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January 30, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (New York Times Book Review Edition)

Everyone who has read Jared Diamond's excellent Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies knows that its principal theme is that Eurasian civilizations have dominated world history because Eurasia (including the southern shore of the Mediterranean) was the best environment to nurture the growth of preindustrial human cultures, technologies, and civilizations. The large size of and easy east-west communications across Eurasia meant that Eurasia had more people in communication thinking about solving cultural, technological, and civilizational problems--and two heads are always better than one. The east-west axis of Eurasia meant similar climates across ten thousand miles--so whatever good ideas your neighbors had were probably relevant to you as well. The rich biological resources of Eurasia gave its civilizations an advantage in terms of the crops and animals they could selectively breed and domesticate. And, at a slightly finer scale, Europe's mountain ranges and narrow seas provided barriers to control that were not impediments to communication: thus the Ming Dynasty could suppress shipbuilding, but the Pope could not suppress astronomy.

Thus I was astonished to open the New York Times Book Review and find:

Gregg Easterbrook: "Guns" asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is quintessentially postmodern.... [E]nvironmental coincidences are the principal factor in human history. Diamond contends it was chance, not culture or brainpower, that brought industrial power first to Europe; Western civilization has nothing to boast about.

But this is completely false. Diamond does say it was culture, it was brainpower--brainpower that could be successfully amplified, harnessed, and applied to building cultures because of the tremendous long-run advantages provided by the Eurasian incubator. It's not either/or. Diamond's view is not postmodern: it is materialist--the antithesis of postmodernism. Diamond's story gives "Western civilization" a great deal to boast about (and also gives it, as any attempt to tell history straight does, a great deal to be bitterly ashamed of).

Some quality control, people. Somebody's job should be to catch book reviewers who don't understand or don't accurately present the books they are reviewing, and pull their reviews before they hit the press.

Posted by DeLong at January 30, 2005 12:07 PM


Easterbrook's "review" was more a rant on "Guns.." than anything to do with the book at hand "Collapse" - I doubt he read Collapse at all, if he did he certainly didn't feel the need to write about it.

Posted by: peBird at January 30, 2005 12:11 PM

I thought "huh?" when I read the beginning of that review, but by the end I was convinced that Easterbrook had actually read and understood most of the book, even if he hadn't started out writing that way. What appalled me most about the review was his complete eliding of Diamond's hypothesis about China - I suspect Easterbrook felt an ideological need to poke at the book.

Posted by: rilkefan at January 30, 2005 12:14 PM


Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China's embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation. Yet Diamond considers ideas to be nearly irrelevant, compared with microbes and prevailing winds. Supply the right environmental conditions, and inevitably there will be a factory manufacturing jet engines.

Many thinkers have attempted single-explanation theories for history. Such attempts hold innate appeal -- wouldn't it be great if there were a single explanation! -- but have a poor track record. My guess is that despite its conspicuous brilliance, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel'' will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification. Its arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 12:25 PM

Well, one COULD say that it was sheer luck that had Eurasia stretched out on an E-W axis instead of N-S.
So, if Eurasia had been Africa or the Americas and Africa or the Americas had been Eurasia, one of the latter would have had all the luck.

Posted by: Brian Boru at January 30, 2005 12:25 PM

There are so many other fundamental problems with Easterbrook's review, I don't know where to start. I'll just give two:

1. Easterbrook says that since most of Diamond's examples involve islands, they're not applicable to the Earth as a whole since it's not primarily made up of islands. But Diamond chose islands as his examples because they have limited resources, and are consequently more sensitive to impacts from pre-industrial and early industrial societies with lower resource requirements than our modern societies. 6 billion people, and the resources required to maintain a modern industrial society, will have the same kind of resource impacts on the entire planet, and the same effects on its ecosystems, that less-demanding societies had on the limited resources of islands. And if we could launch Gregg Easterbrook into space, which many would argue would be a good thing, he would quickly see that the Earth as a whole *is* an island.

2. Easterbrook argues that since we're so much more advanced now then earlier societies, we're bound to come up with a solution that will fix any of those problems, including harvesting resources from the rest of the universe. This isn't a fact, it's a belief, it's faith-based resource management; "crunch all you want, we'll make more". Other societies have also felt that things could go on the way they always had, and they'd always be able to find solutions when they needed to; hasn't always worked out the way. Someone needs to tell Gregg Easterbrook that "deus ex machina" isn't a viable strategy for solving our problems.

Posted by: Leszek Pawlowicz at January 30, 2005 12:38 PM


Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, [Jared Diamond] seems not to consider society's evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten.

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 12:44 PM

The difference between Easterbrook and Diamond is that Easterbrook thinks he's a polymath but Diamond *is* a polymath.

Posted by: CD318 at January 30, 2005 12:47 PM

Postmodernism is anti-materialist? When the heck did this happen? And why wasn't I told?

Posted by: Melissa O at January 30, 2005 12:59 PM

Easterbrook's analytical skills have undergone a terrible regression over the last decade. He used to be the top science policy writer in America (check out his prophetic 1977 Washington Monthly article about essential uselessness of the space shuttle). But lately, his stuff has been just crap.

He's been peddling his variant of "independent design" creationism. He has a real problem with scientists who don't believe in God - he actually wrote a piece claiming that belief in a divine creator was less ludicrous than a universe built on multidimensional resonating stringlets, but scientists ignore the former and hold conferences on the latter, which just goes to show how blinded by atheistic hatred our scientific establishment has become, and how can our nation endure? Never mind the fact that scientists developed string theory, not because it's so plausible (believe me, a lot of physicists would have been very happy if the old standard model had held true), but because it's the best theory they can come up with to explain observable facts. Science doesn't establish things based on their inherent ludicrousness (or lack thereof), but instead on their ability to explain observed phenomena. String theory might seem absurd, but so is quantum tunnelling and entanglement and the idea that observers moving in different intertial frames of reference see events differently. Hell, the notion that the earth is round is pretty absurd on first glance - how do we keep from falling off? - but we got over that. Easterbrooks complaints are unscientific, and belong in an ICR pamphlet, not in the pages of celebrated national magazines.

And then there's his other writing, which included his short-lived TNR blog (with bonus anti-Semitism!) and his tiresome NFL columns (OK, you like to look at cheerleades, we get it already).

That he could fundamentally misconstrue the essential thesis of one of the best and most influential pop-academic books of the last decade is no surprise. He praises the book, but because it seems to speak to an audience his disagrees with, he figures it's all full of bunk. Sweet fancy Moses, he even credits its success to its "P.C." quotient. Someone in 2005 is still moaning about "P.C."-ness? And expects to be taken seriously?

I wonder if simple jealousy isn't at work here. Easterbrook has written a number of pop-sci books, none of which have set the world on fire. Diamond launched into the stratosphere based on GG&S. Easterbrook phumphers about political correctness. Hmmmm....

The article actually does end up pretty well - he identifies some genuine flaws in the book, and correctly nails the conclusion as being overreaching. Easterbrook still has chops as a writer and an analyst. But I can't trust his writing or take him seriously anymore, because you're never quite sure just when the crank-think will emerge.

Posted by: FMguru at January 30, 2005 01:03 PM

A useful rule of thumb, I've found, is not to hire Gregg Easterbrook to write much of anything.

Posted by: praktike at January 30, 2005 01:06 PM

"Easterbrook argues that since we're so much more advanced now then earlier societies, we're bound to come up with a solution that will fix any of those problems, including harvesting resources from the rest of the universe."

Easterbrook was made prospectively redundant by a satirical science fiction novel written in freaking *1952*:

"Science is *always* a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce, we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab." - Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants

Posted by: Eli at January 30, 2005 01:10 PM

Gregg Easterbrook

''Guns'' asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is quintessentially postmodern.

Brad DeLong

"Diamond's view is not postmodern: it is materialist--the antithesis of postmodernism."

