What should I ask Charles C. Mann?

by on January 7, 2018 at 11:04 am in Books, Current Affairs, Economics, Food and Drink, History, Science, Travel | Permalink

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

1 Ray Lopez January 7, 2018 at 11:08 am

Given that data about the Americas is sparse before the Spanish arrived in 1492, I would ask him how much of a historian’s work is interpolation?


2 Talisker January 7, 2018 at 2:29 pm

Made by the sea – in every sense.


3 dearieme January 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm

And I got a bottle for Xmas.


4 Hadur January 7, 2018 at 11:18 am

Why does the myth of the noble savage endure into the present day?


5 Ray Lopez January 7, 2018 at 11:27 am

Rousseau’s prose and the heavy hand of history? First mover advantage. But you’re right, anthropologists have found that slash-and-burn people really impact the environment negatively. Fortunately there’s not that many of them, so the damage they do is not that bad.

I would ask why the North American landmass was so sparsely populated compared to central and South America. Why do primitive people prefer wet, lush places and not arid plains? Maybe because plants grow faster? Here in the wet, tropical Philippines, you can almost see the plants grow.


6 Careless January 7, 2018 at 5:11 pm

How would you propose to have dense populations in central North America by people too primitive to build deep wells, Ray? Can’t farm. Can’t farm in the Rockies. Can’t farm in the deserts of the SW. And I don’t think maize (or any other highly productive crop) ever made it to the Pacific NW. But there were farming civilizations with millions of people east of the Mississippi where rainfall and easily accessible water sources were available.

And why do you think South America was densely populated? It wasn’t. Taking a total population estimate of the Americas at 50 million, you’ve got about half of those in North and Central America, and then maybe another half of what’s left in the Incan Empire (which contains the least wet and lush parts of South America). So a population of under 15 million in the other 85%+ of South America


7 bmcburney January 8, 2018 at 2:44 pm

“too primitive to build deep wells”

Mesopotamia and Egypt had a large populations evidently based on irrigation water taken from rivers.

“Can’t farm in the deserts of the SW.”

Large areas of the SW deserts were farmed beginning with the Anasazi from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD.


8 Careless January 8, 2018 at 2:47 pm

Mesopotamia and Egypt had a large populations evidently based on irrigation water taken from rivers.

which don’t exist in the American Great Plains, which is my point.

Large areas of the SW deserts were farmed beginning with the Anasazi from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD.

Which never had dense populations, because they couldn’t be farmed in large areas.

9 Bmcburney January 8, 2018 at 4:31 pm

It seems to me that the Mississippi and its tributaries flow throughout much of the Midwest. Which was my point.

You said the SW could not be farmed, you are obviously wrong about that. If you meant that conditions would not support a population of some specific size, you should have said that instead.

10 Alistair January 7, 2018 at 5:29 pm

Hunter-gatherers have a very limited by maximum population density. About 1/10 to 1/100th of farmers, especially away from rivers. And then there is the food storage problem….

It’s just trophic analysis; HGs are very inefficient at turning hectares into calories and population.


11 Todd K January 7, 2018 at 1:24 pm

One author claimed in 1988 that the myth has ebbed and flowed over time.

The Great Seesaw: A New View of the Western World, 1750-2000

“An argument for the existence of a mental see saw which in the last 250 years has affected a wide range of human attitudes and activities. When the see saw tilts to extreme optimism or pessimism, all kinds of attitudes, normally seen as unconnected, move too. A variety of intellectual activities and movements are partly under the sway of the seesaw, but its powerful influence is rarely noticed. A knowledge of the see saw helps to explain events that seem as far apart as the oil crisis of the 1970s and the counter culture of the 1960s, the high confidence of the mid-nineteenth century and the Cult of the Noble Savage in the era of Rousseau and Captain Cook. The author argues that the present economic crisis has close links with the see saw, though the see saw itself is more than an economic mechanism.”

I don’t buy how the author stretches it to the “present economic crisis” — of 1988? – That was High Reagan! But the opening chapters were interesting.


