Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Great Divide — Peter Watson

The Great Divide: History and Human Nature in the Old World and the New, by Peter Watson.

It took me awhile to get through this book.  It's one of those delicious tomes that keep giving you things to stop and think about.  Essentially, Watson has bitten off a lot to chew — He's making large, but accurate, generalizations about the differences between the people and cultures of the New World and the Old World, and, having made them, assembles a lot of scholarship to try to explain these differences. He brings up some things I already knew, some things I vaguely knew but hadn't thought much about, and some things and ideas that were totally new to me.

The most striking difference, and maybe the most important, is the religious/ideological difference between the Old World and the New World.  In the OW, traditionally, people pray to their god or gods to ask to be given things.  Very often, fertility is a central request.  But in the NW, people pray to the gods basically to ask that they be left alone.  And in all the Indian civilizations that we know anything about, the custom was to brutally sacrifice lots of people to the gods, in hopes that the gods would be satisfied, and not kill everybody themselves.  While religion developed from some pretty brutal cults, like that of the Carthaginians, in the OW, to what Watson seems to regard as the highest development of religion, Christianity, in the NW, despite what may have been an attempt by Quetzalcoatl, religion never got past mass human sacrifice.

Watson explains these differences thus:  In the first place, the NW had (and still has) more frequent and more intense natural disasters than the OW, especially the highly civilized parts.  Volcanoes erupt, earthquakes occur, terrible storms take place — all at a much higher rate than in the OW.  So NW people were constantly concerned with trying to talk the gods out of killing everybody, and their religion reflected that. But, in relatively disaster-free OW, people felt comparatively safe from such catastrophes, and pestered their gods for fertility, rain, luck in war, etc.

Another reason is that when somebody had an advanced idea in the OW, about religion or anything else, it could travel rather rapidly from Europe to China or vice-versa. But in the NW, which is oriented north and south, rather than east and west, ideas had to travel from one climate to another, passing through Panama for exchange between the two continents, and this almost never happened. And even if you did have a neat new farming technique in Peru, say, it couldn't be passed on to Yucatan even if you could easily travel there, because the technique wouldn't work in a different climate and terrain.  On top of the geographical difference, there were simply no domesticated animals in the NW capable of carrying people.  Llamas carried a little cargo, but nothing like what horses and oxen could transport in the OW.

This is just scratching the surface of this rather startling book.  The most interesting thing, to me, is the fact that the OW had all kinds of phenomena that simply weren't present in the NW.  Just one example:  The Indo-European people, who spread their languages from Iceland to Bengal (and to the whole world by now) were pastoralists.  That is, they had herds of cattle.  They didn't farm, and didn't hunt and gather all that much.  Cattle were their economic base.  Later on, Judaism was founded or crated by the Hebrews, another sort of pastoralists.  And it can be said that the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — were created by pastoralist people with a pastoralist outlook on the universe.  And, of course, there were other groups of pastoralists elsewhere, with herds of cattle, sheep, goats, reindeer, etc, all over the OW.  Think about this — Since there were no such animals in the NW, except for a few llamas and their relatives, which were good for wool and very little else — there were no pastoralisst in the NW.  Zilch,  Bupkes.  And what a difference that has made over the centuries.

This and a whole lot more food for thought in The Great Divide.  Give it a read.

1 comment:

  1. In his book "Envy," Helmut Schoek made the same observation: in the old word the envious gods received sacrifices so they would leave people alone and give them bountiful food. Those sacrifices always included humans, usually tens of thousands. The Aztecs are generally considered the worst ever.