Charles C. Mann’s 1493: The “Columbian Exchange”, The Homogenocene, And White Guilt

Once or twice per year, my local Costco puts out for sale a big stack of paperback copies of Charles C. Mann’s 2005 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a detailed combination of history, travelogue, and popular science that has become one of more respected and popular nonfiction books of the last decade. I find it heartening that somebody can still make decent money writing an ambitious, serious, and well-researched book.  Now Mann has published a new bestseller sequel about the historical roots of globalization: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created .

In 1491, Mann argued that the population in the Americas was probably greater than in Europe before Columbus arrived—accidentally bearing diseases for which New World natives had evolved no defenses.  This argument appealed to the sizable and overlapping markets for White Guilt, Environmentalism, and New Age ancient wisdom.

Still, Mann also emphasized that Amerindians weren’t exactly noble savages leaving nature untouched. Instead, they actively manipulated nature for their own benefit, often by setting vast fires to clear out unwanted forests and brush.

I wasn’t wholly impressed by 1491’s evidence on the size of the pre-Columbian population.  In a 2006 blog post, I complained—I now think unfairly—that it was “a little slippery.” An overlooked problem with the book: Mann tended to slide back and forth between talking about the Americas north or south of the Rio Grande. Most Amerindians in 1491 lived in what’s now Latin America, but my impression is that most of Mann’s readers didn’t quite grasp that.

Conquistadors like Cortez liked to emphasize the huge numbers of Indians they subdued. In contrast, English-speakers in the past tended to justify their settlement of North America on the grounds that it was not densely populated by indigenous people. In old Western movies, the heroes explain to cruel Indians that the white man will win in the end because there are more of them. Winning the West was democracy in action: majority rule.

Majority rights are unfashionable today, but the word “democracy” isn’t (yet). So the relative numbers of whites and Indians remains of at least emotional interest to Americans.

The truth appears to lie in between. North America had been somewhat densely populated in 1491. Yet, by the time Americans began spreading across the Appalachians in the late 18th Century, the native population had been badly reduced by Old World diseases, as well as by liquor and horses. (The Indian tribes who tamed feral Spanish horses quickly began to prey upon those that didn’t.)

But a simple reality check raises obvious doubts about the idea that North America was ever as densely populated as Mesoamerica: Where are all the tourist attraction pre-Columbian ruins?

I can well believe that pre-Columbian Latin America was remarkably populous before Afro-Eurasian diseases arrived.  In the 1970s, I visited the usual tourist site ruins in Peru and Mexico, such as Machu Picchu and the pyramids of Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City. Besides the famous tourist attractions, both Peru and Mexico feature countless impressive ruins still overgrown and unvisited. The Inca ruins, including extensive terracing of mountainsides to grow potatoes and well-built aqueducts, tend to be more appealing in their usefulness than the blood-soaked Central Mexican ruins, which feature giant platforms built for the optimal display of human sacrifices.

But the U.S. is far less densely littered with pre-Columbian leftovers. On my last drive across the country, I kept my eye out for signs pointing to pre-Columbian sites. On the route I took, I recall seeing only one: Cahokia.

This lost city, outside East St. Louis (which is turning into a ruin itself, but that’s another story), features a giant mound of dirt 92 feet tall that covers the size of a dozen football fields. It took many man-years to pile up that much dirt, especially since the Indians never got around to inventing the wheelbarrow. The population of Cahokia near its peak 750 years ago may have been 15,000, or even higher.

There are numerous other mounds in the eastern half of the country, and even Indian apartment buildings in the Southwest, some still inhabited.

Yet the city of Cahokia was utterly abandoned about a century before Columbus. Similarly, the famous cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado were evacuated about two centuries before Europeans reached the New World. The usual assumptions are that both populations vanished because they exceeded their Malthusian limits.

Or, perhaps there were lots of North American Indians, but, unlike Mexican Indians, they just didn`t see much point in building expensive monuments for future tourists to gape at. My native San Fernando Valley, for example, is a civilization built of lath and plaster. Despite its millions, it possesses few points of interest for tourists today, and none are likely to survive the centuries.

Still, consider the relative paucity of American Indian ruins and the tendency of the few famous urban sites to be abandoned even before Columbus. The simplest explanation appears to be that North America’s population density, while definitely higher during De Soto’s exploration of the Mississippi basin in the 1540s than during La Salle’s voyage down the river in the 1680s, never compared to Mexico’s.

After I posted in 2006, Mann wrote to me to say:

“I read your blog fairly often so was quite surprised to see you talking about my book. I`m sorry you thought I was being ‘slippery’ in not specifying more often when I was talking about the area north or south of the Rio Grande.”

