Peter Watson, The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013)
As my reviews tend to do, this one will highlight some negatives, but which I will get out of the way early on. Peter Watson is a highly successful author and journalist who has rather more than dabbled in archaeology along the way. I am … somewhat less of an authority. Nonetheless, The Great Divide is kind of a mess, but one that ends up being sufficiently thought-provoking to be worth the effort.
Fun stuff first—shout-out to Jim Bennett for recommending the book; and here are my ideas for relevant musical interludes while reading the following:
The obvious prequel of sorts to The Great Divide was Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, published a decade and a half earlier. Much of this audience will have read it, so I will mention only that it emphasizes the longitudinal configuration of what Niven and Pournelle had their alien invaders call “Land Mass One” versus the latitudinal configuration of “Land Mass Two.” This had vast ramifications; and I would specifically add that the Eurasian Steppe covers over a hundred degrees of longitude but less than ten degrees of latitude, while what we call shortgrass prairie extends from Alberta to Nuevo Leon, barely ten degrees of longitude but close to thirty degrees of latitude.
I also recommend Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which emphasizes that the enduringly popular arcadian image of the primeval Americas—“no man rules this land, no human hand/has soiled this paradise”—is wildly inadequate. In reality, both continents held tens of millions of people in the late fifteenth century, so whatever the reason the trans-Atlantic invasion went east to west, it wasn’t population. Amazonia alone outnumbered Western Europe in 1500.
As a journalist and sometime archaeologist, Watson seems to have included every bit of information he could think of. The result is a 600-page book that could probably have been a good-sized magazine article, or perhaps a brief series of them. Again, eventually it’s worth it, but there’s a lot to plow through, and as mentioned below, much of it is effectively counterexamples to the main thesis. I divide the problematic bits into “hardware” and “software,” that is, purely physical aspects and more human aspects.
The astronomy in The Great Divide is … less than accurate; here are just a few howlers I spotted:
- Velikovsky (p 155)? Yeah, no.
- An unusual number of impactors in the 3rd millennium BC (p 155)? Nope.
- The “list of known catastrophes” (p 157)? Mostly vague, uncorroborated, or irrelevant.
- Meteor storms (pp 158-159) do occur and are visually impressive, but their physical effects at ground level are nil.
And if catastrophe—and specifically astronomical events which (had they actually occurred as described) affected nearly the entire world equally— somehow evoked the development of civilization (pp 160-163), it would have happened thousands of years earlier in the New World, at the same time as it did in the Old. Pretty much the entire rest of the book is about how that didn’t happen.
As for the “software” … in general, Watson describes a large number of differences between the Old and New Worlds which were necessary, but not sufficient, to give the Old World its eventual, enormous advantages. Pastoralism supposedly moved Old World societies beyond shamanistic religion into more institutional forms by the Axial Age—but the entirely pastoralist Mongols were still majority shamanist during their greatest conquests, only eight centuries ago. Judaic monotheism is described as both the product of deserts (p 98) and of contact with a variety of physical environments (p 348). The title of Watson’s concluding chapter (“The Shaman and the Shepherd”) notwithstanding, there are so many counterexamples to the ostensibly ineluctable development of the Old World that we are left contemplating a vast number of contingent factors that were far from inevitable. The Great Divide is much better at explaining the New World’s many disadvantages than the Old World’s specifically cultural advantages.
In a highly unusual combination of geology and psychology, Watson’s most provocative suggestion, and by a long way, is that Genesis 1:14-19, and every analogous passage in any other creation account—in which the Sun, Moon, and stars appear after Earth itself, oceans and landmasses, and vegetation—is a staggeringly distant racial memory of the Youngest Toba eruption, ~75,000 BP, which with a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 8 (possibly even 9) was the largest in at least the last million years, and conceivably the largest since the Lower Cretaceous. He hypothesizes that volcanic ash and stratospheric aerosols obscured the Sun and Moon for so long that there was, at some point, a human generation born into a world without living memory of celestial bodies, but which saw them appear as the atmosphere cleared (pp 24-25).
While I am quite sympathetic to the notion that even apparently allegorical accounts may nonetheless transmit significant physical information—see Ryan and Pitman—I would be surprised to learn that the visual effects of Toba lasted more than a few years, and they would have had to persist (globally!) for at least several decades, if not centuries, to have the effect Watson suggests. He is on firmer metaphorical ground when pointing out that millions of square kilometers of Earth’s land area were in fact inundated by rising seas when the Holocene Interglacial began, ~11,700 BP.
