A history lesson
May 4, 2002
Articles on stuff
Thirty years ago, working as a biologist studying bird evolution in New Guinea, a young American scientist fell into conversation with a local politician. After some ice breaking talk about their respective careers the politician then candidly asked the scientist: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"
Although Jared Diamond, the scientist, could not accept simple racist theories, he realized that the question had been largely ignored by some of the academics best able to address it. Furthermore, his admiration for the ways in which New Guineans had mastered the difficult environments they lived in made him inclined to believe that they were generally smarter than the "superior" civilizations who had come with the cargo. Faced with this contradiction of his intuitions, he spent a large part of the next three decades formulating a comprehensive multi discliplinary answer, the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel.
Using geographical, biological, linguistic and archaeological evidence to chart the development of pre historic peoples, the book shows how a great deal of a given continent's destiny depends on wholly external circumstances. Eurasia, for example, with a larger number of domesticable plants and animals, a horizontal axis of expansion and few natural barriers encouraged the transition from hunter gatherer to farmer much earlier than its rivals. This transition created centralised communities with specialists who could develop technologies like irrigation, writing and weaponry, and had the added benefit of toughening up the native population to the deadly diseases that evolved from the large numbers of animals they reared. Played out over thousands of years, this agricultural headstart, and its attendant benefits, proved decisive in the confrontations that lay ahead between the Old World and the New.
A notorious example of the resulting lopsidedness is the story of the Spanish explorer Pizarro conquering the Incan king Atahuallpa despite being vastly outnumbered (less than 200 Spaniards faced an army of 80, 000 Incans), in unfamiliar terrain, exhausted and intimidated. The Spanish were able to rout the Incas, capture the king and demand one of history's largest ransoms before they set about destroying the rest of the empire. This happened not because of any inherent superiority, but because of the horses, steel weapons and virulent microbes that the Spanish, by geographical accident, had been allowed to accumulate. Had history's hand been dealt differently, granting the Americas horses (Native Americans were later to show a prodigious ability to use them in war), different diseases (again, difficult to acquire without proximity to domesticated herds) or a wider landmass instead of one that stretched north to south, the same outcome is difficult to imagine.
An even more pointed example is the story of Australia, into which Europeans supposedly brought prosperity by virtue of their greater creativity or intelligence. Not quite true when you look at the facts, says Diamond; the Europeans brought Europe. They imported the accumulated advantages of domesticated livestock, crops and technology. When they faced the environment without these advantages they died off rapidly in areas where supposedly less developed aboriginal hunter gatherers had managed to survive for millennia.
Diamond's chapters on Polynesia and Africa should be required reading for politicians and students, for they expose a number of the historical fallacies that have trickled down to us from undigested, short term, proximate cause oriented history. What a contrast this wide, detailed approach to our past is to the vague, self interested narratives that predominate in our post colonial navel gazing. In the grand sweep of history, the country we wrangle over is in its mid thirties, or a few hundred years old, if you count the European occupants. Only the Amerindians, whom we have thoroughly marginalised and neglected, can lay claim to the larger past. The rest of us are all recent arrivals. What the grand sweep of history should do is wake us up to the damnable underdevelopment of our resources, human and physical, and help us to focus on a common future instead of myopically quarrelling about the past.