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Why Did Europe Dominate?

It’s a troubling question for many. All individuals, individual cultures, and peoples are equal, but why did Europe dominate for so many centuries? Today at Fudan University, James J. O’Donnell, University Professor at Georgetown University, gave the third in a series of guest lectures on “Ancient History in the Modern Age.” He spoke about how the exclusivity of Christianity influenced the development of European thought, and how Europe “turned away” from the variety of human experience they found in the Age of Discovery.


After the lecture, a student asked, “What is the secret of the Europeans, that they can attract the attention of the whole world to follow them?”


O’Donnell’ answered, “Western ‘success’ has three factors, none of which were necessary. One is that there was an ancient civilization in the Mediterranean than was quite successful and well developed, so certain basic levels of economy and society and organization were achieved.

Second, Western Europe turns out to be geographically and in climate a good place for people with not much technology to live and prosper. Farming and shipping and trade and communication were possible for people with limited technology in ways that were more difficult for people in the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia, where the climate was different and it wasn’t so possible for simple farmers to be so successful.

And third, there is an element of chance and accident here. Moveable type and oceangoing travel were invented in China but they were decisively implemented and made use of in Western Europe, and so the great revolutions of the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, in which westerners took a lead… happened in that part of the world, and gave an advantage to that part of the world. I believe that advantage is now expired and that the technologies of the last century put all of humankind on a more equal footing and essentially all societies with a certain level of industrialization and advancement can be successful.

“I spoke last time of my thought experiment, that maybe the west will continue to dominate, maybe China will dominate, or in my example maybe Brazil and Latin America will dominate. Since my last lecture [on Tuesday] we now have a Latin American Pope, that’s a first invention; Brazil is succeeding economically, maybe in 300 years Latin America will take advantage of its opportunities to become the most advanced society in the world. I think we are at a period in which it is no longer clear the west will continue to dominate, as it was probably clear a hundred years ago that the west had to dominate for a while longer. We’ll see.” (Recorded 2013.03.14 at Fudan University, Shanghai)


  1. […] to speak Japanese. Chinese I learned gradually over about three years, the last of which I was studying in Shanghai. In learning Spanish I apply what I learned with Chinese and Japanese to learn Spanish better and […]

  2. You raise a good point. We shouldn’t forget what terrible physical and mental suffering is contained in that one word “dominate.”

    If I understand correctly, the argument you are making is that the fourth factor in why the west dominated was that they were more vicious and brutal than any other region. That’s possible. I think they were perhaps more interested in expansion than other regions, perhaps because of a lack of space and resources in Europe.

    Let’s compare with China. In 1603, the Spanish massacred ten or twenty thousand ethnic Chinese in the Philippines for basically no reason in what was called the “Sangley Rebellion” (they claimed the Chinese were trying to take over). At the time, the Ming dynasty was stable, and more powerful than the European kingdoms. The Spanish were afraid the Ming would send troops to avenge the Chinese and expel the Spanish from the islands. The Spanish wrote a letter to the emperor explaining what had happened. According to my instructor at Fudan, the emperor basically said, “Overseas Chinese are traitors. No need to apologize for killing them; do with them as you please.”

    As for this lecture series, part of the point of giving a series of lectures about Western history IN CHINA is to dispel the myth that “Westerners” are inherently/biologically/racially/magically superior to Chinese and thus domination was inevitable. That’s obviously garbage, but then, Chinese people ask, why did the West dominate?

    Why do you think the West was able to dominate? What do you think we should do about this idea of the “West”? How do you think gender played into this, considering so many Spaniards and whatnot were young men? What would you like to see added to this lecture?

    • Wendy says:

      okay first of all, it’s so ironic that there are actual lectures in China to dispel myths about how the West is superior to China, seeing how that’s an attitude that’s a direct echo of imperialist thinking, introduced by none other than the West.

      My point is that the West dominated because a handful of power-hungry people decided it would be cute to try to see how much they could gain by exploiting the rest of the known world and calling it pretty names like American Exceptionalism.

      I do not care if you’re out of space or you’re out of resources. Have you seen the photos of what Germany did in the Congo or what Britain did in Australia? It’s unnecessary, barbaric, and absolutely brutal. A lot of colonialist expansion took place directly around the Industrial Revolution, a time when technology was BOOMING in the West and, instead of focusing on better conditions for their own working classes who were probably not going anywhere seeing as how they were poor and malnourished and dying of dysentery, a handful of rich people wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They could have cared less about their own people, much less about people in other, “exotic” lands. They created conditions in Europe that so bad that people had to pack up and leave (among other reasons like famine etc) to come to places like America and denigrate other people for the sake of assimilation. Italians only “became white” because they compared themselves to the Chinese who were working on railroads in America and fought their way into labor unions. The Japanese in America in turn were also brought into the West to build railroads alongside the Italians while Chinese-Americans were lynched and murdered. And then in the 40’s the Roosevelt administration decided that Japanese-Americans were no longer trustworthy and turned around and stuck them all in concentration camps, while Chinese-Americans were held above them as “model citizens”. Hell, Chinese-American kids walked around wearing pins that said “I am Chinese” so that they wouldn’t get mistaken for Japanese and beaten up.

