Looking Back

Rough Diamond

September 06, 2017

Diamond devotes some space to alleging that Africans couldn’t possibly have made use of animals the way that Eurasians domesticated horses, cattle, sheep, and tamed elephants for use in work and war. Diamond colorfully asks:

Why didn’t rhino-mounted Bantu warriors swarm north to decimate horse-mounted Romans and create an empire that spanned Africa and Europe?

(Interestingly, elephant-mounted Africans from the Saharan kingdom of Aksum on the border of what’s now Ethiopia and Eritrea conquered a good chunk of Arabia, attacking Mecca around the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, what Muslims call the Year of the Elephant. Technically, war elephants weren’t fully domesticated to breed in captivity, but were instead captured in the wild and tamed.)

Diamond’s answer:

Domesticable animals are all alike [but] every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. Incredibly, of the millions of species of animals that exist in our world, only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated.

But that is incredible: It turns out that animals are rather quicker to become domesticated than Diamond supposed, as a now-famous Soviet experiment with turning silver foxes into pets has demonstrated just since 1959.

Similarly, ostriches—bizarre, giant flightless birds—were domesticated in the mid–19th century by British farmers in South Africa and quickly spread around the English-speaking world. For example, philanthropist Griffith Griffith was raising ostriches in what’s now Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in the 1880s.

On the other hand, ever since the ostrich-feather fashion craze died out a century ago, a lot of Americans have lost money on ostrich ranching. You’d be more prudent to raise chickens. Similarly, if you are looking for a reliable pet, a dog is a better bet than a domesticated fox.

As Cochran notes, the reason not many different species have been domesticated is not, as Diamond asserted, because it is nearly impossible, but for opportunity cost reasons:

Why didn’t people domesticate foxes, back in the day? Is it because foxes are solitary hunters, don’t have the right pack structure and thus can’t be domesticated, blah blah blah? No: they’re easy to domesticate. But we already had dogs: what was the point?...

He argues that zebras were wilder, more untameable than horses—but people have tamed zebras, while the wild ancestors of horses (tarpans, which survived into the 19th century) were usually described as untameable…. The eland is a large African antelope, and by Diamond’s argument it must be untameable, since the locals never tamed it. But in fact it’s rather easy to tame, and there’s now a domesticated version.

In general, Guns, Germs, and Steel is less acute on Africa than on the Americas or on Diamond’s special interest of Melanesia.

With the U.N. forecasting the population of Africa to explode in this century to 4 billion, it’s important for Americans to understand Africa (and thus Africans) better. Unfortunately, Diamond’s book simply isn’t very helpful for that.

Instead, a different 1997 book, Africa: Biography of a Continent by John Reader, offers an intriguing hypothesis rooted, like Diamond’s, in germs and megafauna, which explains not only African underdevelopment but the more pressing problem of the African predilection toward overpopulation, which is emerging as perhaps the foremost problem facing the world in this century.

Reader argues that due to the prevalence of diseases such as malaria and to competition with voracious herbivores like elephants and rhinos, sub-Saharan Africans (outside of highland Ethiopia) have seldom developed the cultural traits of self-restraint necessary for dealing with Malthusian limits on population.

Is Reader right? I don’t know, but it’s time we paid less attention to Diamond’s dusty excuses for Africa’s past and more about our world’s future.

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