Do Civilizations Prosper and Evolve Due to Ideas or Material Conditions?

Is the engine of prosperity brilliant minds or resources and geography?

Erik Engheim
17 min readDec 6, 2022

A simplified version of this debate can be stated as: Is prosperity primarily dependent on how much gold, oil and fertile land you have, or decided by the ideas and ideals your society is built upon? Don’t answer me just yet because what I will argue in this story is that this is a false dichotomy. What I mean by that is that there are other possible explanations, and both of these alternatives are somewhat cartoonish. Most people will realize that no matter how great your ideas are, you will not amount to much in the midst of a wasteland or desert. Likewise, we know of countries awash in natural resources which are still desperately poor and underdeveloped.

It is tempting to say that both matters and be done with the discussion. Yet, I think this topic is worth exploring in much more detail. My belief is that ultimately the progress of human society is primarily determined by material conditions. However, my claim should not be interpreted literally. It does not imply that I think any society with great abundance of natural resources would be a guaranteed runaway success story. Otherwise, how do we explain that Venezuela is a disaster despite all its oil resources while Japan and Singapore, both overpopulated areas with minimal natural resources, are significantly more prosperous?

In other words, when I claim that material conditions are the primary source of prosperity, it should not be taken to mean that being in the midst of an abundance of natural resources creates prosperity.

At this point, you may be screaming: “What the hell is your point, then? You say it isn’t natural resources, and it isn’t the ideas. Make up your mind!”

The problem with making my case is that there are many nuances and caveats which don’t fit into a slogan you can affix on the back of a pickup-truck. You will have to allow me to elaborate on what I mean by material conditions because it isn’t what most people will assume. Most of you will assume I am talking primarily about oil, gold, diamonds, fertile land, coal, iron ore and so on. While such resources obviously matter to an economy, they cannot be effectively utilized unless society is organized in a benevolent manner.

For instance, both Norway and Venezuela are awash in oil, but Venezuela is a basket case while Norway is a success story. It may be tempting to suggest natural resources play no role, but that would not be fair either. Norway is significantly richer than other Nordic countries, and that fact is hard to explain without factoring in Norway’s oil production. Norway started pulling ahead of other Nordic countries just as oil production expanded. A coincidence? Hardly.

Yet, Sweden is richer, more prosperous and well run than Venezuela despite not having any oil. Hence, oil is hardly the only distinguishing factor. The question then is: How did Norway and Sweden end up being better run then Venezuela?

Let me give some context: I have debated these topics online numerous times with libertarians and classic liberals who often prescribe to the ideas of philosophers such as Ayn Rand and economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman. All of these guys have different ideas and philosophies, but common to all of them is that they are strong believers in free market capitalism and tend to blame most ills of society on anything resembling socialism or big government. Doesn’t matter whether you are a Stalinist or a Nordic social democrat. Ultimately, it is just different degrees of badness to them.

Ayn Rand created the philosophy of objectivism, which I will not claim to know much in detail, but I will discuss one aspect of it that caught my attention when reading a synopsis of her novel Atlas Shrugged:

Rand’s stated goal for writing the novel was “to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it treats them” and to portray “what happens to the world without them.”

The book is about the cascade of negative effects occurring when great leaders of industry and scientists abandon society. This idea makes me think of an earlier theory of history called the Great man theory of history:

The great man theory is a 19th-century approach to the study of history according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes: highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership abilities or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect.

Both these perspectives represent different aspects of the idea I want to criticize in this story: The idea that a few brilliant minds come up with ideas and theories, create companies, organize people or lead armies to create a superior society. A corollary to this idea is that societies progress because people choose to adopt the ideas of these brilliant men and women. Failure is consequently explained in terms of adopting bad ideas or remaining in ignorance.

What is the source of superior ideas?

I am not convinced by the theory that the division between success and failure of human civilization through history is a question of willingness to accept great ideas or proclivity to reject them. The primary reason for my objection is: it fails to explain why some societies produce superior ideas and organization of society while other societies fail to do so. Why did Norwegians organize their country in such a way that they prospered from oil, while Venezuelans failed to do so?

If you do not recognize the importance of material conditions and environment, it becomes all too easy to adopt a racist world view. If the material environment did not make Norwegians foster and accept better ideas, then surely it must be inherent in the people? Somehow, those Norwegians have a prevalence of genes which make people more accepting towards good ideas or more likely to produce good ideas.

Most people will be uneasy about such an interpretation. That is where my counterargument starts. If superior genetics is not the source of superior ideas, and it is not the immediate environment, then it must be the culture? But this explanation runs into the same problem as describing the world in terms of God creating the world. The atheist can simply ask: Who created God? All we have achieved is creating one more level of indirection. Culture must come from somewhere. Why have some people developed a superior culture to that of others? Attempting to answer this question while ignoring material conditions and environment sends you straight back to the racist interpretation of human development which you just tried to escape by uttering the word “culture”.

