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As we probably all know, after ancient and medieval times European countries traveled to almost every part of the Globe. Today's heritage are, among many others, Roman law and alphabet, Gregorian Calendar, English as international language, European fashion (like eg. ties), habits (see eg. my other question), science (measurements like SI, meridian 0 going through London, Latin names in biology...), etc.

It seems that in ancient times Greeks/Romans were on the same civilized level as other cultures. Then, during Medieval, which is (wrong in my opinion) called dark ages, lots of minor wars occurred, which should have led to total European destruction.

This however did not weaken European community; moreover, common enemies (like Mongols, Ottomans) led to military breakthrough.

But this does not need to be true. China is the same latitude as southern Europe. They invented gunpowder. They made first sailings and first discoveries. They had common enemies (Mongol, Japanese), they shared the same faith. They had the same resources (iron) as Europeans.

In America today's New York lies on the same latitude as Rome. Why where there no civilization? Why Inca did not invent wheel? Just bad luck?

Of course these are rhetorical questions. The main is: are there any commonly acceptable factors that were advantageous for European civilization (even if totally dispersed to hundreds of feudal states), that allowed them to take over other civilizations and rule them for a while? Or maybe these were just some good luck for Europeans?

(I have read this question but this does not fulfill the topic. It is native American-centered, and ok, there were no good resources in America. However, I think the Chinese had everything that Europe needed to advance but they did not make use of it. India also was not too advanced).

I've met an opinion, that combination of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Jewish (or Christian) theocracy (one God) made European civilization focus on particular humans. So units were able to move the civilization further, while Eastern civilizations (religions) focused on people as a whole, so every independent thoughts were suppressed. However, this might be too broad clarification.

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Related question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/1812/… –  T.E.D. Sep 9 '13 at 20:00
    
@T.E.D. Thank you and sorry for duplicating the question, I was searching but missed it. –  Voitcus Sep 9 '13 at 20:16
    
"It seems that in ancient times Greeks/Romans were on the same civilized level as other cultures." - this is wrong impression. –  Anixx Sep 10 '13 at 7:15
    
@Anixx: I mean weaponry, technology advance, health etc. –  Voitcus Sep 10 '13 at 8:25
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a book length topic. Commenters have pointed to very long books that inadequately answer the question. –  Mark C. Wallace Sep 13 '13 at 17:05
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6 Answers

This is, in fact, the big question of history.

Subquestion 1 here: Why didn't Native North Americans (let's say the Mound Builders, for the sake of argument) conquer the world?

The problem here, by the very logic you go over in your own question, is that the MB's were inhabiting a continent that was relatively biologically deprived. By comparison to Eurasia, North America just did not have nearly the number of domesticable flora and fauna. Guns, Germs, and Steel goes over this in detail (including listing all the major domesticable plants and animals on both continents). Their best was maize, whose wild ancestor is native to the tropics. It took over a millenium for it to be hybridized into a form that could be cultivated in the larger latitudinal area of North America. By that time, the MB's were hopelessly far behind Eurasia.

Subquestion 2: OK, so why Europeans rather than Chinese or Persians?

This is a much more interesting question. However, its already been asked here.

One theory I've seen is something I'd call "cultural Darwinisim". The idea here is that China was most often ruled over by one entity. This caused society there to be conservative in the extreme. Europe, on the other hand, was a heaving morass of squabbling states. Thus any new innovation that makes a state stronger will get adopted everywhere quickly: The states that change will have more luck expanding, and those that refuse to change will be more likely to get conquered. Only the innovative survive. Jared Diamond suggests this as a possible reason in GG&S.

Longtime readers here know what my own theory is: Its all about the printing press. Europe was in fact a complete backwater until the late 15th Century. Then all sorts of things start happening at once that we wrap up into a big ball called The Renaissance. However, if you look closely, most of the new discoveries were not brand new things. Northern navigators had known about the "New World" for centuries. The Chinese had been using gunpowder for quite a while. What was different was the the effenciency of press-copying. After about 1450, Knowldege could now be spread around European society an entire order of magnitude greater than in societies stuck with hand-copying their writings. It is often said that knowledge is power. 19th Century world history shows this.

