Guns, Germs, and Steel

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* Book: Guns, Germs, and Steel. By Jared Diamond.



Peter Turchin on the Topography Effect on European and Chinese History

= Peter Turchin disputes the geographical theory of Jared Diamond:

"The contrast between politically fragmented Europe and perennially centralized China has been often noted. It is worth pointing out, however, that this difference is not quite as black-and-white as it is typically portrayed. Large chunks of Europe (quite comparable in size to Chinese empires) were unified at various times. These polities include not only the Roman Empire, but also the Carolingian Empire, and, more fleetingly, Napoleonic France and the Third Reich. At the other end of Eurasia, China was not always under a centralized state. There were numerous periods of disunity and fragmentation, most notably the three centuries from the collapse of the Han Dynasty to the Sui/Tang unification. Nevertheless, even though it is not quite as stark as it is often portrayed, the difference between the western and eastern ends of Eurasia is real, and Scheidel brings an impressive array of figures to buttress this conclusion. The starting point of Escape from Rome is an observation that two thousand years ago two quite simi-lar political organizations, the Roman Empire and Han China, dominated western and eastern Eurasia, respectively. It was after these empires failed that the “First Great Divergence” came about. In Europe, periods of unification became more fleeting and periods of disunity longer, while in China, on the contrary, periods of fragmentation following recurrent imperial collapse became shorter. Most authors point to geography to explain this divergence. One of the best-known arguments was popularized by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel(Diamond 1997). Diamond noted that China has a smooth coastline, while Europe has an indented coastline, with many peninsulas that were homes to independent countries. According to him, unlike China, Europe is transected by mountain ranges (the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Carpathians) that split it up into different realms. Andin Europe major rivers flow radially, while in China the two most important rivers flow parallel to each other. Let us call this the “Topography Effect. ”The first problem with this explanation is that inland seas and straits do not have to be dividers. The Mediterranean is the best example, as it was hugely important as a conduit for cultivars, genes, ideas, armies, and goods. The Phoenicians and the Greeks spread to the western end of the Mediterranean, with the former taking the southern route and the latter going along the northern coast. The Roman Empire would have been impossible without this Mediterranean connectivity (Horden and Purcell 2000, Manning 2018). The population of Rome itself (around a million at its imperial height) could be fed only by bringing grain from North Africa and Egypt by sea. Two maps in Escape from Rome(Figures 3.5 and 3.6) showing the time costs and financial costs of transfers between Rome and the imperial provinces illustrate this idea graphically. The Baltic Sea, the “Northern Mediterranean,” was similarly a connector, not a divider. Furthermore, even after the Roman Empire fell, the peninsulas of Europe continued to be well connected by inland and coastal seas and often found themselves within single states. Thus, both Byzantium and its successor, the Ottoman Empire, unified most of the Mediterranean from the Maghreb to Egypt, the Balkans, and Anatolia. The Spanish controlled Italy for many centuries and more recently Franceconquered Algeria. The situation today, with each peninsula controlled by a separate country, is unusual, historically speaking. Unlike inland seas, mountain ranges are clearly dividers. However, although Europe is divided by a series of mountain ranges(Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathians) into the northern and Mediterranean parts, north of these ranges the continent is quite flat. The North European Plain runs from Bordeaux in southern France (where it is narrowest) through Germany and Poland to Russia (where it becomes very broad). There are no significant barriers within it to the movement of armies and conquest. As a result, Paris fell to the Russians and to the Germans (on several occasions), while Moscow fell to the Poles, the French, and (nearly) the Germans. Such con-quests did not lead to lasting unification, but the reason is not topography. China is much more cut up by mountains. One of its most important cities, Xian, the capital of the first unifying empire (Qin) and many later ones, is cut off from the rest of China by mountains. In fact, the area around Xian is known as the “Land between Passes,” and some Chinese historians have argued that it served as the unifying center precisely because it is a good defensive base from which to expand. The logic of this argument, of course, is the precise opposite of the Topography Effect hypothesis. Other mountain ranges cut the Sichuan Basin and southern China off from northern China. So, the topography of China is much more complex than that of Europe. The eastern plain of China is indeed flat. But if topography were the most important factor, we would expect that China would be repeatedly unified from the Yangtze valley or the lower Huang He (where it is reliably navigable). As we shall see below, this is not the case. Contrary to the Topography Effect hypothesis, China was in fact unlucky with the situation of its rivers. Whereas Europe has rivers flowing in all directions, making it is easy to travel both east-west and north-south, China is dominated by rivers flowing from west to east. As a result, it is very difficult to move bulk goods in the north-south direction. The Chinese solved this problem with a truly remarkable piece of engineering—the Grand Canal (length = 1,776 km). But it was not the Canal that made unification possible; it was political unification that made building the Canal possible. In a recent working paper Fernández-Villaverde and colleagues (2020) developed a dynamic model that explored the effect of topographical features and the location of productive agricultural land on state formation in Eurasia. They found that in their model a core region of high agricultural productivity in eastern China (which they however misname Northern China) plays a central role in China’s recurring political unification. However, model-predicted origins of unification cluster along the east coast of China between the mouths of the Yangtze and Liao Rivers. Only 1 out of 49 unification centers is located near Xian in the north-west, even though Xian was historically the most common unification center. Such a major mismatch between model predictions and empirical patterns throws serious doubt on the authors’ conclusion that their “fractured-land” hypothesis is supported. To summarize, in my opinion, the differences in geographic “backbones” of Europe versus China—the configuration of the coastlines, mountain chains, and major rivers—do not help in explaining the contrast between fragmented Europe and united China. Scheidel’s conclusion is more generous in that he concedes some explanatory value to the Topography Effect. But he immediately qualifies this con-cession by pointing out that “it is imperative to expand our analysis beyond coast-lines, mountains, rivers, and soils to consider a more specific and arguably even more powerful factor: proximity to the steppe.” Here we are in agreement, which should not be surprising as much of the section on “the steppe effect” (pp. 270–81) in the book relies on research by my colleagues and myself (Turchin 2006, 2009, Turchin et al. 2013, Bennett 2020)"


More information

Research Articles

* Geography is not destiny: A quantitative test of Diamond's axis of orientation hypothesis. By Angela M. Chira, Russell D. Gray and Carlos A. Botero. Evolutionary Human Sciences , Volume 6 , 2024 , e5; DOI:


"Our analyses show that although societies that share similar ecologies are more likely to share cultural traits, the Eurasian continent is not significantly more ecologically homogeneous than other continental regions. Our findings highlight the perils of single factor explanations and remind us that even the most compelling ideas must be thoroughly tested to gain a solid understanding of the complex history of our species."