Forwarded from Mark Jones (on Jared Diamond)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jan 14 11:01:20 MST 2001

(For some reason, this has not shown up on the list yet. I am resending it.)

Lou, I sent this earlier, hasn't showed, am I blocked already?


>>The factor of environment is not crucial at any fundamental level.  There
is no common denominator to the places of fundamental advance. The time
and place of the European expansion falls into place in that pattern like
clockwork. So Mr. Diamond's thesis is really empty of content. Some of his
claims are absurd.  <<

This is so wrong in so many ways that one wonders if Mr Landon has even
read the book. It is simply not serious to dismiss Diamond like this, or to
speak of him merely as a 'cultural relativist' not worthy of further
attention; it does violence to language. Below is Joel Mokyr's 1998 review
for EH-Res. Mokyr is of course a Eurocentrist and both Jim Blaut and I
debated him during discussions with/about Frank's ReOrient. The evidence
Diamond adduces for environmental effects is empirically overwhelming and
we should be glad of his work. We should also be glad of the work of
Landes, Mokyr and others who provided enormous insight into the dynamics of
world-system development despite their eurocentric and often racist
perspectives and assumptions. Their work also should not simply be
dismissed but must be worked over, critiqued and assimilated to Marxism.
Denunciation is not criticism.

Incidentally, the debate about AG Frank's Reorient was fiercely waged
across a number of lists, and Blaut and I corresponded much in private,
while debating in public, and I do not recollect him dismissing the
importance of Diamond in this way. Of course, Jim's objections to Diamond's
*lapses* into relativist explanations for Europe's rise were correct, but
the context was the ways in which *Diamond's own work was his best
refutation*. There followed a protracted argument about the ultimate causes
of Europe's development of industrial capitalism based on fossil fuels, in
which Jack Goldstone, Frank, Ken Pomeranz, myself, Lou, and many others
took part. Some of this is archived at the Crashlist website if anyone is interested, more on
the WSN and EH sites.

Despite the sinologist Pomeranz's own recent and acclaimed work on what
happened/did not happen in China, the great questions are in my view still
unanswered. Marx did not answer them, nor has Perelman, nor has Diamond, or
Blaut, or Lenin or anyone else. There is still *too much we don't know*
about what happened between 1000-1500 AD for one thing; recently I have
been doing a lot of reading about the earlier European take-off of the
10th-12th centuries, which was aborted by internal exhaustion of the growth
dynamic and external factors such as the Black Death; but it is clear to me
that the explanations for Europe's rise to hegemon *do* have to be
explained by reference to *internal events* as much as world-system events.
Incidentally Blaut's *own* _ultima ratio_ for the privileged rise of Europe
was because of the favourable direction of the trade winds. You can't get
more determinist than that, and we often discussed this very thing. My
explanation was coal, his was trade winds. Ultimately, neither of us knew.
That's what made it interesting.   BTW Lou, I'm collecting some of Jim's
stuff on the crashlist site as part of my own celebration of his life, and
if you'd be kind enough to scan in that whole paper I'd like to put that
there too.



Published by EH.NET (May 1998)

Jared Diamond, _Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies_. New
York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 480 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-393-31755-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History,
Northwestern University. <j-mokyr at>

Jared Diamond is a physiologist and evolutionary biologist with a passion
for archaeology and linguistics. That, by itself, should seem to make him
irrelevant to economic history. Yet his widely read and admired recent
book, honored last month with a Pulitzer Prize, is one of the more
important contributions to long-term economic history and is simply
mandatory to anyone who purports to engage Big Questions in the area of
long-term global history. He starts off his account with what he calls
"Yali's question." Yali is a New Guinea notable, who one day poses to the
author the question why white people have so much 'cargo' (western
manufactured goods desired by New Guineans), but New Guinea produces no
cargo that Westerners are interested in.

Indeed, the question of questions. Diamond joins such heavyweights in
economic history as Eric Jones, Douglass North, Nathan Rosenberg, and
recently David Landes in asking why "we" are so rich and "they" are so
poor. Is it institutions? Culture? Technology? Religion? Diamond does not
reject any of these answers altogether, but instead formulates models in
which they become endogenous variables. The real exogenous variable, when
all is said and done, is geography. Diamond, to put it bluntly, is a
geographical determinist. The shape and location of continents, flora,
fauna, microbes, water, climate, topography, all are truly exogenous to
history. The rest is endogenous.

Geography has of course a terrible reputation. David Landes, in _Wealth and
Poverty of Nations_ (New York, 1998) starts off by recounting how geography
departments were closed around the country without a tear, and notes that
"no other discipline has been so depreciated and disparaged." Simple models
that submit that "Britain had an Industrial Revolution because it had coal"
have long been abandoned. Yet before we dismiss this as another simplistic
model, we have to face the fact that Diamond knows his stuff inside out, to
the point where any thought of using the adjective "crude" (traditionally
preceding "determinist") evaporates as we turn the pages. Diamond fires off
a barrage of facts and observations based on half a dozen disciplines most
economic historians this side of Eric Jones are unschooled in: archaeology,
botany, linguistics, anthropology among them. The story he tells is one of
a trajectory in which the world's population bifurcated for geographical
reasons. Once on different paths, Africa, America, and "Eurasia" diverged
more and more through positive feedback effects, in which geography fed
into technology, technology fed into power structures and culture, feeding
back into technology and growth until we got a world of Western economic
hegemony. Such "autocatalytic" models which view economic history as a
disequilibrium process once were shunned by the neoclassical cliometric
orthodoxy. Today, thanks to the efforts of scholars as diverse as Douglass
North and Paul David, we are getting used to them, and the intellectual
gains are substantial.

What, then, are the geographical factors that Diamond thinks determined the
course of economic history? Above all, it is that human wealth and success
depends on interaction with the environment. Economic history in his view
is a game against nature, not primarily a social process. Production--
especially in agriculture-- depends on the geographical hand we have been
dealt. Yet Diamond's emphasis is not on soil fertility and minerals as in
the writings of most geographers, but on the ability of homo sapiens to
domesticate plants and animals. His view is that all societies and cultures
have approximately similar abilities to manipulate nature, but the raw
materials with which they had to work were different. Diamond points out in
his witty prose that domestic animals are much like Tolstoy's view of happy
marriages: all happy marriages are the same, each unhappy marriage is
different in its own way. Domesticable animals are all domesticable in the
same way, but recalcitrant animals are all different. To exploit large
animals for food, energy, or other services, domesticable wild animals need
to exist, a condition that did not obtain in Precolumbian America (where
the arrival of homo sapiens 13,000 years ago had led apparently to their
extinction). But even if they existed, they needed to satisfy some
conditions such as being able to breed in captivity, safe for children and
other living beings, and so on. He argues, with great conviction, that the
hippos and giraffes of Africa, the jaguars of the Amazon, and the kangaroos
of Australia did not meet those conditions. The domesticated llamas,
turkeys, and dogs of America could not pull it off either. Eurasia, on the
other hand, was lucky enough to have had the wild animals from which our
cows, sheep, horses and chickens could be bred. This gave the Europeans
huge advantages, not only in terms of the development of technology (e.g.
mixed farming and wheeled transport) but also in providing them eventually
with immunity against infectious diseases caused by the proximity of these
animals. When they then established sudden contact with non-Europeans, the
"Plagues and Peoples" effect simply overwhelmed the unprepared victims.

A similar and perhaps less well-known effect occurred with respect to
domesticable plants. Eurasia was simply lucky in that its environment
provided a much larger stock of plants that lent themselves to
domestication, and plants that had better quality in terms of the nutrients
supplied, resistance to disease, ease of cultivation and so on. Botanical
wealth, constrained by the local flora, determined agriculture, agriculture
determined everything else, says Diamond. Eurasia won because the supply of
wild plants that provided the gene pool for domesticated crops was larger,
richer, and better. If you feel that this is a bit simplistic, read his
chapters on "How to Make an Almond" and "Apples and Indians." It is a
serious, informed, and well-thought out argument, and if in the end we are
not wholly convinced, thinking of how to refute Diamond will make us wiser
and better informed.

Diamond's argument makes serious use of counterfactuals, to the point of
wondering in the last chapter what would have happened if a German truck
driver in 1930 would have hit his brakes a second later and killed Hitler
in a head-on collision. But in the chapters on agriculture his imagination
abandons him. How much of the performance of non-Europeans was really
constrained by their environment and how much their own making? In
Diamond's view, the answer is "all and nothing." Yet one can imagine crops
that were manipulated and selected to produce crops that are as
unimaginable to us as poodles and sweet corn would have seemed 10,000 years
ago. Take one example: among the disadvantages that the indigenous plants
of what is now the Eastern U.S. suffered from is a lack of founder crops.
Yet he does concede that some of them on the surface could have done
nicely, such as a flower named sumpweed, "a nutritionist's ultimate dream"
with 32 percent protein. Sumpweed, Diamond explains, did not make it to the
rank of corn, potatoes, and rye because it causes hayfever, does not smell
good, and handling it can cause skin irritation (p. 151). Are we really
sure that these vices could not have been bred out of them? After all, all
domesticated plants had originally undesirable characteristics, but through
deliberate and lucky selection mechanisms they eventually got over them.
Wheat, rye, and maize, which feed much of the world's population, all had
humble beginnings. Diamond points out that much of our ability to improve
plants depended on whether certain characteristics were the result of
epistatic effects, that is, caused by more than one gene. People could
select for a particular trait as long as it was caused by one of very few
genes; if it was controlled by many genes, breeding specimens that
displayed the traits would be unlikely to fix it in the population. But
apart from a few examples, Diamond does not persuade us that this lay at
the heart of the geographically challenged societies.

A somewhat similar problem exists with Diamond's view of technology. In a
chapter cleverly named "Necessity's Mother" he notes the many links between
geographical constraints and technical options. Why would a society produce
wheels if it had no horses or oxen to pull them? Wheelbarrows and rickshaws
might have been an option, but maybe draft animals came first. Not all
questions can be answered that way: some indigenous populations in America
might have built seaworthy ships, or managed to develop some technology we
cannot imagine today. If they did not, is this because they tried but
failed, or because they never tried?

Yet Diamond points out two elements that suggest that links between
geography and technological progress may be significant. One is that
geography constrains mobility of knowledge. Assume, somewhat implausibly,
that the idea of a wheelbarrow only occurred to one person in history, but
that it spread to people seeing their neighbors use. If this happened in
Central Asia, it may well have reached China, France and Yemen in a few
centuries, but before 1500 it would never get to America or Australia.
Agricultural technology, he notes, also diffuses easier from East to West
than from North to South, as changing longitude has a stronger effect on
climate and seasonality than changing latitude-- giving Eurasia an
advantage over America and Africa. Furthermore, Diamond resurrects the late
Julian Simon's argument that technological success depends on population
density and the ability of a society to produce a surplus beyond
subsistence, so that there are resources available for thinking and
experimenting. Maximum population density was largely a function of the
ability of the environment to feed the population. Writing, for instance,
required large and dense settlements with complex hierarchical
institutions, much different from hunting and gathering tribes. The notion
that much economic history is a game against nature, in which people form
certain views about its regularities and use these to manipulate them to
improve material conditions is a powerful one. Diamond's insight is that
nature differs from place to place and that certain environments are easier
to manipulate than others. The economic historian must add two
qualifications to this. One is that environments can be manipulated or
abandoned. While Diamond describes in detail pre-historic population
movements (which he deduces from linguistic evidence), he does not realize
that he tells the story of regions, not necessarily of people who always
had the option to move to a more generous and flexible area. Secondly, it
could be argued that much technology emerges precisely because the
environment is not generous and requires hard work and ingenuity. What is
the partial derivative of technological creativity with respect to initial
geographical endowment? In the final analysis, this is still unknown.

The book is full of other clever arguments about writing, language, path
dependence and so on. It is brimming with wisdom and knowledge, and it is
the kind of knowledge economic historian have always loved and admired. If
you teach economic history, any kind of economic history, go read this
book. Or else you are taking a serious risk that a clever undergraduate who
has read it will ask you a question you don't know the answer to. Nothing
worse is imaginable, short of organizing a world conference and canceling
at the last moment.

Joel Mokyr Departments of Economics and History Northwestern University

Joel Mokyr is author of _The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and
Economic Progress_ (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Louis Proyect
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