Donald A. Yerxa
HISTORY WARS I: Is Geography Destiny?
"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?" Jared Diamond begins his ambitious Guns, Germs, and Steel with this query from Yali, a New Guinean politician and acquaintance. He expands Yali's question into a sophisticated analysis of why human development proceeded "at such different rates on different continents" and specifically why Europeans were "the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel." David Landes asks essentially the same question in his magisterial The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: what factors account for "the gap in wealth and health that separates rich and poor?"
These are, of course, enormously complicated questions that go to the heart of how we view the past and how that past shapes our present and future. And these are questions that run head-first into very contentious issues of inequality and elitism: the debates over Eurocentrism and the "West versus the Rest" that have percolated in the 1990s with the writings of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.
The traditional account of the rise of the West (what historian David Gress calls the "Grand Narrative") has been under relentless assault—sometimes for very good reasons. It is a story of European exceptionalism and progress, defined in terms of liberty, reason, and economic growth. The Grand Narrative stresses several key developments that initially shaped the West and later propelled it to world dominance: Ancient Greece (especially Athens in the fifth century b.c.), the marriage of classical culture with Christianity during the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, the "discovery" of America, the Enlightenment, the emergence of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, and the various political revolutions that led eventually to the emergence of modern Western liberal democracies.
This myopic approach—which, as Gress rightly notes, has tended to view religion as "peripheral, derivative, and largely irrelevant"—has been amended thoughtfully over the past two decades by a group of world historians, including Carlo Cipolla, William McNeill, and Theodore Von Laue. They have sought to understand the West's rise and more recent political-economic dominance in the context of world history. Their work as a whole takes geography, cross-cultural contacts (especially commercial, military, and epidemiological exchanges), religion, technology, and political/military power seriously.
A more radically non-Eurocentic and often unabashedly Sinocentric approach to world history challenges the very notion of Western exceptionalism. The principal figure in this school of thought is the historical sociologist Andre Gunder Frank. He begrudgingly relegates the West's political and economic dominance to a brief, two-century "spasm" that began around 1800 and is now most likely in the process of collapsing.
Now Diamond and Landes have joined this vigorous, at times rancorous, debate. Both scholars have produced works of sweeping synthesis, each of which builds on earlier work. Diamond's provocative 1992 book on the origins of the human animal, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, clearly suggests the direction taken in Guns, Germs, and Steel. And back in 1969, Landes wrote a highly regarded work on the Industrial Revolution, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Developmentin Western Europe from 1750 to the Present, the early chapters of which raised the questions that The Wealth and Poverty of Nations attempts to answer. These two scholars approach the topic of societal inequality from vastly different perspectives and training. Diamond is a UCLA physiologist who has expanded his expertise into the fields of evolutionary biology and biogeography. A wonderful writer who can draw upon his vast reading in many fields, he is a frequent contributor both to scientific journals and to science magazines for the general reader. Landes, an emeritus professor of history and economics at Harvard, writes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations from the vantage point of a distinguished career in economy history.
Diamond is not a historian and lacks Landes's mastery of traditional historiography and economic thought. But Diamond's interdisciplinarity is impressive as he explores the recent work of anthropologists, linguists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, and geneticists. At the outset, Diamond and Landes appear to be in fundamental agreement. For both, geography matters! But while both recognize the importance of geography (and, by extension, climate and environment), they treat its influence differently. For Landes, geography provides the fundamental backdrop for the human drama; whereas for Diamond, geography is far more deterministic, as implied by his use of the word fates in his subtitle.
To be sure, Landes sees a clear link between geography and inequalities in the development of societies: geography conveys "an unpleasant truth[:] … nature like life is unfair, unequal in its favors[;] … nature's unfairness is not easily remedied." What distinguishes the two approaches is how significant factors other than geography enter into consideration. Landes places far more importance on the influence of culture and individual human agency on historical development. While it should not be dismissed as simple geographic determinism, Diamond's environmental-evolutionary focus does minimize the roles of culture and individual human agency in history. Diamond believes that scholars, especially historians, have failed to address the important question of the overall pattern of history.
At their best, historians deal with only the proximate factors underlying the broadest patterns of history: guns, germs, and steel (Diamond's shorthand for such things as military and maritime technology, political organization, writing, and epidemic diseases). Diamond's goal is to use his expertise in a variety of scientific disciplines to shed light on the deeper factors underlying human history. In a word, his key to understanding the sweep of the past is the environment. "History followed different courses for different peoples," Diamond contends, "because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among the peoples themselves." All peoples have basically the same ability to confront nature, but nature has not dealt all peoples equal environments.
