written for:

Facts, Evidence, Analysis seminar with David Warner

The Facts about Causation, or, consider "terracentrism"

And now we deal with blanca culpa, white guilt, and the manner in which Western historians apologize and explain Europe’s imperialism, from within a culture created by Colonialism, or what Crosby once called “Biological Expansion”[1].  It is interesting that many of these works describing the reasons for the greater impact of one society on the rest of the world do not examine how much of that intrusive impact is still active, following an inertia of its own, while scholars and educators think that their opinions on the ethicality of this have made enough of an impact.  I’d like to note that I am more aware of any potential political incorrectness in such a discussion than the fervently conscientious J.M. Blaut in The Colonizer’s Model of the World, and nevertheless consider my mind infected with certain Eurocentric manners of thought.  That said, I will occasionally deliberately break from such constrictions of terms, because overly differentiating terms are generated by the differentiations of history.  People are not all born equal, although looked at from far enough away (which actually isn’t that far) the qualities of their cultures can be.  Sometimes, Eurocentric apologeticism will provide too many excuses, leading to a kind of historical inevitability that makes alternative writings of history like those in What If? 2 as vague and uninventive as they are.  The difference between an introspective explanation of European uniqueness and an extraspective one like Blaut’s counterargumentative The Colonizer’s Model of the World is a quantity of excuses or of historical causes.  While Crosby tends to exalt a number of interrelated qualities of society and their evolution, Blaut disproves every possible excuse but one.  That one (income from the New World) has its own causes examined in other works I will present.

The ideas of greatest interest in The Measure of Reality are those concerning time, and thus the invention of the clock is pivotal for Crosby in the profligation of quantitative measurement.  The inventor of clockwork is unknown, so it is presumptuous of Crosby to assume it was someone within Europe.  Blaut claims that until contact with the New World, technologies tended to diffuse throughout the world system so rapidly that they rarely contributed to one society’s superiority over another.  In many ways, cyclical time weds itself with the idea of qualitative eras, and cyclical time can also apply to Blaut’s debunked Orient express idea, allowing the imaginary center of civilization to circle around and around the globe, given environmental balance.  Crosby associates one era with a rather nebulous kind of change, while Blaut defines another era with a specific economic change.  These two studies are in fact particularly notable for their segmentation of time.  When one isolates an era one associates a quantity with a quality, in the inverse to the way in which Crosby describes the backward medieval European view that “the different qualities of the different ages could even cause quantitative differences.”[2]  All quality can ultimately be read as quantity; one has to add the corollary that this only applies to certain qualities of perspective.  Nevertheless individual quanta do have qualities, similar to the way historians are attempting to define their respective eras ( either Crosby’s fifty years between approximately 1250-1350 or Blaut’s temporal-landmark-bordered 1492-1688A) by qualities, in Crosby’s case one of rationality and in Blaut’s a resolute dependence on quantitative causes.  The idea that quantification is superior is placing these qualities along a scalar measurement.  Believing an individual historical argument, is a “flying leap of faith” similar to assuming the world “is temporally and spatially uniform and thus susceptible to such examination.”[3]  Sometimes all that matters is how interesting the idea is.   In Blaut’s case, the argument becomes superior through its political correctness as well as the burden of faith-taken evidence: it is better for education and application for a theory of extreme equality to be feasible than one of miraculous qualitative superiority.  Blaut and Crosby tackle what is probably the main issue of world history, best explained by Jared Diamond in his half-anthropological work Guns, Germs, and Steel when he quoted his New Guinean friend Yali’s question(apparently translated rather awkwardly from Yali’s language): “why is it you white people had so much cargo and carried it to New Guinea, while we black people had little cargo of our own?”  The Measure of Reality is only one of Crosby’s several studies on this topic, and the most Eurocentrically inward-looking; he always considers Europe’s apparent imperialistic success (in measuring reality quantitatively, it is that comparison of cargoes that is most revelatory) within what Blaut calls “tunnel-vision”.  Tunnel vision is perhaps too extremely antagonized; after all, separate cultures do focus on their own histories more than those of others,, for reasons of expediency, language, etc.  Part of the problem of studying the rise of Europe is that it depends on divisions into “worlds”: the “Inside and outside” as Blaut puts them, which he seems to convey derived from the original division of old world and new.  Crosby, in his more expansive, although less thematically exciting, book Ecological Imperialism, addresses the old/new world division by devoting his first chapter (obviously with no chronological limits this time) to the splitting of Pangaea, and ultimately claims that the old world dominated the new not only through “infection” of its human population but hostile takeover of its entire ecology which, because humans had arrived more recently, had been thrown off balance by the addition of that new predator.  However, most of his comparisons with this New World success, which Blaut uncharacteristically skims over, are those of Europe’s other attempts at Imperialism: as if the history of the world was dependent solely on Europe just finding the best place to take over.  Diamond, like Blaut, determines that the quality (the “geographic determinism” of which Blaut is only slightly less wary than other inherent qualities) of geography led to Europe’s accumulation of cargo, that is: Eurasia is oriented laterally so that ecological elements helpful to civilization can diffuse along areas of similar climate, while the Americas are “oriented” longitudinally and land crops couldn’t diffuse.  This idea is somewhat deterministic and invites the increasing sense of inevitability of history one gets when listing excuses.  Diamond, when askedB about relocation off-planet in a Really New World manner of species preservation, seemed entirely dumbfounded by the idea of humanity in any environment other than earth: the constants of geographical determinism then instantaneously vary to a much greater degree than they did during the millions of years it took for Pangaea to split.  Later in Guns, Germs, and Steel he pursues the kind of argument about Europe’s divisive coastline that Blaut also declines to entertain, directly comparing it with China and implying that geography fostered multiple nations and thus a capitalist spirit of competition that allowed Christopher Columbus, once rebuked by several Italian princes, to propose his journey to Isabella of Spain.  Theodore Cook’s essay in What If? About the potential discovery of America by the Chinese (a successor to Zheng He leading the expedition across the Pacific) fails to take into account the naval improbability of this, although Blaut notes that Europe really was best situated for contact with the Americas, as does Crosby in Ecological Imperialism, although he seems inclined to offer a greater quantity of causes for the Iberian exploratory drive than this.  Blaut, in his overemphasis of the date 1492, fails to consider the example of Leif Erikson and the Norse, who did encounter Vinland via the northern route, established a settlement, and then died out, either killed by the local indigenous Vinlanders or by the small Ice Age that followed.  So technological superiority (caused, Diamond might argue, by a faster developent of surplus-generating societies) may have had something to do with the Iberian successes in Blaut’s later proto-Capitalist age; the quality of the expedition played some part.  Perhaps it was simply again a matter of quantity of diseases.

