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Following the three part PBS series based on his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond might be considered the world's leading thinker on global history, a daring intellect willing to upset established canons in his single-minded pursuit of an anti-racist explanation for the European domination of the globe.

Or, as Yali put it so beguilingly in his famous question to Diamond nearly a third of a century ago: "why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

To his credit, Diamond eschewed culture and looked to geography and ecology as the fundamental reasons for the disparity New Guineans and Europeans. Unfortunately, he got the wrong answers.

Much more on the other side ...

Diamond's thesis, in a nutshell, is guns, germs, and steel gave Europeans a strategic advantage over peoples elsewhere and allowed them to dominate the rest of the world. Europeans had these advantages, furthermore, not because of anything intrinsic to their culture in particular, but simply because they had inherited a broader Eurasian cultural complex that had originated in the Middle East and eventually spread into Western Europe.

Although you'd never really know it from Diamond's book, or from the tv series, historians like William McNeill and Alfred Crosby have been asking pretty similar questions -- and coming up with pretty decent answers -- for more than forty years. While Diamond leans on their work in developing his thesis, he misses some critical points in the history of European development, and his argument is fatally flawed as a result.

Diamond's most serious flaw, in my opinion, is his inability to understand the early modern encounters between Africans and Europeans. Africans and Europeans have, in fact, been interacting for millenia. The Second Punic War, when Hannibal crossed the Pyrennees with elephants, demonstrates an active trans-Saharan trade all the way back in the third century BC.

The modern history of European-African interaction begins, however, with the Portuguese sea voyages in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. If Diamond were correct -- that Europeans had some deep-seated geopraphic advantage over Africans going back to the wheat-domesticated animal nexus, or to the layout of continents, or whatever -- you would expect those advantages to have manifested themselves at the time of these early contacts in the fourteenth century.

But they didn't. In their early contacts, the Africans owned the Europeans -- both figuratively, by defeating them in countless military engagements, and literally, by enslaving them when the Europeans violated the basic protocols of diplomatic interaction. It's worth noting that in the fourteenth century Europeans had firearms and Africans didn't. But the fourteenth-century firearms were basically useless militarily (crossbows were much more effective), and African advantages in numbers and strategy more than outweighed European guns.

Diamond has nothing on this stuff, but most historians who have written recently on the early years of European-African interaction -- such as John Thornton, Africa and the Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World or Herb Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade -- discuss it extensively. One key result of European military ineffectiveness in this early period is the fact that Africans set the terms for the slave trade, a condition that existed at least until the nineteenth century. (Klein has a great discussion in his book on why so many more men than women were exported from Africa -- about 3:2. Historians used to believe it was because buyers in the Americas preferred men for their physical strength. It turns out that buyers perpetually requested women -- they wanted to breed slaves -- and European traders in Africa bought as many women as they could get, but the Africans wouldn't sell them women. The demand in African markets for women slaves was too great, and not enough made it to the coast for sale to Europeans. Some African traders also simply refused to sell women to Europeans as a general principle.)

Now, Diamond's argument about guns, germs, and steel is actually somewhat relevant for the conquest of America -- which happened about 150 years after the Portuguese began their maritime trade with Africa. I'm not as convinced by the guns and steel part, but most historians today are. I am totally convinced about the germs part -- Crosby proved it all the way back in 1972 when he wrote The Columbian Exchange: The Biological Consequences of 1492. He's got a great chapter on the devastating impact of smallpox on non-immunized populations -- a death rate of some 30% within three weeks of first exposure. But smallpox was only one element of a cocktail of diseases Europeans brought to the New World, and many others -- typhus, pneumonia, influenza -- had similar kinds of death rates in non-exposed groups. Africans, by the way, were generally immune to all these diseases, but Americans were completely wiped out. Spanish accounts of the conquest of the Aztecs, in fact, record that the empire's defenders were dying on the ramparts from smallpox, fighting the invaders with their last breath -- and forcing them to tear down the capital city brick by brick. It's been estimated that the population of Mexico declined from 20 million to 1 million within a century of the conquest, and the vast majority of that decline was due to epidemic diseases introduced by the Europeans.

The conquest of America spurred the commercial revolution in Europe, and the commercial revolution eventually spurred the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, of course, had two phases: the early phase, in the eighteenth century, involved the mechanization of the production process and the introduction of the division of labor. The latter phase, in the nineteenth century, involved the application of steam power and the introduction of interchangeable parts.

Industrialization allowed Europe to achieve levels of productivity unheard of in world history, and it also spurred a degree of technological innovation the consequences of which we still live with today.

Europe's domination of Africa came after the industrial revolution. By the nineteenth century European firearms were lighter, easier to reload, and incredibly more accurate than the guns that had existed five hundred years earlier. Nineteenth-century guns gave Europeans a strategic advantage over Africans, an advantage they had lacked five hundred years previously.

In 1350 Europeans had no advantage over Africans, except for their knowledge of the Atlantic wind systems. By 1800 the European knowledge of wind had led, indirectly, to a commercial and industrial revolution, which in turn gave Europe the tools to defeat easily any and all opponents in the Eurasian-African immunological community.

The discovery of Atlantic winds, however, had very little to do with the foods Europeans ate, or the metals they used, or the diseases they had been exposed to. It had everything to do with the fortuitous location of the Canary Islands, the Azores Islands, and Portugal, and the fact that the Atlantic trade winds could take you from Portugal to the Canaries, that you could tack from the Canaries to the Azores, and that the North Atlantic Westerlies would take you directly back to Portugal. By learning this route (which took them the better part of 150 years), the Portuguese discovered how to navigate all the world's oceans, and set Europe on the path to world domination.

I'm not saying there's nothing of value in Diamond. If he had been a real historian, instead of just playing one on tv, he would have tied his argument into the existing historical literature and perhaps could have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the processes through which Europe came to dominate the world. As it is, though, real historians are going to have to go through his work carefully, sift out what's new from what's old, and separate out what's false from what isn't.

I will give him credit for popularizing some things that were already pretty well known, and getting people to think and talk about these important issues. I just wish he had done in a more intellectually honest way -- say like when Bill Moyers did his investigations into world religions.

Originally posted to litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 08:43 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Geography (4.00)
    Two responses:

    1. Your example of the Portguese-African encounter is just one counter-example. I don't think Diamond would claim that the Europeans did or would have dominated non-Europeans in every encounter. Surely Diamond's thesis doesn't have to account for everything, does it?

    2. The luck of the Atlantic winds is just that - luck. In the same way that Eurasia is long (rather than tall), thus making it easier for crops and domesticated animals to spread across the continent - that's just pure luck. So in a way, that fits in with Diamond's thesis, no? That geographical good luck is as big an aid as any?
    •  I didn't quite draw it out in the diary (4.00)
      but the Portuguese expansion to the sea is critical to the European expansion to the world. Without the one, the other doesn't occur. Without the creation of a European-dominated Atlantic World -- attributable largely to the fact that Europeans knew how to cross back and forth across the Atlantic -- there is no commercial revolution in Europe. Without a commercial revolution, there is no industrial revolution. Without an industrial revolution, there is no technological revolution.

      Without a technological revolution, Europeans don't dominate Africa.

      The point here is path dependence. Once the Europeans get started on the path, it's hard to get them off. But think of it the other way: what if the Canaries and Azores had been situated in such a way that Africans could learn the trade winds from them but Europeans couldn't? Would we be writing this exchange in Bantu?

      The chances are good that we would.

      This is a geography argument that Diamond does not make, but it is powerful enough to vitiate some of the geography arguments he does make (and in particular the long vs. wide argument you cited in the comment).

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 08:58:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Revolution (none)
        Without the creation of a European-dominated Atlantic World -- attributable largely to the fact that Europeans knew how to cross back and forth across the Atlantic -- there is no commercial revolution in Europe.

        Interesting response - but why is this true?

        P.S. Very thought-provoking diary. Thanks for posting it. Nice change of pace!

        •  Current thinking on this subject (none)
          which goes back to the work of the Chaunus some fifty years ago, is that the discovery of silver mines in Bolivia and Mexico provoked a price revolution in Europe. With more money available in the European marketplace, more people wanted to produce things for sale, and more people were willing to travel longer distances and take greater risks in order to acquire products for resale in distant markets.

          The rest, as someone once said, is history.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:45:56 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  It's not the Canaries and the Azores (none)
        Africans didn't go to see because their entire continent has less coastline than Europe. The Indonesians became seafarers like the Europeans, because they also had long coastlines and good harbors. And Earth is a water planet.

        Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

        by Danjuma on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:10:40 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Africa does have plentiful rivers (none)
          and they developed all kinds of light craft to travel along them. But coastal navigation was also retarded in western Africa by the almost permanently contrary winds. In eastern Africa, where the seasonal monsoon can take you to India and back, Africans developed all kinds of maritime technology. In fact, an African pilot led Vasco da Gama to India on the first European sea voyage to round Cape Horn. It took 150 years to get from Cape Badajoz in West Africa to Cape Horn in South Africa; it took six months to get from Cape Horn to India.

          African maritime technology let them do it.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:44:08 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  re: #1 (none)
      Well, since he is kind of presenting his thesis as a historical 'theory of everything'... in short, yes.

      Don't get me wrong - I've found the series fascinating, and parts of it are very convincing. But throughout it has struck me as having something missing. I don't know if it's because he's reaching too far or what... Also, some of the 'facts' cited in the TV series (I haven't read the book yet, though I want to) are in scholarly dispute - the description of the Incas as having 'no written language' for instance. IIRC, I just read something about a quipu (the knotted ropes used as records) that was found to be thousands of years older than previously tought possible. What this suggests (to me) isn't so much that the Europeans had an advantage with written language per se; rather, they had an advantage with how they perceived the written language: as just another tool, and not simply for the word of God and/or the King.

      Re #2, I think you're spot on...

      It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men's lives should not pay with their own. - H.G. Wells

      by wickerman26 on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:01:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I do this stuff for a living (none)
    and I'm good at it.  Diamond is a clever guy, writes well, and has a few ideas, some reasonable, all simpleminded. The best idea he had has to do with geographical configuration of Africa and Eurasia.  Beyond that, it's all fluff.

    He gets paid a load per lecture to market it.

    •  What do you recommend (none)
      to expand beyond his ideas?  Books, I mean.  I really enjoyed his book, because it got me thinking in a new way, but I am not a historian or an anthropologist or a physician.  

      When you are going thru hell, keep going! Winston Churchill

      by flo58 on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:32:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I don't think he's a historian. (none)
      Gee, smallpox killed the Indians? Ya think? More of a popularist.
      The best one of these types of books I've read was one written long ago by L.Sprague DeCamp, called, I think, The Ancient Engineers. This great writer revisited the rise and fall of many cultures and civilizations through the lens of seemingly small engineering advances or inventions, like eyeglasses. Really good popular history.

      We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office. Aesop (620 - 560 BC)

      by AWhitneyBrown on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:46:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  He's not an historian... (4.00)
        ...he's a scientist.  Diamond has been a professor at UCLA since 1966, first as a professor of Physiology in the School of Medicine and now a professor of Geography in the College of Letters and Science, Social Sciences division.  He won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1985, a Pulitzer Prize (for "Guns Germs and Steel") in 1998, and the National Medal of Science in 1999.  

        Here's a link to an article about Diamond from The Daily Bruin, the UCLA student newspaper:

        Diamond's departmental home pages aren't all that interesting, but here you go:

        If you're going to criticize the man and his work, at least know what he does for a living.

        •  Haven't read the book. (none)
          I didn't really intend to criticize the man, just answer the recommend question. It might be a good book, for all I know.

          We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office. Aesop (620 - 560 BC)

          by AWhitneyBrown on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 04:28:24 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  It *is* a good book (none)
            I put off reading it for a while because of the title.  It turns out to be a lot less about Guns and Steel than about geography, climate, seeds, and the prehistoric domestication of animals (and, yes, Germs).  I found it fascinating.

            And it was great to have clear and indisputable arguments for why racism is just plain stupid, as well as (intellectually) wrong and unfair.  I put the book down with an unshakable sense of the shared kinship of all humans (and I had already been a lifelong liberal multi-cultural leftist!)

            I hope you like it!

            •  I wanted to like (none)
              Guns, Germs, and Steel. I picked it up totally sympathetic to his objectives and his approach to doing world history.

              Unfortunately, I had already been teaching a college class on European expansion for about three years before I read Diamond, and I knew something about the subject. In particular, I had read and fully assimilated Thornton's analysis of the origins of the slave trade -- which placed Africans at the center of the argument, and convincingly argued for African autonomy of and power over Europeans at the time of earliest contacts.

              I had read tons of African history before I picked up Thornton, most of which tends to either condemn or exculpate Europeans for oppressing the perpetually weak Africans. Thornton was totally different, presenting a powerful and persuasive argument for African and European parity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It practically blew the top of my head off when I first read it, in particular because of its profoundly anti-racist implications.

              So, when I get to those parts of Diamond where he treats Africans as similar to New Guineans, Australians, and American Indians in their relations with Europeans, I said to myself "wait, this is a huge step back from Thornton."

              Maybe from where you're sitting, you can find a powerful anti-racism in Diamond, and I'd like to celebrate that. Where I'm sitting, the guy is reproducing some of the worst elements of the white man's burden.

              I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
              tears ran down my spine
              -- Phil Ochs

              by litho on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 08:50:44 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  People also tend to forget (none)
                That from 1620 to 1776, there was a lot more parity between Native Americans and European settlers than is recalled. Much more so than in Central and South America, where disease really hit hard and suddenly.
                And to go back even further, I tend to think the reason modern humans got to Australia 40k years before they got to Europe, even though they were coming from the Horn of Africa is not because of Middle East deserts, but because Europe was Neanderthals. Took a long time to get strong enough to run them out.

                We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office. Aesop (620 - 560 BC)

                by AWhitneyBrown on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 11:44:37 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  I think that Diamond (4.00)
      is as famous as he is because he's asking big questions.  In the academic world, there's pressure to specialize, so we end up with lots of people writing excellent books about very specific topics.  Diamond decided to address one big question that I'm sure everyone has thought about--why is the world largely dominated by people of European origin?  There's no way that you can do justice to this topic in one book, but Diamond provides a good introduction that's easy for the layperson to understand.  For people who are well-acquainted with the literature on this issue, Diamond's book is nothing new, I'm sure.  But for people who never had a good answer to Diamond's (or Yali's) big question, the book is great.  I've been led to other books by skimming Diamond's bibliography, whereas I never would have found them, let alone been motivated to research the topic, without the book.  I'd like to see more books that address big questions in an understandable manner, even if they don't break much new ground.
      •  Diamond is famous (none)
        because he's got a good publicist.

        Crosby and McNeill have been asking the same questions for forty years, and coming up with intriguing, readable answers to them, but none of their books ever made the bestseller lists.

        You know the thing I find most annoying about Diamond? He's got the white man's burden thing running about as heavy as anyone I've ever seen. That's because he's not a trained social scientist. He's not even aware of the social gaffes he's committing.

        I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
        tears ran down my spine
        -- Phil Ochs

        by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:16:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Shrapnel (1803),... (none)
      percussion cap and powder (1840's), the conoidal-cylindrical Minie ball (1840's), metal cartidge rounds (1840-1860's) Gatling gun (1860-1880's), smokeless pyrocellulose powder (1886-1888)...

      1889...the Maxim gun:

         Whatever happens, we have got
         The Maxim gun, and they have not.

      These developments were the final straw in the European versus Africa and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th Century...

      People in Eurasia on the brink of oppression: I hope it's gonna be alright... Pet Shop Boys: Introspective

      by rgilly on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 04:16:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Diamond never says his theses (none)
    are novel: his references are exhaustive.  He does pull it together nicely and his books are well-written, thus his popularity.

    I'd be interested in info on African firearms in the 14th century.  I've never heard that before.

    I agree with DavidNYC, the extent of colonization and exploitation of Africa by Europeans (ref King Leopold's Ghost) far outweighs the few skirmishes won by Africans against marauding Protuguese.  I know of no subsaharan Africans invading the continent of Europe for the purposes of exploitation.  The geography of Africa to this day has left it behind in economic development. (Also ref Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom for the paradoxical disadvantages of natural resource-rich regions.) Hannibal was Mediteranenan, thus more similar to Europeans geographically.

    The fact that the Europeans and North Americans were able to co-opt the African warlords into the slave trade is further evidence of the inherent economic advantages of the European culture.  The marketplace for slaves was overwhelmed by white men's money.

    "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -Albert Einstein

    by Grodge on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:06:53 PM PDT

    •  Let's keep our centuries straight (4.00)
      Sustained maritime interaction between Europeans and Africans begins in the late 1300s and early 1400s. European domination doesn't begin until roughly the 1800s. Conservatively, that's about four hundred years of sustained interaction where Europeans did not dominate Africans.

      Here's a cite from John Thornton, Africa and the Africans:

      Europeans clearly hoped that their maritime abilities would give them military advantages that would result in large profits and perhaps conquests. They were prepared to take over territory and enslave people, and their actions in the Canary Islands [in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries] bore witness to that desire. However much some visitors to the Canaries might have wanted to engage in peaceful trade, it was ultimately the slave raiders and conquerors who won out. Control of the seas allowed Europeans to land freely on the islands, resupply their forces when necessary, and concentrate large forces for their final battles -- and thus maritime superiority could arguably have been the cause of their success.

      The earliest sailors who reached the African coast in the fifteenth century naturally hoped to continue this tradition, as apparently did the Spanish sailors who began the conquest of the larger Caribbean islands in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. But in Africa at least, their confident approach was rebuffed. Unlike the Canarians, who possessed no boats at all, the West Africans had a well-developed specialized maritime culture that was fully capable of protecting its own waters....

      Although African vessels were not designed for high-seas navigation, they were capable of repelling attacks on the coast. They were specialized craft, designed specifically for the navigational problems of the West African coast and the associated river systems. From the Angolan coast up to Senegal, African military and commercial craft tended to be built similarly.... These specialized craft presented a small, fast, and difficult target for European weapons, and they carried substantial firepower in their archers and javelinmen. However, they could not go far out to sea, and the larger, high-sided Portuguese vessels were difficult for them to storm....

      The Africans were unable, in most circumstances, to take a European ship by storm, and the Europeans had little success in their seaborne attacks on the mainland. As a result, the Europeans had to abandon the time-honored tradition of trading and raiding and substitute a relationship based more or less completely on peaceful regulated trade. Da Mosto attempted this in his voyage, and the Portuguese Crown eventually dispatched Diogo Gomes in 1456 to negotiate treaties of peace and commerce with the African rulers of the coast. As a result, Portugal established and maintained diplomatic relations with a host of Africn states... These diplomatic and commercial relations easily replaced the raid-and-trade or raid-and-conquer patterns of other parts of the Atlantic, especially because the Portuguese soon discovered to their pleasure that there was also a well-developed commercial economy in Africa that maritime commerce could tap into without engaging in hostilities (pp. 36-8.)

      This pattern of diplomatic relations and commerce, established by the Portuguese in the 1450s, continued to characterize European-African relations up until about 1800 or so. Read the book. There's an awful lot you don't know about the slave trade, and the African role in it.

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:32:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Minds (none)
        Again, very interesting... but I don't think we need to be casting aspersions about people's knowledge levels and such. We all come to this kind of discussion with keen and open minds.
        •  Sorry, not trying to be rude. (none)
          Grodge wrote this:

          The fact that the Europeans and North Americans were able to co-opt the African warlords into the slave trade is further evidence of the inherent economic advantages of the European culture. The marketplace for slaves was overwhelmed by white men's money.

