In his award-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, scientist Jared Diamond points out an obvious fact: different continents have different shapes.
For example, the general shape of the Americas is north-south. That is, the land mass of North and South America tends to be tall and thin in shape rather than wide and fat. The same is true for Africa. The primary axis runs from north to south.
Meanwhile, the land mass that makes up Europe, Asia, and the Middle East is the opposite. This massive stretch of land tends to be more east-west in shape. Interestingly, the shape of each region has played a significant role in driving human behaviour throughout the centuries.
When agriculture began to spread around the globe, farmers had a much easier time expanding along east-west routes than along north-south routes. This is because locations along the same latitude generally share similar climates, amounts of sunlight and rainfall, and comparable changes in seasons. This allowed farmers in Europe and Asia to domesticate a few crops and produce a surplus.
Meanwhile, the climate can vary wildly when you travel from north to south. Just imagine how different the weather is in Florida compared to Canada. Many crops that grow well in warm weather do not grow well in cold weather. In order to spread crops north and south, farmers would need to find and domesticate new plants whenever the climate changed.
As a result of these environmental differences, agriculture spread 2x to 3x faster across Asia and Europe as it did up and down the Americas. Over the span of centuries, this had a very big impact. The increased food production in Europe and Asia allowed for more rapid population growth in those areas. With more people, the cultures in Europe and Asia were able to build stronger armies and develop new technologies and innovations. Surplus in any economy produces ease; suddenly, there is time and materials to devote to arts and science.
The changes started out small—a crop that spread slightly more easily, a population that grew slightly faster—but compounded into substantial differences over time. While there were other factors, it is not a stretch to say the shape of the continents was an important reason why Europeans rose to power and conquered the native tribes of North and South America, and not the other way around. One group was not smarter or more motivated than the other. The conquerors simply had that material advantage, and it all started with agriculture.
We are quick to blame our environment when things go poorly. If you lose a job, it’s because the economy sucks. If you lose a game, it’s because the officiating was bad. If you’re late to work, it’s because traffic was insane.
When we win, however, we ignore the environment completely. If you land a job, it’s because you were talented and likeable. If you win a game, it’s because you played better. If you’re early for a meeting, it’s because you are organised and prompt.
It is important to remember that the environment drives our good behaviours as well as our bad ones. People who seem to stick to good habits with ease are often benefitting from an environment that makes those behaviours easier.
Meanwhile, people who struggle to succeed could be fighting an uphill battle against their environment. What often looks like a lack of willpower or talent or drive is actually the result of a poor environment.
In a culture that worships the individual, it is easy to forget this. You can act on your environment to better your chances, but the point of this post is to remind you that many forces and factors, both present and historical, are at work in your life, driving outcomes. Teasing apart how we are the author of our own misfortunes and how the system we live in may limit us is very difficult. For one thing, we are inside the fish bowl. For another, we can scarcely be objective. But keeping in mind there are many forces at work either giving us a break or dragging us down may, in the first case, keep us a bit more humble, or in the second case, keep us from despair.
text adapted from James Clear, 2016