When considering the patterns of power evident in the history of the modern world, it is tempting to rely upon a Eurocentric narrative which places the West at the forefront of progress and innovation. Many modern scholars, however, take issue with this approach because of the inherit deficiencies of Eurocentrism. One of these scholars is Robert Marks who, in his book The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative, refutes the classic tenets of the Eurocentric narrative of world history and offers a global perspective instead. Specifically, he offers three basic concepts which have had a profound impact on the course of history: contingency, accident, and conjecture. These concepts combined with the flaws of the Eurocentric model present what Marks refers to as a “polycentric” narrative, in which several densely populated and industrially advanced regions arose due to geographically and culturally specific circumstances and were in communication with one another (Marks 15). It is within this context that one can fully and accurately explore the rise of the West on a global scale.
It is important to understand the ways in which the Eurocentric narrative is faulty and outdated. Eurocentrism dictates, not only that the West is an actor upon the world’s stage while all other regions are passive, but that the Western perspective is superior to other viewpoints (Marks 8). Further, Eurocentrism establishes a false epistemological construct in which it is the only way to determine fact from opinion (Marks 9). It is not a logically sound practice to only work within such a paradigm to uncover and interpret historical details. By including a global perspective, one may critically examine that paradigm and one’s own assumptions about the world, determine the useful contributions of the Eurocentric narrative, and gain a more well-rounded system through which one might filter new information.
With regard to the components of a polycentric narrative, Marks presents the ways in which contingency, accident, and conjecture have implicated the story of the rise of the West. Marks contends that there were several forces that were contingent upon one one in order to facilitate Western global dominance. Further, Western hegemony was neither the intended goal nor necessary outcome of these forces. For example, the Age of Discovery was contingent upon Islamic empires’ blocking of land routes to Asia, where there were many desirable manufactured goods to be had and a burgeoning silver demand to be supplied. This blockage led Europeans to explore sea routes to Asia, which led them to silver deposits in the New World protected Native peoples, whose defeat was contingent upon their weak immune systems in the face of new diseases (Marks 26-32). Instead of merely touting the supremacy of European might, one must take into account all the circumstances which led to their foothold in the New World.
Next, Marks explores how accidents shape historical events. He points to incidents of climate shift and geographic location. Specifically, Marks describes how, in a largely agricultural society, things like famine, flooding, good soil conditions, drought, or pests can make or break the economy (Marks 48). Also, one’s physical location and available resources greatly influence industrial outcomes. For example, Britain had access to large coal deposits which fueled its industrial rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whereas China did not (Marks 12). These things are unpredictable and largely beyond human control but are incredibly impactful.
Lastly, Marks explains the place of conjecture, in which several forces that arise independently of one another interact and create a unique historic moment (Marks 12). Going back the example of demand for silver in China, the circumstances for that demand were separate from the circumstances surrounding the discovery of silver in the New World (Marks 44). As a result of the ongoing demand in the West for Eastern goods, these two separate forces collided on the global stage in a moment of conjecture.
Marks’ analysis of global history has sparked comparison with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The two certainly share similarities in that both point to the place of historical accidents like the influence of geography on society and argue against any sort of inherent Western hegemony like intellectual capability or moral superiority (Diamond 35). However, the two differ in their approach: Diamond is a geographer and employs several disciplines in his study; Marks, on the other hand, is a historian who specializes in Asian history. Their perspectives certainly inform the ways in which they have chosen to present their information. Additionally, Diamond’s narrative still has the flavor of Eurocentrism. He attributes the gaps in wealth, technological advance, and immunity enjoyed by Europeans to accidental privilege, but privilege nonetheless, whereas Marks places the various regions’ privileges on a more even plane.
Overall, Marks is working to shift the current narrative surrounding historic Western dominance. One must understand the historic circumstances that led to modern day trade relationships and attitudes towards the the Global South in order to further develop them. By understanding that the current place of privilege the West holds was neither intended nor guaranteed, one can grasp the notion that the future is also open to possible.
- Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.
- Marks, Robert. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Print.