Why Was It Europeans Who Conquered the World?

Jared Diamond, a researcher at UCLA, has been doing fieldwork in New Guinea for over 25 years. New Guinea is home to some of the last hunter-gatherers in the world. A long time ago, one of his New Guinea friends asked Diamond why white people had so much and New Guineans had so little.

That's an obvious question, but Jared was surprised to realize he didn't know the answer. In fact, he didn't know of anyone who knew the answer. When Europeans were busy conquering the Americas and Australia and New Zealand and parts of Asia and Africa, the obvious answer was that white people were superior. Either they were genetically superior, or their culture was superior. Historically, that was the customary answer. Europeans were smarter or more capable. That explanation is clearly bad, but a good one has failed to take its place.

Why did Europeans conquer the world? Why, when Europeans came into contact with other places in the world, did they almost always conquer? This is a key question in European history.

Jared Diamond had spent enough time with the New Guineans, living among them, to know that they were intelligent and resourceful people — in Diamond's opinion, more intelligent and resourceful than people living in modern societies, both because of natural selection (unintelligent and unresourceful people don't live long in the New Guinea wilds) and because the New Guinea environment is so difficult, and the death rate is so high, that they must smarten up as they grow up, or they don't make it to adulthood.

But if they are so smart, why hadn't they invented guns? Why hadn't they forged steel? Why were they so outmatched when Europeans made their historic landing on their island?

Diamond decided to find out why. And the way he started was a stroke of genius. He decided to go back to a time in history when all humans were equal. About 13,000 years ago all humans on the planet were hunter-gatherers. No group had much more than any other group. At that time in history, there were no civilizations, no cities, no rich people. They all had pretty much the same technology. Then what happened?

The first thing that changed was the domestication of animals and plants. Agriculture. That is the beginning of global inequality because agriculture wasn't invented everywhere at the same time. Some places started earlier than others. This is a key historical fact.

The first place people started farming and tending animals was in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East near present-day Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Agriculture was invented in other parts of the globe much later in the historical time line.

The people on the Eurasian continent got a huge head start. They started farming 2000 years, 4000 years, and in some cases 6000 years earlier than other places!

Now the question is again, why? Were people on other continents not as bright? Why didn't they start farming earlier? The answer is that in order for a people to settle down to agriculture, they need a complex combination of factors, and those factors happened to arise first in the Fertile Crescent, by the pure luck of geography. Those people happened to be living in the right place at the right time in history.

what it takes to start agriculture

Some groups of hunter-gatherers in New Guinea are semi-farmers. They cultivate banana trees. But the semi-farmers don't stay put. They haven't settled down and built cities. They don't live permanently in the area because their farming has never allowed them to. They have to keep moving. They come back a couple of times in the year, once to pull weeds, and once to actually harvest the bananas, but they have to keep moving in order to get enough to eat. Why?

The reason is simple: You can't store bananas. To settle down permanently, finding a food source you can farm isn't enough. It has to be the right kind of food source. The food source has to be something you can store, and it has to contain some protein. Bananas have very little protein. People can't live on it. They have to eat other things.

Historical botany shows wheat grew wild in the Fertile Crescent before it was cultivated. It lent itself to domestication in many ways, and because the growing season was so short in that area, the seeds were rather large and had evolved to remain dormant for a long time.

In other words, here was a food you could store for a long time without rotting. It also is reasonably high in protein.

Jared Diamond and many others have scoured the globe for other potential plants that could fulfill the same requirements. They are very rare and historically, have always been rare.

Not only that, but even a storable plant seed wasn't enough to switch from hunter-gatherers to farmers. They also needed an animal. They needed a good source of protein. People don't survive very well eating only grain, so wheat was not enough. And again, just by luck, in the Fertile Crescent, there was an animal that could be domesticated, and again, that wasn't historically true in most other parts of the world.

Wherever farming has taken hold around the world, the farmers had historically at least one domesticated animal to provide protein, at least one storable source of carbohydrates, and a legume (peas, lentils, beans, etc.). Legumes are also storable. They dry hard and don't rot readily. And they are higher in protein than grains so they can be used as a protein supplement when animal protein is scarce.

Can you see why this combination shows up in history again and again? And why its alternative does not ever appear? Not once in history does a civilization blossom without these three factors. Because it is not enough to have one (or even two) of these factors. It wouldn't be enough of the right kind of nutrition to sustain a group of people.

But with all three factors, it's enough. People could stop roaming, and form villages. And historically, we can see that they did so.

There are very few places in the world where a domesticatable animal, plus a storable carbohydrate, plus a legume all exist in the same place.

There are many places in the world where a grain grows. But farming didn't start and people didn't settle down because that isn't enough. To have an adequate agriculture, you need the combination, and it was rare. It became available for the first time in history in the Fertile Crescent, and it allowed people to settle down into villages.

That was the beginning. It doesn't seem like much, but agriculture brought into existence a chain of events that allowed farmers to advance their technology far beyond hunter-gatherers.

the chain of causes and effects

This is how history played out once a sustainable agriculture developed. First, people settled down. They had a more reliable source of food throughout the year (because it was storable), so they had more kids. A hunter-gatherer woman only gives birth every five years or so because hunter-gatherers move around a lot and until a child can walk on his own at a pretty good pace, the mother cannot afford to have another child.

But once people settle down into a village with a steady supply of food, they start having children at a rate close to one per year.

So historically, the population of farmers grows much faster than that of hunter-gatherers, allowing the farmers to outnumber and defeat hunter-gatherers in war.

