Several quotes of my book Le Secret de l'Occident done by prof Peer Vries, from 1997 to 2013.

Peer Vries was professor of economic history at Univ of Leiden, Netherlands, then at Univ of Vienna, Austria, then honorary fellow at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Vries is rather a follower of cultural (more precisely, institutional) hypotheses, but he nonetheless quoted regularly and since the very beginning my book Le Secret de l'Occident (1997, 2007, 2008). His (very weak and weird) arguments against the geographical explanations are detailed in the doc nr5.

 Les articles du Peer Vries / P.H.H. Vries sur ce site:

Doc 5 Oct 2013 Escaping Poverty: The Origins of Modern Economic Growth PDF (7.1Mb)
Doc 4 Aug 2009 "Global Economic History: A Survey" PDF2 (0.6Mb)
PDF3 (0.4Mb)
Doc 3 Mar 2002 in the "Journal of World History" PDF (off)
Doc 2 1999 & 2001 The role of culture and institutions in economic history:
can economics be of any help?
PDF (0.3Mb)
Doc 1 Déc 1997 Recension du livre de David Landes: "Culture, Clocks
and Comparative Costs"
PDF (0.2Mb)

The Secret of Science


Paper 1

A Review of Culture, Clocks, and Comparative Costs:
David Landes on the Wealth of the West and the Poverty of the Rest

December 1997
Peer Vries

Culture, Clocks, and Comparative Costs David Landes on the Wealth of the West and the Poverty of the Rest Article  in  Itinerario - European Journal of Overseas History · December 1997 DOI: 10.1017/S0165115300023512

Copie de sûreté: mars 2020.

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Culture, clocks, and comparative costs. David Landes on the wealth of the West and the poverty of the rest. A review of D.S. Landes, The wealth and poverty of nations. Why some are so rich and some so poor. A Little Brown Book ISBN 0 316 90867 3 Little, Brown and Company UK London 1998. First published in the United States by W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York 1998, pp 650.

It would be hard to find a more fundamental question in economic history than the one professor Landes asks in his latest book: Why are some nations so rich and some so poor? To every economist and economic historian, analysing this problem is an immense intellectual challenge.

Landes however does not merely tackle it from a strictly intellectual perspective. He also hopes that by writing the book under review, he can contribute to an answer and thereby help the poor to become healthier and wealthier. He approaches his subject historically. He does so not just because he is a historian, but also because he thinks the best way to understand a problem is to ask: How and why did we get where we are? (XX-XXI)

In his analysis and interpretation he spreads his wings very widely. He has read a staggering amount of literature and covers the whole globe. The book opens with a discussion of the importance of geography in economic development.

Next Landes presents us with chapters on European exceptionalism and on the invention of invention, in which he emphasises the joie de trouver and its institutionalisation which he supposes to be characteristic of Europe. He continues with chapters on the voyages of discovery and their effects.

It will come as no surprise that after these chapters the Industrial Revolution receives extensive attention, in particular the questions why it took place in England, why it took place when it took place, and how it could spread so easily - relatively speaking - over Western Europe.

The so-called second Industrial Revolution and its financial and technological aspects is not passed over lightly either. Having finished his discussion of these revolutions, Landes starts a grand tour around the world, discussing the way in which the US and Mexico, Latin America, China, Japan and the Islamic world modernised, or failed to modernise.

Chapters titled “Empire and after”, on colonisation and decolonisation; “Loss of leadership”, on the question why in international economic competition it is not always the same countries and companies that are front-runners; “Winners and…”, “ Losers”, containing some thoughts on economic developments in the twentieth century; and a chapter with concluding remarks bring the book to its end.

Asking why necessitates giving explanations, Landes comes up with quite a few, which can be placed under four headings: geography, culture and institutions, knowledge - science and in particular technology - and money. After his two opening chapters, on “Nature’s inequalities” and “Answers to geography: Europe and China”, references to geographical factors are very few and far between.

From this point the other factors take over. As he puts it on page 276: “Institutions and culture first; money next; but from the beginning and increasingly, the payoff was to knowledge.” The role of money is explicitly analysed in chapter 17: “You need money to make money.”

I do not think it is unfair to the author to conclude that the focus of his explanation is on knowledge (in particular science and technology) and, even more, culture and institutions. He himself even goes as far as to claim: “If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.” (516)

Landes explicitly declares that he wants his study to contribute to finding answers that can be useful in tackling contemporary problems (XX). It is only fair then to see what kind of lessons he thinks can be derived from his findings. Indeed, at the end of the book, he does make some general comments. He makes these however without wanting to advocate any particular national policy (522).