Melissa O

"Postmodernism is anti-materialist? When the heck did this happen? And why wasn't I told?"


Consider postmodern constructions experiential and Brad's comment holds. Diamond is writing of peoples in experiential terms, not in impressionistic terms. Well, I think so :)

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 01:24 PM

Anne asked,

> ... China adopted a single-ruler society that banned
> change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry
> dictate this? ...

Conquerors could take over eastern China with pre-industrial
armies, but not Europe. That is because eastern China lacks
mountains and such that made it too expensive for pre-industrial
armies to conqueror Europe. Information about farming traveled
past swamps, forests, and mountains, but not armies. That is
the environmental reason that Diamond gave. Just looking at
history and a map, it makes sense to me.

Also, as a practical matter, most societies are
`change-resistant'. Certainly, most (but not all) European
societies, as well as China, were ruled by minorities who
figured that they might (probabilistically speaking) lose if
change came about, but that they were more likely to continue as
rulers if they suppressed others. Moreover, in much of Europe,
and in China, the rulers mostly were strong.

For technological progress, you need a government that is weak
enough to permit others to invest in developments that may
damage those in power, but not so weak that brigandage prevents
development. And you need this state of affairs to last for
generations, so people adapt their culture to the situation.

Posted by: Robert J. Chassell at January 30, 2005 01:27 PM

What Easterbrook artfully advoids mentioning is why he really thinks "Guns" is wrong - Europe is Christian and that religion and God gave them a leg up.

Of course this a very common claim, but why is Easterbrook afraid of mentioning and defending what he believes.

Posted by: MonkeyBoy at January 30, 2005 01:41 PM


China though changing in territory encompassed was most extensive in territory and population. The problem China presented an emperor was how to broadcast power so extensively. The answer came during the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1280). China was roaded and canalled and bridged. There was a technological flowering that is startling to this day.

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 01:43 PM

Song Dynasty China is startling in infra-structure and technical innovation, while the dynastic period points to a recurring theme in China's history. There is a need for control of the provinces by the Emperor and an extensiveness that even with an advanced trasportation system makes China look as as she will fly apart. Then, the are the open territories from the north by which China is vulnerable using the same transportation system that is so essential for Emperor.

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 01:54 PM

Easterbrook is very strange. If he thinks Superstrings are so fantastical, then why doesn't he just put God's Hand there? That is to say, superstrings are poorly understood underlying elements of the universal fabric ... sounds like God.
It's the sheer idiocy of these guys I can't abide.
They can't even reason their way to a synthesis endorsing their own notions.

Posted by: NYCMed at January 30, 2005 01:58 PM

I don't have any particular ax to grind with Easterbrook, but the number of times I've come away from reading one of his pieces scratching my head wondering what the hell he's talking about are numerous. In fact somewhere in my inbox are multiple letters to the New Republic wondering aloud what the hell he was talking about. To the extent that he makes interesting reading, its often because of his quirky misunderstanding of things.

Posted by: Robin the Hood at January 30, 2005 02:03 PM


Martyr Complex

New Haven — WHY has the Chinese government been so intent on showing that the former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang was a man of no significance, a man whose life should not be celebrated and whose death should pass unsung? The answer that comes most readily to the historian's mind is that Mr. Zhao played a role that has often made Chinese governments deeply uneasy: that of a bold and visionary reformer who insistently calls for change and openness in a tightly controlled political environment. Saluted for a time as one of the leaders of the country, Mr. Zhao sought to use his power and visibility to grant a hearing to the voices of those excluded from the inner circles where decisions were normally made. And when he persisted in this course in the face of opposition from senior leaders in his party, he had to be discarded.

Many others have played similar roles in China's long history, from as early as the seventh century B.C. Ancient texts suggest a tendency for historians to personalize the idea of reform, to let one or a few individuals give a human face to inchoate and broad-based pleas for change and innovation. Often, those seeking reforms were punished by their own colleagues, so that the concept of reform led to the construction in China of an elaborate and emotionally powerful martyrology.

China's recent history is studded with such cases that also serve as markers for major political shifts. Near the end of the Qing dynasty, China's last in the long imperial cycle that had endured for over two millenniums, there was a dramatic example. The year was 1898...

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 02:09 PM

Diamond's true thesis in GGS was that biogeographical factors, rather than than any innate ethnic differences, explain regional differences in human achievement.

Of course, in order for this to be the case, those biogeographical factors would have to have essential zero effect on local evolutionary payoffs of cognition and personality traits, else those factors would themselves _cause_ ethnic differencs in cognition and personality.

We're just lucky that the fitness payoffs of every personality trait were almost exactly the same among Eskimos, Comanches, Bushmen, Vikings, and Druze. That took real luck.

[40,000 years--1700 generations--is *not* very much time for evolution to do its work. And there is said to be more genetic diversity in a standard baboon troop than in the entire human race.]

Posted by: gcochran at January 30, 2005 02:10 PM

"The Pope couldn't surpress astronomy"?

Is any slam at Catholicism, no matter how often debunked (I assume you're talking about Galileo; if you are, you might recall that the Catholic authorities had problems with Galileo's then-unproven hypotheses, not with astronomy as a scientific discipine), no matter how tangential, acceptable? Are people who would be (rightly) ashamed of prejudiced attacks on other religions, allowed to hit at Catholics without fear of contradiction?

[Cardinal Poupard and Pope John Paul II disagree with you and agree with me: As Cardinal Poupard said: "Certain theologians... failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they described the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith.... Galileo’s judges... believed quite wrongly that the adoption of the Copernican revolution... was such as to undermine Catholic tradition, and that it was their duty to forbid its being taught. This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today.... These mistakes must be frankly recognized, as you, Holy Father, have requested..."

Yes. The seventeenth-century Catholic hierarchy did have big problems with astronomy, as JPII has recognized.]

Posted by: Kevin Salmon at January 30, 2005 02:11 PM

Technically the review is not wrong. It is a matter of luck rather than skill that Europe has useful geography & africa doesn't. The review is clearly trying to push a PC non-Eurocentric view but it doesn't actually say anything incorrect.

The press can & do put their spin on things without actually lying. An example I recently complained about was a an article about various Serbs having written books in which it was primarily mentioned that it had been claimed that they were war criminals. Technically true & requires no evidence but nobody would dream of starting a review of Clinton's book by saying "Bill Clinton, accused of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing & child sex slavery & former US President has written a book".

Posted by: Neil Craig at January 30, 2005 02:12 PM

One sure tip-off that a reviewer knows nothing about academia is the use of the term "postmodern." Postmodernism is a word used by artists, architects, and literary critics. It's pretty much irrelevant to social scientists, who use the term post-structuralism. These scholars usually see culture as a constitive rather than epiphenomenonal, i.e. they take it very seriously.

The notable exception of geographer David Harvey, who wrote _The Condition of Postmodernity_. But Harvey is, as Brad notes, pretty far from Diamond in his mode of analysis.

Posted by: AWC at January 30, 2005 02:12 PM

Accusing academia as being postmodern is a big clue that you are reading an ideological essay.

In my little corner of academia (being attached to it for another two months, then likely never to return), hard scientists commonly preface their statements with "well, I'm not postmodern" when saying something that may come across as postmodern. Meaning: "I haven't thought this all the way through/I haven't had time to research this thoroughly".

My take on this E. piece is that it is willfully misleading, and my clue was the 'postmodern' E. has to use. His ideology - mankind can think it's way out of anything á lá Julian Simon - is being attacked by Diamond, therefore it must be refuted.

As the contrascientists don't have any ideas of their own, they have to make sh*t up.


Posted by: Dano at January 30, 2005 02:25 PM

Diamond's true thesis in GGS was that biogeographical factors, rather than than any innate ethnic differences, explain regional differences in human achievement.

