Conquests and Cultures: An International History by Thomas Sowell

Conquests And Cultures: An International HistoryTakeaway: Culture is the result of a wide variety of influences.

Thomas Sowell is an economist.  I have read three of his economics book (Basic Economics, Applied Economics and Economics Facts and Fallacies). These books, while clearly from a conservative approach to economics were focused on education and not propaganda.  I would recommend any of the three books to help you understand how economics works.  (Basic Economics is an intro to economics, Applied Economics focuses on national level and Facts and Fallacies is more focused on countering bad economic thinking at many levels).

Conquests and Cultures is the third book in a series of historical exploration of culture.  (Race and Culture and Migration and Culture are the first two). These are historical looks at culture using Sowell’s common tools of economic and broad level research.

Sowell looks at the different ways four different groups reacted to conquest.  The British Isles by Rome, Africa by itself and then by European Powers, Slavs of eastern Europe by Mongols, Ottomans, Russians and others, and the Western Hemisphere Native Americans.

First this is interesting history.  Especially the chapters on the British and the Slavs.  Second, Sowell like to challenge common assumptions.  And it is interesting to have assumptions that you did not even know you had challenged.  For instance, in the chapter on the British Sowell notes that many groups emigrated together.  So New England is made up of immigrants from a particular part of Britain, while much of Appalachia is made up of Scots that first immigrated to Ireland before coming to the US (usually refered to as Ulster Scots).  The cultural stereotypes of close kinship relationships, fierce independence, and speech patterns are all stereotypes that were true of Ulster Scots before immigrating to the US.

In a similar way, the origins of the Southern Drawl can be found in highland Scottish and Welsh that made up many of the immigrants to the South.  Sowell’s purpose in discussing this is that cultures have long histories that go back before most assumptions.

The chapter on Africa particularly focused on geography and its influence on culture.  Africa has very few internally navigable waterways.  And far less coastline than Europe, which is significantly smaller landmass.  Most of Africa is also a giant plateau that is more than 1000 feet above sea level so there is a very quick rise from the coast making transportation into the continent difficult.  In addition, there are a large number of disease carrying insects that particularly target animals that in other areas of the world were domesticated and used for either pack animals or for farming.  And Africa lacks a significant mountain range which means that its water sources are much more variable (both because of a lack of melting snow and the moderating and holding effects that mountains have one weather).  All of these geographical features significantly influence the way that African cultures developed and how they interacted with outsiders.  African cultures had much smaller tribal grouping and very few internal empires in its early history.  Trade was difficult because costs of transportation were very high.  Ocean currents took Western explorers to the Western Hemisphere before Africa so it had a later contact with Europe.

I had almost no background on the history of Slavic cultures.  Similar to Africa, Slavs were internal population that did not have easy access to transportation and trade.  There was a huge slave trade among Slavic people and it was a region that was conquered over and over again.  There was a nice discussion about the Soviet Union and the different ways it absorbed some cultures and came alongside other cultures.

The Native American chapter had an interesting discussion about how there were no large domesticated animals (cows, oxen, horses, pigs or sheep) prior to Columbus in the Western Hemisphere.  And while there were many advanced cultures prior to Columbus, there was no steal, iron or wheels.  It also emphasized the great diversity of cultures that were already in the West prior to Columbus and the huge impact of disease on the conquest of Native American populations.

Sowell does not minimize the reality of brutality of conquest.  Instead he universalizes it, suggesting that there have always been brutal oppression of conquered peoples.  His focus is instead looking at how cultures both benefit and are harmed in the process of being conquered.

I cannot help but feel that as interesting as the details of Sowell’s history is, it feels like there are holes in his explanation.  If his point is that cultural is messy, then he did a good job.  But his point is more that human capital is the most important factor in culture.   And that human capital develops in different ways according to geography, conquest, and culture (a little circular argument going on here).

His conclusion to the book is intentionally a conclusion to the series and not the book in particular.  So it is hard to evaluate how well he really is wrapping up the series when this is the only book I have read.  But it does feel that he has made a good argument for why we need to look deeply into differences between people groups.  Culture is not genetics, it is made up of a wide variety of things.  However, I feel he minimizes historical cultural issues among some people groups (lingering effects of slavery among African Americans) while expanding historical cultural issues among others (Ulster Scots of Appalachia and Native Americans.)

Sowell is clearly reacting against some modern cultural commentary and social science methods.  But he is also engrained in his own Economic tools that primarily look at statistics and large scale overviews of people groups and not smaller level data points.  I think this is a book worth reading in combination with other history to balance one another.

It is a bit long and repetitive for the casual reader.  It has lots of macro level details but few historical stories.  So if you do not like statistics and you do like David McCullough’s very heavily story influenced writing you will want to skip this book.

Conquests and Cultures Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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