Of course this leads up to a followon question: "OK, but why did Europeans make full use of the movable-type printing press first?"* I believe here the Chinese were laboring under one peculiar handicap: They have no alphabet. A European can make printing type blocks using only around 30 or so glyphs. Han Chinese however uses an ideogram setup. This makes "translating" to multiple languages (as exist in China) fairly simple, but it means someone trying to create type for a Chinese press has to deal with a vocabularly of 100,000 or more possible glyps (to this day, nobody is really sure). Thus a press, at its first point of introduction where its advantage over hand-copying will be the smallest it will ever be, was just not nearly as competitive a method over hand-copying in China as it was in Europe.

* - Yes, the Chinese actually had an earlier printing press. It wasn't an important invention in China though. Why is the interesting question

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In fact, this is still an issue for the Chinese. They are right now going through an effort to try to agree on a standard subset of glyphs using only the 21,000 entries Unicode alloted them. –  T.E.D. Sep 9 '13 at 19:51
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What about the dramatic wage increase that resulted from the cathedral building and the Black Death, leading directly to a wealthy Middle Class? –  Pieter Geerkens Sep 9 '13 at 22:21
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Its OK as far as it goes. I just have big issues with arguments that it is the reason for Europe going on to conquer the world. For one thing, the Middle East and China were also hit by the same Black Death at the same time, so this isn't a differentiator. You have to explain why they reacted differently (if indeed they did), and then you have to explain why that isn't the real reason, rather than the random disease that brought it to the fore. –  T.E.D. Sep 10 '13 at 13:05
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@T.E.D. and eugene can you please post this as a question the black death > higher wage theory ? and why is different between the middlle east and china ? I would like to know that –  MMD Sep 11 '13 at 18:41
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Well, China had conquered a lot of territory but without good communication technology and with one central government they just couldn't get more. On the other hand, European states (France, GB, Spain) each took a part of the world and the shares were relatively small. We can't even speak about conquering, they colonized mostly (with some exceptions - e.g. GB in India). America was an (almost) empty territory which was too far from Asia but near enough from Europe. –  Sulthan Sep 27 '13 at 12:57
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Europe was pretty much a poor smelly underdeveloped backwater in global terms for most of history, although the culture and civilization of the middle east and Africa often reached across the Mediterranean and especially into the areas near the middle east.

The change from poor backwater to rulers of the world started with the conquering of the Americas, and especially the vast amounts of gold flowing in from South America. This gold was in large used to pay for an arms race and the building of several huge European fleets.

These armies and fleets in turn was used for trade. Both friendly trade with Asia, and unfriendly trade with Africa, which was shipped over and exploited in the Americas. This generated more wealth, more European arms races and even more fleets and more wealth.

However, this would probably in itself not have been enough, but then the industrial revolution happened, and it happened in Europe, especially Britain, and made Britain and Europe enormously wealthy, so much so that they now could do unfriendly trade with pretty much anyone.

Source, as always in these matters: Clive Ponting

T.E.D. has a point about the printing press. I don't believe it was instrumental in making Europe discover America or exploit it, but it would certainly have been impossible to have an industrial revolution without having a printing press, and this may in fact be the reason why the Chinese didn't have an industrial revolution a 1000 years before Britain. They certainly had highly developed industry as well as mechanical and economical knowledge.

The wide spread of printing technology in turn helped the Enlightenment happen, and the combination of money from the exploitation of the Americas and Africa (via the slave trade) together with the fast spread of ideas thanks to the printing press is likely the reason why the industrial revolution happened in Europe. This in turn was the reason behind the technical and economical superiority of Europe during the 19th century, enabling Europe to rule the world for a short period.

