Editor and fellow columnist Gene Powell reads much more than I do and usually does the book reviews. Well, I’ve read two books, written by different authors for different reasons, and written years ago, but together they’re histories of the world, part one from 11,000 B.C. to A.D. 1,500, and part two from A.D. 1500 to 2000.
No, they’re not related to the Mel Brooks film. Sorry.
Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is based on geographic determinism, why where people are from resulted in the state of the world today.
Diamond isn’t a racist (well he is, but in the backwards, leftist way) and his proposal is that the people of Eurasia (Europe, Asia, and North Africa) weren’t biologically superior, they just had certain advantages being on a landmass with an East-West axis rather than North-South one like the Americas and Africa, or isolated like Australia, Polynesia and other remote islands.
Similar latitudes tend to be more alike than similar longitudes (Britain and Japan are more alike than Mexico and Canada), which is important for the spread of agriculture and domesticated animals. Meanwhile, a lack of major geographic barriers (the isthmus of Panama, the jungles of Africa) combined with the horse meant empires could arise and technology or ideas could spread from any one place to all the rest. Imitation is easier than invention, and often better.
The Romans and Chinese knew of each other, and Europeans used (and modified) the Chinese compass and Arabic numerals to help them get to the Americas. However the Aztec and Inca were apparently unaware of each other, and shared little or nothing in the way of agriculture, despite a much shorter distance. No Inca could read Maya script; no Aztec rode a llama.
And as the recent swine flu pandemic reminds us, diseases mutate to jump between species living in close contact. When these spread and are deadly, it’s something terrible. But generations of surviving them is why we gave the Native Americans small pox, measles and tuberculosis, while they only (maybe) gave us syphilis.
Diamond’s book answers why Eurasian people were always going to win in a contest with other people, but leaves off at why Europeans, rather than Ottomans or Chinese, took the lead starting at about 1,500 A.D. Paul Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” picks up there. Both draw on a book I haven’t read, “The European Miracle” by E.L. Jones, and agree that the lack of central authority in Europe meant that no universal edict could artificially stop the spread of technology as, for example, the Japanese shogunate did when it banned muskets or the Chinese emperor did when he banned sea-faring vessels. (Or as the pope had tried to ban the crossbow, with little effect).
From there Kennedy goes about examining history with a focus on economics. Without much controversy, he said economic and military power are tied together, military power to protect economic interests and economic power making it possible to win wars. Empires eventually overextend themselves, are forced to devote too much money to their militaries to sustain their possessions at the expense of economic growth, and then their militaries lose out as well.
As an example, Spain did very well with its New World silver mines, but had to pay for navies in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, its ultimately failed Spanish Armada aimed at the English, armies to occupy the New World, and armies to essentially occupy its European possessions. Because it had to, it also had to pay for them when it didn’t have the money by getting loans, which led to interest payments it couldn’t pay for, which led to declarations of bankruptcy, which meant the next time Spain needed to borrow money, the interest rate was still higher. All this while taxing the devil out of its own people and stifling real growth.
(I disclaim any pointed criticism of current affairs.)
Kennedy’s book caused an uproar in the United States at the time of its publishing (1987), but reading it should really give you an immense feeling of patriotic pride, from the American Civil War through World War II, especially. In 1939, we produced less than 6,000 planes annually. Five years later, we produced more than 96,000 planes, or one about every five minutes. “The proper allocation of overwhelming force,” and of course it was our force that was properly overwhelming.
What was controversial was Kennedy’s final chapter predicting the futures of the U.S. and USSR because he said both would decline due to the military overspending of the Cold War while the European Union (then the European Economic Community), China and especially Japan would rise.
While he got credit for detecting the inherent weakness of the Soviets before pretty much anybody, Kennedy was derided in the ’90s as the tech boom took off in America, we became the world’s only hyperpower and Japan stagnated.
But of course, history never stops, does it?