Across the Great Divide

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

48 thoughts on “Across the Great Divide”

  1. I’m not done with the book yet but agree with much of what Jay says. Interesting and thought provoking, and probably right about a lot. I would add The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David Anthony as a better book, and maybe Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road as well. Like Jay I am fascinated by the idea that old legends and myths encode a lot of real knowledge and records of history. (I am currently thinking a lot about the Odyssey as “science fiction” of the late Bronze Age; somebody taking a lot of traveller’s accounts of the Western Med and weaving them into a story with a lot of god stuff too. The story doesn/t work as an actual route guide because it’s a lot of individual accounts woven together by bards who didn’t know the actual geography, any more than the average Golden Age sf writer was actually plotting a real course from star to star.).

    On the main point, I did appreciate the emphasis on Eurasia being oriented on an east-west axis, allowing people to traverse very long distances while staying in the same ecosystem, whereas the Americas are laid out north to south, and hard traveling at that. The real amazing feat of the Americans was to use engineering and sheer will power to impose an east-west axis on the middle of North America, crossing the Appalachians via the Erie Canal, and finding routes across the Rockies, so that we could create an entire transcontinental corridor amenable to Northwest European crops and livestock and agricultural practices. This is a way bigger accomplishment than most people realize, of which the Erie Canal, Great Lakes locks, transcontinental railways, and irrigation systems of the Western oases (Front Range, Wasatch) are just some of the parts. (The Canadians did a pretty good job, too, with worse natural barriers and less available capital.)

    I wil have more to say when I finish the book. Thanks, Jay!

  2. I used “Guns, Germs and Steel” as a theme for the first chapters of my history of Medicine. My daughter was an Anthropology major at UCLA and had Diamond as an instructor. The destruction of the horse by the early humans soon after arrival probably ended chances for such inventions as the wheel.

    The geographical axes of Eurasia and America had to have enormous influence on vegetation evolution. I’m going to have to read that book.

  3. I’ll put the book– I am not familiar with the author or his works–on my list to look at. Thanks for the suggestion and critique.

    I second the cheers for Diamond and Mann (read his 1493 also) and recommend Robert D. Kaplan as a writer who understands the
    continued relevance of raw geography. IIRC he points out that the largest continuous patch of prime agricultural land
    on the planet is none other than Heartland, North America. (Given present day or likely tech, anyway.) That alone
    is an advantage that no other imperium or system has ever had.

    Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads (a new world history) and Michael Pye’s At the Edge of the World (a history of the North
    Sea as a cultural unit and dynamo, c, 500-1500 a.d.) are solid newer histories. The first is sweeping, the second
    more focused on a tiny zone where the modern world was first outlined–at least he makes a good case.

    Watson seems to be arguing along VD Hansonian lines about the cultural clash between Spanish and Aztecs or Incas–their
    incomprehension was mutual but hardly equal: encounters with powerful Others was part-and-parcel of European existence and
    history as they lived it. The American native empires were impressive and obviously successful given
    their accomplishments, but had no frame of reference for what came at them so suddenly, and leaving aside the germs which did
    the real killing.

    That Procol Harum link was a walk down (smoke-filled) memory lane; I date the decline of rock in the early 70s to good bands
    hooking up with symphony orchestras ;-)

    Call me a purist.

  4. I thought Guns, Germs, and Steel was kind of interesting but ultimately quite unconvincing–he seemed to want to just trade racial determinism for geographic determinism. How can one make a theory to explain why the demonic Azteks were the dominant power in Mexico at the time of the arrival of Europeans?

    “If you’re crazy, get help. Signs that you’re crazy include thinking that Big Ag is poisoning you…Big Pharma is trying to make you sick”
    Well, both of these are arguably true though…the fact is that Big (fill in the blank) is Bad News, I think that’s one thing that history shows pretty conclusively.

  5. The problem with archeology and paleontology is that they are literally luck squared. The luck that something is preserved and the luck that we find it.

    For most of our lives, the peopling of the New World was pegged to the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. It looked plausible and the Clovis site seemed to be the oldest in evidence.

    This is no longer true. The earliest date I recall hearing is around 33,000 BP. Here, the evidence is more ambiguous, depending on bone fragments and soil strata instead of clearly man made artifacts. There is still a lot of uncertainty among those, unlike me, that know enough to be entitled to an opinion.

