the ability to use American wealth to cushion losses made in warfare in Europe, military and colonial adventures overseas, and international investments in companies designed to further extract the wealth of the rest of the globe. The key to European success is conquest, primarily in the Americas. Without that, technological progress could easily have equalised in the rest of Eurasia and Europeans would have had no excess wealth to continue developing new technologies to defeat other Eurasian enemies. Portuguese caravels could have been copied in Kochi and Castile might have ended up speaking Malayalam. But the money from the American conquests ensured that this would never happen.

“But did crops grown in the Americas and shipped to Europe ever account for a significant percentage of European caloric intake?”

I doubt it; they’d likely rot before they got to Europe (although arrowroot was once quite popular in Britain, despite it only growing in a tropical environment). But that’s not the point. The point is that American crops provided immediate wealth, not nourishment. Europe had plenty of food, most of the time, as did most of Eurasia. But it was a place that ran on money, and a new supply of wealth, in any form, could have major sociological effects. Cotton grown in the American south enriched British landowners. Cocoa, vanilla, and sugar enriched the owners of land in central America and the Caribbean. And so on. Suddenly, there was land to work, slaves to work it, and profit to be sent back to Europe.

You’re wrong to suggest that taking American wealth to Europe merely served to move European wealth around. Moving wealth around is what an economy is, for a start. But more importantly, the money provided by investment in sugar mills could be used to pay artisans to paint portraits or gunsmiths to manufacture new firearms or natural philosophers to investigate more of the universe. Europeans had a source of wealth that didn’t stop. It was moving wealth around, sure, but not among a circumscribed class. It affected everyone. Suddenly, Europeans in general had more money, and theirs wasn’t a closed market; adventurers from western Europe penetrated Russia, Persia, and as far as Burma and China.. A man in England, rich from investments in sugar, could buy the services of a Dutch artist, who could pay for flour from a mill in Westphalia, which in turn boosted the profits of the mill owner, who could pay his workers more, who could buy more products in the local community, and the shop owners could invest more in sugar mills, and… You get the idea.

“(I’ll note here that at least one big trade good, tobacco, was a clear negative, since it makes people less healthy).”

Do you think this was a negative in the sixteenth century, or at any time until the nineteenth century? Lifespans were already shorter than they are today, and smoke inhalation would barely have figured as a major cause of death until relatively recently. The profits from tobacco – and remember, money is more than lifespan in determining the success of an empire, as long as most people reach adult age before they die – could easily outweigh any disadvantage from smoking it. Moreover, plenty of non-European societies also adopted tobacco smoking, which increased European profits again.

You seem to think that I’m ascribing everything to a single cause. That isn’t a naturalistic possibility. No; what I’m saying is that the most important cause in determining European success in global affairs after the fifteenth century was the conquest of the Americas, which kick-started European economies in a way that nothing else could. A failing commercial venture with plenty of money behind it can still turn a profit; regardless of the institutional advantages of Europe, the blast of money from the Americas could override any institutional disadvantages or exaggerate any institutional advantages.


Gold and silver, wherever they come from, are not “wealth” but “money”, which is just one of the possible ways of potentially storing wealth (which is productive capacity). And not a particularly good way of doing that either. The main impact of all the bullion from the Americas was to cause massive inflation, the so called “price revolution” of the 16th century (there have been some “revisionist” views here but it’s pretty much still bullion, except possibly in England where it was bullion + other factors). Short term this can cause an increase in living standards but this will only last as long as prices are not adjusted (never mind Malthusian forces), which is at a frequency (a decade? less?) that makes it pretty much irrelevant here.

The obvious and pretty immediate counter example to the postulated theory is that the two European economies which imported the most gold and silver from the New World – Spain and Portugal – weren’t exactly Industrial leaders (both still pretty agrarian by the time of World War II).

This isn’t to say that the colonies in both the Americas and in Asia (especially if you want to talk about the Dutch who were the other “early front runner” here) didn’t have an effect on the so called rise of the West but it didn’t have to do with just the gold and silver flows.

As to the bigger question, the “rise of the West” is tied up with the issue of the Industrial Revolution. And here I’m more pessimistic about our ability to fully explain it – it really was a one off occurrence (in a small corner of England) which then spread to other regions. And there’s an infinite number of ways to fit a straight line through a single data point. It’s a bit nihilistic but I just don’t think there’s any a priori reason (unless one wants to get teleological about it) why the universe and the processes of history somehow have to cough up the information necessary for us to be able to formulate a precise well defined and testable theory. The aim of a scientific approach here is really to narrow it down to a SET of plausible explanations (those lines, as many of them as there are, still have to pass through that data point), which is still better than nothing.