Of course, in order for this to be the case, those biogeographical factors would have to have essential zero effect on local evolutionary payoffs of cognition and personality traits, else those factors would themselves _cause_ ethnic differencs in cognition and personality.

Well, if you take the word "innate" out of sentence one, this is a pretty insightful criticism. With it in there, it just looks like you're trying some sleight of hand in order to justify racism.

Posted by: Matt Davis at January 30, 2005 02:31 PM

"the Catholic authorities had problems with Galileo's then-unproven hypotheses"

The "problems" the authorities had with Galileo's theories were primarily theological, not primarily scientific, and it certainly is no "slam" against Catholicism to acknowledge the illicit religious motives of Bellarmin, Lecazre, Lorini and the whole Inquisition in opposing Galileo 500 years ago.

Posted by: Strange Doctrines at January 30, 2005 02:33 PM

I'm far more skeptical of Daimond's hypothesis that geography led to the ascendency of Europe over Asia than the hypothesis that geography led to the ascendency of Eurasia over everyone else. Then again, so is Daimond himself. Like John J. "Zizka" Emerson, I think that things just as easily could have gone the other way: China could have conquered the Aztecs, then created the Chinese East India Company, etc. It just didn't happen that way. I'm no historian, though.

gcochran, Daimond *doesn't* think that environment is totally neutral with respect to genetics. He thinks the differences are small, but he thinks that Eurasians have been selected for disease resistance (type O blood, which I have), and hunter-gatherer society have been selected for strength and intelligence (brains and brawn, which I do not have) that allow people to murder each other and avoid being murdered.

Posted by: Julian Elson at January 30, 2005 02:41 PM

I haven't read Collapse yet (it's on my very large to-be-read shelf), and it sounds like I don't have to bother reading Easterbrook's review of it, or probably anything else he's written in the last decade. Really just commenting on some of the points people have made about Guns, Germs, and Steel.

I found the section on western Europe versus China the weakest part of the book. In part it's because that section relied too much on contingent details, and seemed like special pleading: if the economic levels of Europe and China had been reversed, one could have found reasons based in geography for that, too. But mostly it's because in that part of the book, Diamond didn't quite convince me that there was anything to be explained.

What I mean by that: Diamond made a very convincing case that, if you compare Eurasia to South America or Australia, there was an important and long-standing difference. This was something for which it's entirely reasonable to look for simple material explanations. He makes a pretty good case that the simple material explanation he proposes would explain the observed effect.

Now consider the case of Europe and China. Or better yet, consisder the case of the various places where there have been identifiably distinct civilizations in Eurasia over the last few thousand years: northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent, India, China, and so on. For every one of those regions you can name times when it we preeminant over all the others, and you can also name times when it was going through a period of poverty and weakness. Sometimes these periods lasted for centuries, but, with a thousand years of hindsight, we can see them as temporary fluctuations.

So here's the null hypothesis, as an alternative to Diamond's explanation for why China is poorer and weaker than Europe: there's nothing to explain. In the late 20th century it looked like there was something to explain, but in the 16th century it wouldn't have looked like there was anything to explain and maybe by the late 21st century it won't look like it either. China just happened to be going through a bad period at the same time Europe was going through a good period, and this temporary and contingent fluctuation looks more important and more contingent than it really is because of observer bias, becasue we happen to be living in the middle of it.

(Perhaps one way to sum up the null hypothesis is to quote Chao En-Lai, only slightly out of context: "It's too soon to tell".)

I'm not convinced of my null hypothesis, mind you. I just think it's a weakness in Guns, Germs, and Steel that Diamond didn't address it. On the other hand, it's not a major weakness. The part about Europe versus China was just one chapter, at the end of the book, and it felt much more tentative to me than the main part. Diamond's main thesis seemed to me to be on much firmer ground.

Posted by: Matt Austern at January 30, 2005 02:42 PM

My understanding of why China and Europe differed in development was that China was unified under one strong ruler very early in its history. Europe was made up of a lot of states, so one country just couldn't decide to stop development. They were constantly fighting each other, so they had to keep up the technology (the "Guns" part of the book). Did I misunderstand his hypothesis?

My understanding of Diamond's hypothesis is that there is no difference in intelligence in different places, it was mainly the geography and biological diversity of the area that determined the society's advancement. There was an element of culture - development of writing and the "openness" of the society that also played a role.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope at January 30, 2005 02:56 PM

Kevin Salmon, saying that the Pope tried to suppress astronomy isn't a slam on Catholics any more than saying that the Chinese Emperor (successfully) suppressed shipbuilding is a slam on the Chinese.

And if you think someone has a wrong scientific theory, you try to refute them, or, if they're totally unamenable to reason, ignore them: you do not drag them before the Inquisition and order them to "abjure, curse and detest" their work.

Posted by: Julian Elson at January 30, 2005 02:56 PM

Dano and AWC: Thank you! That was (among other things) what I was gently trying to get around to saying.

Anne: I don't understand what you're trying to say. Postmodernism is experiential, and that's not materialist? Postmodernism is impressionistic? Diamond is or is not postmodern. "Postmodern." You know what I mean.

Seriously, though, using "postmodern" to mean "skeptical of the existence of objective physical reality" or "morally relativistic" is like, oh I don't know, thinking that Iran is an Arab country, or that nuclear magnetic resonance involves radioactivity, or that Beowulf is a big scary monster, or that the angel Gabriel heralded the Immaculate Conception, or that the earth is closer to the sun in summer. It make a certain vague sense in the popular understanding, but is completely, fundamentally wrong.

Posted by: Melissa O at January 30, 2005 03:16 PM

Melissa O

Consider postmodern constructions personally experiential and Brad DeLong's comment holds. Diamond is writing of peoples in experiential terms, not in impressionist or relativeist terms.

Diamond is not postmodern to me. Though I do not use the term nor care for the term, I take postmodern as emphasizing individual experience, where Diamond care about collective experience.

Though I do not find the term as definite as you I will accede to other strongly affirmed definitions of postmodern, which is why I am not comfortable with the term. Wandering through the Modern Museum, and hearing the term tossed about, I am quiet sure the postmodern does little to open a painting to me :)

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 03:37 PM

What is so very funny about the idea that Diamond is 'postmodern' is that his obvious antecedent is Montesquieu, in the Spirit of the Laws. And Montesquieu faced a lot of similar (and equally unfair) criticisms: he is deterministic, he minimizes the role of culture, etc. Luckily for him, though, the term 'postmodern' wasn't available in the mid eighteenth century.

Posted by: hilzoy at January 30, 2005 03:41 PM

I haven't read GG&S, and may never, because although there are a lot of interesting things you can pull from history a Theory of Life, the Universe and Everything just seems a little too out there.

So I was going too keep my mouth shut, but this pissed me off:

>those biogeographical factors would have to have essential zero effect on local evolutionary payoffs of cognition and personality traits,

I don't even vote for "insightful" if you take out the innate.

Homo Sapiens is blunt of tooth, slow of foot and weak of arm. He has no fur to protect against the cold and his skin burns where it is warm. I don't care where our particular primitive took up residence, being smart (cognition) and working well with others (personality) is the difference between living and dying for this otherwise amazingly ill-favored creature.

In fact, I'd venture to say the more "backwards" life is the more brutally nature selects for those exact traits.

Posted by: a different chris at January 30, 2005 03:42 PM

The mountains that supposedly stopped the Pope certainly didn't stop the Romans from enforcing a common belief throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

[Rome was a Mediterranean empire--plus Gaul and Britain. Read up on the history of the Holy Roman Empire.]

And China doesn't have any mountains to contend with? I better check my geography again, but I could swear that is some pretty high relief in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou etc.

If you want a geograher who explains Europe's advantage over China, read Fernand Braudel, not Diamond.