    Even the 12,000 year time frame assures that the migrants were at the same level of technology as the rest of humanity, pre agriculture and pre animal domestication. I had never heard that there were New World horses that co-existed with humans before. I think the paleo-extinction of them is at best a plausible conjecture. If the earlier dates for migration hold, they would have already survived 20,000 years with humans.

    Clearly the drive to domestication is very wide spread, from horses and asses to reindeer in the Old World to dogs and llamas in the new. I suppose they may have eaten all the horses before they realized they’d be more useful whole. Of course they ate dogs and horses later when that seemed advisable. Not much sentimentality.

    The mound builders of the Mississippi Valley probably had at least as advanced of a civilization as the Aztecs. It may have foundered from drought or disease or both.

    That still leaves the question of why, of all the different areas that started out on a par at the beginning of agriculture, civilization only took root in the Mediterranean, South Asia and China. Leaving behind Europe, outside of Roman influence, the rest of Asia, Sub Sahara Africa and the New World. Many places in the New World adopted agriculture yet never advanced beyond scattered settlements long enough to produce a anything closer to a nation than the Aztecs or Incas.

    Yet civilization, or more properly, entities recognizable as nations did arise in three separate places, approximately simultaneously and independently. Of those three, why did the one tracing back to the Mediterranean come to dominance?

  6. I’m with Brian in regard to Diamond, his stuff has more than a faint whiff of Just So Stories to it.

  7. And to Jay, I would say: I appreciate the warning at the end — definitely “crazy” is the fastest way to get to Big X Is Going To Kill Us territory.

    And yet, things like the preposterous high carb Food Pyramid really did happen, foisted on us by our best and brightest.

  8. I didn’t buy all of Diamond’s theories but the latitude/longitude theory is probably correct.

    I started reading the book today and am already interested in his statement about the Monsoon that extends from the eastern Med to China and which, he says, is fading over the last 8,000 years.

    I think the evolution of horses in north America is pretty well established, suggesting they long preceded humans.

  9. MCS: “That still leaves the question of why, of all the different areas that started out on a par at the beginning of agriculture, civilization only took root in the Mediterranean, South Asia and China.”

    A now-deceased erudite gentleman I knew invested a lot of time & effort into researching that very question. His conclusion — alcohol.

    He claimed that the advent of civilization is indissolubly linked to the discovery of alcohol, and the consequent development of a society which has the agricultural & technical means to make alcoholic beverages on a large scale. He claimed that societies which did not discover alcohol remained fairly rudimentary.

    Others have speculated that the consumption of alcohol reduced the incidence of water-borne diseases, allowing the development of denser populations in the days before modern sanitation. Since people are the ultimate resource, a larger concentrated population allowed specialization and the development of civilization.

    Well, it is a theory! I will happily drink to it.

  10. It’s long been known that horses first evolved in what would eventually be Colorado. It was then also accepted that they had gone extinct here long before humans appeared in the New World. A quick look around told of evidence that they existed in Alaska at the end of the last Ice Age. As I said, luck squared, things change.

    At the same time, the first appearance of humans is being pushed back quite a bit. A migration into South America from the Pacific wouldn’t have had the same incentive to push into the far north as a migration into Alaska from Siberia would have had to move south. Neither precludes the other.

    As I said, I hadn’t heard of horses being in Alaska and I still haven’t heard of of them being anywhere else in the New World in near prehistory. Clovis is still considerably before anything I’ve heard of in terms of horse domestication anywhere so they probably looked a lot like dinner.

    The migration of ideas is both more consequential and far harder to know than the migration of people. What is truly new and what is borrowed? What is two societies arriving at the same idea for themselves? I alluded my belief that “civilization” evolved independently around the Mediterranean and in China because I can’t imagine that a small number of travelers could have promulgated the idea widely enough for it to take hold in an otherwise chaotic population. The Roman experience showed that it took an army and years to win over the hearts and minds of barbarians.

  11. The book, “The Great Divide” has information that all Ameridians have the same Y chromosome haplogroup suggesting all arrived in the same wave. Greg Cochran, in “The 10,000 Year Explosion,” says that the Amerindian migration was in two groups, one later but that one may be from Alaska or Alberta, like the Navajo.

  12. At the time of the land bridge, dogs had been companions for tens of thousands of years while the domestication of the horse was still thousands of years in the future in Central Asia, not that far from Siberia in distance.

