Eurocentricity Triumphant

The question of the rise of Western Civilization to economic and technological domination continues to fascinate scholars and, judging from the huge publicity surrounding the publication of David S. Landes’s new book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998), the public at large. The current stock of books on the subject contains some classics such as Eric L. Jones’s The European Miracle (1981), Mancur Olson’s Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), and Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell’s How the West Grew Rich (1986), as well as some newcomers, most notable among which are Charles Kindleberger’s World Economic Primacy (1996), Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), and Thomas Sowell’s Conquests and Cultures: An International History (1998). Almost everything about the topic is in dispute, and because the rhetoric of this literature almost invariably turns on the “for example” variety, little persuasion has actually occurred. First, ideology gets in the way. If one believes in free markets, the West’s commitments to them explains it all. If one is against free markets, one can either deny the historical fact of Western predominance altogether or condemn it squarely. Second, theory is of little help: economics, politics, sociology, psychology, and geography all play a role, but none produces a single consensus view of what matters most. Finally, while the historical record is rich and immense, it is far from clear if it will ever allow a sharp discrimination between alternative hypotheses.

Landes’s contribution to this literature is first and foremost in raising the level and style of the debate. The book is just beautifully written, filled with bon mots and witty observations, speckled with devastating and at times irreverent dismissals of opposing views. Landes commands a seemingly endless arsenal of interesting and neat anecdotes and historical miniatures that are used in virtuoso fashion to illustrate a point. The width and depth of the historical knowledge at his disposal is simply so vast that even his most determined opponents will have to admit their respect for this work. Adjectives like magisterial and monumental have been widely used to describe this book in previous reviews, and rightly so. At times, his desire to summarize an entire society in one pithy sentence inevitably falls flat, but on the whole it makes this book a wonderful read for both specialists and general readers.[1]

What explains the great surge of the West? I will set aside the pseudo-scholarship that tries to deny the phenomenon altogether as a Eurocentric myth and the polemics that regard it as simply the result of some form of pillage and robbery.[2] To be sure, the old myths of a “backward” Orient and a “progressive” and “civilized” Europe have been discarded altogether, and Landes is as careful as anyone in recognizing the capabilities and achievements of non-Western cultures. Moreover, he recognizes that on the eve of the Industrial Revolution living standards in much of Europe (England and the United Provinces being the most notable exceptions) may not have been very different from China (southern Asia and Africa were another matter).[3] Yet, less than a century later, a tiny British expeditionary force humiliated the mighty and proud Chinese empire because it had gunboats and the Chinese did not.[4] Certainly, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Western Europe had achieved a power and a wealth uniformly recognized by contemporaries. Modern historians disagree on two big issues: when the divergence between West and East began in earnest, and how to explain it.

It is quite clear that, compared to China and the Middle East, early medieval Europe was a backward and poverty-stricken peripheral region. Yet it must have had something going for it, because by the middle of the sixteenth century Europeans had found the way to Asia and America, not the other way around. It may well be that the geographical discoveries and the scientific revolution did little right away to raise the living standards of most Europeans, but as a preparatory stage they clearly gave Europeans something nobody else had and in the end made the Industrial Revolution possible. It seems therefore silly to think of European dominance as a temporary blip, due to fortuitous forces. The fact that eminent scholars such as Fernand Braudel, Eric Jones, and Landes cannot precisely agree on the relative weight of each contributing factor does not relieve us from analyzing the historical record of economic growth. This historical record indicates without any doubt that European technology and institutions moved from Europe elsewhere, and that this spreading, coupled to continuing advance in the West, constitutes the central dynamic force of modern times. If left-leaning scholars who do not appreciate this message wish to call the messengers “Eurocentric” or “diffusionist” (in their lexicon, pejorative terms), so much the worse for them.[5]

Perhaps the one argument everyone can agree on is that Europeans ended up knowing more than non-Europeans.[6] They did not invent everything they used, and arguments that attack Eurocentricity by showing that this or that technique was used elsewhere before are storming through an open door. But Europeans learned rather greedily, if there was something useful that non-Europeans knew and they did not, and then applied and added to this knowledge as fast as they could. Useful knowledge (the term is due to Simon Kuznets[7]) includes scientific and engineering knowledge as well as geography, botany, applied mathematics, natural history, medical knowledge, information management (such as accounting), and plain pragmatic knowledge—uncodified recipes of how to make steel, tan leather, build a chimney, breed better pigs, and grow potatoes. The existence of such knowledge does not guarantee that it will be used, or even that it will be preserved. But, as Landes points out in great detail, by 1600 Europeans knew better than anyone else how to sail the globe, make clocks, compute interest using logarithms, pump water from mines, and so on, and they were far better than any other society in disseminating the knowledge among themselves as well as transmitting it from generation to generation. They exploited this superiority mercilessly and often unscrupulously to their political advantage. A century before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, other cultures still had a few techniques of their own, but Europeans learned quickly when they discovered this. Thus they copied the making of chinaware and transplanted maize to European soil, learned how to spin cotton and how to inoculate against smallpox. Yet this consensus begs the question: why did Europe (and Europeans overseas) become technologically creative, while the rest of the world either never managed to get there at all or, when they did (like China or early Islamic society), were unable to sustain the effort?

