Why Did Europe Take Over the World?

November | 2013 | Abagond | Page 2In 1750, China, India and the Middle East led the world in technology, power and sophistication, as they had for most of history.  In 1775 India and China controlled 66% of the world’s economy. Less than a century later the British ruled India and China accounted for only 5%. By 1900 all the Americas spoke European languages, and Britain, a formerly insignificant island, ruled a quarter of the world. How was that possible?

The crucible of ‘western civilization’, my classics professor once told me, was not the Greek victories over Persia but the Roman conquest of Gaul. Civilization arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia, spread to Greece, and from there Italy. When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean, their contribution was a thin layer over millennia of development. Western Europe, however, was not so civilized – so Roman laws, language, architecture and government provided cultural bedrock. At the cost of thousands of Gallic lives, Caesar’s conquest brought Western Europe into civilization’s fold.

Western Europe adopted the Roman model wholesale with limited contribution from the invading Germanic tribes. From then on Western Europe largely bore one legal and cultural heritage with a single script, all preserved by the Catholic Church and rediscovered in the Renaissance. Islam may have accomplished such unity in the Middle East but, like China and Eastern Europe, the region was beset by invasions from Central Asia. Arab civilization arguably never recovered from the Mongols’ sack of Baghdad.

Jared Diamond attributes Europe’s rise to guns, germs and steel. That is, being in the right place at the right time. Europe had the environment and the resources for state-building and, through ancient trade routes, was connected to other civilizations, their ideas, resources and diseases. More isolated parts of the world lacking the crops, animals or geographic conditions, did not develop so. The Roman script and a common religion helped spread ideas while, unlike imperial China, fragmented political boundaries fostered competition and innovation.

Yuval Harari credits ‘values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature’ – crucially capitalism and western science. While the ideologies of the Ottomans, Ming China and Mughal India promoted continuity and stability, those of England, France and Spain favoured ambition and greed.

Before 1492, the world’s civilizations were sure they knew the world.  Christianity, Islam, Confucianism or Buddhism provided answers to all the world’s mysteries with little room for the unknown. The Medieval worldview was strict and stagnant. Then, Colombus discovered the New World. A generation later, Amerigo Vespucci suggested the discovery was not Asia, as Colombus believed, but a new continent altogether.

Vespucci’s realisation taught Europeans a valuable lesson; admission of ignorance. For the first time, cartographers now printed maps with blank spaces – an open invitation for the intrepid. While the more advanced empires of India and China dismissed these discoveries and remained convinced they were the respective centres of the universe, states like Spain and Portugal embarked on an Age of Discovery. Hunger for knowledge, as much as land and wealth, drove the explorers of that age.

Capitalism was significant, for economies based on credit, not gold, can multiply wealth. Journeys across the world, colonies and railroads would not have been possible without investment banking, loans, interest and shares. Nor would the transatlantic slave trade.

A feedback loop resulted: science brings better technology, technology brings conquest, conquest brings wealth, wealth invests in science and so on. By extracting wealth from the rest of the world, European empires only increased their power. The more they developed, the more the technology gap, and their hubris, grew.

The factors involved in springing that feedback loop are too variant to attribute to simple determinism – geography, environment, economics,  accident and circumstance all played their part.

Sources: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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Why Did King’s Landing Burn?

Flipboard: These Memes About Daenerys Burning King’s Landing On 'Game Of Thrones' Show How The ...

Yes, I am weighing in on Game of Thrones. In a polarising final season, the penultimate episode has proven especially divisive. Critics have derided it. An online petition to remake Season 8 has 900,000 signatures and counting. Personally I liked it. Here’s why.

*Spoilers will follow*

Criticism for Season 8’s ‘The Bells’, the longest Game of Thrones episode to air, and the second-to-last of all time, is laid most heavily on Daenerys Targaryen burning King’s Landing, and the fate of Jaime Lannister. Conversely few can deny its cinematic weight.

Since last episode the Dragon Queen has flipped from slave-freeing heroine to mass murderer without rhyme or reason. Game of Thrones prides itself on its unpredictability. Viewers sit on the edge of their seat, not knowing whether their favorite character will live or die. Eddard Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, however, were believable and consistent with character motivation. The burning of King’s Landing, meanwhile, seemed less because of an authentic and foreshadowed shift in Daenerys’s character but because the story demanded it.

This all-powerful plot, which defies character or sense, has plagued the show since Season 5. How did Danaerys reach Beyond the Wall in Season 7 all the way from Dragonstone in time to save Jon and friends from the White Walkers? Why did no one important die in the crypts in Season 8’s Battle for Winterfell? How did Jaime, the Hound, Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm and Ghost survive the army of the dead? How did Cersei and her minions identify Missandei? Not because it was credible, but because the plot demanded it.

Critiques of Daenerys’s murder spree follows similar reasoning. The Targaryen Queen spends half of ‘A Dance with Dragons’ mourning an unnamed child scorched by her dragon. Why could she destroy an entire city, just because a few of her friends had died? Why did Jaime, after all he had been through, still go back to Cersei and die in her arms?

Though I concede Season 8’s character arcs are rushed and haphazard, the burning of King’s Landing is not unexpected.

A million people live in King’s Landing, according to Tyrion Lannister. That would equate Danaerys’s slaughter with the Rwandan Genocide if she killed half. By sheer body count, it is leagues worse than anything Joffrey, Cersei, Ramsay Bolton or even the Night King ever did. Despite vowing to never be like him, Daenerys ends up fulfilling her father’s last wish: Burn them all.

It is a fallacy to think great leaders hold themselves to a high moral standard. Alexander the Great crucified 10,000 outside Tyre and burned Pasargadae to the ground. Julius Caesar perpetrated genocide in Gaul and Genghis Khan killed 5% of the world’s population. Burning King’s Landing resembles the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the firebombing of Dresden, two acts committed by the ‘good guys’ of WW2. It is not always madness or bloodlust which demand the death of innocents, sometimes and it is cold and calculated strategy.

Daenerys knows the people of Westeros will never love her. She therefore opts to instill the fear of God in anyone who would cross her by turning King’s Landing, its surrendered defenders, and innocent inhabitants to ash. It signals that anyone else who defies her will meet a similar fate. Now her advisors who cautioned forbearance have either betrayed her or are dead. In Daenerys’s mind only unquestioned obedience will guarantee peace and her right to rule. The ends justify the means.

Season 8 has alluded to this.  Though it was handled somewhat clumsily, I appreciated the paradigm shift. As our heroine burned the innocents to death and Jon’s soldiers murdered and raped, it became clear good and bad are relative concepts, a cornerstone of Game of Thrones’s moral lens. What’s more, pitting Jon and Daenaerys against each other makes for a higher stakes game than if Cersei Lannister remained ‘the big bad’. I pray the finale will satisfy.

Update 19/05/9: finale did not satisfy.
Update 27/05/19: petition has over 1,500,000 signatures.