Planet Earth

10 Questions for Charles C. Mann

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 2, 2011 4:02 AM


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Charles C. Mann is the author of several books, including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Much of his work has been involved in publicizing the ecological factors which shape the course of human history. You can read a lengthy review of 1493 over at Chad Orzel's blog. Needless to say, I highly recommend it (I read it on the Kindle edition, and it was interesting to see which passages other people had highlighted).

1 - I notice that there is a second edition of your book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, out. Are there any major revisions?

Yes and no. When I went back and looked at the book, its basic thrust still seemed solid (at least to me). Although people had made various critiques of the book, I hadn’t seen any that challenged its underlying premises. So in that way the book is little changed. That doesn’t mean that I was wholly satisfied, though. I ended up rewriting or revamping about a fifth of the book. Most of it was updating to add new research and fixing little goofs, many of which readers had kindly brought to my attention (a blessing of the Internet). One section, though, I completely rewrote—the coda, in which I talked about Indian influences on U.S. culture. The first time around, I wrote about it lightly and speculatively, almost humorously. I didn’t realize that this subject had been the subject of a big fight in historical circles and that therefore I was adopting entirely the wrong tone. Exasperated by my glibness about a subject they had fought over, some historians attacked this section of the book. But I think their irritation led them to misconstrue my argument. What they thought I was saying was not what I was actually saying. The fault was mine, though, for my tone-deafness. So I clarified this, I hope.

2 - 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, is dense with concept and detail. But space was limited. You often tacked between "thinking like an economist" vs. "thinking like an ecologist." What was your general philosophy in terms of disciplinary balance in what was clearly going to be an expansive work?

“Philosophy” is a bit lofty for me. The way I think of it, economics and ecology occupy two intellectual silos, isolated from each other. Even when they do take each other into consideration, it’s not uncommon for ecologists to spout absolute nonsense about economics, and vice versa. This extends to economic history and ecological history. I was trying to write something that showed how entwined these two subjects are, highlighting one or another as the material seemed to dictate. 3 - I was aware of the fact that there were more Africans than Europeans in much of the American Spanish possessions until the 19th century (thanks to some of Henry Kamen's scholarship), but I was intrigued by your reference to a diversity of Asian peoples in these same colonies. In particular, you observe that Mexico City had a thriving Chinatown when the English colonies of North America were only dreams, and that one of the local saints in one region of Mexico may have been born into the Muslim nobility of North India. These are startlingly vivid and surprising data, at least to me. Are Latin Americans themselves aware of these early Asians and their role in their already polyglot history? In other words, are Anglo-Americans just guilty of reducing the texture of Latin America to fit the region into our own preconceptions, or do Latin Americans exhibit their own lacunae on these matters? Latin America is a big area, so it’s hard to generalize. But I think you could say that, say, most Mexicans are only aware of parts of their own history in the same way that most people in the US are only aware of parts of their own history. I grew up on the West Coast and spent a lot of time in Seattle’s Chinatown (or at least the movie theaters—I loved samurai films, Jackie Chan movies and Bollywood extravaganzas). I knew that Asians had worked under brutal conditions on the railroads. But I had no idea that something like 250,000 Asian slaves had been taken to the Americas in the 19th century. Similarly, I suspect that most Mexicans don’t know that Mexico City had a thriving Chinatown by the early 1600s. And most Peruvians don’t know that Asians were a significant presence in Lima as early as the 1611 census. And so on. Incidentally, about that saint—the fascinating Catarina de San Juan [PDF]. There’s little doubt that the china poblana (“Chinese from Pueblo”), as she is called, was actually from South Asia, not East Asia. And the story she tells (see the link) is remarkably consistent, so she may well have been from a noble family. It’s an amazing tale.

4 - Speaking of novelty, if there as one thing that surprised you when doing research for 1493, what would that be?

At a certain point, I had to take a small plane from a small town in eastern Bolivia to a ranch there. This involved going to an airport where a bunch of guys with small planes hung out and haggling with them. I ended up on a two-seater plane with a luggage compartment in the back, the last being occupied by some friend of the pilot. Halfway there, the pilot decided that he wanted to give his buddy a flying lesson. He asked me to steer the plane while he crawled out of his seat and his buddy got in the front seat, all of which involved a lot of flailing limbs in a small space several thousand feet in the air. The whole business was a surprise, to say the least. I had never flown a plane before. I didn’t know what any of the instruments meant. “Don’t worry,” the pilot said. “None of them work, anyway.”

