Bryan Caplan  

Building a Better Llama

Sweatshop Wages... Oil Econ 102...

Alex Tabarrok's llama statue reminds me of an argument by Jared Diamond that no longer convinces me. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond forcefully argues that an important reason Eurasia was more economically successful than the rest of the world is that it had better domestic animals. Eurasia had the horse, but the Americas were stuck with the llama, and Africa with the zebra.

According to Diamond, the horse is just easier to domesticate and gives a bigger bang for your buck than a llama or a zebra. What made Diamond's argument especially convincing to me was his claim that since the integration of the world economy, scientists and entrepreneurs have tried mightily to domesticate non-Eurasian animals, with little success. Zebras...

were tried out as draft animals in 19th-century South Africa, and the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild drove through the streets of London in a carriage pulled by zebras. Alas, zebras become impossibly dangerous as they grow older...Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. (Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.171-2)

More generally:

In the 19th and 20th centuries at least six large mammals - the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison - have been the subjects of especially well-organized projects aimed at domestication, carried out by modern scientific animal breeders and geneticists... Yet these modern efforts have achieved only very limited successes. (Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.167-8)

But doubt about this argument started to well up in me when I reflected on Diamond's history of corn:

Archaeologists are still vigorously debating how many centuries or millenia of crop development in the Americas were required for ancient corn cobs to progress from a tiny size up to the size of human thumb, but it seems clear that several thousand more years were required for them to reach modern sizes.(Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.171-2)

Or to take a more familiar example, look at what we've done with wolves! We've turned them into everything from the noble Lassie to the irritating poodle. It really makes me start thinking, "Sure, the zebra is hard to domesticate now; but if we worked on them for a few hundred years, I bet the change would be amazing."

On reflection, it's not surprising that modern science has failed to domesticate animals like zebras. It would probably take generations, so the investment wouldn't pay a reasonable rate of return. And we've already got something better, anyway.

But if breeding useful animals takes centuries, I don't see this as a great explanation for why Eurasia did so much better than Native Americans and Africans. You'd just wind up asking, "Why were Eurasians more successful breeders?," which seems like a special case of "Why were Eurasians more economically successful overall?"

Admittedly, there is more to Diamond's argument, and it's worth reading in its entirety. He also says that the wild ancestors of the Eurasian flora and fauna were initially closer to being useful to man than the non-Eurasian flora and fauna.

Maybe he's right, but I'm worried that Diamond's suffering from hindsight bias: If the Eurasians domesticated the horse, it must have been inevitable, right? But if the Incas had shown up in Europe in 1492 with deadly llama cavalry, and mowed down backward European infantry, I suspect modern Incan historians would have declared the horse a hopeless candidate for domestication too.

TRACKBACKS (9 to date)
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The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled GGS blogging writes:
    Brad de Long and a few others have been doing a lot of Guns, Germs and Steel blogging. The topic: is Jared Diamond a racist? Since one of my main complaints with the book is that he spends a huge amount of time trying to conclusively disprove something... [Tracked on August 3, 2005 9:30 AM]
The author at voluntaryXchange in a related article titled Guns, Germs and Steel (On PBS) writes:
    I've just finished the 3 part Guns, Germs and Steel documentary on PBS. I've seen better screensavers. What struck me most about the documentary was how lousy it was. It lacked just about everything that makes for interesting viewing. It's [Tracked on August 3, 2005 9:41 AM]
The author at Internet Commentator in a related article titled Deadly llama cavalry writes:
    I've been meaning to say something about Guns, Germs [Tracked on August 5, 2005 11:25 AM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
devittj writes:

These are valid questions. But:

(1) African animals may have evolved to be flightier and more aggressive than Eurasian animals because they had to deal with a far broader range of predators - large, fast carnivores such as lions, tigers, and cheetahs. It is this flightiness and/or aggression that makes zebras and gazellers hard to domesticate. Sheep, goats, and cattle only had to deal with wolves - and us.

(2) If it took many generations to domesticate horses, what was the economic incentive for the Eurasians to keep trying? There were crops to tend and wars to fight. Surely it is more plausible that they saw some return quickly, within a generation or two.

(3) Assume it was easy to domesticate the llama. What next? There were no other large land animals in South America at all.

(4) It is true that scientists have tried and failed to domesticate wolves, which seems to support the idea that our ancestors were more, er, dogged.

But there is an alternative explanation for the existence of dogs. Self-selected wolves may have chosen to live near human settlements, feeding off our scraps: scavenging rather than hunting, tolerated by us rather than lured away from the pack. Over many generations these animals could have become more and more comfortable with humans, before humans made any conscious effort to domesticate them. Modern wolves are pretty omnivorous, while zebras are not. So this theory is plausible for wolves, but it's no surprise that it didn't occur with zebras.

another bob writes:

First, canis familiaris are not descended from wolves. They are descended from wild hunting dogs. Very different thing indeed. BTW hunting dogs are common in Africa.

I've read Diamond and argue for Bryan's idea that he is spinning 'Just So' stories from hindsight. Diamond's ideas are not very testable.

Robert Boyd, author of 'Not By Genes Alone' has a much more testable and useful theory about why some cultures and racial strains of homo sapiens are more economically successful than others. A fantastic book.

james governor writes:

your assumptions are interesting, in context of Diamond's key thrust. "backwards" infantry. hmmm.

devittj writes:

another bob,

Am I missing some important recent research? Google 'dog evolution' and the case for wolves appears overwhelming.

