Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The idea that whites invented everything

A reader emailed me to ask this question:

[A fellow student] said that whites have made the most accomplishments in the world, a statement which makes me angry because he continues to insist that other races or cultures are unpleasant or inferior. What can I say to him to argue that this is not true? 

The assumption that person is making is a fairly common one. White Westerners have been at the forefront of so much technological and socio-cultural achievements in the modern world, so it follows that there must be something superior about white people. Right?

The question of whether one racial group is more or less intelligent than another is not one I'm going to get into here. While it is a relevant question to this discussion, I don't think it's necessary.

There are two other points that I find more pertinent:

(1) What is now, has not always been.

To look at the 20th Century in isolation, one might conclude that there is something superior about white people; the most powerful countries (the USSR, the USA, Germany, England, etc) were all basically white. Even looking at the preceding few centuries, before the rise of the US as the world's pre-eminent superpower, Europe dominated the world stage in terms of inventions and accomplishments.

But if look back in time a little further, the theme of European superiority is revealed for what it is: a phase. If we studied the world prior to the 15th century (the start of the colonial era) and wondered which country would eventually achieve the most linguistic and cultural dominance over the world, England would be one of the last nations you would pick. That small island off the coast of Europe had, in the scheme of things, very little going for it.

Instead, you would look at China, the Mongol Empire, and the Arabs, and think it was only a matter of time before one of them enveloped the whole world.

 For most of known human history, Northern Europe did very little of note. Countries like Iran, Ethiopia, Iraq, Cambodia, India and Peru are hardly regarded as examples of modernity today, yet they boasted relatively advanced civilizations at a time when Northern Europeans were worshiping trees and getting invaded by their more advanced and aggressive neighbours.

But civilizations rise and fall. Angkor in what is now Cambodia, and Axum in present-day Ethiopia, are just two nation-states that for whatever reason didn't last, while others nearby flourished. The earliest cities were in the Middle East, yet several thousand years later, that region has lagged behind others in its advancements. Then through the discovery of oil, several Middle Eastern nations find themselves amongst the world's wealthiest again. China was the world's largest and most advanced nation for longer than any other, far ahead of even Rome at its height. China then began to stagnate from the 15th Century onward while Europeans aggressively sought out new expansions, yet the 21st Century sees China rising again and soon to displace the US as the world's main mover-and-shaker.

Saying that "whites have made most of the accomplishments in the world" reflects a very limited short-term understanding of world history. It's like spending 5 minutes looking at the darkened sky at night, and then concluding that the sky has always been dark.

(2) The importance of opportunity

But even given my previous point, it still begs the question: why do some cultures and ethnic groups seem to be responsible for more inventions and advancements? Why do the people of North America, Europe and East Asia tend to wealthier and more advanced societies?

The best book that answers this question is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. But assuming that you're not going run straight out and read that book now, I'll break it down briefly for you.

During the colonial era, European societies had electricity, the wheel, paper, gunpowder, and many other cultural advancements. Many of the world's tribal cultures - the Australian Aborigines, for example - had nothing approaching these things. So it is frequently assumed that there is something inherently backward about either Aboriginal culture, or Aboriginal people themselves.

Now without wishing to belittle the great things that have been accomplished by Europeans, there is one clear reason why they were able to do lots of things that indigenous Australians weren't: opportunity. To independently invent something truly significant - let's say, the sailing ship - you need to have certain things available to you already. For example, you need to have knowledge of more primitive forms of boat,such as the rowboat. You also need to be around large bodies of water. It should come as no surprise that people living in deserts did not independently invent sailboats. It's not because they weren't smart enough.

The Australian Aborigines never knew the art of agriculture. This would seem like a fairly basic step in human cultural development, so why did they never learn it before the Europeans arrived?

Well, the Europeans didn't invent agriculture either. They knew how to farm because thousands of years ago, someone in the Middle East invented it, and this knowledge gradually worked its way into Europe where it was adopted. Australia, by contrast, was isolated from developments happening elsewhere, and was not possessed with suitable flora and fauna anyway.

Europe succeeded largely because it had a relatively temperate climate, and had access to the innovations developed in other parts of the world.

Another important point to remember is this: European countries became so powerful in the colonial era because they decided to invade other countries. They were obviously not alone in this activity. But contrast that with China. China was the most advanced and most powerful nation in the world for thousands of years, yet at the time when European powers were looking for new territories to exploit, China decided it was content with what it already had. Had China really wanted to conquer the world, it probably could have.

Power and dominance throughout human history has not come merely through being smart. People and nations became powerful because they had not just the means, but the desire to kill, conquer and enslave those who stood in their way. Was this noble, a sign of greater civilization? It depends on your perspective. It is notable that when Japan became a colonial power from the late 19th century onwards, they were guilty of activities that we now quite rightly regard as barbaric. Yet they were really just doing what the Europeans had been doing for centuries.


  1. Just curious ES, you say that the Europeans succeeded mainly through luck and good geography (as well as conquest).

    However, I hardly think Northern Europe can be regarded as having a "temperate climate" and favorable geography compared to various parts of the non-white world.

    It's no coincidence that the greatest of earliest civilizations (ie. Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India) all developed along great/large rivers.

    In my opinion, Europe (particularly Northern Europe) throughout most of its history was screwed by geography. Cold weather, lack of natural resources (not to mention having to deal with various invasions from non-white groups such as the Huns, Arabs, Moors, Mongols, Turks, etc).

    I am interested, however, in hearing your take on why Europe got off to such a relatively slow start compared to China. Why is it that China has been developed, large, advanced, etc, throughout most of its entire history? Not just compared to Europe, but compared to its East Asian neighbors as well?

    Is it because the Chinese were simply smarter, stumbled upon a superior/better culture earlier than most people, or was it because they were fortunate to be located along two great rivers?

    (which would enable the early development of agriculture)

    I'm not accusing you of this, but there seems to be a tendency in postmodern discourse to attribute ALL of Westerners' accomplishments to either favorable geography, ripping off other peoples' ideas, or through plunder, slavery, and conquest.

    Non-white civilizations like China, on the other hand, are presumed to have accomplished everything they did on their own, even though I think China benefited from favorable geography.

    1. If Africa is now commonly accepted as the single origin of humankind, what are the distances respectively from China and Europe to Africa? How much longer time do you think it had taken for the Chinese migrants to eventually settle down in a faraway land, isolated from the other centers of ancient civilization in the world by the Gobi, the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas, etc. Remember Europe had been so close in proximity and could more easily access the centers of ancient civilizations stretching from the Near East to the Indian subcontinent. Besides, the Yellow River culture, with uniquely Chinese characteristics, has long been considered to have given birth to the Chinese civilization. Also, please bear in mind that the 2 great Chinese rivers are miles apart. Those who had traveled far and wide? Were they more entrepreneurial or in search of more livable habitats? Or, had they merely been driven out of their initial settlements? Probably a combination of all those factors...Nonetheless, I do have more than some admiration at least for our ancient migrant forebears. Bear in mind they might not have possessed modern transport. Being total strangers to foreign lands, there were mammoth challenges to be conquered in supply line maintenance, food preservation, diseases management, adjustment to climatic changes and adaptation to alien environments, etc...
      How should we fairly judge the achievements of the ancient Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, who were left somewhat 'isolated' from the Old World that had been more heavily populated, having the advantage of getting the Head Start?

  2. Also, I think it needs to be pointed out that there was far more going on in Europe during the post-Roman "dark ages" than most people think.

    The Vikings, for instance, were sophisticated traders and some of the world's best shipbuilders, and were hardly just the crazy, ignorant barbarians everyone makes them out to be.

