Dumb Luck in Historical Development

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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?

38 thoughts on “Dumb Luck in Historical Development

  1. The Crafts article is “Industrial Revolution in England and France: Some Thoughts on the Question, “Why was England First?”, Economic History Review (30:3) 1977. It was required reading on the syllabus for graduate economic history where I’m studying.

  2. I appreciate you pointing out the possibility that chance led to European superiority. However, doesn’t European geography, namely that its hard to conquer all of it, contribute to European superiority with guns. In 1492 I would expect Europe to have a significant majority of heads of states with access to gunpowder. That fact, which also implies more wars in Europe, suggests that if gunpowder is the explanation for the success of Europe, the technological superiority of European gunpowder would be due to geography, not chance.

  3. Hoffman attributes the divergence of Europe from the rest of Eurasia, ultimately, to the former’s unusual degree of political fragmentation. That fragmentation led to interstate competition which induced technological innovation. The puzzle of European fragmentation is a pretty old question, and traditionally it’s been attributed to geography. Hoffman departs from the tradition in rejecting geography as the cause of European fragmentation and instead stresses cultural evolution in response to contingent events (Christianity, fall of Rome, barbarians, etc.).

    So it’s ultimately a “unique culture” explanation. But all “unique culture” explanations of the rise of the West depend on path dependence from one-off, not-necessarily repeatable contingencies. I mean, does anyone argue the Protestant Reformation was not a contingent event ? Yet there’s a whole “culturalist” literature ultimately deriving from Weber’s interpretation of the impact of that contingent event.

    So I don’t think there’s any novelty in Hoffman’s “unique culture” explanation. What’s unique is that Hoffman appeals to cultural evolution models as developed by Peter Turchin, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, Alex Messoudi, and other biologists. Turchin’s social-evolution via war is obviously a major influence on Hoffman.

    • “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.”

      I think Hoffman’s argument is more like Europe and China have two completely separate tournaments, and in the European tournament the coin was flipped many many more times than in the Chinese tournament — because there were so many more European states, relatively few enemies for China, gunpowder was not useful against China’s main enemy, etc.

      • I don’t think it is just a matter of more flips. That leaves out the critical causal mechanism behind the hypothesis: selection on culturally transmitted gunpowder technology that biases the outcomes in favor of more efficient and destructive variants.

      • The coin tossing experiment that fits the book’s stylised facts better: 100 European rulers flip a coin every year for 300 years. 10 Asian rulers flip a coin every 5-10 years for 300 years.

      • We’re going to get into the weeds trying to use this analogy too much, but here we go. Why did Europe get to flip more coins? And if it is because Europe was more fragmented, which it was, then why was it more fragmented? One answer is that it was the result of chance (prior to the gunpowder coin-flipping), as Charlemagne’s descendants couldn’t quite keep it together, and Charles V couldn’t quite keep the empire together. Another answer is that there is something fundamentally different about Europe – meaning deeper in the past, that necessitated it being fragmented.

        I don’t necessarily think that (1) is right. There may be fundamental geographic factors at work in keeping Europe broken up. But we should start with the default assumption (the null) being that it was chance, and establish that Europe’s fragmentation was more than we could possibly expect due to chance.

    • In China’s case many of the wars don’t even count as a coin toss because one of Hoffman’s conditions is the preferential use of gunpowder technology. And China’s main enemies were nomads against whom gunpowder technology was not nearly as useful. The exposure to nomads is clearly a matter of geography…

      And another of Hoffman’s 4 conditions is high spending per capita on war. Europe’s was very high, China and Mughal India’s much lower. But this difference obviously had something to do with the size of the polities and also the agricultural base. Again, more a matter of geography.

      • I feel like the divergence between Western and Eastern Europe in use of gunpowder supports the nomad/geographic-proximity-to-them argument. Eastern Europe (particularly Russia, Lithuania, etc) were much more exposed to the same enemies (and similar battle terrain) that China was and so found less use for gunpowder in their early wars. The difference is slight, because of ready exposure to Western Europe and its conflicts, but there was a difference in standard practice.

