Animals and Plants, or Geography, Trade, and Politics?

Guns, Germs, and Steel proposes that the people inhabiting the diverse regions of the world were limited in their development by the kinds of animal and plant species available for them to domesticate.  The primary example given is that the people of New Guinea were unable to advance beyond a tribal society because they lacked large animals to provide the labor needed for more intensive agriculture.  Moreover these people lacked plant foods that could be stored for long periods of time, hindering the development of more sophisticated division of labor.

While it is true that people are limited by the resources at their disposal, and these resources include the animal and plant species available for molding, this explanation is unsatisfying and doesn’t take into account the depth of human ingenuity.  Diamond’s theory also fails to explain some of the sophisticated civilizations that developed in South America without laboring animals equivalent to the horse or ox.  The Mesoamericans and Inca managed empires with advanced agriculture, albeit with a more ideal crop than the New Guinean’s sago, corn.  While the Inca had the Llama and Alpaca as beasts of burden, neither is fit for pulling a plow or powering a mill, and the Mesoamerican civilizations lacked even this domesticate.  These empires instead relied on human power.

These South American empires were still less developed than the Europeans, Chinese, and some African Empires though.  Was it because they lacked the sources of animal power to develop the higher technology of the East?  While it may have contributed, there are a number of other possible factors.  .  The politics of the Old World vs the New World are in stark contrast. In the Old World there were many competing nation-states trading, warring, and exchanging ideas.  This communication, be it by the coin or the sword, doesn’t seem to have produced the same effect in the Americas.  While trade routes across America have been discovered, it was more an exchange of goods, and less of ideas.  Possibly, the speed of trade was slower in the Americas, and this made the exchange of ideas sluggish.  Europe has an abundance of waterways for not only easy trade, but water power as well.  These waterways, combined with the Mediterranean create the geographical basis for a cultural and ideological powerhouse.

The lagging behind in development compared to Europe cannot be solely caused by a lack of laboring animals and easily stored foodstuffs, but it was likely a contributing factor.  Larger culprits for this inequality may have been a lesser degree of competition and trade of ideas between civilizations and geographic obstacles to fast trade and alternative energy sources.

4 thoughts on “Animals and Plants, or Geography, Trade, and Politics?”

  1. Nice post. You make some good points.

    I will say that I don’t think Diamond’s proposal is that diversity of vegetation + diversity of animals = developed civilization. Instead, it seems to propose these are INITIALIZING factors, meaning without the ability to supplement our diets with protein, to store crops for long periods of time, and to feed a large population, civilizations like those in Europe and the U.S. are highly unlikely to BEGIN to develop. Once these variables are in place, an amalgam of other factors contribute, some of which it looks like you point out.

    Animal power, in the form of horses and cattle, may not have been a part of South American development, but I think Diamond would make the point that crops that can be stored and high protein diets are more important. Hypothetically speaking, I’d guess it’s more important to have a well-nourished population that uses manpower to farm than an under-nourished population that uses animal power.

    1. I agree with Diamond’s theories as far as they deal with the prerequisite conditions for a developing civilization to arise. Part of his broader theory addresses why European powers gained dominance over the rest of the world, instead of say the Chinese or the Indians. That is where a number of the valid criticisms seem to come in. Europe was not the most advanced area throughout all of history, and the technological revolutions that gave Europe the power to dominate the globe could have happened in other areas. I’d argue that the domesticated animals and plants heavily influenced where developed civilizations would spawn, but past that point other factors began to take over.

  2. Regarding trade and spread of ideas in the Americas, I believe later in his book Diamond goes over the fact that if you look at the contents of North and South America, they’re connected via a tiny (relatively speaking) stretch of land, whereas Europe and Asia have vast swaths of land that connect the two. Also, the big things in his theory are lines of latitude being crucial to successful trade. Europe and Asia share lines of latitude, North and South America do not, they share lines of longitude.

    The civilizations in the Americas (Inca, Maya, Aztec, etc) certainly were advanced and powerful, but when compared to the Europeans they fell short. The best thing we have in terms of ways to measure the two against one another is what happened when they clashed, and the Europeans dominated that affair. Granted it’s an extremely imperfect comparison, as the Spaniards (and future Europeans) had a biological advantage of using a small group to spread massive epidemics to an enemy continent, but it’s the only one we have.

  3. The title of your post highlights a central tension (and most would say shortcoming) in Diamond’s theories. Geographic / environmental determinism has always been both appealing and treacherous (think back to Montesquieu). And I think most people wish that Diamond had some training as a historian or anthropologist to complement his expertise in biology. But leaving aside the kind of over-determined and ethno-centric implications of his approach, it is still interesting to think about how the development of particular kinds of relationships between humans and other species, especially herbivores that provided labor, sustenance and fertilizer helped contour power relationships between human societies, both historically and in the contemporary world.

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