          That's an old idea in the historiography of the slave trade, and it's totally discredited today. Documentary and demographic evidence confirms that African rulers and merchants dominated the slave trade for centuries -- probably up until the British abolished it in the mid-nineteenth century. From an African perspective, they were co-opting Europeans into the slave trade, and making plenty of good money off the deal!

          It's true that Europe eventually got the better end of the deal, but the reasons for that have to do with that revolutionary cycle I was laying out elsewhere.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:43:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I'm not sure I agree (none)
            I know nothing about this topic, of course, but based on what you're saying, it sounds like Europeans had the better end of the deal even in the 1300's and 1400's.  Yes, African merchants had a lot of power to set the terms of the slave trade.  But remember who is enslaving whom here.  Did Africans come to Europe and drag European slaves back to Africa?  You say that Africans enslaved Europeans "when the Europeans violated the basic protocols of diplomatic interaction."  It sounds to me like you're saying that Europeans were enslaved only when they came to Africa and screwed around, but that Africans didn't come to Europe to find slaves.  (Correct me if I'm wrong here.)

            If that's the case, doesn't that suggest that Europeans had an edge over Africa even back then?  Why wouldn't Africans have tried to enslave Europeans in larger numbers, if both continents were basically the same?  It just doesn't ring true to me that knowledge of the Atlantic trade were the only significant difference between Europeans and Africans at that time.  It seems to me that if Africans and Europeans were in the same position, Africans would have piggybacked off of Portugal's discoveries, just as Spain, France, and Britain did.  That didn't happen.  Why didn't it?  As I said, I have no real understanding of any of this, but your arguments leave some unanswered questions.  

            •  You're asking great questions (none)
              and I don't know if I can answer all of them.

              The knowledge of the trade winds was a really powerful advantage to the Portuguese, and it was in fact based on a very long, organic process of technological development. It's the one big difference between the two societies, and it does make all the difference.

              I don't know of any African society that made any serious effort to acquire naval technology, and given the social and political organization of African states I'm not sure that any such effort would have been terribly successful.

              So, yeah, knowledge of the winds makes a huge difference, and it definitely shouldn't be minimized.

              Now, about enslavement. Slavery was a fundamental component of African society. Thornton makes the argument that property in humans had the same social and economic functions in Africa as property in land had in Europe. What that means is that Africans had normal and customary procedures for enslaving people -- there were complex and sophisticated legal codes governing how people became enslaved, and what could happen to them once they had become enslaved. People given diplomatic recognition could not be enslaved, and it was also considered bad form to enslave someone who was trying to do business with you.

              It's that simple.

              Because Africans couldn't travel to Europe freely, and because the Europeans who travelled to Africa enjoyed specific protections against enslavement, it was exceedingly rare for Europeans to get enslaved. It happened, but it certainly didn't happen on any kind of a regular basis.

              Again, it goes back to the winds. And Diamond doesn't talk about the winds.

              I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
              tears ran down my spine
              -- Phil Ochs

              by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:45:55 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I think that your response (none)
                raises a number of questions that probably have very complicated answers.  First, you've made the case that the winds were a powerful advantage to the Portuguese.  But this was an advantage that the Portuguese possessed over the French, British, Dutch, etc.--yet all of these nations eventually crossed the ocean.  Given the links between Europe and Africa at the time, why didn't the Africans follow suit?  If it was because African states were organized in a manner that would have made naval development pointless, as opposed to the case with the French, etc., then why was this the case?  Was this organization the result of random chance, or was it based on some difference in geography?  

                Second, why were slaves in Africa what land was in Europe?  Was it because there was more fertile land in Europe--vindicating a climate/agriculture-based theory?  Was it because there were more people in Africa than Europe?  If so, how did this happen?  

                Third, I'm not sure what you're saying in your second-to-last paragraph.  Are you saying that Africans could have travelled to Europe, but couldn't do so "freely" because of some policy?  Or are you saying that this lack of freedom was imposed by the winds?  Obviously, if it's the former, there are many additional questions.  

                Based on what you've said, it sounds like the winds are important.  But to say that they make "all the difference"--that raises quite a few questions.  

                •  Answers (none)
                  why were slaves in Africa what land was in Europe?

                  Scarcity. In Africa you went to war to get people for your land. In Europe you went to war to get land for your people. Once people were no longer a scarce commodity in Europe, markets in people (slaves) were replaced by markets in land. That never happened in relatively underpopulated Africa.

                  Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

                  by Danjuma on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:17:21 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  This is exactly the kind of false (none)
                    assumption Diamond perpetuates.

                    Thornton, as I've quoted elsewhere in the diary, shows that African population densities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were greater than European population densities in that period.

                    I don't think it's ever been true that Africa was underpopulated. It certainly wasn't true at the opening of the modern age.

                    I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
                    tears ran down my spine
                    -- Phil Ochs

                    by litho on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 12:11:08 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  African historical demography (none)
                      is a very tricky problem, especially when there is no archaeology to back it up. Yes, some parts of Africa were densely populated, but in general the density of the population was less than in Europe.

                      "Under" and "over" population is relative, of course, but Africa has not, in general, suffered from shortage of land. That is why only in a few areas were terraces developed on hillsides. That also is why markets for people developed instead of markets for land. The slave trade exacerbated this situation by draining off people, possibly to the extent of absolute loss of population, according to Patrick Manning's Slavery and African Life.

                      Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

                      by Danjuma on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 01:00:03 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  I haven't read Manning (none)
                        though I did just browse through his book on Amazon. It looks good, based on the little bit of the introduction I could read, but it doesn't seem all that relevant to the discussion we're having here. Manning appears to start his discussion of the slave trade in 1500 (at least, that's what he says on p. 9). The slave trade, however, originated with the Portuguese expeditions in the 1450s -- some fifty years before.

                        But we're really talking about the origin of slavery itself in Africa, not the trade, and there I doubt the story is directly linked to population scarcity. If it were, why would West African societies, where population density admittedly was greatest in Africa, be intensifying their slave institutions at the same time European societies, with lower population densities, were abolishing slavery?

                        I think Thornton is on target here -- that African societies developed a set of social and political institutions predicated on ownership of labor, rather than land. I suspect those institutions developed because of the necessities of rainforest agriculture, and they were maintained through time and across geographic and climatic regions because they proved to be functional to African ruling elites.

                        Also, it might be worth noting that the regions that exported the most slaves to the New World -- West Africa, Congo, and East Africa -- were the most densely populated regions of the continent.

                        I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
                        tears ran down my spine
                        -- Phil Ochs

                        by litho on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 08:06:08 AM PDT

                        [ Parent ]

                        •  I have read Manning and more (none)
                          The slave trade, however, originated with the Portuguese expeditions in the 1450s

                          Yes, but it wasn't significant until after the discovery of Caribbean islands. Gold, ivory, and even spices and cloth were far more important.

                          because they proved to be functional to African ruling elites

                          Duh. Still doesn't tell us why or how, so it's not very good at explaining causation.

                          because of the necessities of rainforest agriculture

                          I'm not sure how this works. Furthermore, not only the interior of West Africa but also the "slave coast" itself was savanna, not rain forest.

                          regions that exported the most slaves to the New World -- West Africa, Congo, and East Africa -- were the most densely populated regions

                          "Willie, why is it always banks?"

                          "Because that's where the money is!"

                          You were expecting them to export millions of people from the Kalahari or the Sahara?

                          Again, population density is relative. Furthermore, the only good measurements of demography were made long after the end of the slave trade, when people had been piling up on the coast for generations, and vast stretches of the interior have been depopulated by slave raiding that continued long after the British unilaterally changed their mind about it and decided it was inhumane and had to be stopped.

                          I have serious reservations about some of Manning's arguments, but I really don't think Thornton proved his case about demography at all.

                          Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

                          by Danjuma on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 08:37:15 PM PDT

                          [ Parent ]

                          •  It's clear you've read a lot (none)
                            and you've made great points. Still, I'm not convinced by the underpopulation argument as a reason for the absence of landed property in Africa.

                            That's what we're talking about, after all. I mean every society we know of in world history has developed some form of institutionalized slavery, but only in Africa -- and apparently generally throughout Africa, including in the zones of highest population density -- did slavery become the principal means of surplus extraction, and the social underpinning of state power.

                            So the question really isn't "why did Africa develop slavery," but rather "why didn't Africa develop private property in land?"

                            Now, I'll confess that I've never been to Africa, so my knowledge of the geography is imperfect, but I clearly remember Bill Brown at the University of Wiscosin -- who had lived in both Mali and Ghana while doing his dissertation research in the 1960s -- give long, extended lectures about the climatalogical and topographical differences between the two countries. From Brown, I learned that West Africa is the most densely populated region of the continent, and that within West Africa the forest zone has the highest population densities. I also learned from him that almost all of the continent was settled by migrants from West Africa -- and Brown's stated inference was that African civilization (except for Nigeria and the Swahili hybrid) had originated in the West.

                            My conclusion from all that is that African civilization arose in the West African rainforest. It spread from there into savannahs and deserts -- and rainforests -- throughout the continent.

                            Now, rainforest soils in general are fairly fragile. Using traditional agricultural methods, they tend to produce fairly well for the first three or four years after being cleared. However, yields drop off sharply after that, and by the sixth year, in most rainforests, lands don't yield enough to make it worth farming them. Farmers tend to move on after the fifth year, clearing new land and starting the process all over again. The old land lays fallow, and after five years or more of regeneration could actually become productive again.

                            The relationship between productive time and fallow time in rainforests, then, is at least one to one. In temperate forests, which is where most European agriculture was practiced, the relationship is closer to five productive years for one fallow.

                            When we think back to how private property notions originated then, there really isn't that much incentive to claim title to rainforest land. Much better to claim title to the people who work it. Once that happens, you develop social institutions, they become more complex, political institutions arise, etc.

                            Once you have social institutions based on property in humans rather than in land, then path dependence sets in. Those institutions are functional in maintaining class relationships, so landed property isn't necessary.

