Book Review

Whitewater Rafting Through History


Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement

Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History

The Measure Of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600

Ecological Imperialism:The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900

Al Crosby seeks answers to the big questions. How did Western Europeans come to dominate vast reaches of the earth during the last 500 years? Or even bigger–how did Homo sapiens come to dominate the earth?

Crosby, a professor emeritus of American Studies, History and Geography at UT-Austin, is not one of your more traditional academic historians, who might chart very narrow paths to constricted subjects in order to display their studied expertise. Nope. In the Lewis Mumford tradition, Alfred Crosby wants all the apparent contradictions and interpenetrations of life on this planet to come rushing in, so he can see what he can make of them.

“I found myself producing big answers because I was only interested in big questions,” Crosby told me in a recent interview. “Life is too short to piddle away oneself on trivia.”

Opening a book by Crosby is like whitewater rafting through history. It’s well-written, sometimes humorous, and it will change the way you see the world.

In 1972, after an earlier book on trade, Crosby published The Columbian Exchange, which he describes as “a book about the exchange of life forms–people, germs, plants, animals–between the New and Old Worlds after 1492.” The book was a turning point in his own career, but it also had a profound influence on the histories of the New World that came after.

“When I first thought of it, I was sure that the subject must have been done to death already,” he told me. “When I discovered that wasn’t true, I realized that I was, by default, the world’s leading expert on the subject.” (More than 100,000 copies of the book have been sold, and a new edition is scheduled to come out next year.)

This led to the publication in 1986 of Ecological Imperialism. In this work, Crosby explores the roots of European hegemony in what he terms the “Neo-Europes”–the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. “Perhaps European humans have triumphed because of their superiority in arms, organization, and fanaticism,” he writes in the book’s prologue, “but what in heaven’s name is the reason that the sun never sets on the empire of the dandelion? Perhaps the success of European imperialism has a biological, an ecological, component.”

Having said this, Crosby then sets out to show that superiority in arms, organization, and fanaticism may not even have been the controlling factors in the dominance of European humans. A critical factor for Crosby is the location of most of the Neo-European lands in temperate zones, like most of Europe, thereby making them hospitable to humans, plants, and animals from Europe. The staples of European life, wheat and cattle, do best in the temperate latitudes.

Crosby has a theory that the transformation of the Neo-Europes was the result of two invasions by Homo sapiens. The first occurred in the period between the crossing of humans into Australia about 40,000 years ago and the melting of the remnants of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. During that period humans populated Australia and neighboring islands and later crossed the tundra bridge from Siberia into the Americas. In both regions, the human invasions coincided with the extinction of many large mammals, including mammoths, mastodons, giant buffalos, and horses in the Americas. Much of this disappearance may be attributed to human hunting skill, including the use of fire, and the defenselessness of animals unfamiliar with these two-footed hunters. But the hunters were only part of the story. The parasites and pathogens they brought with them were probably major contributors to the transformation of the American and Australian eco-systems.

With the Neo-Europes once again isolated by rising oceans, Crosby considers the differing rates of evolution of the Old World and New World civilizations. He concludes that population pressures drove the more rapid rise of Old World civilizations, which were based on “the direct control and exploitation of many species for the sake of one: Homo sapiens.” This included the domestication of lentils, barley, wheat, sheep, pigs, goats, then cattle, horses, and camels. Stable civilization produced concentrations of garbage, leading to the rapid multiplication of rats, mice, roaches, houseflies, and mosquitoes and the diseases they carried. The close proximity of humans to each other and to animals provided the breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, including smallpox, measles, and influenza.

For nearly 10,000 years, East was East and West was West until the Conquest began, fueled by population growth and technological advances. The Europeans appeared on American shores with horses and advanced weaponry. But they also brought crops and weeds, cattle and pigs, European honeybees and a multitude of diseases. Smallpox reached the island of Española in 1518 and was reported in both the Great Lakes and the Argentine Pampas by the 1520s and ’30s. An infected soldier in Cortés’s forces brought the disease to Mexico. It killed a large portion of the Aztecs and the Incas in Peru. “The miraculous triumphs of that conquistador [Pizarro, in Peru], and of Cortés,… are in large part the triumphs of the virus of smallpox.” In the 1630s and ’40s it was reported to have killed half the Huron and Iroquois populations. In the early 1800s, it was reported to have destroyed half the indigenous population between the Missouri River and New Mexico.