12 Larry Siegel January 8, 2018 at 11:39 pm

He probably started writing in 1981 or 1982 and it took that long for him to finish and get the book published.


13 Dick the Butcher January 7, 2018 at 5:33 pm

My question would Does Charles prefer Coke or Pepsi? zzzzzz


14 dearieme January 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm

Hats off. That’s a good question.


15 dearieme January 7, 2018 at 11:28 am

“Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.” Let’s see you beat that sentence this year, Mr Cowen.


16 Mark Thorson January 7, 2018 at 6:38 pm

For those who don’t know, it was the Dick Cavett show. That was J. I. Rodale, founder of the magazine empire that grew out of Organic Gardening and Farming. For decades, he was almost alone in promoting organic food. His son Robert took over the business, but died in an auto accident in Russia in the 1980’s sometime.


17 clockwork_prior January 7, 2018 at 11:51 am

Ask him about his web site – http://www.charlesmann.org/ – and whether it makes better sense to avoid having a comment section at all.


18 Skye Stewart January 7, 2018 at 12:49 pm

One of the most fascinating thesis’ put forward in the last 50 years in my opinion has been that of Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Split of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a richly documented examination of the philological, archeological, and psychological record. It attempts to explain the radical shifts we witnessed in social structure, talk of “Gods” and their sudden absence, and the radical confrontation between these ancient, undeveloped bicameral societies and the more “advanced” western social forces that conquered them. Is there and credibility or benefit in this conjecture from his perspective? I think many, from Daniel Dennet to Marshall McLuhan were greatly impressed with this book.


19 athEIst January 7, 2018 at 3:20 pm

I was impressed too, but much like Wegner proposing “drifting continents” in 1911, there was(at the time) no mechanism. Sure if I sever my corpus collosum(the largest white matter structure in the brain) I will became bicameral. How this would occur is unanswered(indeed not asked). Maybe advances in DNA knowledge will, as plate tectonics rescued Wegner(after 50 yrs), allow verification(or not) of Jaynes theory.


20 athEIst January 7, 2018 at 3:30 pm

p.s. Wegener (my bad)


21 Mark Thorson January 7, 2018 at 4:29 pm

Actually, there have been quite a few people with a severed corpus callosum. It was and perhaps still is a treatment for some forms of epilepsy to prevent it from spreading to the other hemisphere. It took quite a while to develop tests that could distinguish people who had this operation from normals. Michael Gazzaniga did some of the important work on these patients.


22 Careless January 7, 2018 at 5:26 pm

” It took quite a while to develop tests that could distinguish people who had this operation from normals”

Huh? You can do it by having them close one eye and asking them simple questions


23 Mark Thorson January 7, 2018 at 5:51 pm

Each eye feeds both hemispheres. The optic chiasma is not severed in split brain surgery. To feed a stimulus to just one hemisphere, the subject must fixate their gaze on a target, then the stimulus is presented on one side of the visual field.

24 athEIst January 7, 2018 at 3:27 pm

p.s. (nit) It’s Breakdown not split.


25 Mark Thorson January 7, 2018 at 4:44 pm

Jaynes’ book suggests to me that asymmetric excitation of the brain could lead to hearing auditory inputs, thus perhaps explaining the mechanism behind this invention.


If true, it would differ from auditory input from the ears. It would be more like hearing the voice of God.


26 Talisker January 7, 2018 at 2:20 pm

The only distillery on the Isle of Skye!


27 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 7, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Please, please, do not discuss asparagus in urine during the podcast.


28 Columbo January 7, 2018 at 3:06 pm

If the British hadn’t been able to flee to America, would modern Britain have ended up with the American Constitutional System? If not, which country in the Old World would’ve been taken over and turned into what is now America?


29 Alistair January 7, 2018 at 5:39 pm

Interesting, but probably not. Many of US founders were not radicals in their European beginnings, but became so by product of their circumstances. People like Thomas Paine turned up later, looking for action.