Diamond emphasizes four crucial environmental variables that have shaped history: (1) the number of wild plants and animals available for domestication into crops and livestock, (2) the rates of intra-continental technological diffusion, (3) the rates of inter-continental technological diffusion, and (4) the difference in total population size and geographic area amongst the continents.
Food production was indirectly the prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel. Consequently, geographic/environmental variations determined whether or when peoples of different continents became farmers and herders rather than hunter-gatherers. That development explains to a large extent their contrasting fates. Domestication of wild plant and animal species was fundamental for dense human populations and settled existence. It permitted food surpluses, which sustained non-food-producing specialists like kings, bureaucrats, and professional soldiers. In short, farmers "tend to breathe out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology … , and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest."
Clearly, then, a major reason for inequalities in historical development has been the fact that not all parts of the globe were equally blessed with productive indigenous crops or livestock suitable for domestication. For example, Eurasian peoples had many more species of domesticatable large mammals available to them than did the peoples of the other continents. Intra- and inter-continental contacts enabled crops and livestock to be exported to new areas. But geography, Diamond notes in a very intriguing chapter, once again has played a major role in determining the rate of the spread of crops and livestock, and possibly writing, wheels, and other inventions as well. Eurasia has an east-west axis, which facilitates diffusion. In contrast, Africa and the Americas have a north-south axis. That suggests enormous latitudinal variations, which, along with other ecological factors such as disease, have presented formidable obstacles to the diffusion of crops, livestock, and inventions.
So what are the contours of the story of human history according to Diamond? Geography and environmental factors favored Eurasia, which first developed empires, literacy, and steel weapons. Prior to A.D. 9001000, Europe languished as a civilizational backwater, while China and the Fertile Crescent (including North Africa) led the world in food production, technology, and inventions. Europe received crops, livestock, technology, and writing from the Fertile Crescent, which itself possessed no compelling geographic advantages. The Fertile Crescent in turn committed ecological suicide by deforestation, and power eventually shifted westward. China, blessed with geographical connectedness and modest internal barriers, continued in a dominant position until the mid-fifteenth century, whereupon domestic political considerations prompted it to retreat from an aggressive maritime orientation that might have brought Chinese vessels to Europe rather than vice versa.
A key factor in the opposite trajectories of China and Europe, oddly enough, was Europe's political fragmentation compared to the relative unity of China. Here again, geography played a key role. Europe is carved into many independent and competing ethnic, linguistic, and political units by high mountain ranges. China's unity, while initially a great advantage, became a disadvantage when rulers repeatedly made decisions to halt innovation. Europe's "geographic balkanization" resulted in numerous political entities whose competition (once invasions from Muslims, Mongols, and Magyars ceased) led to tremendous innovation. Its innovative technology and desire for Asian riches propelled Europe outward in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with enormous consequences for world history. Advantages in weaponry, technology, and political organization coupled with Europe's peninsular geographic configuration enabled the Europeans to make maritime contact with Africa, the Americas, and Asia.
But germs, as is now common knowledge, played a major role in the progression of European overseas ex changes and empire. Europeans carried germs (smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza) that had evolved from Eurasians' long contact with domestic animals to the Americas with utterly devastating impact. Similar demographic decimation occurred in the Pacific Islands, Australia, and southern Africa as well. In this way, a relatively small number of Europeans overran many of the native populations with which they came in contact. Tropical diseases, especially malaria, proved a formidable barrier to European colonization of much of Africa and tropical Asia. Eventually, however, EuropeanNorth American technology, military power, and medicine, based ultimately upon geographic and environmental factors, enabled the West to assume a dominant role in world affairs and to accumulate "more cargo."
Diamond's rich and engaging synthesis of developments in evolutionary biology and biogeography in the service of explaining human history is very helpful for historians and other readers who are likely to be unfamiliar with the literature he cites. But Guns, Germs, and Steel is not likely to alter significantly the views of historians who are familiar with the work of the leading world historians who have already anticipated some of Diamond's argument. Diamond does provide, however, much stronger scientific buttressing of major aspects of the picture of world history that has been emerging over the past several decades. Unfortunately, his leanings toward environmental determinism and his concluding remarks on how history needs to pattern itself more intentionally as a science weaken his case.
This last point requires further exploration. Diamond confronts historians with essentially the same challenge of evolutionary explanation that biologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Daniel Dennett have presented to the study of consciousness, morality, and even culture. Evolutionary theory's substantial explanatory power, however, comes at a very high price. Its naturalistic reductionism discounts things that most historians, particularly those of faith, hold dear.
