What I've been reading (vol 8.): Economic history

As announced in the previous blog post the next two book reviews will cover four very interesting history books (well, history to some extent). The first one is actually all about geography and anthropology, and little bit about history - the Pulitzer winning book by Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has long been on my reading list and I am finally happy to have read it, and I have to say - it hasn't disappointed. Far from it actually. I can see why it was an instant success. The second is a more recent book, Harari's Sapiens. Another bestseller with an overreaching arc that extends from the biological knowledge about our ancestors all the way to the modern technological revolution that has the power to destroy our very species. In short, two brilliant books! Let's begin. 

Diamond, Jared (1997) Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton, New York.

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Jared Diamond, a noted polymath (made contributions in the fields of anthropology, biology, ornithology, ecology, history), delivers his unique and comprehensive theory of how societies evolved over the past 13,000 years, ever since the start of the agricultural revolution. He explains in amazing detail the multitude of factors that led to the dominance of the Eurasian civilization over all others. Most importantly he successfully discards the intellectual, moral, and genetic superiority arguments and instead proves how the initial geographical differences led to the huge technological gap between Eurasia (Old World) and the rest of the conquered (New) world. 

The essential question that he aims to answer is why history unfolded so differently on different continents. Why hasn’t it moved in the other direction, i.e. why haven’t indigenous Americans, Africans or Aboriginal Australians conquer the Europeans and Asians? Why are some parts of the globe so much better off than other parts? Why did civilization manifest itself differently in different places? Why did writing, technological progress, and organized governments originate in the Fertile Crescent (ancient Mesopotamia) first and not anywhere else? Why did the Spanish conquerors of South America had guns and swords, while the indigenous Aztecs and Incas only had wooden tools that were no match for the conquistadors? Even more interestingly, how did the Spaniards led by Pizzaro against the Incas, and Cortes against the Aztecs, managed to overcome these civilizations by only a handful of soldiers compared to the tens of thousands of Incas and Aztecs? 

The simple answer is embedded in the title of the book: the Eurasian conquers had the obvious advantage of guns, germs, and steel. Germs are the surprising addition to the usual advantages in military technology, as more indigenous peoples died from being exposed to diseases the Eurasian conquers were resistant against, than from their guns and swords. Additional factors that helped the Eurasians in their conquests were the technological innovations in maritime technology (enabling them to build large cross-ocean ships), their domestication of horses (a big advantage in warfare), the centralized political organization of their domestic states (that enabled the financing of explorations) and writing (for the quicker spread of information). These, however, are only proximate factors. They explain why the European conquers from Spain, England, Portugal, France, Netherlands, etc. managed to easily overcome the indigenous tribes and supposedly “primitive” civilizations, but they don’t tell us anything about how the Europeans got to these tools and advantages before the Americans, sub-Saharan Africans, and Aboriginal Australians. 

The ultimate causes of these inter-continental differences are what this book is about. It identifies several constellations of environmental factors that provide a large part of the answer to the initial question: why did history unfold differently in different places? 

All the factors are so diligently presented in the following diagram: 

The first major ultimate cause was the domestication of plants and animals, i.e. food production. This created food surpluses and consequently food storage. Having surplus food meant that there was no need for everyone to work in agriculture anymore, and that others within a society could specialize to do other things (like become bureaucrats, soldiers and rulers) and that these non-producers could be fed from the surpluses created for the whole society. This crucial factor of more food production enabled the growth of early population and further encouraged sedentary life-style as well as large and dense societies. This was the starting point for the origination of political and religious organizations, both of which were crucial in enabling cooperation between unrelated individuals in large societies. One of the underlying tasks of the political organization was to protect the food surpluses by organizing armies. Thus the first soldiers emerged, all loyal to the ruler who further strengthened his rule by assigning himself divine characteristics (which is where religion comes in as the first form of propaganda). Having surplus food, dense societies and political organization, writing was another factor crucial to sustain these relationships. Initially, writing developed as a way to note who owned stuff to whom. It was all about accounting. Only later did it evolve to support myths, religious stories, and propaganda. The origination of early political organizations also gradually developed into obtaining the technology for warfare (guns and swords), and a whole range of other activities. Finally, the very domestication of animals led to the development of new types of diseases carried to us from animals we lived close to. The bodies of Eurasians developed resistance towards such diseases over thousands of years, whereas the rest of the world never had any exposure to them before, primarily since they had no exposure to large mammals suitable for domestication. The Agricultural revolution, generating the ultimate causes, was thus arguably the most important condition behind explaining the proximate causes of societal differences and hence the development of Western civilization.

To understand this entire mechanism in more depth, I do recommend reading the detailed evidence so eloquently explained in the book. I could write pages and pages of comments on this, but I have to be concise in this review (which is, in this case at least, an impossible task).