    Notably, the Inca domesticated the llama but the Amerindians used only dogs prior to the Spanish Conquesta. Using the example of the reindeer, there would seem to be possible candidates for domestication in mule deer, elk and the bisonin the lower 48 . All three ranged over the entire continent at the time. I don’t know what it would have taken to domesticate a bison, some mixture of courage and insanity if it was ever possible. My father knew a cowboy that roped a bull elk calf, having the saddle girth break saved both him and his horse. Mule deer would seem more possible.

    Another possible candidate for the progenitor of civilization besides alcohol might be the technique of controlling the aggression and rutting of male domestic animals by castration. I don’t think you could manage any sort of a herd without it.

    Once horses became available, the Amerindians caught on pretty fast. Yet I’ve never heard of them trying to herd the cattle that also became available at the same time. The horse extended their nomadic lifestyle without fundamentally changing it but the trade off between somewhat reduced mobility and an assured food source apparently didn’t appeal.

  13. As Jay notes, Watson threw everything but the kitchen sink into this book. He actually did clearly note the separate and later Na-Dine (Navajo) migration stream, and many of the other points made here in comments. Don’t judge the book by secondhand descriptions.

    Bison were just too mean and ornery to domesticate. Modern bison ranches run “beefalo”, 15/16th bison but 1/16th cattle – the key genes for domestication.

    Caribou would have worked — reindeer are nothing but domesticated caribou. But New World aboriginal populations lacked the lactose tolerance gene, making domestic mammals less useful.

  14. It seems obvious to me that the evolution of human civilization is inherently chaotic. Henry VIII’s older brother lives, Genghis Khan lives a decade longer, some random sailor with plague misses a boat, some Viking chieftain determines his people will move en masse to Vinland, etc., and history would change beyond recognition, regardless of the directional orientation of land masses.

  15. I still beli8eve that horses were killed off by early migrants that had no concept of domestication. Horses, once reintroduced by the Spanish, did very well in the wild. I see no reason I know of why they would have gone extinct without human intervention. On the other hand, zebras cannot be domesticated even though they look like horses. The lactose issue certainly could explain the failure to domesticate cattle. Did beer have anything to do with lactose tolerance ?

  16. “zebras cannot be domesticated even though they look like horses.”
    Diamond said this, but I have no idea why I should believe it. Cannot? Really? I don’t buy it for a second.

  17. Brian: “It seems obvious to me that the evolution of human civilization is inherently chaotic.”

    Seconded! One of the interesting questions about that chaotic evolution is — Why did the guys who were ahead, with all those incumbent advantages, later fall behind? Egyptians were civilized for millenia while others were still hunter-gatherers. Rome ruled the Mediterranean. Mongols ruled most of the Eurasian land mass. And all later fell behind. Why?

    Perhaps one might as well ask why Walmart has succeeded in the same arena where once-dominant Sears has fallen away.

    Is it the nature of any human organization to become inefficient or corrupt, opening unpredictable avenues for outsiders to charge in and overthrow the status quo?

  18. “Is it the nature of any human organization to become inefficient or corrupt, opening unpredictable avenues for outsiders to charge in and overthrow the status quo?”

    It is interesting that none of the major steam-locomotive manufacturers (Baldwin Locomotive, etc) became a major supplier of diesel-electric locomotives; that field was dominated (in the US) by GM and GE. Despite the fact that the steam guys had the customer contacts in the industry and had plenty of experience in making big heavy things that ran on rails.

    Lots of other examples.

  19. I believe that milk production and consumption was a by product of domestication. Here again, there are various cowboy stories of trying to milk range cattle, often humorous, rarely productive.

    Managing a dairy herd is much more complicated than managing a herd for meat or transport. I wonder how long it took to notice that lactation could be extended past weaning and how to manage the estrus cycle to produce both calves and milk. This is one of the places where comprehensive and exact knowledge long preceded any sort of “scientific” explanation. Hint: the “C” word plays a part.

    Horses appear to have been first domesticated about 3,500 BCE on the Kazakh steppe. Also long known for the production of fermented mare’s milk.

    Outside of the herding on the southern fringe of the Sahara and the Masai, there doesn’t seem to be any animal domestication in sub-Saharan Africa before it was brought by colonizers. European derived cattle do not survive in most of Africa because of parasites and disease. None of the native species seem to have been exploited. Possibly elephants, but I associate that exclusively with Asia.