                            I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
                            tears ran down my spine
                            -- Phil Ochs

                            by litho on Sat Jul 30, 2005 at 05:09:48 AM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  I love this discussion (none)
                            I just wonder when they'll find it and kick it off DKos.

                            only in Africa . . .  did slavery become the principal means of surplus extraction, and the social underpinning of state power.

                            Aren't you forgetting ancient Rome? Not to mention the antebellum south? In both cases labor was scarce. The Northwest Coast Amerindians had extensive slavery and slave trade systems, but no states being underpinned.

                            "why didn't Africa develop private property in land?"

                            Who said they didn't? Everywhere that the population density has gotten high enough to make land scarce, private property in land has developed, even in Africa.

                            BTW, the ancient Irish had communal land tenures, too.

                            almost all of the continent was settled by migrants from West Africa

                            I would guess he was talking about the Bantu migration, which was probably from a grasslands area of Cameroon. Even the preBantu languages seem to have been spoken in the Nigerian "middle belt" where the earliest evidence of iron smelting in west Africa is found. It's pretty well settled that it came from West Africa, but how or by what route is still in question.

                             and Brown's stated inference was that African civilization (except for Nigeria and the Swahili hybrid) had originated in the West.

                            Define "civilization" here. Was he talking about ancient Nubia (Kush, Meroe, the Ethiopia of the Bible)? I can't imagine how that ancient civilization (in everyone's sense of the term) could be derived from West Africa.

                            This whole discussion begs input from someone who has studied the related question of why the Creek Amerindians never developed chattel slavery, while the Northwest Coast Amerindians did. Any Amerindian specialists out there?

                            BTW, have you read Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death?

                            Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

                            by Danjuma on Mon Aug 01, 2005 at 02:05:38 AM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  Yeah, I love to talk about this stuff (none)
                            If we compare African slavery to Roman (or pretty much any other) we find in the latter that property in humans acted in conjunction with property in land as a means of extracting surplus. In Africa, however, slavery was the exclusive means of surplus extraction. I guess I should have been a little more careful with my words.

                            I'm not familiar enough with NW Indians to offer a comment there. My recollection, though, is that it did exist among the Southeastern tribes. Maybe not the Creek specifically (although I'd be surprised if it didn't) but certainly throughout the zone. Alan Taylor in American Colonies documents extensive British slave trading among SE Indians in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century (see pp. 228-231). As traders reportedly travelled as far as 1000 miles into the interior from their bases around Charleston, SC, they almost certainly did business in Creek territory.

                            Thornton argues persuasively that no West African society practiced private property in land at the time of encountering the Portuguese on the coast. He also argues that even those societies with high population densities did not allow for private landholding. If he's right (and it sure looks good to me), it blows away the simple economic (or demographic) determinism of "too many people on too little land leads to landed property."

                            Yeah, Brown was talking about the Bantu migration, and again I was probably a little careless in my language. He specifically wasn't talking about Kush, Meroe, or Ethiopia (subjects that he had addressed in previous lectures). He certainly did lead me to believe that Bantu civilization arose in the rainforest, not on the savannahs. My sense has always been that the push out came from the forest regions of Togo, Benin, and Nigeria.

                            Remember, though, I took that class almost 25 years ago, so my memory might not be exact.

                            I've browsed Patterson's Slavery and Social Death, but I was never that attracted to it. It looks like a more sophisticated version of Elkins, and Elkins of course is fatally flawed.

                            I very much like Robin Blackburn's two volumes on slavery (here and here) and I also very, very much like Stuart Schwartz's Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery. Schwartz in particular insists on slaves' agency in constructing the parameters of slave society. An excellent, and prolific, historian.

                            I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
                            tears ran down my spine
                            -- Phil Ochs

                            by litho on Tue Aug 02, 2005 at 12:01:45 PM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  some good points, repaid with some suggestions (none)
                            In Africa, however, slavery was the exclusive means of surplus extraction.

                            Are you familiar with Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch's theory of an "African mode of production" in which surpluses were extracted from long-distance trade?

                            it did exist among the Southeastern tribes.  Maybe not the Creek specifically

                            Sure, the Cherokee and others did have slavery, but the Creek didn't, despite being short of labor relative to land. "Why not?" has been a major question in the anthropology of slavery. It's empirical data for the old question of why some people develop slavery and others don't.

                            Thornton argues persuasively that no West African society practiced private property in land at the time of encountering the Portuguese on the coast.

                            He has no argument from me on that point. Greater population densities, causing not just a market in land but terracing (by the Angas) etc. probably date to later, when the population recovered after the end of the slave trade.

                            Bantu civilization arose in the rainforest

                            There's been a lot of ink spilled over the Bantu migration since Brown lectured on it (and he's a specialist on Islamic Africa anyway), including in Scientific American by D.W. Phillipson, IIRC . The last good thing I read about it was by Jan Vansina, I think it was called Pathways through the Forest or something. Anyway I recommend it highly.

                            Patterson is very good for data and for providing leads to further research, whatever one thinks of his conclusions. Joseph Miller's bibliography is the source of all sources about slavery though. That sent me to the anthropological stuff about the Creek.

                            Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

                            by Danjuma on Wed Aug 03, 2005 at 02:07:00 AM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                •  I'll start at the end (none)
                  Africans couldn't travel freely to Europe because they had to go on European boats. They did go -- Afonso of Kongo sent his sons to Rome for a religious education after he converted to Catholicism and established a Catholic church in his kingdom. It just wasn't easy for them to get there and back.

                  I'm confessing I don't know why Africans didn't appropriate the naval technology. I suspect it was because they lacked a maritime culture. (In east Africa, this wasn't the case, but we're talking about the west here.)

                  Why people rather than land? Thornton punts, saying "The African social system was thus not backward or egalitarian, but only legally divergent [from the European system]. Although the origins and ultimate significance of this divergence are a matter for further research..." (76). He precedes this with a discussion that that states and elites seek to gain control over one of the three factors of production in an agrarian society: land, labor and capital. In Europe, they controlled land. In Africa, labor.

                  That doesn't really answer your question. My suspicion is that it has to do with rainforest agriculture, and the need to let land lie fallow periodically in order to replenish. I know this also happened in Europe at the time, but my sense is that rainforest lands need a lot more time (five years or more, versus a year in many cases in Europe) to replenish. Still, Thornton cites qualitative evidence that West African societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sustained greater population densities than their European contemporaries. If true, that's a pretty serious nail in Diamond's coffin.

                  On the winds, read Crosby. I'm deriving from him. Of course, he derived it from Morison, so there's all a chain here.

                  I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
                  tears ran down my spine
                  -- Phil Ochs

                  by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:57:21 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks for the reference, (4.00)
        I'll have to read the Thornton book.

        Diamond's thesis, however, is that Europe had advantages (viz agriculture) that allowed it to advance culturally over Africa.  Just because the Portuguese were unable to penetrate the harsh Subsaharan region in the 1400's does not serve as evidence of African dominance or even equality.

        While the Africans were making rudimentary ships and hunting with crossbows, the Europeans were developing an agrarian culture that allowed an academic intelligentsia to emerge who studied longitude, planetary movement, engineering, seafaring and military technology.  Without agriculture, there would be no 1800's colonization of Africa and North America.

        The survival of African cultures to the present is more a testament to the harsh environment of the continent rahter than the superior culture of the Africans.

        "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -Albert Einstein

        by Grodge on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:46:34 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I wouldn't sell the Africans short (none)
          Thornton presents compelling evidence that African societies were at a roughly similar stage of economic and social development to the Europeans at the time of Portuguese contact. If African societies look relatively impoverished and even backward today, that is a result of European domination, not a cause.

          (Walter Rodney may have been wrong on the particulars of African underdevelopment, but he was basically right on the broad outlines.)

          On Iberian technological development in the early modern era, the best thing I've read (and probably the best book out there) is Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. Seed makes clear that Portuguese scientific achievement was a direct result of the crown's tolerance of Muslims and Jews. Portuguese technology, that is, was basically North African, not European.

          By the way, I wouldn't get too excited about Portuguese agriculture, if I were you. The most productive thing they get out of their fields are rocks...

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:04:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  In the 1400's (none)
            perhaps Africa was as advanced as Europe (I'll read Thornton's book before I'll disagree), but what happened between 1400 and 1800?  Why was Magellan circumnavigating the globe while the Bantu were chasing rodents and eating wild grass?  Answer: agriculture as a result of geography.

            Diamond is not "selling the Africans short."  He is recognizing that African economic, technologic and military development trailed Europe because of agriculture, or lack thereof.  His book is really an anti-racist thesis that answers those who might argue that the Africans are genetically inferior; Diamond says not so, they are geographically disadvantaged, and if brought into western culture, they perform as well as whites.

            "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -Albert Einstein

            by Grodge on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:15:43 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I would say politically disadvantaged (none)
              Diamond does sell Africans short -- I could find you the quotes if I had the time. But you are, too, when you refer to them "chasing rodents and eating wild grass."

              Tropical rainforest agriculture is substantially different from that in savannahs and temperate forests, but it is possible to achieve relatively high levels of agricultural productivity in such a climate. I'm taking this quote out of context a little (Thornton is arguing in this section about the complexity of African politics and social structure), but the point is clearly relevant to our discussion:

              The average [population] density for seventeenth-century Lower Guinea (roughly the southern half of Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Nigeria) was probably well over thirty people per square kilometer, or well over the average European density of the time. Indeed, the Capuchins who visited the area in 1662 regarded it as so populated it resembled "a continuous and black anthill" and noted "this kingdom of Arda {Allarda} and most of this region {Lower Guinea} exceed in number and density {the population} of all other parts of the world" (p. 75).

              I'm glad you're planning to read Thornton. When I read him about ten years ago, it just totally changed the way I look at history. He is literally one of the best historians I've ever read (and I've read quite a few).