Side Note: “Superior culture” is obviously a very loaded term, which implies that there is an objective measure of what makes a culture or civilization better than another one. I don’t want you to take my use of the world too literal. In this context, it is just a shorthand for civilizations which have prospered more in terms of standard of living and technological development. There is often an excellent case to be made that what we describe as more primitive cultures have often had many qualities modern Western civilization lacks.

You may claim I am setting up a false dilemma and argue that there are more choices. Is there, though? An individual is shaped by 3 factors:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Chance

Libertarians may insist that your choices should be included, but what decides your choices? The manner in which my brain operates determines the choices I will make. What determines the behavior of my brain? Genetics decide its fundamental structure, and the environment in which that brain is raised will tweak it in one direction or the other. My choices are determined by my previous experiences and my personality. If a similar choice previously had very bad outcomes, I will probably make a different choice this time. Hence, experience directly influence the choices made right now. Personality also plays a role. A calm individual will respond different from a provocation than a person with proclivity to a tantrum.

If we are to believe modern evolutionary geneticists, and I do, there are no great genetic group differences between the major populations of the Earth. Genetic variation within a population is much greater than differences between them. In other words, the genetic difference between Norwegians is much greater than the difference between Norwegians and Venezuelans. Thus, if we stick with mainstream understanding of human evolution, a significant difference between Norwegians and Venezuelans cannot be explained in terms of genetics.

That leaves us with two remaining candidates to explain the difference: Environment and chance. If chance was the primary factor, then prosperity should be evenly distributed across the whole planet. There should be as many rich and prosperous countries in Africa, South America and Asia as in Europe. Likewise, one should find countries equally poor in Europe as in Africa.

That is not what we observe in the real world. Instead, there are very clear patterns in terms of what countries are developed and which ones are not. That Norway and Venezuela ended up on entirely different trajectories is thus unlikely to have been caused by either chance or genetics, based on what we know about the world at large and modern understanding of genetics and evolution.

We are thus left with environment. Somehow, Norway has or has had an environment which produced better ideas or allowed citizens to more readily adapt or accept better ideas of running a society. This may give you a hint as to why my ideas of material conditions is not really about gold and oil. Massive mines overflowing with gold or easily accessible oil is not something which magically inspires better ideas or make people more accepting of good ideas.

What you need are material conditions which are conduits of good ideas. Material conditions which make good ideas thrive and make bad ideas perish. When I debate this with people of a more libertarian school of thought, they never answer this question: Why do some societies foster and adapt good ideas while others do not?

The Material Conditions Which Fosters Good Ideas

Those who follow my writing will know that I have a preoccupation with the role of resources and geography on the development of countries. It is not about the material conditions which give you lots of money directly, such as gold mines, but about the material conditions which fosters the spread of ideas. Hence, you should forget about oil, gold, and diamonds and instead focus on coastline, rivers, mountains, and climate.

Superior societies from an economic and technological standpoint tend to be built on an extensive level of specialization. To get excellent at something, you need to specialize. Specialization leads to economies of scale, which leads to higher productive and thus more prosperity. This idea isn’t in any way something I can take credit for. Economist and philosopher Adam Smith harped on about what he called “the division of labour” in his epic work: The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Division of labour is just an old fashion way of talking about specialization and economies of scale. Economists have known about this stuff for ages. In other words, what I am pushing here is old hat. Ironically, I am arguing against libertarian ideas using a guy who is very much a hero among libertarians and objectivists alike.

How do you get specialization? Not by having lots of gold, silver, and coal but by having extensive coastline and rivers which can easily be exploited for goods transportation. Sounds strange? Let me explain why: To be able to do specialized mass production, you need cheap transportation. Until railroads and cars came about, waters with ships was the only way to achieve that.

Europe is in this regard absolutely unique. The southern part of Europe has the Mediterranean as a superhighway for transportation and trade. Northern Europe has the Baltics and the North Sea. In addition, Europe has a very long coastline relative to landmass, which puts more citizens in connection to the sea for transportation than anywhere else in the world. But it doesn’t stop there. Europe has an extensive network of rivers running all over such and the Rhine, Danube and many other rivers. Hence, even landlocked countries such as Switzerland are well-connected to water transportation networks.

The Mediterranean is an exceptional place. By being enclosed by landmass, a calmer and safer ocean to navigate is created. This property in turn created ample opportunities for the first ships to be built and navigated across a sea. Civilizations like the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginian evolved thanks to the Mediterranean.