Landes’s answers to this question are many, but in the final analysis they boil down to attitudes and culture. “If we learn anything from the history of economic development it is that culture makes all the difference . . . what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity” (pp. 516, 523). Coming from a technological historian whose previous magnum opus, The Unbound Prometheus (1969), was essentially a history of industrial technology since the Industrial Revolution, this is surprising not so much for what it contains as for what it does not contain. There is little direct discussion of the connection between culture and technological progress. “Culture” might include in addition such attitudes as willingness to challenge the natural environment, appropriate that which previously was the realm of the gods, rebel against ancient traditions of how to make things, emulate the customs and techniques of otherwise despised foreigners, and adopt a rational and mechanistic attitude toward the manipulation of natural forces we call “production.”[8] These features determine technological creativity, and surely they are part of “culture” no matter how defined. To be sure, Landes has read his Lynn White; he notes the tendencies in medieval religion in which nature is subordinate to man and remarks that, while the old legends remained to warn against “hubris” (cosmic insolence), “the doers were not paying attention” (p. 206). The European scientific revolution, which may not have had much of a direct effect on the first Industrial Revolution but surely helped create the pragmatic minds that made it possible, is the backbone of the critical chapter “Why Europe, Why Then?” discussing the Industrial Revolution. Three elements are singled out: the growing autonomy of science, the emergence of scientific method, and the routinization of research. We are not told, precisely, how these changes in the accumulation of useful knowledge brought about the Industrial Revolution. The scientific culture based on Baconian ideology that insisted that the function of scientific knowledge is to satisfy human material needs does not play much of a role in this book. Landes’s explanation of the Industrial Revolution is that “technology was not enough . . . the answer lies in conjuncture, in the relations of supply and demand, in prices and elasticities.” Economists will be scratching their heads. Non-European sources of scientific knowledge are not discussed but for a remark pour épater les gauchistes that non-Western science contributed just about nothing and was incapable of participating, so far had it fallen behind (p. 348).

Economists will find the emphasis on culture at the expense of institutions surprising. The two giants of reintroducing the idea of institutions into the story of modern economic growth, Mancur Olson and Douglass C. North, seem to have made little impact on Landes (the bibliography does not list North’s work, including The Rise of the Western World, 1973). In explaining Japan’s successes, Landes provides many telling examples of his conclusion that “people made all the difference” (p. 486), but he pays little attention to the fact that aggregations of people play by certain rules. It might well be that, as much as the people themselves, it was these rules that made all the difference. A careful reading of the book reveals that Landes of course realizes this, but the emphasis is elsewhere. In matters such as these, emphasis is everything.

This is not an oversight as much as a testimony to Landes’s lack of interest in anything that even hints at formal economics. On the whole, it works to his advantage. Most modern economics is exceedingly formal and rigorous and has thus little use for “culture.” (Some highly innovative work in economic history, however, has made a beginning at that venture.[9]) Landes’s main answers thus lie outside economics, in whatever it is that makes people industrious and honest. Yet this reviewer cannot avoid the impression that at times a bit more economic analysis might have helped him: Landes is somewhat hesitant about the costs of protection, and a firmer application of the economics of free trade might have avoided a few awkward spots. Thus Landes discusses Japanese protectionism and asks whether the Japanese don’t understand that such policies constitute a deliberate impoverishment of their own population? Don’t they understand comparative advantage? To these questions, they respond (and Landes seems to concur) that their goals are not low prices and economic welfare but market share, increased capacity, and industrial and military strength. “If people spend less now, they save more. Their children will have more and Japan will be stronger” (p. 474). Given how irresponsibly the Japanese have invested these savings overseas and in their unsound banking system and the “non-performing assets” that await these Japanese children, these policies have been a mixed blessing. Ten pages later, Landes contradicts this mercantilist fallacy: the Japanese, he explains, made a virtue out of handicaps. Since their home market was too small for mass production, they made up for it in quality, catering to special needs, and switching models as demand dictated (p. 484). Apparently, then, they were able to penetrate foreign markets without too much difficulty—so why did they need to protect their own by employing patently absurd arguments such as that French skis could not be imported because “Japanese snow was different”?

In addition to culture, there was geography. It is always logically tempting to rely on geography because by and large geography is truly exogenous. Culture, technology, trade, institutions, and government, all are determined by each other in a logically overdetermined system. But geography, climate, soil fertility, and accessibility are all largely given, and so they determine economic growth but are not determined by it. Landes begins his book by sighing wistfully that “geography has fallen on hard times” and makes an attempt to resurrect it as a long-neglected factor in economic growth. He points to the impact of climate on disease environment, on the ability of laborers to exert themselves, on the likelihood of catastrophes. Yet eventually, geography is brushed aside in favor of values and cultural beliefs. Although Landes has read Jared Diamond’s work, he does not fully exhaust the importance of differences in the biological and climatic endowments of Eurasia and the rest of the world in determining how cultural differences came about.[10] Diamond’s argument is that, compared to Africa, the Americas, and Australia, Eurasia was uniquely endowed with domesticable plants and animals, which led to higher productivity, thus higher population density and the development of density-dependent institutions such as bureaucracies and literate classes. Better property rights, literacy, and the study of nature led to the growth of science and technology and fed back into higher productivity. Such positive feedback mechanisms produced what economists call multiple equilibria, in which in some cases favorable conditions lead to more and more wealth, whereas in others societies get stuck in poverty “traps” in which poverty, ignorance, and disease feed on each other.

Such models go a long way toward explaining why some are so rich and some are so poor. They imply that fairly small differences in initial conditions might have led to cascading divergences. The work of biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould and economists such as Brian Arthur has placed increasing emphasis on the importance of contingency and relative minor events at critical junctures, which may lead to greatly divergent outcomes.[11] Cultural determinists such as Landes tend to believe that greatly different outcomes of tremendous historical moment must have deep historical causes. Yet the simple logic of positive feedback defeats that certainty. Much of the history of why some are so rich and others are poor could and will be written in terms of feedback loops: sometimes they are positive (“the rich get richer”), at other times negative feedback prevails and rich and successful economies decline (convergence). The role that culture, institutions, geography, and knowledge play in determining these mechanisms still remains to be analyzed further. Yet anyone wishing to understand this debate will have to read Landes’s book. Few will agree with everything it says—but everyone will be awed by its erudition and verve.

Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences, chair of the department, and a professor of history at Northwestern University. He specializes in economic history and the economics of technological change and population change. Mokyr is the author of Why Ireland Starved: An Analytical and Quantitative Study of the Irish Economy (1983), The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (1990), The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective (1993), and over fifty articles and books in his field. His books have won a number of important prizes, including the Joseph Schumpeter memorial prize (1990). He served as the senior editor of the Journal of Economic History until July 1998 and is currently editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History and the Princeton University Press Economic History of the Western World. Mokyr has an undergraduate degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD from Yale University. He has taught at Northwestern since 1974, and has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, the University of Chicago, Stanford, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Tel Aviv, University College of Dublin, and the University of Manchester. His current research is an attempt to apply insights from evolutionary theory to long-run changes in technological knowledge.

Notes

1 Balkan economic history is summarized in the sentence “The Balkans remain poor today. In the absence of metics, they war on one another and blame their misery on exploitation by richer economies in western Europe. It feels better this way” (252). Nineteenth-century Scandinavian society is thus described: “Property rights were secure; the peasantry was largely free; and life was a long stretch of somber hard work broken intermittently by huge bouts of drinking and seasonal sunshine” (248). C’est pour rire?

2 Most recently, James M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York, 1993); Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley, Calif., 1998).

3 Kenneth Pomeranz, “A New World of Growth: Markets, Ecology, Coercion and Industrialization in Global Perspective,” unpublished ms., University of California, Irvine, 1998.

4 The opus classicus on this and similar phenomena remains Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981).

5 As Eurocentrists go, Landes sounds like a distinct moderate compared to Thomas Sowell. Sowell is more than just a Eurocentrist, he is also an Anglocentrist, attributing to the British nothing less than the invention of Freedom, which in his view is the key to the “cultural capital” that lies at the heart of all economic development. He also argues provocatively that the lighter the skin color of American blacks, the higher their scores on mental tests “and other social qualities.” This, he proclaims, is not a subjective perception or a stereotype but a fact. The explanation is that the lighter-skinned group had “earlier and better access to higher levels of European culture.” See Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures: An International History (New York, 1998), 86, 97, 166.

7 Simon Kuznets, Economic Growth and Structure (New York, 1965), 85–87.

6 This does not mean that the average European knew more than the average Chinese. The distribution of knowledge follows the age-old principle of the division of labor. Europeans became more specialized in their knowledge and were able to establish mechanisms through which this knowledge could be accessed and communicated to whoever needed it. See my “Knowledge, Technology, and Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution,” unpublished working paper, Northwestern University, revised version, September 1999.

8 Margaret C. Jacob, a leading historian of scientific culture, has recently stated that “there is such a thing as Western Culture. Its components differed from country to country at any given moment, yet by the mid eighteenth century there was one common element that would prove immensely germane to the mechanization of the manufacturing and transportation systems: the belief that science and technology could control nature and that creativity in both was desirable, a sign of Western industrial superiority.” Jacob, “The Cultural Foundations of Early Industrialization,” in Maxine Berg and Kristine Bruland, eds., Technological Revolutions in Europe: Historical Perspectives (Cheltenham, 1998), 80.

9 See Peter Temin, “Is It Kosher to Talk about Culture?” Journal of Economic History (June 1997): 267–87.

10 Interestingly, Landes’s most explicit attempt to connect geography with culture and institutions is his attempt to rehabilitate Karl Wittfogel’s theory of hydraulic despotism, in which the large early empires of the river deltas in Asia were determined by the need to organize large irrigation and drainage work, which had to be carried out by powerful and well-organized states. Diamond, oddly enough, considers the Wittfogel theory but rejects it, preferring a cruder view relating state formation to population density. See Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, 1997), 283.

11 Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York, 1989); W. Brian Arthur, Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994).

By: JOEL MOKYR