As an analogy, lets think about Modernity as a virus. By “Modernity” I mean society in which consistent growth in material living standards can occur, and where more than a small minority live above subsistence. The kind of society that was unprecedented before the industrial revolution, but is now the kind of society in which a majority of people now live to some extent.
In our world the modernity virus first arose in England and the Netherlands. Every other society who is now experiencing modernity has in some way contracted it from those societies, sometimes by way of others.
Due to our lack of ability to view the multiverse, unfortunately our sample is n=1. We cannot be sure if this place of origin actually tells us anything about the virus at all. WE can’t even be sure whether our world is just one of few where the exceptionally improbable virus occured at all. We cannot be sure that the virus would not likely have appeared somewhere else had random factors played out differently. Given how quick the virus spreads any point of origin may well become the unique point of origin, despite it only being randomness that lead to it being the point of precipitation.
It may well be no more important that the virus occurred in North West Europe than the first factories occurred in Leeds before Manchester – or vice versa, we don’t make a large point of the priority here. Maybe in time we won’t make a point of NW European priority.
But lets imagine how this priority may mean something, using the analogy of modernity and virus. We then have to imagine two different sets of necessary factors. What are the factors that affect the creation of a virus, and what are those that lead to its spread?
These are distinct.
If we accept prevailing hypotheses about the origin of HIV we would not factors like the necessity of simian human contact, moreover simians with auto immunity virus. We would also note that behavior such as consuming bushmeat increases the possibility of the simian virus jumping species and creating HIV. We then would conclude that the conditions likely to produce the virus are most likely found, maybe only found, in West Africa.
The conditions that lead to the spread of HIV are entirely different. Apes no longer play a role at all. The factors that are now important are the possibility of fluid transfer whilst the virus is transmissive which in turn relates to human practices including sexual networks, blood screening, sexual behavior etc.
We used to conflate these two kinds of factors with modernity and give reasons why the lack of one feature found in NW Europe would prevent Catholic society from experiencing growth. Following their impudent industrialisation explanations were made about why the lack of other features would hold back East Asia. Now we speculate on societies in Islam, but we are generally happy accepting that modernity can now spread everywhere eventually. Finding the elements necessary for contraction of the virus is the dream of development economics, and hopefully by finding them everyone might live above subsistence to some extent.
But the first lots of factors – those necessary for the genesis of the virus – are very interesting. By comparing and contrasting NW Europe with elsewhere, we might learn what factors could have made this genesis more probable in one place or another. Possibly it was a long list of necessary conditions, all of which had been present elsewhere at some time, but only in NW Europe by chance did they come together at the same time. If we have a stab at finding these conditions, we might even be able to glimpse at those places where it happened somewhere else.