The UK domestic settlement was notoriously robust, and the 17th century settlement between parliament and the crown fairly stable, with power passing substantively to a “small c” conservative gentry bolstered by rising merchants and proto-industrialists. It’s about the only European state of any size that didn’t suffer a revolutionary 18th/19th century.


30 msgkings January 8, 2018 at 1:40 am

Outstanding post.


31 Columbo January 7, 2018 at 3:08 pm

If other planets don’t have [split] continents, like Earth, do other planets not have technologically-advanced countries like America?


32 Machiavelli January 7, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Between the printing press, the discovery of America, and Protestantism, was 1417-1517 the most influential century of human history? If not, which century changed human history more and why?


33 dearieme January 7, 2018 at 5:25 pm

The industrial revolution – so, say, the mid-18th century onwards (perhaps you could combine that with much of the Enlightenment). That’s what made mankind rich.

But that century should perhaps come second to the development of agriculture in the Middle East. Which century might that be attributed to? (Or the development, thought to be independent, in the Far East?) That’s what made mankind numerous.

Or, would you like to choose the century when anatomically modern humans first left Africa (assuming that is what happened)?
Or the century when they first interbred with Neanderthals? Or Denisovans? Or the century when anatomically modern humans first developed?Because those are the centuries that made mankind.

Hm; the game soon peters out because the later seems to matter less than the earlier.


34 Alistair January 7, 2018 at 5:40 pm

Is the industrial revolution inevitable after the 15th century?


35 athEIst January 7, 2018 at 6:51 pm

If you have the Black Death(or something like it*)in the 14th.

*the Black Death not only reduced population below the Malthusian limit(many epidemics have done that) it kept the population down by coming back every 10 or 15 years until about 1600-1650.


36 Milenko January 7, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Once Africa got the printing press it was inevitable that they would become just as advanced as Europe. Even Mugabe and Seko couldn’t stop the African Industrial Revolution. A literate people will always outsmart a dictator, which is why FDR failed to intern the Japanese.


37 Larry Siegel January 8, 2018 at 11:43 pm

Not bad. You raise interesting issues.

38 Roger Sweeny January 8, 2018 at 9:01 am

There may have been as many as eight independent developments of agriculture, all at different times: Mesopotamia/Anatolia, lower Nile, Indus Valley, northern China, southern China, Andes, central Mexico, what is now the eastern USA.


39 dearieme January 8, 2018 at 12:17 pm

It’s very easy to believe that New World agriculture was entirely independent of Old World. Within the Old World it will presumably never be possible to be certain whether the idea of agriculture could have spread without its crops or artefacts spreading.

What’s the present view of the development of agriculture in New Guinea? Is it still thought to be independent?


40 Roger Sweeny January 9, 2018 at 9:50 am

Thanks for reminding me. New Guinea makes nine possibly independent developments of agriculture. But like you say, we’ll probably never be completely sure just how independent they are.

41 A Bonaparte January 7, 2018 at 3:54 pm

If Napolean had not conquered France, leading to the Lousiana Purchase, would there have been no Indian Removal Act and no american civil war? Is Napolean, therefore, responsible for the collapse of the Native American civilization?


42 Careless January 7, 2018 at 5:28 pm

Is Napolean, therefore, responsible for the collapse of the Native American civilization?

Seeing as it happened centuries before his birth…


43 Alistair January 7, 2018 at 5:42 pm

Casting his influence back in time was a mere bagatelle for the Man of Austerlitz and Jena.


44 athEIst January 7, 2018 at 6:53 pm

Napoleon almost conquered Europe but he did not “conquer” France.


45 Hwite January 7, 2018 at 7:01 pm

France still would have lost Louisiana, it just wouldn’t have gotten any money for it.


46 Hoosier January 7, 2018 at 4:14 pm

Underrated/overrated: Christopher Columbus?


47 Jeff R January 7, 2018 at 5:16 pm

What was the most important product that came to Europe from the New World? Potatoes? Rubber? Something else?

