That’s the title of a new book by Philip Hoffman of CalTech. His answer is a very neat development of part of Jared Diamond’s famous and Paul Kennedy’s equally famous .
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Hoffman is not impressed by the germs part of the story, but does believe a combination of technological advances in weaponry, the ability to turn resources into tax revenues to fight wars, and competition between European states constitute a good explanation for the literal and cultural conquest of so much of the world by Europeans.
However, historical contingency also played a huge part in his telling of the story, the contingency of the long Dark Ages that kept European states of a similar size to each other, without a single hegemon becoming much larger than its rivals. This turned the competition described by Kennedy into a tournament – and an appendix models this formally. Rulers were in a contest for a big enough prize – glory or land – and incentivised to use resources – revenues that they could raise at low political cost especially as financial innovations came along in the modern era – to pour into new military technologies based on gunpowder to get an edge over each other. War was frequent, and there were few obstacles to adopting the new technologies.
Having set out the model, the book shows quite persuasively why only the European states met these tournament conditions. For example, China was much larger than neighbouring states and used its resources on old technologies to fight the horsemen of the steppes. India had plenty of rivalrous states but was unable to raise revenues at a low enough political cost because the raising of tax revenues was decentralised to local rulers.
Hoffman’s argument makes sense to me, although I’m sure historians could find some of the generalisations too sweeping. This book is a very interesting addition to the flourishing history of the world genre, including Ian Morris’s enjoyableas well as Diamond and Kennedy. The tournament model is not a complete explanation. For instance, it does not fully explain things like the origins and role of financial innovations or scientific discovery. However, this is a terrific example of the insight you can get from a simple model.
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