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Donald A. Yerxa


HISTORY WARS I: Is Geography Destiny?

"Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" Jared Diamond begins his ambitious Guns, Germs, and Steel with this query from Yali, a New Guinean politician and acquaintance. He expands Yali's question into a sophisticated analysis of why human development proceeded "at such different rates on different continents" and specifically why Europeans were "the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel." David Landes asks essentially the same question in his magisterial The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: what factors account for "the gap in wealth and health that separates rich and poor?"

These are, of course, enormously complicated questions that go to the heart of how we view the past and how that past shapes our present and future. And these are questions that run head-first into very contentious issues of inequality and elitism: the debates over Eurocentrism and the "West versus the Rest" that have percolated in the 1990s with the writings of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.

The traditional account of the rise of the West (what historian David Gress calls the "Grand Narrative") has been under relentless assault—sometimes for very good reasons. It is a story of European exceptionalism and progress, defined in terms of liberty, reason, and economic growth. The Grand Narrative stresses several key developments that initially shaped the West and later propelled it to world dominance: Ancient Greece (especially Athens in the fifth century b.c.), the marriage of classical culture with Christianity during the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, the "discovery" of America, the Enlightenment, the emergence of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, and the various political revolutions that led eventually to the emergence of modern Western liberal democracies.

This myopic approach—which, as Gress rightly notes, has tended ...

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