Mann went on to explain:

“You probably saw an artefact of my struggle with terminology. Problem is, the way we divide things up now … doesn`t fit very well with how things were then, when you had a bunch of related, highly urbanized societies in a region extending from about the Honduras-Nicaragua border to the American Southwest, and then everything else. In earlier drafts I tried saying when referring to the not-as-urbanized places something like ‘The area north of the Rio Grande except for the Southwest,’ but this was shouted down by my editors.”

Besides the linguistic awkwardness, you can see a dollars and cents reason why Mann’s editors might object to making it clearer that most Indians lived in Latin America. The market for books about how diseases introduced by the white man wiped out millions of Indians is vastly larger in the U.S. than in Latin America. (Indeed, the market for books of any kind is paltry in Latin America. Similarly, Mexican-Americans rarely buy books.) So obscuring the distinction makes good marketing sense to appeal to conscience-stricken gringo readers.

So I was looking forward to Mann’s sequel, 1493. Economist Tyler Cowen trumpeted it on his Marginal Revolution blog:

“I am spellbound reading it, it will be one of the best books of this year, and, although I know this area somewhat, I am learning fascinating information on literally every page. Mann stresses how much it mattered to suddenly be living in the “Homogenocene”, where Asia, Europe, and the New World suddenly started becoming more alike. Mexico City had the world’s first Chinatown and was the first global city. “

1493 turns out to be a sprawling account of how the “Columbian Exchange” of plants, animals, and people that had evolved genetic differences on separate continents repopulated the world.

Mann argues that Columbus largely inaugurated globalization. By the 1570s, the Spanish were trading Mexican silver for Chinese silk and porcelain in the Philippines.

Old World peoples got the best of the bargain from the Columbian Exchange. Afro-Eurasians picked up extremely useful New World crops, such as corn (maize) from Mexico and the potato from Peru. But New Worlders got Old World diseases like smallpox, yellow fever, and malaria.

The African tropical diseases were particularly important in reordering the world. African epidemic illnesses help explain why Europeans paid so much to transport so many black African slaves to the warmer parts of the New World. The slave trade was globalization on steroids.

Mann recounts Adam Smith’s list of the reasons why slavery ought to be bad business, including the cost of slaves escaping and the danger of slaves revolting. (Mann includes a long chapter on “maroon” settlements in the New World of fugitive African slaves. But his list turns out repetitious and fairly depressing because the only one that has fully retained its independence is Haiti. And Haiti is really depressing.)

According to Mann, genetic differences made black workers economically optimal in the tropics and subtropics of the Americas due to their greater innate tropical disease-resistance:

“Biology enters history when one realizes that almost all of the slaves ferried to the Americas came from West and Central Africa. In vivax [malaria]-ridden Virginia and Carolina, they were more likely to survive and produce children than English colonists. “

Farther south, in the Caribbean, the racial ratio was even more extreme:

“… in the American falciparum [malaria] and yellow fever zone the English were, compared to Africans, somewhere between three and ten times more likely to die in the first year.”

Therefore:

“Biologically speaking, [Africans] were fitter, which is another way of saying that in these places they were—loaded words!—genetically superior.”

It would have been interesting if Mann had speculated about what the outcome would have been if the English had resisted the temptation to import black slaves into North America.  Clearly, the American Deep South would have developed more slowly without blacks to pick cotton. Wages would have had to have been quite high to tempt large numbers of Europeans to risk tropical diseases in the Cotton Belt. The population of cotton states like Georgia and Mississippi would not have grown large until technology, such as electric fans, antibiotics, and air conditioning, made them more habitable by whites.

Without slavery, therefore, America would have largely missed out on the Cotton Boom of the 1850s. (But, we would have also avoided the subsequent Recent Unpleasantness of the 1860s.) Our popular music would have been duller in the 20th Century (But it might have been better in the 21st.)

However, that hardly seems like a fatal flaw. Consider how slowly southern Florida grew until the 1920s. The 2010 Census found almost 19 million residents in Florida; yet Florida’s population was less than one million as recently as 1920.

In the 1850s, some firebreathing pro-slavery politicians called for the re-legalization of the slave trade, in part to better exploit Florida. I can’t say we are worse off today because we passed up that opportunity for expanded immigration.

Still, America survived South Florida not being terribly populated until the technology was available for whites to live there without dying like flies. It would have survived the Cotton Belt not taking off until, say, the 1890s.

In contrast, the Columbian Exchange proved a quick boon to the Old World. The population of Ireland, for example, shot up to almost twice what it is today, as Irish laborers (and their English landlords) found that they could subsist on a diet of milk and about twelve pounds of boiled potatoes per day.