Watson properly emphasizes that the relative paucity of domesticates—including seasonal crops—in the New World, combined with the relative proximity of coastlines and active tectonic plate boundaries to high-density populations, engendered societies far more concerned with aperiodic natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, El Niño-Southern Oscillation flooding) and unpredictable predators (especially jaguars) than regular crop failure and fertility in general. Combined with an abundance of hallucinogens and a historical patrimony of shamanism going back to the original migration through Beringia, this produced a spirituality that tended strongly to the use of narcotics, inducement of trance states through bloodletting, and magical attempts to ward off catastrophe. Religious authority was individual rather than institutional—and when it became institutional in Mesoamerica, was in support of rites intended to prevent, eg, the Sun from being blotted out of the sky by volcanoes, or downpours from hurricanes washing cities away.
By comparison with the New World, the Old World environment facilitated highly organized human activity on scales at least one full order of magnitude greater in area, population, speed of movement, and long-distance transported mass. The attendant variety of connected physical environments and domesticated animal and plant species also enabled the development of far more extensive cultural suites. While the technological contrasts at Columbian contact were obvious—cavalry troops, wheeled vehicles, firearms—the depth and breadth of Old World “ideology,” to use Watson’s term, represented just as big a difference; and in combination with the epidemiology of Old World zoonoses, European conquests were hugely overdetermined.
Watson’s best point, on pp 518-519 of the Conclusion, is that civilization is an adaptation, one which did not occur in most of the New World because it was not needed there to ensure survival. He does not mention it, but in the wake of Mann’s 1491, estimates are that the 5-million-km² Amazon basin had a population of 50 million when Cabral landed on the Bahia coast in 1500. But it was not an empire, or any kind of large-scale polity. A moment with a calculator establishes that at the putative density of 10 persons/km², Dunbar-number-sized villages would have been spaced ~4 km apart … and that’s the way the people lived. They had no domesticated animals other than dogs, no roads, no vehicles, no recordkeeping. Their land was a carefully managed ecology—the Amazon rainforest touted as the greatest natural ecosystem on Earth, one whose despoliation is denounced as the worst possible environmental travesty, is what replaced it after their population crashed—but with almost no visible infrastructure and none of the prominent institutions we associate with far smaller societies in the Old World.
Brief online searches find that the largest New World empire, the Tawantinsuyu (Inca), was less than one-tenth the area, and just about one-tenth the population, of the largest pre-modern Old World polity, which was of course the Mongol Empire before the later Genghisids tore it apart and the Black Death hit. The Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire) was only about one-tenth the area controlled by the Inca, though it may have had more than twice the population. These were by far the largest ever to exist in the New World, and had they somehow combined they would still have been only about the size of the Achaemenid realm in southwest Asia nearly two millennia earlier—and as Watson explains, they were both rapidly approaching destruction in the 1500s even without the assistance of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro (and Variola major), thanks to internal positive-feedback loops (pp 467-495). Aztec paranoia and the Incan panaqa system, both discussed much more below, demanded ever-further conquests, conquests which were hopelessly unsecurable without cavalry or wheeled vehicles. Rebellion and civil war were already under way when the conquistadores appeared. A credible alternate history with truly large New World polities able to compete with Europeans would require, at minimum, North American horses to survive the Quaternary extinction and be domesticated long before Columbian contact.
American Exceptionalism and Its Enemies
The ultimate consequence, to date, of the incursion by the Old World into the New half a millennium ago is the existence of the United States, which combines physical size, population, sheer functionality, and overall dynamism to a degree unmatched by any other nation. Of the thirteen countries today other than the US with populations greater than 100 million, only Russia and China are physically larger (China by less than 1%), and only Japan (physically smaller than California) has anything like the quality of life enjoyed by most Americans. Refugees do not cross oceans to resettle in any of them, much less the other ten (India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, Ethiopia, Philippines, Egypt); desperate overland escapees from Venezuela into Brazil, North Korea into China, and Myanmar into India are the only partial exceptions.