      It was greed. It’s astounding and horrifying to think that at one point in time, a small, SMALL handful of men in Europe controlled most of the known world.

      there is a very simple reason for why the Spanish killed all those Chinese people. It’s because they were conditioned to see anyone Other as sub-human and not worthy of life or respect. The same thing happened in Australia where until very recently indigenous Aborigines were classified as animals. And it was open season on them, it was okay to kill them. When you are conditioned to think that people are not people because of whatever arbitrary features they have on the outside, it’s easy to destroy them. I think it’s super fucked up that the emperor condoned it. I don’t think it’s justifiable, and in that way he is also complicit in Spanish imperialism in the Philippines (I really can’t speak to Chinese imperialism there because I don’t know enough history) but I also don’t think that what he did should be compared to Western European brutality. I don’t think the relationships that non-Western countries have with each other should be compared to the relationships that they have with the West as a whole, because the narratives and sociological implications are so different. These comparisons oversimplify everything and allow countries to justify their horrible actions by saying “Well they did it too.” All of it is inexcusable.

      Where they didn’t use force, they used the Bible. a “nicer” way of forcing people to think the way they did, “assimilate or die.” Unnecessary intervention in the affairs of other countries.

      This is all a load of oversimplification because there is literally no way to fit all of the different, horrible ways in which Europe was able to overtake most of the world in a single post.

      As far as gender goes? The way women of color are treated in the West in media and in sexual abuse statistics should give you an indication of how they have been racially sexualized and Othered. Asian women in particular are “docile” “pretty” “childlike” and need “saving” from the oppressive Asian men by Mighty Whitey. That’s one common narrative. Amy Tan loves that trope. I can’t even blame her all the way, since she grew up in America and internalized a lot of that racism in order to assimilate. Women have never been seen as human beings, and women of color less so by the white Western-minded patriarchy that has now seeped into every place that they’ve touched. And I’m not saying patriarchy didn’t exist before in countries where the West didn’t go, or that they were right in enforcing their patriarchy, but white Western patriarchy is its own very specific form.

      quite honestly I think your professor should talk about the brutality of Europe and really emphasize it. There has been nothing else in human history like Western imperialism. maybe he should start telling the nasty truth.

      • Kieran says:

        If I recall from the first chapter of Amy Chan’s autobiography, she grew up in the U.S. and Switzerland with a strange mother and a saintly father who was a devout Christian minister. I’m not sure it’s fair to say she “internalized racism.” I assume racism is something she has pondered deeply. Is Amy Tan “Chinese”? Should we rebuke her for not writing like “a Chinese” (whatever that means) and for instead writing like the daughter of Chinese-American Christians? She is after all an English-language writer, writing in the west, for westerners, as a westerner who grew up in the west in a Christian family.

  3. Wendy says:

    did your professor leave out the part where the West loved to murder and rape and pillage and appropriate and force people sometimes to, quite literally, adapt or starve, as was the case with many Christian crusades/missionaries in Africa and Southeast Asia, where they would refuse to aid people in need unless they converted?

    this all sounds very nice– “ancient civilizations” (because those totally didn’t exist elsewhere in the world as well), “geography and climate” and “accident”. I think “accident” kills me the most because wow I’m sure imperialism and colonialism were happy accidents! I’m sure the enslavement of millions of people of color and countries and empires built basically on slave labor were happy accidents! Technology? Technology used to mass produce and henceforth exploit slave and cheap labor and the immigrants and the poor, I’m sure these were all beautiful, happy accidents.

    it sounds like he’s pissing around the idea that the West relied heavily on imperialism and brutal FORCE to dominate.

    of course, wars and brutality and conquering happened all over the world. but no region ever mobilized it in such a systematic way as the West did. imperialism still affects large parts of the world today and still plays a huge part in how, specifically, America treats other countries. and the way racism and anti-semitism run rampant in Europe.

    what I’m getting at here is that this analysis is with all due respect completely sociopathic and fails to address the enormous amount of human suffering that West imposed.

    you say “all individuals and cultures are equal”. maybe in theory, but definitely not in the way your professor has addressed the issue, with an underlying tone of Western supremacy, ignoring how much blood has been spilled. he’s talking about people’s LIVES. the lives that TO THIS DAY continue to be affected by imperialism and colonialism, from the slurs people call Asian Americans in the streets to the recent FEMA protests that decry Islam as “unfeminist”, to the beatings of Japanese citizens in Okinawa by US GIs.

    this shit is real and it cannot be simplified and glossed over by some ivory tower academia BS.

    I’ll leave you with a post written by a good friend of mine.


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Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

Writer, translator, researcher, traveler specializing in Japanese and Chinese literature.

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