The “lessons” are the following:
- The gains from trade are unequal. As history has shown, some countries will do much better than others. The primary reason is that comparative advantage is not the same for all, and that some activities are more lucrative and productive than others. (A dollar is not a dollar is not a dollar). They require and yield greater gains in knowledge and know-how, within and without.
- The export and import of jobs is not the same as trade in commodities. The two may be fungible in theory, but the human impact is different.
- Comparative advantage is not fixed and it can move for or against.
- It always helps to attend and respond to the market. But just because markets give signals does not mean that people will respond timely or well. Some people do this better than others, and culture can make all the difference.
- Some people find it easier and more agreeable to take than to make. This temptation marks all societies, and only moral training and vigilance can hold it in check (522).

So much for the content of the book. Even this short overview should suffice to convince the reader that Landes is not short of ambition. Whatever the merits of his answers, he must in any case be praised for having written a book like this, in a time when too many historians use fashionable fuss about “the end of grand narratives” and “deconstruction” as an excuse to shy away from their societal task and instead cultivate their ever smaller gardens. His erudition is truly impressive. He seems to feel at ease in discussing all kinds of subjects, although the fact that he is an economic historian specialised in the history of Western Europe, will not be lost on the reader. He has a kind of insider knowledge of technological and financial matters, which distinguishes him from many of his colleagues.

Fortunately, he makes no effort to hide this. He misses no occasion to discuss his favourite subject: the history of clocks, to which he attaches a fundamental importance. He is not one of those economic historians who think their job is only a matter of mixing theory and figures, regardless of what happens in concrete reality and regardless of the people behind the figures.

Landes is surely right in criticising those who neglect culture and institutions, just as in pointing at contingency and path dependency.

In his enthusiasm for a just cause he unfortunately tends to overlook historians and social scientists, who do pay attention to culture and institutions in their analysis of economic development. I need only refer to works of the so-called institutionalists among economic historians and economists, for example Nobel Prize winner Douglass North; writer of amongst other titles The rise of the Western world, who does not even figure in Landes’ bibliography! One might also think of Fukuyama’s Trust or Putnam’s fine analysis Making democracy work (1).

The last book, moreover, throws light on a problem that Landes treats rather casually: the puzzle why the southern parts of Italy are so poor whereas the north is so rich. (184-185 and 250-251)

The book is excellently written. It is very witty and entertaining. It invites you to continue reading, which is more than can be said of many pieces of economic history. Landes wants to show what on a human scale is going on in the economies and societies he is analysing. Vignettes which not only enliven it, but which also really illustrate the problems at hand, repeatedly punctuate his grand narrative.

To a large extent the book is so entertaining and - what of course is more important – interesting, because its author has a view on things. Or better, because he has a strong view on just about anything. He does not mince his words and holds firm to what he thinks is true. He seems to be political incorrect almost by principle. In his own words, because he prefers truth to goodthink (XXI).

Not only does [David Landes] hold strong views on how the world worked and works, but also on how it should be studied. So he starts the book with a plea for involving geography in the project of explaining economic development. He, rightly, sees no reason why one should not refer to geographical circumstances in an explanation of why some are rich and others are poor. Nature is unequal. It is not only by his explicit reference to geography that Landes strikes a particular note as an economist and economic historian (2).

Overall in this book his approach is not exactly in line with the mainstream of economic history as it is practised nowadays in the Anglo-Saxon world. He definitely is no friend of the New Economic History. No opportunity is missed to mock what he calls its number crunching and its inordinate confidence in model building and testing. Ruling neo-classical ideas in his opinion have one fundamental flaw: experience tells us otherwise. Market forces, factor endowment, comparative costs and mobility of the factors of production are not variables which explain it all. They do not guarantee economic convergence, as anyone can see.

If there were one approach that suits him, it would be classical political economy. The title of his book, of course, is derived from Smith’s magnum opus. It’s introductory motto, “ … the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations - the grand object of all enquiries in political economy”, is taken from a letter by Malthus to Ricardo.

[Landes] is not a blind disciple: one of the bêtes noires of the book is the law of comparative advantage, which has always been associated with the name of David Ricardo, one of the greatest of classical political economists.

There is much to be praised in the book. But of course there is and should be room for critical remarks. There would be every reason for suspicion if a mega-project as Landes’ study would seem to be immune to criticism.

The subject studied is just too big and too controversial to expect that even as bright an historian as Landes could give the final verdict. To quote a scholar who would know: “Without controversy, no serious pursuit of knowledge and truth (3).”

So the rest of this review will be a critical scrutiny of the text. No doubt, it will be possible to find small factual mistakes somewhere in a book as encompassing as this. As a Dutchman I was struck by the fact that early modern Holland is described as almost as small as Portugal (137).

As a matter of fact, Portugal is more than twice the size of Holland. In case the remark was meant to refer to population, it would not be true either. Portugal’s population during the early modern period for most of the time was larger than the population of Holland (4).

Dutch readers will be surprised to hear that Charles V came to power in the early seventeenth century (138), or wonder what Landes means when he writes that Amsterdam only came over to the side of independence when the war (against Spain) was won (140).

That the Dutch “could not wait to let go Indonesia” is, to say the least, a highly original interpretation of the birth of independent Indonesia (439).

But looking for factual mistakes like these is something of an insult to book and author. It is in any case not what a serious review should be about. I will therefore focus on the plausibility of its explanations and interpretations. Relevant differences of opinion on factual matters will then, if they exist, automatically show.

Landes’ explanation, as indicated, can be said to consist of four elements: geography, money, knowledge, and especially culture.

Of course in a book like this, on almost every page reference to money will have to be made, and is indeed made. However, it is only in Chapter 17 that Landes explicitly and extensively treats its role and studies the way continental follower countries went about to attain money to finance their industrialisation.

As far as a non-expert in monetary and financial affairs can judge, Landes is on sure ground when handling these topics. When it comes to (technological) knowledge and especially its role in industrial development, it will be hard to find a person better equipped than Landes, author of The unbound Prometheus (5).

He is highly qualified to discuss these topics and does not let his readers down. I have not come across an analysis of the Industrial Revolution in England that in so few words gives so many clues as to what this turning point in history was about, and how and why it came about. In his concise, but very confident analysis, Landes convincingly shows that those historians who claim the Industrial Revolution is a dead horse, are on the wrong track: The Industrial Revolution is truly a revolution and the beginning of “the great bifurcation”, the big divide between rich and poor that is so characteristic of the industrial age (6) (194-195).


1 D.C. North and R.P. Thomas, The rise of the Western world. A new economic history (Cambridge 1973); F. Fukuyama, Trust. The social virtues and the creation of prosperity (London 1995); R.D. Putnam, with R. Leonardi and R.Y. Nanetti, Making democracy work. Civic traditions in modern Italy (Princeton 1993).

2 Among scholars who study “the Rise of the West”, however, attention to geographical circumstances has always been something quite self-evident. Some recent examples: D. Cosandey, Le secret de l’Occident. Du miracle passé au marasme présent (Paris 1997); J. Diamond, Guns, germs and steel. A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1997); E.L.Jones, The European Miracle. Environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia (second edition: Cambridge 1987); H. Kiesewetter, Das einzigartige Europa. Zufällige und notwendige Faktoren der Industrialisierung (Göttingen 1996); A. Macfarlane, The savage wars of peace. Japan and England and the Malthusian trap (Oxford 1997) and St. Sanderson, Social evolutionism. A general theory of historical development (Oxford 1995).

3 It is Landes himself who says so. See, The wealth and poverty, 203.

4 For estimates see S.L. Engerman and J.C. Das Neves, “The bricks of empire 1415-1999. 585 years of Portuguese emigration,” The Journal of European Economic History 26 (1997) 471-510, table I on page 478 and A. van der Woude, “Les Provinces-Unies” in: J-P Bardet and J. Dupâquier, eds., Histoire des populations de l’Europe. Tome I. Des origines aux prémices de la révolution demographique (Paris 1997) 425-444, Tableau 70, on page 429.

5 D.S. Landes, The unbound Prometheus. Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present (Cambridge 1969).

6 See also D.S. Landes, “The fable of the dead horse; or the industrial revolution revisited” in: J. Mokyr, ed., The British industrial revolution. An economic perspective (Boulder 1993) 132-170; D.S. Landes, “What room for accident in history? Explaining big changes by small events”, Economic History Review 47 (1994) 637-656, and D.S. Landes, “Some further thoughts on accident in history: a reply to professor Crafts”, Economic History Review 48 (1995) 599-601.

Paper 2

The role of culture and institutions in economic history: can economics be of any help?
XXX 1999 or XXX 2001

prof. Peer Vries de l'univ de Leyden (Pays-Bas).

P. Vries: "The role of culture and institutions in economic history. Can economics be of any help?", NEHA-Jaarboek 64 (2001) 28-60.
Lecture first given at a 1999-conference on culture and history

Copie de sûreté: juillet 2003.

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I just want to shed some light on some problems involved in trying to integrate culture and institutions in studying a specific question in economic history: why was the Western world the first region in the world to have modern economic growth? I believe my remarks have a wider application than only this specific topic.

In this article the following topics will be discussed:
Culture and institutions in current economics and economic history;
The role of culture, institutions and the state in explanations of ‘the rise of the West’;
The role of culture in explanations of the rise of the West: some methodological comments;
Economics on the role of culture; Economics and institutions;
Institutions and the explanation of “the rise of the West”; Institutional economics; Institutional economics, economic history and “the rise of the West”;
An attempt to integrate culture, institutions and the state in economics.


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Human capital or personal culture, and public-good human capital, that is knowledge about what public policy should be (38).

For the sake of convenience and to exclude no interpretation that I have come across, I opted for an extremely broad definition [of the word "culture"], to wit the socially acquired set of dispositions of a group of people with regard to describing, interpreting and valuing the social and natural world.

