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Guns, Germs and NationStates

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Chan Island
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Guns, Germs and NationStates

Postby Chan Island » Sun Apr 18, 2021 7:59 am

On my desk sits an old copy of an old book I recently got second hand. You've probably heard of it. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, published in 1997 and recipient of the pulitzer prize and the Royal Society's science book prize the next year.

For those who don't know, Guns, Germs and Steel is a book that describes, in short, how the West came to be the dominant region of the planet. Its main argument is geography- that Western Europe happened to have a number of advantages for the human beings that lived there before 1500 that better enabled them to grasp ahold of new technologies, have the gumption to travel the world and incentivised them to spread their empires all over the rest of the world. The book dismisses theories about europeans being genetically or culturally superior, arguing that any culture that found itself in the position that Europe did during the age of exploration would have done exactly the same thing, with exactly the same outcome.

[Goodreads page for more details: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/184 ... AR0&rank=1]
[Also, the wikipedia page on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns%2C_G ... #Criticism]

As I mentioned, this is a theory of colonialism that received a vast body of praise back in 1997, and I myself might be one of them. I have referenced the ideas of the book multiple times, even on NSG, despite first reading it.... many moons ago, let's put it like that. So many that my memory has failed me, and I don't remember the majority of it.

Yet I am not blind to the fact that, since then, it has gotten a whole lot of criticism too. No, no, that's not the right term. It's received vilification, with anthropologist James Blaut famously calling it misleading. There are many flaws to go around, from the accusation of it dismissing human agency from the equation, to the argument that it excuses the actions of vicious imperialists to the conflation of Europe and Asia. The most persistent one is that it is very Eurocentric. The actions and advantages of Europe are abound, but the perspective of people in, well, the real of the globe is but a secondary concern compared to the great, great fortune that europeans had back in the day.

Not to mention also the simple tooth of time- 1997 was a long time ago, and there's been a vast body of subsequent research into anthropology that puts dents into the thesis, or at least in some of the examples.

Thus, its allure as a comprehensive text on a crucial question in the modern world is compelling, but the controversies surrounding it make me unsure whether my time would be better spend reading something else. After all, I'm only 2 books down in a 6 part fantasy series, or I could actually read something directly related to my actual studies for once in my life.

As the most knowledgable group of people in the world on the subject of politics, anthropology and history, I have complete confidence that NSG will be able to give me the best insights on where I should learn about humanity's past. So I yield the floor to you; what do you think? What are your thoughts on the idea of environmental determinism, and are there better explanations as to how the West dominated? Was Jared Diamond on the right track, or were perhaps his critics the ones who had more truth to their side? What alternatives should a student of the humanities seek to go read? How important *is* human agency in the grand sweeps of history? And how in all hells does Hasselhoff fit into this?

Go!
Last edited by Chan Island on Sun Apr 18, 2021 8:06 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby Nakena » Sun Apr 18, 2021 10:14 am

Pop-history at it's worst.
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Postby Elwher » Sun Apr 18, 2021 12:37 pm

While it, like any work, has flaws it does offer a reasonable explanation of why the Western civilizations wound up in such a dominant position without any claims of White superiority. It is Eurocentric but any work attempting to explain the dominance of European cultures has to be.

To those who dismiss it, I ask what is your explanation of the dominance of European culture over the rest of the world?
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Nakena
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Postby Nakena » Sun Apr 18, 2021 12:45 pm

Elwher wrote:While it, like any work, has flaws it does offer a reasonable explanation of why the Western civilizations wound up in such a dominant position without any claims of White superiority. It is Eurocentric but any work attempting to explain the dominance of European cultures has to be.


Not necessarily. The Ming Empire could have pulled it off too if it wanted. They had the resources and the technology and more manpower even. Regardless Empires rise and fall all the time since the dawn of history.

Elwher wrote:To those who dismiss it, I ask what is your explanation of the dominance of European culture over the rest of the world?


Because of the faustian spirit of the europeans that finally grew stronger than theocentrism.

Regardless theres no intrinsic law or so that european domination of the world was a necessary development of history.

Islamic and sinic civilizations were doing quite well around that time in comparisation and had theoretically too the potential.
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Postby Punished UMN » Sun Apr 18, 2021 12:52 pm

A very unnuanced history. Europe had some geographic advantages, but there are a multitude of other factors which are more important, not least of which was the explosion of cultural, professional, and legal institutions in the late-medieval to Early modern period in Europe, as well as cultural factors such as religious institutions which strongly encouraged the spread of European cultural influence into many other countries. The refinement of military organization, logistics, and tactics over the course of the period was also a major contributing factor, as was the stagnation and [i]decline[/u] of cultural, military, and economic innovation in many other powerful countries (e.g. China during the late-Ming and Qing periods). Norms of international relations in different regions also played a major part in the Great Divergence (e.g. China did not attempt to adopt foreign institutions or knowledge that would have been helpful to it because doing so would have been ideologically problematic).

