*The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New*

by on June 14, 2012 at 4:45 am in Books, History, Medicine, Political Science, Religion | Permalink

That is the new book by the very active and very smart Peter Watson, due out soon but I bought a copy in the UK.

Why has the New World been so different from the Old World?  What a splendid seventeenth and eighteenth century question.  Imagine Jared Diamond — and with comparable scope — yet with shamans, peyote, and El Niño playing a role in the argument.  I recommend it to everyone who can keep in mind how speculative the argument will be.

If we had to sum up what has gone before and describe in a few words the main features shaping early life in the Old World, those words would be: the weakening monsoon, cereals (grain), domesticated mammals and pastoralism, the plough and the traction complex, riding, megaliths, milk, alcohol.  One way to highlight the differences between the two worlds is to perform the same summing-up exercise for the Americas…For the New World the crucial and equivalent words would be: El Niño, volcanoes, earthquakes, maize (corn), the potato, hallucinogens, tobacco, chocolate, rubber, the jaguar, and the bison.

Unlike Diamond, this book assigns ideology a central role in the story.  Europe and the Middle East generate the ideas of the shepherd, the New World the ideas of the shaman, some of which may have been picked up or carried from the Chukchi of Siberia.  Perhaps my favorite point in the book is the observation that the Old World had a greater diversity of ideologies.

Watson touches on many Hansonian themes about the differences between gatherers and foragers.  Here is a Guardian review.  Here is an Independent review.  Here is a Matthew Price review.

This is an easy book to criticize, see the reviews or for instance take this passage:

…artwork was not developed [in the early stages of the New World] because there was no need to establish either dedicated territories or tribal identities.  And/or food was in such plentiful supply that they had no need to keep records that assisted their memory of animal habits.

One really does have to take this book as a scenario, not as science.  It is nonetheless interesting if used with care.

1 freethinker June 14, 2012 at 6:43 am

“One really does have to take this book as a scenario, not as science. It is nonetheless interesting if used with care.” But how is an average Joe like me to know what part of it is to be believed and what part to be taken with a pinch of salt? Not everyone is a polymath like Tyler Cowen , you know!

2 TallDave June 14, 2012 at 7:11 am

Looks interesting. Reading Jared Diamond and Victor Davis Hanson (not the Robin Hanson referenced above), I’ve always thought the former had an excellent grasp of pre-state dynamics, while the latter’s “primacy of military history” and focus on culture best explains post-state history (state in the sense of having a non-tribal gov’t, rather than the strict Westphalian sense). Maybe this can help bridge the gap.

My family gained some unfortunate direct experience with traditional tribalist cultures when my sister’s sailboat was attacked by New Guineans with machetes, with one of the attackers shot and probably killed by my sister’s friend — they had to immediately leave the area, machete wounds and all, because it is customary for the family of the deceased to attempt to kill the person responsible.

3 John Schilling June 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I think most of us would consider the initial machete attack to be sufficient invitation to leave the area, without bothering to consider local cultural imperatives.

4 TallDave June 15, 2012 at 11:53 am

Generally the problem arises if you try to report the attack to local police — in the West, this would be the common approach, but in NG there’s a strong possibility more people with machetes will be looking for you, and the police themselves may be related. Tribalism results in very different rules!

5 Roy June 14, 2012 at 8:57 am

Three reasons Old and New World differ so much

1. Size
2. Orientation, ie. North-South vs. East West
3. Direction of mountain ranges, in Afro-Eurasia the Mountains run East West, while in Americas they run North South. This means that the mountains present a barrier between arctic cold and equatorial warmth. This reduces climate variability, and is the chief reason for the monsoon. It also protects the South from invasion from the north. In the Americas, the cordillera runs North South, and in North America it is parralelled by the Appalachian chain that also runs North South. This increases climate variability immensely. There is nothing to stop arctic blasts from coming as far south as Texas, and leads to the intense variability of the climate in the middle US and Northern Mexico. But most of all it makes climate cycles far more extreme, especially fouth and fifth order cycles. For example the Pleistocene Ice Ages were far more extreme in North America than in Eurasia, with glacial effects reaching far south of what occured in Asia. (In Europe the Alps were a cordileran type glaciation) and temperate climates were far more effected by cold than in Eurasia. As to shorter cycles such as the climate variation of the Last ten thousand years, droughts and wet periods are far more pronounced in the North American record than they are in the Eurasian one, and it is pretty widely believed the existence of the Cordillera has some responsibility for this.

Also, the Americas were settled substantially later than Eurasia, and signifigant evidence of human settlement only dates back 12,000 years. Agriculture developed several thousand years later in the Americas and the cordillera again made both communication and Empire building more difficult. It is noteworthy I think that the only high primary civilizations in the world are found in the Americas, notably the Andean and, if you think about it, the civilizations of Central Mexico.

6 Pon June 14, 2012 at 9:48 am

More please!

7 dan1111 June 14, 2012 at 11:47 am

I didn’t know what “high primary civilization” was, so I googled it. In the top four results, I got the Bee Gees, selected works of Ho Chi Minh, and Newt Gingrich. Impressive range, but I’m as confused as ever.

8 Roy June 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm

By “high primary civilization”, I meant a core civilization that reached urban complexity and was a center of imperial influence, such as Egypt, China, Iraq, etc, this would exclude say Tibet.