              I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
              tears ran down my spine
              -- Phil Ochs

              by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:31:27 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I will read it. Thanks again. (none)
                I did enjoy your diary and your critique of Diamond. It has made me think (ouch.)

                I had read Guns... a few years ago and it did change my perspective at the time, but I am NOT an anthropologist or social scientist of any type, so I'll be the first to admit that my understanding is limited.

                Good discussion.  I'll educate myself (more.)  Thanks again.

                "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -Albert Einstein

                by Grodge on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:38:13 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  I don't see why Africa is a problem (none)
    You say "In their early contacts, the Africans owned the Europeans", and this is quite true.  Europeans had very few advantages over (sub Saharan) Africans in the 14 century, and even for very long thereafter.  In fact, for a long time, their only advantage were the ships that allowed them to visit Africa.  Countering this was the toll  of tropical diseases, which made it impossible for Europeans to conquer any African territories at that time.  

    In fact, Europeans made almost no conquests in Africa (except in the temperate far southern part) until the mid- to late- 19th century, largely because of disease.  Even when they conquered, Europeans never settled in any part of Africa, except for temparate regions like South Africa or Kenya.  Europeans were unceremoniously kicked out of their African conquests in the late 20th century -- European control of Africa was a temporary phenomenon, lasting only 100 years at most.

    The people living in sub-saharan Africa are, for the most part, direct descendants of the people living there 500 years ago.  A majority speak languages and are part of cultures which descend from those present in Africa 500 years ago.  Contrast this to the Americas or Australia; the original cultures and languages are virtually non-existent, and in many places, descendents of the original inhabitants are a tiny minority.

    The difference between the history of European interaction with the Americas and Africa is of many orders of magnitude; why do you an expect an explanation for one case to apply to the other?

  •  Modern man is devolving (none)
    You used the word "domination" to seemingly describe the relationship between Europeans and Africans.

    There are different mentalities in the world in addition and in part due to georgraphy.  The way the Aztecs percieved, the way the Afticans percieved is perhaps lost or illusive.

    Long ago an emphasis was placed on building a artifiicial world built on logic, language and mathetmatics. A kind of artificial world of consensus or overlay onto to nature on which people who could act.  This is the Western Man's approach. It's not quite real and it doesn't jibe with anything real. It makes Western man totally vulnerable to the larger reality around him.  It's living in an artifical bubble that gets more artificial as technology develops, bringing Western Man closer to an inevitable collision with natural forces which are beyond our comphrehension and impossible to predict or control.

    Parts of Aztec and African culture may have been quite different.

    How people percieved 1,000 years ago is perhaps so dramatic we cannot imagine. 2500, years ago it would get even more interesting.

    i think it is very clear and certain that we we are evolving technologically and devolving in perception. We no longer know much about the natural world. The true world. The world that we  live on top of, The one that really matters. The one that we have to answer to with our lives. Percieving that is no less a sign of intelligence than understanding technology.

    We are getting dumber, not smarter. That is why we are bound to destroy ourselves by getting lost in the artificial world of technology.

    They say there is global warming. But there's a lot of other bad things that are going on and we are unable to percieve them.

    •  Perceive (none)
      But there's a lot of other bad things that are going on and we are unable to percieve them.

      If we can't perceive them, then how do you know that they are going on?

      •  that's like saying (none)
        radio waves don't exist because you can't perceive them.

        There's lots of phenomena that exist that humans can't perceive.

        •  Science (none)
          No, it's not like saying that at all - one can conduct all manner of repeatable, testable scientific experiments to demonstrate that radio waves exist. That's another means of "perception". I wasn't speaking purely of the five senses, naked.

          I am not so certain that the above poster could create repeatable tests to demonstrate the existence of the phenomena he is describing.

          •  Private Places Science can't enter (none)
            No I couldn't. That's why psychology, sociology are not sciences. They are still at the level of interpretation. Which proves the point that we really don't know what we are. If we did we could prove it! Science can't examine thoughts and sensations except on a... I guess electrical level... That's leaves very little to go on.
    •  clarify.. (none)
      Modern western man is devolving.
      •  Clarification Early Human (none)
        Natural events. Plants, animals, location of water, The wind, the rain, the seasons, the position of the moon and stars in relationship to Earth, were probably the focus of attention of early man. THese things are the most powerful forces on our planet and in the Universe and we know longer no anything about them from a practical point of view. We know about them scientifically. But not practically and not as a matter of course for everyone.

        Knowledge about plants for example seems to be universal at earlier times in human history. It wasn't just knowledge about the plants that people had it was a rubric of interconnected bits of information and how they related to each other that formed a perception that we can no longer imagine. An inner world existed with the outer world. Now there is just an outer world that we percieve. Earlier man could use his entire body to percieve and the information it gave him was in the form of sensation. Non verbal. Not just "feelings" or "emotion" but sensations.Sensations that were directive.These sensations told the person what the situation was and then what to do. And they were accurate. They are always accurate.  It was understanding without a thought process. The thought process can be and could have been incorporated, but it hasn't been. That's lost now. The sensational aspect of human life is  another side of human awareness that has been submerged. it's still experienced by everyone but it is ignored and it never develops as a result on an individual basis and most certainly on a collective basis-which is where the potential for real evolution would have lied for humanity.

        This earlier perception could have developed in the same way technology has developed but it was discarded. It could have been incorporated.

        What's interesting about early man is the way people looked at the world. It wasn't the same at all as it is now. People did similar things but they were very different.

        Just look at the difference between some people in the 60's looked at the world and the way people look at the world today.
        Perception is always changing. We can't imagine how much different it was 500, 1000 2000 and 5000 years ago.

        I think that the earlier mode of perception through sensation is directily connected to our natural self and the natural enviornment. As we move further along the path of a technology
        that ignores this we devolve further and apparently are headed off the cliff of existence.

  •  Doesn't the immunity (4.00)
    of Africans to European diseases argue pretty strongly for Diamond's thesis?  You seem to be saying that the fact that Africa wasn't dominated until after industrialization contradicts his theory--but it seems to me this is the exception that proves the rule.

    Without their advantage in germs, and before their adoption of effective guns and the development of mass produced steel tools, Europeans could not dominate the African continent.  

    After they were able to develop the latter two, they were finally able to assert their dominance--but they needed at least two legs of the troika to do so.

    At least that's what crossed my mind as I read your well written critique.

    "You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society." - Moe Syzlak

    by Sylvester McMonkey Mcbean on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:26:01 PM PDT

  •  Germs, metaphorically speaking, (4.00)
    are just as important to Dimond as the guns or the steel.  It has been a while since I read his book, but from what I remember he does not just look at history.  He also looks at the role of biology and geography in the "progress" of civilization.  That, to me, was the main, new (at that time) insight he brought to bear on the discussion.  

    He looked at so much more than history.  For example, he talked about how immunities built up over centuries by humans living in close proximity to animals and to domesticated animal-induced diseases, protected Europeans at the same time these diseases decimated the natives of North America who had no pigs or cows or horses, killing perhaps 90 per cent of the population even before settlers arrived.  At the same time tropical disease like malaria prevented Europeans from moving into equatorial Africa while native Africans with genetic protections from these diseases were able to thrive.  

    I thought it was a terrific and insightful book about how people evolved on the planet, but it also seemed like just a beginning to a new way about the origins of culture.  If you know of other such books, please share.

    When you are going thru hell, keep going! Winston Churchill

    by flo58 on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:26:25 PM PDT

  •  Don't downplay synthesis (4.00)
    You say: "If he [Diamond] had been a real historian, instead of just playing one on tv, he ... perhaps could have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the processes through which Europe came to dominate the world."

    If Diamond had been a "real historian", he would never have written his fascinating and thought provoking synthesis of the results of many disciplines, I might never have learned about it, and we would not be having this situation.  

    Good synthesis is one of the rarest things in intellectual discourse, and the talents of a synthesizer like Diamond are much rarer than those needed to be a "real historian"; I don't understand why people like you are so eager to disparage it.

    •  Maybe (none)
      because I had read Alfred Crosby's discussion of immunological communities in Ecological Imperialism about five years before Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel.

      If Diamond were a real historian, he'd have a sensitivity to chronology that he utterly lacks. Hopefully, too, he would have avoided the common teleological errors that plague his book.

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:38:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Specifics, please (none)
        The fact that he is synthesizing arguments that have been put forth more narrowly elsewhere hardly condemns him, unless he has attempted to conceal these sources, and I don't believe that to be the case.

        That said, I'm entirely open to a discussion of the errors and lack of understanding you refer to.

        No one likes armed missionaries. -- Robespierre.

        by Gator Keyfitz on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:59:03 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, yeah (none)
          except that Crosby is already a fairly effective synthesis on his own, and Diamond cherrypicks the argument for the parts that support his thesis.

          I mean, pretty much everything Diamond says about the superiority of Eurasian plants and animals he lifted out of Crosby. But the part about the winds?

          Well, you see, that doesn't fit his thesis. In fact, it undermines the central idea that European domination of the world has its roots in the Mesopotamian discovery of agriculture. As I've been trying to argue in this diary, the Portuguese discovery of the winds introduces this huge contingency some 12,000 years after the critical discovery that according to Diamond basically determined European expansion and domination.

          As I said in one of the comments, if the Azores and Canaries had been situated such that Africans could learn the winds from them, but not the Portuguese, why, we'd be writing this exchange in Bantu, not English.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:13:25 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well for one thing... (none)
            there was no written language, Bantu or otherwise, in Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of a very basic Ethiopian located in a fairly out of the way corner of Africa), which is just one of the clues that there were some other advantages Europeans enjoyed in addition to the knowledge of winds.  Written language is pretty important in terms of technological advancement.

            That aside, I don't see the knowledge of winds as disproving his thesis at all.  Rather it seems like one more beneficial factor enjoyed by the Eurasians.  

            I mean, really, Eurasians circa the fifteenth Century already had incredible advantages over their African counterparts.  Images of Bantu conquest of Europe in this period seem pretty fanciful.

