I guess West [me] has not inhabited academia much, or not realized that a major reason the topic of Indo-Europeans has tended to be approached as if it were about peaceful language teachers spreading out is that the idea of IE expansion substantiates the 19th century view that the Europeans were a uniquely expansive, energetic, vital people. At the root of the incomparable creativity of Europeans — 97% of all great scientists, 95% of all the great explorers, 100% of all the great classical composers, 95% of all the great philosophers, the list goes on and on — was the very aristocratic, heroic, individualistic culture initiated by the Indo-Europeans.I really don't think any of this is true (except maybe that I haven't 'inhabited academia much'; I was never a fan of schmoozing up to professors). I don't think Europeans are or were 'uniquely expansive, energetic, [or] vital'. I don't think '100% of all the great classical composers' or '95% of all the great philosophers' were/are Europeans, either. As for scientists and explorers, it depends on what you mean by each of those things, but in any case, the numbers there are far too high and overlook the rather more obvious causes of European success on the world stage.
So, this post is a scattershot refutation of the idea of European exceptionalism.
Let's look first at the culture of the speakers of proto-Indo-European (PIE) and whether it could be in any way responsible for the later achievements, if that's what they are, of European people. We're talking about prehistory here: we probably won't find a band of enlightened peace-loving people who had highly developed science and music.
Patrilineal clans can be reconstructed to PIE, as can roving bands of young men attaching themselves to war leaders in order to enrich themselves with theft and fighting. Debts and elaborate hospitality can also be reconstructed on the basis of comparative literature, as can the raising of large herds and attempting to acquire fame above all things. Cattle-rustling is also a clearly evident Indo-European tradition, as was the telling of mythic narrative recounting the slaying of dragons and other mythical creatures.
Their view of the world was full of gods, sprites, and spirits, and it is evident that a great deal of superstition and awe surrounded animals, especially horses (as evidenced by taboos causing changes in vocabulary, the use of kennings, and so on). It is probable that there was a reasonably strong hierarchical bent to PIE society, although this is difficult to accurately reconstruct, and believing that PIE hierarchy functioned like later Indian castes is almost certainly misguided. Books and reading were not known to speakers of PIE, and little about science, philosophy, reason, or inquiry can be reconstructed to it (somewhat obviously). There are no orchestras or instruments to reconstruct, either.
That's just a brief summary, and of course it's very interesting. Indo-European studies is fascinating stuff; whether you approve of this kind of society or not, it's undeniably interesting to be able to peer into the past through the combination of archaeology and linguistics and reconstruct what a past society actually looked like.
But this society and this culture, the one we can believe the speakers of proto-Indo-European had, was violent, illiterate, conservative, petty, acquisitive, and superstitious. None of those traits is conducive to the development of excellent classical music, sophisticated philosophy, a scientific understanding of the world, or great feats of exploration for their own sake. It is far more likely to encourage the arbitrary and irrational following of ritual and the violent tendencies of angry young men.
If Indo-Europeans speakers were different to other groups in world history, it is only because they had horses, wagons, and large herds, and could spread across the planet's surface relatively quickly and easily. They were no different to other groups gifted with powerful technologies, like Austronesian speakers with canoes (who travelled far further than any Indo-European group until the fifteenth century) or southern and central African Niger-Congo speakers with herds and iron or Iroquoians with European-introduced guns.
There is no reason to believe that speakers of proto-Indo-European were particularly excellent human beings, and if they expanded further than other groups, it was only because of temporary advantages (note the relatively recent advance of Turkic speakers in Central Asia, for example). It is hard to sustain the notion that any group of people can retain a core of 'energetic', 'expansive' cultural traits for thousands of years, else we'd have a hard time explaining the past few hundred years of Mongol history.
You can't say that the 'vigour' or 'energy' of European civilization - if that is indeed what it has - is down to some single prehistoric source when it seems far more likely that global economic, climatic, and bacteriological conditions over the past five hundred years are to blame. This is especially true when most of South Asia and Central Asia as far as Xinjiang were also settled by Indo-European speakers, who have had few of the climatic and economic advantages people in Europe have had over the last half-millennium, and have therefore explored and experimented less (although their artistic and philosophical achievements should certainly not be in doubt, nor their contributions to human life).
Mainland Europe has so many advantages. It has one or two volcanoes, no deserts, abundant fisheries, very few serious earthquakes, mild winters, relatively warm and wet summers, excellent soil for wheat and pasture for cows, no tropical storms or tornadoes, no tsetse fly or ebola, limited patches of malaria, and infrequent droughts. It faces the Atlantic Ocean, is quite near to the Americas, and is just north of an extremely long Mediterranean coastline full of deep harbours and wide bays bordering two other continents full of very different groups of people, all of whom had something to contribute to the development of the modern world.