What should the Spanish have done differently?


48 Alistair January 7, 2018 at 5:43 pm

Lots of sparsely populated land suitable for farming and colonisation.


49 Jeff R January 7, 2018 at 7:23 pm

You’re not wrong, but that’s the answer to a different question than the one I asked.


50 Alistair January 8, 2018 at 5:47 am

Yeah, I know, it was tongue-in-cheek.

It’s hard to choose a transportable commodity that had the most impact, because the top candidates (sugar, potatoes, tobacco, cotton, maize) had markets which peaked at different points of time. Can we properly discount for time and compare market sizes?

I say “cotton”; for much the same reason as athEIst picks below. New World cotton drives the first industrial revolution from 1810. I _think_ (but can’t prove offhand) that it was an even bigger market than sugar in its heyday (though the latter may have been more _profitable_ given supply-side constraints in land).


51 athEIst January 7, 2018 at 7:28 pm

CHOCOLATE(cocoa) and sugar. Sugar wasn’t new world but the NW had the climate and land(and “imported labor”) to mass produce it. Dental health was much better in Antiquity and the middle ages when honey was the only concentrated sweet.


52 Alistair January 8, 2018 at 5:53 am

Interesting. Sugar was indeed wildly profitable and important. It’s certainly _the_ cash crop of the 17th/18th century (Cocoa less so until mid 19th century, when modern chocolate invented).

But I’d say “cotton” ultimately had a larger market than sugar even in its heyday. New World cotton and Lancashire mills actually changed the world through industrialisation effects and providing an “abundance” of clothing for the first time in human history. Sugar and Cocoa were luxury agricultural goods; highly desirable, but without secondary effects of social significance.


53 clockwork_prior January 8, 2018 at 6:32 am

‘It’s certainly _the_ cash crop of the 17th/18th century’

Virginian tobacco planters just might disagree with that perspective.


54 Alistair January 8, 2018 at 9:32 am

Yeah. Tobacco made a lot too. But I think sugar made more over that period…?

Certainly Britain regarded it’s Caribbean holdings as more important than Virginia. Would be good if we could find a source on the size of the two markets over time.

55 athEIst January 8, 2018 at 12:13 pm

After the Seven Years War, France had the choice of giving up its Caribbean Islands or (as Voltaire said, a few acres of snow)Canada. France ceded the snow and kept the sugar-producing islands.

HA HA, Canada has millions of acres of snow.

56 clockwork_prior January 9, 2018 at 8:38 am

‘But I think sugar made more over that period…?’

Undoubtedly, but as a cash crop, tobacco did not require anywhere near the same (let us be polite and call it) ‘capital intensity.’

57 Howard January 7, 2018 at 5:40 pm

I second Jeff R’s question (most important product…) and don’t overlook the obvious ones — silver gold tobacco.

But I’d like to press him a bit more on (what I understand from reviews is) his evenhandedness between Borlaug and Vogt. At what point can we say that Vogt’s point of view is discredited by evidence? Or is it always that “we were wrong about the timing, but the bad things we predicted are just around the corner?”


58 Alistair January 7, 2018 at 5:44 pm

>> “we were wrong about the timing, but the bad things we predicted are just around the corner?”

Yeah, well, obviously these people have never worked in fund management…..


59 E.P. January 7, 2018 at 6:09 pm

Not many people can interestingly riff on conspiracy theories (Van Daniken, Velikovsky, vaccinations, just to stick to the Vs). Is that because all but one or two conspiracy theories are midwit and boring, or because they are complicated, like a cheater’s chess game in Washington Square, but fundamentally dishonest and based on a narcissistic and fictional appropriation of isolated facts, and thus a waste of our time?


60 Borjigid January 7, 2018 at 7:22 pm

When is 1492 coming out?


61 Jeff R January 7, 2018 at 7:25 pm



62 Cheech January 7, 2018 at 8:16 pm

What’s the deal, Mann?


