Nature v. Choice: What Determines the Past, Present and Future?


As per the recent World Inequality Report 2022, released by World Inequality Lab, the poorest half of the population owns just 2% of the population whereas the richest 10% of population owns 76% of global wealth. (Lab, 2022) These are staggering numbers that have shocked the policy makers and commentators alike. In India, the case is not altogether different. With the arrival of covid-19 pandemic, a section of the middle class has been pushed towards poverty. Not only this, the region-wise inequality has affected political outcomes as well with leaders proposing different economic models to counter inequality such as- Gujarat Model, Delhi model et cetera.

Though inequality is considered to be present ever since the human civilization exists, the gap between the poorest and richest is bigger than ever before. This fact becomes starker when the living standards of the people of Europe and rest of the world are compared. With the arrival of new technology, it has been said that those who won’t have access to these new technologies would be left behind and the gap will become even more wider.

In order to stop these propositions to come true, it is important to find out the causes of inequality and seek viable solutions to them. Though the question is not new and policy makers since centuries are trying to find out the “perfect cause” of inequality in world, no tangible outcome has been achieved yet. Meanwhile, the term ‘inequality’ has stopped being used only for economic discrepancies. It has raised its ugly head in the spheres of gender, race, culture, health and education as well.

This article will seek to find the actual causes of inequality with respect to the Europe and rest of the world and what drives them. While doing so, it will consider major theories in two parts that has been proposed by various scholars before writing this article and will try to understand why those theories were not “perfect” in themselves. In the end, the author will attempt to provide a solution to counter the growing inequality.

Theory of Geographic Determinism

As already discussed in the introduction, there are multiple theories that have been proposed, each attempting to explain the causes of inequality, especially between the Europeans and rest of the world. Among these the prominent one is the theory of geographic determinism.

The theory of Geographic Determinism (herein after “the GD theory”) challenges the assumption that European Superiority is the result of any type of intellectual, moral, or intrinsic genetic superiority enjoyed by the people of Europe. It also attempts to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have endured and conquered others. According to this theory, environmental disparities are the primary source of the power and technological divides between human cultures. These disparities are then perpetuated by a variety of positive feedback loops. As per the major authors of this theory, when cultural or genetic variations have benefited Eurasians (such as the development of communication system or evolved resistance to microbial diseases among them), these head start benefits did not arise naturally from the Eurasian genomes but rather as a result of the influence of geography on people and their society.

As per this theory the causes of present-day inequality are rooted in the geography of a place as inherited from the nature. The geographic factors of a place provide certain advantages to it as compared to other places and these advantages are further amplified by other factors that, in the long run, creates unequal balance. Among the various authors that have professed this, the most prominent one includes Jared Diamond who has advocated this view of Geographic Determinism in his various books and papers.

A brief outline of this theory of Geographic Determinism has been provided in subsequent paragraphs.

According to the GD theory, opportunity and necessity rather than genius were more likely factors in the development of Eurasian culture. In other words, progress of a civilization is not the outcome of superhuman intellect, but rather the culmination of a series of advances, each made feasible by a specific set of circumstances. This proposition clearly discards the theory of racial superiority which was used as a premise to state that progress of a region (specifically, the progress of European region) is due to the racial superiority of the people of that region, conversely implying that the people of the other regions are racially inferior.

The transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe to an established agricultural community is the first step towards civilization. As per the Diamond “This transition must take place under a number of circumstances, including the availability of high-carbohydrate vegetation which can withstand a climate that is dry enough to permit storage, and access to animals that are docile enough to be domesticated and adaptable enough to survive captivity. Control over animals and crops results in food surpluses. People with surpluses are able to specialize in occupations other than feeding themselves, which helps the population increase.”

Specialization and population increase work together to create a chain reaction of social and technical advancements. Large societies give rise to governing strata of society and along with that develops the bureaucracies, which in the long run give rise to the formation of civilizations and nation-states.

Despite the fact that agriculture developed in many regions of the different continents, Eurasia benefited from a head-start, since there were more appropriate species of plant and animals for domestication there. Specifically speaking, Eurasia is home to goats, sheep, and cattle in addition to wide range of wheat, pulses et cetera that are high in protein. Apart from being high in protein, the cereals of Europe were also easier to sow and store.

Early Western Asian civilizations discovered more beneficial animals in neighboring areas as their trading networks expanded, that can be used in transportation. In comparison to South America where hardly any big animal species were present, researchers found lists of 13 species of big animals above 100 pounds (45 kg) that have been domesticated in Eurasia[1]. Following the end of the Pleistocene, there were fewer useful species in Australia and North America.