            One last thought, assuming that the Portuguese had to sail back to Portugal, wouldn't that have entailed using winds that the Africans could have used themselves to sail north had they chosen to do so?  I guess that doesn't really disprove the idea that favorable winds were a lucky crucible in which to acquire sea-faring skills, but surely that wasn't quite the obstacle that, say, lack of domesticable large mammals was in Diamond's book.

            No one likes armed missionaries. -- Robespierre.

            by Gator Keyfitz on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:35:41 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  The point is contingency (none)
              and path dependence.

              My argument here is that without knowledge of the winds (how to sail out into the Atlantic using the trade winds and return to Europe using the Westerlies), Europe doesn't establish the so-called Atlantic World, a super-profitable trading system that linked Europe to African labor supplies and American raw materials. Europe also doesn't get to exploit the American silver mines in Bolivia and Mexico, the output of which led to a price revolution in Europe and the eventual development of the industrial revolution.

              Furthermore, it was the industrial revolution that allows Europe to dominate Africa and Asia, a domination it was unable to achieve in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the first time Europeans tried to dominate the world).

              Guns, germs and steel make a difference in the conquest of America, but are irrelevant to the conquest of Africa -- except in the sense that the conquest of America eventually allows the conquest of Africa. And, I'm sorry, but that really does change Diamond's thesis in significant ways.

              I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
              tears ran down my spine
              -- Phil Ochs

              by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:57:45 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  myths (none)
              there was no written language, Bantu or otherwise, in Sub-Saharan Africa

              The medieval Christian Nubians, in what is now the Sudan, wrote their language in the Greek alphabet before the were converted to Islam. The entire Sudanic belt of West Africa was dominated by Islamic kingdoms in the middle ages, and supported, and still supports, a vast network of Islamic schools, including universities in Timbuktu, Jenne and elsewhere. In the centuries before colonialism this Sudanic belt was swept by Islamic, scholar led revolutions, culminating in the rise of the Mahdi.

              You can look this up in any reputable source, even the Britannica, if you want.

              Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

              by Danjuma on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:24:25 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Yes, but... (none)
                The Greek alphabet and Islamic learning were imports into a region of Africa that was closely connected to Eurasia.  Note that Diamond isn't necessarily speaking about Europeans in his arguments, he's speaking of Eurasians, by which he intends us to understand the inheritors of the agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent about 12000 bce.  This would include the North Africans, with whom Sudan has been connected with, as well as the Semitic peoples, from whom the Islamic learning came.    

                I was trying to suggest that the argument that we'd be writing in Bantu if it wasn't for the trade winds was specious, because the Bantu had no written language at the time, which suggests to me that there was a little more going on than litho is granting.  However, I accept your correction on the presence of written language in Sub-Saharan Africa outside of Ethiopia.  

                This in no way implies that Sub-Saharan Africans are any less fully formed human beings than the Eurasians, rather the opposite.  Nor does it suggest that genious was absent from African cultures.  A grossly oversimplified reiteration of Diamond is that agriltural surplus lead to state formation, which lead to the need for writing.  The means of this agricultural surplus were unavailable to Sub-Saharan Africans before the modern era.  I don't understand litho's comments downthread that Diamond is facilitating racism.

                No one likes armed missionaries. -- Robespierre.

                by Gator Keyfitz on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:47:10 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Are you confusing Diamond with Jack Goody? (none)
                  The Greek alphabet and Islamic learning were imports into a region of Africa that was closely connected to Eurasia.

                  As I read Diamond, it was the long swath of ecologically similar area that allows regular intercommunication in Eurasia, and thus a much larger area for ideas to get thought up and used. Some have complained about him that the intercommunicating zone of the African savanna would have supported his basic idea better than Bantu expansion, but he's not an Africanist.

                  As for writing, it was probably invented only once, in Sumeria, and spread from there, within limits set by ecology. The lie that sub-Saharan (i.e. black) Africans didn't share in that spread is just that, a lie.

                  Your stuff about agricultural surpluses sounds like Jack Goody's Tradition, Technology and the State.

                  Does anyone think Bush will ever catch bin Ladin?

                  by Danjuma on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:55:22 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

      •  Jesus (none)
        You need to step down.  I don't think you realize, qua your incessant nattering about Diamond not being a "real historian," that you wouldn't get a single person responding to this thread without his book.  Perhaps you should think about the cultural role popularizers and synthesizers play.
        •  Umm. (none)
          I think I actually acknowledged your point in the diary itself.

          That said, his book does real injustice to our understanding of the history.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:20:19 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I don't think you've disproven his theses (4.00)
    I've read Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse, and, as an armchair history buff, found them quite convincing, particularly in their synthesis of an immense amount of material from a variety of sources and disciplines.  I'd love to hear specific critiques of his ideas, but I don't feel like I'm getting that here.

    He nowhere claims that all of his material is completely original, nor I would imagine would any modern historian.  His bibliographies in the two books are quite extensive.  I'm not clear how exactly he disagrees with the authors you cite.

    Of course North Africa was important in the world of the Ancient Mediterranean; I don't believe Diamond claims otherwise.  But that's entirely beside the point: you (in this diary) and he are both primarily concerned with Sub-Saharan Africa, and his point that 1000 miles of desert wastes and another huge region of rainforest were obstacles in the dissemimantion of agricultural technology is not challenged by anything you've written.  Having read the book, I can assure you he gives a great deal of sympathetic attention to the Bantu agriculturists, and the challenges they faced.  

    I'm not sure the history I've read bears out your claim that African people were somehow an insurmountable obstacle to European expansion in Africa.  The Portuguese seemed to have established profitable trading concessions along the coast.  In terms of conflict, most of the challenges they faced were from their rival imperialists in the Muslim world.  The greater obstacle seems to have been disease, and generally what the Europeans would have considered an unwholesome climate.  Even more likely was the lack of useful goods that couldn't have more profitably been purchased from native elites.  Why track through the jungle yourself when slaves could be acquired from coastal people for the price of obsolete firearms and trinkets?

    Mr. Diamond spends a great deal of time discussing the impact of disease in the conquest of the New World (obviously, as that is what the "germs" in the title refers to).  His recounting of this is fairly poignant.  Re-reading your diary, I guess you agree that he is on solid ground here?

    Mostly, I guess the tone of your post is so dismissive ("fatally flawed," "playing [a historian] on tv") without much in the way of specifics, that I'm not sure exactly where you disagree.  I don't recall much discussion in Diamond regarding trade winds, undoubtedly important though they may be, but how does that account for Magellan circumnavigating the globe in the early 1500's?  Definitely something seems to have occurred that allowed the Eurasian peoples to leap ahead of the other continents in terms of population and technology; Mr. Diamond's theory as to what cocktail of factors that may have been seems pretty persuasive to me, but I would love to hear a good critique of his arguments.  


    No one likes armed missionaries. -- Robespierre.

    by Gator Keyfitz on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:49:30 PM PDT

    •  Read (none)
      Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, Chapter 5, "Winds." It'll teach you all about how the Portuguese learned their way around the globe, and how their discoveries led directly to Magellan's voyage.

      As to Africa, you miss the point. You (and Diamond, apparently) seem to believe Africa was uncivilized, "trackless" is the metaphor you use, but in fact Africa was home to a multiplicity of complex and competing states at the time the Portuguese arrived. That they didn't conquer is not because they did not want to, but because they couldn't. You're right, it was easier to trade with prosperous and powerful kings, especially considering those kings were always on the lookout for prosperous new trading partners.

      The best evidence unearthed by historians today is that Africans effectively set the price they wanted for their slaves. Because the markets were competitive, individual traders either paid the price asked or risked bankruptcy. The image of Africans exploited by white slavers is simply false -- created by abolitionists as part of their campaign to end the slave trade.

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 09:58:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not saying Africa was uncivilized (none)
        in the sense of not knowing how to use a salad fork, of course, but it seems clear from the historical record that African kingdoms were less populous, less scientifically advanced, less agriculturally sufficient, and less well-armed than their European counterparts at the time they encountered each other in the modern era.  Mr. Diamond is attempting to explain these facts without recourse to racist ideologies.  I don't believe he regards Africans as any less human than other people, in fact he goes to great lengths to mention their very real achievements given the inferior hand they were dealt in terms of natural resources.

        Had they chosen to do so, I suspect that the Portuguese could well have "conquered" as many African states as they chose, but to what end?  Those climates they and the Spaniards found salubrious, such as the Azores, and the New World, they quickly designated as colonial dependencies.  Those regions that yielded valuable resources like gold and spices, they came to control either directly or indirectly quite rapidly.  Africa seemed to afford nothing at the time except slaves, and these, as you've convincingly pointed out, could be more profitably exported via the African middlemen.

        I'll look for the book you mention; thanks for the tip.  


        No one likes armed missionaries. -- Robespierre.

        by Gator Keyfitz on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:16:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  On a side note... (none)

           I love it when I see signature lines that make me think, "Damn, why didn't I think of that one."  

          Jesus Saves...He Buys Wholesale.

          by Mote Dai on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:21:15 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Yeah, well (none)
          I don't know exactly where to start, considering that I've refuted most of your points responding to other comments in the diary. I'd recommend you read through those comments if you want my opinions on African-European technological and social parity in the fifteenth century or the ability of the Portuguese to conquer Africans at the time.

          So, you see, in my opinion (based on reading real historians), Diamond is attempting to explain facts that don't, in fact, exist. In that way, even if his overt intentions are to combat racism, his actual effect is to perpetuate false racist assumptions about African and European societies at the opening of the modern age. This indeed is one of the biggest problems I have with him.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:37:14 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well, all I can say (none)
            is that you and I carry different definitions of "refuted" and "real historians."  I'm not sure that you have addressed such obvious disparities as written language, urbanization, global trade, firearms (African traders seemed awful eager to get their hands on them for devices which yielded no advantage over indigenous African weaponry; in fact that seems to be a big part of why they had so many slaves to sell once they were so equipped), medicine, and on and on.  