With resistance to smallpox, measles, and Yersinia pestis, and in such close proximity to the Americas, and using Near Eastern and Indian Ocean developments in sailing and navigation, Europeans were almost inevitably going to encounter indigenous Americans first of all the groups in Eurasia, and having done so, they were almost inevitably going to enrich themselves on plunder from the depleted and infected peoples of two new continents, powering their economy some time and kickstarting scientific and artistic revolutions.
No speaker of proto-Indo-European ever saw a sail, in all probability, and yet it was with sails that Columbus and myriad others went to the Americas and made western Europe's fortune (sails were first used in Egypt). Without sails, no one from Portugal could have sailed around Africa and taken Goa and Melaka. Without the development of navigation by the stars on the Arabian Peninsula, European sailors could never have travelled as far as they did. And without travelling so far, Europe would never have amassed as much gold as Chinese or Indian states or any civilization based in the Levant or Anatolia.
Many of the terms for music, rhythm, and the construction of verse in Greek, which many consider the foundation of much of European tradition with regard to these topics, come from a non-Indo-European language (Greek lura, 'lyre', is non-IE, for example). Greek philosophy probably developed as speakers of Greek encountered people who didn't speak Greek and who held unquestioned wholly different concepts of non-IE origin; in coming into contact with such different beliefs, they began to question their own and attempted to produce schemes that would explain the world. The first philosophy was almost certainly a product of diversity and the rejection of the worldview inherited from proto-Indo-European speakers, something also true of Buddhism and Jainism and other non-Vedic Indian traditions.
Perhaps more importantly, philosophy (and science, by consequence) probably wouldn't have developed at all without literacy, which was given to some Greeks by some other people from the Levant, who got their letters from people slightly further south, who got their letters from people in Egypt. European writing might never have developed - certainly it wouldn't have developed the way it did - without the original script it derives from: Egyptian hieroglyphs. Without writing, there is no classical music, there is little chance of serious philosophy, and there's certainly no realistic potential for progress in scientific inquiry.
Most European woodwind instruments have their origins in the Middle East, including the shawm (and consequently the oboe, and others). The orchestra has almost nothing whatsoever to do with PIE culture, and such successes cannot be credited to Indo-European heritage in any way. Moreover, European orchestras, while certainly impressive, are not the only form of classical music on the planet, and there is really no reason to consider, say, Sundanese gamelan a lesser artform. The claim that 100% of all great classical composers are European is based on the tautological claim that the best classical music is the European kind.
Christopher Beckwith and many others (of course) have provided compelling evidence that much of medieval European argumentation (and therefore philosophy and science) had parts of its origins in the early medieval Arab and Turco-Persian renaissances in Inner Asia (also caused by a diverse and stimulating environment), with the Crusades, Mediterranean trade, and the Mongol conquests helping to bring these different kinds of thought together. And we shouldn't forget that a great deal of early knowledge and scientific experimentation was preserved and developed in Persia and the Islamic Caliphates.
There is no 'Western mind' and no set of ideas or symbols that is always found in 'Western' civilization. There's no single energetic impulse and no Indo-European origin for it. There's just a lot of people being exposed to a lot of things in lots of different ways for a long time in a favourable environment. People in Europe are more than capable of laziness, idiocy, violence, superstition, anti-scientific ideas, and bigoted ethno-nationalism, and they are perfectly liable to being held back by circumstance. But circumstance has generally seemed to favour them - and by 'them' I don't mean Indo-European speakers. I mean 'inhabitants of the European peninsula of Eurasia'.
The point isn't that Europeans are rubbish people who could never achieve anything on their own. The point is that groups of people always depend on other groups of people for the good things in life; everyone depends on everyone else, and they always have. Without pre-Islamic Persians and Sephardic Jews, there would be no fish and chips, and without prehistoric Andean communities, there would be no vodka (as we know it today, anyway). The truly important thing about world civilization isn't the contribution of a single powerful and important people to whom we should devote the greater part of our studies; it is instead that all of human civilization is effectively united through lots of little criss-crossing stands of influence over the course of many millennia.
I should emphasise, by the way, that even if Europeans had conquered the world through their sheer brilliance and Indo-European essence, that wouldn't endorse any political position and my politics - which are, as you might expect, pretty liberal - would remain unchanged. I do not oppose European exceptionalism out of a misguided 'political correctness', but rather due to its being clearly incorrect and a definitively useless guide to the history of the human world.