Jared Diamond framed “Guns, Germs & Steel” around “Yali’s question”: why “cargo” came from the West and not places like New Guinea. In response Diamond is only able to make an argument about Eurasia vs the rest of the world, but Eurasia is the largest landmass and has the highest population. In “After Tamerlane” John Darwin (who brings up GG&S at the end in comparison) talks about the divergence of western Europe from the rest of Eurasia, already home to civilizations in the near & far east. As the title suggests, he begins around 1405, when (he argues) there were few indications that western Europeans would soon explode outward and politically dominate most of the world. He doesn’t give any simple answer, and there’s a sense in which his whole approach is to go against that by de-emphasizing any sense of historical inevitability which can come with hindsight. This could be frustrating for those who want a simple thesis rather than history as “one damned thing after another” (even if these things all accumulate to a known endpoint before dissipating), but if you’re not an expert on all of Eurasian history over that stretch of centuries, you will probably find it enlightening. It’s organized by chronology, with each chapter going over a certain period of time, each time bouncing around various parts of Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, China & Japan, which can get a little repetitive.

Whereas Diamond aimed at an ultimately geographical explanation, Darwin mentions it more in passing. He describes Europe as a “peninsula of peninsulas” when explaining how it became a great naval power, but it seems to me there’s plenty of coastline elsewhere. We know that southeast Asian sailors settled Madagascar many centuries ago, and Polynesians spread out over astounding distances in mere canoes. The Iberian peninsula by virtue of its position had some advantage in reaching the Caribbean first, but if we included the inhabitants of Africa as another possibility we might ask they did not reach the Canary Islands or Madagascar first despite their proximity. Darwin doesn’t discuss Africa quite as much, partly because it less characterized by empire (the subtitle is “The Global History of Empire since 1405”) and partly because it was still a “dark continent” rather late in the era of European imperialism (until advances like quinine enabled deeper penetration & more permanent settlement).

We often distinguish between northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, with the former often grouped with the Middle East. Egypt is given a certain amount of focus, as a significant component of the Ottoman Empire before the British empire made claims on it, ultimately relinquishing any claims after the Suez Crisis. Until the age of exploration, the Islamic world was the primary “Other” to Christian Europeans. Darwin writes “Perhaps because of the distinctive ecology[*] of the Near and Middle East, where agrarian society played second fiddle to long-distance trade[**], Islam was strikingly cosmopolitan”. This didn’t stop Islamic civilizations from conquering more agrarian regions and deriving wealth like any other of Mancur Olson’s “stationary bandits”, but it’s possible they were less inclined to seek out land to settle. Still, in the early years of the age of exploration the one power oriented toward that (rather than easily transportable trade goods/precious metals) was Russia, whose expansion east across land is contrasted with the failure of western Europeans to make any headway against the Ottomans on their southeastern borders. I found it interesting that Darwin credited Ottoman/Islamic civilization with commercial & legal innovations which gave it a certain advantage, as Timur Kuran blames its inability to take up certain innovations as the cause of its Long Divergence behind the west.
*The link, of course, is my implicit commentary.
**Like Greg Cochran (and in contrast to the tendency among classical liberals/libertarian), Darwin acknowledges that trade in the past was mostly a matter of elite luxuries.

I still feel somewhat ignorant about the history of the Russian empire despite reading East of the Sun and For Prophet and Tsar. Part of this interest sprang from a natural comparison with North America, which Alexis De Tocqueville also made. Here it is pointed out that Russia (then Muscovy) and the Iberian kingdoms were at the two geographic extremes of Europe’s east-west axis, so it’s natural for Darwin to compare Russia’s expansion with the conquest of the Americas (albeit the Caribbean and what we’d now call Latin America). There is one similarity in that both cases of an expansion of territory involved unfree labor, with chattel slavery in the New World and the imposition of serfdom in new Russian territory. In contrast, there was less gold or silver to grab early on, with more focus on furs from forested areas. For another thing, the indigenous peoples of Russia’s east were not quite so unprepared for the incursion of Europeans, and in fact at least one Russian attack on a khanate failed. I had previously read the victories of Russia against steppe peoples attributed to gunpowder, but Darwin emphasizes the more contingent factor of the weaker khanates of that period (partly due to Tamerlane’s disruption of much of Islamic civilization). Russia is the one “European” country to have a land-border with definitively East Asian ones, so the question does naturally arise why it was Russia which reached the Pacific from the west rather than an existing east Asian civilization expanding a shorter distance north.

