Friday, September 9, 2011

"1493" by Charles C. Mann

Sorry, there are no dancing skeletons in the book, I just liked the picture
Short essay version: Buy this book. 

Longer version: I read Mann's "1491" some years ago, and found it entertaining, informative, engaging. Alright, so the middle part was a bit dry, but I managed to make it through without slogging. The gist of the book was that, as a result of recent archaeological discoveries and research, the Western Hemisphere was far more populous, and advanced, than depicted.

As a result, the Columbian Holocaust - the die-off of the original population due to disease and maltreatment - was far larger than anyone imagined, with perhaps as high as 30 million people.

"1493" takes the next logical step as to the ramifications of all this. The emphasis being upon the ecological and biological effects of the Columbian Exchange. Far more than just the movements of people, the more important movements of animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses. The author tries, and often succeeds in looking at the big picture ramifications of clashing ecologies, and also understanding historic and modern events through the prism of biology.

(Indeed, I've started to look at the expansion of English culture, first through the British Empire, then the American, as nothing more than the efflorescence of a non-native introduced species, like zebra mussels, or Asian carp).

I remember reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" when it first came out in 1997. It took a somewhat similar bent towards viewing events and circumstances from a geographic standpoint. I remember first agreeing with the general points of the book, and certainly the idea that the European expansion had a great deal more to do with luck and circumstance than innate superiority of the whites. But over time, and after recognizing the lackluster scholarship of the book, I realized that the actual title of the book should have been "Germs, Germs, and Germs". That was the real advantage of the European, or more precisely, the Eastern Hemispherean of just being plain filthy and disgusting and having built up immunites to some of the more virulent infestations the human animal is heir to.

As such, "1493" does a much better explanatory job than "GGS". (And, really, if you want better reads - and all of these texts cited in "1493" by Mann - try "The Columbian Exchange" and "Ecological Imperialism" by Alfred Crosby, or "Plagues and People" by William Mcneill).

At any rate, I'm only about a third of the way through the book, and though a lot of the material should be viewed as conjecture, I still agree with it. I really should do a proper book report on this, but anyway, some highlights that I've dog-eared:
  • The Little Ice Age of 1560-1850 may have been the result of the reforestation of North America. With the end of so many slash-and-burn agricultural societies, from the massive die off of American Indians, a huge amount of carbon dioxide was drawn from the air.
  • Malaria and yellow fever, brought over to the New World by Europeans, may have resulted in the Involuntary African Diaspora. In the author's own words: "malaria did not cause slavery. Rather it strengthened the economic case for it". Further "Biology enters history when one realizes that almost all the slaves ferried to the Americas came from West and Central Africa...(with an inherited immunity to malaria - me)...biologically speaking, they were fitter, which is another way of saying that in these places they were - loaded words! - genetically superior". 
  • More malaria popcorn: The general cold temperature demarcation line for the survival of the malaria parasite happens to be the Mason-Dixon line. Northern Union forces lost more men to sickness than battle, and the Civil War was drastically prolonged as a result. Given the overwhelming superiority of the Union forces over the wretched, weak, puny Confederacy, the war should have last no longer than a few months. There thus is the possibility that malaria is partly responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation. Likewise, during the Revolution, British forces in the south suffered a similar defeat by the mosquito.
  • The success of English colonization (a pretty fucking horrid story of corporate indifference, where 9 colonists died for every 1 successful settler), aside from the Chinese Wave method of colonizing (ship more people over until living outnumber the dead) was due to the drug trade. One of the most addictive and brain-bendingly powerful drugs ever cultivated: tobacco. (Aside form me, kind of gives you a clue into space colonies, huh? Here was a biologically compatible environment, with suitable food supply, ready resources to hand, and the colonists still died like flies. Wonder how a Mars colony would fare? Well, I mean, even not under the British.)
That's enough for now. I'll write more as I read through.


  1. Very good, very thought provoking cherries you've picked there, particularly the bit about tobacco addiction, to which I'd suggest a glimpse at sugar cultivation and sugar addiction - which for me at least - comprises the historical base of the pyramid to which I refer as the "dopamine hegemony"..., can you imagine the impact that mass quantities of relatively low cost sugar, confections, alcohol, etc.., had on those huddled european masses?

  2. I just purchased "the Fourth Turning" Have you read it? If so, what were your thoughts?

  3. Nulan san,

    I'm pretty sure he will cover sugar. There's already been a rather harrowing account of conditions on a Carribean sugar plantation. I'm sure more will follow, and I will comment accordingly. Currently thinking all how all that back then did to China (you got a thing for Japan, with me it's China).


    I have not read the book. I did read through the reviews on Amazon and Powell's. If I have a chance I will, but I do understand these guys are responsible for the naming of the current generations.

  4. Since we are talking reading, if you weary of the nonfiction (and have a Japan or nightshade fetish) I recommend "The Windup Girl."

    Dystopia, revlution, religion, Japan, tobacco, and "calorie companies."

    Always a pleasure gentlemen.