Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Guns, Germs, and Steel

For those of you who have been influenced, whether opponents or fans, be aware that Greg Cochran is dicing it up at West Hunter (sidebar).  He is, at least, thoroughly destroying a particular claim of Jared Diamond's in that book.


charlie said...

I saw that happening and composed a comment that didn't meke it to to the comment board a few weeks ago (my error). That was on August 2d, and I never went back and joined the conversation.

I have taught several times using _Guns Germs and Steel_ as one of five books in a "historical geography" course, along with Robert Marks _The origins of the Modern World_ and Colin McEvedy's _Penguin atlas of the Ancient World_.

I think the big picture you get from _Guns Germs and Steel_ is correct--the "Old World" was ahead of the "New World" by two or three thousand years. For example, if you look at McEvedy's atlas, everyone around the Me4iterrancean had started making iron sometime around 1000 BC. It seems that 2500 years later when Columbus reached the New World, the Aztec and the Inca were still basically using stone knives (obsidian, chert, flint, whatever).

Eurasia had all kinds of advantages: disease pressure, writing, large animals--some civilization from Eurasia has all those things and would have an advantage once contact was makde with the New World.

Why it was Europe and not China that "Broke out" of Eurasia is harder to say.

also--was Europe "artificially benefited" from a first mover advantage? We're still not entirely sure. Pomeranz made good points with _the great divergence_. Basically: "What would have happened if China got to the New World first?"

It seems to me that Greg Cochrane's "generalized animosity" toward Diamond's book gets in the way of distinguishing what's valuable and what's half-baked or hare-brained in the work.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't entirely disagree, but note that China did get to the New World fairly quickly after, from the other side. The silver from Peru dominated the Pacific and Indian Ocean economies fairly quickly. But China was protective of itself in a different way than Europe was, and their arms-length, we just want the money, thanks approach didn't work as well. Similarly, Europeans were willing take risks to get Eastern goods such as spices(and later, rubber), while China was more passive and receptive about that. They were safer, and by their lights, wiser. Less risk. Let them come to us with their silly Portuguese and Dutch ships. Interestingly, they brought back an enormous number of ideas - medicine, architecture, religion to the "Orient." We are fond of saying in our era how many Western ideas weren't really western, but first developed in The East. That's not untrue, but it is more than balanced by the fact that China didn't really even develop Buddhism. It's essentially Indian.

As for Old world versus New, the disease vectors overwhelm absolutely every other consideration. The New World cultures may have had marginal advantages that we don't see, because they never got the least foothold to prove themselves. On the contrary side, Europeans were similarly destroyed in Africa, which is why slavers stuck to ports, or better still, islands off the coast. Yet Englishmen and Dutchmen insanely pushed on, whether to save those animist souls, get their diamonds and gold, or just see things no white man had seen before. Eventually, that paid off, however high the cost. The Chinese didn't do that. They sent ships around a bit, but there are no Chinese who pressed to the interior of Africa, inspired by the stories of H. Rider Qi Song or Chanming Conrad. They didn't risk death to name waterfalls and mountains after emperors. They didn't dig up bones or study the origins and relationships of African languages.

I think there may be something to Diamond's idea that an east-west latitude based cultural exchange had advantages over the north-south orientation of the New World and its plants and animals. Cows can live in Yakutsk and Ireland. There wasn't much faunal exchange from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego. Yet I still wonder if that is post hoc reasoning.

charlie said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

Time for me to go read West Hunter again. Greg Cochrane is certainly grouchy and impatient at times, but between him and his commenters there is a lot of material to process there.

I usually sign my full name everywhere I comment, btw. Sign me

Charles W Abbott