IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH to convince me that Dr. Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, must write with both hands. His most recent book, the last of a trilogy, Conquests and Cultures, is a masterpiece of research and thought. In years of researching socioeconomic differences between peoples, he has laid lie to the conventional wisdom, namely that the misfortune of some groups is solely result of mistreatment and exploitation by another in the forms of racism, colonialism or multinationalism.
Sowell says neither geography nor demography is egalitarian. Let’s look at just geography. Africa is more than twice the size of Europe, but it has a shorter coastline. The European coastline constantly twists and turns, creating innumerable natural harbors, while the African coastline is smooth, with few harbors. Sowell asks how surprising it should be that international trade has played a smaller role in the economic history of Africa than of Europe, especially Western Europe. Less trade produces more isolation. No great civilization developed in isolation.
When the British crossed the Atlantic, they were able to do so because they used rudders invented in China, they navigated with trigonometry invented in Egypt, their calculations were done with numbers invented in India, and their general knowledge was preserved in letters invented by the Romans. The resulting clash between them and the native population wasn’t a clash between a British culture and an Indian culture. It was a clash between cultural developments from vast regions of the world, in the case of the British, vs. a more restricted cultural development. The cultural opportunities were unequal, and the outcomes were unequal.
Historically, large cities, as economic centers, emerged along navigable rivers and harbors. In the United States, it’s no accident that cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans and San Francisco are our old cities, and those like Denver, Phoenix and Kansas City are relatively new and didn’t become major cities until railroads and trucks were invented. Historically, water has been the cheapest way to ship goods. During the 1700s, it was cheaper to ship a ton of goods from London to Philadelphia than from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pa., a mere 60 miles away.
In Western Europe and the United States, there are navigable rivers gently flowing hundreds of miles, connecting wide areas both culturally and economically. That’s not true in Africa. The rivers of tropical Africa plunge a 1,000 feet or more on their way to the sea, with waterfalls and cascades making them navigable for only tiny distances. In Western Europe and the United States, regular rainfall and melting snows keep rivers flowing year round, but Africa has neither, so rivers rise and fall dramatically, further limiting their usefulness.
Vast cost differences between water transport and land transport affects economic activity. Gold and diamonds repay costly land transport over thousands of miles of rough terrain, but grain, coal and steel cannot. The absence of cheap transportation not only limits economic growth but cultural enrichment as well.
Geographical disparities may be suggestive of the many ways that physical settings have restricted the cultural universe available to different peoples. One revealing indication of isolation and the resulting cultural fragmentation is that African peoples are 10 percent of the world’s population but have one-third of the world’s languages.
Even if people were genetically equal and we all behaved like saints to one another, there’d be gross disparities in achievements and wealth among peoples. But that’s not what the psychobabblers would have us believe. They might argument that the reason the Himalayans didn’t emerge as seafarers and Eskimos as great farmers is because of social injustice.