(To get a bit science-fiction-y about it, my own personal view is that it was a bit like the Drake Equation for existence of life on a particular planet – a whole bunch of different factors had to line themselves up “just right” for the Industrial Revolution to occur – demographics, politics, culture, institutions, random shocks etc – all in just the right way, and all at just the right time, which is why it only happened once)

I’m more optimistic about potentially explaining the Neolithic Revolution since that occurred independently in several different places and times. There you have enough variation in the data so that hypothesis can actually be tested.

Al West (@AlWest13)

You may be right about the industrial revolution. It does appear to be sui generis and the result of too many variables coming together in just the right way. But the ‘Neolithic revolution’ is not really a revolution at all, but the coming together of a bunch of traits that can be found independently in lots of different societies. Sedentism, agriculture, pastoralism, and ceramics can all occur independently, but each one makes the others more likely to be adopted. Nothing like as complex as the industrial revolution.

The ‘rise of the west’ shouldn’t just be thought of in terms of increased European productive capacity relative to the rest of the world. It is also important to note the major cultural changes imposed by Europeans, including language and religion, on people around the globe. Industrialisation and technological progress beyond that found in other Eurasian societies cannot explain European power to influence the rest of the globe, whether culturally or economically, because that began long before industry. It was plunder of many kinds that financed European empires, and that began in the Americas.

Peter Turchin

I am not going to argue one side or another in this argument, but a methodlogical note. Al West’s explanation relies on a general theory connecting resources (wealth) to geopolitical power. Others (jeb, Radek) doubt that it was such an important factor that it explains everything. My point is that we have a huge amount of historical material with which to test the role of wealth empirically. So once we have done it, and determined what is the relative importance of this factor, we will have the basis to discuss what was its role in the Great Divergence.

T. Greer

I am reminded of John Lewis Gaddis’ excellent The Landscape of History, in which Mr. Gaddis claims that history, properly practiced, is far more scientific than any of the social ‘sciences.’ To quote:

“The key to science is reproducibility: observations made under equivalent conditions, no matter who makes them are expected to produced closely corresponding results. …. Time and space are compressed and manipulated; history is itself in effect rerun. In that sense, obviously, the historical method can never approximate the scientific method.

But not all sciences work this way. In fields like astronomy, geology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology, phenomena rarely fit within laboratories and time required to see results can exceed the spans of those who seek them.These disciplines instead depend on thought experiments: practitioners rerun in their minds – or perhaps these days in their simulations – what their test tubes, centrifuges, or electron microscopes cannot manage. They then look for evidence suggesting which of these mental exercises seem plausible. Reproducibility means building a consensus that such correspondence seem plausible.

How else could biologists make sense of organs with no apparent purpose or function: the whale’s vestigial legs, the panda’s thumb, or the human tailbone? Why do human genes differ so little from those of fleas, worms, flies, mosquitos, monkeys, or mice? How, for that matter, can astrophysicists explain the origins of the Universe? In each of these instances, structures have survived that only past processes can explain…. All of these scientific revolutionaries coupled imagination with logic to derive past process from present structures.”

-John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press) 2002. p. 39-41.

The analogy between natural historians and human historians that follows is obvious.

I have been reading Vaclav Smil’s The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change.. He regularly points out how many parts of the Biosphere’s creation and evolution is unique. Life itself is something – as far as we know – unique to Earth; so too are many of life’s major evolutionary milestones (such as the procaryote/eukaryote jump), most major extinction events are more or less unique – all in all a large group of events that cannot be generalized. Scientists still manage to study them. Any attempt to scientifically explain the rise of Europe will have to take a similar approach.

Peter Turchin

I did not say that all literature on the Great Divergence is un-scientific. There are methodologically sound approaches to studying unique events, as I describe in the main blog. The problem is that most of the vast literature on the Rise of the West does not follow sound methodology. Authors simply focus on a particular difference between the West and the Rest and build theories from there on. One example is the conquest of the Americas advocated by Al West above.

I agree with John Gaddis that history can be, and should be a science. In fact, we were together in a conference, organized by the Santa Fe Institute a few years ago, which was addressing precisely this question. You can see the collection of papers resulting from this conference in this special issue of Cliodynamics:;volume=2;issue=1

The parallel between History and such historical sciences as Astrophysics, Geology, and Evolutionary Biology was brought up by a number of speakers.

