• Jacob-B
    75
    Why do civilizations stagnate?

    Technologically, China was ahead of Europe until the 16th century and in some ways was well-positioned to forge ahead. Yet id did not happen. The ever warring and fragmented countries of Europe stole the march and the unified mighty Han empire. What was the reason for such historical evolution? Has it to do with inward-looking nature Confucian world outlook? Some related question: For instance, why were there a Chinese Marco Polo Chinese travellers to Europe before the time that the Europeans pushed open the gates of China? And why didn't the Chinese embark on exploration similar to that of the European navigators?

    And the most intriguing question: Had European imperialism not impacted on China would China had progressed technologically in the same way as Europe did? The same question could be asked about say the Aztecs or Incas. Would they ever progress beyond the level they were when ‘discovered’ by the European power?
  • Echarmion
    1.2k
    Why do civilizations stagnate?Jacob-B

    Well, why do they evolve? One might argue that stagnation is the natural state, and evolution the unusual circumstance that requires explanation. In truth, both are always relative, there is never absolute stagnation.

    Technologically, China was ahead of Europe until the 16th century and in some ways was well-positioned to forge ahead. Yet id did not happen. The ever warring and fragmented countries of Europe stole the march and the unified mighty Han empire. What was the reason for such historical evolution? Has it to do with inward-looking nature Confucian world outlook?Jacob-B

    There are probably lots of reasons. From large cultural and political reasons down to the personalities of single individuals. China was home to the first modern state, but the rule of law was weak compared to (Western) Europe, and there was no social force comparable to the independent Catholic Church.

    For instance, why were there a Chinese Marco Polo Chinese travellers to Europe before the time that the Europeans pushed open the gates of China? And why didn't the Chinese embark on exploration similar to that of the European navigators?Jacob-B

    It seems to me that the European explorers were the Anomaly, rather than the other way round. It may have come down to simple things, like shipbuilding technology.

    And the most intriguing question: Had European imperialism not impacted on China would China had progressed technologically in the same way as Europe did? The same question could be asked about say the Aztecs or Incas. Would they ever progress beyond the level they were when ‘discovered’ by the European power?Jacob-B

    Probably. But the process may have looked quite different.
  • Isaac
    2k


    Jared Diamond "Guns, Germs and Steel", I think pretty much answers your question. It's well referenced and there's lots of research avenues to go off if you disagree with his conclusions.
  • Echarmion
    1.2k
    Jared Diamond "Guns, Germs and Steel", I think pretty much answers your question. It's well referenced and there's lots of research avenues to go off if you disagree with his conclusions.Isaac

    Though it has also been criticized a lot. It's conclusion are very controversial.
  • Isaac
    2k
    Though it has also been criticized a lot. It's conclusion are very controversial.Echarmion

    I wasn't aware that it had been criticised a lot. I'm aware of one or two points of dispute, but I always thought it was quite well regarded. Who are the main critics you're thinking of?
  • Echarmion
    1.2k
    I wasn't aware that it had been criticised a lot. I'm aware of one or two points of dispute, but I always thought it was quite well regarded. Who are the main critics you're thinking of?Isaac

    I don't have anyone in particular in mind, but when I last considered buying the book, I found a lot of references to negative reviews by peers.
  • Isaac
    2k
    I don't have anyone in particular in mindEcharmion

    OK. I was just interested in any critiques you may have come across. No problem if you don't have any to hand.
  • alcontali
    1.3k
    Hard times create strong men.
    Strong men create good times.
    Good times create weak men.
    And, weak men create hard times.
    — G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain
  • ssu
    2.4k
    I wasn't aware that it had been criticised a lot. I'm aware of one or two points of dispute, but I always thought it was quite well regarded. Who are the main critics you're thinking of?Isaac
    Let's make this a bit more general.

    Diamond, who isn't a pure historian, but an anthropologist and knows his biology is the perfect example of a structural history or stucturalism, that human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader, overarching system or structure. With Diamond the emphasis is on the environment the biological advantages without forgetting technology. Basically the title of his famous book gives it away: Guns, Germs and Steel.

    Good example of Diamond is him pondering the thought on why Africans didn't conquer Europe, but the other way around. If the African Rhino could be tamed like a horse, Diamond argues, that would have made African cavalry extremely deadly. Since Rhino's are in Africa, Africans would
    have had the advantage.

    (Marvel's imagination)
    maxresdefault.jpg

    Fine. But then again, this did happen. An African called Hannibal Barka did introduce an equally devastating creature to Europe called war elephants, which did create panic among the ranks within the soon-to-be Empire builders, the Romans. Diamond is on the right path. Yet Carthago was destroyed and Rome was victorious and was crucial in forming Europe.

