Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Toying With Some Post Ideas

I've been getting bored of my current selection of topics recently and have been wondering what direction to go in next. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the Iroquois and Gregor Mendel and I've been thinking about looking into why the Chinese came to America to work on the railroads in the 1800s.

In the comments of my Gregor Mendel-Iroquois post, someone left a snark suggesting I read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (GGS). I claimed that I had read it, but in retrospect, I realize that I had not, I had only been lectured on its fantastic analysis by a friend. After looking through various websites and blogs which discuss it, I've decided to give it a quick read and post about it here.

What little research I've done on the Chinese interactions with the West prior to the 1900s has shown a parallel with the modern Islamic world. That is, both the Chinese and the Moslems believed that they were the center of the world and had nothing to learn from the Europeans. Meanwhile, the Europeans learned as much as possible from them. I wonder if the American Indians were the same way? How about the current sub-Saharan African nations?

What do you do when confronted with a civlization that is way ahead of you technologically? If I recall correctly, the Japanese took a different path and tried to learn as much as they could and as fast as they could and apply it to their own society.

Enough guessing. I need to do some reading and thinking.

Update: Thanks to a review on Amazon, I've discovered Victor Davis Hanson's book reply to GGS, Carnage and Culture. There was also a debate between the two on PBS where Victor Davis Hanson just kicks Jared Diamond's ass all over the radio dial. You can listen to the massacre here.


A Jacksonian said...

The Chinese had a word for those that conquered them, two generations onwards: Chinese. Any exterior ruling group that came to rule China became Chinese in that period of time, and Chinese culture was pretty far advanced compared to some during its history.

Japan is the culture that self-isolated as its ruling aristocracy made up 10% of the culture versus 1% in Europe. The last war waged on Korea from Japan before WWII had the General writing back to send more men with guns and no more Bushido. Within a decade Japan closed itself to the outside world. It was very advanced to the point where its culture imploded as the societal structure couldn't shift with it.

In the US Western frontier the wars slowly pushed the Natives back until the Ghost Dancers thought that special garments could make them ghostly to bullets... it didn't work. Only in the modern era have the natives learned to exploit the Western proclivity to high taxes and gambling to offer duty free gasoline and casinos - we deserve that.

Throughout most of recorded history the 'superior' culture doesn't last long enough against primitive types - Rome took over most of the civilized world including Carthage, Greece, and Egypt, and yet lots of barbarians from the Steppes came sailing through to make a ruins of things. Too civilized to survive, we call that: decadence.

The Five Iriquois Nations actually made a go of it early on, but succumbed to disease and lower population growth. Before that, however, the Mohawk demonstrated that a superior culture can just commit genocide as seen in the Huron wars.

Once you get into the 18th century things change due to industrialization: the fundamentals of society depend on technology and that leverages economic differnces culturally. Thus in India the British would take over and end the eternal wars between minor princes and kings and offer a unifying language and legal system. The language of the law in India is still English for that reason.

When Japan re-entered the world after Perry, they adopted industrialization with avengance: by 1905 they had defeated the Russians in the Pacific and were making noises about further expansion of their Empire. It is only after the defeat of WWII that Japanese culture shifted to a different and non-military form, but industrial Japan re-built based on the few things their meager resources would allow and built up from there.

The Dowager Empress of China would not be so lucky and the problems of the opium trade would cause widespread addiction and cause Western churches to seek an end to that trade: we have them to thank for modern drug laws. That did not end China's problem and it would only be ended with Mao who took the expedient of killing the drug growers and dealers and their families.

In Africa the history is much less sanguine, and native cultures, many of which continue on to this day, did adapt to one degree or another but the de-colonialization removed the structure for those adaptations. Many of the older tribal structures would re-assert themselves, to often deadly effect, with modern weapons.

Then there is The Balkans... that area has resisted: Greece, Rome, Turks, Germans, Russians. Each of those 'more advanced' and yet none of them actually having a long-lasting effect beyond putting another cultural overlay on the area and creating some new feuds to last through the centuries.

Basically there is no single theme of 'advanced' Nations and cultures and 'primitive' ones (in comparison). We think the advanced always win, but that has only been a 50/50 proposition over centuries and even in our last couple of centuries places like Afghanistan has ruined perfectly fine British and Soviet armies that were way more advanced than the locals. Rome and Greece were each over-run multiple times and Greece has a few dark ages in its history to prove the point that 'advanced cultures' often fall. The Aztecs, Incans and Mayans would each succumb not only to invaders, but diseases, as would the Northern tribes, plus alcohol. You name an outcome, the world has seen it. Less advanced winning? Multiple times: Vandals, Spanish Christians, Huns, Norse, Jews in Canaan, Troy, Hittites, Yugoslavs against Germany, Finns against Russia. Conquering is something else again, as is assimilation. That is part of the diversity of mankind that caused the formations of city states, empires and Nation states. And none are safe from change as the Flemish in Belgium demonstrate and the Scots as part of the UK. The Americas were less well adapted to this form of thought and would succumb quickly across two continents, but only now do we realize that this was going on internally for centuries before that, although on a smaller scale. At some point that gulf of technology and understanding matters greatly, but where and when is very hard to pin down. If you can't create a city state then those with the concept and tools of a Nation state will overwhelm you just on sheer organizational capability.

A topic much covered in SF, from the humorous High Crusade by Poul Anderson to the outre Sentenced to Prism by Alan Dean Foster to a few historical recastings like Uller Uprising by H. Beam Piper. Then there is alt-history, which juxtaposes times and recasts events like the 1632 series by Eric Flint to the Hammer and Cross books by Harry Harrison.... history is not inevitable

Rose said...

See what you think of this guy's post, KT...

K T Cat said...

Rose, I agree with the general concept of that post, that our modern morality makes for a poor tool to judge the past. However, I'm more interested in the business mechanisms of what happened. Who was making the money and why? What flowed from that?

Political and moral posts can generate a good deal of ill will. I'm choosing my angle on the subject in order to learn the most, but suffer trolls the least.

Rose said...

Yeah - I like your approach.