How has the domestication of animal and plant species occurred in the first place? And why did it happen differently in Eurasia then the rest of the world? The answers to those questions are in my opinion the best part of the book, and the biggest contribution that Diamond’s theory has made. Here is where geography kicks in

The first reason Eurasians were able to domesticate wild species of animals and plants were the huge number of such species available for domestication in the first place. Food production developed in the early ages in only a few places around the globe, ecologically and geographically suitable for food production (at different times obviously): the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia), China, Mesoamerica, Eastern United States, the Andes, and possibly also West Africa, Ethiopia, New Guinea, and the Amazonia (it is inconclusive weather these areas developed food production on their own or was it influenced from other centers). What made these areas suitable for food production and why have the areas in the Fertile Crescent and China developed food production differently than elsewhere?

Jared Diamond, the explorer in his 'natural habitat'
First of all, food production was not discovered or invented. Its origination was purely random. The choice between the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the sedentary food production lifestyle was a gradual, unconscious occurrence. There are five contributing factors that made the gradual switch from hunter-gathering to food production. The first was a decline in the availability of wild food. Both plant and animal species (e.g. in the Fertile Crescent, the decline in the abundance of gazelles, a major food source for hunter-gatherers, encouraged animal domestication). The second factor was the increase in the domesticable wild plants that made domestication more rewarding (partially as a result of climate change). The third factor was the development of new technologies for collecting, processing and storing food. These included early blades for harvesting, baskets for carrying crops, underground storage pits, etc., all available in the Fertile Crescent by about 11,000 years B.C. The fourth factor was the positive feedback loop between a denser population and the rise in food production. All of these factors explain why did food production begin when it did (cca 8,500 years B.C. and not earlier). And fifth, more denser populations of farmers quickly displaced or killed the remaining hunter-gatherers. 

Why the Fertile Crescent and not anywhere else? Many areas around the globe had a similar Mediterranean climate, but it was Mesopotamia where food production started first, whilst in other areas with similar climates (like California, Chile, South Africa, or Southwest Australia) it never did (until the colonizers came). The Fertile Crescent possessed several advantages over all other areas for the successful development of food production. First, and most important, it was the largest such area, and it contained by far the largest amount of large-seed plant species (with suitable characteristics for easy domestication), as well as the largest diversity of animal species. Second, it provides a wide range of altitudes with a short distance corresponding to the variety of environments (mountains and lowland rivers, flood plains and deserts suitable for irrigation) and consequentially a wide diversity of plant and animal species. This also implied staggered harvest seasons as plants at higher elevation produced seeds later than plants at lower elevation. It meant that the hunter-gatherers did not need to be confined to a single area initially. Third, it experienced the greatest variation in climate from season to season which favoured the evolution of the largest amount of annual plants. For example, the Fertile Crescent contained in total 32 suitable large-seeded plant species, whereas North America contained only 4, Mesoamerica 5, South America 2, East Asia 6, and Sub-Saharan Africa 4. The particular regions with Mediterranean climate like California and South Africa had only 1 such species, and Australia not a single one. The exact same story is true with animal species. There were virtually no large mammal species suitable for domestication in other Mediterranean zones of the world, whereas Mesopotamia enjoyed the simultaneous existence of four big mammal species – goats, sheep, pigs, and cows. In fact there were only 14 animal species suitable for domestication, almost all of them (13) exclusively tied to the Eurasian continent, and only 1 in the Americas. This alone goes a long way in explaining why food production and plant domestication started in Mesopotamia. In addition to having the most species, Eurasia also had the most (almost all, in fact) plant and animal species suitable for domestication.

The final geographical advantage of Eurasia over all other continents was the ease of spread of such species across the Eurasian landmass, due to its east-west axis. The Eurasian landmass is oriented east-west, whereas the Americas and Africa are oriented north-south. Axis orientation is very important for the spread of species, particularly for plants. An east-west orientation offers the same latitude, the same day length, and the same seasonal variation. These all imply the origination of the same diseases, temperatures and rainfall, which give rise to the same type of species across the landmass. This was crucial for the rapid spread of crops from the Fertile Crescent on to Europe, as well as from China to the Indus Valley. Animals and plants enjoyed similar climate conditions and could have easily adapted to new environments across the Eurasian axis. In African and American north-south axes this was much harder due to geographical obstacles unsuitable for agriculture such as tropical rainforests or desserts, not to mention different climate conditions in the far south versus the far north. The benefits of Eurasia’s east-west orientation were not only confined to plants and animals. It later became even more obvious with the spread of inventions such as writing or the wheel. In contrast the wheel invented in prehistoric Mexico never spread south to the Andes (in fact, the civilizations in Mesoamerica were unaware of each other). The same is true for writing. Finally, the east-west orientation was extremely beneficial to the development of early trade – exchanges of crops, livestock and technologies were driving the Eurasian civilizations forward at a pace unimaginable in hunter-gatherer times.