Those who fear that introducing culture into debates on economic development is a sure recipe for vagueness, can find ample confirmation in texts that deal with the emergence of modern economic growth in the West. Unclear interpretations of the concept [culture] abound. Its precise meaning is often left unspecified, distinctions according to place and time are often lacking.

Authors do not hesitate -- as Huntington does for the contemporary world -- to call civilisations "Christian", "Confucianist" or "Muslim", and then take this to have extremely far-reaching consequences for their economic performance. It would have been very surprising indeed if no author would have tried to see some connection between Christianity and the specific economic feats of the Western, Christian world. And indeed many did. Some to emphasise that in the Christian conception the world is regarded as something that may be used and changed. Others to emphasise it functioned as a basis for trust among co-religionists (40).

That Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, has been credited with special effects in the realm of the economy needs no further comment. Neither does the topos that Confucianism in China, Islam in the Muslim world, and Hinduism in India, were bad things from an economic point of view (41).

As Japan industrialised relatively early, its culture almost had to be a kind of exception to the Asian rule, and indeed positive interpretations of it are not lacking (42).

Fortunately, I am tempted to say, reference to culture does not always hover at so lofty heights. Going through the literature one can collect a whole list of more specific and concrete cultural traits that are supposed to have played a leading role in creating economic growth in the West.

To begin with those features that are summarised under the concept of a (good) work ethic: frugality and industriousness, thrift, tenacity, patience (43). Then there is of course "rationality", a word with a very wide meaning.

For Weber, in whose work it is a central concept and whose work has been immensely influential -- and for mainstream economists! -- it means thinking in terms of the methodical, calculable and the predictable (44). Its highest materialisation in early modern Europe appears to have been double-entry book-keeping, but it was expressed in an overall inclination to measure reality (45).

The meaning of the word "rationality" often, I think incorrectly, tends to be widened to comprise the whole gamut of characteristics expected of an entrepreneur. Here Schumpeter's characterisation of the entrepreneur, especially in capitalism, as the creative destructor comes to mind (46). It then also encloses "risk taking" and a feel for innovation. Jay claims that risk is a Western word and that Western society was a society of risk-taking entrepreneurs (47).

There are, however, other scholars who think that it was risk-avoidance and manipulation of the economy that laid the ground for Western wealth (48). Other traits I have come across -- all smacking heavily of the American way of life -- are competitiveness and individualism, acceptance of success and consumption, a positive attitude toward change, dynamism and mobility.

To end this list that has no pretence of being exhaustive but just hopes to present the most important items, I want to mention trust and confidence, cultural capital, literacy and scientific culture (49).

The big "civilisational" concepts, exemplified par excellence in religions or belief-systems, also reflect par excellence the vagueness that cultural interpretations are accused of. They are (too) large, diffuse, under-specified.

When it comes to categories like Christianity, Protestantism, Calvinism, Hinduism, Confucianismet cetera, the question simply cannot be suppressed what exactly it is that makes them assets, or liabilities, for an economy. How exactly to connect lofty things like religious beliefs to such prosaic matters like production? Not surprisingly opinions differ widely on how to interpret the putative connections and to show that they really exist.

38 M.C. Olson, "Big bills left on the sidewalk: why some nations are rich and others poor" in: Olson and Satu Kähköhnen, A not-so-dismal science, 37-60, p 52.

39 Huntington, Clash of civilisations.

40 See for Christianity as a provider of, among other things, trust Hall, Power and liberties and Mann, Sources of social power. For its supposedly different attitude towards nature see Landes, Wealth and poverty, 58-59. For a fierce critic of the idea that Christianity would in any way have been conducive to economic growth, see D. Cosandey, Le secret de l'Occident. Du miracle passé au marasme présent (Paris 1997) 23-32.

41 I only refer to Landes, Wealth and poverty, the chapters on the history of China and the Muslim world, and his remarks on India and the Weber-thesis.

42 Ibidem, chapter 22 on Japan's industrialisation.

43 See for example Landes, Wealth and poverty, chapter 29 and M. Egnal, Divergent paths: how culture and institutions have shaped North American economic growth (Oxford 1996), preface and concluding notes.

Paper 3

"Governing growth: a comparative analysis of the role of the state in the rise of the West"

Journal of World History 13, 1 (2002) 67-138
"Journal of World History", vol.13, nr.1, printemps 2002, p.67-138.

Paper 4

Global Economic History: A Survey
August 2009
Peer Vries, Institute of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna. peer.vries

Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften / Austrian Journal of History 20, 2 (2009) 133-170. Published 07 August 2009.

P.H.H.Vries sur le rôle de l'Etat dans l'essor de l'Occident, "Journal of World History", vol.13, nr.1, printemps 2002, p.67-138.
All content following this page was uploaded by Peer Vries on 03 October 2015.

