Many reasons have been given for the West’s dominance over the last 500 years. But, Ian Morris argues, its rise to global hegemony was largely due to geographical good fortune.
... Most people, at some point or another, have wondered why the West rules. There are theories beyond number. Perhaps, say some, westerners are just biologically superior to everyone else....
Explaining why the West rules calls for a different kind of history than usual, one stepping back from the details to see broader patterns, playing out over millennia on a global scale. When we do this the first thing we see is the biological unity of humanity, which flatly disproves racist theories of western rule.
Our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago and has spread across the world in the last 60,000 years. By around 30,000 years ago, older versions of humanity, such as the Neanderthals, were extinct and by 10,000 years ago a single kind of human – us – had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. This dispersal allowed humanity’s genes to diverge again, but most of the consequences (such as the colour of skin, eyes, or hair) are, literally, only skin deep and those mutations that do go deeper (such as head shape or lactose tolerance) have little obvious connection to why the West rules.
Lactose tolerance is not obviously relevant? Here's a bit about a non-Western set of conquerors from Wikipedia:
China is particularly notable as a place of poor tolerance, whereas in Mongolia and the Asian steppes horse milk is drunk regularly. This tolerance is thought to be advantageous, as the nomads do not settle down long enough to process mature cheese.
Morris goes on:
A proper answer to this question must start from the fact that wherever we go – East, West, North, or South – people are all much the same.
... Humans are all much the same, wherever we find them; and, because of this, human societies have all followed much the same sequence of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West.
... Humans may all be much the same, wherever we find them, but the places we find them in are not. Geography is unfair and can make all the difference in the world.
... So what do we learn from all this history? Two main things, I think. First, since people are all much the same,
As for the title of Morris's article, "Latitudes not Attitudes," I'm reminded of a more perceptive observer's conclusion:
It's those changes in latitudes,
changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same.
As I wrote in my review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel 13 years ago:
Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it's hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection.