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Why Did Europe Dominate?

March 14, 2013

It’s a troubling question for many. All individuals, individual cultures, and peoples are equal, but why did Europe dominate for so many centuries? Today at Fudan University, James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University, gave the third in a series of guest lectures on “Ancient History in the Modern Age.” He spoke about how the exclusivity of Christianity influenced the development of European thought, and how Europe “turned away” from the variety of human experience they found in the Age of Discovery.


After the lecture, a student asked, “What is the secret of the Europeans, that they can attract the attention of the whole world to follow them?”


O’Donnell’ answered, “Western ‘success’ has three factors, none of which were necessary. One is that there was an ancient civilization in the Mediterranean than was quite successful and well developed, so certain basic levels of economy and society and organization were achieved.

Second, Western Europe turns out to be geographically and in climate a good place for people with not much technology to live and prosper. Farming and shipping and trade and communication were possible for people with limited technology in ways that were more difficult for people in the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia, where the climate was different and it wasn’t so possible for simple farmers to be so successful.

And third, there is an element of chance and accident here. Moveable type and oceangoing travel were invented in China but they were decisively implemented and made use of in Western Europe, and so the great revolutions of the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, in which westerners took a lead… happened in that part of the world, and gave an advantage to that part of the world. I believe that advantage is now expired and that the technologies of the last century put all of humankind on a more equal footing and essentially all societies with a certain level of industrialization and advancement can be successful.

“I spoke last time of my thought experiment, that maybe the west will continue to dominate, maybe China will dominate, or in my example maybe Brazil and Latin America will dominate. Since my last lecture [on Tuesday] we now have a Latin American Pope, that’s a first invention; Brazil is succeeding economically, maybe in 300 years Latin America will take advantage of its opportunities to become the most advanced society in the world. I think we are at a period in which it is no longer clear the west will continue to dominate, as it was probably clear a hundred years ago that the west had to dominate for a while longer. We’ll see.” (Recorded 2013.03.14 at Fudan University, Shanghai)

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 5, 2013 1:07 am

    did your professor leave out the part where the West loved to murder and rape and pillage and appropriate and force people sometimes to, quite literally, adapt or starve, as was the case with many Christian crusades/missionaries in Africa and Southeast Asia, where they would refuse to aid people in need unless they converted?

    this all sounds very nice– “ancient civilizations” (because those totally didn’t exist elsewhere in the world as well), “geography and climate” and “accident”. I think “accident” kills me the most because wow I’m sure imperialism and colonialism were happy accidents! I’m sure the enslavement of millions of people of color and countries and empires built basically on slave labor were happy accidents! Technology? Technology used to mass produce and henceforth exploit slave and cheap labor and the immigrants and the poor, I’m sure these were all beautiful, happy accidents.

    it sounds like he’s pissing around the idea that the West relied heavily on imperialism and brutal FORCE to dominate.

    of course, wars and brutality and conquering happened all over the world. but no region ever mobilized it in such a systematic way as the West did. imperialism still affects large parts of the world today and still plays a huge part in how, specifically, America treats other countries. and the way racism and anti-semitism run rampant in Europe.

    what I’m getting at here is that this analysis is with all due respect completely sociopathic and fails to address the enormous amount of human suffering that West imposed.

    you say “all individuals and cultures are equal”. maybe in theory, but definitely not in the way your professor has addressed the issue, with an underlying tone of Western supremacy, ignoring how much blood has been spilled. he’s talking about people’s LIVES. the lives that TO THIS DAY continue to be affected by imperialism and colonialism, from the slurs people call Asian Americans in the streets to the recent FEMA protests that decry Islam as “unfeminist”, to the beatings of Japanese citizens in Okinawa by US GIs.

    this shit is real and it cannot be simplified and glossed over by some ivory tower academia BS.

    I’ll leave you with a post written by a good friend of mine.

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