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How Europe Conquered the World

The Spoils of a Single-Minded Focus on War

A painting by John Vanderlyn depicting Christopher Columbus and members of his crew on a beach in the West Indies, newly landed from his flagship Santa Maria on October 12, 1492.  Wikimedia Commons

Between 1492 and 1914, Europeans conquered 84 percent of the globe, establishing colonies and spreading their influence across every inhabited continent. This was not inevitable. In fact, for decades, historians, social scientists, and biologists have wondered: Why and how did Europe rise to the top, even when societies in Asia and the Middle East were far more advanced?

So far, satisfactory answers have been elusive. But this question is of the utmost importance given that Europe’s power determined everything from who ran the slave trade to who grew rich or remained mired in poverty.

One might think the reasons for Europe’s dominance obvious: the Europeans were the first to industrialize, and they were immune to the diseases, such as smallpox, that devastated indigenous populations. But the latter reason alone cannot explain the conquest of the Americas, since many young Native American warriors survived the epidemics. And it fails to explain Europe’

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