The argument that it was the conquest of the Americas that
made all the difference is tempting. But I have always thought
that two points count heavily against it:
First, that the Portuguese established maritime dominance
over the Indian Ocean and Indonesia before the conquest of the
Americas had a chance to affect anything...
Second, that the leading edge of technological advance had
shifted from China to Europe well before the conquest of the
Americas. Counting inventions from my very nice _Smithsonian
Visual Timeline of Inventions_:
Something big and interesting in technology and innovation
was already happening in Europe centuries before the conquest
of the Americas. Now it is possible that without the conquest
Europe's second-millennium fit of tinkering with mechanisms would
have not led to anything like the industrial revolution we have
seen over the past two centuries. But it is also possible that
even with the conquest the industrial revolution in Europe could
have been stopped before it started. (My favorite no-industrial-revolution
counterfactual involves the establishment of a universal Habsburg
monarchy over western Europe in the second half of the sixteenth
century, along with a victorious counterreformation that burns
a bunch of astronomers and physicists at the stake...)
No. I'm not.
The point is that Engerman and Solow are still very far away
from the kind of quantitative assessment of causes and effects
that I would like to see. I don't want to hear them say that
the influence was "substantial"; instead, I want the
kind of quantitative assessment of influence that, say, Fishlow,
Fogel, and Coatsworth did for North American railroads; or that
I do in my classes when asked to assess the effect of the Reagan
tax cuts on American economic growth...
I am eager to believe whatever they tell me--they are good,
and this is their area.
Here's a sketch of what I would like to see someone do--although
Around 1850 textiles--predominantly cotton--were roughly 1/4
of a British manufacturing sector that was some 30% of total
*marketed* economic production. In this textile sector, roughly
1/3 of the cost of final output was the cost of raw materials--chiefly
cotton. That means that Britain was spending some 2% of GDP each
year importing cotton from the U.S. south.
What if the U.S. south had not been there? Or if it had been
free-soil territory with a much lower rate of exploitation, and
thus a much higher cost of production of cotton?
Suppose that the absence of slavery in the U.S. south had
doubled the cost of cotton to British mills, as industrializing
Britain had had to draw on Indian, Egyptian, and non-slave U.S.
sources of supply.
This doubling of costs would have shrunk real net economic
product in Britain by some 2%. If the pattern of consumption
had been maintained, this cut would have come entirely out of
investment--and would have reduced the pace of growth of the
pre-Civil War British economy by some 0.3% per year (cumulating
to perhaps 15% over fifty years). If the cut had come proportionately
out of investment and consumption, the reduction in growth would
have been only 1/4 as large (cumulating to perhaps 4% over fifty
In an era in which British standards of living and levels
of productivity are growing at roughly 1/2 a percent per year,
the availability of slavery in the U.S. cotton south was thus
responsible for between 15 and 60 percent of British aggregate
economic growth before the Civil War.
If someone would flesh out this kind of social-surplus and
dynamic-investment calculations--and narrow the bounds of the
back-of-the-envelope calculation above--then I would know what
to think, at least about slavery and *nineteenth* century industrial
But to date, if it's out there I haven't seen it...
I think that David Landes's treatment of non-European Eurasia
and North Africa is probably wrong in two different dimensions,
but let me concentrate only on the first. The first is Landes's
belief that climate near the equator somehow militates against
first commercial development and second industrialization. The
second is his overly-static picture of the agrarian civilizations
of temperate-zone Asia.
Landes wants to argue that because tropical climates are hot
and disease-ridden, that human productivity there is low, hence
no civilization can ever amass the surplus above biological subsistence
necessary to set out on the road that eventually leads to industrialization.
The problem is that Landes is also a follower of the tradition
of M.M. Postan (as am I) --that before the industrial revolution
it is probably informative and insightful to try to analyze human
civilizations from the perspective of ecologico-cultural equilibrium.
When living standards are relatively high, birth rates are high
and death rates are low; when living standards are relatively
low birth rates are low and death rates are high (or, rather,
variable). This means that if technological progress is sufficiently
slow (and before the industrial revolution it was "sufficiently
slow" always and everywhere), then a civilization's population
density will within several generations adjust itself to resources
and technologies in such a way that keeps living standards oscillating
around the civilization's set-point of rough population balance.
Thus in the long-run of a century or so, a civilization's
living standards are determined not by its summer temperature
or by the prevalence of pinworms, but by its ecological and cultural
practices that determine its set-point. A civilization like northwest
Europe can have a relatively high set-point if culture delays
marriage until the male member of the couple has a farm or a
secure place. A civilization like that of the Yangtse delta as
described by Ken Pomeranz can have a relatively high set-point
if heads of lineage restrict their younger siblings fertility
. A civilization like that of Poland can have a relatively low
set-point if the second serfdom turns large proportions of the
population into landless laborers with no incentive to delay
nuptuality or diminish fertility. A civilization like that of
the Yellow River valley can have a relatively low set-point if
senior members' control over lineage juniors breaks down.
As a result, I think that Landes's argument that regions near
the equator were always extremely unlikely places for commercial
and industrial revolutions is deeply flawed. Hot summers and
the consequent difficulty of hard summer work might keep Ceylon
from having the pre-industrial population density of the Rhine
delta (or the Yangtse delta), but I don't think that they have
any implications for pre-industrial average living standards.
If you wanted to rescue Landes's argument about climate, I think
you would have to identify a line of causation running from location
near the equator to some particular set of ecologico-cultural
practices that leads to a relatively low living-standard set-point...
I thought The Colonizer's Model of the World provocative--lots
to agree with, and lots to disagree with. (I thought, for example,
that it was very unfair to the demographers: at least when I
listened to J.A. Hall and listen to Jan de Vries talk about the
European marriage pattern, the point is most emphatically *not*
that Europeans are more "rational," but that in Europe
the social-homeostatic mechanisms of population regulation just
happened to wind up with a lower average population density and
a higher median income than elsewhere; my judgment was that the
evidence for western Europe having a different marriage pattern
than eastern Europe was there, albeit weak; but that we knew
next to nothing about median ages of marriage elsewhere: not
a subject that Chinese or Indian literati were interested in.)
I was, however, brought up short on page 77 because the balance
of the evidence seems to me to strongly support the belief that
AIDS originated in (or spread rapidly to) Africa, and that the
Black Death reached Europe through the Mediterranean. And it
seemed to me extremely... odd that anyone denouncing "diffusionism"
would do so by noting cases in which diffusion had in fact occurred...
But there is in the first 77 pages lots to agree with: I've
never been convinced that Africa and Asia were "disease-ridden,"
that the tropics were "unhealthy," for anyone except
Europeans who lacked the requisite antibodies in your blood.
Back before the industrial revolution life expectancies were
astonishingly short in nearly all human communities...
Moreover, I have never understood claims that Asia lacked
"development" prior to 1500. Before 1000, certainly,
the flow of ideas, goods, interesting technologies, and so forth
is almost exclusively to Europe. Very little comes from Europe--which
absorbs things like alphabets and monotheism (from Israel-Lebanon-Palestine),
a useful number system (from India), the compass, gunpowder,
and printing (from China--not to mention spaghetti). Almost nothing
comes from northwestern Europe--I remember a perhaps apocryphal
story that Marcus Tullius Cicero claimed that Britons were too
stupid to even make good slaves. Lots of good things diffuse
to Europe. I didn't know that McNeill or anyone else ever claimed
otherwise--that "Arabic" numbers were invented in Glasgow,
or that "algebra" was a Norwegian and not an Arabic
In 3000 B.C., 2000 B.C., 1000 B.C., 0, 500 A.D., 1000 A.D.--and
maybe even in 1500 A.D.--if you had asked someone looking down
on the earth where you were likely to find a breakthrough to
modern science and technology and to industrial civilization,
northwest Europe would have ranked very low on the list. China
would probably have ranked highest--as the most progressive civilization.
India would probably have ranked second, and if not India, Islam.
For most of history since the neolithic revolution, the leading
edge of human technological knowledge and of complexity of social
organization has been in Asia. My high school history teacher
used to claim that Islam did not expand to the English Channel
not because of Charles Martel's knights, but because the scouting
parties returned to Al-Andalus and reported that there was nothing
north that was worth conquering: no cities, no high culture,
no loot, nothing to rule over, just a lot of cold forests, a
few poor peasants, and some thugs with swords and horses.
So the claim that environments in India, Iraq, China, Indonesia
are more hostile to human progress than in Europe has always
seemed to me to be incredibly unlikely. The issue has always
seemed to me to be that something very odd--unrelated to climates
(which didn't change)--occurred sometime between 1300 and 1700.
All of a sudden lots of Europeans with guns showed up in lots
of non-European places. They began trying to order people around.
And they made it stick.
Brad De Long