Posted by: aiontay at January 30, 2005 03:56 PM

Someone wrote:
"I'm far more skeptical of Daimond's hypothesis that geography led to the ascendency of Europe over Asia than the hypothesis that geography led to the ascendency of Eurasia over everyone else. Then again, so is Daimond himself. Like John J. "Zizka" Emerson, I think that things just as easily could have gone the other way: China could have conquered the Aztecs, then created the Chinese East India Company, etc. It just didn't happen that way. I'm no historian, though."


I'm no historian either, but I am an open-water rower. There have been many solo rows between Jamaica and the UK -- there's even an annual race, with quite a few people succeeding at rowing round trips.

Similarly, a few -- very few -- people have made it rowing alone from Australasia to the Americas.

But nobody has yet made it back.

So long as open-water travel was the main route of exploration and exploitation, China wasn't going to find and take over Mexico or Peru. Even if they had made it to the Americas (there's reasonable evidence along the West Coast showing Asian arrivals) they would have to have been very lucky to stumble on any of the ports that open to exploitable land (San Francisco being the only one that comes close to the quality of dozens of harbors in the east) and then they would have to have found a way home. So again, geographic luck plays a role.

Posted by: bodzin at January 30, 2005 04:01 PM

[Be polite...]

Posted by: at January 30, 2005 04:07 PM

Those of you curious about the weakness of Diamond's China vs. Europe explanations should go pick up a copy of 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. Menzies lays out a pretty compelling case for the Chinese having been the first to circumnavigate the globe; also he does a fine job of explaning why, as soon as this feat was accomplished, the Chinese stopped their voyages of exploration and the society turned inwards. Among the strongest evidence in Menzies' case is the fact that European maps pre-dating Magellean show the "Strait of Magellean" decades before Magellean ever discovered it; also the charting of Antarctic waters long before Europeans ventured there, and perhaps most compelling of all, the genetic analysis that shows various groups of native Americans with genetic markers showing relatively (within the last millenia) infusions of Chinese DNA. Also, such anomalities as the Europeans, upon first landing in the Phillipines, finding that the native Filipinos were cultivating maize - how did it get there? Not likely in an open outrigger canoe. Pick it up, it's an interesting read.

Posted by: Jennifer at January 30, 2005 04:26 PM

Quis review ipsos reviewers?

Posted by: renato at January 30, 2005 04:34 PM

The way Easterbrook uses the term postmodern has nothing to do with the current discussion. To him it means "liberal falsification of facts and conclusions drawn to further a moralistic and politically correct agenda".

Posted by: ogmb at January 30, 2005 04:46 PM

The difficulty in doing world history is putting in exact guages that measure something like superiority/inferiority. Outside of the sheer fact of armies being routed and conquest, this is hard to do. And that conquest signifies the advent of a superior civilization doesn't seem right, either. Was Normandy really superior to Anglo-Saxon England? Was Castile superior to Granada?

One gauge is the flow of wealth. And by that guage, the eclipse of China vis a vis the West certainly has been a historic blip -- the balance of gold flow favored the Chinese up to the nineteenth century. That very superiority prompted the various British and then European aggressions against China. On the other hand, that the gold flowed from the Habsburgs to the Dutch and the English favored the aggressions of the Dutch and the English. The same mechanical structure can give you different outcomes.

I don't think Diamond's thesis is a straight causal account, but builds a principle of biogeographical factors into the framework of history; he doesn't seek to account for all of histories seams and stitches. This, at least, was my impression of GGS.

Posted by: roger at January 30, 2005 04:48 PM

Sorry Jen, but Chinese historians have completely debunked Menzies. His evidence is incredibly weak, and his argument depends almost entirely upon wishful thinking. Of course, the Star Fleet may have discovered North America, just as Von Daniken's aliens may have landed in pre-Columbian Mexico. But there is no evidence for either.

That said, Menzies does a good job of summarizing just how sophisticated the Chinese were before the European colonization of the New World.

Like Menzies, Easterbrook has the ego to imagine that all professional historians and geographers are politically blinded morons. Obviously, many, many, many social scientists study the relationship between culture, economy, and power. It's silly to begin a review by suggesting otherwise.

Posted by: AWC at January 30, 2005 04:58 PM

I don't know much about postmodernism, Melissa O, but my impression was that if it had an ideology, it was that any given ideological approach to understanding the world doesn't give a complete understanding of it: that the meta-narratives that frame the way we think about institutions and situations may yield some insight, but nonetheless true understanding of them lies in looking behind the meta-narratives and seeing the man behind the curtain. It seems to me that Daimond, in GGS and, from what I've heard, Collapse, it presenting a classical historical narrative, with a metanarrative explaining the current state of the world as a natural occurence of the type that post-modernists love to deconstruct. How can GGS be considered post-modern? I suspect your and my understandings of the meaning of post-modernism are very different, and I'm not very well informed, but please, enlighten us!

Posted by: Julian Elson at January 30, 2005 05:01 PM

Has there been any examination of Japan and what could have happened in the 1600's had it not closed itself off from the rest of the world?

Oda Nobunaga, who "pounded" Japan into a unified country by beating nearly every major clan into submission through brilliant military exploits, was intensly interested in Europe and the rest of the world. Dutch and Portuguese traders had come to Japan, bringing new technology, scientific knowledge and products that intrigued Nobunaga. He became so enamored that he wore Western clothes, ate western foods western style and drank wine. He even flirted with converting to Catholicism, ( which might have happened had it not been for the Jesuit/ Franciscan rivalry current at the time). He sent an envoy to Rome, (who returned years after Nobunaga's death and was forbidden to re-enter Japan). Nobunaga was able to adapt military technology, ( firearms and cannons), devising a tripartite firing line that destroyed rival armies with great effectiveness.
He demolished the Buddhist monastic armies that had plagued Japan for centuries. In short, he was THE genius who founded modern Japan. Unfortunately, he was assassinated and the chance for Japan to play a major historical role was delayed for two centuries,( Hideyoshi, his successor, "shaped" Japan and Togukawa who succeeded Hideyoshi "ate" Japan- think of a rice ball and closed it off ).
Had Nobunaga lived, there very well might have been a Japanese Empire in the Pacific. He could have easily beaten the Spaniards in the Phillipines, easily crossed the Pacific and landed in the New World.
Nobunaga is a world figure but few Westerners know of him, which is a shame, since he was such an intriguing man. Cruel, yes, incredibly so but highly effective. He rewarded efficiency, not sycophancy. He cared little for the nobility or inherited rank and that is the main reason for his assassination. He was "open" to the world and wanted to push Japan into it. The nobles and the Togukawas were afraid of losing their power and preferred isolation.

Posted by: evagrius at January 30, 2005 05:18 PM

WOW! What a thread! And no trolls!

[now you've done it! :-)]

And I'm mentioned twice!

I thought that Diamond was great on what he knew about, and not about things he was less informed about. No surprise there. I think of him as a historical-geographical geneticist, studying the distributions of biological populations as they affect man's life through agriculture and disease. I think that he's right that these have had a powerful effect.

At the same time, Diamond was right to stretch himself into other areas where he was less expert, because his big theory gives people something to work on. He could have written a bunch of little monographs which would have been mostly ignored.

On China, I'll repeat what I said: China was an expansionist maritime power during the early Ming, reaching Zanzibar and dominating the eastern seas. But they decided to quit.

I agree that the centralization and obsession with unity was a minus. Even now I have trouble convincing Chinese that Eurpean disunity was a strength. (Of course, I have trouble convincing Westerners that Europe's frequent wars were a strength too).

It may be that the main reason that China did not formally expand into the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean is that they feared that these colonies would spin out of control. There's extensive Chinese settlement to the south of China, but it's by expatriation. China has a highly ambivalent attitude to overseas Chinese.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 30, 2005 05:21 PM

Since I don't have the book handy I can only offer my own (economic) counterinterpretation rather than a direct refutation of Easterbrook's thesis. (And please someone who has GGS look up and post Diamond's thesis in his own words!)

