I recently read a book which I feel obliged to recommend to someone, so who better than the fine folks of EvC.
For the benefit of the majority of the forum, I've shown the American edition above, but the British edition has a different byline which describes the content of the book better: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth.
Columbus' discovery of the Americas is obviously used a jumping-off point, but the book is really about how the world has been changed though the interconnections brought about in the past few hundred years, focusing especially both on how we have changed ecologies and how ecology has shaped human history. The author argues that the distribution of habitats suitable for malaria-carrying mosquitoes has has enormous influence on the different trajectories of human societies. As an example he points to two islands colonised by the Portuguese and used for sugar plantations. One of them, Madeira, is now a wealthy autonomous region of Portugal; the other, Cape Verde, is a poverty-stricken post-colonial society, which he attributes to the fact that Madeira was cared for and cultivated by Portuguese colonists as a new home; while Cape Verde was only exploited as a resource since malaria prevented any successful European settlement. He also points to malaria as a big influence in US history, claiming that the Mason-Dixon line correlates well with the limits of the range of malarial mosquitos.
I don't know enough about a lot of the topics to judge his conclusions, but the book's a delight to read both for the interesting ideas, and for Charles Mann's engaging writing. He has a great way of mixing in historical anecdotes to illustrate his wider points. I particularly like quotes from the first mention of the potato in a French encyclopaedia, which describe it as a starchy, tasteless food which no one could enjoy but which is probably useful for poverty stricken peasants who don't have the means to find anything better. I wonder what the encyclopaedist would have made of pommes de terres dauphinoise
Anyone else read this and have some more intelligent comment on the book's arguments? And has anyone else read his 1491
, about the Americas before Columbus? I'm considering putting that on my to-read list now.