December 08, 2009

Review: The Eurasian Miracle

The central argument of Jack Goody's The Eurasian Miracle is that there never was a European miracle at all, rather the industrial revolution and what followed it have their roots in bronze age Eurasian culture. Goody argues that throughout the history of the vast continent of Eurasia the pattern has been alternation of leadership rather than one single part of the continent leading towards modernity: in the 900s China led the continent forwards developing printing and gunpowder, Europe led it in the 1800s with the creation of industrialisation. He dismisses all models that claim an exclusive role for Europe in the creation of capitalism, pointing out that mercantile elites thrived in India and China before the European economy got going, indeed that manufacturing too was in part stolen from China by ceramic workers and silk producers in the West. Trade routes bound East and West together across the steppe and the seas and Chinese and Indian traders were just as active as European ones in formenting those routes. He suggests that long distance trade has been a feature of the world since antiquity: with for example an embossed pot with Richard I of England's seal on it turning up in the middle of Ghana in the later middle ages.

Goody's argument is convincing and the essay is interesting. Basically his suggestion that there was alternation rather than a consistant European lead over the East makes sense. There is no such thing as the Needham question, or rather insofar as it does exist, the question only relates to the post 1600 development of the European economy. This position is bold and contradicts the work of people like David Landes. But it does ultimately make much more sense of what we know to have happened in history than the position that Europe inherently led the world: for a start what Goody points out are the simularities between the cultures at either end of the Eurasian continent. Bourgeois taste for example formed the elite foodstuffs both of modern France and modern India and China- possibly modern Mexico as well. Mercantile and manufacturing activities have thrived in the East and the West. Innovations have never been an exclusively European preserve: and indeed it is much more common for no one part of the super continent to be the author than it is for one part. So for example Mesopotamian mathematics was taken up in Greece and India refined, transmitted to Arabia who refined it again and exported it again both to the East and the West.

Goody's book does have some weaknesses. He proposes two alternations- one of which is geographical and the other is theological. That the societies within Eurasia went through processes of secularisation and religious thought and that secularisation was much more fruitful than religion for advance. I am not so sure about that- firstly the great age of humanism was a great age of religion- Sir Thomas More who Goody cites as an example of a secular intellect went to the scaffold for his faith. Secondly religion could often be tied to intellectual innovation- the first public inventor of logarithms, Jean Napier, did so so he could map out the coming of the period of the millenium. Furthermore there are some other assertions that I would question that Goody makes: were universities that key to European progress- by the late seventeenth century in England both Oxford and Cambridge stagnated and no other university emerged to rival them until Edinburgh in the 18th Century. Were merchants always irreligious- the evidence of the enthusiasm for independency in the City of London in the 17th Century again hits back at that. The Italian Renaissance may not have been accompanied by economic recovery as Peter Burke's work makes clear.

There are numerous other instances where I would quarell with his particular interpretation but this is an interpretative essay rather than a supported monograph, and I think that as an essay it succeeds in its purpose. It does repeat itself and occasionally the prose is irritating- but the overall point is absolutely right- there was nothing essential that made European economic development certain and if we are to search for the roots of that development, things common across Eurasia- its vast extent and capacity for inland trade, the invention of writing, are likely to be more important than issues central to Europe. Ultimately modernity has no identifiable parents, it is an orphan whose fathers and mothers are the entire world.


Vino S said...

I tend to agree with this. It's a bit like the argument laid out in Guns, Germs and Steel. Eurasia had the advantage of more domesticatable plants and animals than other places. The ability to tap into this enabled the growth of food surpluses, which fed the growth of cities and which freed up more people for innovation and developing technology.

James Higham said...

Marco Polo would possibly agree with this.

edmund said...

i agree with all your criticism and it sounds na interesting book. I also basicaly agree wtih Vilno/ Diamond-certianly it's a very very important factor.

having said that from your (gracchi) description it seems to go too far.

having said that see this chart for example and bear in mind this is when everyone's gdp is growing- see the degree to whihc europe expands in the 19th century

siilary see delong's admittedly wild guesses- but i don't think they're wrong enough to affect my point particualry post AD - between 1800-1900 growth-driven by the western world is equal to the entire world growth till that piont (and i think it's a lot less driven by world populartiotn growth

Euroasia had important differences-but what happens in the 19th century-and even the 18th in western europe and indirecty drives the rest of the world is qualitive and quantively different from the rest of world economic history. It's not just a continutiaon of a longshandting euroasian story-

though no doubt developmjetn common to China, india , latin Christendom etc by 1700 etc (and in many ways with China etc) being more developed was key to what followed-there is also something different in the western story as well.