Robert writes:

(1) Just comparing Eurasian fauna with African fauna, the historical range of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) extends across much of Eurasia, including the centers of domestication for cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.

(2) N. America had its share of large predators, too, but they became extinct about the time humans moved in, although not necessarily as a result of human competition.

(3) The Soviets began a program of domesticating the silver fox. The property bred for was "tameness," i.e., a tolerance of, or better a desire for, human contact. It took 10 generations to get 20% of their population to be desirous of human contact, and today, after 40 or so generatioins, the population may be called domestic. So this takes time, and few miraculous results will be seen in the first few generations.

(4) But, in some cases, the domesticator may see a return even without genetic change in the herd: if the herd is contained in a pen, hunting is much easier. And of course, if the domesticator is going through the effort of containing and feeding a group of animals, then he will preferentially cull the animals that cause the most headache. So if conditions are such that maintaining a flock or herd makes more sense than going hunting, domestication ought to happen. The question we ought to answer is, why did these conditions exist in the Middle East in the late Neolithic, and why did they not exist elsewhere?

Will Slade writes:

asg writes:

I just googled "deadly llama cavalry" and got zero hits. When Google crawls this site, you'll be the one and only!

dearieme writes:

Diamond revisits the ancient notion that geography is destiny, and does a highly readable job of illuminating it with 20th century science. But there is important inconsistency: within Eurasia, he says that it was worth no-one's while to domesticate, let us say, a non-standard wild barley, because of the existence of the already domesticated variety. But he doesn't apply that same argument when he points out that modern Eurasian colonists haven't succeeded in domesticating zebras, or whatever.

On a much less important matter, he is plain implausible when he attributes the defeat in battle of Aztecs and Incas to the steel, guns and horses of the Spaniards. The Spaniards were so few, their guns so slow to use, that even if the Incas and Aztecs had been completely unarmed, they so outnumbered them that they could have won easily had their methods been different. The explanation must be social/tactical, not metallurgical.

Ramon writes:

The Aztecs were defeated by the spaniards through alliances with groups of natives who were enemies of the aztecs. In particular, the Tlaxcaltecs who had been paying tribute to the aztecs for many years.

The tlaxcaltecs sent thousands of soldiers to siege Mexico city and the steel and guns of the spaniards surely made the difference.

Trying to identify the original source for domestic dogs is problematic, because there's every reason to think that they were domesticated as many as five times independently, but certainly more than once.

Some of them almost certainly are descended from wolves. Some of them clearly are descended from hunting dogs or jackals.

ed writes:

According to Keegans "A History of Warfare," Eurasian horses were originally too small to ride. They were first used in teams to pull chariots. Only later did they become large enough to use for riding.

jaimito writes:

My friends, have you ever seen a llama or a guanaco? When the Spanish first saw them, they called them ovejas - sheep. They are small mountain camelids bred for their WOOL. Poor quechwas had to have much imagination and persistance to bred them to become mighty war animals. No way.

About Diamond, his argument is bullshit and everybody knows it. Buffalo, an eminently domesticable animal, grazed by the millions in North America. Giant armadillos, monkeys, snakes, turkeys, etc. were easily available in America. Africa's fauna is much richer than Euroasia's. Diamond's argument is accepted only because there is no other explanation available for the obvious and persistent differences among races in terms of economic development. The alternative explanation, that there are innate differences among the races, is totally inacceptable from a social point of view. So we have the llama problem.

John S Bolton writes:

Another problem with the Diamond thesis is that it would seem to predict an enormous advantage for the mideasterners over against Europeans and others to their east and south. This would have been natural disease resistance, yet there is no indication of overall population replacement, even to a small fraction of what occurred in the new world and Australia. In fact, the mideastern peoples were declining for millenia as a percentage of the world's population, but, by the Diamond thesis, one would expect them to have greatly increased their share.

Bill writes:

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" is interesting, but what really turned me off was the introduction. The writer first asserts that it is not a racist treatise, and that he will not forward any theories on racial inteligence superiority, and then, not two pages later, he suggests native Austrailans are most likely on average smarter because they have had to survive in more difficult conditions for the last hundred years. This could actually be true, it makes sense to me, but he already proved himself to be not keeping his word. As proof, he offers his observation that the natives he has met were "inquisitive" and "clever." Nothing like basing your opinons of a race by the few people you have met.

The fact remains, the Chinese had the compass hundreds of years before the Europeans, but used it for Feng Shui. They had gunpowder earlier too, but used it more for fireworks. Horses v. llama got nothing to do with that.

That is not to say one culture is smarter if it has kicked more ass than other in the last four hundred years. Other cultures kicked far more ass than Europeans for centuries. But one must take culture and social attitudes into consideration, I think, and it does not follow that conquerer = smart, which I think the writer was trying to (maybe subconsciously) argue against. For instance: Christinity presents a great excuse to use the compass and gunpowder to go off and kill and convert people while taking their gold, all in the name of saving them. That is something young men can really get behind when they sign up on a ship's roster, and that is something monarchs want to finance. Any book that ignores aspects like this is not doing a full analysis, I think anyway.

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