Book Summary: “Conquests and Cultures” by Thomas Sowell

Conquest and Cultures

Title: Conquest and Cultures: An International History
Author: Thomas Sowell
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Sowell examines that impact of military conquest and migration on the indigenous people.

If you would like to learn more about long-term human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Differences in wealth between ethnic groups living in the same region cannot be accounted for by discrimination because the differences in wealth existed long before the people lived together. The wealthier ethnic groups were wealthy before they came into contact with the poorer ethnic groups and vice versa.
  • Military conquest has played a major role in spreading culture and technology across the globe.
  • Military conquest by a more technologically advanced people tends to spread social capital that helps promote economic growth. The longer the political dominance, the larger the positive impact.
  • Military conquest by a less technologically advanced people (for example the Mongols conquest of the Chinese) tends to have little long-term effect.
  • English conquest spread culture and technology to Wales and Lowland Scotland, benefitting them in the long run.
  • These three British cultures played the same role for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • The migration of Germans to Central and European in the Middle Ages brought western technology and culture to the Slavs. Much of the urban professional class of these regions were dominated by ethnic Germans.
  • The Russians played a similar role in Central Asia and Siberia.
  • The Spanish conquest of the Americas had a much more mixed impact as few Spaniard immigrated and the ones that did focused on extracting resources from the natives.

Other books by the same author

Important Quotes from Book

Conquest is a major part of that past and a major shaper of the cultures of the world today.

Wars of conquest have changed the language, the economy, and the moral universe of whole peoples.

While migrations have transferred knowledge, skills, technology, and economically valuable aptitudes around the world, conquests have played a more varied and ambiguous role. Where a technologically or organizationally more advanced people have conquered a people lagging behind in these respects, then conquest-like migration-has been a way of spreading the existing human capital of mankind and promoting the development of more human capital among more peoples. But, where conquerors are clearly less economically or intellectually developed than those they conquer-a common situation for centuries, during which ancient civilizations in the Middle East were prey to mounted nomadic warriors from the steppes of Central Asia’- then conquest has not promoted the spread of human capital, but instead has destroyed much of it where it existed and prevented civilization from spreading to militarily vulnerable areas.

One of the most important things influenced by geography is the size and diversity of the area over which economic and cultural interactions can take place, for this strongly affects not only the economic well-being of the people but, even more fundamentally, their own development of the skills, knowledge, and wider cultural exposure that can be summarized as human capital. Whether people are united by navigable waterways or cut off by rugged mountains or other geographicaJ barriers has enormous cultural as well as economic and political significance.


The British people and British institutions had centuries of experience as a commercial nation before it became the first industrial nation.

The history of Wales as a conquered country shows patterns common elsewhere, not only in the British Isles but also in Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Where the conqueror has been more organizationally or technologically advanced, those portions of the conquered country which were subjugated earliest and most thoroughly have tended to become-and remain-the most advanced regions, even in countries which later regained their independence. Another pattern has been that internal divisions created or accentuated by different levels of exposure to the culture of the conquerors have complicated and impeded political or cultural unification among the conquered.

British history is by no mean confined to Britain, for no other nation has had such a large and enduring role in shaping events, institutions, and the fates of other peoples around the world. Much of the world today, including the United States, is still living in the social, cultural, and political aftermath of Britain’s cultural achievements, its industrial revolution, its government of checks and balances, and its conquests around the world.


Over the centuries, much of the advancement of agriculture in Eastern Europe was due to the movement of better methods of cultivation from Western Europe. These included improved plows, the horse collar, and new systems of crop rotation.'” Sometimes this movement of agricultural advances was accompanied by a movement of people from

Western Europe, mostly Germans, who were welcomed by Polish, Hungarian, and other Eastern and Central European landed nobility for the greater prosperity they would bring to the region. In order to attract them, these migrants were often given concessions on land, taxes and tithes, and local laws and practices were held in abeyance so that villages and towns were allowed to rule themselves according to German law.”

This law not only spread through urban communities in Eastern Europe, it spread to people who were not German, but who settled in these communities. Still, for much of medieval Eastern Europe, urbanization and cultural Germanization occurred together, just as urbanization and Anglicization went together in medieval Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.”‘

It was not those parts of Eastern Europe most abundantly supplied with natural resources which became the most economically prosperous regions, but rather those with the most abundant contacts with Western Europe-Bohemia, for example’ rather than Russia.

In general, Russians played a role among the peoples of Central Asia much like the role of Western Europeans in Eastern Europe or like European imperial powers in much of the non-industrialized colonial world. That is, the Russians brought the technology, the organization and the industrial and commercial way of life of western civilization to these regions, if not always to the peoples of these regions, since the modem sectors of these societies were often Russian enclaves.