Harari, Yuval Noah (2011) Sapiens. A Brief History of Mankind. Vintage Books. 

Harari’s Sapiens is a book about us – humans. How we evolved from the primitive animals to hunter gatherers and sedentary farmers, how we moved to top of the food chain to dominate all other species, how we learned to plough fields, how we invented an imagined social order and social conduct, how we unified behind our imagined constructs like money, empires, and religion, how we used science to grow even stronger, so strong that we are even capable of destroying our entire species and our planet. Sapiens is the ultimate story about us. 

Harari takes the reader through a fascinating historical journey. The book is divided into four parts, each corresponding to a historical era, but also to different stages of human progress. We begin with the Cognitive revolution and how the homo sapiens evolved from an early primate (i.e. our common ancestor), explaining how the life of hunter gatherers looked like and how our species began settling the vast open spaces of our planet. Then the story moves on to the Agricultural revolution (which the author dubs the biggest fraud in history) presenting a fascinating theory of our imagined order. It then furthers this argument even more by explaining in the third part (The Unification of Humankind) how money, empires, and religion tied us together and enabled us to cooperate as a species. Without these three great unifiers there would be no civilization as we know it (or any civilization at any point of history, from the early Middle Eastern empires, to China and India, to Rome, to Western Europe, and even to the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas). Finally, the story unfolds in the Scientific Revolution – the final step that made us the deadly creature that we are today, with a slightly worrying conclusion about the possible future of our species. 

The first part, the Cognitive Revolution, starts from the origin of our species and how it ascended to dominance over all other human species that existed on Earth. It summarizes well the standard evolutionary biology arguments on the importance of starting to walk upright, handle fire, and cook food, all of which contributed to the development of a larger brain. This development (walking upright) also affected the shortened pregnancies of women and consequentially the necessity of more than one person to raise a child, thus increasing social behavior and cooperation among early tribes of our species. Because of this fascinating evolutionary trail, humans developed much closer social networks amongst them. Single mothers couldn’t survive on their own, as they could not gather enough food for themselves and their child. They became dependent on their tribe (consistent of family and neighbors) for food and protection. “Evolution favoured those capable of forming stronger social ties.” Cooperation made the early humans survive.

But what really made us unique as Homo Sapiens was our ability to develop a unique language. We developed language possibly as a consequence of our increasingly social behaviour. Language developed as a form of communication, but not necessarily for warnings against other animals – language evolved thanks to gossip! People living closely together loved to share stories about each other (as we still do). Social cooperation was crucial for early humans in cases of both survival and reproduction. Knowing who sleeps with whom, who is lying, who is not, who is a hard worker and who is a freeloader, who we hate, who will love – is a very important initial character trail of early humans which provided the evolutionary demand for developing a means of communication. By being able to communicate more effectively than all other animals, the Sapiens species was able to develop even more sophisticated types of cooperation. Even more so the development of language during the Cognitive Revolution enabled the humans to spread legends, myths, gods and religion among themselves. The rise of language gave rise to fiction, and fiction gave rise to almost everything else. Religious fiction was extremely important in further strengthening the social ties and cooperation motives between early humans. Later, religion and the nation state (both products of our imagination) will enable humans to cooperate even with complete strangers. Our fiction, our ability to imagine order, has enabled us to move beyond the small tribe and, over thousands of years, become the cosmopolitan creature we are today. 

What does the 'imagined order', the key factor of Harari's theory, exactly mean? Given the development of language and the broadening of early tribes, the largest size of a tribe that can be held together by gossip (and intimate knowledge about one another) is around 150 members. The only way this threshold was to be surpassed into building even larger tribes of humans is by fiction. Only if a large number of people collectively believe in the same fictional authorities (either religious or that of a state), can they successfully cooperate. This is why the early development of religion and beliefs in common myths and legends proved to be pivotal in further evolution of cooperation among early humans, which later fostered their expansion and growth. 