And yeah, like Nakena said, other civilizations of the period were quite highly developed and had the potential to become the leading cultural center, the main difference imo is that they just didn't have the institutional motivation to make use of that potential.
Last edited by Punished UMN on Sun Apr 18, 2021 12:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby The Two Jerseys » Sun Apr 18, 2021 2:20 pm

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with Diamond's arguments, my only issue with the book is that I think that he tends to ramble on repetitively like he's trying to stretch out the material to fill a page quota.

Personally, I'd rather read Niall Ferguson.
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Postby Ethel mermania » Sun Apr 18, 2021 2:38 pm

Nakena wrote:
Elwher wrote:While it, like any work, has flaws it does offer a reasonable explanation of why the Western civilizations wound up in such a dominant position without any claims of White superiority. It is Eurocentric but any work attempting to explain the dominance of European cultures has to be.


Not necessarily. The Ming Empire could have pulled it off too if it wanted. They had the resources and the technology and more manpower even. Regardless Empires rise and fall all the time since the dawn of history.

Elwher wrote:To those who dismiss it, I ask what is your explanation of the dominance of European culture over the rest of the world?


Because of the faustian spirit of the europeans that finally grew stronger than theocentrism.

Regardless theres no intrinsic law or so that european domination of the world was a necessary development of history.

Islamic and sinic civilizations were doing quite well around that time in comparisation and had theoretically too the potential.


Which is why over 1/4 the globe was under British domination.
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Postby Baizou » Sun Apr 18, 2021 3:09 pm

I weigh Guns, Germs, and Steel very cautiously. It's points aren't irrelevant points, and Diamond's recognition of the relevance of environment is useful, even meaningful. However, I tend to agree with critics who say that Diamond quite overstates his thesis and by so doing diminishes both human agency and the many meaningful accomplishments of the global south. Jared Diamond is a geographer by training and profession. Rather than take his work as a magnum opus on humanity, I prefer to treat his work as an insight into geographic influences on humanity. Specialization is both a blessing and a curse, and as a result Diamond is less familiar with—and therefore fails to account for—the human choices, from both the ordinary and the powerful, that also went into shaping human history.

For example, the Ming Empire was another vast land empire with all the same environmental advantages necessary for global dominance as its European counterparts. So why didn't the Ming conquer the world? Because Ming leaders and mass movements in society made choices. Ming leaders chose not to establish colonial settlements, according to some historians because of civil-political unrest on the homefront. Then, some years later, European kingdoms do choose to set forth in ships and build colonial settlements. European dominance was not environmentally determined, but a matter of different choices made at different times by different people.

As another example, Diamond can make it sound like guns, germs, and steel were the only reasons conquistadors dominated in battles against indigenous American empires. But this ignores the agency of these same peoples. The Aztec Empire wasn't a monolith; some vassal kingdoms chafed under Aztec rule, and these vassal factions provided instrumental assistance to conquistadors, becoming allies in the fight against the centralized Aztec state in the hopes that they could go from being a vassal kingdom to rulers of the empire. Human choices played a role in European conquest in America.

Those are just two examples of flaws I see in Diamond's thesis and how I would propose approaching the history. Your other questions are more difficult to answer. World/global history is hard to write, especially all-encompassing world/global history. There aren't a lot of "competitors" to Diamond's book partly because most historians recognize that devising a simple thesis to explain all human history is a bit of a fools' errand. Humanity and human history is just too big, too vast, too interwoven to compress, simplify, and boil it down as much as Diamond does. Most of the good world history books I'm familiar with are textbooks, and I grant those don't really make for gripping reading.

My recommendation for learning history is not to find a single book, but to try to read widely. For example, I recently read Paul Ortiz's An Afrian-American and Latinx History of the United States, and while that is per its name a work of national history, it is also a work of transnational history that emphasizes the agency, influence, and ideas of the Global South. It's a great book that strikes a much better balance between Euro-America, black (especially black African) America, and Latin American. It doesn't replace Diamond's book (it's not a global history, after all), but it does, to me, represent a better model for how to understand the human past: explicating how various human choices lead to various consequences, revealing the way both the Global North and the Global South have been influential in world history, and exploring the way both important leaders and mass movements create change and continuity over time.

Environment is of course relevant. Our context will always have an influence, and environmental historians have taken their predecessors to task for ignoring environment, resources, and disease. But agency also plays a role, and historians rightly take Diamond's geography to task for ignoring humanity, choices, and ideas.

(I'll have to remember to ask some mentors if they know any good world history monographs. It might be a long shot, because as I said comprehensive world history is not generally something one attempts to compress into a single monograph [or at least, historians don't try to attempt it as much as they used to], but I would like to have something good to recommend to supplant Diamond.)
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Postby Unstoppable Empire of Doom » Sun Apr 18, 2021 3:25 pm

I am partial to the belief that humans are, broadly speaking, motivated by the same factors regardless of culture and certainly regardless of arbitrary things like race. The book puts forth several ideas with merit. Just keep in mind that history is not an exact science. We will never know what Cyrus the Great was thinking when he first encountered steppe people. We can only guess why ancient Egyptians never created realistic art. So when we consider why Europe was the center of the age of discovery, colonization , enlightenment, industrialization etc we are doing some hardcore speculation based on theoretical guesstimates.

Read the book. Read many others. Develope your own ideas and smash it all together.
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Postby Elwher » Mon Apr 19, 2021 9:26 am

Baizou wrote:I weigh Guns, Germs, and Steel very cautiously. It's points aren't irrelevant points, and Diamond's recognition of the relevance of environment is useful, even meaningful. However, I tend to agree with critics who say that Diamond quite overstates his thesis and by so doing diminishes both human agency and the many meaningful accomplishments of the global south. Jared Diamond is a geographer by training and profession. Rather than take his work as a magnum opus on humanity, I prefer to treat his work as an insight into geographic influences on humanity. Specialization is both a blessing and a curse, and as a result Diamond is less familiar with—and therefore fails to account for—the human choices, from both the ordinary and the powerful, that also went into shaping human history.


There I agree. As I said, his work is flawed, just like any attempt to pare human history down to root causes.


For example, the Ming Empire was another vast land empire with all the same environmental advantages necessary for global dominance as its European counterparts. So why didn't the Ming conquer the world? Because Ming leaders and mass movements in society made choices. Ming leaders chose not to establish colonial settlements, according to some historians because of civil-political unrest on the homefront. Then, some years later, European kingdoms do choose to set forth in ships and build colonial settlements. European dominance was not environmentally determined, but a matter of different choices made at different times by different people.


One of the reasons why the Ming empire was eventually overcome by the European ones might be, in my opinion, the very nature of its success. It was an all-encompassing single empire, with no local competition. The number of competing European states encouraged the development of militarism and made forming colonial possessions more critical

I do not promote his ideas as the end-all and be-all of human history, but as a counter to the social historians who tend to make Europeans as the devils who were the root causes of all human misery (yes, I exaggerate for poetic effect). Human agency is, of course, a major factor in history but the choices made by people are limited by the geographical/environmental factors in which they live.
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Postby An Alan Smithee Nation » Mon Apr 19, 2021 9:55 am

It's miles better than The Passing of the Great Race.
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Postby Major-Tom » Mon Apr 19, 2021 9:57 am

I think the book serves its purpose well in that it explains to the average reader that European dominance came not from some antiquated notion of "European superiority," but a variety of geographical, environmental, and cultural factors. Is it oversimplified and lacking a lot of nuance/alternative explanations? 100% yes. But the book is meant for a broad audience, from middle-aged dads to high school students, so if you're looking for an in-depth, truly fact-by-fact account of this phenomena, look for a dry graduate thesis paper, not for a bestseller.
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Postby Nouveau Yathrib » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:03 am

Major-Tom wrote:I think the book serves its purpose well in that it explains to the average reader that European dominance came not from some antiquated notion of "European superiority," but a variety of geographical, environmental, and cultural factors. Is it oversimplified and lacking a lot of nuance/alternative explanations? 100% yes. But the book is meant for a broad audience, from middle-aged dads to high school students, so if you're looking for an in-depth, truly fact-by-fact account of this phenomena, look for a dry graduate thesis paper, not for a bestseller.


This. I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it for a high school social sciences class. Don't remember if it was the summer before I joined NationStates, or two summers before.
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Postby Punished UMN » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:08 am

Major-Tom wrote:I think the book serves its purpose well in that it explains to the average reader that European dominance came not from some antiquated notion of "European superiority," but a variety of geographical, environmental, and cultural factors. Is it oversimplified and lacking a lot of nuance/alternative explanations? 100% yes. But the book is meant for a broad audience, from middle-aged dads to high school students, so if you're looking for an in-depth, truly fact-by-fact account of this phenomena, look for a dry graduate thesis paper, not for a bestseller.

The problem is, like most "bestseller" pop history, it massively overstates the importance of what the author thinks happened and overstates the evidence supporting it. It's not as bad as "How the Irish Saved Civilization" and its ilk, but it need to be more clear that he's promoting a pretty controversial view of a major historiographic debate to the general public without enough background to really judge its arguments.
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Postby Senkaku » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:17 am

It was interesting and somewhat illuminating when I first read it when I was younger, as I've gotten older I've seen more critiques of it and come to better understand it for what it is. I think people stress out way too much about pop history, it's supposed to be enjoyable and thought-provoking for a normal reader, not the most nuanced and visionary scholarly text of our time (regardless of the author's ego or critics' reviews).
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Postby Feyrisshire » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:19 am

It is an awful book. A more fitting term is "Guns, Germs and Generalizations".

One enormous pitfall is that Diamond over-estimated the importance of said "guns, germs and generalizations steel" when technology wasn't really the momentous factor why Hernan Cortes was able to conquer the Mesoamerican nations. Technology simply wasn't a valuable force multiplier when the logistics and the numbers weren't simply stacked in the favor of Spanish conquistadors. We don't really need to mention how early gunpowder weapons are useless in the damp and wet jungles of Mesoamerica and how cavalry also isn't a useful multiplier in ruggy and hilled terrain (In contrast to the often peddled myth that the Aztecs and Mayans thought that the horse and its rider was a single person, they recognized cavalry for what it was pretty early on and adjusted their tactics).

The book misrepresents Hernan Cortes and his band of conquistadors as a macho group of pre-modern Navy Seals and Expendables able to curbstomp all existing native helpless opposition and it could be further than that from reality, when Hernan Cortes actually relied on his Tlaxcaltec allies for help. The Tlaxcaltecs provided him with 80,000 to 200,000+ soldiers which was the sole reason why Hernan Cortes was able to win against the Aztecs and the Tarascans. The reason is that the Tlaxcaltecs also didn't like the Aztecs and thought they could use Hernan Cortes to their advantage.

The history of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica is less like a story of Civ-like Tech Tree advantage, and more of a Mesoamerican Game of Thrones with one white dude in which a Spanish conquistador was able to use the Mesoamerican complicated dynastic power struggle to his advantage to win out. Had the Tlaxcaltecs refused to help Hernan Cortes, he would undoubtedly have lost and history is full of Spanish conquistadors who failed and whose "superior technology" didn't help them either.

Another is that Diamond is prone to exaggerating and generalizing things. The showdown between Pizarro and Incan Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca for example, is depicted as proof of the superiority of gunpowder, when in reality Pizarro ambushed Atahualpa and Atahualpa and his camp retainers were unarmed. Once again, Diamond is prone to removing the story of the fascinating Incan Game of Thrones, failing to mention that Atahualpa was simply a rival claimant to the Incan throne, and Pizarro was once again playing an Incan GoT in complicated Andean dynastic politics.

In short, the premise of Diamond that the reason that the Spanish conquistadors was able to invade the Aztec, Mayan and Incan nations due to their superior technology was wrong, because the reason is that they played the Aztec, Incan and Mayan royal dynastic game and lucked out on being successful on that part.

I think this also could apply to other parts, such as his thesis that the reason China was unified because it is flat as also flat-out wrong, ignoring that China had lots of mountainous regions such as in Sichuan mountain ranges, and also has long periods of disunity and warring states.
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Postby Punished UMN » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:34 am

Feyrisshire wrote:It is an awful book. A more fitting term is "Guns, Germs and Generalizations".

One enormous pitfall is that Diamond over-estimated the importance of said "guns, germs and generalizations steel" when technology wasn't really the momentous factor why Hernan Cortes was able to conquer the Mesoamerican nations. Technology simply wasn't a valuable force multiplier when the logistics and the numbers weren't simply stacked in the favor of Spanish conquistadors. We don't really need to mention how early gunpowder weapons are useless in the damp and wet jungles of Mesoamerica and how cavalry also isn't a useful multiplier in ruggy and hilled terrain (In contrast to the often peddled myth that the Aztecs and Mayans thought that the horse and its rider was a single person, they recognized cavalry for what it was pretty early on and adjusted their tactics).

The book misrepresents Hernan Cortes and his band of conquistadors as a macho group of pre-modern Navy Seals and Expendables able to curbstomp all existing native helpless opposition and it could be further than that from reality, when Hernan Cortes actually relied on his Tlaxcaltec allies for help. The Tlaxcaltecs provided him with 80,000 to 200,000+ soldiers which was the sole reason why Hernan Cortes was able to win against the Aztecs and the Tarascans. The reason is that the Tlaxcaltecs also didn't like the Aztecs and thought they could use Hernan Cortes to their advantage.

The history of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica is less like a story of Civ-like Tech Tree advantage, and more of a Mesoamerican Game of Thrones with one white dude in which a Spanish conquistador was able to use the Mesoamerican complicated dynastic power struggle to his advantage to win out. Had the Tlaxcaltecs refused to help Hernan Cortes, he would undoubtedly have lost and history is full of Spanish conquistadors who failed and whose "superior technology" didn't help them either.

Another is that Diamond is prone to exaggerating and generalizing things. The showdown between Pizarro and Incan Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca for example, is depicted as proof of the superiority of gunpowder, when in reality Pizarro ambushed Atahualpa and Atahualpa and his camp retainers were unarmed. Once again, Diamond is prone to removing the story of the fascinating Incan Game of Thrones, failing to mention that Atahualpa was simply a rival claimant to the Incan throne, and Pizarro was once again playing an Incan GoT in complicated Andean dynastic politics.

In short, the premise of Diamond that the reason that the Spanish conquistadors was able to invade the Aztec, Mayan and Incan nations due to their superior technology was wrong, because the reason is that they played the Aztec, Incan and Mayan royal dynastic game and lucked out on being successful on that part.

I think this also could apply to other parts, such as his thesis that the reason China was unified because it is flat as also flat-out wrong, ignoring that China had lots of mountainous regions such as in Sichuan mountain ranges, and also has long periods of disunity and warring states.

Not getting into the entire post because it's not entirely wrong, but you really need to read the actual first-person accounts of Cortes' expedition. Cannons and horses were extremely important to his success, and while they did realize the nature of cavalry, initially the Aztec did believe that horse and rider were one entity and Cortes used this as a means to intimidate Aztec diplomats early in the campaign, prior to his entrance to Tenochtitlan.
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Postby Heloin » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:44 am

It's not that good but I do see it as a fine enough jumping off point to understanding why the West was able to rise to dominance in the way it did. If you already study historiography or anthropology before reading it then it becomes a deeply aggravating read and Jared Diamond gets a whole lot of things just wrong, but I think it's better to see the book as a way to introduce people to these questions rather then actually explain most of them.
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Feyrisshire
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Postby Feyrisshire » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:47 am

Punished UMN wrote:Not getting into the entire post because it's not entirely wrong, but you really need to read the actual first-person accounts of Cortes' expedition.


This is in fact one pitfall of Diamond as a non-professional historian which is uncritical use of primary sources. The actual first-person accounts were from Spanish conquistadors who wished to glorify their conquests for their personal interests, so biased.

The accounts written by the conquistadors were also written in a time period where the Spanish colonial government was trying to limit the autonomy given to the conquistadors so their accounts were skewed to make them more relevant than they are when they acted more like reserve shock troops to the native army core.

Punished UMN wrote:Cannons and horses were extremely important to his success,


Once again, the conquistadors' accounts were biased to make them more amazing than they are. See above. Also, the conquistadors were not able to win unless they were able to get native allies of their own.

Hernan Cortes and Pizarro were outliers because they were able to get native support.

There are lots of conquistadors that failed, such as Juan de Grijalva and Francisco Cordoba who attempted to invade a Mayan city-state but failed due to lack of native support despite having cannons and horses.

Punished UMN wrote:and while they did realize the nature of cavalry, initially the Aztec did believe that horse and rider were one entity and Cortes used this as a means to intimidate Aztec diplomats early in the campaign, prior to his entrance to Tenochtitlan.


The problem with the Aztecs believing that the horse and rider as one entity is that it only came from Spanish accounts which are biased, and the fact that it was not corroborated with Aztec and Mayan sources.

Aztec sources however do describe the horse of the Spanish as mazatl meaning "deer". If they thought that it was the same, they could have said as centaur, but they described it as "deer".
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Postby Punished UMN » Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:56 am

Feyrisshire wrote:
Punished UMN wrote:Not getting into the entire post because it's not entirely wrong, but you really need to read the actual first-person accounts of Cortes' expedition.


This is in fact one pitfall of Diamond as a non-professional historian which is uncritical use of primary sources. The actual first-person accounts were from Spanish conquistadors who wished to glorify their conquests for their personal interests, so biased.

The accounts written by the conquistadors were also written in a time period where the Spanish colonial government was trying to limit the autonomy given to the conquistadors so their accounts were skewed to make them more relevant than they are when they acted more like reserve shock troops to the native army core.

Punished UMN wrote:Cannons and horses were extremely important to his success,


Once again, the conquistadors' accounts were biased to make them more amazing than they are. See above. Also, the conquistadors were not able to win unless they were able to get native allies of their own.

Hernan Cortes and Pizarro were outliers because they were able to get native support.

There are lots of conquistadors that failed, such as Juan de Grijalva and Francisco Cordoba who attempted to invade a Mayan city-state but failed due to lack of native support despite having cannons and horses.

Punished UMN wrote:and while they did realize the nature of cavalry, initially the Aztec did believe that horse and rider were one entity and Cortes used this as a means to intimidate Aztec diplomats early in the campaign, prior to his entrance to Tenochtitlan.


