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Geography's Guns, Germs, And Steel Problem

Ozma at Savage Minds argues that anthropology has a "Guns, Germs, and Steel problem" -- that while Jared Diamond's book has popularized a set of answers to questions anthropologists have been wrestling with for ages, anthropologists lack a pithy response that can raise the discipline's profile and outline Diamond's successes and errors. I'd argue that geography has even more of a GG&S problem, as Diamond's explanations are all explicitly geographical, in both senses of the word -- that is, they are based on spatial relations among places and on human-environment interactions. It's been a few years since I read GG&S, so my recall of the details of the argument may be sketchy. But as one of the few geographer-bloggers, I thought I'd take a stab at it.

First, what Diamond got right: he is correct to point out that the environment influences the course of history, and that racial superiority is not a valid explanation. He's also right that technological superiority was a necessary condition for the emergence of a dominant civilization. And I have no quarrel with his explanation of the role of disease in the conquest of America and the Pacific.

Second, knocking Diamond down to size: he, and many of his supporters, exaggerate the originality of his thesis. Most of the supporting arguments he uses are drawn from decades of work by archaeologists and human ecologists (and the ones that are more original, like the "continental axes" thesis, are the weakest). Diamond's contribution was not a de novo theory, but a synthesis that brought together a set of existing arguments and declared them to be a reasonably complete explanation. It should also be noted that (contra Diamond's explicit claim), his theory is not the sole alternative to racism.

Now, to the meat of my disagreement. As I see it, the main problem with Diamond's thesis is that he reaches too far back in history to find the roots of Euro-American dominance. He traces the current power imbalance back to the arrangement of continents and biota that prevailed at the dawn of "civilization" some 10,000 years ago. Diamond makes much of Pizarro's easy victory over the Incas, treating it as the proof in the pudding of the superiority that Europe had achieved. But even as Europe was laying the smackdown on the Americas, it was desperately trying to catch up to the much more advanced civilizations of India, China, and the Middle East. It wasn't until the the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was in full swing, that we can say with confidence that (western) Europe was the world's dominant power (see Andre Gunder Frank's ReOrient). This suggests that a historically contingent explanation is likely to be better than one positing a long-standing inevitability.

Diamond begins with pointing out that Eurasia alone among the continents has a long east-west axis. Domesticated plants and animals move much more easily within a climate/ecological zone than across them. This allowed greater exchange of crops and animals between Eurasian peoples, and hence greater exchange of technologies and disease. Jim Blaut rebuts the axis thesis, pointing out that north-south commerce was much better developed than Diamond lets on. More importantly, the great Eurasian axis is a myth -- while Europe and China may have comparable climates, they are separated by thousands of miles of desert, mountains, and jungle. I would add here that Diamond too easily conflates the Middle East -- where he locates the origins of European dominance -- with Europe itself. The climate of Europe, and in particular the countries of northwestern Europe which were to dominate the world, is far different from that of Mesopotamia and the Levant, despite the two being supposedly on the same climatic axis. (Indeed, the difference is comparable to the difference between Mexico and New England -- yet Diamond makes much of the difficulty of spreading maize northward in order to explain why the US did not develop a powerful indigenous civilization.)

Diamond goes on to argue that Eurasia -- and in particular the Middle East -- had a much superior endowment of domesticable plants and animals. I don't have the expertise to evaluate this claim in detail, and in the case of animals -- most critically the horse -- I suspect he's onto something. But I'll just note in passing that while the Americas were home to only two major staple crops, peoples across the Old World quickly exchanged their native grains for maize and potatoes following Columbus's voyage.

But let's accept for the sake of argument Diamond's thesis. Eurasia was doubly blessed -- it was both the largest continent and the one with the best single endowment of domesticables. Now why, of all the countries in Eurasia, did western Europe come out on top? Neither the continental axis nor the biotic endowment seem helpful, as western Europe was neither a heartland of domestication like China nor a crossroads of exchange like Central Asia. Here Diamond introduces another element of geography: capes and bays. Europe, he argues, is dissected into numerous peninsulas which prevent political unification, while China's contiguous landmass made it easy for a single emperor to dominate. Thus Chinese advance could be easily stifled by the centralized bureaucracy, while international competition drove Europe's innovation. If there's anything to this claim of Oriental Despotism as the proximate cause, it's hard to see peninsulas as the underlying driver. The sea need not be a barrier to political unity -- see, for example, the Roman Empire or the Swedish circum-Baltic empire. On the other hand, the late unification of Germany and the continued independence of the Low Countries indicates that an unbroken plain is no proof against disunity. And moving east, while China is indeed a single large landmass (albeit broken up by mountains and deserts), if we look a little north and a little south, we find regions of peninsulas and islands comparable to Europe in Japan-Korea and Southeast Asia-Indonesia. These regions were equally semi-peripheral to the late mideval world system and politically fragmented, yet neither of them went on to dominate the world.

Any geographical explanation of Europe's eventual victory must be more subtle. Direct causality by a major landscape feature runs into the obstacle that China and India were the world's leaders until very recently. Whatever caused Europe's rise must have delayed effects, or become relevant only with the emergence of industrialization.

As Janet Abu-Lughod points out (in Before European Hegemony), western Europe's very isolation from the centers of disease was a factor in its rise. When the Black Death and its associated economic depression hit in the 14th century, western Europe was sheltered from the worst ravages by its lack of integration with the world economy. Yet it was just connected enough that it could parlay this advantage into a leg-up in the next round of global economic growth and integration.

Furthermore, Europe's semi-peripherality motivated it to look west, first for a route to China that would cut out the Islamic middle-men, and then for an even more peripheral land that Europe could exploit for goods and raw materials with which to buy its way into the Chinese-Indian economy, positioning itself to sieze the advantage in the shakeup that accompanied the beginning of the industrial revolution.

I should note that an explanation of this crisis-response form introduces another factor into history: chance. Europe's rise was perhaps not quite such an inevitability as either Diamond or the racists he criticizes think it was. C.S. Holling's model of the adaptive cycle is informative here. Holling argues that all systems (and he has produced detailed mathematical and empirical evidence for this in the case of ecological systems) go through cycles of buildup, crisis, and reconfiguration. The progress of buildup is deterministic and predictable. But during the "backloop" of recovery from crisis, the system is much more open and unpredictable. Varying endowments of the "capital" released by the crisis, and influences from systems at higher and lower scales, certainly influence how the system is reconstructed. But there remains a role for chance and for small events to push the system into quite different directions. The rise of Europe thus can be seen not as a historical inevitability, but as partially the result of happening to sieze the advantage during the world system's backloops.

As you can see by the length of this post, I haven't produced the pithy response to GG&S necessary to solve geography's "GG&S problem." In part, it's because I lack an alternative sweeping explanation for world history. But I think pointing out the relative recency of Europe's rise, and hence questioning its historical inevitability and future persistence, is a start.


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