Copie de sûreté mars 2020.

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the standard narratives have become highly problematic. In the emerging discipline of ‘global economic history’ traditional beliefs with regard to the economic history of ‘the Rest’ as well as ‘the West’ are put to the test. These recent developments will be addressed. The text will conclude with some separate comments on economic globalisation.

The role of geography

All this does not mean that all explanations of global differences in wealth have always been part and parcel of watertight ‘economic’ explanations.

There have always been scholars who, in a context of showing European exceptionalism, referred to natural conditions. Let us first, before continuing our analysis of Smithian and Marxian approaches, comment on them.

One finds many references to environmental factors in the highly influential book by Eric L. Jones on the European miracle (6). They are not absent in David Landes’ blockbuster either (7). But they are also present in the work of authors with completely different backgrounds like David Cosandey or Hubert Kiesewetter (8). Somewhat surprisingly, one of their fiercest opponents actually is the geographer James M. Blaut (1927-2000), who does us the favour of collecting references to geography in the literature, to then try and refute them (9).

References to Europe’s geographical ‘extras’ have always been stock in trade, and received an extra boost from the enormous success of Jared Diamond’s, Guns, germs and steel, a highly influential book, that brings many classical arguments together, and whose main thesis verges on geographical determinism (10). Diamond explicitly wants to bring across the message that there is nothing specific about the people of Eurasia: their advantage over others simply is a geographical windfall. To suggest that the rich are richer because they somehow are superior would be racism. Eurasia’s luck was that it had many animals that could be domesticated, and a more variegated flora and fauna, in combination with easy patterns of diffusion.

In much of this literature Western Europe is presented as exceptionally lucky. With its rainfall agriculture, it had no need for a ‘hydraulic state’. Waterways as a rule never were far away, so transport was cheap. The Americas were not that distant. So it was fairly easy for Europeans to discover them. West Africa was even closer to them, but it had no seafaring tradition. The fact that the inhabitants of the New World massively fell victim to diseases imported by the Europeans made it easy to conquer their land. As compared to many inhabitants of the earth, in this case in particular Asians, Europeans were less struck by disaster and diseases. When disasters hit, they hit people rather than infrastructure. Europe’s landscape was highly diversified, as were its climate, flora, and fauna. It was also very fragmented, geographically as well as politically. It had many separate concentrations of population, resources and power. That was positive for exchange and made it hard for intruders to conquer it in a one-off campaign.

The comments that over the years have been made with regard to the geographical disadvantages of ‘the Rest’ are so diverse, and sometimes even so contradictory, that one is tempted to say that the problem of its geography is simply that it is not like Europe’s. It was not favoured by its flora, fauna or immunity to certain diseases.

According to various authors, most recently Charles Mann, the Americas, especially the later Latin America, before 1492, were home to various highly developed and densely populated societies.11 That, however, changed dramatically in a short period of time. The diseases the European conquerors brought with them almost completely wiped out the native population. Those who survived were turned into subjects of the European conquerors who ‘restructured’ their society and economy. The Northern half of the continent had the luck that there was not much the Europeans could plunder, so that a new society could be created there that was much less based on extraction and coercion.

Reading comments on Africa one can only conclude that nature gave that continent a bad deal. It often appears as a nasty, tropical continent, which is extremely unhealthy, too hot to work hard, and not very suited for agriculture. The extent to which these statements are based on quite wild generalizations, among other things, shows in the fact that one can also come across claims that Africa’s problem would be that its tropical climate is so bountiful.

For Asia one often finds references to those varieties of its agriculture that need irrigation and therefore (...)

6 Eric L. Jones, The European miracle. Environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia, Cambridge 1981, passim.

7 David Landes, The wealth and poverty of nations. Why some are so rich and some so poor, New York / London 1998, chapters 1 and 2.

8 David Cosandey, Le secret de l’Occident. Du miracle passé au marasme présent, Paris 1997; Hubert Kiesewetter, Das einzigartige Europa. Zufällige und notwendige Faktoren der Industrialisierung, Göttingen 1996.

9 See James M. Blaut, The coloniser’s model of the world. Geographical diffusionism and Eurocentric history, New York 1993, 69-94.

10 Jared Diamond, Guns, germs and steel. A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, London 1997.

Paper 5

Escaping Poverty: The Origins of Modern Economic Growth
23 octobre 2013
prof. Peer Vries, prof à l'univ de Vienne (Autriche).

Peer Vries: Escaping Poverty: The Origins of Modern Economic Growth (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress GmBH (pour Vienna UP), Göttingen (23oct2013).

Copie de sûreté: mars 2020.