To me the refuted thesis was a narrow genetic superiority claim: White Man won because he is genetically fitter. Diamond's counterthesis was one of subsistence vs. accumulation societies, where, in order to reach an "elevated" level of life (measured in biological: life expectancy, infant mortality; technological or economic terms) societies are faced with different resource constraints which allowed some societies to make the transition earlier than others. And once societies transformed into evolutionary stable (i.e. invasion-resistant) accumulation societies they could use the accumulated surplus for self-improvement and empire-building. Other societies, i.e. those who never made this transformation, still exist at stagnant subsistence levels with no perceivable progress in technologies.

In other words, Diamond presented a history of the evolution of technological superiority that does not depend on genetical superiority. This is the "politically correct" part of his thesis. The "politically incorrect" elements Easterbrook chose to ignore include the observation that early human immigrants first hunted existing species into extinction before they considered the food scarcity problem at all. So much for the notion of the "wild man living in harmony with nature".

Posted by: ogmb at January 30, 2005 05:26 PM

"I agree that the centralization and obsession with unity was a minus. Even now I have trouble convincing Chinese that Eurpean disunity was a strength. (Of course, I have trouble convincing Westerners that Europe's frequent wars were a strength too)."

Clever comment.

Posted by: anne at January 30, 2005 05:27 PM

While I beat you to the punch on this Brad (check out my blog) there's one thing I'd have added after attending a Chinese New Year's gathering:

Above all, the Chinese culture seems to have a large streak of anarchy. Everyone who's been in a Chinatown can see this, let alone visited China.

The idea that "ideas" made a difference with China is absurd given their history of natural disasters and the "temperament" (say, compared to the Japanese.)

There are cultural differences, but to attribute them to a "grand sweep" of ideas is silly.

Posted by: mumon at January 30, 2005 06:04 PM

Julian: Not having read the book, I don't know whether GG&S is "postmodern" in any sense of the term. As others have said, "postmodernism" strictly speaking refers to artistic movements after World War II, something that really doesn't seem relevant to GG&S. I was just shocked to hear "postmodernism," which I take to mean post-structuralist social and literary theory, characterized as anti-materialist.

[Come to Berkeley. Make an argument that cultural formations are rooted in the technologies and social structures humanity uses in its day-to-day existence in any gathering of post-modernists and you'll be hooted out of the room.]

I suppose that given the popular understanding that academics teach that you can make any kind of reality exist by clicking your heels together, it kind of makes sense that someone might say that. But to me anti-materialist accounts are those that appear to some kind of metaphysical reality beyond the material, and that seems like the opposite of the kind of theory we're talking about. That doesn't mean that all materialist accounts are "postmodern" by any means.

Posted by: Melissa O at January 30, 2005 06:22 PM

I have read up on the Holy Roman Empire; Walter von der Vogelwiede is one of my favorite poets. True, Rome was mainly a Mediterranean Empire, but it included a bit more territory cut off by mountains than Gaul, like Spain (OK, bordered by the Mediterranean)but there is also Thrace, Noricum, Dacia, Galatia and other mountainous areas.

Futhermore, look at the elevations of the mountains in Sichuan. They're higher than the Alps. In addition the Han dynasty had pushed into the Takla Makan Desert, which is a pretty daunting bit of territory, every bit as difficult as the Alps. The assertion that the Chinese had an easier time geographically than Europe in terms of exerting political control is pretty questionable.

Posted by: aiontay at January 30, 2005 06:46 PM

Most of the big, important Chinese mountains were on the borders of China proper, including those in W. Sichuan. Xinjiang has always been contested and never ethnically Chinese. Yunnan has never been a important. Except for the SE coast the heartland of China isn't very mountainous.

Come to think of it, though, neither are England, France, the Low Countries, or Germany. Thy Pyrenees separate France form Spain, and the Alps separate Italy from France and Austria.

[English channel is important]

Determinists should explain why Switzerland is unified. No common language, no common religion, and mountainous terrain. Sort of like the Balkans.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 30, 2005 07:07 PM

I haven't read GG&S for ages, but I remember, or possibly misremember, any discussion of European technological, military, etc. superiority over Asia, as being very peripheral to the main thesis of the book. That is, as I remember it, the vast majority of the book was devoted to explaining the success of Eurasian societies compared to the rest of the world -- maybe a chapter talking about Europe v. China, and that in a much more speculative way than the remainder of the book.

I read Easterbrook's review, and found myself thinking "If it's so important to you that white Christians have a cultural advantage over the rest of the world, that's fine -- it's not incompatible with GG&S. The ecological arguments apply to Australia, the Americas, and Africa, but you can have your cultural theory, if you want it so badly, with respect to Asia."

Weird review, in any case. It hardly mentioned the book being reviewed.

Posted by: LizardBreath at January 30, 2005 07:08 PM

> [40,000 years--1700 generations--is *not* very much time for evolution to do its work. And there is said to be more genetic diversity in a standard baboon troop than in the entire human race.] >

Sure it is, plenty of time Read some quantitative genetics. Even if you use the lowest plausible estimate of narrow-sense heritability, you can have a one-std change in a couple of thousand years, or even less. The Amish could have become tamer than average just from having their freer spirits leave the group over ten generations.

Rapid evolutionary change is common.

And those baboons have a lot more genetic diversity than dogdom - while dog phenotypes vary wildly, more than any other mammal. The key is correlated genetic differences in coding genes - which is what selection produces.

Diamond, of course, does not know this. He's not very quantitative.

Posted by: gcochran at January 30, 2005 07:09 PM

What I find interestingly different about China is the ability to remain united. In Mediterranean Europe, Rome had achieved a similar degree of economic and political integration, but the fall of the empire destroyed that until now. In China, despite a good number of wars, invasions, etc. the integration and political unity of the empire was maintained for thousands of years. ¿What could be the cause? ¿Maybe there was a significant disadvantage in political seccesion, more so than in Europe?

Posted by: Carlos at January 30, 2005 07:11 PM

For a bunch of eggheads, you folks are fairly naive. This debate around which is the "first" cause is sterile, as our mind can conceive of no such.

Is culture anchored in some prior? Of course it is. You know the protestant work ethic did not actually arise from Luther's superior insight into the true thoughts of Jesus. Luther was a clever guy (the whigs tell me), but his real genius was being in middle Europe at the right time. Protestants are not actually better than you or me. They just just had the indented coastline, a wide range along a common latitude and pigs/cattle that harboured nasty viruses. And somehow these produced the printing press. Don't know how, but I am pretty sure that Jesus was not involved.

Ok, Catholics had the same things. Why did they hang the forces of modernism? I haven't reduced that one down to physical determinism yet, as I am not nearly so smart as Jarred Diamond. But I am pretty sure it has little to do with Jesus's choice of Peter as his rock. Damn, if only he had gone with Judas, maybe John Locke would have been O'Locke.

Posted by: Gerard MacDonell at January 30, 2005 07:31 PM

The only other time I have seen postmodernism accused of being 'anti-materialist' is in the arguments made against it by Marxists, who must naturally willfully misperceive it in order to better destroy it.

Posted by: Paul L at January 30, 2005 07:32 PM

How about disease? The affect of Eurasian diseases upon the populations of the New World is common knowledge, but William Mcneill's "Plagues and Peoples" presents a strong case for the devastating impact of measles and smallpox upon the late Roman empire.

Posted by: Steven Rogers at January 30, 2005 07:36 PM

Infectious disease has been a powerful force: has driven a lot of recent evolution. Falciparum malaria, which is surprisingly recent ( ~4-6k years old) has casues lots of genetic change in those Old World popualtions subject to it. G6PD deficiency, for example, is probably the most common genetic disease in the world
Pronounced lack of infectious disease was important among Amerindians: it looks as if HLA alleles drifted there, rather than experiencing strong frequency-dependent selection as in almost all other human populations.

Posted by: gcochran at January 30, 2005 08:31 PM

"Space Merchants" deserves to be better known as a work of satire.

