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Book Review : Germs Prove Mightier Than Sword

August 26, 1986|LEE DEMBART

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby (Cambridge University: $19.95)

From the title of this book, it is very hard to figure out what it's about. The word ecological throws you off. This volume is not about the environment or anything like it.

Rather it is about an extraordinarily interesting question, namely, why and how did Europeans, alone among peoples of the world, disperse around the globe?

Nowadays, of course, anybody can get anywhere for the price of an airplane ticket. But this is a relatively recent development. For most of human history, oceans were unbridgeable barriers to the movement of people from one continent to another. As a result, Asians are principally in Asia, Africans are primarily in Africa (except for those forcibly taken elsewhere), Arabs are mainly in the Middle East, Polynesians in the islands of the Pacific, Indians in India and so forth.

But Europeans are everywhere: North and South America, Greenland and Iceland, Australia, parts of Africa. Why?

Chinese Stopped Short

Our instinct is to say that the reason is technology. The Renaissance gave European seamen ships that could cross oceans and sufficient seamanship and navigational skills to make such voyages possible. It also gave them the tools and weapons to conquer stone age people with dispatch.

(Why only the Europeans had this technology is yet another question. The Chinese, for example, had invented paper and gun powder and other clever things thousands of years before. But for some unknown reason they stopped there, never developing the advanced technological society for which they had an enormous head start.)

But that's a different issue. In this provocative and fascinating book, Alfred W. Crosby, a historian at the University of Texas, focuses on the Europeans. And, he argues, technology was not the key. Rather, he says, it was the living things that Europeans brought with them that enabled them to conquer many--but not all--of the lands they surveyed.

And among the living things, which included plants and animals, it was the diseases that the Europeans brought with them that ultimately gave them the upper hand. "It was their germs, not these imperialists themselves, for all their brutality and callousness, that were chiefly responsible for sweeping aside the indigenes and opening the Neo-Europes to demographic takeover," Crosby says.

In Europe, periodic smallpox epidemics wiped out large numbers of people but conferred immunity on those who did not die. In the New World, the native people had been isolated from the rest of the world for millennia, and they had no such immunity. As a result, Crosby writes, "the indigenes of the Americas and Australasia were almost defenseless against the onslaught of Old World pathogens that the Europeans brought with them."

That's the main thesis. The book is interlaced with subtheses galore, and it contains a stunning wealth of scholarship and synthesis of detail. It combines familiar material with much that is new in a sweeping history of the expansion of people, animals, plants and microorganisms that changed the world (and, incidentally, allowed us to live in Southern California).

But, as in most of knowledge, it is easier to ask questions than to answer them. A slightly different observation about the state of the world might have elicited a very different conclusion.

Different Questions

Instead of asking how the people now inhabiting the various continents got there, suppose Crosby had asked why the rich countries of the world tend to be in the temperate zones while the poor countries tend to be in the tropics. Would he then have concluded that seasons and climates--not germs--are the basic explanatory principals? A compelling argument can be made for that view.

The accumulation of detail makes an argument powerful, but there is always the question of what detail was included and what was left out. This is not to dispute Crosby's conclusions. It is merely to say that the world is very complicated.

Smallpox, respiratory infections, dysentery and insect-born diseases undoubtedly had staggering impacts on people who were immunologically unprepared for them. But they don't explain all of the facts that Crosby presents.

Why, for example, was European agriculture so successful in the Neo-European lands? Why did Old World livestock do so much better in their new homes than in the old? And even with regard to people, what accounts for the varying outcomes of the arrival of Europeans in different areas of the world?

In the United States, Canada and parts of South America, for example, the Europeans essentially replaced the native populations. But in Mexico and most of South America, the native Indians survive in large numbers. "The rule (not the law)," Crosby says, "is that although Europeans may conquer in the tropics, they do not Europeanize the tropics." His disease thesis does not convincingly explain why.

No brief review can do justice to the vast amount of materials packed into this book. Its richness makes it a pleasure to read. It is a view of history from a novel perspective, and it comes alive in Crosby's able telling--although here and there an awkward sentence or paragraph mars the power of his prose.

If his conclusions are a little shaky, it is only because all conclusions are a little shaky.

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