Strikingly, Mann defines globalization as bringing about the dawning of the “Homogenocene”—the era of cultural and even biological homogenization. Proponents of globalization like to congratulate themselves on fostering diversity—that great talisman word of our age—the reality is that the world is becoming, in many ways, more homogeneous. Diets, for example, became more similar around the world in the wake of Columbus.

There are, by nature, two kinds of diversity: micro and macro. Globalization drives the world toward micro-diversity, but away from macro-diversity. Practically every strip mall in Los Angeles, for example, features a Mexican taco restaurant, a Cambodian donut shop, and an East Asian nail salon. Each strip mall is therefore diverse within itself. Yet, even the most ardent diversiphile has to admit that every strip mall seems an awful lot like every other strip mall in L.A.

Eventually, if the prophets of globalization prove accurate, the entire Earth will resemble one gigantic L.A. strip mall. Will that make the world more diverse or more homogeneous?

More importantly, will that make the world better?

The Homogenocene has practical advantages and disadvantages, as the history of Ireland notoriously shows. Mann writes:

“The Irish, who ate more potatoes than anyone else, had the biggest boom: the nation grew from perhaps 1.5 million in the early 1600s to about 8.5 million two centuries later.”

But while the Peruvians had developed about 40 different species of potatoes, which provided them with a safety margin of genetic diversity against potato parasites, only one Peruvian species was taken to Ireland. That made things simple, standardized, and efficient. Then, in 1845, a potato blight began to devastate the crop. A million Irish starved to death.

I wish that Mann had developed further his theme of the benefits and dangers of the Homogenocene. For example, the global dominance of the English language in the 21st Century certainly makes life more convenient for English-speakers. Why bother learning a foreign language anymore?

But is the world in danger of entering an intellectual Homogenocene in which global discourse is restricted to merely that which is considered appropriate in the English-speaking media capitals of New York, Washington, London, and Los Angeles? For example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn couldn’t get his last two books published in New York because they, apparently, offended local prejudices.

Is the world putting too many eggs in too few intellectual baskets?

Mann himself seems on pins and needles about offending the reigning prejudices of the English-speaking world. On the other hand, he’s intellectually sophisticated enough to be leery of opening himself up to criticism from the small but incisive human biodiversity movement by endorsing the reigning inanities wholeheartedly. Moreover, his personal feelings seem to tend toward the unfashionably conservative.

The result is a book that, while fact-filled, is suspiciously vague about the big issues.

A close reading shows that Mann is a bit of a Crimethinker. For example, the promotional materials from publisher Alfred A. Knopf make much of his observation that Mexico City by 1600 was the first globalized, multicultural city. Not only did it have residents of white, Indian, and black descent, but it already had a Chinatown:

“… Mexico City’s multitude of poorly defined ethnic groups from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the America’s made it the world’s first truly global city—the Homogenocene for Homo sapiens. A showpiece for the human branch of the Colombian Exchange, it was the place where East met West under an African and Indian gaze … it was an amazingly contemporary place, unlike any other then other then on the planet. It was the first twenty-first century city, the first of today’s modern globalized megalopolises.”

Diversity!

But how does Mann personally feel about Mexico City, past or present? That’s a more delicate question. Keep in mind that Mann has chosen, like so many other Yankee blueblood writers before him (Noah Webster, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost), to live in that anti-Mexico City, Amherst, the famous little college town in bucolic Western Massachusetts. So it’s not surprising that Mann’s ultimate take on Mexico City is actually quite jaundiced:

“Scuffling in the streets, struggling to pull strings in the government, uneasily cooperating in the military, … Menaced by environmental problems, torn by struggles between the tiny coterie of wealthy Spaniards at the center and a teeming, fractious polyglot periphery, battered by a corrupt and inept civic and religious establishment, troubled by a past it barely understood—to the contemporary eye, sixteenth and seventeenth-century Mexico City looks oddly familiar. In its dystopic way, it was an amazingly contemporary place …”

There are a lot of words there, but the key one is the rare “dystopic”. That’s means “of or pertaining to a dystopia,” which is the opposite of a utopia. One definition of “dystopia” is “a society characterized by human misery, such as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.”

Got it?

Mann’s perceived need to camouflage his doubts about diversity do contribute to 1493 being a tough read.

And the editing doesn’t help. I’m not sure that Mann’s editors at Knopf ever quite grasped where he’s coming from. They’ve invested a fair amount in marketing 1493, but not much in editing it. I suspect they thought they had another politically correct Guns, Germs, and Steel-like bestseller on their hands, and never really got on the same wavelength as their author enough to help him shorten and organize his manuscript more effectively. 1493 is about one final draft away from being an outstanding book

That’s too bad—but, hey, Mann got it published, didn’t he? In a time of intensifying Establishment Political Correctness, that’s a real achievement.