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FOOD, SOCIAL EVOLUTION, AND CONQUEST

The scientific study of history — "scientific," without apologies but with all the appropriate caveats — has always been a central concern of the Marxist community in general, and S&S in particular. Readers will remember the now-famous 1950 exchange between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy, occasioned by publication of the formerís Studies in the Development of Capitalism, which became the S&S Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism symposium, later re-edited by Rodney Hilton. Our colleague Dmitris Milonakis calls this the "first round" in a series of debates in the dialectics of history. The "second round" took place in the pages of Past & Present in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was reproduced as The Brenner Debate, edited by T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin. It involved representatives of a Marxian school (Robert Brenner, et al.) and a neo-Malthusian school (M. M. Postan, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie). Round three, in Milonakisí conception, returns to S&S in 1984, with debate around general issues of directionality, stadiality and determinacy in history, and continues to the present.

Now the remarkable recent book by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997, 1999) offers a fresh perspective on history from the longest possible point of view: from the emergence of the hominids some 4≠5 million years ago and homo sapiens 100,000≠200,000 years ago to the present, but focusing on the migrations and conquests in the 13,000 years since the last major ice age. Diamondís goal is to explain the broad patterns of diffusion and domination: the rise of chiefdoms, and then states, in the supercontinent he calls Eurasia, especially the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and in Northern China. From these centers, conquests, both military and epidemiological, spread to all other inhabitable parts of the globe. Diamond concentrates and summarizes massive amounts of archeological, anthropological, historical and linguistic evidence to trace both major and minor population movements: the migration throughout the Americas; the Austronesian expansion that populated the Pacific islands, Hawaii and New Zealand; the various conquests of and within Europe; the Bantu expansion through sub-Saharan Africa; and others. He is preoccupied throughout the work by a need to go beyond description to explanation; the central question, asked in many different contexts, is, Why? Why did expansion and conquest take place in the direction it did, rather than the reverse? Why did Pizarro conquer Peru and capture the Inca emperor Atahuallpa in A.D. 1532, rather than the latter coming to Spain and capturing Charles I? Why did North Chinese civilization expand into South China and the rest of Southeast Asia? Why did Europe conquer Africa, rather than vice versa? And so on.

Diamondís basic position is self-identified as geographical determinism. The broad movements of human history are to be explained by variations in shapes and sizes of land masses; climate; presence or absence of domesticable plants and animals, and any other physical conditions affecting possibilities of hunting and gathering; the transition to food production; the subsequent emergence of a surplus and the possibility of science (guns and steel); the increase in population, of both humans and domesticated animals, and the consequent emergence of deadly viruses and resistance to these viruses among peoples with long exposure to them (germs). Diamondís concern is to counter, once and for all, all racist, xenophobic and "centric" theories of cultural or intellectual superiority of any one people or peoples compared with others. He shows vividly, in multiple contexts, how the differences in historical outcomes and patterns of dominance are completely unrelated to differences in intellectual capacities and achievements of peoples. Here he echoes a large literature from cultural anthropology.1 Eurasian, and eventually Western European, dominance in todayís world have everything to do with differential geographical opportunities for food production leading to increasing complexity in social structure, technological development, population and military power, and nothing to do with any presumed "innate" qualities of any given peoples or cultures. This is indeed evidenced by instances of independent achievement of major steps in human evolution — food production, animal domestication, metallurgy, written languages — in different isolated parts of the world, rather than their diffusion from a single site.

Diamond develops his account with remarkable erudition and exquisite detail; readers should experience the book firsthand, as a source of enrichment in knowledge of flora, fauna, geography, language, and history.2 The conceptual interrogations that follow should be taken in the spirit in which they are intended: as encouraging efforts to develop further the insights achieved in Diamondís study.

I would note first that the geographical determinism perspective studies the outward growth and movement of civilizations, to the comparative neglect of their internal structure. Diamond focuses on conquest, but does not address internal division, social class in particular. His conception of social evolution, shared with many non-Marxist cultural evolutionists (e.g., White, Harris, Carneiro) is dominated by a linear progression from simplicity to complexity, passing through stages that are not clearly defined and that may overlook crucial qualitative distinctions. Thus, human groups, in this view, pass from a tribal stage to chiefdoms, with settled villages and a political structure emerging above them, to states, and finally to empires. If one treats complexity as an undifferentiated quantitative measure of the degree of progress of civilization (here "civilization" is used without the invidious or moralizing overtones that sometimes accompany the word) one might conclude that the Xia Dynasty in China, around 2000 B.C., represented a fuller social development than did later societies with fewer "moving parts." As soon as we ask, complexity of what?, we are led to the qualitative dimension of social relations: class, production relations, property, forms of internal incentive and control. Bigger and more complex may not mean more advanced or potentially developmental. We would want to inquire into not only the directionality of conquest, but also its nature in different times and situations.

Comparison of the Roman and Norman conquests of Britain may serve as an example. The Roman incursion, which came to an end around A.D. 400, was experienced by the aboriginal inhabitants of that island as an unpleasant but manageable occurrence: the Roman legions advanced, feeding themselves by means of a lengthy pipeline to the slave economy on the European continent, and the local peoples gave them a wide berth. They came, they conquered, they left; things then returned (more or less) to the status quo ante. The Normans, by contrast, coming about 700 years later, brought with them a new mode of production involving small-scale manorial organization and a servile hierarchy. Food production was organized locally on the basis of feudal production relations. The Normans, in short, came equipped to stay. Some attention to internal social relations adds explanatory power to a model based simply on food surpluses, complexity, and conquest.

Diamondís main argument concerns the vast land mass he calls Eurasia, stretching from Ireland to Taiwan. The multiplicity of reasons for Eurasian dominance at first seems impressive: a horizontal axis, rather than the vertical orientation of Africa and the Americas (uniformity of climate over large areas makes diffusion of plants and animals easier); absence of major obstacles to diffusion and population movement (mountains; bodies of water; narrow bridges such as the Isthmus of Panama in the Americas; deserts); variety of domesticable plant materials; variety of domesticable animals (and their survival; cf. Australia, where the original human population dispersions destroyed the large mammals that originally inhabited that continent). Multiple reasons, however, raise suspicions. One must wonder why the entire set of conditions favorable to social evolution happen to be present on one continent, rather than, say, some being present on one and others on others. Is there a danger of a tautological reading-backwards from the present (i.e., from the fact of Eurasian predominance? For example, Diamond points to the importance of the horse for both agriculture and warfare, and the fact that the horse was available on the Eurasian continent, but not elsewhere. Africa, however, had the zebra. But the zebra is not domesticable; even modern zoologists have failed in efforts to achieve domestication of this species.3 The problem lies in the possibility that modern scientists have not, in a comparatively short period of time, domesticated the zebra because there is no reason to do so; the horse, imported from Eurasia into Africa as into the Americas, already exists. Diffusion eliminates the necessity which would have been the mother of domestication. The failure of animal domestication in Africa over the 12≠14 millennia since the (second) human dispersion out of that continent may have much more to do with the absence of an internal impetus toward intensive food production in the societies existing there than with inherent qualities of the local fauna.

The argument concerning continental axes (see the map in Diamond, p. 177) is powerful, but may be exaggerated. The longest axis on the African continent is, of course, vertical, stretching from temperate to tropical to temperate, north to south. But the continent is still more than 4600 miles wide at its widest latitude — the distance from "California to the New York island" and half way back again. Plenty of room for diffusion there. More important, the connection drawn in the continental axis argument between an unbroken diffusion path, on the one hand, and societal expansion, on the other, seems arbitrary. One might counter that a north≠south axis, which imposes challenges for movement of plants, animals and technology, would better reward diversity and creativity — a sort of Toynbeeian "challenge≠response" approach to early human dispersion. To put the matter differently, an easy diffusion path may mean conquest and population growth in some circumstances, or expansion to the point of stasis in others.

The Roman Empire may again serve as example. Here, culminating a series of empire-building events (the Persians, Alexander the Great, Egypt) an empire based on the surplus generated by a central slave economy spread outward, without geographical obstacles, into the then-known world. It eventually, however, stopped, never expanding eastward into Central Asia and China, for reasons unrelated to geography: the expansive energy of this social formation was bounded by the method of surplus extraction and its inherent limits, and an "equilibrium trap" occurred, in which the given extent of the empire consumed the surplus on which it was based, making further expansion impossible. Geography is necessary, but not sufficient, to fully explain historical outcomes.

One is troubled by the "Eurasia" category that dominates discussion throughout Diamondís book. This supercontinent is finally broken up in the last chapter ("Epilogue: The Future of Human History as a Science"), where the question is finally posed: why Europe, and not China? Here Diamond at last connects with the "Eurocentrism" discussion, most recently occasioned by Andre Gunder Frankís Re-Orient. Diamondís answer to the question, Why did China not conquer Europe, instead of the other way around?, is weak and inconclusive. Uncharacteristically, he refers to fortuitous historical events — in particular, a decision made by the unified leadership of the Chinese state in A.D. 1433. A power struggle between two factions, the eunuchs and their opponents, ended with victory of the latter, which then reversed a standing policy of sending forth "treasure fleets," thus bringing to an end Chinaís pursuit of maritime supremacy. This is contrasted with the diversity of Europe. Christopher Columbus, turned down in his funding request by one European head of state after another, finally found Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. "The real problem in understanding Chinaís loss of political and technological preeminence to Europe is to understand Chinaís chronic unity and Europeís chronic disunity" (pp. 413≠14).

There is the obvious point that an arbitrary decision by a ruler, or ruling faction, that throttles technological development or economic expansion creates a material political basis for opposition to and overthrow of that ruler/faction. But the further question arises: when is geographic variation conducive to political disunity? And, in turn, how does societal development depend on the balance between unity and disunity? In some circumstances, natural barriers (deserts; mountains; oceans) may produce isolation and inhibit diffusion; or they may serve as a challenge to develop unifying political structures and ideologies (thus the crucial role of Christianity in the early spread of West European precapitalist monarchies eastwards — the so-called "Great Crusades"). Moreover, the unity≠disunity polarity conceals crucial qualitative variation — in particular, the unifying≠differentiating quality of the peculiar institution of the market. The law of value, or the central positioning of commodity exchange in capitalist or near-capitalist social formations of recent centuries, changes the terms of the analysis entirely; Diamond, however, is not able to incorporate this dimension into his theory.

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1. One of my favorite stories is from Clyde Kluckhohn's Mirror for Man. A team of French anthropologists studying one of the most "primitive" peoples ever encountered, the Kaingang "Indians" of the Amazon valley in Brazil, found an abandoned infant lying on a path in the jungle. A married couple, part of the team, took the boy back to Paris and adopted him as their son. This pure-"blooded" Kaingang grew up in the City of Light as a full-fledged French intellectual; 30 years later, armed with a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Paris, he returned to Brazil as part of a new team in a new generation to study his biological forebears.

2. This writer has always been geographically challenged. I remember the amusement of my 9th-grade geography teacher, Mrs. Gottesman, when I reported, on an exam, that "the international dateline runs through Greenwich Village."

3. Domestication, as Diamond points out, is more than taming; it means breeding under human control and development of traits that are advantageous for humans.

 

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