    If I were nominating geniuses of pre-history, I would want to remember the person who first looked at a horse and told himself; “I can ride that.”. Also the person that said the same thing about an elephant with a V for Valor.

  20. “Is it the nature of any human organization to become inefficient or corrupt, opening unpredictable avenues for outsiders to charge in and overthrow the status quo?” asks Gavin Longmuir.

    Yes, obviously, that’s true even within systems, and much more between systems.

    Just a few points, not in any particular order.

    Geography matters. Whether Diamond is right or wrong in detail, the overall pattern is clear enough. Leaving aside civilizational origin stories, once they arose in the Near East, South Asia, and China they were interconnected (not that they knew it) in ways that the analogs in the Americas apparently never were. The suite of domesticable animals and plants–and the possibilities of their spread along with practices and ideas of equal or more importance–was larger.

    I’m always suspicious of arguments like, “it would have been easy to domesticate animal X, which is really just a Y.” I’m a city lad myself, and I’m willing to be persuaded, but that assertion needs some support. There’s more to the business than gross anatomical similarities. It took millenia to domesticate horses and breed them to a size and strength to become an instrument of conquest–and not all equines have the digestive system of the horse. Most of them require more grazing and digesting time than horses, AFAIK, and probably lack horse-sense anyway.

    The Plains Indians period of mounted glory was brief, not even a century, and they were merely adapting off-the-shelf tech (horses and firearms) to their uses, not inventing or improving.

    Colin McEvedy makes the observation that the Aegean Sea littoral–the cradle of Greek civilization and square one for Western classical civilization, is the most complexly-indented area of equal size on earth. Isolated on small patches of land, the proto-Greeks were united by that sheltered inland sea.

    A thousand years later the Med itself was a unifying factor for a great civilization–a sheltered inland sea. A thousand years after that the North Sea–relatively sheltered but open to
    northern resources and routes east and west, was coming into its own.

    In each case cultural and economic developments flowed more easily in and out of complex geographies.

    Happy Mothers Day to all mothers.

  21. David,
    The steam locomotive guys lacked about everything to make a diesel electric locomotive except the flanged wheels. They had no experience in high speed rotating machinery, internal combustion engines, high power electric machinery or gear reduction and had spent most of a century avoiding all of it outside the odd cog railway. The same thing happened in Europe where the electrical companies Siemens and ABB still dominate.

    The Depression and WWII sealed the deal. If any had been inclined to try to develop one, raising the funds and resources was difficult to impossible during the Depression and completely out of the question during the war.

  22. It is interesting that none of the major steam-locomotive manufacturers (Baldwin Locomotive, etc) became a major supplier of diesel-electric locomotives; that field was dominated (in the US) by GM and GE. Despite the fact that the steam guys had the customer contacts in the industry and had plenty of experience in making big heavy things that ran on rails.

    I read a book one time that I have since lost but it was interesting. It was titled something like “Second Wave” and made the point that mature industries must be looking for The Next Big Thing, long before they begin to decline. Eastman Kodak was cursed by a combination of its business model and its invention of the digital camera. The collapse of Sears is still a mystery to me. I worked for them for a while and members of my family did so for many years. I did learn that their management was atrocious but that was years before things got irreversible.

    As for domestication of zebras, I will be all ears and eyes when you can show me an example. The same is true of African elephants compared to Asian elephants.

  23. Kodak had ceased to be a player in serious cameras outside of very narrow niches a long time before their film became obsolete. Designing SLR’s was a job Americans wouldn’t do. By the time they wanted to build a camera a single person could pick up to do more than take a snap shot, they’d forgotten how. They had divested “non core” assets until nobody wanted what was left. “American” management at its most short sighted in action

  24. “Is it the nature of any human organization to become inefficient or corrupt, opening unpredictable avenues for outsiders to charge in and overthrow the status quo?”
    Well, that’s basically the concept of evolution, no? Something succeeds under one set of conditions, thrives and dominates the landscape, then that landscape changes and something else happens to be better suited to the new conditions and rises to dominance itself, and the story continues forever.

    “As for domestication of zebras, I will be all ears and eyes when you can show me an example”
    It’s still beyond me how “the zebra was never domesticated” somehow is supposed to prove “the zebra cannot be domesticated”. How does that logically follow?

