I just finished reading Gun, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Its been out for a few years, but its one of those books that is referenced enough that it is probably worth while reading. The book explains why history was shaped like it did around the world. Why did Europe colonize the Americas and not vice versa? Why didn’t native Australians have advanced farming and herding? Why didn’t the natives of North America, who had some of the richest farmland in the world, develop more agriculture?
His answer is that the crops that could be cultivated and the animals that could be domesticated weren’t evenly spread out around the globe. Most of the crops and animals that could be used were found in Eurasia, and that the East/West layout of most of Eurasia lent it self to the disperals of these crops/animals better than the north/south layout of the Americas or Africa did. As such, they were able to advance faster having better crops to start with. Also, because they had domesticated animals sooner and had them longer, diseases which spread from animals had longer to develop resistances in Eurasia, and made conquest of those places without as many domesticated animals possible. (ie: When smallpox was introudced to the Americas it killed a large percentage of the population, but there was no corresponding disease in the Americas that killed off Europeans.)
His thesis makes a lot of sense in the big scheme of things when comparing different continents, or even different ethnic groups over time, but seems to break down the closer we get to the present, when crops and animals were distributed all over the globe. It explains history over thousands of years or even over centuries, but it doesn’t really explain the rise of Hitler or Lenin. His answer might be that in the big scheme of things, Hitler and Lenin don’t really matter. The further away we get from the 20th Century, the less the individual players that shaped the Century matter.
Of course, if all of human history had been documended like the past 200 years, we might not have to revert to broad sweeping theories.
I’m now reading 1421: The Year China Discovered America.