Harari goes on to defend his imagined order hypothesis in great length. Everything we have developed as a social construct is by definition an imagined order. As opposed to a river, a forest, a mountain, the sun, the food we eat and the clothes and shelter we have; the state, the monetary system, corporations (as legal entities), the legal system, human rights - all of these are fiction; figments of our imaginations. They are important to maintain our social conduct, but they were all invented by us. In other words they do not originate from a natural order, but an imagined one. Their existence depends on us telling stories and convincing others to believe in them as well. We hear stories about gods when we are young and choose to believe in them and worship them. We hear stories about our nation and choose to believe in it, love it, and, if necessary, defend it against enemies.  Later when we grow up we hear stories about our money, our currencies and what makes them stable, and banks, buildings that we trust to keep our money on hold for us. We also learn about the legal system through stories. We feel protected by it as we hear stories about how it protected others. We believe a company is good and that it produces good products also through stories they tell us. They convince us that their product/service is necessary and better than other similar products/services. We hear stories from other people buying the product and liking it and we believe them and buy it. Storytelling, developed in the earliest phases of the cognitive revolution, is what makes us humans. It enabled our cooperation and our imagination. It enabled our society to operate as it does today, under a dual reality – the real and imagined objects around us.

In the second part of the book, the Agricultural Revolution, Harari tells an interesting story of how evolution played an important role in switching the Homo Sapiens from forgers to farmers. “The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA”. So the higher the number of humans, the more successful the species. Our basic reproductive instincts changed since we settled down. Farmers living a sedentary lifestyle could give birth to more babies and in a shorter time span than nomadic hunter gatherers. This implied growth of population and considerably higher tribes of settled farmers than nomadic forgers. Furthermore, sedentary lifestyle brought innovation in terms of tools, and with the origination of food surpluses, stronger incentives for protection (and the rise of the first organized armies). Furthermore, sedentary lifestyle contributed to humans becoming even more territorial and protective of their fragile food supplies. This change brought to one very important difference in human behaviour – thinking about the future! They had to learn how to plan ahead, how to manage to grow enough food to keep everyone fed through the winter, and most importantly how to adapt to nature’s uncertainty regarding agriculture. This encouraged innovation and increasing adaptive behaviour, but it also made the people feel more protective of their food supply. Hence the demand for the first types of proto-governments (as already described above). 

From here the books goes on in discussing the importance of writing to sustain the imagined order around us as well as to spread myths and create a hierarchical social order that is responsible for a multitude of class, racial and gender struggles our civilization faced. In the third part the author discusses the great unifiers of mankind: money, empire, and religion. All are imagined, but were crucial in the development of our society. For traders, the world is a single market, for conquerors the world is a single empire, for prophets, there is one truth and all the people are potential believers in it. The final part of the book is about the last piece of the puzzle in the pattern of human history, the one that made us so powerful that we are now able to eliminate our entire species and our entire planet by one single blow: the Scientific Revolution.

Harari here takes a slightly different approach to standard economic history analyses, and attributes the scientific revolution instead of the industrial revolution to the huge increase in human living standards. He cites 1500 as the approximate year when things started to change and evolve into the political and economic order we have today, by comparing the relative variables of living standards then and now. I disagree with this approach, as living standards were marginally better throughout the next 300 years, until the 1800s. Yes, great discoveries were made, new inventions too, Europeans were conquering and colonizing the New World, the enlightenment was responsible for huge advancements in many scientific fields, but the very pinnacle of human development, the very best of inventions that we today take for granted (like electricity, the engine and its subsequent vehicles, machines and telephones, computers and the Internet, etc.) were all invented as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. 

In fact, the Industrial Revolution set the stage for humans to abandon the subsistence-based Malthusian economic model (more on that next time), and evolve into the dynamic capitalist system we know today (the author describes this mechanism very well actually). This evolution was not without its faults, as the early industrial societies were extremely unequal and, due to them being based on an imagined hierarchy, discriminative. From the early industrialization evolved the differences between the rich and the poor, similar to the ones classifying the ruling nobility and the peasants during feudalism. The era of new discoveries after 1500s uttered the rise of mercantilism, an economic order still bounded by the shackles of the Malthusian trap, which failed to offer many benefits to the majority of the population, but only to the elites and ascending merchants. Industrialization (as a consequence of the rising power of merchants) continued in the same fashion, but with the simultaneous rise of power of the population the old elites were forced to give concessions (first to the selected few as in England, which slowly evolved into introducing democracy to the rest of the population), or were being replaced and killed (as in France and Russia). So it was from the trails of the Industrial Revolution, not mercantilism (which tied together scientific explorations and imperial visions of dominance), that democratization was later attainable. Without the significant increase in living standards it would have been hard to imagine for some underprivileged groups in society to get hold of economic and political power and hence challenge the old elites.

I do however agree with his glorification of the Scientific Revolution that enabled us to make an evolutionary leap no other being was ever capable of in the 4 billion years of the Earth’s existence – no other animal ever managed to leave the earth’s atmosphere and land on another planet. No other animal is capable of leaving the Earth at some distant point in the future by colonizing other solar systems. And finally, no other animal ever developed the power to destroy the Earth and end history. Only the Homo Sapiens did. 


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