    1. Bay Area Guy, I agree with your point 100% that China and the Middle East were basically lucky. Much of what I have written above about Europe applies equally to East Asia. I focus on Europe because it is a common assumption that there is something extra special about whites that enabled them to be so dominant in the modern era.

      Conquest also benefited China, as it would Europe much later; prior to China's unification (ie. one region of China conquering the rest), it was made up of many states in the way that Europe was and is. Being part of a large empire means greater transmission of innovations.

      As you imply, contact with other cultures was a double-edged sword. It brought new ideas and technologies, but also war and disease.

    2. As you imply, contact with other cultures was a double-edged sword. It brought new ideas and technologies, but also war and disease.

      Well said, and I think it goes back to our discussion regarding the merits and drawbacks of racial/ethnic diversity.

      I do in fact believe that a diversity of ideas is indeed quite beneficial. Even China, often regarded as being completely self-sufficient throughout most of its history and not needing any goods from the outside world received ideas from others.

      (While I am interested in/have studied Chinese history, your knowledge of it seems better than mine, so correct me if I'm wrong)

      However, a diversity of peoples , if not managed with the greatest of care, can often lead to devastating consequences.

      Take the Abbasid Dynasty, for example, which crumbled in large part because the Caliph imported large numbers of Turks to serve as mercenaries. These Turks eventually decided to stop being tools of the established Islamic power, and became the power themselves.

      Likewise, the native Britons brought over the Anglo-Saxons as mercenaries to fight off the Picts, but those Anglo-Saxons eventually decided to stay for good and seize power themselves.

      Or look at the former Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, Ottoman Empire, and I could go on and on.

      On a side note, I find it ironic that the same people who praise diversity and support integration also blame conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa on European imperialists who created borders/territories without regard to ethnic divisions. So in other words, having different groups of people who don't like each other/have little common ground live in close proximity to each other is not the best idea!

      (and it should be pointed out that different tribes in Africa have fundamentally more in common with each other than radically different looking races such as whites, blacks, etc do)

      Contact between large numbers of different groups of people can result in great new ideas and even inventions, but at some point, you have to ask yourself: at what cost?

    3. Either you really don't know anything about African history or you're intentionally going into a very bad place. Those "tribes" (funny how you didn't use that epithet for the Picts or your beloved Vikings) already lived more or less together peacefully. What the Europeans did was force them to live in made up countries and ENCOURAGED inter ethnic conflicts (the Sudan, Rwanda-Burundi). Integration was the last thing the colonizers wanted.

      You're also dead wrong about genetic diversity among Africans. There's all kinds of stuff in everybody's DNA from all kinds of places. Genetics is more than looks (since you brought up the subject, I'm sure that you know the difference between a genotype and phenotype).

      Maybe in your Tarzan movie world Africans just sat around until they were "discovered" by intrepid white bwanas. In reality, they have always moved around and mixed. Africans are the most diverse people in the world. For obvious reasons, Ethiopians, Somalis,and Swahilis have more in common with people from the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf than they do with other Africans. The same is true all over the continent.

      In Eurasian's excellent blog post: he mentioned Jared Diamond's great "Guns, Germs and Steel". If you're really interested in learning something, and not just pushing your borderline(?) racist beliefs, you might want to read it.

    4. Sorry Omar, I'm not going to debate you, because I can tell you're more interested in a yelling match than a serious debate.

    5. What I'm interested in is what's true and what's right. The genetic diversity of African people is true. An integrated society is right. I am willing to defend myself against all comers (and I don't care who yells at me).

      I apologize if I've offended you. But using my attitude to avoid a discussion is a poor excuse. You wrote it. Man up and defend it. I look forward to proving you wrong in the future.

    6. Omar, by your tone, you've already set a binary, moralistic discourse in which the opposing team is either: 1.) wrong and racist 2.) misguided and racist. No emotional appeals are needed in serious debate; YOU set yourself up for defense by pouncing a bit too soon.

