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Book Review


Jack Goldstone, Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History, 1500-1850. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2009. Pp. viii + 184, 33.75


     Every single explanation for the rise of the West in world history is wrong—every single explanation. Jack Goldstone argues in Why Europe? that the rise of the West was contingent upon a combination of six factors, and not on one single factor, such as the Protestant work ethic, geography, colonization or exploitation of the working class. This combination of factors enabled Europe, that portion of the world that was relatively backward by the 16th century when compared to Asia and the Middle East, to suddenly make the quantum leap that enabled it to dominate a majority of the world and its people by 1850.

     According to Goldstone the key to the rise of the West was the Industrial Revolution, hardly a new and revolutionary argument. He does, however, address the more interesting question of "why didn't the Industrial Revolution start in China, India, the Middle East or Africa?" In other words, "Why Europe?" It happened in Europe, according to Goldstone, due to six factors that either built on or were directly related to one another. First, the age of exploration produced discoveries shocking enough for Europeans to throw off traditional or religious standards of knowledge. This is where Europe's backwardness actually proved to be advantageous. Asia and the Middle East had accepted newer and more correct ideas than those proposed by Greece and Rome, thus discoveries that were earth shattering in Europe were merely interesting in the East. By learning that the Greeks and Romans were drastically wrong about the continents, the heavens, and the motion of the earth, Europeans were willing to seek out new explanations for the world around them, leading to the Goldstone's second factor—Europeans looked to science and mathematics to explain the natural world. In other cultures, mathematics was employed only for accountancy, architecture and record keeping, but not to analyze natural phenomena. For that, other cultures relied on religious doctrine or cultural tradition. By trying to explain nature through math, Europeans followed a course of scientific inquiry much different than that of Asia.

     Third, because of the desire to explain nature empirically, European scientists, particularly those in Britain, explored the natural world through physical experimentation and analysis, not just through an appeal to logic and reason. This is where Goldstone narrows his explanation as to why the Industrial Revolution started in England, rather than another of Europe's major nations. On the continent, thanks to Descartes, the power of reason and the human mind was considered sufficient to deduce the answer to all questions, rejecting experimentation and observation as flawed and therefore useless, whereas in England, men like Bacon and Newton wanted empirical data. By favoring physical experimentation and the scientific method over deduction and logic, England was able to tease out the practical while the continent swam in an ocean of theories. Fourth, the English scientists' hunger for empirical data drove the production of new instruments, machines and technologies, which in turn led to further refinement of those instruments, and the development of new ones, essentially stacking invention upon invention and leading to the quintessential contraption of the Industrial Revolution: the steam engine.

     Fifth, there existed in England an atmosphere of social, political, religious and intellectual tolerance. Cultures that stymied "thinking outside the box" in any way, shape or form harmed their ability to foster innovation. Thus the shock value of the age of discovery (factor 1) paid exponential dividends later on. Finally, support for ideas is not enough. A culture must provide support for entrepreneurs, craftsmen, engineers and scientists, lest the brilliant ideas and innovations remain nothing more than ideas. In England, those with the ideas were encouraged to work with those that had the resources, leading to the development of new machines and new ideas, meaning that the process began all over again, but at a faster pace.

     While generating some interesting food for thought and class discussion, the contributions made by the book are outweighed by its drawbacks, most notably Goldstone's decision to treat his argument like the shocking conclusion in some kind of whodunit novel. Even one of the reviews that appear on the back cover refers to the book as a "historical murder mystery." Rather than divide the book into six chapters, devoting one to each of his factors, explaining and linking them together, Goldstone divides the book into eight body chapters, each explaining the reasons why Europe didn't rise to prominence (i.e. rejecting Karl Marx, Max Weber, or portions of Jared Diamond). Goldstone's thesis doesn't appear in the book until his conclusion (167). Literally 90% of the text is devoted to arguing why every scholar who has come before is wrong, rather than writing why his new theory is right. Everyone loves a good murder mystery, but this is history, not Miss Marple, and besides, half of the fun of a mystery novel is not knowing the outcome. Most readers will know before opening the book that Europe was going to end up dominating the world by the mid-nineteenth century. Therefore, stringing them along for almost two hundred pages, constantly posing the question "why Europe?" and yet not answering it until the end, may become both frustrating and annoying. The volume reads more like a an extended book-proposal stretched to meet the minimum page length for a book; explaining in great detail the need for a new interpretation, rather than offering that interpretation.

     Unfortunately, the shortcomings don't end with organization. In addition to the fact that the bulk of the book has nothing to do with the title, the dates Goldstone chose as his bookends are also misleading. Over and over Goldstone points out that Europe did not begin its ascendency until 1800, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Why then does the book need to start in 1500 and only end in the 19th century? By spending all his time on the centuries before 1800, Goldstone doesn't have the time to fully develop his six points and they come off as a repeat of the very theses he is rejecting; Europe didn't rise because of religion or government or technology, Europe rose because of religion and government and technology.

     The book has something to offer, but what it offers is presented poorly. The final chapter, for example, poses tantalizing questions regarding the West's ability to remain the dominant power in the world, pointing out that many countries in Asia are starting to catch up. The drawbacks, however, outweigh the benefits. The structure of the book needs to be flipped. The author should have spent ten pages rejecting previous theories and the other 170 arguing the thesis, not the other way around. The series editors maintain that the book is directed toward college freshmen and sophomores. Why then spend the bulk of the text explaining theories that, according to the author, are wrong? Saving the surprise until the end is only going to confuse students, especially ones with little or no prior knowledge of world history. As a supplement for an undergraduate class, especially given its size and price, Why Europe? is a miss. The book's historiographical grand tour would serve as a much better resource for graduate students studying for comprehensive exams, and its general thesis provides some ideas for history instructors to incorporate into classroom lectures and discussion; however, the book's length, cost and presentation make it a rather expensive investment for a return that could be gotten for free by simply reading a couple of the book's reviews. The question "Why Europe?" is indeed worth answering, but not in the manner Why Europe? has done it.

Chris Thomas earned his Ph.D. in European history from Texas A&M and is currently an adjunct instructor at Blinn College and Lonestar College.He can be reached at


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