Why Rhino-Mounted Bantu Never Sacked Rome

Armand Marie Leroi

  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
    Cape, 480 pp, £18.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 224 03809 5
  • Why is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond
    Weidenfeld, 176 pp, £11.99, July 1997, ISBN 0 297 81775 2

The Martiniquan poet and ideologue of négritude, Aimé Césaire, celebrated the sons and daughters of Africa as

Ceux qui n’ont inventé ni la poudre ni la boussole
ceux qui n’ont jamais su dompter la vapeur ni l’électricité
ceux qui n’ont exploré ni les mers ni le ciel

Césaire was too modest. Not only did Africans south of the Sahara fail to invent gunpowder, the compass, gas and electricity: they failed to invent, or even acquire in precolonial times, writing, the yoke, the plough and the wheel. Césaire thought this was all to the good, but others have felt anguish over it. ‘How the Negro has lived through so many ages without advancing seems marvellous, when all the countries surrounding Africa are so forward in comparison,’ John Speke, discoverer of the source of the White Nile, observed. Very much a man of his time, Speke was necessarily less aware than we are today of the diversity of African societies, their extraordinary artistic wealth, and the antiquity of their trade with the world beyond. Yet there is no doubt that Césaire and Speke, each in his own way, got this much right: away from the coastal fringes, life in a traditional sub-Saharan African village was low-tech, and would hardly appear less so were the comparison with Europe in the age of Hadrian rather than that of Victoria.

Speke had no truck with the idea that African backwardness was due to a want of innate ability among Africans; rather, he saw them as being cut off from the main stream of civilisation; what they needed, he believed, was a bit of the Raj. Which, speaking generally, is what they got, as did most of the world before them. It is now hardly possible for a citizen of one of the former colonial powers to consider the past five hundred years of global history without a raking sense of shame for all that was destroyed in the era of European expansion. Leafing through the atlases of a previous generation, we may draw comfort from the thought that all the pink bits (and other hues of Empire) once displayed with such pride were to vanish rather quickly. Yet their very presence, symbolic of the innumerable battles in which a handful of small European nations engaged and conquered the world, leaves us with a profound historical puzzle: why did Europeans always win?

There is, of course, an easy answer: Pizzarro had the cannon that Atahualpa did not; Lugard had the Maxim-Nordfeldts that brought Mwanga to the table. Nor was it just a matter of guns, but of horses, compasses, ocean-faring ships, indeed, the entire social, economic, ideological and technological package that brought Europe to global supremacy. But it is by no means obvious, except in retrospect, that such a package should have been assembled by Europeans rather than, say, the Waganda whom Speke befriended. To put the matter in these terms is to reveal a void at the heart of historical explanation, a rarely asked and hence largely unanswered question: over the past 10,000 years, why did some societies develop in size, complexity and, most of all, power, while others did not?

Jared Diamond has written a book to answer this question. He is a remarkable man: as much a natural philosopher as a scientist, he has studied the digestive systems of Burmese pythons, described a new species of flightless bird, and written on the biogeography of New Guinea, the evolution of languages, the true reasons Mayans gave each other enemas, and many other, equally absorbing topics. The possessor of an endlessly fertile mind, his books drop faster than they can be reviewed. (His latest, Why is Sex Fun?, is about the evolution of sex, and is a blend of natural history, comparative anthropology and evolutionary speculation, the like of which has not been seen since The Naked Ape.) In Guns, Germs and Steel he has set out to show historians how to do history. His project is one of great daring; the questions he asks are important, and the solutions he gives so simple we can only wonder that they have not been offered before. The book is an attempt to transcend the peculiarities of politics and culture and find the general laws that explain the fate of human societies, the reasons some have triumphed and others become casualties in the last 13,000 years of human endeavour. It is a book for anyone who has suspected that the course of history can be explained in terms of simple causal hypotheses of the type that prevail in the natural sciences, that those hypotheses can be tested, and that history is not a subject which need be restricted to particularist accounts or else refashioned in each generation to fit some current theory.

When two scholars, writing at opposite ends of a century, begin their books by attacking the same misconceptions, it is likely that their subject has advanced very little in between.

The most popular of the idols that have been set up by this rather priggish and pedantic school of superstition [racial science] is ‘Nordic Man’, the xanthotrichous, glaucopian, dolichocephalic variety of Homo leucodermaticus whose pet name (given him by Nietzsche) is the ‘Blond Beast’.

Thus Arnold Toynbee in the opening volume of his magisterial (and misguided) Study of History (1933). Toynbee sought to explain why civilisations rise and fall, but before he could do so he had to deal with the theorists of the Herrenvolk. Diamond has to deal with their epigones, the theorists of race and IQ, and faces the same intellectual lacunae:

We’re assured that the seemingly transparent biological explanation for the world’s inequalities as of AD 1500 is wrong, but we’re not told what the correct explanation is. Until we have some convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the brood pattern of history, most people will continue to suspect that the racist biological explanation is correct after all.