      If you are truly interested in "what's right" and "what's true", you wouldn't possess the obnoxious crusader mentality. Truth knows no side.

    7. Oh, and complete bullshit on those "peaceful" African tribes. They were periodically at war with each other. They raided each other's territory once in a while. What's worse, the very root of African slavery was, initially, native.

      Let's get away from the Noble Savage stereotype and evaluate human beings for what they really are.

  3. Hi ES:

    Laura from Silk Road Gourmet here. I like China, but I do not think that they are poised to surpass anyone in the next century. In fact, the present will be considered their first "Golden Age" and will be followed by an inevitable decline brought on by a dependency crisis, environmental degradation and the simple fact that labor there is not so cheap anymore.

    As someone who works demographic issues for a living, I would urge you to move beyond Jared Diamond.

    As to history, I like your emphasis on 'what is, is not necessarily what was', however, as I note on SRG (mostly in regards to food) many ideas did flow from west to east.

    My 2 Scents,


  4. Interestingly, if one is to look at World Economy by Angus Maddison, he estimates that as recently as 1820, China had 36.6% share of World GDP, and India, 20%, and while we go further back, the relative shares of Asia only increased.


    The role played by the East and the Middle-East in developing sciences, in particular literacy and numeracy, cannot be understated. Hindu epic poems like the Mahabharata, which was 10 times in length cf. the Iliad and Odysseus combined, and several times the length of the bible. Yet how well known are such works? Such a story can be echoed across Asia and Africa as a whole.

    We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made! - Albert Einstein

  5. Open economies do well, while closed economies do poorly. A combination of tariffs, and closed FDI/trade and immigration policies implemented in the 1920s in the US resulted in the Great Depression of the 1930s. More open policies implemented in the 1980s and early 1990s resulted in the boom of the 1990s. Europe became advanced because it was open to ideas and it was invaded by the moors, mongols and others while Africa became more and more isolated from the rest of the world. As far as the Australian aborigines were concerned, they were isolated for a much longer period of time than the Africans.

  6. Hey Bay Area Guy,

    Read "The Eastern origins of Western Civilization" by John Hobson and he provides compelling evidence that compared to Europe's later development China pioneered it's own rise during the Middle Ages with far less dependency on foreign ideas and goods. Also, the Turks whom the Arab Caliphs captured for use as slave soldiers actually maintained the Abbasid Dynasty until the Mongols brought it to an end with their invasion of Iraq in the mid 1200's.

  7. Tad off topic, but can I just say that the kingdom of Axum is also present-day Eritrea? Actually most of it was in that country. It seems that people seem to credit it to Ethiopia only when the D'mt civilization (its precursor) was also mostly in Eritrea.

  8. Look at recorded history. Let's begin with ancient Sumer. They established the foundation for our Western Civilization. They were white (not semitic!). Later came Greece and Rome. Our whole modern world is based on the Greco-Roman matrix. The Greeks and Romans were white Europeans. (Greeks and even Italians have been mongrelized to some extent since then, unfortunately, by invaders from the East and North Africa.) Then all of Western and Northern Europe took off in the greatest intellectual explosion, one that began in the later stages of the Roman Empire and continues to this day. This culminated in such achievements as the industrial revolution, electrical power, nuclear physics, genetics, a man on the moon, the invention of democracy and capitalism, the rule of law, human rights, and so on and so on. Our culture reigns supreme. There is no Asian composer who the world admires to the extent that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are admired. Meanwhile, let's look at the Asians. Basically, except for a few vases, some gunpowder, and some literature from the Chinese, and some nice swords from the Japanese, there was nothing. Zero. Also, the so-called intelligent Chinese and Japanese were still in the dark ages while Americans and Europeans were light-years ahead. Even today, the Chinese and Japanese have done nothing great in the intellectual realm. They have done nothing great to advance our life on this planet. Sure, the Japanese make good consumer products, now that they have learned from the Americans how to do it. The Chinese still make crap. But both nations are essentially copiers. At least the Japanese are disciplined and try to be perfect in what they do. The Chinese are way below that standard. To sum up, we whites from Western and Northern Europe, including those of us whose ancestors settled America, have created the modern world. I am not just talking about science and engineering, but everything that makes the modern world worth living in. Get over it, Asians. And by the way, please stop immigrating to the USA. And learn to drive before you drive on our streets. Thank you.

