Why Did Europe Conquer the World?



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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.

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Gene Anderson

Agree thoroughly with all. Of course I think there were other factors. I am kicking myself for not realizing the significance of gunpowder wars being so temporally limited in China! I knew it but didn’t SEE it. The Chinese of course famously drew back from overseas adventuring, in the 1420s and after, but not because they were peaceable and nonimperialist; it was because they were fully occupied dealing with the central Asians (the Mongols almost sacked the capital in the mid-1400s). The western European powers, by contrast, had to expand seaward, first for fishing (especially North Atlantic cod) and then for commerce and lumber and so on. And they had to deal with the Turks, who could only be beaten at sea (at least the record seems to show that, from Portuguese expansion to Lepanto). The codfish theory of history.

Gordon Ingram

What Gene says above makes a lot of sense. I had always assumed that the answer was quite simple – that Western Europe attained dominance because it was able to conquer and plunder the New World (they being the closest Old World powers to the New World – if you discount West African polities, which were not great sea powers – and the Atlantic being much narrower than the Pacific). What is wrong with that idea? After all, European powers did not become truly globally dominant until after they had run out of New World land to conquer – and then were quickly replaced by the USA.


“Western Europe attained dominance because it was able to conquer and plunder the New World”

There’s a large literature on this in economic history, and the “plunder of the New World” idea simply doesn’t work, regardless of whether it’s interpreted in terms of the really naive explanation (“gold & silver flowed from America into European coffers”) or in terms of “ghost acres” (à la Pomeranz which itself buids on much previous thinking along these lines which you find in Braudel). I assume you don’t mean the gold-and-silver explanation. But the ghost acres theory also doesn’t work because the food trade was not substantial enough until the latter part of the 19th century, when transport innovations actually made it cheap enough to transport large quantities of food. West Indian sugar in the 18th century just doesn’t count, quantitatively. So if the so-called “Atlantic orientation” was important, there must be some indirect mechanisms by which access to the Atlantic and the New World enhanced the primary Tilly-Hoffman-style drivers. Technological innovations, for example — sailing tech is just one of many, some even argue that the Caribbean trade revived the copper industry in England which ultimately contributed to the Newcomen technology in steam. But there are also ‘institutional’ arguments — the Atlantic allowed a mercantile orientation which made institutions more merchant-friendly (Acemoglu).

But personally I think the Atlantic orientation is really not necessary. The Hoffman-Tilly mechanism seems more or less enough to explain the (temporary) divergence of the opposite sides of Eurasia.


For that late period (1850-1900), migration was even more important than food imports, I think. Again, large amount of work on this in the “first globalisation” (1870-1914) literature. In terms of your structural-demographic theory: the “1st globalisation” literature has a tremendous focus on migration flows. Most people know that 45-50% of Ireland’s and Italy’s labour force absconded to the USA in that period, also 25-35% of Scandinavia and other European countries. That literature concludes the (positive) impact on wages and labour bargaining power in Europe, while for the primary recipient of those flows (USA), wage growth was negatively affected. Migration flows helped lower inequality in Europe at the expense of the US income distribution, at least in part. There’s even a very recent paper about emigration created an exit option which enhanced Swedish social democracy and trade unionism.


( correction: not absconded to the USA alone, but emigrated in general. Italians went to many countries, not just USA. )


It’s the 2nd paper on this page “Exit, Voice, & Political Change” https://sites.google.com/site/erikprawitz/research


Oh that page has no links. It’s also the 1st paper on this page:


Metta Bhavana

Surely a difference is found within the underlying intellectual mechanisms of European trade and the apparatus of commerce that commodified all objects as tradeable, including humans, and their knowledge. What was also tradeable were these forms of trade themselves and who could learn to “do the business,” so to speak. This wasn’t entirely limited to a traditional elite. Much Asian, particularly Chinese, imaginings about trade were centralist or localized, certainly heavily traditional. Europe saw the world as its oyster. China, in contrast, as the prime non-Euroean example, saw itself as the oyster. European, particularly British – quite often Scottish – traders, brought up with inquiring Protestant religious views, the result of the intellectual ferment of Reformation and Counter-Reformation truth claims, envisaged global, even universal, interconnections as a justification for their religious, hence cultural and social views. (Also perhaps driven by lousy weather at home!) This quasi-evangelical outreach mindset stimulated improved mapping, navigation techniques, timetables, weather forecasting, and instruments of exchange, accounting, and stock exchanges, as well as means of distribution of these knowledge forms, printed as books, journals and mass newspapers. All this projection of trade relationships over space and time demanded precise record keeping and therefore demanded extended literacy beyond the elite classes and thus created a sophisticated class of clerks and mechanical tradespeople. They needed to be educated to some exchangeable standard, creating theories of education that led to formalized educational institutions and dynamic trade schools and apprenticeships. This vibrant relationship between holders of capital and those who administered and accounted for, and literally built the machinery of their estates – clocks, barometers, better wagon suspension, steam engines et al – and other instruments that served long lag time and long reach trade, themselves things and knowledge that could also be traded – can’t be overlooked, as it broke down or renegotiated traditional class barriers. That shift in class relations simply didn’t happen in China or elsewhere in Asia. War, in this context was just another tradeable commodity, an intellectualized and formalized technology, and an instrument of exchange.