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So, how many years after the printing press' invention was Columbus' voyage? 1450-1492. Less than a generation. Interesting coincidence, no? All of human history to pick from, and it happens to occur that soon after the printing press is invented. You have to admit the timing makes it at least possible that the printing press had a hand in making Columbus important. Particularly so, when you consider that Europeans had actually "dicovered" this same landmass before. –  T.E.D. Sep 10 '13 at 13:29
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If Europe was a poor under developed backwater until it conquered the Americas, why is it that Europe conquered the Americas and not vice versa? They already had the gold, why didn't they trade with it and build huge fleets before the Europeans got there? Why wasn't there an industrial revolution in South America before Britain? –  Stefan Sep 17 '13 at 14:54
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@LennartRegebro, I feel that there is more to it. If a devout theocracy had captured all of the gold and just made temples out of it then they are unlikely to have ruled the world. So there must be a combination of values and a type of culture which allowed the Western European countries to so dramatically exploit this gold, do you not agree? I will leave the +1 as your answer is helpful and interesting though. –  Stefan Sep 17 '13 at 15:33
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Interesting to note that Columbus was likely inspired by a religious book, "The Voyage of St. Brendan" where an Irish Monk looking to become a "green martyr" (self-exile in the name of God) sailed West, and found land across the ocean. Columbus was something of an idiot, and 1) believed the book was a factual account and 2) thought the land Brendan found was India. So the printing press had a direct influence on the discovery of the Americas. –  RI Swamp Yankee Sep 26 '13 at 16:02
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Also, the Americas were completely wiped out by plague, likely brought over by Columbus himself. By the time the western explorers found (and conquered) the great American cultures, they were walking into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, not a civilization at the height of its power. –  RI Swamp Yankee Sep 26 '13 at 16:05
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These are both good answers but I think I can offer some extra points not included in them (after I have +1ed them both)!

This is all cloaked in the wool of human history (there is always a counter example somewhere and a lot of this deals only in the general cases):

The driver seems to be (as stated previously) the multiple states of almost equal power causing a massive arms race which knocked on to races in pretty much everything else. Each nation was essentially a full time competitor so the incentive to trade, explore, research and develop was huge. Once this is in motion everything procedes at an exponential rate.

The climate allowing effective farming to be embraced, which included the following effects:

  • Some people were freed up from gathering their own food which means they could become professionals in other things e.g. soldiers, scientists, etc.
  • Europeans gradually built up immunities to diseses and infections caught from them.
  • Population was no longer limited by the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

Freeing members of society up to research and develop like this with the incentives of the arms (and everything else) race allowed an exponential development advantage over other nations. For example over taking the Chinese once they had stopped their research was simply a matter of time.

The social conventions used in war were different in several ways.

  • Europeans did not generally allow religious or social customs to hold back military progress. For example once guns were clearly better than spears guns were embraced, Incas did not allow their Emperor's chair to touch the floor and in a battle with Cortes would throw down their weapons and rush to support it when it started falling and this got them massacred. The closest Western Europeans would come to this is protecting a unit's colours but one would not be expected to be so suicidal.

  • Generally Europeans fought to kill as many of the enemy as possible (apart from the Spartans). Unlike, for example, the Incas who fought to capture people to sacrifice to their gods Europeans just killed people on the field and allowed God to sort them out afterwards.

  • In several Islamic states scholars were expected to spend most of their time studying the Koran and in prayer. In Christian Western Europe, whilst people were expected to worship they were not required to spend as much time and effort doing so hence they were simply able to get more done in a working week. Over years, decades etc the slight advantage becomes a massive one.

The printing press (as mentioned in a previous, very good, answere) allowed knowledge to be spread far and fast. People were able to learn from other's mistakes. For example the Aztecs sent their Emperor to meet Cortes and his soldiers because they believed he was unbeatable - any Western European soldier would have known that would result in his capture or death but even the most senior Aztecs did not because the Western Europeans knew from written history that between aggressive enemies who did not respect each other's Gods (even if they themselves could not read, that is how the knowledge was stored) that type of strategy would not work.

Updated in response to comment (sorry, I cannot post comments to reply for some reason):

The reason it was the European section of Euroasia who benefitted most from the above is a combinations of reasons:

  • Climate: The further East you go (at the Northen edge) the more inhospitable the climate becomes until you begin heading into the far East. The less hospitable the land the more difficult it is to build populations and farm.

  • Culture: The Chinese were streets ahead of everyone until the Emperor shut down their science and research programs. The Mongols were slicing through Europe until their leadership selection process required Genghis to return home etc.

