from:Gardner, Riley

to:History of the Americas

Time Sept. 05, 2017


everybody for the last 13,000 years. The question motivating the
book is: Why did history unfold differently on different continents? In case
this question immediately makes you shudder at the thought that you are
about to read a racist treatise, you aren't: as you will see, the answers
to the question don't involve human racial differences at all. The book's
emphasis is on the search for ultimate explanations, and on pushing back
the chain of historical causation as far as possible.

Most books that set out to recount world history concentrate on histor-
ies of literate Eurasian and North African societies. Native societies of
other parts of the world — sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Island South-
east Asia, Australia, New Guinea, the Pacific Islands — receive only brief
treatment, mainly as concerns what happened to them very late in their
history, after they were discovered and subjugated by western Europeans.
Even within Eurasia, much more space gets devoted to the history of west-
ern Eurasia than of China, India, Japan, tropical Southeast Asia, and other
eastern Eurasian societies. History before the emergence of writing around
3,000 B.C. also receives brief treatment, although it constitutes 99.9% of
the five-million-year history of the human species.

Such narrowly focused accounts of world history suffer from three dis-
advantages. First, increasing numbers of people today are, quite under-
standably, interested in other societies besides those of western Eurasia.
After all, those "other" societies encompass most of the world's popula-
tion and the vast majority of the world's ethnic, cultural, and linguistic


groups. Some of them already are, and others are becoming, among the
world's most powerful economies and political forces.

Second, even for people specifically interested in the shaping of the
modern world, a history limited to developments since the emergence of
writing cannot provide deep understanding. It is not the case that societies
on the different continents were comparable to each other until 3,000 B.C.,
whereupon western Eurasian societies suddenly developed writing and
began for the first time to pull ahead in other respects as well. Instead,
already by 3,000 B.C., there were Eurasian and North African societies not
only with incipient writing but also with centralized state governments,
cities, widespread use of metal tools and weapons, use of domesticated
animals for transport and traction and mechanical power, and reliance on
agriculture and domestic animals for food. Throughout most or all parts
of other continents, none of those things existed at that time; some but not
all of them emerged later in parts of the Native Americas and sub-Saharan
Africa, but only over the course of the next five millennia; and none of
them emerged in Aboriginal Australia. That should already warn us that
the roots of western Eurasian dominance in the modern world lie in the
preliterate past before 3,000 B.C. (By western Eurasian dominance, I mean
the dominance of western Eurasian societies themselves and of the socie-
ties that they spawned on other continents.)

Third, a history focused on western Eurasian societies completely
bypasses the obvious big question. Why were those societies the ones that
became disproportionately powerful and innovative? The usual answers
to that question invoke proximate forces, such as the rise of capitalism,
mercantilism, scientific inquiry, technology, and nasty germs that killed
peoples of other continents when they came into contact with western Eur-
asians. But why did all those ingredients of conquest arise in western
Eurasia, and arise elsewhere only to a lesser degree or not at all?

All those ingredients are just proximate factors, not ultimate explana-
tions. Why didn't capitalism flourish in Native Mexico, mercantilism in
sub-Saharan Africa, scientific inquiry in China, advanced technology in
Native North America, and nasty germs in Aboriginal Australia? If one
responds by invoking idiosyncratic cultural factors — e.g., scientific inquiry
supposedly stifled in China by Confucianism but stimulated in western
Eurasia by Greek or Judaeo-Christian traditions — then one is continuing
to ignore the need for ultimate explanations: why didn't traditions like
Confucianism and the Judaeo-Christian ethic instead develop in western




Eurasia and China, respectively? In addition, one is ignoring the fact that
Confucian China was technologically more advanced than western
Eurasia until about A.D. 1400.

It is impossible to understand even just western Eurasian societies them-
selves, if one focuses on them. The interesting questions concern the dis-
tinctions between them and other societies. Answering those questions
requires us to understand all those other societies as well, so that western
Eurasian societies can be fitted into the broader context.

Some readers may feel that I am going to the opposite extreme from
conventional histories, by devoting too little space to western Eurasia at
the expense of other parts of the world. I would answer that some other
parts of the world are very instructive, because they encompass so many
societies and such diverse societies within a small geographical area. Other
readers may find themselves agreeing with one reviewer of this book. With
mildly critical tongue in cheek, the reviewer wrote that I seem to view
world history as an onion, of which the modern world constitutes only the
surface, and whose layers are to be peeled back in the search for historical
understanding. Yes, world history is indeed such an onion! But that peeling
back of the onion's layers is fascinating, challenging — and of overwhelm-
ing importance to us today, as we seek to grasp our past's lessons for our


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