      • But if China were fragmented, then the coastal areas would have been insulated from nomads the same way that Western Europe was by eastern Europe. So again, why was Europe fragmented and China not? And can we definitively reject pure chance?

      • I’m currently reading David Landes’ ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’. He discusses this.

        China invented gunpowder, but used it in low density form where you got the flash and bang. When your main enemies are horsemen and internal rebels, this is sufficient.

        Only in Europe, where similar armies were pitched against each others, was there the incentive to make the incremental improvements in gunpowder technology to make better guns and cannon.

      • But why are similar armies packed together in the first place. Hoffman doesn’t deny the proximate cause of European gunpowder dominance (lots of practice, basically). But that doesn’t imply that Europe was uniquely suited to that outcome given initial conditions. But then the great question is what we mean by initial conditions? Post Neolithic revolution? Post-Roman collapse?

    • Whether Hoffman’s got an original take on the culture (fragmentation, etc..) is a different question. I agree, his is not some bold new theory.

      What I do give him credit for is looking at this fragmentation, and *not* instantly casting about for some even deeper meaning to it. Some series of historical accidents gave Europe fragmentation, and then it entered this tournament type model where the culture evolved along with gunpowder warfare. But the origin of the fragmentation need not be something that necessarily had to happen. Think of this thought experiment – if we reran world history 10,000 times, would Europe always end up with the gunpowder lead?

      • No, my point is that any cultural theory is a chance or contingent explanation, at least in the initial conditions and before culture determines later outcomes by some kind of persistence and path dependence. There are dozens and dozens of variations on “Europe rose because of [ Protestant Christianity or Graeco-Roman heritage or Judaeo-Christian values or liberalism-individualism or Enlightenment values or the Renaissance ignited by Islamic science or Druid rituals of dancing around an open fire ]. Nobody ever denies those are contingent events. It’s geographical & biological theories which tip the probability scales in favour of one region or people or another.

      • For example, isn’t the recent Hough-Grier volume a narrative of contingent events ? Spain did not encourage colonial trade or invest in fiscal capacity because they used the windfall American silver to finance its European wars.

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  5. Better ships; captains; navigation systems plus the will to use them for conquest and general wandering about the world writing books about other places in the world who seemed just to be interested in sitting in their own countries.

    • Again, why are some places content to sit in their own countries? Is it the random chance associated with getting passive leaders? Then it is chance that kept China from exploring, while a roll of the dice gave Europe a string of Portuguese rulers that felt compelled to explore.

  6. Crafts had this in Economic History Review article in 1977: ‘Industrial Revolution in England and France: Some Thoughts on the Question, “Why was England First?”’. To quote p.431, “The underlying view of industrialization adopted here is that economic development in general and technological progress in particular in eighteenth century Europe should be regarded as stochastic processes”

    Then the Crafts-Landes argument in the EHR in 1994-5:
    Landes: ‘What Room for Accident in History? Explaining Big Changes by Small Events’
    Crafts: ‘Macroinventions, Economic Growth, and `Industrial Revolution’ in Britain and France’
    Landes: ‘Some Further Thoughts on Accident in History: A Reply to Professor Crafts’,

  7. Industrial Revolution in England and France: Some Thoughts on the Question, “Why was England First?” N. F. R. Crafts The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 30, No. 3. (Aug., 1977), pp. 429-441.

    There is a reply by David Landes :

    Landes, D. S., ‘What room for accident in history?: explaining big changes by small events’, Econ. Hist. Rev., XLVII (1994), py. 637-5.6.

    and a rejoinder in 1995 :

    Macroinventions, Economic Growth, and `Industrial Revolution’ in Britain and France
    N. F. R. Crafts
    The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 3. (Aug., 1995), pp. 591-598.

  8. of topic question but what do you think of Clark’s “A Farewell to Alms”? I recall reading somewhere that the explanation for the IR didn’t hold up to subsequent scrutiny but I haven’t actually seen any of the research that supposedly refuted it.

    Can you point me to some if you know? Thanks.