China is a natural counterpoint to Europe, since it once thought of itself as the “Middle Kingdom” in the center of the world, has or had the largest population on Earth for much of my lifetime (either it or India) and more recently seems on track to outpace the US as the largest economy (and perhaps most important country). To Darwin this represents a return to normal, since it was long the case that China was wealthier than Europe. The sections on China are some of the duller ones since so little seems to happen. Darwin emphasizes to the reader that they should not have it set in their heads that the other powers were declining this whole time relative to Europe, and includes material on the empire’s expansion west toward the boundaries we associate with it today (more controversially in the case of Tibet), but the usual line is just about “consolidating”. However much he emphasizes it, it’s hard for me not to think of what China WASN’T doing then, particularly when it comes to naval exploration & expansion. How is it that the Dutch of all people colonized Formosa/Taiwan before the Han? China’s failure to colonize Australia (or the western Americas, where the Russian empire eventually built settlements) is less surprising considering its greater distance and the turn away from large naval expeditions, but since China seems to have pushed further along the Malthusian edge for much of its existence (per Greg Clark & Ron Unz) you’d expect for there to be more of an impetus to settle new land and explode across it like Yankees or French-Canadians. One interesting bit is when Darwin gets to the industrial revolution and tries comparing the Kiangnan region of China to northwest Europe, asking why it didn’t industrialize similarly. Darwin doesn’t mention until a while later that science* had died out around the 1400s in China. He rather unsatisfactorily attributes the difference to resource constraints, such as the expense of transporting coal (which now seems more used in China than anywhere else).
*Others have noted that “science” wasn’t especially useful in the pre-modern era, and the more thoroughly empirical approach of Chinese medicine would have been better for you than some of the crazy ideas found in the west.

Japan is usually discussed after China in each chapter, and serves as an interesting contrast to all these other Eurasian powers left behind during the era of European dominance. Japan had not been a very major power compared to its neighbors for much of that time, but after the Meiji restoration was astonishingly successful in imitating the Europeans who shocked them out of their complacency, seizing territories like Formosa, Korea & Manchuria before ultimately being defeated by western powers in its attempt to dominate China (and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” containing many European colonies). What I wasn’t as aware of was how many other civilizations attempted this same feat around the same time, but failed to achieve it. Perhaps Mancur Olson would attribute this to the less advanced prior state of Japanese civilization, which meant less encrusted sclerosis and more ability to “move fast and break things” as a startup founder might say. One thing Darwin did not make note of, but I did given the rather coincidental time I read this book, is the Japanese labor market. It’s contrasted with British India by pseudoerasmus here, although it appears to still be the case that Indian firms are managed rather badly. Pseudoerasmus’ blog is actually a rather excellent resource on the topic of imperialism, addressing things like Lenin’s theory which have a popular afterlife. I only wish I had read more of it.

Darwin identifies a sort of tipping point that he calls the “Eurasian revolution”, around 1750. Around that time European states (most notably Britain, others have dated that earlier) made fiscal advances which bolstered their military capacity. He also emphasizes the surprisingly contingent factor of the Franch/Spanish/Ottoman/Polish coalition losing out to their British/Austrian/Prussian/Russian rivals (Americans will know about the French & Indian War, but it was a more global conflict). That part didn’t seem especially persuasive to me, because it seems that somebody would have expanded into those territories even if Britain didn’t. Territories containing hunter-gatherers tend to be grabbed by agricultural cultures throughout all of history and around the world (though some territories are so marginal as to be of little use to farmers). Anything else seems an unstable equilibrium. And of course Europeans were already expanding into the “outer world” before this time, even if not as quickly. Because Darwin has tried to emphasize that European dominance wasn’t some inevitability, he doesn’t treat its decline and the emergence of a post-colonial/post white supremacy world as something which needs explanation, whereas Mencius Moldbug would assign some human blame for the “Wind of Change”. He does acknowledge that the American superpower, while more white supremacist than most European regimes, was historically unsympathetic to their imperialism, if not always expressed equally: “The American president Franklin D. Roosevelt made no secret of his dislike for European colonial rule, though out of deference to Churchill he reserved much of his ire for the sins of French rather than British colonialism”, which is the sort of thing Hilaire du Berrier complained about at great length in “Background to Betrayal”. Unlike Razib Khan or Raymond Crotty (whose book I still haven’t blogged years after reading), Darwin doesn’t pay much attention to which models of post-colonial states are more successful. I guess most westerners are uninterested in that (Crotty being an exception in thinking of his own Ireland as being such a state), and Darwin was more concerned with having his work come off as nuanced than he was at having it seem relevant for the future. He acknowledges some of that disinterest in this rather apt quote: “It has been plausibly claimed that the invention of an oriental ‘other’, sunk in the quagmires of moral and intellectual ‘backwardness’, was essential to the European self-image of progress. […] This almost certainly exaggerates the intellectual interest that Europeans took in other parts of the world. Like most civilizations, they were obsessed not with others but with themselves. It was from viewing their own past that they derived the lesson that they had made astonishing progress, although there was no general agreement on how it had happened.”