The invading Europeans also brought dysentery and respiratory diseases that wiped out huge numbers of people. When Hernando de Soto plowed through the southeastern corner of North America, his troops reported dense population centers, large-scale farming, temples on low pyramids, and a rigid social structure. By 1700, the region was virtually vacant. Wilderness had replaced fields, and buffalo were plentiful where before there were none. Epidemics, brought by the Spaniards and their animals, had wiped out almost all the human population of the region. “The exchange of infectious diseases… between the Old World and its American and Australasian colonies has been wondrously one-sided,” Crosby concluded.

Once the Europeans had cleared a path through intentional and unintentional genocide, the European population in the Americas and Australia exploded, fueled by relative good health, the availability of food, and expanding population pressures back home. The productive lands of the Neo-Europes became the largest source of food surpluses, as well as raw materials for European industry. Most of the world’s wheat, soybeans, mutton, and beef come from Neo-Europe. Consequently, food produced in Neo-Europe fed the Europeans so well that their population growth forced continual migration to Neo-Europe. European hegemony in the New World was solidified.

With the completion of Ecological Imperialism, Crosby’s obsession with European dominance wasn’t entirely satisfied. There were more questions that needed asking.

“In the year 1000,” Crosby told me, “Europeans were hicks at the far western extreme of the swath of civilized societies that stretched from Portugal and Morocco to China and Japan. Five hundred years later, they went bonkers. They burst out of Europe and crossed the oceans. They built world-wide empires, achieved stunning advances in science and technology, had themselves an industrial revolution, exported millions of people, damn near destroyed themselves in two World Wars. It has been as if Idaho leaped to domination of the whole USA. How could anyone not be intrigued by such phenomena?”

So in 1997 Crosby published The Measure of Reality, in order to look at the development of European dominance in new ways. “…as I played out my role as a biological determinist,” Crosby writes in the book’s preface, “I was nagged by the impression that Europeans were incomparably successful at sending ships across oceans to predetermined destinations and at arriving at those destinations with superior weaponry… Europeans were not as magnificent as they believed, but they were able to organize large collections of people and capital and to exploit physical reality for useful knowledge and for power more efficiently than any other people of the time. Why?”

Then he proceeds to try to answer this large question. Through the course of this book, he develops his thesis that Western Europeans moved inexorably, beginning around 1250, from an experiential and qualitative understanding of the universe to a measured, quantitative understanding. It’s a universe in which vision rules the senses and abstract thinking and the birth of new technologies are tightly meshed. The shift that enabled European dominance, Crosby writes, was a shift in “habits of thought… what French historians have called mentalité.”

This shift was accompanied by a shift in social and cultural institutions. Painting gained perspective. Music could be written and measured on a page. Battles could be choreographed. Universities were created to define and quantify learning. Between 1275 and 1325, Europe’s first mechanical clock and first cannon appeared, “devices that obliged Europeans to think in terms of quantified time and space.” At about the same time, Europe also saw the emergence of double-entry bookkeeping and marine charts.

Crosby examines the increased use of alphabetization and Hindu-Arabic numerals, the increasingly international nature of European marketplaces, and the rise of monetization and the abstraction of value. The invention of the mechanical clock and its prominence in European towns “taught [Europeans] that invisible, inaudible, seamless time was composed of quanta.” As with time, so it was with space. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century mathematicians and philosophers, including Copernicus, defied the Church’s definition of the hierarchical, static, earth-centered universe and put the sun at its center. This quickly led to the quantification of space, the measurement of distance between stars, and the more accurate measurement of distances on earth. Mathematics grew by leaps and bounds to keep up with the increasing need for quantification and then to reinforce a growing belief that reality was mathematical and could be expressed in numbers.

The fine arts of the time reflected these changes in habits of thought. “Music,” writes Crosby, “is a physically measurable phenomenon moving through time.” While music around the world corresponded to certain belief systems about time and to the rhythms of the music makers, only Western music of the second millennium A.D. was measured, metered, and totally prescribed for performance. Giotto and his contemporaries brought a more “realistic” perspective to what had previously been iconographic painting. Over the next two centuries that evolved into a melding of art and geometry. Renaissance painting raised the importance of visual perspective to a position of cultural pre-eminence.

