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Week of May 31, 2020
The Geographical Stranglehold, Part I: Use and Misuse
This is the first of at least two posts exploring the implications, corruptions, and variations of geographically-based theories of history. Further installments may arrive at arbitrary intervals or not at all.
Geographical determinism, the broad view that initial configurations of terrain and resources constrain historical development, is an epithet chiefly reserved for the anthropologist and “big historian.” Embraced by Marvin Harris and hurled at Jared Diamond, the term (to paraphrase Ian Morris, another practitioner) generally implies history by “smoothing out and speeding up”—that is, analyzing prehistory, drawing conclusions, and fast-forwarding to the present. It also implies a peek at the ending, whose antecedents lie hidden in the deep past. Most egregiously, determinism makes humans and societies “prisoners of geography,” doomed to make the same choices by physical circumstances. Even a Marxian internal logic might be a more palatable prime mover than the irrevocable processes set in motion at the creation of the solar system; in the former case, at least, specific human ingenuity produces observed structures and configurations. Broadly, actors are either incapable of performing feats other than those prescribed by a particular setting or unable to influence historical trajectories except by those means. The distinction is frequently blurred, of course, but the result remains the same: placed again in the same environments, people will evolve the same or similar societies regardless of intent. This is a strong philosophical claim, one with which Diamond, Harris, and Morris deal only cursorily. Nevertheless, the evidence for at least weaker forms of the hypothesis—judging by the success of their work—is compelling. Successful societies, at least, devise innovative solutions to geographical problems; those who freely choose other paths freely choose anarchy, poverty, and failure.
Yet geography can also be invoked in a different way: as a series of dice rolls, not an imposed straightjacket. Kenneth Pomeranz, for example, cites the “conjuncture” of New World conquest and coal reserves in his The Great Divergence as the primary explanation for differential Anglo-Chinese fortunes after 1800:
…[S]ome of the areas in which Europe had an edge turned out to be important for truly revolutionary developments, while the particular areas in which other societies had better techniques did not. But even Europe’s technological leadership in various sectors would not have allowed a breakthrough to self-sustaining growth without other changes that made it much freer than other societies of its land base. This was partially a result of catching up in some of the land-saving technologies in which it lagged, a process that was greatly facilitated by knowledge gained through overseas empire, and partly a matter of serendipity, which located crucial resources (especially forest-saving coal) in particularly fortunate places. It was also partly due to global conjunctures. Those global conjunctures, in turn, were shaped by a combination of European efforts (many of them violent), epidemiological luck, and some essentially independent developments. Pomeranz 2009, p. 32.
Determined to prove the relative equality of the pre-industrial West and East and attribute the status shift to exogenous factors, Pomeranz inserted geography along rather than before his timeline. “Epidemiological luck,” for example, appears as a deterministic factor in Guns, Germs, and Steel—a product of abundant opportunities for settled agriculture and pastoralism in Southwest Asia and favorable continental orientations. Instead of festering for millennia in the agrarian communities of Europe, diseases exploded calamitously and arbitrarily into the Mesoamerican kingdoms. Coal intervened on behalf of England at a moment of shared ecological crisis, providing a much-needed energy reserve on the cusp of a potentially ruinous transition. Disease and factor endowments, then, are to be grouped with imperial victories and hitherto irrelevant developments as just so many abrupt historical events. The appeal of such an approach is that temporally shallow occurrences can be summoned to explain differences between races, civilizations, and cultures. Long-run geographical determinism might imply the accumulation of trans-national differences, but the fleeting salience of coal and the boons of American conquest could have been exploited by Asians and Europeans alike. Agency and short-run factors both actually subsume dissimilarity by removing the time needed for cultural and biological evolution.
Diamond professed a similar mission in GGS, aiming to explain why “Europeans, despite their likely genetic disadvantage… ended up with more” material possessions than antipodean counterparts. Yet the rift between the two interpretations is significant: Diamond excuses difference, while Pomeranz denies it altogether. Geography remains the mechanism of moral equalization, but the former use has ambiguous implications for the multiculturalist project. Deep roots, as Harris suggests, may create cultures favorable to development—which, in essence, implies some value-laden combination of representation, curiosity, and free enterprise. Homogenous responses to heterogenous conditions should tend to produce a variety of outcomes, some more closely aligned to present ideals than others. Eastern civilizations retain space for inferiority, even if the fault lies (excuse the pun) in millions of years of geology. No wonder, then, that Diamond, in fighting racism, has been vehemently accused of it. Indeed, in smoothing out modern history, he seems to conveniently wipe away the stains of aggression, slavery, and imperialism with which the West has long been tarred.
Epistemology and historiographical method aside, the crucial element is the use of geography as a tool in a wider moral conflict. The California School sought not a grand thesis of history, but what at times appeared to be an interpretation of international disparities in welfare that attributed the Great Divergence to luck and European disruption of older patterns. Andre Gunder Frank’s ReORIENT, for one, sought to show that “Europe used its American money… to profit from the predominant position of Asia in the world economy” (Frank 1995, p. 4-5). Analogous imperatives, applied to geography, threaten to obscure and distort key factors in order to establish convenient premises. Many “big histories,” including all previously mentioned, position themselves ideologically with regard to territorial heritage—establishing not plausibility, but the extent to which “blame” for the alignment of modern civilizations can be attributed to various (and politically sensitive agents).
Working Methods, by Keith Thomas
A literate, enviable overview of how professional historians manage the wonderful menagerie of sources that suffuses the literary histories of the modern English tradition. Recommended for the self-pitying and admiring alike.
The best books on The Middle Ages, by Hannah Skoda
Skoda advances a thesis in which I’ve been interested for some time—namely, that Europe developed strains of modernity (from commerce to nostalgia) earlier and more profoundly than usually supposed. I particularly appreciate the idea of layered social revolutions replacing the previous concept of a stagnant medieval hiatus.
Historiography - The Annales School of Thought, by Anonymous
This brief entry, composed by an unknown author in an alien encyclopedia, is the best overview of the Annales School I have come across. That includes introductions by the Annales authors themselves, many of whom (Bloch and Braudel are primary culprits) indulged too deeply in rhetorical mysticism.
Labour scarcity and labour coercion, by Alex Klein and Sheilagh Ogilvie
In a short paper, two economic historians review evidence for the Domar hypothesis, which holds that higher land-labor ratios tend to increase the returns to serfdom. From a complex dataset covering Bohemia in 1757, they find the data supportive and identify two factors—the strength of towns and the availability of draft animals—that mediate the relationship.