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The Biological viewpoint of Ecological Imperialism

By Edited Feb 20, 2014 1 1

One must be acquainted with the definition of ‘ecological’ and of ‘imperialism’ in order to understand Alfred W. Crosby’s book Ecological Imperialism’s purpose.  Ecological is defined as the science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.  Imperialism is defined as the policy of extending a nation's authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.  Crosby’s idea for his book Ecological Imperialism is to explain from a biological standpoint why “European emigrants and their decedents are all over the place” (p.2, pp 1).  Crosby goes into great detail explaining the places in the world he calls Neo-Europes, which are places that are far from Europe but are dominated by people of European ancestry.  Neo-Europes tend to have a lot in common with one another.  Crosby explains these parallels from a biological standpoint.  Most people believe European imperialism was possible mostly because of military successes.  Crosby believes the reason for European imperialism was biology and not military conquest.  He explains many different historical events to prove his theory. 

Crosby begins his book with going into further detail about Neo-Europes.  Neo-Europes have many parallels.  The first one is all Neo-Europes are located in temperature latitudes.  The Neo-Europes are scattered geographically but “they are in similar latitudes” (p. 6, pp 1).  Every Neo-Europe shares a similar climate.  Another parallel is they all share the consistency to produce large food surpluses.  Crosby explains the reason why Neo-Europes attract so much attention is because “consistently, decade after decade, [they] export very large quantities of food” (p.3, pp 2).  The reason Neo-Europes were so successful with their food production is said to be because all the Neo-Europeans traveled overseas.  The most important parallel is the paradoxical feature they all share.  This paradox is the “parts of the world that today in terms in population and culture are most like Europe are far away from Europe” (p.7, pp 2).  A few examples of Neo-Europes are North America, Australia and New Zealand.  They are all far in proximity to Europe but very similar to Europe.  This is because these areas have similar climates to Europe and “flora and fauna, including human beings, can thrive in these regions” because the competition is mild (p. 7, pp 2).  This supports the fact European imperialism has the biological factor of Darwin’s theory natural selection.  When the competition arises in proximity natural selection takes place and the organisms with the favorable traits are the most likely to reside and create offspring.  

Crosby goes on to talk about the prehistoric super-continent by which all the Earth’s landmass existed, Pangaea.  Approximately “180 million years ago Pangaea began to break up” and evolution began (p. 9, pp 2).  While Pangaea was breaking up slowly into the continents we know today the life forms on the land were beginning to “ develop independently, and in many cases uniquely” (p.10, pp 2).  This is where Darwin’s theory of natural selection was important again because the organisms with the favorable traits were the ones who survived in the new lands.  The organisms that are “the most adaptable and therefore most widely distributed” are humans (p. 13, pp 1).  This is because humans were the only organisms that were able to develop bigger brains to allow them to manipulate language and use tools to aid their natural abilities to achieve tasks and live their lives. 

After people began to evolve society made its next big step, which was the cultural mutation known as the “Neolithic Revolution” (p. 17, pp 2).  The Neolithic Revolution started with humans grinding and polishing their tools instead of chipping them, and ended with learning to “melt metal in quantity and work it into tools that stayed sharp longer and were more durable than their stone equivalents” (p. 17, pp 2).  During the Neolithic Revolution humans “invented agriculture, domesticated all animals of our barnyard and meadow, learned to write, build cities and created civilization” (p. 17 pp 2).  The Neolithic Revolution was a very important time for history because humans became more advanced in their thinking which led to them building civilizations.  The Neolithic Revolution that occurred in the Old World benefited European colonizers of the New World because they could control many species of plants and animals that provided them with larger and more dependable quantities of useful substances and labor.  McNeill’s law was important during the Neolithic Revolution because it determined the type of diseases carried by certain population groups helps explain how civilized peoples have often easily conquered less advanced peoples.

