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Guns, Germs, and Steel - Verified

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  • Jessica Richman
    Geography, Biogeography and Why Some Countries are Rich and Others Poor Douglas A. Hibbs, Jr. and Ola Olsson Department of Economics, Göteborg University, Box
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2004
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                        Geography, Biogeography and Why Some Countries

      are Rich and Others Poor

      Douglas A. Hibbs, Jr. and Ola Olsson

      Department of Economics, Göteborg University, Box 640, 40530 Göteborg, Sweden

      forthcoming in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States

      Classification: Major: Social Sciences; Minor: Biological Sciences




      The most important event in human economic history before the Industrial Revolution was the

      Neolithic transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to sedentary agriculture, beginning about

      10,000 years ago. The transition made possible the human population explosion, the rise of non-foodproducing

      specialists, and the acceleration of technological progress that led eventually to the

      Industrial Revolution. But the transition occurred at different times in different regions of the world,

      with big consequences for the present-day economic conditions of populations indigenous to each

      region. In this paper we show that differences in biogeographic initial conditions and in geography

      largely account for the different timings of the Neolithic transition, and thereby ultimately help

      account for the 100-fold differences among the prosperity of nations today. The effects of

      biogeography and geography on the wealth of nations are partly mediated by the quality of presentday

      institutions, but are also partly independent of institutional quality.


      See the link below for the entire text of the study, which is very accessible to a lay person.




      The prosperity of nations varies enormously. If one ranks countries by their per capita

      incomes, those in the top 10 % are on average about 30 times richer than those in the bottom

      10 %. The richest country is more than 100 times more prosperous than the poorest (1). How

      can this large variation in the wealth of nations be explained?

      Traditionally, economists emphasize the accumulation of human and physical capital and

      successful adoption of state-of-the-art technologies, as the main explanations of variation in

      economic productivity (2). Recently, however, economists have begun to regard those

      explanations as proximate ones, and to appreciate the role of deeper institutional explanations

      of those proximate factors. Capital accumulation and technology adoption are now commonly

      viewed as proximate variables molded by the political institutions essential for the smooth

      functioning of markets, such as honest and efficient government based on the rule of law and

      promoting impartial enforcement of contracts, protection of private property from theft and

      government take-over, and related practices safeguarding the fruits of entrepreneurship,

      innovation, investment and hard work (3). Empirical studies have established strong

      connections between such “good institutions” and national economic performance (4-6).

      In this article we demonstrate the importance of still deeper, more-nearly-ultimate sources

      of contemporary prosperity: biogeographic initial conditions 12,000 years ago, just before the

      origins of agriculture. Our model and empirical analyses are broadly consistent with the

      sweeping framework for explaining world socio-economic and political history laid out by

      Jared Diamond (7), and by varying degrees by other recent authors cited ahead. Diamond

      argues that the enormous size of the Eurasian continent, the large Mediterranean zone of

      western Eurasia, and the East-West orientation of the continent’s major axis compared to that

      of other continents meant that Eurasia was prehistorically endowed with more numerous and

      more valuable wild plant and animal species suited for domestication, and with natural


      corridors facilitating rapid dispersal of those species as well as of technologies, ideas, and

      people. Because of those geographic and biogeographic advantages, the original transition

      from the hunting-gathering lifestyle that had prevailed throughout the previous 5 million

      years of human history to agriculture and animal husbandry occurred earlier in Eurasia than

      anywhere else. The capacity of agriculture to yield far more food, feed far more people, and

      generate storable food surpluses permitted the development of specialized classes who were

      freed of the necessity of raising their own food and were crucial for the development of

      technology and of complex political institutions and, hence, for economic growth.

      In this paper we model this line of thinking, and we apply standard statistical methods

      to test our model’s capacity to explain the present-day economic development of nations. The

      most important hypothesis we investigate is that biogeographic initial conditions decisively

      affected the timing of transitions to agriculture, and through that route affect contemporary

      levels of national prosperity. The empirical analyses reported ahead support the following

      specific conclusions: (i) Geography is a key determinant of the biogeographic usefulness to

      humans of various regions in pre-history. (ii) The richer the biogeographic endowment in

      broad regions of the world, the earlier was the transition to settled agriculture, and thus the

      earlier was the onset of accelerated technological development and economic growth. (iii)

      Although political-institutional conditions are the most powerful proximate source of the

      wealth of nations, geography and initial biogeography remain significant explanatory

      variables even after institutions are taken into account.



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