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Letters to the Editors

Dear World History Connected:

    I read the interview with Jared Diamond with interest. It still seems to me that there are some major flaws in Diamond's account of the world.
    His comments on the "fertile crescent" seem to me excessively naive, yet he has apparently not changed them from his earlier book. Here are some thoughts:
            Is Geography Destiny?
            Is human history a blind adaptation to ecological resources, or should we recognize a major part for human agency? Various forms of a kind of ecological determinism have been circulating recently.  
    In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues the general point that ecological resources, especially fertile land, an abundance of food crops, and the domestication of various animals, contributed significantly in the past to cultural and political success. Abundant agricultural resources create surpluses and these allow human populations to thrive, leading to a leisure class who can spend time on cultural, artistic, and eventually scientific and technological innovation.
    In this straightforward version of the thesis, it has some merit. But reading history in this narrow way leads some to think that everything is in the presence or absence of agricultural good fortune. A good example of that is Diamond's own claim that the fertile crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies "committed ecological suicide." This bold assertion takes no account of the fact that the Ottoman empire, which included the fertile crescent for at least the last four hundred years of its existence, was the longest surviving political regime in the history of the world, c. 1300-1919.
    One could lay many grievances at the door of the Ottoman rulers, but they did know how to maintain an empire. When the "collapse" finally came it was not due to the break down of a fragile ecology. It came about above all because of the intervention of Western European powers, especially the British and the French, but also the Russians during World War I. Those powers were eager to take over the notable resources -of land, food crops, trade routes, and taxable peasantry of a sprawling empire. That empire extended from Algiers in the west, across the Middle East, and into the heartlands of Eastern Europe, including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and large parts of Hungary and Romania. This was no ecologically collapsing domain.  Indeed, geographic units such as the "fertile crescent" have little political meaning.  
    Apart from the political and military pressures exerted on the Ottomans by Europeans, the decline of the Ottoman empire can more properly be attributed to its inadequate economic policies and neglect of modern science and technology. The last five hundred years of that empire saw the flowering of the scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe. In practical terms this resulted in the development of the steam engine, the spinning jenny, the steamboat and lots of other mechanical inventions, along with the discovery of electricity, the invention of the telegraph, the electric motor and many other electrical devices. Nor should we forget that this exuberant period also witnessed the Enlightenment and the development of the instruments of democratic constitutionalism in the Western world.  
    While all this efflorescence was going on in Europe, the Ottomans lagged greatly in learning about and adopting this rich cargo of modern science and technology. But the fault went deeper in that the Ottomans were unable to introduce European style modern universities until the first decade of the 20th century, which meant that traditional, Islamic style education prevailed throughout the empire into the twentieth century.  
    From a strictly political point of view it is evident that the Ottomans were unable to muster the will and resources to internally support the revolution in science and technology that was beginning to sweep the world.  
    Insofar as the economy is concerned the Ottomans adopted unhelpful policies that favored European rather than their own Ottoman merchants. But they also faced significant legal impediments, such as the lack of the legal idea of a corporation, which had existed in European law since the middle ages.  This and several other commercial devices gave Europeans significant advantages in the world of trade.  But the political, cultural, and economic deficits that held the Ottomans back had practically nothing to do with ecological issues.  
    Of course today there are serious ecological issues in the old lands of the fertile crescent, but the real problems are those of failed states and the problems created by sectarian divisions and inadequate political leadership. The modern state of Israel appears to be doing very well agriculturally in a major area of the old fertile crescent. That doesn't mean that the ecology of the middle East is not fragile; indeed it is, just as the ecology is fragile in many other parts of the world. But drawing the conclusion that geography is destiny seems a far cry from a realistic appraisal of human history and what human actors actually achieved, with or without abundant natural resources.  
Toby E. Huff Chancellor Professor Emeritus Center for Policy Analysis UMass Dartmouth  

Dear friends,
I thought you might be interested in seeing my review of [Jared Diamond's] PBS program in July 8 Science. You can access a text version on my Web site at:|Review_of_Guns_Germs_and_Steel.php
all best, Michael Balter
Michael Balter is a Paris-based writer for Science and the author of The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk, An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization.  

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