So now we’re in the relative position of the Triple Alliance or the Tawantinsuyu, the most populous and organized society on the continent—except that we’re a place where people run to rather than from. And pace ideological ranting about “imperialism,” Americans have zero interest in territorial expansion. I nonetheless perceive attitudes among my fellow countrymen, undoubtedly amplified by modern media, that would be recognizable in Tenochtitlán or Cuzco, circa 1500. These are, I hope, characteristic only of a Strauss-Howe “Crisis Era” or Turchin’s “Ages of Discord,” and thereby temporary; but their constructive channeling is the great challenge of our time, and given our technological endowment that includes an immense array of WMD, they are surely among the greatest dangers humanity has ever faced.
Because Aztec society’s descent into paranoia about natural disasters and the drastic Incan sequestration of inheritances into the panaqa have obvious analogs in the present day. Matt Ridley: “The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.” I note that no amount of failure of these predictions (and many others I could cite) has yet caused our elites to do anything other than double down, on CAGW in particular.
The panaqa finds its match in the phenomenon noted by Neil Howe—“Today, households aged 75-plus have the highest net worth of any age bracket. That’s completely without precedent in American history.”—and in what Covey calls “scarcity mentality” generally. There isn’t enough <insert Really Important Thing here> to go around; popular forms include “there is no Planet B” (I actually saw that one on a T-shirt the other day) and, of course, immigrants stealing our jobs. Most suggested remedies, including Howe’s, which is high inflation, are, to put it mildly, unlikely to actually get us to a better place (even the Incan mit’a system has a modern counterpart in yet another revival of the idea of “national service”). We are left hoping that the US will not experience its own version of Huascar vs Atahualpa.
This is not quite a we’re-no-better-than-they-were type of sermon. Few people would trade life in any North American community in the early 21st century for the Valley of Mexico or the Urubamba Valley five centuries back, and not only because of the material differences; whatever our impulses, unquenchable collective appetites for conquest and slaughter are not among them. But human nature changes very little across time or geography, and our vulnerabilities are all too similar.
So, what to do? Believing as I do that societal function is an emergent property of the health of its individual members, I suggest a broad three-point program:
- If you’re crazy, get help. Signs that you’re crazy include thinking that Big Ag is poisoning you, Big Oil is killing the planet, Big Pharma is trying to make you sick, immigrants are plotting to kill you, the nuclear plant a few counties over will kill you, your municipality’s water fluoridation (or even chlorination) will lower your IQ, your municipality’s mask order will make you sick and eventually kill you (and that anyone complying with it is a Communist), and that more blacks are killed by police (who are all secret KKK members) than by auto accidents. Mainly, watch for signs of OCD contamination phobia, which is what most of this nuttiness comes down to.
- If you’re floundering (this presumes sufficient self-awareness to realize it), gain context. This may mean learning about everything from astronomy to microbiology, and I could certainly recommend a reading list, but the bottom line here is … get out more. Arrange to interact with people and places you normally wouldn’t. Take some (managed) risks, and practice Habit Five.
- Learn to accentuate the positive. Promote life and freedom-affirming values as a counter to alienation and butchery. To quote myself: “Dox yourself, early and often; and deliberately expose yourself to (additional) imperfectly managed risk. If your situation allows it, act directly to mitigate fear, and in any case, be alert to opportunities to swing for the fences.” (NB: swinging for the fences may entail taking direct action to shield the individual from the State.)
Civilization and Its Meaning
Is this a partial solution to the Fermi Paradox? What if aboriginal Amazonia is far more typical of intelligent species than, well, Sergei Korolev’s Russia or Elon Musk’s Texas? As a forgettable blogger once wrote, humanity could have ambled along in the Paleolithic until the next big asteroid finished it off. Perhaps on most planets with intelligent species, no one is reading such speculations, because no one is writing them, because writing does not exist, and the concept of history itself is all but unrecognizable.
Saturday 17 April 2021, 7 PM CST: Block Party/Youth Night at Ministerio Hosanna Parrita, Puntarenas province, Costa Rica. A bare concrete floor ten meters square, a scattering of stackable plastic chairs, mostly in the back of the room and occupied by the older members of the short-term mission team. Proverbial tropical downpour pounding on the corrugated-metal roof. Techno-sounding music erupting from startlingly large speakers, punctuated by the occasional crash of thunder. Lights down, and the younger people, who are after all most of the attendees, dancing vigorously while wearing slender, vividly fluorescent glow sticks in pink and yellow and green and blue and purple looped around their heads, arms, etc.
… and I’m thinking: Watson’s hallucinogen-using Mesoamerican shamans, a thousand years back, would have loved this. Although if one suddenly appeared, we might have to explain that cutting himself or killing anybody is no longer considered appropriate.