A universe perceived visually and quantified could be a universe to be manipulated. The habits of thought developed in Western Europe in the middle of the second millennium A.D. were at the heart of the development of advanced technology for weaponry, for sailing, and ultimately for conquest.

Which brings us to Alfred Crosby’s most recent work: Throwing Fire. Here, Crosby explores the idea that our ancestors’ ability to walk erectly and throw accurately enabled the development of abstract thought, resulting in the eventual domination of the world by Homo sapiens.

For Crosby, there’s a pretty clear continuum from throwing a javelin to nuclear confrontation. Between three and four million years ago, our Australopithecine ancestors were walking erectly, had shorter arms than their knuckle-dragging cousins and, therefore, were able to carry food, fire, and children across considerable distances, increasing their ability to adapt, survive, and cooperate.

As time progressed, they also perfected their ability to throw accurately, having inherited shoulder and wrist joints from tree swingers that made this possible. Unlike all other animals, these ancestors found they were able to determine action at a distance. With such an ability, those who could think abstractly, who could calculate the arc of a throw to bring down a food source or to drive away an enemy, survived best. From that point, Crosby believes, you can draw a perfect arc to our world.

Some time around 100,000 years ago, early Homo sapiens were using spears to kill good-sized mammals. Then, beginning about 40,000 years ago, half the varieties of the world’s large animals ceased to exist. It was also the beginning of the end for the world’s Neanderthal population.

Crosby believes this extinction of a number of mammals, including our own cousins, is the result of climate changes, a human population explosion, and advances in human weaponry. Devices similar to the Aztec atlatl appeared that could accurately hurl spears and arrows with great force over long distances. Even 40,000 years ago, our ancestors were endangering species, including their own. Because humans had harnessed fire for cooking and ate both plants and animals, they could survive well despite the extinction of some of their chief food sources. As the most adaptable of species, humans have, thus far, been able to evolve culturally, if not genetically, to changes in their environment and food supply.

Humans controlled fire not only for cooking but also to drive out enemies and to ambush food. This required strategic planning and a good deal of imagination. Combining humans’ ability to throw and to manipulate fire–by throwing fire–has been the basis of warfare ever since.

Humans are the only animals for whom combat is not always mano-a-mano and face-to-face. Catapults, arrows, rifles, cannons, and missiles are all means to effect action at a distance, all means to kill an enemy who is, to greater or lesser degrees, abstract. Crosby describes the invention of missile-launched nuclear weapons as a way “to indulge [the] primal urge to cultivate the means to throw big things a long way.”

“Homo sapiens is arguably the only species that commits genocide,” writes Crosby, “which might easily extend in practice to species suicide.” In creating nuclear weapons, Crosby writes, “humans had at long last invented weapons dreadful enough to frighten their makers into at least temporary restraint and sanity.”

Crosby concludes that the ability to effect changes at a distance allowed our ancestors to survive and flourish on the African savannah. But, carried to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion, “projectile technology [also] reinforces the human sense of specialness and separateness, and tempts us to think of ourselves as apart from the biosphere.” That way, as Lear says, madness lies.

In these books, Crosby gives us an understanding of human history as the evolution of habits of thought, coupled with technological advances, and tied inevitably to the unintended and uncontrollable consequences of human actions. I asked Crosby about those consequences.

“The intended consequences are usually immediately achieved (or not),” he said. “Ford produces a good, cheap automobile, puts America on the road, and makes a lot of money. The unintended go on and on. L.A. chokes on smog. The world price of oil depends on the Middle East. George Bush the First sends American troops into battle to save Kuwait. It’s a place on top of a lot of petroleum.

“We must learn to appreciate what ‘progress’ has cost us. We must look steadily at our past and accept that our triumphs cost a lot, cost some peoples everything. We must learn that there are no real freebies: that we are blind to unintended consequences and must
always hedge our bets. We must accept that we owe our grandchildren a life.”

Geoff Rips is a former editor of the Observer.