            Lastly, accusing Diamond of in any way facilitating racism without some more information than you are offering just seems defensive.  It seems that his real crime to many people is being successful in the popular area of a field which they regard as their own.  I'm not saying that this absolutely applies to you, but I have this feeling that you dislike him for more than his actual arguments.  

            No one likes armed missionaries. -- Robespierre.

            by Gator Keyfitz on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:58:54 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  It's all about chronology (none)
              which is something historians spend an awful lot of time learning about.

              As I wrote in the diary, firarms in the fourteenth century are qualitatively different from firearms in the eighteenth century (which is when the so-called gun cycle for slaves you allude to arose). By the time Europeans started buying slaves with guns, they had already been buying slaves for somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred years. During that time, the quality of European firearms, obviously had improved.

              By suggesting Africans were not urbanized, you simply display your own ignorance. Africa prior to European conquest boasted what were undoubtedly the most urbanized societies in the world. Hell, I was an undergraduate when I read Hull's African Cities and Towns Before the European Conquest, a venerable book which has been around for nearly thirty years. As for medicine, I think I'd rather try my luck with an African shaman than with a sixteenth-century European doctor.

              I dislike Diamond because he disses Africans. Because he doesn't understand history, he makes the same mistake you're making -- he assumes that African society five hundred years stood in a similar relation to European society as it does today. The facts, however, simply don't bear that assumption out. I'm not saying Diamond is intentionally racist -- I'm saying his ignorance leads him to reproducing myths that have profoundly racist implications.

              Have you read the cites I've got upthread from Thornton (here, and here)? There's a historian who knows what he's talking about.

              I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
              tears ran down my spine
              -- Phil Ochs

              by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:17:07 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  hey, (none)
    it's information, it's a perspective.  it is what it is.  (like you could explain the world in 3 tv shows.  get real)

    sounds like your jealous.

  •  The Elvis Factor (4.00)
    I am a scientist, and I frequently come across something that I call the "Elvis Factor."  This isn't just limited to science, but most academic fields.  Elvis popularized a genre of music because he made it marketable and expanded its realm of influence.  Sure, there were pockets of people in which the genre of music was very popular before Elvis, but it wasn't until young, white kids started listening did it take off.  Should Chuck Barry truly be considered the King of Rock?  Probably, but for the general public, Elvis will always hold that position because he is the one that adopted the new sound and made it sell.

    You see a similar thing in many academic fields.  Great ideas are out there, below the radar, but it takes someone else to take the body of information and present it in a manner that connects with the population as a whole.  Sometimes this takes stripping away the technical jargon that inflicts many academic publications, thus making it much more accessible to the guy on the street.  

    I think Jared Diamond got people, not just academics, thinking and talking about non-racial explanations for certain cultural observations.  While I think Diamond had way too much face time in the specials, I don't think he takes all the credit for the synthesis of many of the basic tenets of his book.  He just puts many of the various topics all in one book that is easy to read.

    Jesus Saves...He Buys Wholesale.

    by Mote Dai on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:05:05 PM PDT

  •  Liberalism was the key to european power (none)
    The protestant reformation was dissent from "The Church." The word protestant comes from the word protest and he word liberal meant "not bound by tradition." The early protestants were liberal in the context of those times.

    Unlike most Catholics, Protestants read the bible so they could interpret "god's words" themselves. It forced people to be literate to worship their god. They dissented from the conventional interpretations and set up a pattern of questioning that lead to the constitution of the U.S. (including separation of church and state.)

    After questioning the Pope, questioning thier king, and even thier traditions, inventing and exploring exploded and thus guns and steel were born.

    Maybe the book should be called Germs, God and Liberalism.

    Rovists are Red, Kossacks are Blue, Send Karl to Jail, and take Bush along too.

    by JamesK on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 10:46:19 PM PDT

    •  I like the sentiment (none)
      but I'm not convinced by the chronology.

      Luther nailed his theses to the door in 1517, about the same time the first Spanish expeditions were discovering signs of the Aztec empire. The Taino on Hispaniola and Cuba had already been enslaved and practically exterminated, and Spain had already grown wealthy off American gold.

      The Reformation was a product of the conquest of the New World, not its cause. I'm arguing the conquest of the New World led more or less directly to the industrial revolution and European domination of the world.

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:02:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  those stinky europeans (none)
        True. Agreed but like any phenomenon there is a tipping point.

        If you're looking for root causes then I'd say it was germs. The black death. Lots of people died, religious or not so people questioned their god. Made them look for new answers either in god or without.

        Why germs? Probably because of cities. Why cities? Because of the hoe. Yup, the ox driven hoe. or Plow as it was.

        The plow freed allowed the growth of the non-agricultural class who allowed cities to grow. The unsanitary conditions of the times coupled with close quarters and contact with so many people alllowed germs to affect many more people.

        China at the time had cities as well but had at the time more sanitary conditions and more regular bathing habits.

        I've often heard that christians at the time thought that bathing too much was unhealthy...more over that people would think they were Jews or Moors who had ritualistic cleaning.

        Of course today, people around the world think it odd that showering everyday as most americans do is odd.

        Rovists are Red, Kossacks are Blue, Send Karl to Jail, and take Bush along too.

        by JamesK on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 07:35:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  So, the plague in Europe (none)
          (which hit in the 1300s) caused the Reformation (in the 1500s)? Why didn't it do something similar in China, which lost about a quarter of its population in the 1328 epidemic?

          China also suffered severe epidemics in the early modern period. Mark Elvin, in The Pattern of the Chinese Past, reports:

          The major constraint on demographic growth in the late traditiional period seems to have been epidemic disease. In 1586-9 and 1639-44 China suffered fromt he two most widespread and lethal epidemics in her recorded history, although their medical nature remains a complete mystery... During the two great epidemics the death rate was very high. The local gazetteers often speak of twenty per cent, thirty per cent and forty per cent of the population dead. In some cases they record 'more than half the population dead','sixty to ninety per cent of the population dead' and ninety percent of the pupulation dead'.... This temprorary reduction in population eased the pressure on land for at least a century and a half, while the cultivated acreage continued to expand (310-11).

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 08:35:53 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Monoculture (none)
            China during those same time periods were more or less a mono culture. Single ruling class throughout the enitre country.

            It had a single King/Pope and dissent with either politics or religion was brutally supressed.

            In europe, there were competing kings and liberal ideas could incubate and breed.

            Also, are you questioning the idea that something that began in the 1300s could affect something 200 years later? The plague as you know flared up throughout the 1400s as well.

            One historian, David Landes, in his book "the wealth and povery of nations" discusses these aspects... similar to Diamond's book in scope but lacking the easy to read writing...

            Rovists are Red, Kossacks are Blue, Send Karl to Jail, and take Bush along too.

            by JamesK on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 09:02:03 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  The point here (none)
              is that all the characteristics you attribute to Europe as factors leading to the Reformation apply equally well to China.

              As Europe had a Reformation and China didn't, obviously your original analysis was missing some important factor.

              You might even say a critically important factor.

              Personally, I'll stick with the expansion of mental universes the discovery of the New World provoked in European consciousness. Not the only factor going on (we could mention Gutenberg, for example), but it really did have explosive impact. When you add in that Europeans generally understood the discovery as a gift from God in exchange for having expelled the Moors from Europe, an awful lot of people expected the millenium to arrive any minute. When it still hadn't arrived more than twenty years later -- and Europe began suffering from the horrendous syphilis epidemics that broke out at the same time and in the same place Columbus returned -- people began to get a little antsy...

              Ergo, Luther.

              I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
              tears ran down my spine
              -- Phil Ochs

              by litho on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 09:17:02 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Gutenberg (none)
                I think the missing component was need.

                The Chinese were the dominant power in the region and saw virtually no external threats to its power. It could maintain the status quo. It had the largest army, it had the best technology, and the resultant hubris and paranoia about those internal forces that would disrupt their power was immense. An example of their hubris, trade with other nations. When the europeans eventually made contact with the chinese, the chinese saw them as an uncultured race with nothing to offer them. Europe's manufacturing capability was looked down upon and there wasn't much china was interested in, except gold. But for that, the Chinese had an answer too. Let them come to us.

                There are many sources of data that suggests that china did go "discover" the world. The difference is that the chinese reaction to exploration was to stop it. Power was manpower and they didn't not want to lose people to immigration and more importantly, they discouraged new ideas that thier power structure deemed dangerous. It is accepted knowledge that confuscian monks advised that exploration and even the records of exploration be destoryed. It would only bring disease. Xenophobia was institutionalized. The idea that non-chinese were "foreign devils" dissuaded further contact.

                Printing... the chinese invented the printing press but it was never widly adopted. Some attribute it to sobbery. Why would any right minded aristrocrat want something printed when scribes would do a much better job. And also likely, they guarded literacy as a something for nobility and not for the masses. It might lead to free thinking. (read: Liberalism)

                The gun. Early guns were lame. Compared to the long bow or crossbow, which the chinese were masters of, how could guns compete? And since China didn't have any serious threats to its borders, they didn't need them. Manpower, the Great Wall and superior technology negated the need to make even greater weapons. And since the emperor controlled the armies, calalry, any type of weaponization of gunpower was frowned upon. A weapon that didn't require years of practice to be leathal against a trained soldier? That was dangerous to the status quo.

                The europeans were constantly at war. It didn't seem that anyone could control europe as totally as the romans did. They needed to improve thier guns to gain advantage over each other.

                As for literacy, the Protestant Reformation made it an imperitive that good god fearing people should learn to read the bible... and it is not a coincidence that the bible was the first thing printed in quantity.

                The chinese had a reformation but for them it was called the Revolution and it happend many centuries after the time period of european ascent to power. A radical change from the past. And for them it came as their traditional leadership became powerless to stop european imperialism. Now china had a need to change and nobody from the old guard had the power to stop them.

