Shooting lutefisk in a barrel

Shooting lutefisk in a barrel

: In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews a book by Jared Diamond swallowing the assumption that ancient Norske had fishphobia but then Matthew Yglesias does 20 minutes of Googlechecking (previously known as fact-checking).

: Fritz Schranck fishes yet deeper.

  • Sigivald

    Of course, in the comments, we see a lecture online from Diamond showing that he asserted no such thing about a “fish phobia”, and the fault for making us think so is all that of the review.

  • http://oodja.blogspot.com oodja

    Diamond does, however, make a big deal about the relative absence of fish bones in Greenland as opposed to Norse archaeological sites in Iceland and Scandinavia, concluding from this evidence that fish was not a major component of the Viking Greenlander’s diet.
    But Diamond glosses over the fact that this absence of fish bones can easily be explained by culinary practice, especially in an extreme climate. Not only would fish carcasses likely be boiled to extract the maximum amount of nutrients of the catch (boiled fish bones don’t survive in the archaeological record), but the fish bones themselves can be eaten as well.
    That there is a discrepancy between the amount of fish bones in Greenland and Viking sites elsewhere can be chalked up to living in a harsher clime as opposed to one where you can afford to toss your fish carcasses into the garbage midden. Unfortunately simple answers like these don’t sell books…

  • Richard Aubrey

    Diamond passes over the isotope test possibilities which have been used in other contexts to judge the amount of seafood man or some other organism has eaten.
    I read a book by Diamond several years ago on the subject of how come the white race came out on top starting some hundreds of years ago. (Hint, it wasn’t any native virtue and it wasn’t fair.)
    He had a number of howlers in it, and special pleading, and flat non sequiturs.
    My guess is that he starts with an agenda.

  • chuck

    My guess is that he starts with an agenda.
    Unlike, say, yourself? I don’t recall Diamond making a point of race, just trying to answer the historical happenstance of why the Europeans. I thought his idea of easy east-west travel across Eurasia was interesting. But, let’s face it, all such ideas fall into the category of interesting speculation, not hard theory in the physics sense.

  • http://oodja.blogspot.com oodja

    The main problem with Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it radically overestimates the importance of guns and steel in the conquest of the New World. The truth of the matter is that there wasn’t enough of either in the Americas to make a lasting difference until the Industrial Revolution. Until that time guns and metal implements were worth more as trade goods than they were as weapons against the Native Americans (in fact, most tribes were better armed than the Colonists thanks to a healthy arms trade!).
    The germs part he got right, but there are people who tell that part of the tale much better than Diamond does. Go check out The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby if you really want to know how the Western Hemisphere was won.

  • chuck

    oodja,
    are you saying the Spanish were armed with bronze swords, stone daggers, leather armor, and rode miniature horses without stirrups? No cannon? No military experience honed in the reconquista? No nasty politics learned in the European cockpit? No society able to support armies in the field for extended periods?
    I think the Spanish were without question the benificiaries of superior technology, better arms, and more sophisticated politics. Little things can make a big difference in warfare.
    Anyway, I don’t know enough to make a detailed critique, but I suspect your pooh-poohing is somewhat overdone.

  • Richard Aubrey

    Chuck, I may have an agenda, but I didn’t write a book professing to have none.
    Did you read Guns, etc?
    He made an allusion to a language group including North Africa and Classical Greece, implying that it would surely surprise people, which is to say that the North Africans get credit for the Parthenon, thus disarming racists.
    Disarming racists was his agenda, which has been done far better in the past. One might even say it was redundant.
    He commented that he thought some New Guinea hillbillies might be the most intelligent people on earth because they lived in a society of almost constant violence and figuring out who, chance encountered, was likely on your side and who wasn’t was vital. I think it would be smarter to devise a society where that wouldn’t be necessary. Hell, that describes baboon society.
    The east-west theory is good, but North America had enough east-west room for something to happen.
    And, due to altitude and rainfall patterns, you can go from Edmonton (think Moscow) to Mexico City (oh, maybe Calcutta) and stay in a temperate, agriculturally friendly climate. Why not north-south travel as an aid to social advancement? The difficulties in Africa with north-south don’t seem to apply elsewhere.
    I would agree with whoever pointed out that Europe has substantially more coastline than does Africa–think bays and estuaries and peninsulas and harbors on peninsulas and estuaries in harbors on peninsulas behind a screen of islands–and sheltered access to the ocean is the kindergarten of sailors. In most of Africa, once you’re knee deep in salt water, you’re an ocean-going traveler. Coastwise travel is the only practical travel until you develop ocean-crossing ships–and why would you do that if there’s no discernible reason to think there’s another side–and you have to sail a long way up and down Africa’s coasts to come to a place different from where you began. True of Africa, but not of other places.
    As I recall, Diamond said that Pizarro won because, being illiterate, the Incas didn’t know about intrigue. I believe Atahualpa had just won a civil war against his brother. I agree that his trust in Pizarro takes some explaining, but that he hadn’t read the Latin American Machiavelli is probably not it.
    What was it that caused Native Americans to remain in the Neolithic when iron and steel were so widely used elsewhere?
    As Thomas Sowell said, cultures vary and differences have consequences.
    As a side note, those who insist on pre-Columbian contact between Europe and the Americas don’t address the disease issue. Contact means epidemics. How come only post-1492?