Mike Waller

Whilst “single factor explanations do scant justice to the complexities of social reality” the best I have ever come across concerns water. Its proponent argued that the world can be divided between hydraulic societies and watershed societies. The former rely on massive rivers, the water resources of which have to be actively managed if population centres along their length are to survive. In contrast, the latter have large numbers of smaller rivers each of which independently supports a local population. The political implications are that in hydraulic societies, control and discipline transcend everything whereas watershed societies, not subject to the same imperatives, have far greater scope for incessant warfare and the rise of unfettered commercial activity.

Justin Lane

This is interesting, but from a practical standpoint isn’t it missing the gorilla in the room? You mention that “By 1914 the Europeans essentially controlled the globe.” However, how did they loose control of that dominance to the US within a span of decades? After WWII there were essentially 2 superpowers, for the past 40 years or so there has really only been one dominant superpower which has financial and military influence throughout the world to the extent that in many ways it dwarfs the dominance of Europeans.
I would be fascinated to see an explanation of this shift, or-alternatively-a defence of how the US is not the dominant superpower in the world. I think that would be an interesting discussion in light of the recent work of the Evolution-Institute that endorses Norwegian-esque policies given that Norway is not a dominant player in the world.

Ilya Lipovsky

Prof. Turchin: curiously enough, this is along the late historian Patricia Crone’s thesis, which she laid out in her “Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World,” in chapter titled “The oddity of Europe.”


I would argue the reason Europe (specifically, Northwestern Europe, inside the Hajnal-line) was able to conquer the world was because NW Europeans possess an inventiveness and ability to cooperate not seen anywhere else in the world – a fact that remains true to this day. They simply achieved technological and societal dominance over the rest of the world. (Russia, as an honorable mention, achieved dominance mainly over other Eastern Europeans and over the generally less civilized peoples to its east. The strong top-down nature of Russian society and lack of serious competition in the region allowed it expand widely. But Russia has long lagged behind NW European societies on many measures).

Clannishness – The Series: Zigzag Lightning in the Brain – The Unz Review


The evidence for that is shaky.

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, there were far more inventions coming out of China and the Muslim world than out of Europe.


Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, there were far more inventions coming out of China and the Muslim world than out of Europe.

There is no question where the bulk of inventions have come from.
A lot changed since the fall of Rome and the Renaissance even:

Information Processing: Evidence for (very) recent natural selection in humans

Ross Hartshorn

So, as a devil’s advocate, I have to suggest: maybe there is nothing particular about Europe that is needed to explain this? Where the dominant military power in Eurasia was located, changed over time, from western Europe (e.g. Rome at its height) to eastern Asia (China at one time or another), with many other places in between (at one point the Byzantine Empire, at one point the Ottoman Empire, at one point the Mongols). So there was nothing in particular about western Europe that made it “dominant”, it just happened, at a particular point in history, to be the ones on top in a long-term cyclical (or even random) process where many different regions each had periods where they were ahead of the others.

What was significant about western Europe’s turn at the top, is that it happened at a time when technology had advanced to the point where being on top meant you could conquer not just your neighborhood, but the whole world. If such technology (for sailing, gunpowder, even accounting and other logistics of controlling a large empire) had been developed when it was the Ottoman Empire expanding, we might be wondering “Why Anatolia” instead of “Why Europe”.

I haven’t thought through this thoroughly, so I could easily be convinced otherwise, but I think it’s important to consider the “null hypothesis” here: maybe there wasn’t anything special about Europe, or at least nothing that was necessary for them to be the ones on top. They just happened to take their turn at the top when being on top meant you conquered the world, instead of just your neighborhood, because new technologies of the time facilitated that. So the Roman Empire or the Carolingian Kingdom did not conquer the world, but 18th and 19th century Europe did.


Except that gunpowder and gunpowder weapons were developed in and far more advanced in China. Arguably when China was on top of the world.