The problem with the Aztecs believing that the horse and rider as one entity is that it only came from Spanish accounts which are biased, and the fact that it was not corroborated with Aztec and Mayan sources.

Aztec sources however do describe the horse of the Spanish as mazatl meaning "deer". If they thought that it was the same, they could have said as centaur, but they described it as "deer".

This would be a strong argument if the Aztec sources were contemporary to the conquest, while they were shortly after it, they were all written under Spanish rule, it makes sense they would know more than they did during the conquest.

The same first hand accounts of Conquistadors describe them being driven into the sea and leaving their own men behind to be killed and sacrificed because they don't have the forces to push back some rando tribe near where they landed. Even when outnumbered, and before acquiring allies, the sources are pretty clear that the use of cannons, horses, and armor made the Spanish much more effective on a man-to-man level.

No one denies the importance of native allies, but you're going too far in the opposite direction and basically saying the Spanish were a non-factor, which makes like zero sense.
Last edited by Punished UMN on Mon Apr 19, 2021 10:57 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby Baizou » Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:08 am

Feyrisshire wrote:
It is an awful book. A more fitting term is "Guns, Germs and Generalizations".

One enormous pitfall is that Diamond over-estimated the importance of said "guns, germs and generalizations steel" when technology wasn't really the momentous factor why Hernan Cortes was able to conquer the Mesoamerican nations. Technology simply wasn't a valuable force multiplier when the logistics and the numbers weren't simply stacked in the favor of Spanish conquistadors. We don't really need to mention how early gunpowder weapons are useless in the damp and wet jungles of Mesoamerica and how cavalry also isn't a useful multiplier in ruggy and hilled terrain (In contrast to the often peddled myth that the Aztecs and Mayans thought that the horse and its rider was a single person, they recognized cavalry for what it was pretty early on and adjusted their tactics).

The book misrepresents Hernan Cortes and his band of conquistadors as a macho group of pre-modern Navy Seals and Expendables able to curbstomp all existing native helpless opposition and it could be further than that from reality, when Hernan Cortes actually relied on his Tlaxcaltec allies for help. The Tlaxcaltecs provided him with 80,000 to 200,000+ soldiers which was the sole reason why Hernan Cortes was able to win against the Aztecs and the Tarascans. The reason is that the Tlaxcaltecs also didn't like the Aztecs and thought they could use Hernan Cortes to their advantage.

The history of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica is less like a story of Civ-like Tech Tree advantage, and more of a Mesoamerican Game of Thrones with one white dude in which a Spanish conquistador was able to use the Mesoamerican complicated dynastic power struggle to his advantage to win out. Had the Tlaxcaltecs refused to help Hernan Cortes, he would undoubtedly have lost and history is full of Spanish conquistadors who failed and whose "superior technology" didn't help them either.

Another is that Diamond is prone to exaggerating and generalizing things. The showdown between Pizarro and Incan Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca for example, is depicted as proof of the superiority of gunpowder, when in reality Pizarro ambushed Atahualpa and Atahualpa and his camp retainers were unarmed. Once again, Diamond is prone to removing the story of the fascinating Incan Game of Thrones, failing to mention that Atahualpa was simply a rival claimant to the Incan throne, and Pizarro was once again playing an Incan GoT in complicated Andean dynastic politics.

In short, the premise of Diamond that the reason that the Spanish conquistadors was able to invade the Aztec, Mayan and Incan nations due to their superior technology was wrong, because the reason is that they played the Aztec, Incan and Mayan royal dynastic game and lucked out on being successful on that part.

I think this also could apply to other parts, such as his thesis that the reason China was unified because it is flat as also flat-out wrong, ignoring that China had lots of mountainous regions such as in Sichuan mountain ranges, and also has long periods of disunity and warring states.

Thanks; that's a better breakdown than I could've done. The human choices in Meso-America—factions playing against each other, politicking and revolts by the indigenous people on the ground, etc.—played pivotal roles. No amount of guns or steel could have replaced the thousands of native warriors.

I'd also add (for others' benefit) that while disease becomes one factor in later years of the post-contact period, it doesn't have bearing on the initial contact interactions, at which point disease hasn't had a chance to spread. The legacy of disease does play some role in future generations, but it's far from decisive, and it's shortsighted to leave out the hundreds, thousands of interactions in which European colonization was not an inevitable outcome. Wars continued, politicking continued, treatymaking continued; heck, the Comanche establish an empire as late as the nineteenth century,

I perhaps should clarify my earlier statements. I do think Diamond's geographic thesis is not irrelevant, but when I call it an insight, I really do mean an insight. It's not a major insight, or 'one of the big insights.' It's just a minor insight, and is perhaps more useful as a way to get someone thinking about environmental factors, rather than as an actual explication of the role of such factors.

