Why do some civilizations become more technologically advanced than others? What leads to the rise of empires and to the dissolution of native peoples? This is often a loaded question that can reveal a persons prejudice. It is a question that is generally not explored or even contemplated by most members of our “modern society”.
Jared Diamond takes a scientific and historical approach to this controversial topic. Guns Germs and Steel takes and in depth look into the circumstances that give rise to dominant peoples and civilizations.
Lets take a (somewhat oversimplified) look at what it takes to become a empire from the ground up…
1: Start with enough wild plant diversity that the benefits of domesticating these plants outweigh the benefits of hunting gathering.
This requires an assortment plants that when domesticated, provide excess calories. The fertile crescent provides this appropriate mix with its wild cereals and grains.
These animals will then help provide additional calories (such as pigs and cows) as well as assist in farming (like ox and horses). Not many animals on the earth can be domesticated. Around the time homo sapiens migrated to North America, animals that potentially could be domesticated were wiped out. These animals did not evolve along side mankind, and therefore had no adequate defense mechanisms to stave off extinction at the hands of these clever interlopers.
3: Resistance to disease is not futile–it is essential.
Sharing viruses and bacteria with domesticated animals will produce unique diseases that only your people will be able to develop resistance. This will take some time and many losses on your side, but eventually natural selection will take over and weed out the susceptible members of your civilization.
Exposing rival peoples to these diseases will wipe out your competitors and leave room to successfully migrate to other lands. This unintended “asset” will be your primary means of establishing dominance peoples unexposed to nasties such as tuberculosis, small pox, the plague, and the flu to name a few.
4: Live in the ‘Goldilocks’ of geography–not too isolated, but not too connected.
Your geography needs to be free of signification obstructions from east to west. This allows farming technology to migrate with a little climate change as possible. North south migration is much more difficult because significant changes in climate make it harder for domesticated crops to adjust or even survive.
The goldilocks of geography must also provide enough barriers to create competing–but still connected–pockets of peoples.
Too many geographical barriers? Your people become isolated and may not feel the pressure from nearby competitors to advance in military and food producing technology.
Too few geographical barriers? Your people could be conquered and fall under an authoritarian rule that may resist technological and geographical advances due lack of nearby competition (China).
5. Feel the pressure to keep up with the Joneses.
Competition from your rivals will force you stay on edge. You cannot afford to take principled stances against technology that rubs your religious or societal sensibilities the wrong way. Adapt or be conquered.
Japan is a unique case study. Japans’ geographical isolation allowed them to throw out superior rifle technology and maintain an antiquated military technology until US gunships showed up on their shores in 1853.
Notably absent from this list is “have more geniuses” or “get capitalism” or “be culturally innovative” or even more wrongheaded assumptions like “genetics”. The primary point is that civilizations benefit first and foremost from circumstance. This may be a hard truth for those who feel that work ethic, cultural intelligence or a particular social system to be a primary factor. These factors are of some significance, but not nearly as much as the factors listed above.