So what is the explanation? Diamond argues that the causes of global inequality are ancient; they may go back 50,000 years to the time when modern humans began to fan out over the Earth. As continent after continent was settled, the earliest humans drew, as it were, tickets in a lottery. For the winners all would be movement: farms, draught animals, cities, kingdoms and, finally, empires. For the losers there would be stasis, or nearly so; millennia in the Stone Age which would cease only with their conquest and, sometimes, annihilation. The tickets they drew were the territories over which they strode; for Diamond, geography is fate.

Geography affects human societies in three ways. First, by the quantity and quality of plants and animals that are available for domestication. Some continents were biologically impoverished when humans arrived on them; others were swiftly made so by the action of early hunters (Diamond is a persuasive advocate of the ‘overkill’ hypothesis for the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna in Australasia and the Americas). In such continents social evolution stalled until suitable domesticates arrived from elsewhere. Second, by size. The larger the territory, the more people it is likely to support, and the greater the chance that social and technological innovations will arise and be retained; there are numerous examples of isolated island populations simply forgetting the most rudimentary technological skills (Diamond cites the case of the Tasmanian Aborigines, who lost the art of making barbed spears, bone tools, boomerangs, ground stone tools, hooks, nets, pronged spears, traps and, most remarkably, fire – all skills found among continental Aborigines). Third, by the topography and orientation of landmasses. Domesticated plants and animals are necessarily suited to a limited range of climates, and climate is strongly influenced by latitude. Those landmasses, notably Eurasia, which are oriented on an east-west axis have vast areas suited to a given domesticate or cultivar, and such innovations spread rapidly across them. In contrast, north-south continents, such as South America, cross many climatic zones: a Meso-American crop is likely to be useless in the tropical Amazon basin and even more so on the Patagonian pampas. The importance of diffusion is nowhere more apparent than in the history of Europe, which received many domesticates from south-west Asia (emmer wheat, barley, rye, sheep, goats). Finally, there is the influence of geography on the spread of technology: China gave much to Europe; Egypt gave little to Great Zimbabwe.

These arguments are compelling. There is no theory of social evolution which does not have farming as the sine qua non of population growth and the rise of civilisations. It is easy to see why peoples who acquire farming late, or not at all, fall prey to those who have had it for millennia. Yet Diamond has set himself a formidable task; there is so much inequality in the world, and one wonders how much of it he has, in fact, explained.

It is an irony that both Diamond and his shadowy opponents, the mavins of race and IQ, draw inspiration from the work of Francis Galton, Darwin’s idiosyncratically brilliant cousin. Galton not only coined the term ‘eugenics’, he also had ideas about animal domestication. In 1865 he suggested that, in the course of history, the animals of the world had been tested over and over again for their potential as domesticates, and that all but a few had been found wanting. A good domesticate, Galton said, must be hardy, comfort-loving, breed freely in captivity, be easy to tend, have an inborn liking for man and, most of all, be ‘useful to the savages’.

Such Galtonian species, Diamond maintains, were, quite by chance, remarkably common in Eurasia, source of 13 of the 14 large herbivores that have a long history of domestication (including the ‘major five’: sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse) and, more important for the course of history, entirely lacking in the rest of the world (the exception being the Andean guanaco, ancestor to the llama and the alpaca). Biologically speaking, Africa, Australia and, to a lesser degree, the Americas were out of luck: they had to acquire their domestic animals from elsewhere. The auroch, ancestor to the modern cow, was domesticated in Asia about 8000 BC, but only reached sub-Saharan Africa around 2500 BC, and even then progress down the continent was slowed by tsetse flies, which carry a virulent cattle disease. By the time cattle-herding culture had reached the Cape in 100 AD, African political and technological culture was already hopelessly behind.

Why didn’t Africans domesticate animals themselves? Humans have been longer in Africa than any other continent, and Diamond knows that, from Addax to Zebra, Africa is a continent of large herbivores, some 51 species in all. All of these, Diamond asserts, were undomesticable – buffaloes are mean, zebras bite their keepers, gazelles jump high – which is why the veldt never resounded to the thunder of rhino-mounted Bantu en route to Rome. I have my doubts. We know that at least some African animals are both tameable and domesticable. In the early 1890s it was the favourite amusement of the remarkable 2nd Lord Rothschild to drive a carriage set to an elegant quartet of Burchell’s zebras down Piccadilly and into the courtyard of Buckingham Palace. That these lovely creatures can be broken in should come as no surprise, for their social behaviour is very like that of feral domestic horses: males form non-territorial dominance hierarchies and so allow themselves to be grouped together and led, as in harness or in cavalry. To be sure, one of Lord Rothschild’s zebras killed a groom, but that’s a poor reason to scratch them from the Domestication Derby; doubtless numerous Neolithic casualties were incurred in the evolution of the once wild, and now extinct, Equus ferus to the more tractable creature that powered the chariots of Indo-European expansion.

