The new book (and the accompanying blog) by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson Why Nations Fails is a popular version of their academic papers (several with Simon Johnson, the ex IMF chief economist) on the topic [brief summary here]. The main idea is that institutions and not geography or culture are the key to economic development. That is for the most part true.
They use South and North Korea (and Nogales, México and Arizona) as an example of countries that share the same culture and geography, but have very different institutions, and, as a result, a huge disparity in income per capita. Jared Diamond is correct to point out that, in part, technology is geographically determined. No plants and animals to domesticate, and provide for a large surplus (Diamond uses the old classical notion of surplus), and higher population density (with the diseases and immunities associated to those Germs) and no advantages associated to a more developed division of labor (Diamond is also Smithian in that sense), with the consequent development of technology (Guns and Steel). But the problem is that this won’t help you understand why England and not China industrialized (the opposite extremes of the Eurasian continent).
Read the rest here.