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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900

This is a Virus- it was the built up immunity to Viruses that Europeans obtained as a result of direct contact with 4000 years of civilization that gave their life forms a built in advantage over life forms in the global periphery: The Americas, Australia, the Oceanic territories. 

Ecological Imperialism:
 The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900
by Alfred W. Crosby
Cambridge University Press
p. 1986

   This book is what you call "a hit."  The edition I read was printed in 1990 and represented the fifth repress.  In fact,  Ecological Imperialism is such a hit that inspired a second, even more monstrous hit: Jared Diamond's popularization of Crosby's thesis, the execrable "GUNS, GERMS & STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES."  I'm not positive of the direct connection because I shall not stoop to read Diamond's book, but Crosby's book could have been called "Weeds, Germs & Pigs: The Creation of Neo Europe"

     Crosby's broad topic is the manner in which a handful of European nations managed to replicate their societies in places like North America, Southern South America, Australia and New Zealand.  As an initial task he needs to make the widely recognized distinction between places where European colonization resulted in the mas or menos eradication of the native populations (those places above) vs. places where the native populations retained control (Middle East, South Asia, East Asia.)

    The main thrust of Crosby's intelligent thesis is to demonstrate the biological differences between the Old Eurasian and New American/Australian worlds in terms of biology.  Europeans were the direct heirs to four thousand years of pre-European civilization stretching back to Sumer, and with that came some distinct advantages when they eventually crossed the oceans to the New World.  Specifically, European conquerors brought the small pox virus with them (in addition to a host of other diseases).  Small Pox functioned like an advance army for the Europeans, clearing the way for them before they even arrived.  No where is this more clear then within the United States, where a little known civilization with many resemblances to the Meso-American Aztec area flourished and disappeared before Europeans even got serious about exploring the place.

  Crosby also makes good on a less obvious sub thesis having to do with why European weeds were dominant in their conquest in the New World (as much as their human counterparts) while their New World equivalents wholly failed to make their presence felt on the return trip to Europe.  Here, he notes that weeds require environmental destruction to thrive (deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, etc.) and so the type of disruption caused by European colonial efforts was precisely what was required to foment the spread of European weeds (like the dandelion, for example.)

  Throughout Ecological Imperialism, Crosby goes out of his way to downplay the importance of military technology- the fact is that in every single one of the major areas where the Europeans wiped out Indigenes, diseases led the way.  And in place where diseases did not work in favor of the Europeans, the colonial experience was either a draw (South Africa, where whites held onto power but lost the population race) or an outright failure (India, China, Japan) where Europeans failed to do anything other then put down glorified trading posts.

  As it should be clear from this summary, there was no moral or "natural" superiority of one civilization vs another, only what could be called the "luck of inheritance."  The European conquerors combined their cultural inheritance with a (native) desire for expansion.  In this way, they don't deserve credit for introducing small pox to indigenes around the world, but they certainly reaped the long term rewards.

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