Steven: Diamond deals with disease in GGS -- he argues that one of the effects of the large Eurasian temperate zone was as a large incubator of disease.

Posted by: Walt Pohl at January 30, 2005 08:52 PM

Gregg Easterbrook's writing career should have ended when he published a book ("A Moment on the Earth") in which he advocated that humans should genetically re-engineer all wild animals into being plant eaters.

All of them.

Posted by: TTT at January 30, 2005 08:55 PM

Haven't read Guns in a long time, but I remember that it wasn't just the mountains that made for European disunity. It's the peninsulas.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at January 30, 2005 08:55 PM

There's a shorter Gregg Easterbrook for this one:


Does credit go to Daniel Davies for that sort of post (see below), or did he pinch it from one of those fancy people they make you read when you go to expensive schools?


Posted by: robotslave at January 30, 2005 09:17 PM

vinemaple? that blog is back? excellent!

Posted by: the hermit of capital hill at January 30, 2005 10:13 PM

"Diamond deals with disease in GGS -- he argues that one of the effects of the large Eurasian temperate zone was as a large incubator of disease."

Positive? Seems to me hot/wet climates are better incubators than the cold/wet or hot/dry climates prevalent in Europe. From memory his argument was based on 1. population density and 2. animal husbandry.

Posted by: ogmb at January 30, 2005 10:20 PM

[postmodernism}: that the meta-narratives that frame the way we think about institutions and situations may yield some insight, but nonetheless true understanding of them lies in looking behind the meta-narratives and seeing the man behind the curtain.

More that the man behind the curtain is only the first step: he is the product of metaphorical language that is ultimately always self-referential. As others have said, this can also be described as poststructuralism (and possibly should be unless it refers to works of art that expand on the theory e.g. Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow).

This is not incompatable with knowledge production, but lots of knowledge producers have spent an academic generation feeling threatened by its insights nonetheless.

Posted by: plebian at January 31, 2005 12:00 AM

My theory regarding why Europe beat China and India:

One of the three had to win (which is the strongest part of Guns, Germs, and Steel), at which point, the other two didn't. QED.

Posted by: Kimmitt at January 31, 2005 12:45 AM

As I recall, the European ascendancy over Asia was not really a central to the thesis of the book, rather the Eurasian triumph over Africa, Australia, and the Americas. The book focused on truly macro forces, and the China/Europe balance tilted on more micro issues.

All of the continents, to different degrees, had a diversity of peoples, nations and cultures; Diamond's central hypothesis is not about why a particular culture would be ascendant within a landmass but why one landmass would have the opportunity for at least some of its cultures to advance more rapidly, and feed the advance (or demise and replacement) of the rest. China's earlier technical acheivements aided, rather than hindered, Europe's power: gunpowder, the printing press, etc. The technologies (and crops, animals, diseases, etc.) were able to move across the landmass and ultimately maximize the development potential of all of the cultures.

Easterbrook seemed to want to find something to dislike about the book, some way to make himself feel a superior to the (obviously more accomplished) author. So, rather than stick to the main themes, he finds a nit, pretends its the main theme, and tries to pull it apart.

Posted by: Fides at January 31, 2005 06:51 AM

Mr. Diamond wrote excellent "Guns, germs.." and perhaps has written a sequel equally good.

However at a higher level,I would like to read such a book from someone coming from outside the Western civilization. There are all these great books from Westerners on some of the most profound subjects concerning the entire humanity but very few from others.

It would have been most interesting to hear, say, Gandhi's comments on such book who is supposed to have famously said that Western civilization "would be a good idea".

Posted by: Aniruddha G. Kulkarni at January 31, 2005 06:59 AM

Haven't read Collapse, but did read GG&S. Didn't like it. Easterbrook reports on the claim that "as the ice age ended, Eurasia was home to large mammals that could be domesticated, while most parts of the globe were not." Other places didn't have the advantage of large mammals that could be domesticated. Except they did. North America had the mastodon, camel, and horse. All which became extinct about 10,000 years ago - coinciding with migrations of humans to the continent.That sure looks like a cultural/human-created reason for limited economic growth outside of Eurasia. But Diamond won't say that. He's totally PC, everybody outside Western Civ is great. And Western accomplishments are denigrated (e.g. Diamond puts Columbus' "discovery" of the Americas in quotes.) If you like faulty analogies, specious reasoning, and selective reading of the data, then Jared Diamond is your guy. A modern-day Rousseau. Noble savage, don't you know. Makes excuses for societies that don't embrace science and technology. Read any substantial history and you will see that cultural reasons are a big factor in holding back societies (except for those way out on the margins, like the Inuit).

Posted by: Quiddity at January 31, 2005 08:50 AM

As others have noted, theres two big issues. First, why did one of the Eurasian cultures come to dominate, and secondarily why Europe over China or the Islamic area. He makes a strong case that the first issue was determined by favorable environment, but the second was more contingent.

There's an amusing book by Parkinson (of the law), about the second issue. He thought an important factor was that Asia has large river valleys which can support huge popuulations. But these can and have been under a single ruler for long periods, leading to cultural homogeneity and less originality.

Diamond introduces the problem with the concrete question asked by a native of the East Indies. The inflammatory but incorrect answers he dismisses are that the Europeans had superior religion (Cortes and the Aztecs probably thought so), culture (the unspoken subtext of prepostmodern courses in Western Civ) or genes (perhaps more recent , in the sense of an explicit theory with scientific pretensions). The constructive thing about GG&S is that he spends little time attacking the faulty explanations, and concentrates on positive evidence for geographical determnism.

Easterbrook appears to favor the religious/cultural explanation. He attacks Diamond for ignoring it, then evades the subject.

No one has mentioned his howler in stating that pre-Meiji Japan "collapsed". The Shogunate lost out, but there was no collapse of the physical environment, population or general standard of living.

Posted by: Roger Bigod at January 31, 2005 09:12 AM

Quiddity: did you really read "Guns"? I think Diamond wrote extensively on why these animals were domesticated.

Re the Japan Howler: I was scratching my head on that one too. Diamond's Collapse deals with the end of society, not power changing hands from one group of men to another.

Not only that, it would be a good idea if Easterbrooke actually knows some history ... since the collapse of the Shogun marks the ascedence of Japan as a force in Asia. If this was collapse, then it would be a very good collapse.

Posted by: weco at January 31, 2005 09:35 AM

How about Quis recensebit recensores ipsos?

Posted by: Brian Boru at January 31, 2005 11:01 AM

In terms of disease, Diamond argues that the same factors (East-West axis, existence of domesticable animals, etc.) that allowed Eurasia to develop concentrated, farming, specialized societies connected by trade allowed for both a density of population and a susceptibility to disease. This, combined with the fact that Eurasians were more likely than inhabitants of other countries to live with lots of livestock, made epidemics much more common than in other continents. Hence, Eurasians as a whole developed an immunity to disease not available to, say, the Aztecs.

As for Quiddity, your comment is completely off base. The reason that early Americans killed off all domestic animals (according to Diamond) is because those animals had evolved on a continent without human predators. They were so easy to kill that they were easily wiped out (at least this is waht the evidence suggests). It has nothing to do with the culture of early Americans. And anyway, those early Americans came from Asia, and Asians didn't succeed in wiping out all domesticable animals.

Posted by: ben at January 31, 2005 11:42 AM

1. As noted by others, _Guns, Germs_ does have a geographical explanation about Chinese history that Easterbrook has forgotten. This is not a minor point, because the alleged absence of this explanation is one of the key blows Easterbrook thinks he's landed.

