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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Dec 9, 2021

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This week on Unsupervised Learning Charles C. Mann, author of 14911493, and The Wizard and the Prophet joins Razib, to delve into the history of the Americas, and a broader theme that runs through Mann’s work – how human societies and their environment are inseparably intertwined.   

Mann’s work goes a long way towards dispelling the myth that the Americas were an untamed wilderness before the arrival of Europeans, scarcely populated and unshaped by the hand of man prior to Christopher Columbus. He describes a New World then peopled by complex societies with huge populations, possessing a well-developed toolkit of biological technologies for engineering the natural world, managing ecological succession, and diversifying food production strategy, all arguably superior to that of their European conquerors.  

Ultimately, when the Old and New Worlds collided, it was the calamitous impact of disease, rather than a significant technological advantage in weaponry, that eased the European conquest of the Americas. Through highlighting the fall of the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan, which comprised the Aztec Empire, and the Wars of Succession of the Inca, Mann also provides insight into human choices that also contributed to the end of these societies. 

During this pivotal period, for the first time, a global exchange of subsistence crops, slaves and luxury goods circulated throughout the whole world. The effects of the discovery of the New World were felt on every continent, as new crops were adopted in regions where they alleviated local food security issues and reshaped the local ecology (often increasing pressure on the landscape and further degrading it over time).

As the world transitioned to the 20th century it was a precarious landscape of food insecurity that motivated William Vogt, whom Mann styles as “the Prophet,” to preach on the importance of environmental carrying capacity and overpopulation. In contrast, Mann’s “Wizard,” agronomist Norman Borlaug, a pioneer of the technological techniques underpinning the Green Revolution, came to prominence applying science to enable our adaptive ingenuity in the face of ecological constraints.  For his part, Mann does not take sides or offer us a clear winner – but believes the discussion between these two intellectual strands to be of utmost importance when considering how we interpret our past and consider our future.