Harari on the great divergence

Harari again:

… if in 1770 Europeans had no significant technological advantage over Muslims, Indians and Chinese, how did they manage in the following century to open such a gap between themselves and the rest of the world?

… After all, the technology of the first industrial wave was relatively simple. Was it so hard for Chinese or Ottomans to engineer steam engines, manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads?

The world’s first commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in Britain. By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 40,000 kilometres of railroads – but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America there were only 4,000 kilometres of tracks. In 1880, the West boasted more than 350,000 kilometres of railroads, whereas in the rest of the world there were but 35,000 kilometres of train lines (and most of these were laid by the British in India). The first railroad in China opened only in 1876. It was twenty-five kilometres long and built by Europeans – the Chinese government destroyed it the following year. In 1880 the Chinese Empire did not operate a single railroad. The first railroad in Persia was built only in 1888, and it connected Tehran with a Muslim holy site about ten kilometres south of the capital. It was constructed and operated by a Belgian company. In 1950, the total railway network of Persia still amounted to a meagre 2,500 kilometres, in a country seven times the size of Britain.

The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly. France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.

This explanation sheds new light on the period from 1500 to 1850. During this era Europe did not enjoy any obvious technological, political, military or economic advantage over the Asian powers, yet the continent built up a unique potential, whose importance suddenly became obvious around 1850. The apparent equality between Europe, China and the Muslim world in 1750 was a mirage. Imagine two builders, each busy constructing very tall towers. One builder uses wood and mud bricks, whereas the other uses steel and concrete. At first it seems that there is not much of a difference between the two methods, since both towers grow at a similar pace and reach a similar height. However, once a critical threshold is crossed, the wood and mud tower cannot stand the strain and collapses, whereas the steel and concrete tower grows storey by storey, as far as the eye can see.

What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages. When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far better than anybody else.

Chapters 16 and 17 defend this thesis. I don’t quite agree with all of the above, nor do I agree entirely with his version of this thesis, but nevertheless it might be the best popular exposition of the thesis I’ve seen yet.


  1. flavio says

    Hello, luke. I am sorry to bother you with an off-topic, but i’ve been a fan of your work since CSA. Can you indicate me some books on metaethics?

  2. Anônimo says

    “They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly.”

    This is overstated. Japan could do the trick (=occidentalization) on very short notice under the Meiji. China couldn’t, and the reason is (probably) the fact that their state was rotting since the Opium Wars. Japan’s on the other side was experiencing rapid revitalization under the Meiji restauration, and its political elite was very determined in copying West institutions (science) and values (praise for entrepreneurs / commercial success) identified with its success. Interestingly, Prussia’s model of industrialization had greater influence than the more laissez-faire promoted by the United Kingdon (then the industrial and military superpower). I found this paper by Gerhard Lehmbruch about this influence very interesting (warning: .pdf): http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gerhard_Lehmbruch/publication/255728688_The_institutional_embedding_of_market_economies_The_German_'model'_and_its_impact_on_Japan/links/00b7d5208eec4cd3ef000000.pdf

  3. Richard Hollerith says

    Nick Szabo’s blog Unenumerated is valuable and records Szabo’s attempts to understand the details of the causes of western Europe’s dominance.

  4. Anônimo says

    Is this Szabo guy the mythical creator of Bitcoin?

    I think any theory about the Great Divergence will have to take in account the following facts: (i) modern — Schumpeterian — growth needs entrepreneurial creativity (Kirzner’s “alertness”) and technological invention (Schumpeter was well aware of this point: he chided Marx for being a “populist” with regard to disparities of intelligence between entrepreneurs and common folk); (ii) modern-Schumpeterian growth need a favorable ideology or habits of the mind which guide gifted people to the production of useful, market-validated, knowledge (marketable knowledge!).

    Why this is so?

    East Asia famously have more “brains” than European folk: they are “model minorities” anywhere they establish; they earn more in European countries than people of European ancestry do. Even though this is true, and accepted by people who studied the performance of different “diasporas” (v.g. Sowell, 1997), this fact alone (“the brainer the merrier”) cannot explain why UK was the first to industrialize, nor why Japan needed to “learn” the basics of late industrialization with bureaucrats and scientists from Prussia. It explain even less why China had to wait well above one century to follow Japan’s (and Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan — and others peripheral small nations with the same ethnic composition of mainland China).

    The need of ideology and good habits of the mind (or even “institutions” if you want) is attested by the fact that the first successful “Occidentalized” east country — Meiji Japan — followed a conscious script of emulation. So did the other, early, “Chinese” occidentalizers: modern Singapore was founded by Lee Kuan Yew and other mostly Cambridge educated Chinese gentleman, who brought many ideas from their studious youth back to homeland; (b) Hong Kong was a Imperial entrepôt that absorbed many key aspects of the Britannic way of doing things; (c) etc. (really, there are other examples, even early-twentieth century Shanghai, but I don’t have the time or the knowledge to carry on).

  5. Timothy Underwood says

    I’ve spent a fair amount thinking about this and researching this, and I’m pretty sure Polyani etc who see what happened as a great divergence centered on after 1770 are just simply wrong. In terms of technology, science, and even per capita living standards Europe was way ahead in 1770. Now the difference grew at a compounding exponential pace — worsened by European imperialism actively pushing everyone else down over the nineteenth, but Europe was already hugely ahead.

    For an example of what I mean http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~nsivin/cop.pdf if the link doesn’t work google Copernicus in China — basic point of the article: The Chinese in the late eighteenth century still thought the earth was at the center of the universe because the Jesuits weren’t allowed to tell them the truth because the Catholic Church only removed prohibitions on teaching a heliocentric model then. Just because there were Chinese engineers, and scientists, and science does not mean they were playing at anything like the level the Europeans were.

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