2. E's argument against "single-explanation theories" is tendentious, because it's bleeding obvious that Diamond's is not a complete or adequate explanation for all human history -- the merit of _Guns_ instead is that it helps you think about layers of economic history, like where farm animals come from and why they matter, that are normally taken for granted. Braudel's work also has this sort of stimulating re-framing effect, as has, for that matter, Vico's or Weber's or Andre Gunder Frank's -- each sets new questions and opens up new areas of investigation. It's idle to plump for the single right cause (and for what, precisely?) or to map them all into a simplistic ideological field.

3. Note that the self-congratulators who say they prefer a "cultural" explanation for their current privileged position in the world conflate all cultural explanations with one particular cultural explanation -- they don't understand "culture" itself as a field requiring analysis and research.

4. Whatever it might have meant a decade ago "postmodern" is nothing but a curseword now, applied to any and all dissent from a middlebrow great-booksish view of the world. SO it's useless to try and make an argument with someone like Easterbrook, that relies on agreement over what pomo *is* -- it's an empty term of abuse. You can say more or less the same thing of "politically correct," another cliche that E deploys.

Posted by: Colin Danby at January 31, 2005 01:14 PM

You seem to be a believer in the standard Western Civ story, which I used to think was the true word. It all started in Fifth Century Athens with the scientific method and personal rights. This led inevitably, with a few minor hassles, to the Bill of Rights and universal access to television. The obvious problem is that science reached a local peak in the Hellenistic period, say 150 BCE. They had a heliocentric model of the solar system with a attractive force between sun and planets. This was essentially forgotten for about 1500 years. Clearly, the power of ideas does not suffice to explain Western dominance. Diamond doesn't deny that the Europeans had superior culture, both in technology of warmaking and social organization made possible in part by writing. But he does note that European culture developed out of surplus food production based on accidents of geography.

The case for moral superiority in domesticating animals is even more dubious. It simply isn't the case that the shiftless darkies in North America knowingly killed off all the big mammals while the Indo-Europeans said to themselves "Gosh darn, we sure are hungry but if we deny ourselves now and go to all the trouble of domesticating these cows, our descendents can have cable TV and iPods".

Posted by: Roger Bigod at January 31, 2005 01:40 PM

Here's a coincidence. Solar pedicabs rolled out by Indians today.


Here's the famous Glaxy cover for Space Merchants


Posted by: wren at January 31, 2005 01:46 PM

Diamond's China thesis never worked for me because of historical exceptions. As I recall (it has been several years) he made a similar argument about the Arab empire.

But Rome shows that Europe was quite possible to unite fairly tightly, for several hundred years. Yes, northeastern Europe was largely out of bounds, but it isn't clear that the geography there was any more daunting (and the part of Europe that really took off in modern times was almost entirely made up of regions previously owned by Rome). Yes, the Romans had naval power to help conquer much of the Mediterranean, but many of their earlier victories were on land, in the geographically challenging peninsulas of Italy, the Balkans, and Iberia. The geographical determinist would look at the disunified Italy after Rome, and say it was due to geography, but be unable to explain how the hell Rome had united the area in the first place.

Imagine you are a 4th century writer using geographical determinism to explain *why* Rome was a dominant power. Either it doesn't work, or you have to take the things that Diamond sees as strengths and turn them into weaknesses ("Rome had to be technologically innovative to overcome geographic obstacles...")

So, either the geographical thesis is wrong, or cultural factors can overpower them for at least several hundred years at a stretch, a non-trivial time period, as the western powers have only been ascendant for about that length of time.

I loved Diamond's thesis at the macro-level, but the closer you get to micro-history, the less persuasive it became.

Rather, I think the Europe/China story is predominantly cultural. You had religions that encouraged literacy and mass printing combined with a writing system that worked well with the printing press, plus several other factors. Some of which were indeed lucky. Invading steppe peoples contributed to the collapse of Rome, the Arab world, and China, but medieval Europe was spared most of this (Europe's geography didn't stop people like the Vandals from getting all the way to Spain in Roman times). Byzantium acted as a bulwark for quite a long time, and Mongol hordes had a habit of having to turn back to deal with a succession crisis while just being on the verge of attacking Europe.

Posted by: T Miller at January 31, 2005 03:25 PM

East Asia versus West Eurasia:

Neolitic revolution: advantage West.

Bronze: advantage West, but East Asia is catching up -- in Thailand!

Iron: advantage West.

Then for nearly 1500 years China moves ahead in
most respects. They are better at making metals -- cast iron widely
used hundreds of years before Europe, transportation technologies
canals, stirrup, horse carts, large ships, pottery -- china!, fabrics
-- silk!, paper, printing. The creative streak ends around 1400.

Then, around the time of Black Death, Europe accelerates its development
for the next 600+ years.

Clearly, there was no substantial change in physical environment
happening 600 years ago, not there was a substantial change in religion -- mind
you, the initial burst of modern European creativity was very pronounced
in Catholic Italy, with Venice, Florence, etc. So the changes were more
political, and they are not easily explained by an invasion: conversely,
stagnation of China under Ming opened her to Manchu invasion, as the Manchu
stagnation opened China to European domination.

My theory is that China had a choice of thee ruling classes: bureaucrats,
warriors and merchants/industrialists. Say that the two camps/forces
are called Empire (bureaucrats and warriors) and Republic.
Around 1400 the victory of Empire was complete. Once there was even
a whiff of confrontation, there was no contest -- it is much harder to
explain why merchants and industrialists had such a success until that
point. Perhaps, there were both very useful -- providing revenue etc.
AND non-threatening. Once their enterprise reached certain critical mass,
they deserved meticulous controll by the state, and mandarins were only
too happy to provided it.

Europe had a similar clash of forces of the Empire with those of the
Republic in 16th century. The Empire was ruled by the Hapsburgs with holdings
extending from Hungary to Portugal. Merchants of Italy got under Imperial
control, and so were those of Lower Countries. At the time, no other
area in Europe had a comparable concentration of non-agricultural
enterprise. However, Lower Countries rebelled, and the rebellion won.

One can see how Hapburg's position in Europe was infinitely weaker than
the position of Ming in China. Northern Chinese plain was giving enough
resources to dominate the rest of the subcontinent. Europe had no
comparable spring-board for continental domination. Northern France was
perhaps the nearest thing, but it was finely balanced by a coalition of
surrounding countries -- which was what Hapsburgs ruled. Burbons and
Hapsburgs neutralized each other, and the merchants of Lower Countries
survived. Afterwards the baccilus of enterprise overcame a nearby sparsely
populated island, then settlers from that Island came to Virginia
and Massachusetts etc. But suppose that a single ruler had all the
resources of Burbons and Hapsburgs...

Posted by: piotr at January 31, 2005 03:36 PM

The textbook I am using for first-year world history, Tignor et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, shows various cultures turning against modern astronomy and geography, and others adopting them enthusiastically.

Jesuit (yes Catholic) missionaries forced both Indian and Chinese courts to look at modern maps, but they didn't like them. "Why is China so small on this map?" In India, "Our scholars can't figure this out. Take it back."

But in Japan, even after the country was closed to all foreigners but a few Dutch merchants, there remained a lively interest in "Dutch knowledge," and the Japanese had accurate world maps showing countries that no Japanese had ever seen.

Whatever the virtues of Diamond's materialist position, there is something here that has to do with culture and who was in position to be a gatekeeper of knowledge at crucial times.

Posted by: sm at January 31, 2005 04:55 PM

Nice post, piotr. It's true the merchant class did not have any political power. However, I always think they never had much power throughout Chinese history. It has always been peasant revolts/revolutions in China. I can't remember any merchant/ruler like those in Italy.

Most Chinese historians have argued that the decline was caused by Confusicism and a very bad patch of emperors in Ming dynasty. From the 1400s onwards, the Chinese rulers adapted a very conservative school of Confusicism (a quasi-religion in an essentially secular society), which argues that the best times is always in the past and changes are always bad. It didn't encourage any sort of innovation.

I also seem to remember Diamond saying that the particular form the Chinese language took has influenced the social heirarchy/unity in China.