  • Geography: It is more difficult to colonise and expand when you have no access to the sea. France, Britain, Portugal, Spain were the main colonists and I would wager at least part of this is to do with the ready access they have to the oceans.

Although I am sure that there are probably slight exceptions to each rule and various subtleties and combinations as there always is when applying broad stroke justifications to real life.

Overall it takes one of the above to significantly reduce a countries potential to be a world power. If any of the climate, geography, culture etc factors are unsupporting then progress is hamstrung. Europe had the fewest of these issues and hence were able to race ahead, progress is exponential and the occasional breakthrough will provide massive boosts.

For example: China was the world leader but they developed social/theocratic issues when the Emperor shut down scientific research and closed the borders due to his insecurity (perhaps he knew that eventually academic and scientific research would begin to question if he really was a God).

For more info have a read of the following books:

Guns, germs and steel

Why the West has Won.

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Some good points here. The problem is that GG&S does a great job on why it was Eurasians, but not on why Europeans specifically. Where you try to do that here, IMHO it isn't getting at the root of things. For instance, in the middle ages Europeans definitely had customs of warfare that weren't about just killing large numbers of the enemy (eg: Single Combat). I'd argue that a modern scientific view of warfare is only really available to a society capable of writing and distributing a large number of books on the subject. –  T.E.D. Sep 10 '13 at 13:44
    
Okay, I can post comments again!! Do you have any examples of single combat being used to resolve a real battle? The wiki page seemed to have lots of stories but not many actual examples. –  Stefan Sep 17 '13 at 13:52
    
@LennartRegebro, could you be more specific? Several of the criticisms on that page are of aspects I have not mentioned. Others seem to be contested and one is about a different books (Collapse). Wiki editors state that the section you highlight has issues and you appear to have ignored the rest of the page where they specify how well the book was received and the awards it has won. Are you sure that you are giving this due consideration? Especially as I explicitly state that my answers is not without it's exceptions –  Stefan Sep 17 '13 at 14:30
    
@LennartRegebro, sorry I am not sure what you mean? To which of the criticism are you referring? Assuming he made that claim (although, I make no reference to it in my answer) what difference does it make whether it was observed post fact? Or are you saying that there are more domesticable animals in regions other than Europe? If so, could you cite your sources? –  Stefan Sep 17 '13 at 14:53
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OK. "The less hospitable the land the more difficult it is to build populations and farm." - You can surely not claim that the climate in Europe is better that in much of the Middle East and Asia? "Europeans gradually built up immunities to diseses and infections caught from them." - This is equally true for Asian, Middle East and Africa. " Incas did not allow their Emperor's chair to touch the floor" - Irrelevant. The Incas got massacred because they were a stone age people meeting people with guns. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 17 '13 at 15:28
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Europeans conquered "almost the whole world" (as we know it today), because the technology in use at the time of their ascendency (steamships and artillery), made it physically possible for them to do so.

The Mongolians conquered "almost the whole world" as THEY knew it (most of modern Asia), based on the physical limits of their "technology" (mounted warriors).

Under Alexander, the Macedonians and Greeks conquered "almost the whole world" of their time, using phalanx infantry, the technology of their time. The (slightly) earlier march of Xenophon and his 10,000 basically defined the limits of Greek phalanx infantry, and Alexander's troops marched only slightly further than Xenophon did.

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The technology was available to them but why wasn't it available to everyone else? What were the Europeans doing differently –  Stefan Sep 26 '13 at 15:05
    
@Stefan:The industrial revolution (of the 19th century) happened in Europe, and absent the internet and other modern communications, did not quickly spread to most other parts of the world (except the U.S). The Europeans had "first dibs" on modern industry, just like the Mongolians had "first dibs" on the best (Siberia-trained) cavalrymen, and the (mountain-bound) Greeks on phalanxes. You do what you do best. –  Tom Au Sep 26 '13 at 19:55
    
So why did the industrial revolution happen in western Europe and not somewhere else? –  Stefan Sep 26 '13 at 21:01
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Supreme energy and intelligence.