Both Crosby’s and Blaut’s comments on scientific cosmology are particularly annoying and demonstrate the problems of a practicioners of the humanities attempting to regulate science.  Crosby describes astrophysicists as using the “nose-thumbing titele the big bang in order to minimize the drama” [4]of creationism.  The term was actually chosen by the nose-thumbing Einsteinian opposition who believed in a temporally infinite universe.  Blaut goes even further in his misunderstanding, with his usual normalizing contempt thrown in: “the so-called big bang theory, the theory that everything began at one space-time point and this point was here, seems to be diffusionism on the largest canvas of all.”[5]  This is wrong: there is no center of the universe except possibly that of the observer, and space-time expands in all directions, just irregularly enough to have stars, planets, people, and other variable densities of matter.  To claim this concept is an “infection” of diffusionist ideas feels the same to one knowledgeable in science as claiming to an Iroquois that only Europeans could have invented democracy.  Blaut barely even considers non-centric ideas of diffusionism, and doesn’t seem to fully comprehend the meaning of the date with which he divides his history.  The number of people in Columbus’s expedition, and the amount of time they stayed on a few islands off the coast of South America, in miniscule compared with the populations of Europe or the Americas at the time, and signals only the tiniest change in the trends of history that would rightly take the next 300 and more years to play out.  One cannot, like Crosby, wield the tendencies of an entire culture just to explain the actions of a few people.  It must be from these few people that the wealth and news of the New World, according to Blaut’s model, diffused.

 

 

Bibliography

Blaut, J.M.  The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History.  New York/London: The Guilford Press, 1993.

 

Cook, Theodore F.  “The Chinese Discovery of the New World, 15th Century” from What If? 2, see McNeill below.

 

Crosby, Alfred W.

            Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. 

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

                                    (An inherently diffusionist book, but with a fascinatingly global

hypothesis.)

The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600. 

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Diamond, Jared.  Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies.  New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.

 

McNeill, William H.  “What If Pizarro had not found Potatoes in Peru?” from What If? 2 ed. Robert Cowley.  New York: G.B. Putnam’s sons. 



[1] Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900

[2] Crosby, The Measure of Reality, p. 29

A John E. Wills Jr. produced a book, 1688, which attempts to narrate events throughout the world in that single year alone, an example of history-as-entertainment based on quantitative limits

[3] Crosby, Measure, p. 17

B by myself, yes.

[4] Crosby, Measure, 27.

[5] Blaut 219