everything but culture 8.03.2005

Question: why did Europeans show up in North America and wipe out the Indians rather than, say, the Iroqui nation showed up in France and wiped out the Europeans?

That has been a very hot topic of debate for years--and one I've been personally interested in, since I happen to be California Indian. My personal favorite theory, by the way, is one advocated by Victor Davis Hanson in books such as Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, where he theorizes that fundamentally it was the culture. Dr. Hanson advances the theory that the West, founded first in the ideas of the ancient (classical) Greeks, promotes individuality--and introduces the concepts of egalitarianism, consensual government of the people, constitutional law and the infrastructure which preserves individual freedom--breeds better killers. That is, individuals who have a vested interest in government and who is granted private land ownership and property ownership, are more likely to act in the best interest of the government (when attacked), and are more likely to change the government to act in their own best interest (such as the Westward expansion of the 13 American colonies)--as government of the people means people have a vested interest in government.

By encouraging individuality, and by creating the legal mechanisms for individuality and individual freedom, the West (in Dr. Hanson's view) has encouraged individuals to advance themselves and their government, contributing inventions and knowledge and knowhow to the mix. This is why a much smaller Greek military was able to eventually expel a Persia governed by a king Xerxes who executed people who threatened the thrown because of their superior ability rather than a Greek government who encouraged such superiority. And this is why (Hanson theorizes) Cortez's few hundred soldiers were able to overthrow the Aztec nation of millions: the outer nations that had been subjugated to Aztec rule quickly switched sides to a Cortez who was willing to pay them gold and help them build war machinery than subjugate them and demand they serve in servitude to a horse-mounted Cortez.

And this is why the Indian nations of the American Planes and why my own tribe fell to the westward expansion: while american tribes consisted of numerous willful individuals, the tribes did not have a formal governmental infrastructure that protected individual rights--and tribalism fundamentally requires subjugation of the individuals for the benefit of the tribe. A council of elders is certainly better than tyranny, and a tribe of people who work in the name of the tribe certainly helps the survival of the people in the tribe. But a tribe is not consensual government. As evidence of the fact that individuality was simply not a factor in the thinking of Native Americans prior to contact, the most significant punishment that many tribes would met out is expulsion--which, prior to contact, was the equivalent of the death penalty.

This does not mean that individual Indians are any less brave or any less powerful. Nor does it mean individual Aztecs weren't incredible warriors, or that modern Muslim suicide bombers aren't courageous people. But the structure of their societies did not encourage the same degree of participation then the classical Western model--even in it's perverted forms during the Dark Ages--did of individuals.


However, this is just one theory. Another theory is that western ascent came about by the luck of geography rather than the constructs of civilization. I've never thought such a theory (that the West rose to prominence because of it's origins in Western Europe) had much merit--otherwise, since Europe was able to invade and conquer America in the 1500's, why is it now the United States is the premier world power today? The geography has not changed in 500 years--only the people. And the culture.

Of course this is an obvious minor point, and most geographical determinists suggest that America is simply riding on the coat-tails of a geographically driven initial development. And some would even argue that Europe has simply evolved (thanks to it's superior geography) beyond the need of military conquest. (Nevermind the tens of thousands of American troops stationed in Germany to keep the peace.)

One point was that the Europeans were military superior because they had the horse--a clearly superior domesticated animal to the Zebra and the Llama. The horse is a great source of transportation, and it's friendly and more easily domesticated, which gave the Europeans a tactical edge--or so the argument goes. So today's post at Asymmetrical Information caught my attention: GGS blogging
According to Diamond, the horse is just easier to domesticate and gives a bigger bang for your buck than a llama or a zebra. What made Diamond's argument especially convincing to me was his claim that since the integration of the world economy, scientists and entrepreneurs have tried mightily to domesticate non-Eurasian animals, with little success. Zebras...
were tried out as draft animals in 19th-century South Africa, and the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild drove through the streets of London in a carriage pulled by zebras. Alas, zebras become impossibly dangerous as they grow older...Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. (Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.171-2)

More generally:

In the 19th and 20th centuries at least six large mammals - the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison - have been the subjects of especially well-organized projects aimed at domestication, carried out by modern scientific animal breeders and geneticists... Yet these modern efforts have achieved only very limited successes. (Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.167-8)

But doubt about this argument started to well up in me when I reflected on Diamond's history of corn:

Archaeologists are still vigorously debating how many centuries or millenia of crop development in the Americas were required for ancient corn cobs to progress from a tiny size up to the size of human thumb, but it seems clear that several thousand more years were required for them to reach modern sizes.(Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.171-2)

Or to take a more familiar example, look at what we've done with wolves! We've turned them into everything from the noble Lassie to the irritating poodle. It really makes me start thinking, "Sure, the zebra is hard to domesticate now; but if we worked on them for a few hundred years, I bet the change would be amazing."

On reflection, it's not surprising that modern science has failed to domesticate animals like zebras. It would probably take generations, so the investment wouldn't pay a reasonable rate of return. And we've already got something better, anyway.

But if breeding useful animals takes centuries, I don't see this as a great explanation for why Eurasia did so much better than Native Americans and Africans. You'd just wind up asking, "Why were Eurasians more successful breeders?," which seems like a special case of "Why were Eurasians more economically successful overall?"

posted by William Woody at 9:58 AM

I'm still wondering after the same questions that struck me when you first posted this. Namely, how does an alleged Western respect for individualism, secularism, and consensual government come to the fore in explaining the success of a European invasion that was decidedly non-secular and despotic?
Anonymous The Lone Arranger at 11:12 PM  

This is probably best answered by reading Victor Hanson's essays on the topic.

But the short answer is that just because individualism was respected in western governments by their structure does not mean individualism and respect for the other was inherent in the people. And that respect for individualism was greater than the rest of the world--but it was not universal.

Emphasis on individualism is not necessarly a positive trait, either: mobs are individuals run amok--which was the American westward expansion in the 1870's and 1880's in a nutshell. (After the civil war left the infrastructure of the eastern seaboard in ruins, people went west to build a new life--despite the government's attempts to the contrary. Our westward expansionism was essentally dictated by mob rule--individualism run amok.)

Many other forms of social structure--such as certain forms of Marxism and Socialism attempt to solve the dilemma of the individual by presupposing a "higher state" of evolution where people would be free to choose, but who would be driven by their higher nature to choose the right answer.

But individualism and emphasis on individual rights is a two-edged sword, which is why it's important to approach Hanson's theories with the understanding that his theory is not a moralistic judgement.

Blogger William Woody at 11:59 PM  

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