T. Greer

Thank you for the link. It looks like an interesting set of contributors.

Perhaps where you and Mr. Gaddis split ways is with this statement here:

<blockquote"Most of the literature on the Rise of the West, on the other hand, approaches this question in a reverse mode (which, I would argue, is logically flawed): starting with the observation itself, noting something peculiar about Europe, and building an explanation based on that. "

Gaddis calls this approach “deriving process from structure.” He points out that most of these ‘historical’ sciences perform “in reverse mode”, starting with an observation ( “There is life on this planet”, “similar animals fossils appear in Australia, South America, and Antarctica”, “Humans have useless tale bones”, and so on) and then build an explanation to explain whatever peculiar attribute of the world they observe.

But I do not want to put words into your mouth. Do believe that these fields suffer from the same methodological flaws as presented in the post above? If not, why?

P.S. A stray parting thought – A compelling analogy can be made between the work of the historian and that of another ideologically charged field, evolutionary psychology. They go about things more or less the same way – deriving past process (in the evo. pysc. case, natural pressures on the evolutionary fitness of human populations in Pleistocene environments) from present structures and peculiarities (observed behavioral bias). The criticisms of evo. psychology are similar to the problems you see with the rise of the west literature – lots of “just so stories” that cannot be proven, replicated, or generalized.

Peter Turchin

T.Greer: it’s fine to ‘derive process from pattern’, but this could only serve as the first step of advancing hypotheses. Next, you have to test them. I just posted a blog on this issue.

BTW, really enjoyed your post on China vs. Europe (on the rugged landscape)


Some possible parallels to the collapse of the Americas might include The Eskimo push along the Arctic fringe at the expense of the Dorset, the push into Old Europe by the Copper Culture, the corresponding push into Old Europe and the Middle East by the “Indo-Europeans”, the Bantu conquest of Sub-Saharan Africa. The are all, as best we know, decentralized, to some degree demographically pushed, and involved some sort of cultural organization technology advantage. These are the ones that come to mind immediately, I am sure that there are others.


Rather, we need to develop and empirically test general theories about why empires decline and fall.

What about Ecological Imperialism; The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred Crosby, or Plagues and Peoples by William McNeil?

Both works address the rise of Europe and its expansion into the New World as part of a general class of biogeographical events.

H. Michiels

I am entirely new to this “scientific” approach as it claims, but I wonder how you want to quantify a historical process of the magnitude of the Rise of the West. Obviously, the larger such an event, the more difficult it is to analyze it in its entirety. As it is, the Industrialization, the aspect of the rise most liable to quantification, was truly special in history. Only two prior historical processes can claim to have a comparable impact on human life: the change to a sedentary and agricultural life-style in the Neolithic and the rise of the cities and the state (=civilization) in the 4th-3rd millennium BC. In the first two developments, the Ancient Near East took the lead, in the third Europe. No other developments come even near these three and they are so unique as to be pretty much incommensurable.

Still, there is a comparatively easy way to gauge the Rise at least in a horizontally comparative approach. Although this process was complex, entailing all aspects of life, there is agreement that the Great Divergence was at its core technological-driven (=Industrialization). So let’s analyze technology. For every civilization save post-1500 West, there have been long published books which treat and list technological achievements in an authoritative way. E.g. Needham “Science and Civilization of China” or Ahmad al-Hassan & Donald Hill “Islamic Technology”.

Now when you go through these books, and you can add those on Indian technology, you notice invariably that all these non-Western civilizations have one thing in common: their technological contributions became fewer and fewer, almost died out completely sometime between 1350 and 1500, that is notably even before the Western impact through Colombus and da Gama. They ran out of creative steam almost totally. Even though I have read for years on the subject, I could still only name at most 10-20 inventions for each civ for the entire period right until the onset of industrialization. At the same time the West literally made thousands since the Renaissance – per century and at an ever increasing rate. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that da Vinci’s sketchbooks alone contain more creativity and concrete technological innovations than Islam, India and China of the time taken together.

This give us a landscape of a technologically very dynamic West and an at best stagnant Non-West in the period 1350-1750, that is even before Europe completely embarked on a different, higher trajectory.

This Great Divergence in technological innovation has been one of the reasons why I never could take the California School’s claim – which largely neglects technology – that the Non-West remained at eye-level up until James Watt seriously. It always had this air of Hare and Tortoise where the Western hare could never catch the Eastern tortoise however faster its technological development actually was.

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