63 Jim January 7, 2018 at 9:12 pm

Please ask him about his article on the impact of Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” in the January issue of Smithsonian magazine. In it, he says the book “…contributed to a wave of population alarm…” and led to an upswing in population control initiatives in the third world by Planned Parenthood, the UN, and others. Does Charles believe that Ehrlich’s book and popularization of his ideas through Tonight Show appearances, etc. influenced the debate, or were PP, the UN, and others just using the publicity to fund raise and promote the work they wanted to do anyway?


64 kimock January 8, 2018 at 1:38 am

With the caveat that The Wizard and the Prophet remains on my reading list, I am curious how Mann imagines the Vogt-Borlaug differences playing out in contemporary and future environmental discourse, especially with respect to climate change.


65 clockwork_prior January 8, 2018 at 2:58 am

Ask him what he thinks about Chinese coal today, compared to his apparent prediction that China ‘will still bring online 1 large 500 MW coal plant *per week* from now until 2030,’ particularly in the light of Chinese efforts to get their severe air pollution problems under better control. http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/03/from-the-comments-charles-mann-on-chinese-coal.html


66 Alistair January 8, 2018 at 6:00 am

Well, as I think you know, the Chinese are retiring some older coal plants, but they’re still adding coal capacity at a fast rate _overall_. They’ve been pretty explicit that they see coal as being a big part of their mix until at least mid-century.

The metropolises of the seaboard are now rich enough to worry about air pollution and spend money to ameliorate it (and doing so bang-on the GDP/capita that we have come to expect – score a point for the development economics there!). But in the boondocks there is still a crushing lack of electricity for cooking/heating/lighting (and the pollution isn’t so bad). So they’re piling on the capacity there.


67 Alistair January 8, 2018 at 9:45 am

There’s actually much to agree with there. China is trading off a bit of growth for a slightly better environment. I’ve seen several article suggesting the same thing as you post here. In the coastal cities there may even be some small improvements.

The broader point is that there’s a threshold of wealth in environmental/development economics associated with serious attempts to improve air quality. It’s about $10k per capita (for water it is lower). Beijing and the coastal cities are bang on this number. So China is (so far) following the same get-rich-then-clean path we have seen in the developed world.


68 bmcburney January 8, 2018 at 11:23 am

Your book presents “wizards” and “prophets” in essentially “thesis vs anti-thesis” format and asks the reader to find a balance between them. But the people you describe as “wizards” have produced real world results which are frequently, and not inappropriately, described as “miracles” while the people you describe as “prophets” have produced nothing but predictions and, at least to date, all of their predictions (to the extent they are testable) have been wrong.

1. Does it fundamentally mislead readers to present what the “wizards” have actually done on equal terms with what the “prophets” have merely predicted (so far, inaccurately)? Doesn’t this give the “prophet” side an unearned advantage?

2. Haven’t the “prophets” gained a false degree of “scientific credibility” by misappropriate credibility gained by the successes of the “wizards”? Paul Ehrlich was a entomologist with specialist knowledge in butterflies and parasitic mites; James Hanson was an astronomer with expertise on Venus but with no training whatsoever in Earth science, meteorology or climatology; William Vogt was a bird expert. What was it that gave these men the credibility to opine on “science” outside of the areas of their actual expertise? Aren’t they all “anti-science” or “science-deniers” at least when compared to the “wizards”?

3. Isn’t the real “anti-thesis” for the “prophets” a “counter-prophet” like Bjorn Lomborg? In those terms, aren’t Lomborg’s predictions of improving environmental health proving more true and the “prophets” predictions of doom proving to be more false in the real world?


69 Larry Siegel January 8, 2018 at 11:55 pm

I regard Lomborg as a reporter and popularizer, and a very good one. The distinction between wizards and prophets is probably misspecified. Borlaug was indeed a wizard, but the rest of the guys you mentioned are baloney-slingers. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a prophet.


70 bmcburney January 9, 2018 at 11:48 am

Lomborg is trained as a statistician and has the qualifications necessary to use statistics to describe the world and its trends. A comprehensive failure to understand (or, perhaps, a tacit rejection of) statistical analysis is one of the main disabilities of the various “prophets” and their followers.


