Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"The Columbian Exchange" by Alfred Crosby (1972)

There is a channel on YouTube called "Crash Course." John and Hank Green host this educational channel and they cover a variety of topics from history to literature, from chemistry to psychology. One of the most intriguing episodes on "Crash Course" was in the world history category and it covered "The Columbian Exchange." It was odd for a history show to cover a book, but John Green assured you that this book was worth it. You decided to pick up a copy and see if he was right.

He was.

"The Columbian Exchange" is Crosby's attempt to put humanity into the context of one of the most influential moments in Earth's history. The premise of the book is that Columbus' discovery of the New World set in motion an exchange between two parts of the planet which had been separated for millions of years. It is an academic attempt to quantify the outcomes of that exchange and their net effects on the entire Earth. The first sentence of the book was memorable for its brevity and its truth. "Nothing can be understood apart from its context, and man is no exception."

It is challenging to conceive of how big of a deal the discovery of the New World was to the people of both the Old and the New World. The two civilizations which met that fateful day on Hispaniola in 1492 are even now referred to as two different worlds. In fact, it is the closest experiment humanity has ever had that could show us how any future extraterrestrial first contact might play out.

You were surprised and entertained to learn that the discovery of the New World was as much a challenge to theologians as it was to naturalists. No one knew how all of these never before seen people, animals, and plants could exist. How had they all gotten there and why were they so different from all of the examples from the Old World? Noah's ark had suddenly become far more crowded. Many theologians began speculating wildly, fearful as the bedrock of their religious beliefs was shaken. Some argued that there must have been multiple Genesis type moments of Creation and that God had only told the Jews about their own, or that perhaps the Great Flood had only truly been a Middle Eastern event leaving the rest of the world untouched.

Most puzzling to scholars of all classes was the New World's lack of the massive herbivores that characterized the Old World. The Americas boasted nothing as magnificent as an elephant, hippopotamus, or rhinoceros. No ox or horse dotted the landscape of either newly discovered continent, only the puny llama of South America and the formidably un-domesticable bison of the North American high plains. Leading theories about Earth's character were scrapped and new ones were hastily formed, most were comically wrong and naive. But regardless of any religious or scientific origin theories, after 1491 Europeans were determined to explore and exploit this New World wherever it had come from.

For all of it's strengths, "The Columbian Exchange" suffers from some of the embarrassing Euro-centrism (and Male-centrism) of its time. Pg. 21 states that Native cultures were barely out of the Stone Age, which is clearly not true and has been thoroughly discredited. But it is important to remember that all of the research that made works like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," or Charles Mann's "1491," so ground breaking and intriguing had not yet been done in 1972. Crosby's honest look at history motivated these authors, and countless others to ask interesting questions and to look beyond traditionally accepted narratives. And even though the 60's and 70's were the era of the sexual revolution, change is slow to come (perhaps most especially in the academic world) so Crosby's constant use of the word "man" when he means "humanity" is somewhat forgivable, even if it is extremely distracting. It's important to remember (and be thankful) that 1972 was a long time ago.

On page 52, Crosby makes the point that, "We have so long been hypnotized by the daring of the Conquistador that we have overlooked the importance of his biological allies." His allies were, of course, rampant and catastrophic diseases. Thanks to "The Columbian Exchange" we have a generation (or two) of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists who no longer overlook those diseases when considering the discovery of the New World. Of course military conquest played a part in the fall of the native civilizations of the New World, as did European lust for financial profits, but far more importantly, these civilizations were devastated by disease. Perhaps never before or since has the Earth seen such a rapid and stunning loss of human life. The epidemics spread outward from contact with Europeans far faster than the explorers themselves could travel. What remnants of once great civilizations remained in their wakes were often torn apart by warring factions fighting to fill in power vacuums. European conquest of the Americas was by no means a simple task, but without the destruction wrought by European disease, it is doubtful many of those conquests would have been possible.

The natives' only concession was that their catastrophic contact with Europeans introduced the New World venereal disease, syphilis, to the Old World. The very advancements in sailing and ship building, in warfare and navigation that made the Europeans such a "superior" people, ensured that this devastating disease would spread faster than anyone could have predicted.  Sailors being sailors, this syphilis quickly spread back to mainland Europe. And humans being humans, within a decade it had spread throughout the rest of the globe.

By far the greatest change in the New World in the first century after it's discovery was that the human population plummeted while collections of ever larger imported livestock exploded. The Euorpeans first established breeding grounds for these animals on various (and sometimes uninhabited) Caribbean islands. They used the islands as supply bases to provide food for their conquering expeditions into the mainland. These herds and packs of non-native animals often consumed the native plant life into extinction. Europeans, naturally, transplanted their own feed crops to keep their livestock alive and the transformation of two entire continents had begun. An ecological balance that had taken millions of years to establish was undone in less than a century.