The next topic Crosby talks about is the Norse and the Crusaders.  Both the Norse and the Crusaders could not establish permanent settlements in distant lands.  The Norse failed to settle for a few reasons.  The first reason was the “Norse sailors minimized their risks, and so made few voyages of discovery” (p. 55, pp 2).  The Norse sailors were afraid to take a risk and that cut short their opportunity to settle.  Another reason the Norse failed to flourish is because they did not have good weapons that were superior to the native people they tried to conquer.  Finally disease was a factor that made the Norse incompetent.  The Crusaders experienced failure for a number of reasons as well.  They Crusaders could not thrive on their own, they needed Europes support to conquer new land.  The Crusaders were also susceptible to diseases from when the “larger Crusader armies marched all or most of the way to the Levant” (p. 59, pp 4).  Virgin soil epidemics were a threat to the Crusaders because they diseases were rapidly spread to people of all ages who had never had the disease before. The Crusaders were also very small in size and they were trying to conquer area that was much too large for them. 

The next chapter entitled “The Fortune Isles” talks about how the Europeans learned valuable lessons from the Fortune Isles.  The most important lesson the Europeans learned was plants and animals could do well in areas they never lived before. The second lesson they learned was native populations of newly discovered “land could be conquered, despite all their initial advantages” (p. 100, pp2).  An important lesson the Europeans learned from the Fortune Isles that they later exploited in America is once a native population was conquered, African slaves could be imported create a new labor force.  The Fortune Isles were beneficial to the Europeans because they brought lessons they learned back to America to enlighten them. 

The next chapter “Winds” talks about the Portuguese marineros.  The Portuguese marineros, who were Portuguese sailors, helped European sailors by contributing their different ways of sailing which helped European sailors with their voyages of discovery.  The marineros created a sailing technique called volta do mar.  This sailing technique meant, “to sail around the wind” (p. 113, pp 2).  The sailors would steer as close to the wind as they could to find a wind path to get them where they wanted to go.  Before this method was demonstrated to the Europeans they would “either give up and [go] home or [take] down their sails until the wind changed” (p. 113, pp 2).  The Portuguese marineros changed the Europeans way of sailing, which helped them get across the Atalantic faster and more efficiently. 

Another chapter “Weeds” talks about the importance of the plant weeds in the advancing of Europeans and Neo-Europeans.  Weeds were “crucially important to the prosperity of the advancing Europeans and Neo-Europeans” because they hid all the spots the invaders left on their land (p. 170, pp 2).  The weeds saved the topsoil from wind and water erosion and from “baking in the sun”  (p. 170, pp 2).  The weeds also proved food for the livestock.  The livestock then provided food for the people.  So if it were not for the weeds the people would starve because their food would die. 

Another important thing that was crucial in the advancing of Europeans and Neo-Europeans was the animals.  Pigs, cows and horse contributed to much success among the European colonizers.   The pigs were important for a few reasons.  The pigs provided a quickly available supply of meat.  The pigs also survived well on island environments.  Pigs eat food “often fit for human consumption” so if people saw pigs living in a new area they knew there was food available for them to survive (p. 173, pp 2).  Cows were valuable to the European colonists because they were tolerant of harsh weather conditions and provided lots of supplies.  The horses brought success to the European colonists because they reproduced very quickly.  This allowed the common folk to have one and get around easier on land.  The animals were a good source of food and transportation.

Crosby uses each chapter in his book to support his theory that Europe’s imperialism was not a matter of wars being won, but of biology taking place.  Crosby had valid points but I believe it was both biology and conquer that made European’s imperialism possible.  The best part about this book is the way it was organized.  This book was very easy to follow.  When I first began to read it I thought it was going to be like a regular chapter book I would read in a literature class.  As I began to read it I learned it was more like a textbook.  I get very bored with chapter books easily and with this book I did not get bored.  I liked that it had a new idea and a new story every chapter.  The chapters may have related but they seemed like new stories, which kept my interest.  I learned so many things from the book Ecological Imperialism about the evolution and the European and Neo-European communities.  I have never studied the Neo-Europeans before and it was so interesting to learn they are so similar to Europe yet so far away.  I liked learning about history from a biological standpoint it made it a lot more exciting for me as well. 





Mar 30, 2011 12:51am
Sounds like a book of sound theories, plus the title is intriguing. Great review!
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