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Alfred Crosby_ Ecological Imperialism


									                Discussion of Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism:
                The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986)

       The first task in reading any history book is to identify the central question
that the book asks and the answer to that question, commonly known as the thesis.
Crosby asks his central question in his first chapter, the Prologue. He answers that
tentatively in the Prologue and decisively in Chapter 11, Explanations. Because it is
important to understand both the question and the thesis of a history book, many
historians read the Table of Contents, the Introduction, and the Conclusion carefully
before reading the rest of a book.

        --What is the central question? (p. 2)

        --What is the tentative thesis? (pp. 5-7)

        --What is the thesis? (pp. 89, 270)

      The second task in reading a history book is to outline the argument, chapter
by chapter. You need not write down every detail. It is sufficient at the end of each
chapter to look again at the title, to think of the question the chapter addressed, and
to ponder the answer(s) to that question. The table of contents is a good guide.

Chapter 2: Pangaea revisited, the Neolithic reconsidered (8-40)

        --Why did the breakup of Pangaea 180 million years ago caused the course of
        evolution in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and to some extent
        North America, to diverge from the course of evolution in Eurasia and

        --Why did the breakup of Pangaea give Eurasian species advantages over
        counterparts on other continents?

        --Why did agricultural civilizations appear first and flourish most in Eurasia?

        --What do the neo-Europes have in common that make them suitable for
        Eurasian settlement and agriculture? (Consider the maps on pp. 109-10)
Chapter 3: The Norse and the Crusaders (41-69)

      --Why did the Norse effort to colonize Newfoundland fail?

      --Why did the European effort to conquer and hold the Holy Land fail?

      --Can you think of possible explanations for these failures that Crosby
      ignores, or plausible explanations that he dismisses without adequate
      argument? Is the evidence that supports his thesis strong?

Chapter 4: The Fortunate Isles (70-103)

      --Why did Portugese and Spanish efforts to colonize the Canary Islands
      succeed? How and why did the defeat and displace the native inhabitants, the

      --Can you think of possible explanations for the success of European
      colonization that Crosby ignores, or plausible explanations that he dismisses
      without adequate argument?

Chapter 5: Winds (104-131)

      --Question: why were Europeans the first modern Eurasians to reach the
      Neo-Europes? After all, the Chinese invented the compass and the Muslims
      the lateen sail (which allowed ships to sail into the wind).

      --Thesis: the heroic mariners of Portugal (the marinheiros) mastered the
      winds. They learned how to sail west with the prevailing winds at one
      latitude and sail east with the prevailing winds at another latitude. They
      perfected the volto do mar, “the returning by sea or the veering out and
      around by sea.” (p. 113)
Chapter 6: Within Reach, Beyond Grasp (132-144)

      --Question: why did Africa, South Asia, and East Asia not become Neo-
      Europes? After all, they were much closer to Europe than the neo-Europes.

      --Thesis: they had no bioecological advantage in East Asia, and in the tropics
      of Africa and South Asia they were at a disadvantage, because Europeans,
      their crops, and their livestock could not survive in the tropics

Chapter 7: Weeds (145-170)

Chapter 8: Animals (171-194)

Chapter 9: Ills (195-216)

      --These three chapters discuss Europe’s portmanteau biota and its success in
      the neo-Europes

Chapter 10: New Zealand (217-268)

      --A case study in historic times, examining impact of Europeans and their
      portmanteau biota on the ecology and the native peoples of New Zealand.

      --Note: this chapter represents Crosby’s tactic acknowledgement of the limits
      of the evidence on earlier European conquests in Australia, North America,
      and South America.
       The third task in reading a history book is to think critically about its
argument. Is the question well-put? Is the thesis well-stated? Is the evidence
sufficient and interpreted properly? Is the argument sound? For instance:

      --Why does Crosby insist that the earliest human inhabitants of Australia,
      the Americans, and New Zealand were responsible for the extinctions of the
      large mammals that lived there? Is the evidence for that assertion as strong
      for Australia and the Americas as it is for New Zealand, which was a
      relatively small island? What happens to Crosby’s argument if we leave the
      question open, and acknowledge that scientists do not yet agree whether
      climate change, human hunting, disease, or a combination of factors were

      --Why does Crosby insist that disease prevented indigenous populations
      from rebounding long after those populations were decimated by the first
      waves of imported epidemic diseases? What happens to Crosby’s argument
      if we leave the question open, and acknowledge that demographers do not
      yet agree whether disease, conquest, warfare, exploitation, demoralization,
      disorganization, or some combination of those factors were responsible for
      the failure of indigenous populations to rebound quickly?

      --Does Crosby have a good explanation for why Europeans, rather than
      other Eurasians, who shared the same portmanteau biota, dominated the
      neo-Europes? Why does he dismiss the argument that European
      “superiority in arms, organization, and fanaticism” were more important? If
      you find that argument persuasive, can you articulate a bioecological thesis
      that might explain why European technology, political structures, and
      ideologies might be better suited to empire building and colonizing?

      The fourth and final task in reading a history book is to consider the
author’s point of view and how it might affect her or his understanding of the past.
 These questions are those that William Cronon asks in “A Place for Stories.”

      --What are Crosby’s values? Political views? What causes or values does
      he invite his readers to support? (pp. 307-8)

      --Is Crosby’s history a story of decline or progress? Of failure or success?
      Who does he identify with: the Europeans (and before them the Neolithic
      farmers), or with the indigenous peoples of the neo-Europeans (and before
         them the Paleolithic hunters)? How can you tell? Does his identification
         lead to bias in his account?

         --Note that his diction is Darwinian. He speaks often of “superior” and
         “inferior” peoples and species (e.g., pp. 271-2, 291, 304). What do you
         make of that?

         --What does it mean to be “Europeanized” (pp. 291-2)? Is that a good

         --What is the moral to the story (p. 293)?

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