Although from the recently concluded findings it can be said that African elephants are capable of being tamed, it is painstaking to breed them in. Zebras and onagers, who are close cousins of the horse biologically, have shown to be untamable. A conservative count of domesticated species is cited by Diamond that can be an illustration of the Anna Karenina principle, according to which many potential species are incapable of domestication due to a number of important obstacles.

Cows for milk, bullocks for ploughing and transport, as well as docile animals like pigs and poultry, were tamed by the Eurasians. They also raised goats and sheep for their skins, wool, and cheese. Large domesticated animals like horses and camels provided the significant military and financial benefits of mobile transportation.

These benefits were boosted by Eurasia’s huge continental size and lengthy longitudinal distance. Given such a size, there were more domesticable plant and animal species available. Its east-west direction has also played a significant role in the movement of people and empires from one side of the continent to the other while maintaining the similar latitude. This was crucial because it allowed them to maintain the same “food production system,” which allowed them to cultivate the similar crops and raise the same sort of animals from the present-day areas of Scotland to Siberia, thanks to a compatible climate and seasonal cycle. Throughout the history, they have done this all across the world, spreading technologies, languages, and illnesses.

Contrarily, the Americas and Africa’s north-south orientation made it extremely difficult to adapt crops that were grown at one latitude for usage at other latitudes Similar to how America was divided by the significant differences in climate from top to bottom, Africa was also fractured. Plants and animals that thrived in one region were most likely not able to spread to other regions where they should be able to thrive because it was not possible for them to survive the harsh intervening environment.

The division of labour was made feasible by the ample food supply and the dense populace it sustained. The emergence of non-farming experts like scribes and craftspeople increased economic development and technical advancement. With the aid of steel and weapons in recent centuries, Europeans were finally able to conquer the inhabitants of other continents, especially after the local populations had been decimated by the spread of infectious illnesses.

Due to its dense population, extensive commerce, and close closeness to livestock, Eurasia saw significant disease transmission. Viral diseases were caused by close contact between animal and human populations. Most Eurasians were given genetic variants by natural selection that made them less prone to certain diseases, and since diseases were constantly spreading, adults had evolved immunity to a variety of infections. Instead of the other way around, when Europeans first arrived in the Americas, native Americans were devastated by European illnesses to which they lacked immunity. In the tropical parts of Africa and southern parts of Asia, where yellow fever and malaria are common and have earned these countries the nickname “white man’s tomb,” the “trade” in illnesses was a bit more evenly distributed.

Syphilis is said to have originated in the Americas, some experts believe Hippocrates was aware of it, while others believe Columbus and his successors introduced it to Europe from the Americas. European illnesses spread by pathogens wiped off native populations, allowing relatively few Europeans to retain power.

In contrast to other Eurasian powers like China, western European cultures have been the predominant colonizers, according to Diamond’s proposed geographic causes. He asserted that Europe’s topography, which is bounded by mountains, rivers, and coastlines, favors the balkanization of the continent into smaller, more compact nation-states. China, India, and Mesopotamia were among the earliest regions to see the rise of advanced civilization. Since they were easy to capture, they were ruled by imperial empires where commerce, industry, science and innovation flourished for years, while Europe’s fragmented society remained archaic.

Later on in its evolution, western Europe’s disjointed political system actually worked to its favor. Monolithic, isolated empires without significant rivalry might maintain bad policies for a long time without suffering immediate repercussions, as happened with China. It failed to materialize the naval potential that it had because the rules of China stopped the construction of mercantile ships. In an exact opposite episode, rivalry from close neighbors meant that governments in Western Europe were always looking for ways to improve their economic and technical prowess, if they didn’t improve, they were outcompeted and/or invaded. The fast advancement of knowledge, which could not be stopped, persisted while the dominant powers changed.

Though the religion had a very stronghold in Europe, but the imperative to constantly innovate overtook the conservative beliefs of the church. As a result, new ideas and beliefs were promoted that led to miraculous results in the long run. This imperative was found wanting in the China, and in other parts of world for that matter.

Therefore, while it is not the case that Europe region dominated almost all spheres all life during all the period of history, it is certainly possible that the region of Europe benefited from these feedback loops that are discussed herein. So, we can say with surety here that the graph of inequality of Europe with respect to rest of the World is not linear but rather a wavering one.