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1. The Great Divergence and geography

Amongst global historians and all those writing about the Great Divergence, references to geography in the widest sense of the word not only are extremely popular, which would surprise most economists, they also set quite different accents than economists would (459). Not surprisingly, there is a lot of negative ‘Malthusian’ reasoning in which poverty in particularin the pre-industrial world is blamed on limited resources. According to this perspective, which has always been extremely influential amongst historians who study the pre-industrial world, ‘geography’ primarily refers to constraints.

In his highly influential trilogy on the global history of material civilization and capitalism in the early modern era, Fernand Braudel brilliantly illustrated “the limits of the possible” that determine what he calls “the structures of everyday life” (460). The emphasis in his oeuvre usually lay on the constraints to which human agency was subjected and he has, correctly, mainly become known to hold views that come close to geographical determinism. At times, though, he also pointed at ways in which nature enabled agency.

To some extent, so he claimed, Europe’s dynamism can be traced back to its geography. Europeans in a sense were almost forced to go out to the sea if they wanted to develop their economies. According to him, they turned this necessity into a challenge to which they responded very successfully: Europe’s global dominance began at sea (461).

In that respect too, Immanuel Wallerstein followed in the footsteps of France’s most influential historian and gave Europe’s expansion a specific geographical twist. Let me just give a couple of quotes: “Europe needed to expand geographically more than did China.” (462)

459 For this popularity, see Bentley, ‘Web browsing’.
460 Braudel, Civilization and capitalism, 15th-18th century, I.
461 Braudel, History of Civilizations; idem in: Braudel, L’Europe.
462 Wallerstein, Modern world-system. Capitalist agriculture and the origins of the European world-economy in the sixteenth century, 63. From now on referred to as Modern world

Portugal, Europe’s first intercontinental overseas coloniser, according to him had to expand overseas as it “… because of its geography, had no choice” (463). He also provides a more concrete reason: “Europe’s ‘internal Americas’ in the fifteenth century were quickly exhausted, given an agronomy that depended on more space (464).

The claim that Western Europe in one way or another was blessed by nature was pushed more emphatically by Eric Jones in his book on the European miracle, originally published in 1981, that not by accident referred to environment in its subtitle and had a major impact on ensuing debates (465). Jones described Europe as a continent with a dispersed resource portfolio that was very varied geologically, geographically, and in terms of climate. He then claims:

“Fruitful political variety, capital accumulation, and trade all seem partly explicable as adjustments to Europe’s particular site and endowments (466).” It had a good location from which it was relatively easy to discover and exploit the New World with its huge ‘ghost acreage’ (467). Disasters hit capital relatively less hard than people, which gave the continent a bias in favour of capital accumulation already before industrialization.

The fact that Europe was never absorbed in one empire, a characteristic that is referred to in almost every text on the rise of the West as a major explanation, according to Jones also, at least partly, was due to geography. Its larger core areas were, as he calls it, ‘much of a muchness’ and the occupants of any one of them found it hard to dominate the others. On top of that, distance offered some protection against Asian invasions, as did the forested landscape unsuited to cavalry warfare (468). On page 226 of the book it reads:

The topographical structure of the continent, its mountain chains, coast and major marshes, formed boundaries at which states expanding from the core-areas could meet and pause. These natural barriers helped to hold the ring between the varied ethnic and linguistic groups making up the European peoples. They helped to define the nation-states which filled up the matrix so formed and because they were expensive to cross they helped a little in reducing conflict between neighbouring states.

Another point that Jones wants to bring home is that “What happened to distinguish Europe was the swollen emergence of bulk trade over quite long distances, multilaterally, in everyday commodities, and not simply in the luxuries that had always dominated long-distance trade” (469).

463 Wallerstein, Modern world-system I, 47.
464 Wallerstein, Modern world-system I, 57. This suggests a quite peculiar interpretation of the history of Western Europe’s population. The fifteenth century was not exactly a periodwhen Western Europe was suffering from ‘over-population’.
465 Jones, European Miracle. There exist various editions. I quote from the second edition, Cambridge 1987.
466 Jones, European Miracle, 226.
467 For that term see 290–298.
468 Jones, European Miracle, XXVand XXVII.

Britain as an island in this context was particularly fortunate. It was even more protected against diseases and enemies. It was amply provided with water for agriculture and waterpower, and for domestic and overseas transport. Its location, moreover, was favourable as to other continents in particular the New World. Whereas it was relatively close to the enormous ghost acreages of that New World, it was quite a long journey from the Central Asian steppes with its conquering nomads.

Probably the most influential example of a global economic analysis in which geography holds the key is the book by Jared Diamond, Guns, germs and steel. Diamond is quite explicit: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves” (470).

The book overwhelmingly – a fact that many people tend to overlook – is about Eurasia versus ‘the Rest’. The contrast between Western Europe and China that up until now is at the core of the Great Divergence-debate actually is only discussed on some five pages.

