Thu, 08 Sep 2005

Here’s an article I found interesting. The gist of it is that people assume the reason European settlers were able to so thoroughly trounce the native population of America and steal all their land was because of superior European technology. And of course, if the standard you’re using is bigger guns and harder steel, then European technology was superior. But there are other fields, for instance agriculture and the weaving of fabric, where the Americans had the superior know-how.

So the meeting of the two cultures wasn’t so much a case of pitiless machinery rolling through a defenceless Eden as it was a contest of different types of technology, where the combatants were fairly evenly matched. Europeans had their guns and steel, but the American bow-and-arrow was a more effective weapon than the single-shot musket, and American canoes were more manoeuvrable than clumsy European-designed boats; and so on. Where the settlers had the advantage was in their immunity to the diseases they’d brought with them. Once smallpox had wiped out most of the population of a native community, it wasn’t much trouble for the new Americans to displace the old.

None of this is news, exactly. But for me the article raised a question that I don’t think I’ve ever seen answered: Why was it that Europe had so many virulent diseases that took such a toll on the American population, while American diseases apparently had no effect on the Europeans? After all, in H.G. Wells’ (and Spielberg’s) “War of the Worlds”, it’s the colonising force that suffers from its lack of immunity to native bacteria. In real life, exactly the opposite happened. You’d think that each side would be equally vulnerable to the other side’s diseases. But apparently the Americans had no really effective diseases fighting on their side. So why did the Old World evolve all the really potent microorganisms while the New World remained disease-free?

I ran this problem by Warren a few nights ago and he theorised that the Old World was a more favourable environment for the emergence of new diseases because it was filthy and overcrowded. I don’t know much about relative conditions in America and Europe in the 16th Century, so I can’t say whether the life of the average Spaniard, say, was that much filthier than the life of the average Aztec. But it’s certainly possible. It would be ironic if it turned out that Europe’s triumph over the savages of the New World came about primarily because we exceeded them in squalor.

But maybe there is no particular reason why all the most infectious diseases emerged in the Old World and not in the New. Maybe it was just luck. It’s fun to speculate how history might have turned out if the Indians had had smallpox working on their side. Probably the colonies would have withered and died, as the earlier Viking landing at Newfoundland had. More ominously, the ships carrying goods back from America to Europe would have carried plague with them, and it would have swept through Europe just as the Enlightenment was getting underway. Difficult to concentrate on science and philosophy when you’re burning with fever and covered with sores. Meanwhile the Indians were acquiring all sorts of wonderful new technology from the colonists, via trade and plunder: notably guns and sailing ships. So maybe the Indians would have seen the unhealthy condition of the European settlers and concluded that there was nothing to stop them from sailing across the Atlantic and doing what the Europeans had tried to do to them. In which case you and I would probably be living on reserves right now, somewhere in Ukraine or Portugal or County Cork, bored and depressed, and wondering where it all went wrong.

A reply:

For a variety of reasons the fertile crescent was the source of a majority of the world’s livestock. Due to Europe’s east-west axis, the livestock spread easily between locations. As a result, there was a higher prevalence of livestock coupled with concentrated populations. This acted as an excellent cattle pen for the nasties to decide which people were fit to carry on their legacy.

Olin Valby

Makes sense. I read somewhere that the next global pandemic will probably originate in southern China or southeast Asia, where the presence of large numbers of livestock (mainly poultry) living in close proximity to humans makes it more likely for diseases to hop from bird to human hosts.

It reminds me of how I used to get sick all the time when I was working at a Mac’s convenience store, taking money every day from the hands of filthy disease-ridden children. Once I moved over to the porno store, where I was taking money only from the hands of healthy perverted adults, my sicknesses decreased dramatically.

I imagine the unhealthiest environment in the world would be a chicken farm run by small children.

0 Responses to “Plague vs. plague.”



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