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Walton Presentation

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Alexis Miller

on 30 April 2013

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Transcript of Walton Presentation

A Comparative Assessment of Jared Diamond’s Explanation of Inequality by Andrew Walton Alexis D. Miller Based on Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel Introduction The importance of bio-geography in shaping the contemporary world is unquestionable, but Diamond has given it too much weight to a subject that has multiple causes, many of which cannot be accounted for by the physical environment. the definition of inequality used here is that of the disparity between regions. the subject of responses to inequality must be raised This is connected to the fact that Diamond’s focus is on the broad course of history, not the complex picture of the globalized world Guns Germs and Steel Diamond’s explanation of inequality is neatly summed up in his epilogue. He notes four key sets of variables. First, there were ‘continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication The second factor favoring Eurasia was ‘its east-west major axis and its relatively modest ecological and geographical barriers’, which greatly enhanced the possibility of ‘diffusion and migration’ Connected to this is a third factor: the possibility of inter-continental diffusion Lastly, area and total population size have been influential The Factual Problem Without more conclusive evidence of innate intelligence’ Diamond’s claims that humans were generally equally apt to change their own environments, endowments allowing, cannot be decisively refuted. Blaut argues that the dates of Fertile Crescent food production are not yet proven, and that the claim about superior value of their crops is scientifically untenable Blaut also notes that in some cases ‘animals came into use as a consequence of the development of surplus-producing agriculture, not as a cause of it’ the notion of ecological constraints to north-south crop diffusion are questionable in light of evidence that maize originating in Peru was planted in Canada before European arrival Blaut continues his question of farming animals by highlighting that ‘Diamond can only show that the species that were domesticable were suitable for domestication’ The Cultural Critique and Disparity in Eurasia When questioning inequality Yali does not ask why Eurasia developed first, he asks why ‘you white people’ did. This will focus first on comparisons with China which easily rivals the length of European history. Diamond highlights China’s political unity, a product of their less indented coastline and lack of outlier islands, and determining that government decisions affected the whole land In contrast, Europe’s political fragmentation allowed Columbus to turn to seven different monarchs before finally receiving backing for his exploration of the world Once America had been discovered, close geographical competition meant that avoiding seafaring would disadvantage any of Europe’s major powers Unification and lack of nearby competition, then, meant that Chinese development suffered from ‘a typical aberration in local politics’. Pomeranz notes that it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that Europe was outstripping China in production and economic efficiency McNeill describes a series of social uprisings over opium smoking and land holdings beginning in this period and culminating in the Taiping rebellion that ‘worsened the economic condition of the country as a whole’ Accordingly Landes asserts that the key constraints to Chinese development were political traditions – a culture seeking to maintain Chinese superiority was naturally unwilling to accept beneficial technological improvements from foreigners Frank argues that without American silver, and also the transatlantic markets colonization generated, the Europeans would not have been able to ‘purchase a seat’ in the markets of the much further developed Chinese These criticisms seem perhaps even stronger when contrasted with events in Europe, most notably the Industrial Revolution. Diamond downplays this phenomenon using one sentence to argue that ‘water and wind power had begun already in medieval times’ The steam engine, Goldstone argues, was the key turning point; England was merely on course for an ‘efflorescence’ The Cultural Critique and the decline of the Fertile Cresent Fragility, Diamond claims, meant that after deforesting for early food production they could not continue to use the land for the same purposes; most of it turned to desert While they were an early center for food production, this fact contributes little to understanding the wealth of the region today, that is mainly based on oil. McNeill’s claim that the result of their writings was ‘to throttle almost all innovation in Muslim science and philosophy’ can surely not go unacknowledged Culture and Colonialism Diamond’s account of inequality in the colonial encounters of Europe and America is really an explanation of how but not why The importance of news of treasure in the New World returning to Spain seems somewhat insignificant without the motive of wealth emphasized by an individualism- orientated capitalist society. Without the influence of the European drive for wealth and desire to dominate, the historical evolution of inequality could look very different; it is certainly not explained merely by the disparities in power between the colonizers and the colonized. Pre-Modern History and Human Willpower Much less is known of cultural characteristics of pre-modern society This leads us to an important philosophical question: does it matter whether a people could choose differently, or whether they would have chosen differently if they could have done? The Khoisan people of South Africa are claimed by Diamond to have not adopted the crop Xhosa due to environmental constraints. Blaut points out though that there are areas of the Khoisan lands that would have been accommodating to the crop. Instead, he argues, ‘they chose to remain pastoralists’ Inconclusive Conclusions Culture has played an enormous role in shaping the world trends towards disparity. This can be seen most notably in the European-Chinese divergence but was undoubtedly also significant in the decline of the Fertile Crescent, the rationale of colonialism, and perhaps even in the very first societies. This is not to dismiss the idea that environmental factors were important in shaping the potential capabilities of different peoples; it merely asserts culture as more than ‘history’s wild card’. The impact of culture is naturally context specific and subject to different interpretations.
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