The power of geography

In 1997, ecological geologist Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel — a book which both won a Pulitzer Prize and brought its author heated attacks for what his critics perceived as his environmental determinism.

Now, anthropologist Ian Morris of Stanford has published Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal about the Future (Profile, 2010).

Morris’s work has the ambitious goal of explaining the grand sweep of global history, from the start of civilization to a projected future.

One of the central ideas of Morris’s book is presented in “Latitudes Not Attitudes: How Geography Explains History,” in History Today (read it here). The idea — that geography has crucially affected history — is much like Diamond’s theme.

“Latitudes, Not Attitudes” argues that geography is the key factor in two striking facts of history: the early development of certain cultures rather than others, and the more recent domination of the rest of the world by the West.

Neither Morris nor Diamond supports the full-blown environmental determinism which draws the ire of many academics: essentially, that warm climates and easily-available resources make for lazy people, while colder climates force people to work harder to survive, thereby selecting for different traits than those which are unchallenged in more accommodating locations. In this view, climate determines a society’s development by actually changing human nature over long periods of time, creating naturally-selected racial differences that go far beyond skin colour or eye shape.

Morris rejects this stereotyping of races. Instead, he argues, geography created physical conditions which would have pushed any human society in certain ways. People all over the world are the same, he writes, but their resources, and the opportunities those resources afforded, differed. Thus, the West rose thanks to geography, not to any intrinsic advantage.

Morris thus discounts versions of history that cater to racism (white Europeans were in some important way superior to other races), culturism (Greece and Rome were more sophisticated than were civilizations in other parts of the world), and religionism (Levantine monotheisms generated a spiritual and moral advantage absent in people influenced by other religions). Morris argues instead that:

Humans are all much the same, wherever we find them, and because of this, human societies have followed much the same sequence of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West.

Morris argues for simple geographic luck, the existence in some places and not others of a climate suitable for the growth of large grain crops, and the availability in those places and not others of animals suitable for profitable domestication. The Middle East, Greece, Rome, India, China — all of these early societies lie between 20 and 35 degrees north latitude. The closer to the ideal latitude, the earlier the development of an agrarian culture sufficiently robust to generate larger populations, breeding in turn villages, cities, and states, so that “by 2,000 years ago a continuous band of empires, with populations in the tens of millions, stretched from the Mediterranean to China.

The aspect of the argument that is most interesting is his explanation of the more recent effect of geography, during the five hundred years after the development of long-range sailing ships in Western Europe. Why Europe? Why not China, which was the most advanced and powerful nation on Earth while Europe was still in the throes of medieval feudalism?

Morris argues that the most important factor was simply that the Americas are twice as far away from China as they are from Europe, giving Europeans a greater opportunity and incentive to use the maritime technologies first developed in China. Thus, the West soon eclipsed the East, with world-spanning empires as the result. Simply put, the West rose when it acquired the technologies which enabled it to exploit its geographic position:

The trip from England to New England was only half as far as that from China to California. For thousands of years this geographical fact had been unimportant, since there were no ocean-going ships. But by 1600 it had become the decisive fact. The meaning of geography had changed.

The new geography created in the 17th century a new economy:

[I]t enormously increased the rewards for anyone who could explain how the tides worked, or measure and count in better ways, or make sense of the secrets of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Morris credits this new economic incentive, a reciprocal system in which innovation spurred financial rewards which prompted further innovation, with creating a new way of looking at the world, a scientific revolution. The emerging rationalism was soon applied to the societies of the West, resulting in what we know as the Enlightenment.

In a similar way, Morris explains, a century later the economic opportunities opened by international commerce stimulated the Industrial Revolution, particularly in England, which had the added geological advantage of being rich in easily-extracted fossil fuels.

In short, the rise of the West had little to do with Western superiority, and much to do with geography: favourable climate conditions in which to develop complex societies, favourable geographic location relative to the vast material resources of the Western Hemisphere, and a ready supply of energy to fuel mechanization and industrial innovation.

What lessons does Morris want us to draw from this history?

First, people are all much the same. It is our shared biology which explains humanity’s great upward leaps in wealth, productivity and power across the last 10,000 years.

… second, that it is geography which explains why one part of the world — the nations we conventionally call “the West” — now dominates the rest.

An interesting thesis, clearly expressed — it makes me want to read the entire book, which I will do now, since whoever had it has returned it to my local library, where I’m next in line on the hold list.

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2 thoughts on “The power of geography

  1. Scotland was one of the poorest and most backward of the European countries until the trade with the Americas took off which led to Glasgow becoming very rich through the tobacco trade which led to shipbuilding at the time when steam power was being developed in the same area. It is interesting to speculate on how the Scottish Enlightenment played into this either as an external factor as a consequence since it was clearly a factor in industrial and merchant system development. All tending to support the thesis at any rate.

    • There can seem to be a bit of the-chicken-and-the-egg in this kind of analysis — then one notices that there is a line of chickens and eggs stretching around the world, all at about the same latitude.

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