Native Americans:

Unlike the ancient Roman conquest of Britain or some of the European conquests in Africa, the Spanish conquest of the Maya did not bring major technological or organizational advances… What changed most fundamentally was not the nature of economic activity but the amount extracted from the producers and the elite to whom it was transferred.

Moreover, the Spanish elite did not depend for its wealth on the making of profit from the economy so much as in using the government to gain privileges that translated into economic gain, whether from direct extractions from the Indians or from privileges in the acquisition of land or monopolies. The small Spanish community, and the still smaller Spanish elite, facilitated interlocking political, economic, religious, family, and social institutions- which in turn facilitated the kinds of corruption and abuses that flourished in colonial Latin America and continued to do so long after the colonial era was over.

First, however, we need to confront the most blatant fact that has persisted across centuries of social history-vast differences in productivity among peoples and the economic and other consequences of such differences.

Huge differences in wealth-production have been the rule, not the exception, for thousands of years of recorded history-even though, as Fernand Braudel pointed out, the particular nations.

(1) real income consists of things that are produced, that (2) much of this real income or output is not distributed at all, but is consumed where it is produced, and that (3) its production is radically different from place to place and from people to people, as has been the case throughout history.

if “exploitation” theories were as widely applicable as supposed, then the dissolution of empires should lead to rising standards of living among the formerly conquered and presumably exploited peoples. Yet history repeatedly shows the opposite happening.

Slavery, the ultimate in potential for exploitation, has seldom left slave-owning regions more prosperous than comparable non-slave-owning regions… In many other parts of the world, slaves were among the luxuries and displays of wealth-not its source.

Striking changes in productivity among peoples can often be traced to transfers of cultural capital from others-from the English to the Scots, from Western Europeans to Eastern Europeans, from China to Japan in an earlier era, or from the Islamic world to Europe in medieval times. Such transfers do not represent mutually cancelling gains and losses, as transfers of material wealth do in exploitation theories, for knowledge is not diminished at its source when it spreads to others.

One of the most heartening lesson of history is that poor and primitive peoples have, more than once, not only caught up with those more fortunate, but have even advanced to the forefront of human achievement.

The most striking finding from this long, multi-volume excursion into the history of peoples and culture, around the world is how distinct and enduring have been the cultural patterns of particular racial or ethnic groups. However, that does not make race or ethnicity unique.

All sorts of other groupings of human beings-by religion, nationality, or geographical settings, for example-show similarly sharp distinctions in everything from income to alcoholism and from fertility rates to crime rates. It is not racial or ethnic distinctions, as such, which have proven to be momentous but cultural distinctions, whether associated with race, with geographical origins,  or with other factors. The particular culture or “human capital” available to a people has often had more influence on their economic level than their existing material wealth, natural resources, or individual geniuses.

The tendency to explain intergroup differences in a given society by the way that particular society treats these groups ignores the fact that differences between groups themselves have been the rule, not the exception, in countries around the world and down through history. These groups differ in specific skills-… Thus people living in the same immediate surroundings, and facing the same current economic and other options, react very differently as a result of their very different cultures.

The specific kinds of education received affect not only technological and economic development in a country, but also the direction of its social and political development. Education in science and technology has obvious economic benefits, but not all groups or all nations have been equally drawn to that kind of education.

Newly educated and semi-educated classes have often sought positions in government bureaucracies, rather than in industry and commerce, for which their education has usually given them few skills likely to be useful in the marketplace.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about history is that it was lived under constraints very different, and generally much narrower, than the constraints of today… More generally and more fundamentally, the scope of human volition was too circumscribed to allow much of history to be explained as simply the putting into effect of various ideas and ideologies, however much ideas and ideologies may preoccupy intellectuals of a later era.

What makes the history of migrations much more than a history of the redistribution of bodies internationally is that it is one of the processes by which cultures have been diffused, changing the whole economic, military, and political landscape of the world. What makes the history of conquests more than simply a history of horrors is that it, too, is one of the ways by which cultural diffusion has remade the life of the human race. Fortunately, there have been other and less stressful ways by which the advances made in some parts of the world have spread to other places and other peoples. Cultural diffusion is an explanation of large disparities among peoples at a given time-and changing world leadership over time-that is more consistent with history than either genetic or exploitation theories. As already noted, genetic explanations are inconsistent with the dramatic changes in world leadership that have taken place over the centuries, among peoples whose genetic makeup has not undergone any comparable changes. Exploitation theories are inconsistent with the declining standards of living that have often followed the freeing of supposedly exploited peoples from their erstwhile conquerors.

Some of the most dramatic rises from backwardness to the technological and economic forefront among the nations of the world have occurred as a result of cultural borrowing.

If you would like to learn more about long-term human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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