    “I would want to remember the person who first looked at a horse and told himself; “I can ride that.””
    Undoubtedly a 15-20 year old male…

  25. MCS…but GE didn’t have any experience with internal combustion engines (other than gas turbines) and I don’t think GM had done much with high-power electrical systems and their controls Also, GM’s manufacturing had focused on mass production of hundreds of thousands or millions of units, rather than the smaller-quantity but higher-dollar-value production of locomotives.

    GE did have some experience in the locomotive businesses, having been a supplier of pure-electric locomotives. (I have read somewhere, but can’t find a link, that their initial entry into the diesel-electric game was a Skunk Works project)

  26. David,
    That was before WWII. At the end, GE was building submarines and GM was building a lot more than cars and trucks.

    WWII extended the use of steam because they didn’t require much that was needed for the war. The same reason that the Liberty Ships used triple expansion reciprocating steam engines.

    They could have made the transition, Studebaker made it from wagons to cars and trucks, I don’t know if they even tried. I don’t think the steam locomotive manufacturers were into innovation much.

  27. I had the interesting experience of co-authoring an internal presentation for GE management together with a GE executive who had access to GE’s voluminous corporate archives and histories. We used the locomotive business and the jet engine business as analogues, so I got a lot of insight into GE’s own views of those events. GE got into the electric locomotive business in the late 1890s and early 1900s, supplying locomotives for the Eastern railroads who electrified. They learned pretty much everything about locomotives and what railroads want from them, and how to support the clients. They then watched and waited during the first wave of dieselization (1930-1950) to see who would make it and who wouldn’t. Actually Alco made a pretty good stab at competing in diesels, and Baldwin made a credible try; only Lima just gave up. When they finally decided to move, it was only a matter of finding a good diesel motor manufacturer to slap on top of their electrics. They made sure to invest heavily in customer support before they moved, not after. Similarly in the aircraft motor industry, they had an active division making turbo compressors for high-performance piston engines. The B-29 would never have gotten off the ground (literally!) without them. They learned all about how to make and service high-performance rotating machinery at stratosphere altitudes and temperatures. And they had customer service networks who already knew all the maintenance departments of all the airlines, and had gained their respect. Again, they hung back while the piston manufacturers tried to adapt. Only Pratt & Whitney managed. (And only with Air Force determination to have at least two sources of supply.) Again, when they went in, it was with a massive investment in support capability, ahead of need. GE’s dominance in locomotives and jet engines is no accident. They went in organized like the Allies at D-Day, and with equally massive superiority in resources.

  28. When discussing GE and jet engines, it would be appropriate to mention Gerhard Neumann.

    In March 1948, Neumann began work as a simple test engineer for the General Electric Aircraft Gas Turbine Division, located in Lynn, Massachusetts.[15] There he drove many innovations in jet engine design, most famously the “variable stator” that fine-tunes air compression at the inlet. His J79 jet engine enabled aircraft such as the F-104 to reach air speeds of Mach 2; The development team (Neumann, Neil Burgess, and Clarence L. Johnson of Lockheed) were awarded the Collier Trophy for 1958. Yet even as a Vice President of General Electric, he piloted various jet fighters during the 1960s to personally understand the engines’ performance.

    A major success for GE was his guiding the design and development of the huge high-bypass turbofan jet engines (or simply called “fanjets”) that now power the largest commercial and military cargo aircraft. These include the TF39, CF6, and (in 50/50 collaboration with SNECMA[16]) the CFM56.

    Like Kelly Johnson, sometime a man builds an industry.

    It’s still beyond me how “the zebra was never domesticated” somehow is supposed to prove “the zebra cannot be domesticated”. How does that logically follow?

    You can be the first. What an opportunity !

  29. Non-domestication doesn’t prove that domestication isn’t possible, but it is suggestive. Like Doc K says, zebra domestication would be a newsworthy accomplishment.

    Do most of us know anything at all about animal husbandry and training? I know very little myself, but have suggested that the horse may be unique among equines in the combination of size, strength, and intelligence. Oxen, for instance, require a lot of downtime, are slow, and all their power is in the front–the hind legs are for steering only and limit their utility in mountainous terrain. It’s easier to imagine that people tried various animals and isolated the useful ones than it is to imagine that continent-spanning civilizations missed good draft and war animals over thousands of years, but YMMV. Apparently reindeer were domesticated for draft and sometimes riding several times in prehistory, but they aren’t as versatile as horses.