    • It’s a neat book. Well worth reading if you are into this subject matter at all. Some of Clark’s argument has to do with what is effectively selection effects, as high human capital people earn more and are able to produce more living kids. But he doesn’t quite ever link that directly to the IR. The book is fuzzy in that area.

  9. I haven’t read Hoffman, but the whole things sounds pretty obvious based upon the same intermediate fragmentation argument of about a dozen other historians. Europeans had over a thousand years of fragmentation, yet a high degree of integration due to printing, common religions and the Republic of Letters. They were involved in a competition which wasn’t just kind of like an arms race, it was an arms race. And like arms races, the absolute level of firepower went up while the relative level within Europe balanced out. Three hundred years later, there was simply no comparison between the firepower within and outside of Europe.

    Btw, the “constructive competition” metaphor doesn’t just apply to firepower, but to social institutions, transportation, taxation, etc.

    And the coin flip analogy is inappropriate because it ignores the competitive, evolutionary dynamic. It wasn’t just more states, it was more states involved in an actual arms race where failure to advance meant possible extinction as a thousand states whittled down to fifty or so based in part upon this factor.

    • The coin flip is too crude, for sure. You could imagine it starting out as coin flips, but then strings of heads start to weight the coin more towards heads. Essentially, there is serial correlation. Still leaves the original string of heads to be explained, though.

      • Just to clarify… It leaves the original fragmentation to be explained. Right?

        Above you wrote… “if we reran world history 10,000 times, would Europe always end up with the gunpowder lead?”

        My assumption is no. Because if we reran history, Europe would not always have the intermediate level of fragmentation for a thousand plus years. Some reruns would have no intermediate fragmentation eras, others would have extended periods of intermediate fragmentation elsewhere, and so on.

        And I don’t think this just explains gunpowder. It also in part explains the scientific method, open access orders (North), the IR, capitalism and the ensuing increase in living standards.

        There was effectively a “constructive” competition between states which led to the dominant strategy being more effective networks within each state. This changed and molded the institutions, the cultures, the technologies in ways which were unpredictable but which led to a completely different trajectory from other places in Eurasia which did not have a thousand year arms race.

  10. The number of contingent factors is rather uncountable and very unique. Also many were necessary conditions but certainly not sufficient.

    The other part is not just the continent factors but the concurrent ones that made European domination possible. Coal, poor over-land trade infrastructure compared to China or India, and most of all the massive emigration allowed by the Americas as a release valve to tensions caused by growth and development. Allowing dissatisfied people to leave and go to colonies further created a situation that reduced internal political tensions and allowed external aggression to occur.

    Plus a whole lot of other crap that is incidental to who Europeans were…

  11. I think you’re referring to Crafts, 1977 “Industrial Revolution in England and France: Some Thoughts on the Question, ‘Why was England First?'” from the EHR and reprinted in Mokyr’s The Economics of the Industrial Revolution, which also has an interesting comment/reply by Rostow.

  12. It’s likely that the Crafts article is: “Entrepreneurship and a Probabilistic View of the Industrial Revolution”, Economic History Review (1978), 31, 613-614.

    In keeping with the first word in the title, the article is not freely available.

    Voigtlaender and Voth (2005) have this citation: “Taking our cue from earlier work by Crafts (1977)and by Acemoglu and Zilibotti (1997), we take the probabilistic nature of the transition
    to self-sustaining growth into account.”

  13. It turns out that there were several Crafts articles from the late 1970s on this subject. Francois Crouzet outlines the debate in “Britain Ascendant” , 1990, p. 56ff. “Crafts believes that economic development in general, and technological progress in particular, are stochastic processes, highly uncertain in their nature and as regards the dates at which they produce results…” Walt Rostow is among the discussants.

    it is worth noting that Crouzet, who was among the figures criticized by Crafts, relates the debate with exceptional grace and humility, accepts some of Crafts’ criticisms. In light of Paul Romer’s recent “mathiness” posts and his view that the nature and tone of economists’ disputes lend poor credence to economics’ claim to be a science, this seems like an episode worth pointing out.