For example, compared to most world historians, Diamond takes a dismissive approach toward culture in general, religion in particular, and human agency. In his final pages, he pays lip service to the "wild cards" that cultural and individual "idiosyncrasies" throw into the course of history. But as one British historian has noted, human history requires that history be studied on a human scale. To consider geography, climate, genetics, and the environment as establishing the parameters for human activity is important, even commonsensical. Beyond that, Diamond's evolutionary-environmental approach has some definite limitations.
To be fair, Diamond recognizes this. He understands that cultural and individual idiosyncrasies will always "make history inexplicable in terms of environmental forces." But surely it is dangerous to relegate culture and individual agency to the category of "wild cards" of human history.
David Landes's 1969 classic, The Unbound Prometheus, explored why the Industrial Revolution occurred when and where it did within the European experience. He indicated at that time that the broader question of why this first breakthrough to a modern industrial system took place in Western Europe rather than some other region would have to wait for another book. It took almost three decades, but with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes has returned to that important question. He has written an erudite, witty, and boldly provocative account of world history viewed from the standpoint of economic development. Through out the book, Landes takes aim at fashionable themes of recent historiography, especially professional historians' fear of the label "Eurocentrism" and the attempts of many to rewrite history so that it be comes more compatible with present social agendas. Secure in his understandings and in his emeritus status at Harvard, Landes writes with refreshing candor and bluntness: "I prefer truth to goodthink."
His thesis is that, while geography is important, ultimately culture "makes all the difference" in explaining economic development. In particular, economic success comes to those peoples who exhibit self-discipline, deferral of gratification, initiative, openness to innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit. These cultural traits, of course, point to Western Europe as seen through the lens of Max Weber's classic thesis concerning the Protestant work ethic. And Landes is unapologetic about his European exceptionalism and his agreement with Weber. Europe (the West), Landes asserts, has been the prime mover of economic, technological, and scientific development for the past one thousand years. A clearer statement of European exceptionalism would be difficult to find.
Yet Landes is not a triumphalist whose purpose is to brag while disparaging other societies; rather, he is motivated by a sincere concern for the material and physical well-being (not the feelings!) of those peoples who have not shared in the wealth. So for Landes, it is important to understand the success of European economic development as the first step in moving toward more widespread global prosperity. Why Europe and not China or India (the principal rivals prior to the sixteenth century)? Landes agrees with Diamond that nature endowed Europe with a very favorable environment for economic development and political fragmentation. In many important respects, their conclusions are parallel on these matters, al though Landes is more comfortable invoking the controversial hydraulic thesis to ac count in part for the failure of Asian societies (especially China) to develop the cultural openness necessary to produce an industrial revolution. This view contends that Asian riverine civilizations linked survival and power to large populations engaged primarily in agriculture. Management of water and of food surpluses necessitated strong, centralized governmental authority that stifled individual initiative and innovation. Still, true to his overall thesis, Landes ultimately contends that Europe succeeded especially after the sixteenth century be cause of culture.
Here it is important to emphasize the intra-European cultural differences enhanced by the Reformation. The European culture of Calvinist Protestantism (though Landes holds that people other than Calvinists—notably Jews—exhibited the same characteristics) made "a new kind of man—rational, ordered, diligent, productive." The Protestant Reformation helped to boost literacy and promoted a type of skeptical approach to authority that fueled the new science. Catholic Europe tended to respond to the new developments in religion and science with "closure and censure," a posture that contributed to its relative decline.
The Industrial Revolution, barely mentioned by Diamond, is a pivotal event in Landes's world history. It did nothing short of transforming the global balance of economic and political power and of revolutionizing the social order. As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the gap between rich and poor nations widened appreciably, and their estrangement has grown.
Once again, Landes does not view his subject simply in economic terms. The Industrial Revolution is best understood by the values and priorities it rewarded, not simply its manifest material achievements. In particular, the modernizing West gave great attention to time—its measurement, passage, and efforts to save it. Here Landes draws on his longstanding interest in mechanical clocks and his own book—Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World—to conclude that the West's approach to the measurement and management of time was a critical ingredient of its modernization as well as a key difference between the West and rest of the world.
Landes concludes that the rich nations have both a moral and a prudential obligation to those peoples who have not shared in the wealth. But he cautions that the most successful cures for poverty come from within. Foreign aid can help, but "no empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment." He resists the notion that finds this callous or platitudinous and decries the ethic so prevalent today of working to live and living to play. This may be fine, chides Landes, but it is not productive; rather, we should live to work and derive happiness as a by-product.