Native Americans had no means by which to transfer their immense grasslands into food energy (other than the buffalo herds of North America). Europeans did: large and domesticated grazing animals. These non-native animals took to the New World with gusto, often escaping their confines and going wild, spreading far in advance of the Europeans who had brought them. The first European settlers of Buenos Aires were greeted by astonishingly vast herds of wild European horses. It has been suggested that horses were breeding on the fertile grasslands of the Rio de Plata (which had never been subjected to horse grazing before) faster than they have at any time in history. When the Spanish moved into southern Texas, they were again met by equally vast herds of non-native species. This time it was wild cattle, the ancestors of the famed Longhorns.

In an interesting twist of irony, the Europeans had brought with them the greatest weapon the natives could have asked for to enable them to resist conquest. The Europeans brought horses. Horses and modern firearms allowed Indians to form formidable cavalry. In some areas (Texas being one of the last) horses even allowed the natives to stave off the Europeans for a few hundred more years.

Paradoxically, the unequaled loss of native lives after the epidemics that spread like wildfire from first contact at the dawn of the 1500's paved the way for an unparalleled subsequent population explosion, not just in the New World itself, but throughout the rest of the world as well. There are all sorts of theories as to why this explosion happened and none of them are provable according to the scientific method. Correlation does not imply causation, and historians don't get a chance to reproduce and test their hypotheses of one-time, global events. One thing is certain however, Until 1492, no food sources from one hemisphere had ever been used to sustain the people of another and the food plants from the Western hemisphere were high in caloric energy.

This is not to imply that it is a simple equation of more calories per plant necessarily equaling planetary population growth. Agriculture is far more complex than that, but the influx of new food plants added variety to the world's menu and, as Crosby points out, the primary reason the vast majority of Europeans even came to the New World was because they wanted to avoid starvation in their home countries. To quote Crosby, "It is just that variety that made American food plants such a valuable addition to the cultigens of the Old World. Indian plants increased the variety of plants which the Old World farmer could try to match the variety of soils and weather in order to coax nourishment out of nature." It was the variety intrinsic in discovering a completely new environment and the life forms it had created that allowed humans to begin to learn how to thrive in a way that was never possible before 1492.

In the early 1600's even the famously xenophobic Japan quickly saw the wisdom in using the American sweet potato, which thrives in conditions unlike any plants native to the Japanese home islands, as a form of famine insurance. To this day the tomb of the Japanese farmer who introduce the sweet potato to his country is referred to as the Temple of the Sweet Potato. If the Japanese were willing to adopt a completely new and totally alien food source, there must be some extraordinary value in this variety catalyzed by Columbus' discovery.

In "The Columbian Exchange," Crosby makes the argument that the discovery of the New World swapped out a more rich and diversified world for one which suffers from a poverty of variety in plant and animal life, in cultures and native populations, in religions and innovations. In short, Crosby does not believe the exchange was worth the cost.

While you mourn the appalling loss of cultures and innovations, and certainly the unimaginable loss of life, you weren't quite convinced by Crosby's conclusion. As devastating as the Columbian Exchange proved to be for cultures and life forms, it resulted in a more sustainable and healthier world. Since the discovery of the New World, the population of the Earth has increased dramatically. The diversity of foods that resulted from the collision of two very different ecologies has eased the devastating toll that crop failures have since wrought on humanity. Famines are less frequent when people have more diversified crops.

Beyond the purely biological reasons you also think there are cultural reasons to see the Columbian Exchange as beneficial to humanity. The colonization of the New World lead to the birth of the United States of America. This was the first time in modern history that any civilization claimed the right of self-determination. For the first time, humans chose their own system of governing themselves. Over the last 230 years, countless people have used America as the inspiration to do the same. We are not a perfect country, not by any means. But our existence lit the fires of liberty and autonomy that have spread around the globe. You believe that the up-front cost of the discovery of the New World was far too great because lives and cultures are undeniably more important than scientific discovery or financial profits. But you also believe that the Earth is now populated with more people than it would have been if that event had never occurred and that those people are more free than they would have been had Columbus never made his fateful voyage.

John Green was right. "The Columbian Exchange" is a fascinating book. Books can often ask you interesting questions, ones that make you consider what you believe. The thing that made this one so fascinating wasn't what Alfred Crosby taught you about the New World, it was what his questions taught you about yourself.

On to the next book!

P.S. In case you needed the reminder, here is the link for the "Crash Course" episode that inspired you to read this book in the first place.