Also, because settled farmers are settled, they can have more possessions, like tools and weapons. Hunter-gatherers had to carry their things with them, so they were limited in how many possessions they could accumulate. This has a long-term narrowing influence on the development of new technologies because often new inventions are built on previous inventions.

As farming techniques improved, farmers had more food excess to store, so some people no longer had to do the work of producing food. Specialists could then develop. Tool makers. Weapons makers. And because they were specialized and spent more time on their craft, they invented more. Technology improved faster.

So farmers had better weapons and greater numbers and could defeat hunter-gatherers even more effectively.

Another very important factor is: The more people you have together, the more ideas they exchange. The process of innovation began to accelerate when people settled down into towns and cities.

Hunter-gatherers hardly changed at all. They were relatively isolated, relatively small groups of people who didn't have the time or incentive to invent new technologies, and they couldn't carry much with them anyway, so their technologies remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years.

the importance of latitude

One important advantage the Eurasians had was a large piece of land stretching across the same latitude. Look at an atlas and find the Fertile Crescent. See how far land stretches in both directions on that latitude. It is enormous. So the combination of the domesticated plants and animals — the self-reliant, self-sustaining, and complete agricultural package — could (and did) spread east to Asia and west to Europe. To add to the advantage, that encouraged a constant interchange between these far-flung places, which also accelerated the pace of invention.

In the Americas, Australia, and Africa, the spreading was much more limited along the same latitude.

The reason latitude is important is that if you go east or west at the same latitude, you have similar lengths of day, somewhat similar climate and weather, which means plants and animals that survive well at one spot are more likely to survive well east or west of there, but not usually north or south of that spot.

Added to that, there were significant barriers to traveling north and south in Africa and the Americas. Huge deserts and impenetrable forests prevented one area from having much contact with other areas. So, for example, in Mesoamerica, they had invented the wheel. Down in South America, they had domesticated llamas. The people in Mesoamerica never got the llamas and the South Americans never got the wheel. Had both civilizations lived on the same latitude, it is likely both would have used the wheel and the llama.

So the width of the Eurasian continent is a huge factor in the acceleration of technology. But there was another factor that gave the Europeans a back-breaking advantage when they encountered Native Americans and Africans (and Hawaiians and Australian Aborigines, etc.). Whenever Europeans in the Age of Discovery encountered anyone from any other continent, they brought disease.

why didn't diseases go both ways?

Why is it that when Europeans landed on the shores of the Americas that the Native Americans were devastated by so many diseases brought by the Europeans? And why didn't the Native Americans have their own diseases to give to the white man? Why did Europeans have such a huge collection of deadly diseases that they had a resistance to, but the Native Americans didn't have very many diseases that Europeans had no resistance to?

Interesting question, isn't it? The answer is that most of our diseases — smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, flu, etc. — originally came from the animals Europeans had domesticated.

Here's how it works: First, an animal has a microbe that infects it, say cowpox (an actual case). Because humans are hanging around cows a lot, some of the microbes jump to the humans, but generally speaking, they can't survive. But a little random mutation here and there and all of a sudden smallpox comes into existence and wipes out huge portions of the European population. It mutated to become a human disease. This happened again and again. Plague after plague swept through Europe over the centuries, killing off everyone who didn't have some resistance to it.

Native Americans hadn't domesticated very many animals. They didn't have cows, horses, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, geese, oxen, donkeys, etc. But Europeans had all these any many more.

That's why the disease exchange was so one-sided. Disease did far more to create an imbalance between Europeans and Native Americans than all the other factors put together.

buy why not the Chinese?

So far, this explains why people on the Eurasian continent dominated people on other continents. But the Eurasian continent is very wide. Why wasn't it the people from the Middle East or China who did the conquering? Why was it Europeans?

The Middle East is too dry for intensive farming now. Most of the forests have been cut down and didn't grow back. The place is like a desert these days, which was not the case 13,000 years ago when agriculture was just getting started. So their ability to survive well, much less produce surplus food, diminished over time. At the time Europe began its Age of Discovery, around 1500 AD, the Middle East was agriculturally past its prime and not in a position to compete.

China, on the other hand, could have been a potential rival for world exploration and dominance around 1500, but right about that time, the ruler of China decided to dismantle all the shipyards in China! No more exploration by sea, he said. One of the things that prevented China from being the people who conquered the other continents, in other words, was China's unity. A single ruler could decide the fortunes of the whole region. Not so in Europe.

Europe has lots of natural barriers: It is divided by water and mountains and lots of jutting landmasses. So Europe has been continually divided into states. In the 1500's, those states were all competing with each other. Even if you had a ruler or two who didn't want to explore the world, you would have other rulers who would, and they would become rich and essentially force the other states to jump in or fall behind (or even be conquered).

this is the answer to the question

Our original question was, why did Europeans conquer the world? The answer is, because they happened to live on the Eurasian continent, so they were lucky enough to start agriculture earlier than any other place on earth. Just by luck, they were at the right latitude with the right combination of available animals and plants that could be domesticated. And with a head start of thousands of years, their technology was more advanced. And because of their close association with their domesticated animals, they carried many diseases to which they had resistance but people from other continents did not. Because of their head start, Europeans possessed guns, germs, and steel and they conquered the world with them.

Much of the global inequality seen today comes from this original source.

If you'd like to know more, Jared Diamond has written an excellent book and made a first-rate DVD about how Europeans conquered the world. Both are titled, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Check them out. Diamond goes into far more interesting detail than I have here in this article.

If you are interested in the impact of disease on Native Americans, read the book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann. Fascinating.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated Slotralogy, and Principles For Personal Growth. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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