A quarter of a millennium ago, intellectuals in Western Europe discovered that they had a problem. As problems went, theirs was not a bad one: they appeared to be taking over the world, but did not know why. The explanations that eighteenth-century theorists came up with varied wildly, although the most popular ideas all held that since time immemorial, something had made the West different from the rest and determined that Europe would one day dominate the world.
In the early twenty-first century, these ideas are still with us, albeit in heavily modified forms. The most influential argument, now as in the eighteenth century, is probably the theory that Europeans are the heirs to a distinctive and superior cultural tradition.1 The roots of this Western civilization are most often traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, although other advocates identify prehistoric Indo-Europeans, ancient Germans, or medieval Europeans as the founders.2
A second strand of eighteenth-century thought credited environment and climate with making Europeans more energetic and creative than other people, and this too has plenty of modern champions.3 Some scholars combine the ecological and cultural ideas, arguing that it was the back-and-forth between the two that sent