Diamond focuses on refuting the assumption that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral or inherent genetic superiority and argues that the gapsin power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences. When cultural or genetic differences have favoured Eurasians (for example, written language or the development among Eurasians of resistance to endemic diseases), he asserts that these advantages occurred because of the influence of geography on societies and cultures, and were not inherent in the Eurasian genome (471).

Specifically for Europe, [J.Diamond], like Jones, thinks that its geography favoured balkanization into smaller, closer, nation-states, as its many natural barriers (mountains and rivers) provide defensible borders. As a result, governments that suppressed economic and technological progress soon corrected their mistakes or were out-competed relatively quickly (472). The advantages that Eurasians had in development were primarily due to a fortuitous mixture of climate, crops, and animals. They had a favourable environmental endowment and location in which geography trumped culture.

469 Jones, European Miracle, XIV. This fact too, so he suggests, was connected to its specificcgeographical diversity.
470 Diamond, Guns, germs and steel, 25.
471 I refer the reader to the excellent synthesis and analysis of the book by McNeill, ‘The world according to JaredDiamond’, The History Teacher 34, 2 (2001) 21 pars. 7 Aug. 2011 . My words paraphrase his text.
472 Diamond, Guns, germs and steel, ‘Epilogue’.

Ian Morris may not yet be as famous as Jared Diamond, but he, if possible, is even more outspoken when it comes to the role of geography in answering the question why the West rules. He summarizes his findings as follows:

The West rules because of geography. Biology tells us why humans push social development upward; sociology tells us how they do this (except when they don’t); and geography tells us why the West, rather than some other region, has for the last two hundred years dominated the globe. Biology and sociology provide universal laws, applying to all humans in all times and places; geography explains differences (473).

This boils down to the thesis that, in his words, “maps” make history and not “chaps”. Let me again give some quotations. In a paragraph in the introduction, entitled: “Location, location, location”, it reads: “Once we recognize that chaps… are all much the same … all that is left is maps” (474). In his view, “latitudes” explain history and not “attitudes” (475).

Robert Marks summarizes his explanation of Britain’s industrialisation in terms of the ‘contingent’ availability for Britain of colonies and coal (476). Basically what Marks presents in his book on the origins of the modern world is a (oversimplified) synthesis of Pomeranz’s Great Divergence. But although the author of that book argues with more sophistication than Marks suggests, he too likes to refer to “fortunate location of coal”, “geographic good luck”, “fortunate geographic accidents”, “crucial accidents of geography” and “massive windfalls of fuel, fibre and perhaps even food” and does attach great importance to them (477).

Deepak Lal is much more nuanced than Diamond and Morris but he too claims that geographical endowments built the foundation for the rise of the West. In his view, Western material culture had its basis in relative factor endowments and its institutional set-up was “ecologically determined.” Like Jones, he claims that because of ecological constraints, European states could not be as predatory as the imperial states of Eurasia (478).

473 Morris, Why the West rules, 557. See also, for example, page 30.
474 Morris, Why the West rules, 29. See also pages 331, 427 and 430.
475 Morris, ‘Latitudes not attitudes’, also on tudes-not-attitudes-how-geography-explains-history
476 Marks, Origins of the modern world, 118, where he writes “…British manufacturers and inventors rose to the challenges they faced, especially with regard to coal mining and the development of the steam engine. But there is no reason to think that the Chinese orIndians (or other people with advanced old regime economies, like the Japanese, for instance) would not also have been able to solve those problems in similar ways. They simply didn’t have colonies or coal.”
477 Pomeranz, Great Divergence, flap text, pages 12, 16, 68 and 241.
478 Lal, Unintended consequences, 70–71 and 79.

I could refer to several other examples. Michael Mann in the first volume of his books on the sources of social power – that primarily deals with the sources of Europe’s unique dynamism – also accords a big role to ecology, at times in ways quite similar to Jones. He describes the modern West as heir to a civilization that was “geopolitically multi-centred, cosmopolitan and non-hegemonic”. It had “three ecological roots: irrigated river valleys and confined plowlands, the core of the land empires of the Near East; more open, extended plowlands in Europe; and the inland seas that connected them.

The juxtaposition of such ecologies was unique in the world; therefore, in world-historical terms, so was the civilization to which it gave rise” (479). Its population density was less than in the Far East because its agriculture was less productive. It had rain-watered agriculture, not one based on irrigation. It therefore, according to Mann, gave rise to less centralised, despotic states, more autonomous but cooperating individual peasant households and a very energy-intensive mode of production. All this strengthened local and medium-distance trade in ordinary goods (480).

In books by David Cosandey and Hubert Kiesewetter, geography, too, plays a pivotal role in explaining Western Europe’s peculiar path (481).

David Landes focuses on culture, but his magnum opus also contains a chapter on geography, in particular dealing with the negative effects of bad geography (482). Bairoch in his economic and social history of the world from the sixteenth century onwards points at the fact that the agricultural revolution that took place in the West could not easily be transferred to much of ‘the Rest’ and claims that factors like climate, soil type and population density go a long way in explaining that fact (483).