If we are to look at the root of the unique character of Western civilization, we have to examine both the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltics. All other major civilizations were built upon huge tracts of fertile lands around major river systems such as the Nile, the Yangtze river in China, the Indus River in India and Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia. These civilizations got powered by massive surplus from agricultural production thanks to rich soils and favorable climates.

Wester Civilization followed an entirely different logic of development. Neither Romans nor Greeks had major river systems and massive, fertile lands to build advance civilizations around. Instead, these were trade fueled civilizations thanks to the Mediterranean ocean. Trade and commercial activity dominated economic life in these civilizations in a way it didn’t in Egypt, China, India, and Mesopotamia. It is no accident that capitalism, banking, stock exchanges and a large, powerful merchant class evolved in the West first.

It is easy to say that the West prospered because we came up with these ideas first, but that fails to answer why we came up with these ideas first or why these ideas came to dominate Western societies. My point is that material conditions set the stage for these ideas to evolve in the West.

It was the unique geography of Europe which put it in motion. Ironically, it also helped that places like Greece wasn’t all that great for agricultural production. You see a similar pattern for great trading nations such as the Netherlands, which is known for pioneering modern capitalism. Neither Greece nor the Netherlands could really feed itself. They relied on producing goods for export to trade and import grain. Had the Netherlands and Greece been more fertile, they may have care less about trade. The Italian peninsula was not bread basked either, and it was quite lacking in minerals and metal ore, which also incentivized trade.

The Mediterranean was not the only ace Europe had up its sleeve. Northern Europe has a very temperate climate which means that rather than having rain seasons it rains more regularly all through the year. That means river systems flow with more regularity and can thus be used for reliable transportation through most of the year. One of the reasons the British built railroad in India was that the rivers in India were pretty useless for goods transportation thanks to the enormous variation in flow of water through the year.

Hence, the material conditions which gave the West an edge in developing more advanced civilizations were not gold, silver, coal, and oil but long coastlines, calm oceans, temperate climate for steady water flows and a flexible network of inland waterways.

Why Trade and Specialization Fosters Great Ideas

So, the unique water situation of the West supercharged trade and specialization, and that has significant knock on effects: Trade means ideas get spread. If you only live in a small village and never trade with anybody, you neither spread ideas you may have nor receive ideas from others.

What most people forget is that most great ideas are not locally invented, but imported. For almost any civilization, most ideas come from the outside. Hence, your ability to advance isn’t really about your ability to come up with kick-ass ideas, but your ability to learn from others and adapt their ideas.

That is why complex trade networks matter. Through these networks, not only do goods and services flow, but also ideas. People will tell tales of things they have seen in other foreign lands at home. They may get products they have not seen before and ask how they were made. Maybe it is elegant glass, and now they want to learn that trade themselves, so they can also make glass. Perhaps it is steel swords, and they would like to learn how to make those swords because they have learned how effective they are in war.

It is likely no accidents that Greece was one of the most innovative countries in classical times, when they were also the leading seafaring and trading nation. The Netherlands in the 1600s was also one of the most scientifically advance countries, while also being the leading seafaring nation. The Netherlands had a merchant marine larger than everybody else combined. The Netherlands was not just a place of science, but also of the arts and philosophy.

Detaching Ideas From Material Conditions

There are of course many other material conditions which affect the generation of ideas. I could also mention how the mountain ranges, rivers, and coastline in Europe naturally splits Europe into many states and which thus hinders centralization of power. That in turn creates a petri-dish for experimentation with different types of societies, political and economic organization, which was not possible in other mega states such as China. One could go on about the particular natural conditions which fostered industrialization in Britain, however it is not necessary to explain every little aspect of the material conditions which made ideas flourish. I have written about this extensively before:

The significant point is that ideas arise in an area or concentrate in an area due to unique material conditions. However, that does in no way mean those ideas remained boxed in and unable to escape that area.

For instance, the United States doesn’t really the geographic features I describe. It lacks the material conditions to cause the creation of an advance civilization. So, how on Earth did the United States get so rich and advanced, then? A big, glaring hole in my hypotheses?

No, in fact, the United States, proves the pattern. Before Europeans arrived at North America was not developed at all. Inhabitants essentially lived at a Stone Age level technologically.

However, when Europeans traveled to America, they didn’t just suddenly forget all ideas which had evolved in Europe simply because they came to a land with different material conditions. Ideas are sticky. Once evolved and proven useful, they stick with people for generations.

The United States benefitted from being colonized by the most advanced nations in Europe in terms of not only technology but also social, economic and judicial traditions. South America in contrast to colonized by Portugal and Spain which were simply not as evolved as their Northern European counterparts. In some parts, that was due to colonization itself. Massive influx of gold and silver from colonial possessions to Spain caused a kind of Dutch disease.