I distinctly remember two different professors I had who specifically talked about Diamond's thesis. One was a global historian, and he was diplomatic about it: he said it was an interesting and not entirely meaningless idea, but way too ambitious in its thesis and, as Feyrisshire said, over-generalized. The other was an indigenous historian, and wow he tore Diamond a new one. So, uh, yeah, the book is not considered cutting edge, to put it mildly. The field's also just advanced a lot. Scholars now have much easier access to many more primary sources from more points of view during the initial contact period.

Punished UMN wrote:you're going too far in the opposite direction and basically saying the Spanish were a non-factor, which makes like zero sense.

I don't know if Feyrisshire is strictly saying the Spanish were a nonfactor. More like their guns were a nonfactor. Obviously, the Spanish had to be there for there to be any contact or later colonization. The point is more that it was not guns that made decisive difference in the battle against centralized Meso-American imperial states, but rather Spaniards' interactions with locals, which is a way for both Spanish and locals to be relevant. It's the difference between 'the Spanish showed up, they entered the native political situation, and they allied with a rival faction in the empire' as opposed to 'the Spanish showed up, and they had guns.'
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Postby Feyrisshire » Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:08 am

Punished UMN wrote:This would be a strong argument if the Aztec sources were contemporary to the conquest, while they were shortly after it, they were all written under Spanish rule, it makes sense they would know more than they did during the conquest.


This would be a stronger argument if we had at least Aztec sources that corroborate the centaur account, but the problem is that we simply don't have, and the only sources we have are two Spanish men - Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Gomara who are simply inserting an inner POV to the Aztecs and Mayans and also have no way of knowing what the Aztecs and Mayans truly thought of the horses.

Note that the mazatl is a strong argument that the Aztecs and Mayans is a strong argument that they are able to integrate the concept of cavalry to their native mental worldview quickly.

Deer is a common four-footed animal found in the region and it makes sense that is the closet analogue they could think for horse. And mazatl is actually an earlier Nahautl word, far earlier than the Spanish word cavallo. If the Aztecs first adopted the word "deer" mazatl to describe the concept of cavalry at first, then switched to the more approproate Spanish term cavallo, the concept of "man-centaur thing" simply can't be integrated in this linguistic framework.

Punished UMN wrote:The same first hand accounts of Conquistadors describe them being driven into the sea and leaving their own men behind to be killed and sacrificed because they don't have the forces to push back some rando tribe near where they landed.


The account is straightforward, they lacked forces to defeat the Mayan nation. Technology didn't certainly benefit them here.

Punished UMN wrote:Even when outnumbered, and before acquiring allies, the sources are pretty clear that the use of cannons, horses, and armor made the Spanish much more effective on a man-to-man level.

No one denies the importance of native allies, but you're going too far in the opposite direction and basically saying the Spanish were a non-factor, which makes like zero sense.


Once again, sources described by biased Spanish conquistadors.

We have already put forward accounts where the Spanish were defeated due to lack of forces.

To be straightforward here, I am in fact citing that the Spanish of course also played a role in playing the Mesoamerican Game of Thrones. However technology is a non-factor as the Spanish were defeated lots of times when they lack logistical support or cannot count on native allies as the tech parity between Spanish and Mesoamericans is not that high.
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Postby Punished UMN » Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:15 am

Feyrisshire wrote:
Punished UMN wrote:This would be a strong argument if the Aztec sources were contemporary to the conquest, while they were shortly after it, they were all written under Spanish rule, it makes sense they would know more than they did during the conquest.


This would be a stronger argument if we had at least Aztec sources that corroborate the centaur account, but the problem is that we simply don't have, and the only sources we have are two Spanish men - Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Gomara who are simply inserting an inner POV to the Aztecs and Mayans and also have no way of knowing what the Aztecs and Mayans truly thought of the horses.

Note that the mazatl is a strong argument that the Aztecs and Mayans is a strong argument that they are able to integrate the concept of cavalry to their native mental worldview quickly.

Deer is a common four-footed animal found in the region and it makes sense that is the closet analogue they could think for horse. And mazatl is actually an earlier Nahautl word, far earlier than the Spanish word cavallo. If the Aztecs first adopted the word "deer" mazatl to describe the concept of cavalry at first, then switched to the more approproate Spanish term cavallo, the concept of "man-centaur thing" simply can't be integrated in this linguistic framework.

Punished UMN wrote:The same first hand accounts of Conquistadors describe them being driven into the sea and leaving their own men behind to be killed and sacrificed because they don't have the forces to push back some rando tribe near where they landed.


The account is straightforward, they lacked forces to defeat the Mayan nation. Technology didn't certainly benefit them here.

Punished UMN wrote:Even when outnumbered, and before acquiring allies, the sources are pretty clear that the use of cannons, horses, and armor made the Spanish much more effective on a man-to-man level.

