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Book review: Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850

From the beginning of the book, Jack Goldstone presents bold arguments that relate to the rise of the West between the 16th and 19th century. According to the author, every single explanation presented in the book was reliant on a combination of factors including geography, colonization, the Christians’ work ethic, and the exploitation of the working class. Goldstone argues that Europe was part of the world that was comparatively backward by the 16th century, compared to powerhouses such as Asia and the Middle East. However, this combination of factors suddenly enabled it to make a quantum leap forward and dominate most of the world by 1850.

According to Goldstone, industrial revolution was a key factor in the West’s rise to power, which is hardly a revolutionary argument. He does, however, venture into addressing reasons as to why the revolution did not start in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, hence the title “Why Europe?” Based on the author’s claims, it began in Europe due to six main factors, which include science and mathematics, exploration discoveries by the Europeans, desire to explain the natural world empirically, an atmosphere of intellectual and religious tolerance in Britain and support offered to scientists and entrepreneurs by the English government.

Although the book does generate some fascinating food for thought and spark some interesting class discussions, the contributions made by Goldstone are outweighed by the book’s shortcomings, most notably the author’s decision to present his points of view in a manner similar to a shocking conclusion in a crime novel. Notably, even one review on the book’s back cover refers to it as a “historical murder mystery.” Rather than presenting his six arguments in a six chapter structure and linking each one together, the author divides the book into eight chapters with most of the explanations in each one based on why Europe did not rise to prominence early enough. Additionally, nearly 80% of the book is devoted to proving why each scholar that came before the author was wrong, as opposed to confirming why his own thesis is right.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks do not end with the book’s layout. In addition to the fact that the book’s title is completely unrelated to its content, the dates Goldstone chose to underscore are in some way misleading. Goldstone frequently points out that Europe did not achieve success until the 19th century with the commencement of the Industrial revolution. Why then does the book start in the 16th century and only end in 1850? By concentrating on the time before 1800, the author does not have the time to develop his six arguments.

There is no doubt that the book has something to offer. Unfortunately, what it offers is poorly presented. Some chapters pose some thought provoking questions as to the West’s ability to maintain its dominance across the world, highlighting Asia’s surge in challenging this position. The shortcomings, however, overshadow the benefits. The arrangement of the book clearly needs to be revised. Goldstone should have used at most one chapter challenging previous theses and the rest of the book proving that his theory is accurate. As a complementary resource book on world history, Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850, is hardly resourceful to say the least. The book’s cost, length, and presentation makes it a rather unnecessary investment for a text that could be forgotten just as quickly as it was acquired. The subject “Why Europe?” is a topic that no doubt needs to be addressed but not in the context Jack Goldstones’ Why Europe has covered it.

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