5 - In 1491 much of the space was given over to the demographic collapse in the New World due the introduction of infectious agents from the Old World. Though you alluded to this in 1493 as well, it seems you gave more space to the population gains in the Old World, in particular Northern Europe and China, thanks to introduced crops from the New World such as potatoes and maize. This seems like a classic illustration of an economic system where an exogenous shock, the contact across the two zones, was a game changer in human productivity. This model also made me rethink the distinctive between gains in productivity through more efficient marshaling of extant input factors, and that which is resultant from technological innovation. Clearly introduced crops were innovations insofar as American natives had selectively bred them for thousands of years, but from the perspective of the Old World they were simply "borrowed."

This is trade not as a matter of simple comparative advantage, but as a means toward spreading technology. The consequence was a demographic release from the Malthusian trap at the Eurasian antipodes, at least for several centuries. Would you hazard to guess that these sorts of discontinuities and pulses of cultural change through trade and contact between isolated regions were much more significant in the human past than we might think? My answer would be yes. A whole bunch of big technological shocks occurred when Asian innovations—paper, gunpowder, the stirrup, the moldboard plow and so on—came to Europe via the Silk Road. Decades ago Lynn White wrote Medieval Technology and Social Change, which I read in college, and which argued (among other things) that the introduction of the stirrup into Europe in the eighth century led to the development of feudalism. My understanding is that most historians don’t believe this today, but that they do believe White’s basic thesis, which is that exogenous technology, mainly originating in China, drove much social change in Europe. Despite their impact, these inventions trickled across Eurasia, because trade was slow and inconstant. Encountering the Americas turned the velocity dial up to 11, and we see countless simultaneous shocks occurring across the globe, which is more or less what my book is about. 6 - The sections on rubber were fascinating and shocking. Fascinating because I had not considered in detail how much of our industrial system depends on natural rubber. Shocking because I was not aware of the vulnerability of the rubber monocultures of Southeast Asia to pathogens from South America due to globalization. Have you considered writing a short science fiction story set in a near future with massive shortage of natural rubber? What would be the biggest changes in such a scenario? An apocalyptic science-fiction story set off by a rubber-tree epidemic? I can envision J.G. Ballard turning over this idea in his mind and saying…. Naaaah. Since he had impeccable taste in this sort of thing, I’ll stick with his judgment. But that doesn’t mean that such an epidemic wouldn’t be a huge problem. Thanks to just-in-time manufacturing, companies no longer carry large stockpiles of raw ingredients. I don’t know the normal lifetime of, say, airplane tires (100% natural rubber), but I’d guess that we’d begin to run out of them fairly quickly—in weeks, perhaps. A world with a sudden limit on air travel would be tremendously different from the one we live in now. And that’s only one example. Realistically, what would happen after a rubber collapse is that industry would begin to synthesize high-quality rubber. Right now nobody does this because it’s too expensive, especially given that trees do it for next to nothing. But when the trees go, factories will step in. It will take years to build the factories, and there will be major economic shocks along the way (hope they don’t occur in the middle of a downturn like the one we have now!), but eventually a substitute would be available. Meanwhile, the environmental effects would ripple outward. Right now, rubber monoculture covers an area about the size of Great Britain in SE Asia. I can’t even begin to imagine what would happen ecologically if blight killed all those trees in a short period of time, as happened when Henry Ford tried to create a huge rubber plantation in the lower Amazon in the 1930s. In the next few years, the rotting trees would send a big pulse of CO2 into the air. But who knows what would replace them. Nor do I know what would happen if the tens of thousands of workers on those plantations suddenly lost their jobs.

7 - 1493 is not a short book, but neither is it a 1,000 page monograph. Are there any topics which you wanted to touch upon at length, but which you omitted because of constraints of length?

