All posts tagged empires

Book review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark.

This book is a mostly entertaining defense of Christian and libertarian cultures’ contribution to Western civilization’s dominance.

He wants us to believe that the industrial revolution resulted from mostly steady progress starting with Greek city-states, interrupted only by the Roman empire.

He defends the Catholic church’s record of helping scientific progress and denies that the Reformation was needed, although he suggests the Catholic church’s reaction to the Reformation created harmful anti-capitalist sentiments.

His ideas resemble those in Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, yet there’s little overlap between the content of the two books.

The early parts of the book have too many descriptions of battles and other killings whose relevance is unclear.

I was annoyed at how much space he devoted to attacking political correctness toward the end of the book.

In spite of those problems, he presents many interesting ideas. Some are fairly minor, such as changes in privacy due to the Little Ice Age triggering the invention of chimneys. Others provide potentially important insights into differences between religions, e.g. “many influential Muslim scholars have held that efforts to formulate natural laws are blasphemy because they would seem to deny Allah’s freedom to act.”

Alas, I can only give the book a half-hearted endorsement because I suspect many of his claims are poorly supported. E.g. he thinks increased visibility of child labor in the 1800s caused child labor laws via shocked sensibilities. Two alternatives that seem much more plausible to me are that the increased visibility made the laws feasible to enforce, and the increased concentration of employers into a separate class made them easier scapegoats.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

Book review: War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, by Peter Turchin

This book describes a plausible model of how conflict between hostile cultures such as Islam versus Christianity can create the kind of large-scale cooperation (asabiya) needed to create empires, and that the absence of a nearby border with such a conflict results in the decay of that empire.

It is very hard to evaluate how accurately he analyzes the evidence for his theory without a really complete knowledge of the history of several empires.

Asabiya resembles what Fukuyama calls trust, but is stronger, and includes some willingness to risk ones life for other members of ones society. Turchin implies that this is a desirable quality (although I can’t recall anything explicitly saying that). I wonder whether the wars it contributes to outweigh the benefits. The answer might depend on the extend to which it is possible to have trust without much asabiya (Turchin’s analysis suggests a pessimistic answer).

Much of the book contains standard style histories, mostly of times and places that haven’t received much attention. I often found these parts annoying because I couldn’t figure out which parts contained evidence for Turchin’s model, and most of them didn’t seem important enough for me to remember.

He suggests that inequality within an empire reduces its stability. Most of this isn’t very original nor backed up by much evidence. One idea that I hadn’t heard before involves the upper class intentionally reducing the asabiya of lower classes, especially with extreme forms of inequality such as slavery. It seems quite likely that the upper classes sometimes attempt this. But the other parts of the book suggest that this may backfire – conflict normally increases asabiya. Turchin writes as if geographic separation between the conflicting cultures is needed for this effect, but it isn’t obvious to me why.

The book is in some ways gloomy, suggesting that it would take an alien attack to create a big increase in worldwide cooperation. But he does leave some hope that recent technological changes may have made his model obsolete.

Historical Dynamics

Book review: Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall by Peter Turchin.

Turchin uses the tools and perspective of population biology to model some important aspects of the growth and collapse of empires. The relatively dry and mathematical style of the book makes it slow reading, but it leaves less ambiguity than most books about history. He has no obvious political biases – it often seems that his main bias is a preference for the tools of biologists over the tools of historians.

One important aspect of his approach is that it models the dynamics of a feature that is roughly described by terms such as solidarity, trust, and cooperation. He convinced me that he has described some of the influences that cause that feature to increase and decrease (the section title “Frontiers as incubators of group solidarity” says a good deal about his model).

Some aspects of the book left me wondering whether his eccentric worldview added anything to my understanding of history, but occasionally he comes up with ideas that have implications that are clearly new to me, such as his suggestion that monogamy can help an empire continue it’s expansion for a longer time.

He makes some serious attempts to test his models against the available data. It’s hard to tell whether enough data is available to adequately test such ambitious claims.

The biggest limitation of the book is that he assumes Malthusian conditions. While it is likely that some of his analysis applies to the industrial world, he thinks it’s premature to ask how much of it applies today. That means it ought to be of interest mainly to historians for now.

I’ve occasionally heard claims about Africa being poor because it was exploited by Europeans and Americans, and I’ve dismissed those claims because they were clearly based on superstitions.
Recently I’ve come across some scholarly writings on the effects of interactions between these cultures.
A paper on Colonial legacies and economic growth confirms my suspicions that areas which were colonized for longer times have higher economic growth.
As I mentioned recently, the book The Bottom Billion shows a connection between poverty and sale of natural resources, but explains several mechanisms by which the revenues could make bad governments more likely, independent of whether the buyers of those resources exploit the sellers. This suggests it’s not easy to resolve claims that such exploitation caused harm.
The most interesting study is The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trade (via Freakonomics and Andrew Sullivan), which demonstrates that slave trade between Africa and other continents between 1400 and 1900 is significantly correlated with poverty now. The paper presents a good argument that the causal connection was mainly increased violent conflict due to rewards for enslaving people from neighboring villages (as opposed to prior forms of slavery which resulted from conquest by ethnic groups from somewhat farther regions). This caused social and ethnic fragmentation and corruption. I have doubts about whether the details of the paper’s causal model are correct, but they appear to be approximately correct.

Book Review: 1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
This book does a good job of discrediting several myths about the nature New World civilizations before Europeans arrived. It implies that significant parts of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel are wrong (in ways that Diamond should have avoided by consulting experts) – Indians were quite capable of repelling Europeans when their advantage consisted of guns and steel. After smallpox spread across the Americas (faster than Europeans), guns and steel were largely superfluous advantages.
The book presents evidence (alas, not enough to be conclusive) that most of the land in the Americas had been altered by civilizations that were much more sophisticated and varied than is commonly realized, and the myth that Indians were primitive savages is largely due to people mistaking the disease-ravaged remnants that the typical European colonist encountered for the pre-European norm.
The book also provides a few bits of evidence against historical determinism by pointing out how differently some aspects of civilization developed in the two worlds. For instance, the New World seems to have been first to get the concept of zero, but only used wheels for toys, and valued metals for their malleability rather than strength.
One very intriguing report is that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation society was freer and more egalitarian than European society, and that this caused a number of Europeans to prefer Haudenosaunee society, but no Indians in that region preferred European society. It’s unclear how strong the evidence is for these somewhat controversial claims. I guess I ought to track down the books he references for this subject.
The book also describes the Inka empire as socialist, without any markets, but I’m disappointed at how little the books says about that (e.g. how broad a definition of market is he using?).
The main shortcomings of this book are the numerous anecdotes that add little to our understanding of Indian civilizations.