Why China didn't colonise Europe

Guns, Germs and Steel
May 9, 1997

Jared Diamond's "short history of everybody" begins with a question that Yali, a native of Papua New Guinea, asked him 25 years ago. He wanted to know why whites had arrived in that part of the world with "so much cargo", so much in the way of material goods when blacks had so little. The author's answer, to make a long-awaited story short, is that it was not race that gave the whites their cargo. Rather, it was the continent they came from.

This book proposes environmental, geographical, and technological explanations for the historical ascendancy of Europe and nations descended from Europe on the global stage. The story it tells begins at the end of the last ice age and ends with the present, with close attention to the origins and spread of agriculture from centres in both hemispheres. The author argues that whenever food production supports a sufficiently dense and sedentary population, a combination of traits he calls "the agents of conquest" will arise. He lists these agents as epidemic diseases (the germs of his title), technology (ultimately including the guns and steel of the title), writing, and centralised political organisation. As with all grand schemes of this kind, there are embarrassing special cases. For example, the Incas, without guns or writing, formed a state far larger than any that exists in the Andean region today.

The author is a professor of physiology at the University of California at Los Angeles and has conducted "biological exploration" in New Guinea, this in the company of natives whose knowledge of local plants and animals he has come to respect. In this book he uses his field experiences as anecdotal springboards into the realm of anthropology and human history, where he operates on the largest possible scale. In constructing his arguments he rehearses many of the same issues that concerned cultural evolutionists such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Edward Burnett Tylor, and Herbert Spencer (none of whom he cites) a century ago. Like them, he attempts to sort out the relative importance of diffusion and independent invention. He sees a need for more quantification of data but seems unaware of the extensive quantitative work that was done in cultural anthropology in the 1950s and 60s. What he does take from the anthropology of that period is a sequence of political development whose stages are band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Today this scheme is used mainly by archaeologists, in the absence of rich data on social organisation.

The author's biological slant finds its chief expression in his concern for the natural environments of human societies, the properties that make certain plants and animals suitable for domestication, and the origins of epidemic diseases in domestic animals. In the long-run his attention to local environments takes a back seat to large-scale geographical concerns, up to and including the contrasting sizes, shapes, and directional orientations of Eurasia, the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Cultures, for the most part, are treated as the secondary products of local environments in combination with local access to the routes along which foreign innovations might spread. Local resistances to innovation are treated as "cultural idiosyncrasies", important to the extent that they delay a culture's entry into the mainstream (or western stream) of human history. Here the author's attitude is similar to that of practitioners of applied social science in the field of international development (or westernisation).

As a cultural evolutionist, Diamond follows a unilinear rather than multilinear path. For him, everyone on the globe, whether they know it or not, has been running the same race. The "starting line" was 13,000 years ago, with the ice in retreat. The Fertile Crescent gained "a huge early lead" in agriculture, and China later gained a technological lead it held as late as 1450, but ultimately these regions lost their leads to late-starting Europe. As in 19th-century narratives of cultural progress, the terms of success are set by retrospective comparison with the author's own culture. If China was once in the lead, that was because it already possessed things that would later be important in European culture, such as canal lock gates, cast iron, deep drilling, gunpowder, magnetic compasses, sternpost rudders, moveable type and printing.

Domesticated plants from different parts of the world are compared in terms of their protein content, this without regard to the effects of the culinary arts on the digestibility of protein. The subtleties of maize preparation succumb to the author's need to attribute agricultural disadvantages to the Americas in his scheme of differential progress. For him, maize is "protein poor" in comparison with European grain crops. But when maize dough is prepared with lime or ash, as in dishes of Amerindian origin, its yield of usable protein rises radically. Europeans were quick enough to take the cultivation of maize to the Old World, but they left the proper means of preparation behind. The case of amaranth, a grain scarcely mentioned in this book, is even more embarrassing. The author takes no note of the fact that amaranth is protein rich, or that it was almost as important to the Aztecs as maize. The European conquerors of Mexico also failed to see its value, going so far as to outlaw its cultivation by Indians.

In the contemporary world, the author applies the same Eurocentric standards of cultural success he uses in evaluating the past. If some of his acquaintances among the natives of New Guinea are successful, that is because they plant cash crops, own trucks, and hire members of less progressive tribes as labourers. In assessing receptivity to innovations, he seems to make no distinction between items that can be produced and consumed locally and items that make local peoples dependent on trade. When he admires the Chimbu of New Guinea and the Navajo of the southwestern United States for their readiness to use trucks, he makes no mention of the fact that neither has any control over the manufacture of trucks or the refinement of petrol, and that their use of such commodities enmeshes them in an economy whose real profits are made far from their homes. He admires the Chimbu for growing coffee but fails to assess the effects this might have on the local production of staples. However secure the Chimbu may be, the recent famine in Ethiopia (coffee's original home) was not caused by a lack of receptivity to development. The blame lies rather with what might be called an insufficient resistance to the replacement of staples with exportable cash crops.

Despite the plot line of this book being an old one with a well-known ending, there are some surprising twists of argumentation along the way. For the present narrator, the question is not so much why Europe eventually established colonies in east Asia, but why China did not establish them in Europe. On the Andean front, the question is not so much why the adventurer Pizarro violated a truce to capture the emperor Atahuallpa and then murdered him after collecting an enormous ransom, but why (in the words of a chapter subtitle) "Atahuallpa did not capture King Charles I of Spain." The point seems to be that anyone in history, given the opportunity, would have done as Europeans did. No case is made that establishing colonies in Europe or capturing Charles I would have been to the advantage of the Chinese or the Incas in any other terms than those of European values.

Diamond does have lingering doubts about minimising the role of so-called cultural idiosyncrasies, but no more so than he has about minimising the role of individual ones. Either kind of idiosyncrasy, he admits, may "throw wild cards into the course of history." He sets up the "Great Man theory" as something of a straw man, doubting its power to interpret "history's broadest pattern." His top candidates for men who may have been something more than wild cards, as measured by the number of pages on which he mentions them, are Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Cortes, Pizarro, Atahuallpa, Edison, and Hitler.

But the only real actor in the story told by this book, once agriculture has been accounted for, is technology in the form of weapons and transport. The author not only gives such technology a life of its own in his role as a story-teller, but declares outright that it "provides the direct means by which certain peoples have expanded their realms and conquered other peoples. That makes it the leading cause of history's broadest pattern." Yes, he transforms "means" into "cause," right there in two adjacent sentences where the alert reader may catch a glimpse of human agency as its slips through the intervening crack. Never mind that the Chinese gave up maintaining a fleet of ocean-going vessels with the coming of the Ming dynasty, or that the Japanese, having developed the best guns in the world by 1600, then chose to dismantle their firearms industry. These are idiosyncrasies again, side-shows that momentarily distract the author from plotting history's broadest pattern.

At the end of the book, Diamond turns to academia. And just as he rates human societies on a single scale with western nations at the top, so he seems to rate academic disciplines on a single scale with the physical sciences at the top. He shows a modicum of modesty here, admitting that physicists might look down on biological research of the kind he conducts. But then he writes: "At best, history is classified among the social sciences, of which it rates as the least scientific." Instead of proposing interdisciplinary projects among equals, he strikes the pose of an uplifting benefactor. He wants the study of human history to develop to the point where it is "on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology". He ends on a note that may strike some readers as ominous: "I am ... optimistic that historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs."

Dennis Tedlock is professor of English and anthropology, State University of New York at Buffalo.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years

Author - Jared Diamond
ISBN - 0 224 03809 5
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £18.99
Pages - 480

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