Ross Hartshorn

Certainly China developed them first, and had at one point a lead in gunpowder weapon technology, but I don’t think that gunpowder weapons of the sort that China had were advanced enough to make easily man-portable, simple to operate weaponry of the sort that (for example) eliminated the primacy of sword-bearing armored and mounted knights/samurai. That didn’t come until the 18th century, I don’t believe. My understanding (not a professional’s, for sure) was that Chinese gunpowder weapons were good for sieges or psychological effects, but not of the sort that would allow an infantryman with limited training to take out a mounted and armored warrior.

Now, one could argue that there was some unique European attribute (demographic, geographic, or otherwise) that led to such firearms there rather than elsewhere, but I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t have eventually come to the middle east or east asia. Technology often advances in fits and starts, and slowly accumulates. I’m not sure there’s any particular reason to think that, if Europe had been devastated by a new Plague or otherwise set back, equivalent technology would not have been developed somewhere else soon.

Again, I’m partly playing Devil’s Advocate, but the advance of technology (and its fits-and-starts progression) meant that sooner or later, one of the regions of Eurasia would have become dominant at the first time in world history when the technology available allowed for world conquest. I’m not totally convinced there has to have been anything special about the region that did.

David Huang

I think there is a lot to be said about this null-hypothesis. Certainly many contemporaries of Alexander, Trajan, Caliphs of Damascus, Genghis Khan, George VI, etc would have wondered why their polities controlled so much of the “known”/”civilized” world. It’s a useful question to ask but it may be overly preoccupied with a local maximum.


I think Peter’s point is that technology doesn’t just randomly advance. He has a theory for why there were evolutionary pressures that made firearms advance in Europe and different evolutionary pressures that didn’t cause firearms to advance in China.


Domination of Europe in the Americas was made possible by the enormous assist from diseases which decimated locals. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” gives a good account of this.

European domination over Asia with its established empires, cultures, and fairly complex economies was a long drawn out affair. There is one significant development that perhaps has some relevance. The evolution of the modern Corporation.

After the early voyages, England and the Dutch gave a monopoly of trade to the English and Dutch East India Companies. These new entities became a brand new mechanism for focusing the ambitious and talented English (later British) and Dutch, into helping lay down the groundwork for European colonialism. The majority of those who joined these companies were entrepreneurial in that they became rich while helping the companies extend their domination in Asia. These remarkable individuals learnt the local language and culture, became part of the local elites, intermarried, and most importantly understood the need to build local alliances in order to survive and thrive. They adapted to local needs in terms of military technology, terrain, and culture. Trade and profit was the motivation all along. They in some sense blundered into empire because that was the only way to ensure that trade and profit could happen on a predictable basis, and without disruption. The empires grew because there was the constant drive to increase profits. Wars were expensive, but if these were won, there would be reparations and extended geographies to tax and exclusive access to the markets. It was not smooth sailing for these corporations which had to be bailed out by the governments from time to time, but they created much wealth for the shareholders, the ambitious employees, and the politicians who were lobbied by these corporations.

The Portuguese and the Spanish lost out to these newfangled entities. They soon fell by the wayside in Asia – the most profitable of geographies. Even when the companies had to cede power to national governments, the foundation of empire was firmly in place. This is the reason British and Dutch domination of India (South Asia) and Indonesia, was such an extended affair. Portuguese and Spanish empires started to wither away once the local elites – mostly of European origin, started asserting their independence. In a sense, the same thing happened in United States which was rules directly by the crown.

The analogy one can draw to these companies today is the way Google, Facebook, and Apple is able to attract the best talent that helps it penetrate foreign markets and even control entire market segments. The new conquest is happening in the world of ideas and technology. But the motivation is still profit.


Why did Europe conquer the world? Why did Europe diverge economically from both history and the rest of the world (the Great Divergence or Modern Breakthrough)?

The answer to both questions are roughly the same, and are presaged nicely in your fantastic new book “Ultrasociety” (which deals with the time period up to the breakthrough era).

The oversimplified answer is that Europe was the center of a thousand plus year era of competition and cooperation. In brief the answer was intensely competitive yet intrinsically interconnected states (amplified after 15th C due to printing). The path to power and survival and thriving was having better internal problem solving ability than one’s neighbors. That means solving the problem of cooperation and exploitation better than the other guy. It meant importing technology and institutions that work, eliminating institutions which get in the way, and improving the tech and institutions faster than the state next door.

This is a classic arms race. Europe engaged in an arms race not just of weapons of war, but of communications tech, transportation tech, state revenue collection, institutions (of government, markets and science). But anything created in one place almost immediately crossed the border to competing states, often improving in the process.

I agree that coal, printing, steam, markets and property rights, science, technology, institutions, ghost acres, and Bougrois mindsets were all necessary ingredients to the “rise of the west”. But for root causes, we have to go back to the sustained thousand year plus period of integrated competition (Diamond refers to it as intermediate fragmentation). And yes, this is itself probably greatly a factor of Europe’s fractal geography and the contextual vagaries of history.

