Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Axis of Inequality!

Hello from Denver, CO, history fans!

So far my travels have not led to very exciting historical sites, but I did get to see the falls of Sioux Falls. And tomorrow we are heading to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. These are more geographic marvels than historical landmarks, but exciting nonetheless.

But for this post, I want to focus on axises. Axii?

I have been slowly making my way through Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. There is an awful lot of information to discuss. If you don't know the purpose of the book, let me enlighten you. Diamond is trying to answer the difficult question of why some societies overtook others, why peoples on one continent developed certain technologies before others. I hesitate to use the word evolve because that implies that there is a standard. Why, he asks, did societies progress as they did at different speeds?

History has shown as that the people of Eurasia have ruled the world for a good long while. What is the reason behind the enslavement of Africans, the destruction of Native Americans, the oppression of Aboriginal Australians. Why were the Europeans the big bullies? Diamond spells out very specifically that it was NOT because some people were inherently more advanced or superior. And although there are many factors that go into answer these questions, it really comes down to one area: geography. Of course it branches out from there. But geography is so vital. Why, you may ask? Well let me tell you.

Let's look at the geography of our 4 major land masses: Eurasia, The Americas, Africa, and Australia. The biggest of these is Eurasia. It also is home to the Fertile Crescent, the most lucrative geographical area when it comes to food production. Because of the Fertile Crescent's geography, it provided the necessary wild crops to its inhabitants who then domesticated them. The domestication of crops meant that the people there no longer needed to live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Instead, they could live in one place and grow larger families because they had the means to do so. Suddenly, there was a larger population in a small area such as had never been known. Do you see how geography set the stage for such an incredible phenomenon? It had nothing to do with the people who lived there. It had everything to do with the land. The Fertile Crescent provided a wider variety of crops than any of the other continents could offer. Also, Eurasia had more large mammals that could be domesticated. The Americas had very few options as far as large mammals were concerned. Africa, on the other hand, had plenty of large mammals but very few met the criteria for domestication.
Australia, unfortunately, was so isolated from everything that hardly anything applies to this continent. It's like your dummy little brother who has to take remedial classes and can't seem to pass the freshman math class.

So what about those axises?

Look at the major axis of each land mass. Both the Americas and Africa have north to south axises. But Eurasia has an east to west axis. I mean, as far as the landmass is concerned. This means that food production, and technologies, and other inventions and innovations could travel much easier in Eurasia than in the other two continents. This is because as you go east to west, though the terrain may differ slightly, the days are relatively the same length and the climate is not too incredibly different. I mean, you start in Western Europe and travel east and you don't encounter too much of a different climate or biome until you get to desert in China.

But in the other two continents with their north to south axises, the food production, ideas, and technologies can't travel as well. North Africa received many of the same ideas and innovations that Europe had, but it could not travel south very well because of the Sahara Desert. Then as you push past the Sahara, you get to intense rain forest. The length of days varies as one goes north or south and food can't grow the same way.
For instance, corn grew abundantly in Mesoamerica. The Mexican climate was ideal for growing the crop. But travel north to Canada and try to plant the corn. The days are shorter and the winters are much longer. It would take a while to experiment with how to successfully grow corn in that northern climate. And much like Africa, the Americas had its share of geographic obstacles, such as the desert in the southwest, the Andes in South America, and the extreme climates that stretched from the Mississippi valleys to the Mayan Empire.

I don't know if you find this as fascinating as I do. And I really butchered Diamonds words. The concept, however, is so interesting to me. Geography dictating societies and history. And it's intriguing and a little horrifying to learn that there isn't a standard to which people and societies evolved. Some cultures accepted technologies while other discarded them. Many of these technologies were invented without a cause and were later adopted for different uses. Other cultures, for whatever reasons, denied access to these technologies. Diamond explains this very beautifully and I won't try to recount it.

So, the next time you get angry at the Europeans for destroying the world, think about what you've learned about axises and get angry at geography instead!

Just kidding, geography never handed out blankets infected with smallpox.

But it's nice to remind yourself that you and your culture are no better or more advanced than the people in New Guinea or sub-Sahara Africa. We grew out of what was around. Our cultures are different and rightly so. Different strokes for different folks!

Until next time!

No comments: