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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 Africa? --Why did the breakup of Pangaea give Eurasian species advantages over their 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 Gaunches? --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 responsible? --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 thing? --What is the moral to the story (p. 293)?
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