Pigs, too, are problematic. The Eurasian wild boar has been domesticated repeatedly, its solitary habits and nasty disposition notwithstanding. This is almost certainly because of its tendency to rootle in the crops and the garbage of human settlements, a fondness that it shares with its African cousin, the bushpig. Why was the bushpig not domesticated? Diamond does not say, and we may ask the same question of the eland and the oryx, two large African antelope, that have been much studied and promoted this century as the perfect animals to replace the scrawny cattle of the African landscape. That oryx farming hasn’t caught on in modern Africa is due less to any deficiencies in the temperament or constitution of these scimitar-horned animals than to a ubiquitous pastoral culture which measures wealth in cattle. To make his case, Diamond has to show that each of Africa’s large herbivores labours under some disadvantage compared to its Eurasian counterparts, and he doesn’t even attempt to do this. He is rather like a disgruntled investor who, anguishing over the failure of a Belgian ostrich farm, puts the blame on the birds themselves.

All this highlights a problem with Guns, Germs and Steel: for all its vast scope, or perhaps because of that scope, it is an unscholarly book. It relies too much on blunt assertion and telling anecdote, too little on numbers. It contains no statistics, despite the fact that Diamond’s thesis depends on a quantitative argument that has not been presented in scholarly form anywhere else. What is more, the absence of inferential statistics enables him to indulge in some numerical sleight of hand. Was the origin of so many domesticates in Eurasia a matter of mere good fortune? I calculate (from his Table 9.2) the probability of 13 animal species suitable for domestication occurring in Eurasia, and none in Africa, by chance alone as being around 0.003. If we accept conventional levels of statistical inference, Diamond’s hypothesis is falsified; the disparity must have some other explanation.

This doesn’t mean that the general kind of argument proposed by Diamond is irredeemably flawed; far from it. And I have deliberately picked on Africa, the continent for which his thesis is weakest. Diamond is a man with a deep love and knowledge of Australasia, and when he considers this part of the world his book is both absorbing and convincing. Here the puzzle of unequal development is posed at its starkest. On one side of the Torres Straits is the vast landmass of Australia, inhabited for at least 40,000 years by a people who never developed any form of agriculture and with a hunting technology no more complicated than the woomera, a device for throwing spears. On the other side, only ten miles away, lie the islands of the New Guinea archipelago, inhabited by peoples who had gardens, pigs, pottery and bows and arrows. There was plenty of contact between the Australians and the New Guineans, yet the only New Guinean technology that diffused far into Australia was the fish-hook made of shell. This, Diamond explains, is because the inhospitable climate of Australia was unsuited for New Guinean farming methods; even the islands closest to Australia were but feeble outposts of a sophisticated farming culture that flourished on New Guinea itself. Since Australia is the smallest and most biologically depauperate of the continents (bar Antarctica), the raw materials on which to base a native agrarian or pastoral society were simply not there, and so the Aborigines stalled in the Stone Age. This argument, if correct, is profoundly important, for the Aborigines, more than any other people, have long suffered the suspicion that they are a slightly wayward branch of Homo sapiens sapiens. Molecular genetic data show that they are, in fact, much more closely related to the Chinese than are Europeans. Diamond has now explained how these peoples, distinct for only 50,000 years, came to occupy the opposite extremes of social and technological organisation.

In the final chapter, Diamond sketches a science of human history. He is well aware that the causal motors of traditional history – politics, culture, economics – do, at some level, at some times, matter. It is just that he thinks these are best left to explain the residuum of events not explained by biogeography. In fact he seems never to have met a historical event that is not explained by geography. In the early 15th century, China mounted a series of long-range trading voyages under the command of the daring eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. It was an enterprise that dwarfed the later European voyages of exploration. The Chinese fleet got as far as Malindi in East Africa, possibly even further; and the halting of these voyages after 1433 was, it is often said, one of the great contingencies of history: had neo-Confucian anti-commercialism and xenophobia not prevailed at the Ming court, or the Imperial exchequer not run dry, global history would have been quite other than it was. So the Sinologists say, at least. Diamond, however, just sees coastlines. The coast of China has few bays, islands and peninsulas: had it been as bumpy as Europe’s, China would have been a host of states rather than a unified empire; the eunuch admiral could have shopped about for another princely patron (rather as Columbus did) instead of languishing on the beach; and Europe might well have been a Chinese colony.

The causal fragility of this argument leaves one breathless, as does the swiftness with which a historical law is conjured out of a single comparison. Even if bumpy continental coastlines were an ultimate cause of global maritime empires, how would we know? It is a case of history having been stingy, as it so often is, with natural experiments. This, more than anything, limits a science of history, for when causes are sought for unique events only one-damn-fact-after-another narrative remains. It’s why historians do what they do. But enough. A new science of history deserves nurturing rather than stifling, and Guns, Germs and Steel deserves to be read for the audacity of purpose and clarity of thought its author brings to the cause of historical explanation.