As to comparisons to Europe, I would argue that it is irrelevant because Afro-Eurasian civilization technically had surpassed American civilization before two thousand years ago. I say this with huge respect for Meso-American civilization in particular. While the Americas made huge achievements in many technical areas it is important to realize that less than five hundred years ago only one society was even on the cusp of the bronze age, the Tarascans of Western Mexico, and as impressive as the empires of the Mexica and Inka were at the time of conquest they were at a level
in many ways comprable to that of the Sumer of Sargon or the Egypt of the Old Kingdom. Or if you want an Asian analogy the pre-Vedic Indian civilization or the deep pre Shang mythic past of China. At that point European civilization, while not nearly as backward as most modern people assume was still extremely primitive by Eurasian standards, but at least metallurgically more advanced than any American civilization was thousands of years later at the time of the Conquest.

I still think Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis makes far more sense than anything else I have encountered, but I think geology and natural history are not emphasized enough. The biggest single factor has to be that even if you take the Americas as a single unit, they are dwarfed by the vast area and population that was part of a system of exchange in Eurasia before the First millenium AD.

9 Careless June 14, 2012 at 8:07 pm

But you wrote that the only high primary civilizations in the world were in the Americas. Did you mean to include something about altitude?

10 Roy June 14, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Sorry, that was an editing mistake, I meant “High Altitude”. Very sorry.

11 go kings go June 14, 2012 at 11:52 am

Plus, Europe is a peninsula shot through with navigable rivers, greatly easing trade (water travel beats any other kind, even now). The two main American civilizations barely knew of the other’s existence and trade was limited. Trade increases everything.

As for this, “One really does have to take this book as a scenario, not as science”, to what book does this not apply? Which book is not 1 part evidence and 9 parts inference?

12 TGGP June 15, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Greg Cochran on the relative backwardness of the new world.

13 Ed June 14, 2012 at 9:40 am

The question of when humans settled the Americans is not exactly settled, but its clearly sometime later then when humans settled Asia. It often gets overlooked that humans in the Americas just had a much later start in terms of civilization building.

14 Slugger June 14, 2012 at 10:39 am

One big difference between the Old World and the New is that the Old won! The arrival of Europeans in the Americas led to destruction of much of the indigenous culture and even a decline in the population of the natives. We know that many Aztec artifacts were destroyed. What other cultures were reduced or even totally erased?

History is written by the winners.

15 Millian June 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm

That’s why people consider differences in the pre-1492 period, correct?

16 Edward Burke June 14, 2012 at 11:00 am

I’d throw into the mix insights derived in part from Mircea Eliade and David W. Anthony, respectively: a) European colonial powers brought with them a “nostalgia for Eden” that colored their perceptions of everything from the natural wonders they encountered to their views of the pesky aborigines they felt obliged to conquer, eradicate, or marginalize; b) the forebears of the American aborigines traversed the purported Bering bridge millennia prior to both the invention of the wheel and the domestication of the horse (undomesticated equine mammals seem not to have accompanied their human contemporaries across the bridge, and the Americas had no native populations of equine mammals to boast).

17 Careless June 14, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Erm… you missed the memo about humans being the likely cause of the extinction of American horses? Yes, there were horses here. I’m sure the were delicious.

18 Edward Burke June 14, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Thanks for. As Roy pointed out, I’d understood that horses evolved in North America and had migrated in some remote past from North America to Asia but was under the (mis?)impression that they had become extinct in NA prior to the human migrations from Asia, and in the absence of contemporary equine domestication, that suggested to me that no horses ambled over following humans on the eastbound trip. (Could you name a/the definitive source that treats that, btw? Last I’d heard, dispute still reigned over date and cause of NA equine extinction.) Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary “Blood of the Beasts” shows that the French maintained a healthy appetite for horsemeat through the 19th century and into the 20th.

19 Roy June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Actually the Americas are the home of the horse, where they evolved, and they were only gone for the past 12,000 year, minus the last 500. In fact the modern horses of genus Equis have only inhabited Eurasia since the Pliocene (less than 3mya) and they evolved in North America. It is a tragedy that horse domestication didn’t happen in parallel in the Americas, but their is considerable evidence it could have happened here as well. One caveat though is that the American horse of 10,000 years ago was probably not of the same species group as the ancestral domesticated horse was. Also all the evidence I have seen suggests that horses were only domesticated once in Kazakhistan about six thousand years ago at the earliest, and since true wild horses are basically extinct in Eurasia as well, I suspect horse domestication may have been a lucky fluke of human history.

20 Steve Sailer June 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm

“I suspect horse domestication may have been a lucky fluke of human history.”

It must have been one brave dude who hopped on a wild horse for the first time.

21 IVV June 14, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Especially after seeing what happened to the one brave dude who hopped on a wild bull instead.

22 dearieme June 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm

“It must have been one brave dude who hopped on a wild horse for the first time.” Horses may have been domesticated before they were ridden.

23 Jim June 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Indeed they were, for food, and for a long time. They survive a lot better on steppe-land – and prairies, ahem – than cattle do.

24 The Anti-Gnostic June 15, 2012 at 8:34 am

More intellectual cherry-picking to avoid the obvious.

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