71 bmcburney January 9, 2018 at 12:04 pm

Indeed, Borlaug was a wizard and used what he called science to improve the world. Ehrlich and Vogt also claimed the mantle of science but rejected the actual science (and readily available statistics) on agricultural yields in their predictions. If Borlaug had made some stupid “anti-science” predictions about birds or butterflies, Ehrlich and Vogt presumably would have corrected his errors but I don’t think Borlaug would have claimed his errors were scientifically indisputable because of his eminence in an unrelated field.


72 Niroscience January 8, 2018 at 11:47 am

How much of the differences between the Canadian and American experiences (and futures) of their Indigenous populations is due to pre-contact factors or due to interactions between respective settlers/states?


73 Philip Neal January 8, 2018 at 1:38 pm

The old, old question. How could great civilisations crumble at the sight of a few men with guns and horses? Yes, I know the plagues helped.


74 Patrick January 8, 2018 at 2:12 pm

Both Vogt and Borlaug are American. Is this Wizard vs. Prophet tension greater in the United States than other countries, or is it just a reflection of America’s outsized influence (especially just after WW2) on international institutions?

Does this wizard versus prophet battle begin with the industrial revolution? Earlier or later? If earlier, who is the most important pre-industrial wizard? Pre-industrial prophet?


75 David Southerland January 8, 2018 at 5:28 pm

There was much to love in “1493,” many of his theories novel to me. I particularly liked his expansion of the Colombian Exchange to include China (and the impact of silver and sweet potatoes there). But the theory that has stayed with me is Mann’s assertion that the emergence of black slavery was a function of malaria’s impact on Indian slaves and European indentured servants, and that the line of where malaria stopped in North America happens to be more or less the Mason Dixon line. He also suggests that racism against African blacks followed slavery, and not the other way around. Would love to see how strong he feels about these ideas in an interview. Thanks!


76 Alistair January 9, 2018 at 5:57 am

>> He also suggests that racism against African blacks followed slavery, and not the other way around

Of course it did. There’s always social bias against minority groups used overwhelmingly for low-status labour. That’s a human universal, not the black thing.

There’s no black “racism” in the present sense in Europe circa 1600 – just normal outgroup aversion. Africans are fitted into the same mental basket as Moors, Indians, Saracens, Tartars and Chinamen; exotic and distant, possibly dangerous, uncivilised and un-Christian, but a part of mankind established by Divine ordinance. It takes the institution of slavery to really establish disdain.


77 danexmachina January 11, 2018 at 11:25 am

Or Christianity, by those examples…;)


78 Roger Sweeny January 9, 2018 at 9:46 am

Does his new book deal with Georgescu-Roegen (as in the post “Georgescu-Roegen vs. Henry George vs. Wakefield vs. Solow by Tyler Cowen on January 9, 2018 at 12:05 am”)?


79 Zach S January 9, 2018 at 12:27 pm

What is the most surprising/interesting idea from both the Borlaug and the Vogt camps today?


80 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:19 pm

What would life be like without vanilla & chocolate, chili peppers tomatoes and potatoes?


81 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:26 pm

Coffee, Redwoods, and Maize


82 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:39 pm

Rubber Trees, Avocado, and Sugar Maple syrup


83 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:43 pm

muskellunge, pike, and yellow perch


84 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:44 pm

rainbow trout, tobacco, and sassafras


85 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:47 pm

beaver (out the yingyang) small & largemouth bass, sunnies & frogs


86 Mc January 9, 2018 at 7:48 pm

many trees, many, many gorgeous trees, mast sails, oysters, and clams


87 Mc January 9, 2018 at 8:00 pm

somewhere in beer history in europe, is a yeast that came from south america, look it up lil f o’s


88 danexmachina January 11, 2018 at 11:29 am

What factors kept Rodale and Weston Price from being greater influences on health and agriculture?


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