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Oct 26, 2005 9:08 am

More Noted Things

Earthquake Relief Day: Today is Earthquake Relief Day on the net. It's organized by Desipundit and promoted by our friend, Sepoy, at Chapati Mystery. Give generously, please.

Congratulations: To history blogger Josh Marshall, whose Talking Points Memo is featured this week by the Washington Post. Josh is a Princeton graduate with a doctorate in early American history from Brown. Launching his blog just after the presidential election in 2000 has led him to a very promising career in journalism. If not for that, Marshall says that he would probably still be in academia. After all, he still reads more history than current affairs, but his blogging and journalism entrepreneurship has recently created an impressive current affairs site, TPM Café, which features several regular and many guest contributors.

Charles C. Mann Replies: On Monday, in reference to Charles C. Mann's new book, 1491, I praised its challenge to received ideas about what life in the western hemisphere was like before the European incursion. My reservation about the native Americans not having the wheel prompted Mann to reply as follows:

... in case you are interested my book has a section (pp. 222-224, also pp.19-20) on whether one can interpret the failure to use the wheel as an indication of native technological inferiority (which I take as your belief). My argument is: only very cautiously, and probably not in this case.

Societies tend to place disproportionate value on the technologies in which they excel. Sixteenth-century Europeans by most measures were world leaders in technologies involving wheels, pulleys, and that sort of thing (see Kenneth Pomeranz's Great Divergence for a discussion of this). But they were latecomers to other types of scientific and technical developments. The very late and reluctant adoption of zero (actively battled by the Roman Catholic church until the 15th c--see Tobias Dantzig's Number: The Language of Science) is perhaps the foremost example of the former, and the failure to invent the moldboard plow (see Needham) is an example of the former. Meanwhile, Indian societies had less use for wheeled vehicles because they lacked draft animals. And so on.

As I point out, the question,"which is worse off, a culture that can't readily multiply or divide or a culture that can't push around stuff in carts?" isn't really answerable in a straightforward way. So: I may be exaggerating (or, since I'm reporting other scholars' claims, THEY may be exaggerating) native accomplishments, but I don't think denigrating them for lacking wheels is a good way to prove it.

Mann's thoughtful reply is indicative of the challenge his book offers. I could quibble that wheels turned out to have many more uses than merely"pushing around stuff in carts" and wonder whether having wheels and draft animals is a chicken and egg argument, but I admire his determination that we look at the world in ways we haven't yet done.

Indemnification, Please: I thought that The Drunkablog's reference to Cliopatria as"that cesspit of laughter and sin, the History News Network blog Cliopatra" must surely refer to some other unfortunate blog, but the link does, indeed, lead here. Like many of those who link to her, jgm misspells Cliopatria's fair name. Her reputation, however, will cost you.

Good Wishes: Finally, best wishes to Dave Merkowitz at the University of Cincinnati who goes up for his doctoral exams on Monday!

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Barry DeCicco - 10/26/2005

"I could quibble that wheels turned out to have many more uses than merely "pushing around stuff in carts" and wonder whether having wheels and draft animals is a chicken and egg argument,..."

Weren't draft animals in widespread use in Eurasia long before the wheel was used?