    Sir Peter Hall’s book Cities in Civilization has very instructive capsule histories of the great ages of influential cities–among modern American cities he chooses Detroit and Memphis as examples of the world-changing creativity that can arise from favorable locations and circumstances. The US car industry grew up in Detroit partly because it was already a center of transport and transport-adjacent (in both the tech and geographical senses) industry and experimentation, there was some buy-in from the existing money elites, and it had unparalleled connections by land and water to resources and markets. All contributing to bring pioneers like Ford, Olds, and others into the game.

  30. I have no interest in taming a zebra, and domestication must be the work of hundreds, or thousands, of years, but that has exactly zero relevance to whether it’s possible or not. All we know is that no one ever bothered to. I would suspect there are plenty of alternative timelines where Southern African history is slightly different and they herd ostriches and ride zebras. The notion that any advanced animal literally cannot be domesticated I just find baffling.

  31. The domestication of the zebra is not an earth shattering matter but it is interesting that it was never used for any domestic purpose and neither is the African elephant while the Asian elephant has been a domesticated work animal for centuries, if not millennia. The Masai domesticated cattle for limited purpose.

    I think the domestication of the horse must have preceded the invention of the wheel. Maybe ox carts came first but they are probably too slow for a migratory people like the Indo-Europeans. The IndoEuropeans probably conquered all of Europe except for Sardinia and far southwestern Spain. Of course they also went to southern India and might have been the origin of Indian castes

  32. Re domestication of Zebra:

    I believe I once saw a photo of a cart pulled by two Zebras – This was done by a colonist in the Belgian Congo. I also heard of some Boers that rode Zebras.

    All of these seems to be more in the lines of stunts to impress their neighbors rather than serious attempts at domestication.

  33. While the process of refashioning wild animals to human needs has been going on for millennia, I don’t think the first act of domestication took more than a few years at most and probably far less. Human enterprise just doesn’t operate on that sort of time frame.

    I don’t think it’s plausible that prehistoric man would have persisted in something that didn’t yield fairly immediate gain. The process of breaking a horse usually shows progress in a matter of hours, albeit, using the progeny of domesticated animals and a lot of experience. The advance was in seeing the potential and probably carefully selecting the animals for the original trial.

    I’m really curious as to when the process of gelding horses began. Stallions for riding are like sports cars, mostly a liability and an indulgence for people with more money than they need.

  34. My impression is that elephants aren’t domesticated, they’re tamed.

    “I don’t think the first act of domestication took more than a few years at most and probably far less. ”
    That’s not what domestication means, though, I don’t think. I think it means the animal has been bred by man for long enough that it’s not considered “wild” anymore, so I believe it takes many, many generations.

  35. Through the wonders of the Internet, I learn that zebras are mean sumbitches. Besides a different physiognomy (I hate to disappoint, but a zebra is not just a horse in striped pajamas after all) the beast lacks the temperament and intelligence to be of much use to humans. People have tried, apparently.

    What is an advanced animal, Brian? It’s not a term like “domesticated” or “trained” or “captive” (terms which can be contested but at least are commonly used) and I’m not sure what quality sets them apart from unadvanced animals.

    Horses were used to pull chariots before they were bred big and strong enough to carry riders in battle. The process took many hundreds of years, apparently. Is it the quality of being “advanced” that made them useful this way, or just that they had evolved a particular combination of traits and abilities that made them so?

  36. Cousin Eddie:
    At first I just typed “animal” but then figured some wiseguy would say, “oh yeah, what about a starfish, huh?”, so I put the “advanced” in there.

    “People have tried, apparently.”
    As far as I can tell, people “tried” when Europeans came to Southern Africa, but gave up, because why bother to domesticate the zebra when the horse is already available? I assume the areas where zebras live never had dense enough human settlements to make domesticating them worth it, for either trade or warfare purposes. It seems like modern man (i.e., in recorded history) hasn’t really succeeded in domesticating anything. Does that mean our prehistoric ancestors domesticated everything that could be? Of course not. Seems to me more likely that man domesticated the horse, wolf, camel, and farm animals (the cat of course, as everyone knows, wasn’t domesticated but rather self-tamed, haha), and that provided enough advantage to spread globally. Once those were done, the advantage to domesticating others vs. just obtaining the ones where the work was already done went away, so it wasn’t worth the effort anymore. Are we really to believe that it would have been *impossible* to domesticate the fox, coyote, raccoon, even bears, etc.?