China had printing but no real competition. Europe had both, and after printing was introduced, everything started to change. Slow at first, but by the start of the 19th C the game was pretty much over.

Note the other era closest to the European “miracle” was the era of intermediate fragmentation of classical Greece, with a thousand plus vigorously competitive city states connected by common culture and newly fresh system of alphabetic writing.


One of the most remarkable and unexpected examples of European conquest in Asia was the British conquest of India. Taking a closer look at the history of this conquest, one observes that it was never a linear process. Indeed, the British and other Europeans first offered their services as mercenaries or specialized weapon experts to competing Indian polities. In the early 1700s, European troops start appearing on Indian battlefields in various battles among the locals.

The Indians learnt from this and started adopting European arms and military techniques, many like Tipu Sultan, the Marathas and the Sikhs were able to defeat the British in various battles. But what delivered ultimate victory to the British was not their technological superiority, but their political acumen. The British simply had more allies and a better network than any of their competitors, foreign or local. More Indian political elites trusted the British to maintain and enhance their wealth and privilege than any other claimant to power. This showed in the very nature of the British Raj that followed, with its patchwork of ‘princely states’ and provinces.

So military technology got the British entry into the world of Indian political elites, but it was their ability to develop and maintain a widespread network of alliances that enabled actual conquest. And I would attribute this ability to their political experiences in Britain itself.

David Huang

Good point.


I read hoffman’s book but it seemed rather unconvincing for me.I think the question of the rise of Europe was multifactorial but given what i’ve noticed from being a history reader it seems mainly due to geopolitical reasons.Also I dont buy that europe was more militarily capable than other areas of eurasia. If one notices, much of the conquests of europeans where in peripheral areas of the world at the expense of relatively sparsely populated and isolated, and technologically underdeveloped populations in The Americas, Southeast Asia, Australia and Siberia etc (As Jeremy Black Points Out).Compared to the dramatic conquests and military enterprises of Manchus ,Mughals,Ottomans ,Nader Shah in Persia(Very under appreciated figure) and Hideyoshi in Japan,Europe’s military accomplishments in the early Modern period and up to 1750-1800 seemed very unimpressive.Also It seems that Up until around the mid 1700s europe had a rather peripheral or semi peripheral place in the world especially when it comes to Eurasia(and even in Africa btw) .It seems that until the 1700’s the major areas of the world where NE Asia, with China as the regional hegemon, and Dar al Islam composed of three empires(Ottomans Mughals and Safavids) ,Also there was a rising Russia.Around the 18th Century the Islamic empires begin to break down(as all polities eventually do, as Nothing lasts forever) and that created a vacuum of power that the british eventually filled(especially in India).The conquest of India transformed Britain into the hegemon of South Asia and a great power and with Indian resources(Manpower for their Armies,Taxes, Markets, Opium etc) it was able to take on a declining china.So It seems that a wave of Political decline in Eurasia allowed previously Peripheral players to fill vacuums of Power(As it always happens in world history) rather than europe leapfroging Others,it took advantage of the decline of The Centers of Power of The world at the time.Now, Technology is important but I dont think that europes Military technology was far more advanced than in other places of eurasia.Other areas had also their own Military technologies to match, as Tipu Sultan of Mysore fired Relatively advanced Rocket technology against the british and defeated them in some battles, and for example Jean-BaptisteTavernier, who visited the subcontinent in the seventeenth century,reported from Golconda that “the barrels of their muskets are stronger than ours, and the iron is better and purer; this makes them not liable to burst. Also According to Randolf Cooper,“British military men in South Asia historically had a healthy respect
for South Asian matchlocks, which were often judged to have superior range and velocity over European muskets.Nader Shah’s Army According to Michael Axworthy and Others Could have been the Most Powerful Army in the World between the 1730’s and the 1740s. The Ottomans defeated decisively The Austrians in their wars between 1737-1739.Industrialization Matters,but to be a great power you need more than that(Resources, land , More population etc) fr who is More Powerful,Highly Advanced Sweden or China? The British Industrial revolution would in My opinion have happened whether or not the vacuums in eurasia had appear but without that opportunity Britain would have ended up as South korea,a wealthy Technologically advanced but rather not that globally relevant power that it was in the 19th and early-to-Mid 20th Centuries, and britain was the most relevant western european country.Russia is Other story.To me far better books are Military Transition in early Modern Asia by Kaushik Roy and After Tamerlane By Jonh Darwin.One CANNOT explain the rise of europe without explaining the geopolitics of the world at the time and what was going on elsewhere.

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