We already pointed out the huge implications of the dependency on nature as Douglas Allen highlights them in his book on the institutional revolution. But at least overall that dependency and the ensuing variance and unpredictability were facts of life for all those living before the Industrial Revolution. It might, of course, be the case that some were hit harder than others, as is often suggested. But I have never come across an analysis in which that was actually and convincingly shown.

It is quite obvious that nature can make a difference. Who would deny that, for example, location (or for that matter climate, soil and so on) is important and can have negative but also quite positive effects? We already referred to Jones, Diamond and Morris who all make claims in this respect and will later on briefly discuss Pomeranz’s comments on the different location of British and Chinese coal fields. Before the existence of modern means of transportation in particular, landlocked countries indeed had a real disadvantage, although that has not prevented landlocked Switzerland and Austria to in the end become quite wealthy. South America was further from Europe than the Northern half of the New World, which certainly had effects on its development. Just like the fact that

479 Mann, Sources of social power, I, 189.

480 Mann, Sources of social power, I, pages 184–189 and 399–409.

481 See Cosandey, Le secret de l’Occident and Kiesewetter, Das einzigartige Europa.

482 Landes, Wealth and poverty of nations, chapters 1 and 2.

483 Bairoch, Victoires et déboires, II, 648–661.



In my view, giving a central role to geography in explaining the Great Divergence by claiming it ‘favoured’ the West is not very helpful and in the end rather misleading.


My critique [against geographical arguments] is twofold: part of it is fundamental and concerns the general relevance of geography to the question at hand; part of it is specific and concerns certain concrete geographical explanations.

Let me start with some comments on specific explanations and begin with Jones’s claims. Studying the maps of Europe and China and judging by my extended travelling in both parts of the world, I am not convinced that Europe’s geography would indeed encourage and support greater fragmentation than China’s. Without the Grand Canal, for example, the digging and maintaining of which cost an enormous amount of effort, the connection between Southern and Northern China would have been quite tenuous. In my view, one could come up with many more examples that China actually was only loosely integrated by nature (491).
[ The more Peer Vries looked at the map, the less he noticed what he was seeing... Namely, he completely lost of sight the fact that Chinese sub-regions are not separated by sea waterways.]

The claim that Europe’s trade in bulky goods was unique also is hard to defend in any case in regard to quantities. Long-distance grain trade in eighteenth-century China dwarfed that over the Baltic, the biggest example of such trade in Europe (492).
[ Of course, everywhere where you have waterways, you will have bulk trade. And China does possess harbours and coasts, everybody knows that. The key factor is that China does not have as many coastal regions as Western Europe, as percentage of its total area. Hence, a much larger share of the whole Chinese territory lives without a close harbour (for example, you can define "close" as smaller than 100 km) and hence will not be concerned by this bulk trade]


It would not be very useful, and it is in any case is not my intention, to deal here with each and every claim and each and every comment. I want to focus on the one fundamental critique that applies to all geographical explanations of growth, in particular modern growth.

What we want to explain in our analysis is not just some growth and some difference in wealth but (the emergence of) modern economic growth, i. e. substantial growth over consecutive decades and (the emergence of) an enormous gap between those whose economies grow and those whose economies do not. Considering this specific explanandum, which is characterised by continuous change and continuous increases in production and productivity, we simply cannot not expect very much from references to geographical conditions that by definition are rather static. Their direct relevance in explaining the Great Divergence, a relatively sudden and quick process, is anything but obvious. One may well doubt whether one can explain a temporary phenomenon, such as the economic primacy of Western Europe during certain centuries (or of China in earlier ones) by referring to virtually permanent conditions, such as the topography of Europe and China. [ P.Vries forgets that there need be no harmony between cause and effect "styles". Example: you heat water (continuous process), water heats up (continuous process), but.. after some time... water boils up (rupture). Other example: the earthquakes: pressure slowly mounts (continuous cause) underground, until a shock happens, i.e. the crust plates suddenly shift, alleviating their internal pressure (non-continuous consequence). Hence a steady cause clearly can produce a sudden big change. ]


One must, moreover, realise that even if all the geographical conditions referred to had played an important role in the economic history of Western Europe and provided certain benefits and advantages, they apparently up until the eighteenth century did not create a significant gap in wealth, growth and development between (Western) Europe and the most advanced other economies of the world. So one may well ask why they would do so from then onwards.
[ With the same kind of reasoning, one could "prove" that the internet is not the result of technological progress, as there was technological progress in the XIIIth and XIVth century, but no internet... ]

In that respect, it is not very helpful that most references to geography, just like those to ‘culture’ are so broad and under-specified.

Created: 03 Jan 2004 – Last modified: 07 May 2020