Monday, May 01, 2006

Horses, Cows and Smallpox

Horses, Cows and Smallpox

Charles C. Mann's "1491" is a marvelous summary of information currently known about the civilizations of the Americas prior to the invasion by Europeans. This is significant information because it shows that the pattern of developing civilization in the Americas was, in places, quite different from the Middle Eastern civilization from which Western Civilization developed. This assures us that the civilization we experience is not the only kind possible and that, therefore, the decline and fall of western civilization is not necessarily an unmitigated disaster.

Pre-Columbian America had no horses or cows so it did not develop highly mobile nomad herders who could harry urban settlements. These "Barbarians at the Gate" formed the military aristocracies of our urban centers and had the ability and tradition to rapidly form empires by warring with other urban centers. Without riding and draft animals one particular variety of civilization couldn't spread quickly over the steppes and take over all the other varieties. American civilizations had some contact by trade, but the light contact facilitated different adaptations to local conditions. The Americas, therefore, became a hothouse for different types of solutions to the mesolithic-neolithic transition. By the first contact with Europeans there were several kinds of civilizations in various stages of development, rather than a uniform kind and level of civilization all over the "known world".

When the Europeans came, the absence of horses and cows meant that Americans had no experience with cowpox and horsepox, and Americans had no immunity to smallpox. Smallpox epidemics caused catastrophic decreases of population so that the viable civilizations were significantly weakened by disease before there was the kind of contact that would have had a significant effect on European (i.e., Western) Civilization.

There are two significant conclusions we can draw:(1) Western Civilization, particularly the value system that uses resource waste as a symbol of status, is not the only possible viable civilization, so we shouldn't be concerned at the imminent decline and fall of Western Civilization, (2) the history of the Americas, to the extent it can be determined from archaological research, can be a sourcebook of civilizations that could be viable in the post-industrial period. In this regard there are two points to be considered (1) it is not likely that a post-industrial civilization could be an exact copy of one of the pre-columbian American Civilizations because the levels of technology are different, the population densities are different and we don't know enough about the details of the pre-columbian American civilizations to copy them precisely,(2) on the other hand it would be possible to adopt the value-system of one of these civilizations and adapt it to the level of technology and the population density we have to deal with.

For example, Western Civilization uses resource waste as a status symbol even if it claims to believe in upward-mobility that is neither gender nor ethnicity specific. It is generally understood that there are not enough resources for everyone to waste them like the elite of Western Civilization, so the Western non-elite and all non-Westerners are alienated. This inherent conflict will be one of the contributing causes of the decline and fall of western civilization. A civilization that started, like the Indians in New England, with the idea of inherent equality and the sense that waste is distasteful would not have that kind of internal contradiction. Such a civilization is described in the novel, "Utopia", found at []. The civilization described in that novel also uses the suggestion of Norbert Wiener (a New Englander) that when robots and computers are mature, nobody will be allowed to work unless they can do something better than a robot or computer. That kind of inefficient work would be a waste. Unfortunately Wiener did not realize that the wasted work of bureaucrats is a measure of the status of their bosses (see Scott Adams, "Dilbert").

Other American Indian civilizations can be helpful during the transition between waste-based values and conservationist values. The Carib Indians and Garifuna (or Black Caribs) of St. Vincent lived in the family-centric lifestyle of slash and burn agriculturalists with a powerful need for independence, a lifestyle maintained since the 1300s in the Windwards Islands, and yet could operate quite comfortably in European (particularly French) colonial society when necessary. (See for a contemporary description and for a theoretical analysis). The ability to operate in more than one culture will be a useful skill as Western Civilization collapses.