The best way to gauge a people's energy and intelligence is by looking at their intellectual achievements, not by testing what's-so-called IQ. One glimpse of art, science, literature text books will show who is extremely superior in terms of energy and intelligence. Why the Europeans acquired such supreme intelligence is still a mystery. It is possible that European geography favours merchant economy which in turn favours energy and intelligence, and centuries of evolution pushed their energy and intelligence upwards.

The following is a quote from Bertrand Russell:

There have been only a few very rare periods in human history, and a few very sparse regions, in which spontaneous progress has occurred. There must have been spontaneous progress in Egypt and Babylonia when they developed writing and agriculture; there was spontaneous progress in Greece for about 200 years; and there has been spontaneous progress in Western Europe since the Renaissance. But I do not think there has been anything in the general social conditions at these periods and places to distinguish them from various other periods and places in which no progress has occurred. I cannot escape from the conclusion that the great ages of progress have depended upon a small number of individuals of transcendent ability. Various social and political conditions were of course necessary for their effectiveness, but not sufficient, for the conditions have often existed without the individuals, and in such cases progress has not occurred. If Kepler, Galileo, and Newton had died in infancy, the world in which we live would be vastly less different than it is from the world of the sixteenth century. This carries with it the moral that we cannot regard progress as assured: if the supply of eminent individuals should happen to fail, we should no doubt lapse into a condition of Byzantine immobility.

Russell, Bertrand. “Western Civilization.” In Praise of Idleness. London and New York: Routledge, 2006

*For those who accuse me of politically incorrect, here is my reply: I look only and surely at what are the facts; whether the conclusion is useful or not is irrelevant. I hope nations will cherish whatever talents they have once they realize this.

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If you can back this up with any evidence, and a more in depth explanation then this answer will be fine. At the moment it's a little short... –  Kobunite Mar 31 at 9:11
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@Kobunite, see excerpt. –  George Chen Mar 31 at 18:34
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@Kobunite: Although the tone is arrogant, George makes a point - proxy measures of intelligence such as IQ are exactly that; proxies. The only real measure of ability is achievement, and I don't think anyone can dispute that Europeans did that better than every other contemporary culture for 500 years. –  Pieter Geerkens Mar 31 at 22:34
    
Supreme intelligence is the ultimate secret of the west. It is amazing to see how cleverly this secret is concealed in plain view. –  George Chen Apr 1 at 3:10
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When I commented there was just a statement - now we're golden. :-) –  Kobunite Apr 1 at 8:48
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I can give an answer from an Indian's point of view. India (the Indian continent i.e. modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc.) was conquered by British and ruled almost two hundreds of years. No doubt the British were a brave nation which is not the only reason.

One factor is in the Indian culture. Indians never attack any other nation in the historical age. They are very non-violent and patience. World has been flooded by Indian religious and cultural believe as well as the messages of peace many times. This was not bounded only in India but throughout the Asia and even Europe.

So when Europeans came to Asia to conquer the Indians as well as Asians could not stand against properly. So India was conquered by British, South Asia was conquered by French, China was divided into parts. This is the half of the glove where Human being were living of that time. Africa, Australia, North and South America had very less number of inhabitants and they were not build up as a nation.

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There have been plenty of Indian empires and Indian wars. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 14 '13 at 11:51
    
Yes you are true. They did not attack any non-Indian community, nation and country. Their work was limited within India. –  Dutta Sep 14 '13 at 13:11
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That is absolutely not true, at all. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurya_Empire en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kushan_Empire en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pala_Empire en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gupta_Empire It is also completely irrelevant. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 14 '13 at 13:44
    
I think Hopeless' points are well-taken. Both the Indian and Chinese civilizations were more "inward" looking than Europeans. (These were the natural Asian counterweights to European expansion that didn't do a good job of fulfilling that role). –  Tom Au Dec 31 '13 at 15:04
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@Dutta so if your theory is that 'Indians attack Indians only'- that translates to "infighting" and I do agree that it was one of the reasons why the foreign powers were able to dominate the subcontinent. However, wrt "peaceful" people- I simply don't agree. The decline of Mughal power had many reasons, none of them flattering. That deserves a whole tome- and many are dedicated to the subject. –  Rajib Mar 31 at 10:03
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