In economics, the Dutch disease is the apparent causal relationship between the increase in the economic development of a specific sector (for example, natural resources) and a decline in other sectors (like the manufacturing sector or agriculture).

Spain basically got an inflation which killed the industry they had and ironically put the country behind. It also taught them the wrong lessons. They obtained so much of their wealth from conquest, which inspired further focus on military conquest rather than trade and commercial development.

The South American Failure

Furthermore, South American material conditions worked against its long-term development. Lots of gold and silver combined with great conditions for sugar plantations simply encourage brutal slavery to man mines and sugar plantations. In the Northern States of the US, there were not the same opportunities for cash crops. Growing grain and potatoes encourage more free farmers rather than a slave and exploitation oriented economy. One can go on at length about the problems with South America for fostering development.

The key takeaway is that both historical and material conditions conspired against South America and created an environment where good ideas could not as easily spread or take root as in North America.

Thus, I think it is wrong to dismiss underdeveloped countries as simply being about citizens choosing not to pick up the smart ideas or somehow being too dumb to produce good ideas. People around the world are not born that different from each other. People become different due to profoundly different material conditions and different histories which have shaped those societies.

Why Has Africa Been Slow to Develop?

Africa is another interesting case. One cannot claim that Africa has failed to develop because the people of Africa has somehow some resistance against good ideas or inability to produce them. Rather, Africa had material conditions which did not encourage early civilizations to form as easily. Africa has certainly seen civilizations arise, but one cannot deny that hunter gather societies remained prevalent for much longer in Africa than elsewhere.

There are several reasons for this. Africa is perhaps the worst continent for trade historically. It has very little coastline relative to landmass and minimal coverage of river systems compared to Europe for instance. That means specialization, mass production and trade had very poor conditions to evolve in Africa.

The evolution of ideas depends a lot on population size, and in classical times the Greek world had alone significantly larger population than Africa and Japan combined.

This may seem shocking today, but happened for a good reason: Humans evolved in Africa, and that meant animals were exposed to humans from the beginning. Because animals evolved with humans, they learned to avoid human hunters and never got exterminated. As humans left Africa, we basically went on large game genocide. Animals outside Africa had not adapted to advanced human hunting techniques, which had evolved in Africa. Thus, ironically, by screwing up our livelihood we were forced to become farmers and that set the stage for the development of advanced civilizations.

Let us hammer this point home: People outside Africa didn’t begin widespread farming because they somehow had become infused with the idea of the superiority of farming. If anything, farming started because of stupidity, not cleverness. By being stupid enough to kills off all the animals we hunted, we were forced to change to the lifestyle of farming, which for a long time was substantially more work than hunting. In other words, standards of living fell for centuries thanks to the switch to farming. Of course, it later rose due to more efficient farming methods and specialization.

But we cannot claim this was about making clever choices. It was more about dumb luck. Humans could not have foreseen that farming would pay off a few hundred years down the road.


I hope I have been able to get across the point that ideas don’t just pop up by random. When a civilization is built upon better ideas, it is because either people with good ideas moved in and created that civilization or because material conditions existed which fostered the evolution of good ideas. And in this context beneficial material conditions are not valuable resources like gold, ivory, jade or whatever but combinations of landscapes, geography, and climate which helps facilitate trade and exchange of ideas.

Thus, the most valuable “resource” your society can have is not oil or diamonds, but efficient waterways. That may also give you a clue as to why Singapore is so rich and the Congo is so poor despite all its mineral wealth. Singapore sits at perhaps the best location in the world for a harbor. All sea-based trade between Europe, the Middle East and the large rich countries in Asia have to travel past Singapore. Ever since colonial times, Singapore was an important stopping point for European traders.

It is much better to be a hub for trade than a place in the middle of nowhere with mineral rich mountains. The Congo in contrast may be rich in minerals, but is entirely land locked and thus isolated from the rest of the world. If you want to be a place where great ideas flow, that is the last place you wish to be. Not to mention the incentives it produced. The Congo is Spain and the New World all over again.

Then how did Norway get rich from oil if resources are so bad and create such bad incentives? Because Norway discovered oil very late. Norwegian oil production did not begin until 1971 when Norway was already well-developed with solid political institutions. Norway fits the mould perfectly. Thanks to its vast number of fjords, it has been a maritime nation since Viking times. For a while, Norway despite is small population had among the largest merchant marines in the whole world.

If you study history, you will see that nearly all the most developed civilizations have been maritime nations. Landlocked nations are rarely known has pioneers of technology, social or political development. You can contrast Russia with Great Britain, for instance. Russian development didn’t really take off until railroads arrived.



Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.