Geographic Determinism Inagriculture

As per the GD theory, cities are reliant on agriculture because they need a plentiful supply of food. Division of labor gives people the flexibility to explore other activities, such as healthcare and education, while farmers take care of the task of producing food.

The lack of domesticable wild edible plant species is the primary barrier to the development of agriculture. Due to the availability of nutritious and simple-to-domesticate wild wheat and pulse species in the Fertile Crescent, farming developed there early on. whereas, the farmers in American continent had to battle to transform teosinte, a likely wild parent of maize, into a usable grain.

The existence of “big” domesticable animals, reared for various purposes such as food and transport, was crucial in the transition from a hunting community to a settled agricultural community. Only 14 domesticated big animal species are listed by Diamond as existing in the globe and out of those, the five most practical animals are all descended from Eurasia-exclusive species. Only two of the remaining nine animals are native to a place other than the temperate zone of Eurasia, the llama and alpaca, both of which are found in South America.

Surprisingly few animals are appropriate for domestication because of the Anna Karenina principle. As Jared Diamond explained in his book “Six requirements are listed by Diamond, including that the animal be sufficiently docile, sociable, willing to procreate in captivity, and possessing a social order of authority. No one has ever domesticated any of the numerous African species, including native Elephant species. Many megafauna species that might have become candidate species had they survived the Holocene extinction event were eradicated, and Diamond contends that the rate of survival is worse on continents where animals that had never encountered humans before were faced with humans who had already devised innovative hunting devices. (such as the continents of Americas and Australia).”

 Domesticated animals like chicken and pigs may be useful to an agricultural civilization in a variety of ways, but they are insufficient on their own to support a large-scale agrarian culture due to their small size. The capacity to cultivate a considerably wider variety of land and soil types would be conceivable by the employment of bigger animals that can play their role in ploughing of the ground. Large domestic animals play a significant part in the long-distance movement of people and commodities, providing nations that own them with significant military and economic benefits.

What Determines the Spread of Germs

In the latter period of European colonization of the Americas, it is estimated that illnesses brought by the Europeans caused the deaths of 95% of the native inhabitants. Infectious illnesses like measles and smallpox claimed the lives of numerous people. Australian and South African observations of the same situations were made. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and other illnesses decimated the Khoikhoi and Aboriginal Australian populations.

The GD theory hypothesizes that the majority of these zoonotic diseases were only produced and riffed in those cluster of human habitation that were densely populated in response to the question of why diseases unique to the American continents did not wipe off Europeans.

The majority of pandemic diseases, according to theory, are derived from identical diseases in domestic animals. Compared to indigenous societies of America, European societies acquired a diverse basket of pernicious pathogens at a very early stage. Because of this early exposure, people had developed immunity through natural selection over a longer period of time.

In fact, this can be explained with the help of simple causation chain-

  • Settled agriculture gave rise to use of animals
  • This led to generation of surplus that enabled the growth of large population
  • Large population living in close association with animals developed immunity to microbes.
  • When inter-continental trade increases the people of Europe travelled to other places where people were not immune to these microbes and the result were epidemics.

 Criticism of the Theory of Geographic Determinism and Problems Related to it.

The theory of Geographic determinism has overly emphasized on the natural and geographic factors. It has failed to take into account that there are wide range of other factors that are responsible for the development of a place and conversely, in the causes of inequality.

The theory has taken various things for granted and is relying on large number of fragile assumptions. One such weak assumption is related to agriculture and hunting-gathering. Agriculture and hunting and gathering may coexist, thus the change is not always one-way. When there are any extreme circumstances in nature due to which it is not possible to continue practicing agriculture then it is quite plausible that agriculture communities may fall back upon the traditional hunting gathering way of survival.

The role of human agency in the decision-making process related to progress and innovation has been given a short shrift. Also, various other authors have noted in their work the contribution that a political institution has played in the growth and wellbeing of European nations. All these factors are not given due attention while professing this theory which makes it less credible.

But after going through this theory, the questions that comes to one’s mind are-

  1. If everything is related to geographic factors that one inherits from nature then whether the fact that some places are more developed than others and the consequent inequality because of it are pre-determined?
  2. What role the choices of an individual plays in the progress?
  3. What role does a political institution plays in the development of a place?

The second part of this article will try to explore and seek answers to these questions while exploring other theories that have been proposed by various scholars. While attempting this endeavor the, the purpose would be to find answer to the question raised in the introduction – What causes inequality and what can be the best solution to ameliorate this evil. 


Piyush Gupta
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