Monday, September 26, 2005
Big-picture history—that is, where a historian doesn’t just have a theory, he has a Theory—has been out of fashion for a while. Most likely this is due to the academic compartmentalization of the craft over the last hundred years: Academic historians tend to specialize, and specialists invariably stand watch over their own little areas of expertise in the same way that Africanized killer bees hover around the hive. In academia, big-picture history is largely stung to death one Surely your thesis takes into account the Doofustan Customs Union of 1706? at a time.
So, when big-picture history does appear, it’s an event, and one at least has to admire the audacity, as with the 1997 appearance of Jared Diamond’s highly successful Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s purpose is to explain why history seems to play favorites, why it is that Europeans colonized the Americas and not the other way around. (P.J. O’Rourke expressed it more bluntly in his far more entertaining book on economics, Eat the Rich: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?”)
Diamond’s answer, if I can synthesize a book of nearly 500 pages, comes down to one word: Luck. Or, in his own words, "In one sentence, it all has to do with geography and environment." Eurasia’s east-west axis developed agriculture, and therefore urban civilization, more readily than Africa’s or the Americas’ north-south axes. Urban civilization created the epidemics and the technological advances that spelled doom for the plucky indigenes of the rest of the world. Pure determinism. End of story.
And neither is Diamond neutral in this. He says right up front,
I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.
I laughed when I first read that line, because it seemed like such an obvious joke or parody. Hunter-gatherers are exactly what Hobbes was referring to when he described primitive life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Trying to gainsay that Hobbesian certainty is nothing more than absurd and painfully Rousseauvian slumming. But, sadly, it really does represent Diamond’s point of view. It’s the Human Lottery, where no culture is more “advanced” than any other, and the last 500 years of history were just one long winning streak. Roll the dice—mama needs a new civilization.
Diamond is not unaware of the philosophical traditions of the West that gave it such tremendous advantages over its competitors. He just has no patience with, or sympathy for, them. He recites them in one grudging sentence in the epilogue,
One can, of course, point to proximate factors behind Europe’s rise: its development of a merchant class, capitalism, and patent protection for inventions, its failure to develop absolute despots and crushing taxation, and its Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition of critical-empirical inquiry.
never to be mentioned again. Of course, these are exactly the reasons for recent history’s European/Western dominance over the rest of the world, a theme developed in Victor Davis Hanson’s own big-picture Carnage and Culture. Diamond and Hanson are the two most prominent big-picture histories of the last decade, and its says all you need to know about the politics of public television that Diamond’s book became a big-budget PBS series, and Hanson’s didn’t.
What I really resent about Diamond’s thesis is that it characterizes any opposing points of view as bigotry. From a television interview:
Interviewer: What has been the conventional wisdom here? Why do people think Europeans were able to dominate the Americas and Africa?
Diamond: I would say a frank statement would be, "I really hate to say this, but it's brains." People think Europeans are smarter or they have a Judeo-Christian work ethic. Few academics would say it straight-out but when cornered they may have said it.
In other words, either you can agree with Diamond’s deterministic explanation of events, or you're a racist. Well, that simplifies things.
Except that it’s a phony choice.
There are other explanations for the West’s conquests which are neither deterministic nor Hitlerian: (and I will leave aside the highly amusing Afrocentric one that maintains that all of Europe’s technology was “stolen” from the library at Alexandria). I would submit that the West’s gradual development of a culture of individualism, initiative, and free inquiry was a revolutionary development equivalent to the discovery of fire or the invention of spoken language. It doesn’t mean that these qualities make Westerners “racially superior,” any more than a Neanderthal tribe using fire would be “racially superior” to another Neanderthal tribe without fire.
Diamond would of course attribute all of these developments to (and I quote him again) “the blindest of luck.” I would instead credit human creativity. I would argue that the culture of individualism, initiative, and free inquiry made the West more “dynamist” (I am borrowing Virginia Postrel’s terms here), as opposed to the “stasist” societies in the non-Western world. And dynamism has tremendous advantages over stasism.
Diamond devotes one chapter, and a full third of the PBS series, to the military confrontation between a tiny group of Spaniards under Pizarro and the enormous Indian army commanded by Incan emperor Atahuallpa at Cajamarca, Peru on November 16, 1532. The grossly lopsided sizes of the two forces (40,000 to 168) belied the outcome of the engagement: 7,000 Incan dead plus large numbers of wounded—and not a single Spanish casualty. Talk about against the odds!
But for Diamond, the outcome was viciously predetermined millions of years ago by continental drift. Generalship, tactics, morale—it all meant nothing. Determinism rules all.
Except when it doesn’t. The Spaniards weren’t Mars Attacks space aliens armed with death-rays. They had clumsy harquebuses—which they hardly used at all at Cajamarca—and edged steel swords, which they used a lot. Even armed only with wooden clubs, 40,000 men should still take down 168.
Unfortunately for the Incas, the Spaniards boldly and resourcefully seized Emperor Atahuallpa from his litter at the beginning of the battle. Such a move—in an absolutist, stasist society where leaders had godlike authority—destroyed morale and induced panic among the Indians. Long before the smallpox epidemics that ravaged their populations, it was already the end of the Incas’ world.
The Indians were so filled with fear that they climbed on top of one another, formed mounds, and suffocated each other.
Initiative, individualism, free inquiry—these were weapons far more dangerous than harquebuses and cutlasses.
One of the things I’ve always liked about military simulation gaming is that it’s so anti-deterministic. Gaming is in fact determinism’s opposite: Gaming posits a near-infinite number of alternatives based on different decision-making. To the gamer, nothing is inevitable.
And that’s why I can’t imagine anyone sitting down to create a Cajamarca game. From almost any point of view, there’s no realistic scenario where 40,000 Incas can’t wipe out 168 Spaniards. That the actual battle turned out that way owes to a number of reasons, but luck wasn’t one of them.