    A zebra isn’t comparable to a “wild” horse because I believe that with the exception of some rare horses from Central Asia (where they originate?), they are all descended from domesticated horses, so they aren’t wild any more than “wild dogs” are somehow wolves because they’re on their own now. The zebra is more like the ancestor of the horse undoubtedly was, which should impress us with the amazing achievement of our distant ancestors in domesticating them.

    This is actually all quite interesting–does anyone have any references for books that specifically talk about animal domestication in more interesting ways than Diamond, et al?

  37. When I said domesticate, I should have said broken to ride. I would imagine that they had already been habituated to humans and staying with a human directed herd. Again, I imagine that they were first exploited for meat and possibly milk for some considerable time before the idea of riding came up. So they would have been at least partly tamed.

    They were vulnerable to some rather nasty predators. It’s possible that humans provided enough added protection to give a survival advantage to the their herds over the wild ones.

    Modern wild horses are pretty wild, many may be 20-50 generations wild. Only a minority ever become domesticated, generally only those that are captured quite young. They are not subject to meaningful predation.

  38. It’s amusing to see this argument about zebras get so far from the original topic. Why did sub-Saharan Africa never develop domestic animals? The zebra and elephant were numerous. Many species of gazelles served a similar purpose to those in Mesopotamia, where agriculture may have originated. They were a transitional food source but, in Africa, they never got scarce as was suggested for Mesopotamia. Maybe agriculture was not needed. Maybe domestication of animals was not required. Anyway, I continue to read the book.

  39. Yes, Brian, I for one believe that there are animals that are BY THEIR EVOLVED NATURES unsuitable as tools for human purposes. One of the links I got to says that zebras are seriously mean and violent, having evolved among great cat predators. You don’t have to believe it, but it’s information that might be important.

    Your terminology is too vague anyway. You never defined “advanced” animal. Mammals? Quadrupeds? Apparently bears fit your notion of advanced animal. Why?

    Where is your line between advanced and otherwise? Zoos are full of big horse-like animals–why not use gnus?

    Horses die like flies in SS Africa–the Brits lost tens of thousands in GSE in the Great War. Mules, donkeys, and horses are STILL in use in war, everywhere they can be useful.

  40. A little history of GM locomotive business efforts:

    My father late father in law was born to a large poor uneducated family in Arkansas in the 1920’s When World war II came around he got drafted and when he went in he said they gave all draftees some sort of written appitude test and he got an outstanding score. He said he was surprised to find out he was smart. As a result of the test the Army, expecting a long war, sent him to engineering school in New York because they thought many engineers would be needed before the war was over. When he graduated the war was over so he got a job with General Electric in Wisconsin. In the late 50’s according to him GE created a secret program to re enter the railroad locomotive business to compete with GM by building a national electric driven railroad system. To lead the new division they did a survey of their company to find their most promising young executive to lead the division. My father-in-law, Clyde Chumbley was the guy they picked. He picked up his family and moved his a wife and 4 kids, to New Canaan, Connecticut and started commuting to GE headquarters in NYC. They gave him a huge budget, big office and a large staff of engineers and scientist and he set to work. Not sure how long it took but eventually General Electric concluded the technology just wasn’t there yet and gave up on the program. My father in law got put out to pasture in St. Louis, Missouri running GE’s regional electrical transmission equipment business office which served power companies and other large electricity users in the midwest. I met him in the early 80s when I met and married his daughter. One of his grand daughters, my daughter, is certainly a smart off the block with a degree in neuroscience from USC. I am her dad. Mr. Chumbley was one of the nicest, likable, most gentle and smartest guys I ever knew. He told me the story of his early days. Luckily for me he spent his retirement years playing board games like Battleship with my daughter and he always let her win. He was a member of Mensa and liked to play competitive poker. He retired when Jack Welch came aboard as CEO and started stripping the company of it’s lagging divisions to focus on plastics, jet engines and financial services. For those that don’t remember Jack was quite successful and it really helped my father in law’s retirement. As far as I know Jack ignored railroads.

  41. Welch did keep the locomotive business; it was part of GE until recently when it was sold to WABCO as part of Larry Culp’s save-the-company efforts. Don’t know if it was properly resourced or not

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