Friday, January 3, 2014

He also had not even heard (or read) of similar threats to anyone else, anywhere else, anytime previously in history

From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, page 80. Here Diamond is reviewing the various explanations for how a band of 168 Spanish adventurers a thousand miles from their base were able to engage and defeat an experienced and recently victorious Incan army of 80,000 in the very heart of the Incan Empire. I have read the hypothesis before ascribing defeat to the absence of a literary tradition but this is a good description.
On a mundane level, the miscalculations by Atahuallpa, Chalcuchima, Montezuma, and countless other Native American leaders deceived by Europeans were due to the fact that no living inhabitants of the New World had been to the Old World, so of course they could have had no specific information about the Spaniards. Even so, we find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Atahuallpa "should" have been more suspicious, if only his society had experienced a broader range of human behavior. Pizarro too arrived at Cajamarca with no information about the Incas other than what he had learned by interrogating the Inca subjects he encountered in 1527 and 1531. However, while Pizarro himself happens to be illiterate, he belonged to a literate tradition. From books, the Spaniards knew of many contemporary civilizations remote from Europe, and about several thousand years of European history. Pizarro explicitly modeled his ambush of Atahuallpa on the successful strategy of Cort├ęs.

In short, literacy made the Spaniards heirs to a huge body of knowledge about human behavior and history. By contrast, not only did Atahuallpa have no conception of the Spaniards themselves, and no personal experience of any other invaders from overseas, but he also had not even heard (or read) of similar threats to anyone else, anywhere else, anytime previously in history. That gulf of experience encouraged Pizarro to set his trap and Atahuallpa to walk into it.
But this story is a multi-causal one with deep layers of complexity. A literary tradition is of course not the whole story.
Thus, Pizarro's capture of Atahuallpa illustrates the set of proximate factors that resulted in Europeans' colonizing the New World instead of Native Americans' colonizing Europe. Immediate reasons for Pizarro's success included military technology based on guns, steel weapons, and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European state and writing. The title of this book will serve as shorthand for those proximate factors, which also enabled modern Europeans to conquer peoples of other continents. Long before anyone began manufacturing guns and steel, others of those same factors had led to the expansions of some non-European peoples, as we shall see in later chapters.

But we are still left with the fundamental question why all those immediate advantages came to lie more with Europe than with the New World. Why weren't the Incas the ones to invent guns and steel swords, to be mounted on animals as fearsome as horses, to bear diseases to which European lacked resistance, to develop oceangoing ships and advanced political organization, and to be able to draw on the experience of thousands of years of written history? Those are no longer the questions of proximate causation that this chapter has been discussing, but questions of ultimate causation that will take up the next two parts of this book.
Problem solving is always an exercise of moving from simple proximate causes to complex ultimate causes. That transition is intellectually engaging, fun, and contentious. There are few firm empirical pathways and much occluding opinion.

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