The question of why technology and social organizations grew at different rates among different peoples is a reasonable line of inquiry. To paraphrase the words of UCLA Professor Jared Diamond, why did Europeans arrived to conquer the Incas rather than the Incas arriving to conquer Spain? In Guns, Germs and Steel—The Fates of Human Societies, Diamond provides an excellent description of how environmental factors shaped the speed with which civilizations emerged, developed various technologies, and projected their power on other peoples.
First, and most importantly, Diamond provides a clear rationale for why human societies developed at different speeds that debunks the racist idea that white Europeans developed faster due to inherent superiority. “In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species.” (Diamond, p. 401) Guns, Germs and Steel offers a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of these factors across all regions and peoples.
Diamond makes the case that homo sapiens moved more rapidly from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture-based societies in areas where there were higher concentrations of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication and food production. In turn, the ability to generate a surplus of food in a reliable fashion enabled the rise of cities, classes of people who could focus on something other than survival, armies, and technology. Population-dense groups living in proximity with domesticated animals suffered from new forms of communicable disease, to which many developed immunity. All together, these factors gave farming societies the ability to expand, displacing or conquering hunter-gatherer societies in their path.
Second, Diamond points out that the pattern of expansion, conquest, displacement, enslavement and brutalization of conquered peoples occurs all over the world among all the races of homo sapiens. For example, the Bantu expansion in Africa, the empires of Mesoamerica and South America, and the expansion of societies in Asia and the Pacific all ended badly for the people who were conquered and displaced. Just as being conquered does not imply intellectual inferiority, neither does it confer moral superiority. Power corrupts, it seems. Across all races, people with the power to expand, conquer and dominate their neighbors have done so.
The differentiator, according to Diamond, is the original “luck” that accrued to peoples living in areas with sufficient biodiversity to give them a head start on the path to guns, germs and steel. These peoples moved more rapidly to the stage of expansion and conquest by virtue of the geographical and ecological factors of their original homeland. Therefore, we can say that “white privilege” has its roots in a much older “Fertile Crescent privilege.” Neither privilege was ever deserved, earned, or intended by most of the people they have affected (positively or negatively).