    1. Anthropologists have studied the features of the statues of antiquity and sorry they were not Nordic Caucasians but Mediterranean Caucasians.

    2. The old Hellenic statues looked like good-looking modern Italians and Greeks than goofy-looking howdy doody Nordic types.

    3. Western and Northern Europeans were a bunch of Barbaric tribes, and are not the descendants of the Romans or Greeks. The Northern Europeans can not claim the civilizations of the Southern Europeans, that would be like the Koisan hunter Gatherers taking credit for Egypts pyramids or the Soiux talking credit for the Maya Civilizations. Face it your Northen European ancestors we nothing but Glorified hunter gatherers.

  9. I just had this insight recently:
    Back when Jesuits had been sent to ancient China, China was still 'superior' in many ways but it never sent any monks to Europe. The Jesuits were even highlighting the advantages Chinese, as opposed to Europeans, enjoyed that time.
    Likewise to even a neighbor like India, China did not propagate Taoism and Confucianism. Sometimes, I have a feeling there was also some selfishness in this, by keeping the good stuff within your borders.

    Different thinking...China spent so much effort building the Great Wall - defensive structure. It had the capability to conquer the world for much of history, but instead it was the West that eventually embarked on global Colonial conquests.

    I think fundamental difference between the psyches of the 2 peoples. China thought it had the best of everything. Europe wanted to pillage for resources. Such psyche was forged partly due to natural conditions. Europe is smaller in size and much more fragmented, thus the greater thirst and hunger for resources by individual nation states.

    Like I said , Yin and Yang..
    Chinese used to write top down from right to left with the hairs of animals.
    Europeans wrote with a quill pen in which the split and sharpened end was dipped in ink. Even in the art of writing, you can witness the Chinese fancy for flexibility...
    Probably why sciences in China eventually lagged the West...

    A small thing can make a big difference!

    China invented printing (important for spreading ideas) centuries ahead of Europe. but why had printing made such an impact in Europe, contrary to Chinese development? I think this has probably to do with the structure of Chinese characters..too many to be properly arranged on a movable-type printing press. The West only has to arrange 26 alphabets. Initially, Chinese brush might have an edge for absorbing more ink and the Chinese could write with much better flow. But then the West learnt to control the flow of ink better and thus caught up .

  10. Yes, unquestionably the Ancient Hellenes looked like attractive Italians not Howdy Doody Nordics. They have the same DNA pattern of orangutans, adenine, cytosine, thymine, and guanine. Modern day Italians from north to south look better than your average Nordic. If a northern Euro looks good it is because they have Mediterranean White stretches of DNA.

  11. Newton should thank the southwestern Asian caucasoids (Arabs) for algebra which led to French Descartes and Newton's beautiful Calculus. I am not knocking England because I am 20 percent British, but algebra came from Arabs. Also were the Phoenicians, Nordic???? They were white but NOT northern euros with yellow hair oops sorry blonde. HA HA. Now interesting list for all of you historical myopics: gunpowder, Hindu decimal system, 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,!!! Did a Viking make this up??? I agree northern Euros have done incredible stuff in the past 500 years but come on. I am proud of my northern Euro background, and Mediterranean background, and Native American small amount, but please lets not be inscient!!!!!!!!All have contributed Euro Caucasians most but remember many foundations came from others that some people now regard as inferior!!! HA! HA! HA! HA!