    (Reality. Even if the elephant armour is Asian, not African)
    Desz_2LW4AAJXDj.jpg

    And this is here where trying to make sense of some specific civilization falling with structural history. In the end it's the butterfly effect of history, a decision of one leader to do something foolish that makes all the World go haywire. You simply cannot avoid it if the question is why West Rome perished, why was Islam so successful? Why China didn't conquer the World? You can give all the structural reasons starting from weather, geography etc. as reason for a civilization to fall, but you simply cannot avoid the historical narrative on how it just happened. That people make decisions, battles are won or lost and they have consequences. Because in that narrative we see totally clearly that things could have gone differently on that specific moment:

    What if the driver of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand's car had not driven the wrong way and stumble in front of an assassin? Would we have had WW1? Would we then have had WW2? If we would have had the Great War, how different would it have been if the starting day would have been 1934? How different the World would be IF the US had invaded Cuba and those Marines landing on the Cuban beach would have been wiped out by a Russian tactical nukes, that the Americans had no knowledge about when planning OPLAN 326-62? What would be the post-WW3 era now be like to live in?

    And these of course we cannot answer.The death of Franz Ferdinand did start the path to the Great War and the US and the Russian's did avoid nuclear war in 1962. Hence we cannot use the scientific method of a laboratory test on these issues.
  • Isaac
    2k
    a decision of one leader to do something foolish that makes all the World go haywire. You simply cannot avoid it if the question is why West Rome perished, why was Islam so successful? Why China didn't conquer the World? You can give all the structural reasons starting from weather, geography etc. as reason for a civilization to fall, but you simply cannot avoid the historical narrative on how it just happened.ssu

    I don't think Diamond is guilty of that though. The question he set out to answer was why the modern white western civilisations dominate the world and the (predominantly) non-white, southern and eastern civilisations don't. Unless you're suggesting that those civilisations just happened to have an unfortunate 10,000 year tun of bad decisions, then I think his overall point still stands.

    Oh, and on the subject of elephants, Diamond talks about Hannibal in the same paragraph as the one about the rhinos. Elephants were never domesticated (too long to maturity), that made them useful, but nowhere near the utility of the horse.
  • ssu
    2.4k
    Unless you're suggesting that those civilisations just happened to have an unfortunate 10,000 year tun of bad decisions, then I think his overall point still stands.Isaac
    No. My argument was that you simply cannot explain all from the stucturalist point of view. You need also the historical narrative, what people did and what events happened. You need to use both. And this is crucial in answering Jacob-B's OP. Think about China. It sent of this huge flotilla to discover far away lands and then decided to scrap the ships and turn away from the World. And then, just like all countries that have decided to cut the World outside them out, was in for a rude awakening. Just like the Ottomans were with Napoleonic invasion.

    Or just think about modern day China. During Mao's time it struggled to feed it's population and now even with the same party in power, it's quite different from what it was in the 1970's. Political decisions have huge consequences.

    Oh, and on the subject of elephants, Diamond talks about Hannibal in the same paragraph as the one about the rhinos.Isaac
    Thanks for the correction! I didn't remember that, my bad.
  • Isaac
    2k
    My argument was that you simply cannot explain all from the stucturalist point of view. You need also the historical narrative, what people did and what events happened. You need to use both.ssu

    Yeah, fair enough. Although I would say that historicism has the equal and opposite problem. If we say some state of affairs was the result of some leader's decision we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that that is the case. We have only one version of history so we can't do any kind of control trial. Basically it's nothing but guesswork. Maybe Europe would have gone to war without Hitler, maybe not. We can't possibly know because we can't run the whole thing again without Hitler. All we can see is that a cause and effect chain is linked to Hitler. But that's just inevitable, the alternative is that events transpire without causes, which would be ridiculous. What we'd need, to count as evidence of necessity, is the same environment with only Hitler missing. We can't ever have that.

    So the difference between structuralism and historicism is that we can feasibly gather a sample (and controls) for a structural theory. We cannot possibly do that for a theory about the influence of a particular decision.
  • ssu
    2.4k
    Once we understand the limitations of structuralism and in the method of "looking at the historical change past individual events", it's a great way to think about history. As usual, one has to understand the limitation.

    Perhaps the best example the history of science. In many cases things are invented or discovered in the same era even without any communication. We can understand that many for example philosophical or mathematical insights could for example been done in Antique Times, but where done only Centuries later. Yet for example some smart Roman coming up with Quantum Mechanics or Theory of Relativity wouldn't be possible. It simply shows that not only is there actually a "Scientific Paradigm" in the way Kuhn himself used the term, but also many things rooted in the prevailing society, it's norms, the knowledge of technology and the scope of globalization. Just how important are those connections, trade and interaction with other cultures and civilizations, can be seen from the American Indian cultures. Small ragtag forces of Spaniards could literally hijack the Aztec and Inca empires.
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