Oh heavens yes. In my last book I did the research for and roughed out a chapter on the U.S. West, only to realize I had to cut it, because it was simply repeating themes said elsewhere. This was a touch painful, because a) I’d worked on it pretty hard; and b) I’m from the West, so I really liked the material. Initially I hoped to use some of this material in my new book, because much of it concerned the impact of an exotic species: Equus ferus caballus, the domesticated horse. Imported by Spaniards, the horse turned Native American cultures upside down. Peoples collided all over the West as Indians made the same discovery that Central European villagers made when the Mongol Golden Horde arrived—small farmers, who must stay near their crops, are terribly vulnerable to attacks by mounted soldiers. Remember those Edward Curtis photographs like “Old Time Warrior”? He didn’t know it, but he was recorded a modern invention, cultures furiously adapting to new circumstances driven by ecological and cultural exchange. But once again it was simply repeating themes. Besides, a lot of this material is covered in Pekka Hämäläinen’s terrific book, The Comanche Empire.

8 - After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 and Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium argue that the integration of the Old World was much tighter approaching the Columbian Exchange than it had been around the year 1000. The Mongol empires are often markers and drivers of the integrative tendency. Obviously this excludes much of Africa and Oceania from the world system of of 1492, but it does encompass a greater proportion of humankind. You note in passing that the Norse had at least one settlement in North America, and it seems likely that there were centuries of interaction insofar as Labrador seems to have had natural resources necessary for the Greenland settlements. But an "exchange" did not occur, and the Vinland project is now simply historical curiosity. But could it be that the cultural preconditions which were existent in 1492, and allowed for the global European and the Age of Discovery, were only present because of the earlier integration of Eurasians? In other words, perhaps the "Mongol Exchange" was a trial run and necessary precondition for the "Columbian Exchange"?

Once again, I give you a lousy answer: no and yes. No, in the sense that the specific invention necessary for sailing to the Americas—the creation of ships capable of sailing long distances from land—was largely home-grown. Yes, in the sense that the Mongol interest in trade facilitated contact between Mongol China and western Europe. Europe’s great fascination with Chinese luxury goods—the lure that pulled Columbus to make his voyage—began with this contact.

9 - Much of the latter half of 1493 is given over the complex, and understudied, impact of the African Diaspora upon the New World. You allude to the likelihood that the first non-natives to have seen the Pacific may have been Africans, who had escaped to the mainland from Spanish Caribbean holdings. More generally, for much of the period before the 19th century European colonial hegemony across vast swaths of the Americas was more notional than concrete, with space for a world of indigenous, African, and indigenous-African polities in the hinterlands. Shadows of this reality can even be found in the fact that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans do indeed have significant Amerindian admixture, despite the presumed extinction of native peoples on these islands centuries in the past. I suppose one could write a rather rich "Zambo [native + African] secret history" of the New World. Adding the European to the mix Latin Americans are clearly trihybrid, more or less, both biologically and culturally. But I have been struck by the fact that Latin American nations often project a hybrid identity. I've looked at the literature, and done analysis of Latin American individuals myself, and most Mexicans seem to have at least trace of African ancestry. But Mexico is a mestizo nation in its current self-conception. Similarly, there seems to be a wide dispersion of indigenous ancestry across old stock Brazilians, but Brazil is a mulatto nation. Do you think there is something cognitively difficult in conceptualizing trihybridity?

It’s an interesting idea. Obviously, seeing oneself as part of three cultures is more complicated than seeing oneself as part of two. But I don’t know if that complexity is much of a factor. I would guess that Mexico’s self-conception as a purely mestizo nation (European + Indian) is due more likely to the low status that Europeans awarded to African slaves—you didn’t want to admit you had African ancestry. In Brazil, which sees itself as a mulatto nation (European + African), Indians were the most low-ranked. But this is a gross generalization, and a complete guess. I am sure your readers have better, more informed theories, and will not hesitate to adumbrate them in the comments.

10 - Did writing 1493 change your own attitudes toward "globalization"? My impression is that you feel the term itself is less clear and distinct than we might have thought.

Historically, large-scale global trade has served two functions: 1) the exchange of goods between willing sellers and buyers described in Econ 101 textbooks; 2) as a tool of state aggrandizement, in which the private parties are stand-ins for governmental interests. Free-trade advocates tend to regard the former as primary; anti-trade activists tend to see the latter as the real story. Until I wrote the book, I hadn’t realized how profound the tension is between these two roles, and how far back it goes.

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