So, here's another theory:

Chinese language has no alphabets and you have to learn each individual word. An average time it takes to learn to read and write therefore takes far longer in Chinese than in other languages. Therefore the transmission of knowledge and information is restricted to a small part of the population.

Pictograph is also essentially immutable. The written words are the same across China but the spoken words are different. And if you share a common language, then it's far easier to argue that you share a common heritage and therefore should share a common ruler.

Just a theory ...

Posted by: weco at January 31, 2005 05:33 PM

weco, a good theory must also account for a very good track record of Chinese civilization in the era 100 BC to 1400 AC.

During this entire period, they used pictograms.

One would have to check how commerce and industry was functioning. Definitely, the notion of powerful merchants was known since antiquity -- I guess Confucius himself complained about them (as did Jesus).

Posted by: piotr at January 31, 2005 05:45 PM

This thread shows that Diamond's work is a palimpsest: a canvas upon which each may project his or her own vision, first of the book and then of a conception of world history. Easterbrook's review is but a more extreme, and, sad to say, unenlightened version.

Diamond's focus on Easter Island in "Collapse" is a cautionary tale for our time, modern or postmodern however it may be. Easter Islanders, scions of the magnificent Polynesian Sea Lords who colonized the Pacific, for reasons that seemed perfectly consistent within their own cultural context, deforested their island and caused ecological collapse that made the continuation of their civilzation impossible.

Likewise, the case of the Norse Greenlanders, who insisted on animal husbandry that could not be sustained in their arctic environment's short growing season. Rather than eat fish like the "Skraelings," they died as "cattle people."

Easterbrook, purveyor of eternal environmental Pollyannism, styles to ignore that these stories are apt historical parables for our own, most enlightened time. How many Americans are willing to die as "SUV people" rather than face the unsettling prospects of Peak Oil or global warming? How many business interests would sooner run "straight pipe," non-controlled polluting industries because it is perceived to be in their short-term financial interest to do so?

Single-factor cultural apologists, defined most broadly to include religious, political and economic determinists of a host of persuasions, grandly ignore evidence that is inconsistent with their received view--all the way to perdition. A culture on the skids fetishizes formerly functional tenets of belief irrespective of whether that tenet makes survival sense in a changed environment. I'm sure that the first hominids compelled by drought to cross out of Africa were told by their stay-at-home pals that the hot weather would be breaking soon. . . .

Posted by: petronius at January 31, 2005 06:04 PM

To GG&S I would add the continuous development of sea power.

Think about it. Those countries/regions that developed sea power got to the top of the pile. Others fell behind in comparison.

Posted by: Lawrence at February 1, 2005 06:25 AM

John Emerson writes:

> Determinists should explain why Switzerland is
> unified. No common language, no common
> religion, and mountainous terrain.

The Swiss don't like each other very much, either. If you get the chance, listen to the French Swiss talk about the German Siwss, or _vice_versa_; either of them talking about the Italian Swiss is also a real treat, and as for the Romantsch-speaking Swiss, well, no one likes them very much.

But one thing, they all have in common: they're all mountain people. Though they may hate each other, they hate and fear all the more numerous non-mountain peoples even more. That's what holds the loose Swiss confideration together.

It's always interesting to see a prejudice trumped by an even deeper prejudice.

Posted by: JO'N at February 1, 2005 08:04 AM

"weco, a good theory must also account for a very good track record of Chinese civilization in the era 100 BC to 1400 AC."

I think that points to the heart of Diamond's china theory. It uses geography to explain the rise of the west, when the same theory can't explain the Roman empire and the success of China earlier on.

I think a lot of it is a matter of culture and timing. I would argue that the written word wasn't a huge factor in the desemination of technology until it was merged with the printing press, and proto-scientific/engineering ideas could be exchanged and discussed. In the middle ages, for instance, metallurgy was largely the purview of monastaries (partially driven by demand for bells, another cultural factor), often the sole repositories of literacy in the local areas. With the development of printing, such learning could spread more widely.

The Chinese developed the printing press first, but it never took off because pictographs made it way too complicated.

That is, pictographs prevented the Chinese from taking advantage of a major technological breakthrough. Indeed, it doesn't explain the primacy of China in the first millennium, but we culturalists aren't insisting on a single theory for history.

Again, the point isn't to criticize Diamond's thesis. He makes a very compelling case for the development of macro-history. It just doesn't seem to have much power in explaining the last 2000 years.

Posted by: Tom Miller at February 1, 2005 08:35 AM

In China, metalurgy was often the domain of state monopolies which operated on much larger scale than, say, monasteries. These monopolies had their own literate bureacracy and engineers. Such state organizations were also responsible for making china and a number of other products.

This model could be superior to artisanal organization in Europe -- up to a point. It is a bit like capitalism versus communism, or small start-ups versus gigantic companies. Bureaucracy may be creative, but it is also prone to long periods of stagnation.

During their last period of industrial stagnation, China had popular novels and drama, I guess that some ideas were disseminated pretty well. I think that the modes of organization mattered more than the details of the modes of transmitting information.

It is also interesting to see when science etc. started to have a real impact on trade and industry in Europe -- what is a chicken and what is an egg here, and consequenly, what were the possible chocking points of progress.

Posted by: piotr at February 1, 2005 10:55 AM

I read Diamond's thesis in an article he published in The Atlantic a couple of years ago and I found him persuasive, until he made the statement that the Mayas used slash and burn farming.

While the modern Mayas do (and are being weaned from it by the government in order to prevent forest fires), the ancient Maya depended on fixed settlement farming in an extensive network of irrigation canals and rain catchment reservoirs. These have been shown very dramatically in satellite photographs.

Although no one has satisfactorily explained the disappearance of the Mayas from the Yucatan Peninsula, I think the most likely possibility is that the irrigation system failed (possibly as a result of a prolonged drought). The explanation I like best, however, is Velikovsky's theory of a collision with an object from outer space. I'm not sure if Velikovsky was aware of the Chicxulub crater, which is, I believe, dated at 65 million years in the past.

Having seen so many supposedly firm dates (such as the beginning of the universe -- a ridiculous calculation philosophically, anyway) change during my lifetime, I feel comfortable with the thought of a Tsunami wiping out a portion of the Yucatecan Mayas, even if it means that the conventional academic historical calendar is all wrong.

Please be aware of a slightly cynical and amused tone here, as even the hint of seriousness with regard to Velikovsky will provoke a flame war -- especially from those who have never read his work.

Posted by: Jules Siegel at February 1, 2005 06:50 PM

Slash and burn techniques can actually be self-sustaining if it's used to support relatively small populations that allow frequent fallow periods and site rotation, but those same techniques cannot support large populations, hence the need for intensive irrigation. The highland (southern) Maya collapse is likely to have resulted from an environmental overuse of jungle areas. Pollen samples taken certainly support heavy deforestation and subsequent reductions in other foodstuffs.

As for Quiddity's bit about human predation of North American megafauna, it's been pretty well known for years that their populations were declining well before we have evidence of human tools specializing in megafaunal hunting. They were likely a contributing factor, and probably hastened their decline, but they wouldn't have lasted much past 9,000 ya. Environmentally, all of North America was getting progressively drier.

Posted by: m at February 2, 2005 01:31 AM

We seem to have a strong antipathy to the value of luck in our lives. To the point of assigning positive moral value to people and places that have had luck, and trying to ascribe some inherant immorality to the unlucky.

Posted by: Peter at February 2, 2005 07:08 AM

This length of this interesting thread indicates that the number of posts on a topic is inversely related to what is known about it.

Posted by: JRossi at February 2, 2005 08:47 AM

Considering the harm done by the Founding Legends based on this stuff, the thread should much longer. Look at the consequences of the pernicious belief that God is an official sponsor of the US.

Posted by: Roger Bigod at February 2, 2005 11:18 AM

[another comment spam makes it through]

Posted by: at February 2, 2005 09:51 PM