    But are Hoffman and Crafts right? it’s a bit like saying that you get cancer by chance but that, once you have got it, a deterministic process takes over. “Chance” in this kind of argument may just be a placeholder for what we don’t know. In the case of the BIR, it seem just as likely that there are one or more tipping points for no growth to growth transition and that investigation and (here, one almost sighs) rival theories can identify candidates.

    • Totally agree that empirically, we are going to have trouble (an impossible time?) distinguishing chance from “unknown causes”. But we have to keep in mind that chance plays a part. And empirically, the approach should be to make “chance” the default option that we have to work to refute. Think of the guys at the Hadron collider – everything is presumed to be due to chance, and only when that chance is so remote do they say they’ve discovered the Higgs boson (or whatever).

      • Interesting: your very example brings us back round to the “is economics a science?” debate that Paul Romer has kicked off. Romer, perhaps intentionally, has framed the discussion in almost the same terms used by Kant in his “Prolegomena” over 200 years ago – is there a growing body of uncontested “truth” that is supported by participants committed to uncovering truth (as opposed to simply propagating rival theories)? Metaphysics, despite Kant’s efforts, did not hold up as a “science”, and I’m not sure economics will either. But if it does, will attitudes toward chance (like you borrow here from particle physics) show the way? I’m going to be thinking about that one.

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  15. One major problem is that in late 15th century the worlds most powerful army and fleet was the Ottomans. They fielded more artillery and guns than most of European powers. And they were very skilled at it. They lose their warfare technological advantage only in early 17th century.

    But their outlook was toward Eastern Mediterranean. After conquering Constantinople and the Balkans they spent 1 century conquering Egypt, North Africa, part of Mesopotamia and got bogged down in wars with Persia. They had a period of peace in the East when they entered central Europe, destroyed the Hungarian kingdom in 1526 and nearly took Vienna in 1529. Had not return their attention to the East in 1532 in gotten into another war with the Safavids ( the ruling dynasty of Persia) they could have pushed through the Habsburgs into the heart of Europe.

    At the same time, serendipitously, the relatively weak until mid 15th century Spanish kingdoms push the Arabs out of the Iberian peninsula and hire Columbus. Vast quantities of gold ( a liquidity injection) are flowing in the next 50 years from America to Madrid. The Spanish king Charles the 5th, the son of Queen Isabella who hired Columbus, is also the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Habsburgs. He sinks his fortune defending his central European dominions from the Ottomans and then getting bogged in a war with France and newly minted Protestant Germanic statelets. He squanders his strategic advantage and few decades later the English, the French and the Dutch start getting involved in the trans-atlantic trade business.

    So it is geography and a string of events and developments ( and how those developments were handled) that hold the Ottomans down in the 16th century while the West Europeans get a chance to experiment with early capitalism ( already beta-tested in northern Italy in late 15th century, in part with the contributions of thousands of Byzantine Greeks who fled from the Ottomans). The Ottoman conquest of Eastern Mediterranean also blocks the trade the Venetians and Genovese were making, supplying Western Europe with spices, silk, high quality steel blades and other Oriental luxury goods. The Portuguese and Spanish begin the explorations searching alternative routes of access to these goods. They were much poorer but more motivated.

    In early 15th century China also sponsors Zheng He naval expeditions but fails to grasp the importance of trade with the nations they get in contact with adopting an isolationist policy. Also at that time the Chinese emperor was vastly more powerful than any European monarchy.

    Also in the early 16th century seeking pelts for European and Ottoman market the Russians start pushing East, South and West from around Moscow, gradually building a vast land empire stretching half the world up to Northern California in little more than 100years ( only in 19th century they were outmatched in the Northern Pacific by the British and the Americans). All these lands were much more easily accessible from China, but the Mandarin cast is not interested in any of this. Now, granted, Russia has never beaten the prosperity of the Western Europeans nations, but they have kept close in the race for technology, at times even outmatching their competitors up to nuclear and space race.

    The world could have been easily dominated by the Chinese, the Mogul Indians or the Arab and Ottomans should they have grasped the importance of trade, competition and freer markets. They had the opportunity, resources and technical capability to do it but they did not seized it when they could.

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