Dumb Luck in Historical Development

Posted by {"login"=>"dvollrath", "email"=>"[email protected]", "display_name"=>"dvollrath", "first_name"=>"", "last_name"=>""} on August 12, 2015 · 7 mins read

I took advantage of a week of vacation to read through some books that had been piling up (queuing up? Not sure the right idiom for a Kindle). One was Philip Hoffman's Why Did Europe Conquer the World? This, on its face, is another entry in a long line of global history books that argue Western European economic and colonial dominance is, at its heart, due to a rather specific characteristic: disease tolerance, or cows, or a knobbly coastline, etc. etc. But Hoffman's work is different from these in a crucial respect that I'll try to explain.

Hoffman's entry attributes Europe's dominance to gunpowder technology, and the ability to use it very efficiently. I don't know that there is anything terribly controversial about saying European nations had an advantage in firepower by 1600, a distinct advantage by 1700, and a huge advantage by 1800. You could probably quibble with exact dates, or with the right statistics to use to measure firepower, but I'm not interested in that kind of argument (and I would certainly lose that argument to Philip Hoffman).

I'm more interested in what Hoffman does with this historical set of facts. In the book, he develops a model (summarized in words in the text, mathematically derived in an appendix) that is an attempt to explain why Europe got such a lead. It is a model of learning-by-doing in gunpowder technology, but where learning-by-doing only occurs if you actually fight. Hence, in Hoffman's model there are four conditions for rapid development of gunpowder technology: frequent war, lots of resources expended on those wars, use of gunpowder specifically in those wars, and few barriers to adoption on new technology. The model is fine as it is. I'm not sure you need all the math, as the general ideas are clearly explained, and it isn't like he's after some kind of strict numerical simulation.

But the model is general, in that it applies at all times and in all places, and there is deep attribute that differs for Europe. Hoffman instead explains that Europe happened to meet the four conditions because of contingent historical events. In other words, Europe randomly found itself with a political setting that encouraged many high-stakes wars that involved gunpowder. Its lead was not due to some unique European characteristic, but rather was luck of the draw.

An acknowledgement like this, of the contingency or luck involved in historical development, is very rare in explanations of historical development. It is what Hoffman does very differently than most. The mistake that other global history books often make is to assume that because Europe was uniquely able to dominate the world economically and colonially, this must have a unique, causal explanation. And that is not true. It could all be a series of coincidences.

The right null hypothesis for this kind of work on historical development has to be "it was all pure dumb luck". That doesn't mean it was pure dumb luck, just that this should be the benchmark against which you evaluate the historical evidence. Hoffman, without saying so explicitly, does this kind of hypothesis test.

Here's what I mean. Let's pretend it is 1492, and we put 50 world leaders (Henry VII of England, Isabella, Charles VIII of France, the current Ming emperor, the Mamluk Sultan, etc..) in a room, each with a coin. Heads means their gunpowder technology gets better. Tails means it stays the same. They start flipping the coins, and after say 200 flips (years?) we see who has the most heads, and hence the most powerful gunpowder technology.

Yes, the expected value of heads is 100 for everyone, and yes, the average value across the 50 rulers is going to be about 100. But someone is going to have the most, and someone is going to have the least. I ran this a few times on the computer, and you always end up with a leader having about 114 heads, and a loser having about 86. Pure chance predicts that there will be a "gunpowder gap" (to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove). That's the null hypothesis at work.

Hoffman essentially says that this is what happened. Europe and the rest of the world were playing by the same rules, with the same underlying characteristics, but Europe came up heads a few times more often than anyone else. If we could repeat world history over and over, Europe would end up being colonized as much as becoming the colonizer.

If you want to argue for some kind of unique European characteristic that systematically led to their lead in firepower, then you have to first argue that Europe's lead in firepower was larger than we could expect to arise by pure chance. You have to first reject the null. That is, you would need to convince us that some European countries had hit heads 140 or 150 times. The odds of this are so preposterous (around 0.000000000000137) that we can reject the null, and hence there must be some systematic advantage for Europe. Only then should you start speculating about what the systematic advantage for Europe was.

Most global history books or theories jump right to the "speculating about systematic advantages" part, ignoring the need to reject the null first. So I give Hoffman credit here. He saw a correlation between European states and higher firepower, but did not immediately assume that this was a statistically significant correlation. He was willing to accept that this correlation - while meaningful in giving Europe an advantage - did not necessarily imply some kind of deep structural advantage for Europe.

Are there any deep structural advantages that Europe had? Maybe. But my guess is that a good portion (over 50%?) of the reason Europe advanced ahead of other areas was dumb luck, a series of fortunate accidents and coincidences. We are generally trained to look for systematic explanations, so being at peace with this randomness is difficult, but probably something we should get used to. A tip of the hat to Hoffman for his effort in that direction.

I feel like there is a Nick Crafts article from the mid-80's(?) that has a similar argument about the British IR. That is, just because England had a particular characteristic does not mean that characteristic was crucial to the IR, or even that it mattered for the IR. Can't seem to place it, though. Help?