In 1998, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. But if the measure of a great book is the amount and quality of the reaction it elicits, then Landes may have written the more important of the two books. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations has provoked a major, ongoing exchange among some of the leading figures in global economic history, and Landes's book has been the major topic of discussion at numerous professional history meetings. In these high-level discussions on the role of the West in global history, Diamond's thesis is mentioned only on occasion, while that of Landes generates intense debate. The battle lines seem to be drawn over whether Landes's claim to Western dominance since 1500 has any validity in the face of numerous specialized studies of Chinese and Indian economic history.
Historical sociologist Andre Gunder Frank has emerged as Landes's bete noire. In his new book, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Frank contends that European dominance is a myth prior to 1800 and that it is likely to be exhausted in the next millennium. Landes and Frank met in Boston at Northeastern University in December 1998 for an animated debate. Landes, by far the more skillful debater, held to his stance in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations that Frank's anti-Eurocentrism corrupts his historical judgment, and that Europe's dominance by 1800 (something everyone, even Frank, accepts) could not have appeared suddenly without centuries of contributing developments preceding it.
This debate, which tends to focus only on economics, is likely to continue for some time as historians broaden the discussion to include cultural, religious, and military factors. Lurking not far beneath the surface of these generally polite exchanges are some very strong feelings. Many, probably most, scholars working in the field of world history view any talk of European exceptionalism as offensively arrogant. Others recognize that Eurocentrism is inseparable from the professional academic enterprise—after all, academic history was a product of Eurocentric assumptions and methodologies. Some fear that a Sinocentric perspective will simply continue the sin of focusing on civilizational domination of oppressed peoples by replacing Europe with Asia. And there are those who, like Landes, find some of the debates over terminology and labels bordering on the silly, deflecting attention from serious understanding of the interrelationships and structures of history. Too frequently, concerns over European exceptionalism amount to what historian Bill Schell has described as "sterile empty exercises in guilt that advance the project of world history not at all or certainly no more than donning a hair-shirt."
In one respect, however, such debate is a positive sign. Scholars are beginning to take world history seriously. That entails some difficult work in exploring suitable conceptual tools and constructs for understanding world history. Periodization schemes, for example, appropriate for Western civilization courses, are generally inadequate for world history. Historians and other interested scholars have really only begun this difficult process.
Not all world history, of course, is written at the macro level of Diamond and Landes, who are writing broad synthetic essays on all of human history. In general, professional historians have shied away from such endeavors, preferring the relative safety of narrowly defined topics of investigation. One branch of historiography that has flourished of late is microhistory, often called the new cultural history. This approach focuses on the discontinuities of history, and its practitioners tend to deny that there is a large-scale story to be told about the past. Microhistorians focus particularly on the culture of everyday life and utilize the methodology of thick description made popular by the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz.
While understanding the everyday life of small groups has its place, there is an obvious danger that such history will become a collection of unrelated anecdotes. Without a view of the whole, of course, it is hard to assess the importance and interplay of the parts. Professional history's overspecialization and, frankly, its loss of nerve threaten to make it irrelevant. Historians have been too willing to surrender the field of macrohistory to those trained in other disciplines, like economics, sociology, anthropology, and geography.
Despite this trend toward ever narrower specialization, there are encouraging exceptions, such as the young British historian Niall Ferguson, whose new book, The Pity of War, is a bold reassessment of World War I. It is to be hoped that Diamond's and Landes's books will stimulate further interest among historians in exploring history at its broadest level. In this age of intellectual fragmentation, bold essays that synthesize and give shape to the professional literature are desperately needed. Essays that purport to give shape to the entirety of human history are necessarily moral endeavors. Scholars, particularly those tackling macrohistorical questions, must portray the past in ways that transcend the limitations of the positivistic and sometimes nihilistic methodologies that the academy currently endorses. Given the postmodern critique of metanarratives, the deconstructive methodologies of that outlook are largely irrelevant to history done on the grand scale. Positivistic methods, on the other hand, can yield impressive results, as these two books attest.
Impressive—but also unsatisfying! Is history essentially the outworking of evolutionary-environmental forces? Is it primarily the story of economic development? A previous generation of Christian scholars borrowed a phrase from Edmund Burke that is appropriate here: "the moral imagination." It is a stance that takes history seriously but recognizes that there is no history "out there" to be appropriated solely by the use of scientific methodology. It holds that the historian who denies all knowledge outside of that which scientific methodology permits is cut off from deeper sources of wisdom. And it would even dare to take seriously the notion of human history unfolding in the midst of the providential grace of God.
As the late Sir Herbert Butterfield noted, history that rises above the fashions of the present gives evidence of a "deeper tide in the affairs of man." There is meaning in the past—profound meaning! History should reflect the human drama in all its fullness—its tragedy, its hope, and its mystery. No treatment of world history should escape these dimensions.
Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.