                Rovists are Red, Kossacks are Blue, Send Karl to Jail, and take Bush along too.

                by JamesK on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 11:13:05 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  Dude (none)
    Have you actually read Guns Germs and Steel or are you just going by a quick Tivo scan of a PBS special?  I don't see anything in this that actually contradicts Jared Diamond or anything that isn't in one of his books.
  •  Huh? (4.00)
    This is bizarre.

    First off, remember who you are slandering.  Diamond's work is one of the most effective I know of in combating the subconscious racism that exists in the minds of the majority of the world's white population - and a good part of the nonwhite.

    I am not white and I have rankled, all my life, from whites bragging about their "superior" civilization.  The unstated implication is that Western technology and world domination were made possible by genetic and cultural superiority.  

    Even as a child I used to feel ashamed.  My white peers' ancestors conquered my own ancestors, with barely a fight, and ruled us for centuries.  Diamond is one of the only authors I have read that has offered a factual, logical, coherent explanation for this.

    If you are white, I will tell you flatly that you have no f---ing clue what it means to read, for the first time, real proof that you are not inferior after all.  So what if Diamond's ideas are not original?  I'd rather have one of him than ten conservative blowhards blathering about Western "superiority" and jeering at other cultures.

    And you seriously suggest that Africans set the terms for the slave trade???  This is so laughable I barely know where to begin.

    European slave traders basically refused to deal in anything else the continent could export.  If one tribe refused to sell slaves (and there were not a few who tried to), they would trade guns for slaves to a rival tribe, which would use those guns to attack the first tribe and kidnap its people for sale as slaves.  It was either enslave or be enslaved.  The resulting centuries of civil war, plus the depopulation caused by the export of slaves, destroyed Africa's emerging city-states and kingdoms.  The continent was left more, divided, decentralized, and weak in 1850 than it had been in 1350.  

    Even when Europeans abandoned the slave trade and looked at other exports, they did not engage in real trade but simply seized control of the entire continent, carving it up like a cheesecake.  They stayed just long enough to train a generation of corrupt despots and warlords to take over after they left.

    And now white people jeer at Africa's poverty.  Those blacks, everyone knows, can't govern themselves.  White man's burden, you know.

    •  Look, if you like Diamond (none)
      you'll love Thornton. He's like Diamond, but without the racism. If anybody does Afrocentrism, if anybody is about empowering black people, it's Thornton. The guy simply constructs beautiful arguments, and they're unimpeachable.

      Once you realize the centrality of slavery to African culture, and the importance of long-distance trade and commerce, along with the existence of strong and powerful states all through the continent, then it's just a short step to realizing that Africans were fully capable of defending themselves, and not letting Europeans push them around. And they didn't.

      But here, let me quote from Thornton on just how we know that Africans set the terms for the trade:

      African naval power [made] raiding difficult, [but] it also allowed Africans to conduct trade with the Europeans on their own terms, collecting customs and other duties as they liked. For example, Afonso I, king of Kongo, seized a French ship and its crew in 1525 because it was trading illegally on his coast. It was perhaps because of incidents such as this that Joao Afonso, a Portuguese sailor in French service, writing at about the same time, advised potential travelers from France to Kongo to take care to conduct trade properly, explaining that when a ship enters the Zaire, it should wait until the officials on shore send one of their boats and do nothing without royal permission from the king of Kongo (39).

      Here's another good quote from Thornton:

      Perhaps one of the most interesting facts of the early Atlantic trade was that Europe offered nothing to Africa that Africa did not already produce -- a fact often overlooked in analyses of the trade. This immediately differentiates the early period from the present day, for today domestic African industry produces none of the manufactured goods that they import from the developed world.

      Europe exported a wide range of good to Africa before 1650, of which we can recognize several categories. First and surely foremost in terms of volume was cloth -- a whole world of textiles of doezens of types by the seventeenth century. Then there were metal goods, principally iron and copper, in raw (iron bars and copper mantillas) and worked form (knives, swords, copper basins and bowls, etc.). Next there was currency, consisting of tons of cowry shells. This trade was especially important in Benin and the Slave Coast though shells were also imported into central Africa. Finally there is what we might describe as nonutilitarian items, such as jewelry (beads for the most part), mechanical toys and curiosities, and alcoholic beverages.

      What is significant about all of these items is that none were "essential commodities." Africa had well-developed industries producing every single item on the list, and although not all of them were produced in every district, a substantial number of these items were imported into regions where there was clearly no pressing need, in a strictly functional sense, to import them.

      It was, in short, not to meet African needs that the trade developed or even to make up for shortfalls in production or failures in quality of the African manufactures. Rather, Africa's trade with Europe was largely moved by prestige, fancy, changing taste, and a desire for variety -- and such whimsical motivations were backed up by a relatively well developed productive economy and substantial purchasing power. The Atlantic trade of Africa was not simply motivated by the filling of basic needs, and the propensity to import on the part of Africans was not simply a measure of their need or inefficiency, but instead, it was a measure of the extent of their domestic market (44-5).

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Thu Jul 28, 2005 at 11:38:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The problem with this thread... (none)
    is that the history majors are so evidently bent out of shape that a non-historian is poaching in their pond.  

    The discussion about the African slave trade and the Portuguese is interesting but in the end irrelevant to whether or not Diamond has a "problem".  If you watched the final episode of his "playing a historian", he showed that most of central African societies were relatively intact until industrialized Europe discovered that lots of raw materials were abundant.  Then the real dismemberment began.  Both Diamond and the critics in this thread seem to be in agreement on this.  So, what's Diamond's "problem", again?

    •  The problem is contingency (none)
      The contingent location of the Canaries and the Azores, which allowed the Portuguese -- and not the Africans -- to discover and conquer America.

      I'm suggesting the early history of European-African relations admits the possibility that Africans could have discovered America, if they had had access to favorable winds, and in that case it would be an African Diamond coming with an Afrocentric geographical determinism to explain why everyone in the world has learned African languages.

      If the simple location of two island groups in relation to continental land masses and oceanic winds is sufficient to explain why one group of humans dominated the modern world, what happens to all of Diamond's theory?

      I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
      tears ran down my spine
      -- Phil Ochs

      by litho on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 12:05:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Nothing, actually... (none)
        Diamond's point was that western Europeans came to dominate the world due to some lucky geographic accidents, not to some innate superiority of western Europeans.  If the Canaries and Azores are indeed so supremely important, that's just one more lucky break for the Europeans, like the Fertile Crescent, the east-west orientation of Eurasia, and where horses still lived.

        In the case of Africans, I doubt that access to those islands made much difference.  You don't need the Azores to get from Africa to India (which was the real goal of Colombus and those that followed him west).  For Africans it was an easy sail accross the Indian Ocean, but it was the Chinese who dominated the Indian Ocean maritime trade.  The only real "close call" for someone besides Europeans dominating the world came from Ming Dynasty China.  Diamond also goes over this, and the strange end of China's domination, in the book.  (It may have been in the TV show too, but I only caught the last day).

        •  Classification error (none)
          I think Diamond classified Africa incorrectly, by placing it outside the Eurasian community. He based his classifications on food sources, which he thinks was critical for how cities and technology developed.

          Following Alfred Crosby, I would put Africa in an Old World immunological community. This classification is based on the diseases to which people have been exposed and to which they have developed immunities.

          I think two factors played a critical difference in the European conquest of America: the ability to get there and back, and the devastation caused by epidemic diseases Europeans carried to the New World.

          They could get there and back because of the islands and the winds. They carried devastating diseases because they belonged to the Old World immunological community.

          In the encounter between the Old World and the New, disease made the difference -- in my opinion, much more than guns or steel. That, however, is an advantage the Africans would have enjoyed equally over the Americans.

          The question becomes why does Diamond class Africa with the peoples Europe can dominate? If he had known anything about the early efforts to dominate Africa, he would have realized the parity between African and European civilization at that time.

          That parity challenges his entire thesis about the significance of food as culturally determinant.

          I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
          tears ran down my spine
          -- Phil Ochs

          by litho on Sat Jul 30, 2005 at 05:21:01 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  European history was shaped perpetually by Rome (none)
    Take away the Roman empire, and you take away the unified economy and the idea of a unified continent-wide society which have never, ever gone away for over 2000 years.

    You take away from Europe the metalled roads, you take away the concepts of efficiency, you take away the ideal of unity, you take away the ability to move goods and trained personnel and technological know-how on paper from place to place as needed, and most of all, I will repeat, you take away the idea of all this as something desirable - that is to say, something worth spending huge amounts of money and personal time on, by a society.

    The various barbarians came in to a disintegrating, imploding western Empire and tried to become Romans and invoked the ideals and traditions of Rome as their justification for governing, over and over and over again, from the 400s on. And it has never stopped - just visit Washington DC.

    There's a reason why China has always been a much harder nut for the West to crack.

    On a micro level, geography is insanely important: without an empire, distribution of resources can be the difference between winning wars: this is what happened with the Armada, and the fact that Spanish ore was not the same as what the English had access to, and so while it was better for swords it wasn't better for guns, and so their cannons didn't have the same range. Likewise with forests and ships - it's not only amount, but type of wood that makes a difference.

    For a thorough-going look at all this, which may make some people uncomfortable reading it, Stephen Barnes has done an Alternate History with no Roman empire, because of losing the Punic Wars, into which power vacuum Egypt, undestroyed by the Caesars, and Abyssinia, have stepped. The world powers, by the 1860s, are Northern Africa, Southern Africa, Persia, India, and China...and Vikings with Egyptian-made rifles hunt wild "ghosts" in the forests of Germany and Ireland for the slave markets of Andalusia, and Ethiopian scholars debate what long-forgotten African explorers must have built Stonehenge, while escaped whites make common cause with the pushed-back Wichita on the borders of the new world colony of New Alexandria...

    "Don't be a janitor on the Death Star!" - Grey Lady Bast (change @ for AT to email)

    by bellatrys on Fri Jul 29, 2005 at 04:13:24 AM PDT

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