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Do we make History? Or History makes us?



How often we question what we learn? I am sure we do, but do we question it to the core?

I am leaving the UPSC angle aside a bit here. The topic, however, is connected to the exam.

While reading Indian freedom struggle, you would come across the word ‘British’ more than a thousand times; the word ‘European’ several number of times; and the word ‘colonization’ much much more than that.

Did you ever wonder why only the British were able to colonize India? Why the Europeans dominated the world for centuries? Why not countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America etc.? Or Why did India not colonize other nations?

I am sure the answers that we have at present can be covered in the keywords such as European industrialization; modernity; rationality; ; socio-economic conditions and political organization in India and Europe; growing trade; corruption etc. Our culture is termed inferior, conservative, irrational and most of the blame for colonization is put on the same. The list goes long and on. And one can, in fact, even write a book on it; as many have done too.

But that pushes us back to the question – Why only Europe? Why such conditions did not prevail in India? Or was it even possible for such conditions to prevail in India?

The Enlightenment

In one of the most interesting, insightful and genius books I have come across tries to answer these questions.

Steven Pinker, a professor of Psychology in Harvard University, has written a masterpiece – The BLANK SLATE.

The book although focuses mostly on the “modern denial of human nature”, but what it leaves as relevant for this post is its explanation of the process of colonization.


Here it goes….excerpts from the book…..

“The most obvious cultural difference on the planet is that some cultures are materially more successful than others. In past centuries, culture from Europe and Asia decimated the cultures of Africa, the Americas, Australia, and the pacific. Even within Europe and Asia the fortunes of cultures have varied widely, some developing expansive civilizations rich in art, science, and technology, others struck in poverty and helpless to resist conquest.

What allowed small groups of Spaniards to cross the Atlantic and defeat the great empires of Incas and Aztecs, rather than the other way round? Why didn’t African wealthy conquerors had better technology and a more complex political and economic organization. But that simply pushes back the question of why some cultures develop more complex ways of life than others?

…unfortunately the dramatic difference between cultures was left unexplained,as if they were random outcomes of the lottery in Babylon.

……But recently two scholars, working independently, have decisively shown that there is no need to invoke ‘race’ to explain the difference among cultures. Both arrived at that conclusion by eschewing the standard social science model, in which cultures are arbitrary symbols that exist apart from the minds of individual people.


Culture and practice?

….” A culture is not a symbolic pattern but has place in the practical activities of daily life, where it evolves under the stress of competing goals and other competing cultures. Cultures do not exist as simply static “differences” to be celebrated but compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done – better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the people themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.”

In “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Jared Diamond, a proponent of evolutionary psychology, rejected the standard assumption that history is just one damn thing after another and tried to explain human history over tens of thousands of years in the context of human evolution and ecology.

Sowell and Jared Diamond have made a case that the fates of human societies come neither from chance nor from race but from the human drive to adopt the innovations of others, combined with the vissictudes of geography and ecology.

Diamond begins at the beginning. For most of the human evolutionary history, we lived as hunter gatherers. The trappings of civilization – sedentary lifestyle, cities, a division of labour, government, professional armies, writing, metallurgy – sprang from a recent development, farming, about tens of thousands of years ago.

Farming depends on plants and animals that can be tamed and exploited, and only a few species are suited to it. They happened to be concentrated in a few parts of the world, including the fertile crescent, China, and Central and South America. The first civilizations arose in those regions.

From then on, geography was destiny. Diamond and Sowell point out that Eurasia, the World’s largest landmass, is an enormous catchment area for local innovations. Traders, sojourners, and conquerors can collect them and spread them, and people living at the corssroads can concentrate them into a high-tech package.

Also, Eurasia runs in an east-west direction, whereas Africa and Americas runs South-North. Crops and animals that are domisticated in one region can easily be spread to others along lines of latitude, which are also lines of similar climate. But they can not be spread as easily along lines of longitude, where a few miles can spell the difference between temperate and tropical climates.

Horses domesticated in the Asian steppes, for example, could make their way westward to Europe and eastward to China. But Ilamas and alpacas domesticated in the Andes never made it northward to Mexico as the Mayan and Aztec civilizations were left without pack animals. And until recently transportation of heavy goods over long distances( and with them traders and ideas) was possible only by water. Europe and parts of Asia are blessed by a notchy, furrowed grography with many natural harbours and navigable rivers. Africa  and Australia are not.

So Eurasia conquered the world not because Eurasians were smarter but because they could take best advantage of the principle that many heads are better than one.


Hotpot of cultures and Isolation

The “culture” of any of the conquering nations of Europe, such as Britain, is in fact a greatest hits-collection of inventions assembled over thousands of miles and years.

The collection is made of cereal crops and alphabetic writing from middle east, gunpowder and paper from China, domesticated horses from Ukraine, and many others.

But the necessary insular cultures of Australia, Africa and the Americas had to make do with few homegrown technologies and as a result they were no match for their pluralistic conquerors.

Even within Eurasia and (later) the Americas, cultures that were isolated by mountainous geography -for example, in the Appalachians, the Balkans, and the scottish highlands – remained backward in centuries comparison with the vast network of people around them.

The extreme case, Diamond points out, is Tasmania.

The Tasmanians, who were nearly exterminated by Europeans in the 19th century, were the most technologically primitive people in recorded history. No specialized tools. no fire, no axes with hurdles, no ability to fish.

Amazingly the archaeological record shows that their ancestors from Australia arrived with these technologies ten thousand years before.

But then the land bridge connecting Tasmania to the mainland was submerged and the island was cutoff from the rest of the world. Diamond speculates that any technology can be lost from a culture at some point in its history.

……………Whenever this happens in a culture that rubs up against other ones, the lost technology can eventually be reacquired as the people clamour fro higher standard of living enjoyed by their neighbours. But in lonely Tasmania, people would have to reinvent the proverbial wheel everytime it was lost, and so their standard of living ratcheted downwards.


———————————————End of excerpts


Human history in large part has been shaped by a multitude of factors, of which the most neglected – yet the most important- is geography.

Things as simple as pastoralism which depended on feeding animals; which in turn depended on travelling along with animals in search of food on similar latitudes, led to the sharing of ideas. And this led to a number of innovations. Those living in lands with narrow latitudinal spread like South America or the Carribean could not exchange ideas and had to live with simpler innovations. A simple difference in geography – latitude, longitude and continental spread – made a difference of centuries in history.

This explains why some cultures came to be dominated by others and why some cultures remained backward? This also explains why some cultures needed to colonize others and how could they come to do the same?

We decry our cultural backwardness and feel proud on imitating that of others. But it is important to understand that cultural development is not a standalone phenomena. It is like a snow ball, which gets increasingly bigger in the direction it is rolled into.

The standard social science model fails to appreciate this fact. The correct perspective would be seeing culture as a product of human desires rather than a shaper of them.

It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand. Our ignorance of history makes us only slander our own times.

So, who makes history? We or history?