No one denies the importance of native allies, but you're going too far in the opposite direction and basically saying the Spanish were a non-factor, which makes like zero sense.


Once again, sources described by biased Spanish conquistadors.

We have already put forward accounts where the Spanish were defeated due to lack of forces.

To be straightforward here, I am in fact citing that the Spanish of course also played a role in playing the Mesoamerican Game of Thrones. However technology is a non-factor as the Spanish were defeated lots of times when they lack logistical support or cannot count on native allies as the tech parity between Spanish and Mesoamericans is not that high.

Except that Del Castillo was there and his book is a recollection of his first-person experience as a senior member of Cortes' expedition.

That they describe such accounts shows that they aren't exaggerating their military prowess that much, and in that account they did not have their horses or cannons. When they did have them, they defeated a large native force despite being dramatically outnumbered. The technology was a huge factor and force-multiplier. The fact that the natives felt the Spanish were an important enough part of their coalition to grant them effective military leadership of it shows that the natives regarded their military prowess immensely, as do numerous Spanish victories over the natives, including without the presence of allies.

You need to actually read Del Castillo's account.
Last edited by Punished UMN on Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:15 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Feyrisshire » Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:25 am

Punished UMN wrote:Except that Del Castillo was there and his book is a recollection of his first-person experience as a senior member of Cortes' expedition.

That they describe such accounts shows that they aren't exaggerating their military prowess that much, and in that account they did not have their horses or cannons. When they did have them, they defeated a large native force despite being dramatically outnumbered. The technology was a huge factor and force-multiplier. The fact that the natives felt the Spanish were an important enough part of their coalition to grant them effective military leadership of it shows that the natives regarded their military prowess immensely, as do numerous Spanish victories over the natives, including without the presence of allies.

You need to actually read Del Castillo's account.


This adage can be simplified to "I have this one primary account".

The problem is that no historian accepts primary sources uncritically and accepts them free of bias and once again Del Castillo and Gomara certainly have fish to fry or at least exaggerate their achievements in portraying the Spanish conquistadors as more excellent than they are as they have personal interests too, such as conflict with the Spanish colonial government.

We also don't accept The Bible or the Quran as primary sources without critique, or even Herodotus, even if he reserves his judgement in a lot of places.

Other than the error of uncritically accepting the Spanish conquistadors' accounts at face value, this is dispelled by historian Matthew Restall in his work Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest - Chapter 3 the belief that the military operations were undertaken primarily by Spaniards when the actual military operations were undertaken by their native allies.
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Postby Punished UMN » Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:37 am

Feyrisshire wrote:
Punished UMN wrote:Except that Del Castillo was there and his book is a recollection of his first-person experience as a senior member of Cortes' expedition.

That they describe such accounts shows that they aren't exaggerating their military prowess that much, and in that account they did not have their horses or cannons. When they did have them, they defeated a large native force despite being dramatically outnumbered. The technology was a huge factor and force-multiplier. The fact that the natives felt the Spanish were an important enough part of their coalition to grant them effective military leadership of it shows that the natives regarded their military prowess immensely, as do numerous Spanish victories over the natives, including without the presence of allies.

You need to actually read Del Castillo's account.


This adage can be simplified to "I have this one primary account".

The problem is that no historian accepts primary sources uncritically and accepts them free of bias and once again Del Castillo and Gomara certainly have fish to fry or at least exaggerate their achievements in portraying the Spanish conquistadors as more excellent than they are as they have personal interests too, such as conflict with the Spanish colonial government.

We also don't accept The Bible or the Quran as primary sources without critique, or even Herodotus, even if he reserves his judgement in a lot of places.

Other than the error of uncritically accepting the Spanish conquistadors' accounts at face value, this is dispelled by historian Matthew Restall in his work Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest - Chapter 3 the belief that the military operations were undertaken primarily by Spaniards when the actual military operations were undertaken by their native allies.

I'm not uncritically accepting them, but we don't have any non-primary sources for the actual Spanish invasion that don't directly draw upon the primary sources. I'm making limited assertions about cannons and horses being an effective force multiplier (which can be backed by any account of modern warfare, not just in the Spanish conquest of Mexico) based on a primary source with military experience, while you are making broad and sweeping declarations about cannons and horses being a total non-factor based on sources which you are taking out of context. The native allies were of course instrumental to the Spanish ambitions, the Spanish could not have achieved their goals without them. However, Spanish military technology was instrumental in bringing about this coalition and Spanish military prowess was such that the native coalition viewed them as critical. That the valley of Mexico became a Spanish colony after the campaign does not square with the idea that the Spanish were a tertiary factor in the war.

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Last edited by Punished UMN on Mon Apr 19, 2021 11:38 am, edited 1 time in total.
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