  • http://oodja.blogspot.com oodja

    Chuck,
    No serious scholar of the Conquest of Mexico these days will tell you that the Spaniards won by virtue of their arms and armor. The Aztec Empire fell first and foremost because it was universally despised by everyone under its boot – a fact that Cortes was quick to seize upon once the initial advantage of surprise had begun to wear off and the Mexicans started to doubt that these hairy, smelly rude things from across the Atlantic were in fact their gods. The Spaniards picked up allies as they moved inland, with few of the Aztecs’ subjects willing to fight on behalf of their overlords.
    While steel made for decent armor, a hail of arrows will nevertheless find their way into the weak spots (the English longbow was still a more deadly weapon than firearms until around 1800), and spears thrown by atlatls could be just as deadly.
    The firearms of this time period were horrible in battle, effective only at point blank range, and even then only when the powder was dry and the whole thing didn’t blow up in your face when you fired it. They did have shock value, but only at first. And as for cannon? Useless. Lacking any meaningful road network, the Mexican backcountry didn’t allow for the easy deployment of artillery. Only during the lakeside siege of Tenochtitlan were Spanish cannon effectively used in battle, and by then the war had by and large been won already.
    No, the Spaniards won despite the odds because they were savvy enough to capitalize on the initial bewilderment of the natives and take advantage of a region in desperate need of a regime change. By the time the Mexicans understood what they’d allied with to topple their Aztec masters, it was too late to do anything about it – the New World was wracked with pandemic after pandemic of Old World disease, which effectively made the Spanish conquests permanent.
    Had it not been for the ravages of disease, the European presence in the New World would have turned out a lot like it did in Asia and Africa, no matter how many guns and how much steel.

  • chuck

    oodja,
    Asia was quite advanced, believe it or not. I know you know this, so I’m not sure why you put it in the same category as the new world. The Europeans *were* successful in Africa, and still would be if they had decided to stay there. The English longbow required lifetime training, which is why crossbows were preferred on the continent, and later, firearms. Note too that the indians had neither longbows nor recurved composite bows, nor the steel armor piercing tips used by both the English and the Mongols. I would guess that the Indians were roughly at the level of, say, Egypt in 2000 BC. Look what happened there as various new military technologies swept over the region.
    No doubt smallpox played a major role in the initial Spanish successes, which, after all, were achieved with almost *no* resources. But sooner or later the Inca and Aztecs would have lost anyway. I suspect cavalry alone would have made the difference.

  • dries

    bleh…another grossly over-rated book, bound to become a recommended (i.e. compulsory) reading in many universities.
    according to diamond europeans surged ahead of south american indians BECAUSE south america lacked large animals apt for domestication. thus european milch cows won an empire!

  • http://oodja.blogspot.com oodja

    Asia was quite advanced, believe it or not. I know you know this, so I’m not sure why you put it in the same category as the new world.
    Chuck,
    ?
    That’s what I meant by saying absent the pandemics that decimated the New World’s populace, the European adventure in the Americas would have ended up a lot like how they “colonized” the Old World – lots of trade entrepots but little penetration into the developed mainland. Instead of two whole continents opening up to European settlement there would have been the Mexican and Peruvian equivalents of Macao or Hong Kong along the coasts.
    Definitely wasn’t knocking the Asians. cf. Kenneth Pomeranz’s “The Great Divergence” if you want to read an interesting analysis of how the various regions of the Old World stacked up until about 1800 AD. It was a closer race with Asia than our history books tell us…

  • chuck

    dries,
    Alexander ran down many larger armies with his cavalry and his father’s phalanx innovations. Hell, it would scare the shit out of me to see those folks coming at me. Don’t underestimate the horse. As to cows, show me an army that rides milch cows and I’ll show you an army of milk duds.

  • Bob S.

    Chuck,
    I don’t recall Diamond making a point of race,
    Diamond blows in the direction of the prevailing wind.
    As you read Jared Diamond the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, keep in mind the diversity of his positions, such as his published work in Nature on ethnic differences in testis size.