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Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Canto)

4.5 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521456906
ISBN-10: 0521456908
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Editorial Reviews


'Crosby argues his case with vigour, authority and panache ... 'Ecological Imperialism' could not ask for a more lucid and stylish exponent.' The Times Literary Supplement

'The biological bases of radically changing historical ecosystems must never be forgotten - and Crosby has made them intelligible as well as memorable.' Natural History

'Required reading for politicians worldwide.' The Guardian

'Crosby has unfolded with great power the wider biopolitics of our civilisation.' Nature

'One of the best illustrations of big history.' David Christian, New York Times

Book Description

The military successes of European imperialism are easy to explain; in many cases they were a matter of firearms against spear. But as Alfred Crosby explains in his highly original and fascinating book, the Europeans' displacement and replacement of the native peoples in the temperate zones was more a matter of biology than of military conquest.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June 25, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521456908
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521456906
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,160,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 7, 1999
Format: Paperback
The Europeans' displacement and replacement of native peoples in the temperate zones were more a result of "superior" biology than military conquest, according to Crosby in this book.
Europe held an unassailable biotic mix that some native peoples and ecosystems could not withstand. This biota fucntioned as a team wherever Europeans took it. European germs swept aside native peoples. Europe's cattle, pigs and horses filled native biotic niches. European weeds and agriculture squeezed out native plants. This biological expansion of Europe created "Neo-Europes" which still function today in North America, Australia, New Zealand and southern South America.
European imperialism often failed or was considerably delayed in areas where Europe's biota could not prevail. In China much the same biota was already present. Africa, the Amazon and southeast Asia were too hot, too fecund and too disease-ridden for Europe's animals, plants and humans. These areas were among the last to be dominated as a result, and then only briefly, when Europe's technology gave temporary edge to its armies.
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This is an excellent book on how and why the Europeans were able to conquer North America, Australia, temperate South America (particularly Argentina), and New Zealand--the so-called Neo-Europes, in Crossby's terminology. Crossby's thesis is simple: the native biota of those places (including humans, of course) did not coevolve with the invaders, and were consequently naive (i.e, unequipped) to deal with them. Or, put another way, the invaders were preadapted to deal with the new conditions, and aggresively advanced, in a teamlike fashion, to encroach the native biota. Crossby also explains why Europeans were not able to conquer other places (such as Greenland, the Labrador region, and the New and Old Worlds tropics), adducing mainly climatic reasons and the lack of technological expertise.
To be sure, Crossby's arguments are not new. However, he does a great job at synthesizing an incredible wealth of historical data. His style, oftentimes humorous, also makes of his book an enjoyable read. I would recommend this book to anyone teaching a comprehensive course on the conquest of the places Crossby deals with. It is a much neglected fact that biology played a crucial role in expanding European culture.
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Alfred Crosby is widely credited for popularising the ecological dimension of the history of imperial expansion. For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone, his book is worth a read.

The book, first published in 1986, revolutionised the way we think about European imperial expansion into the New World. How a few hundred disoriented Europeans armed with spears and misfiring guns managed to overwhelm entire Inca and Aztec civilisations in the early sixteenth century, for example. Crosby convincingly casts aside traditional political or military explanations by attributing the astonishing Portuguese and Spanish victories to bacteriology: how diseases such as smallpox and measles that the Europeans unwittingly carried with them wiped out thousands of New World inhabitants, severely crippling their defences.

The larger point that Crosby drives across is a profound one. Historical events - in this case, European expansion and imperialism - can be explained predominantly by ecological factors. In the clash of `biotas' between the Old and the New World, the Old World won. Convincingly. Hence the presence not just of Europeans in the Americas, but also of pigs and dandelions. According to this thesis, ecology shaped European expansion; creating `Neo-Europes' in the New World that facilitated European migration, precipitating the `Caucasian wave' from the 1820s to the 1930s. Unlike in most other histories, in Crosby's ecological history, humans form the backdrop and inexorable ecological forces take centre-stage.

Refreshing as this perspective is, the way that Crosby has rendered it is problematic in on a number of accounts.
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'Ecological imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900', by A. W. Crosby, is a cogently argued and well written book. The main thesis of the book is that the expansion by Europeans to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other enclaves (what Crosby calls the Neo-Europes) wouldn't have succeded if the biota the Europeans brought with them had not suceeded. This biota included not only humans, of course, but pathogens, weeds and grasses, and horses, cattle, goats, and pigs, among the most important. Crosby addresses the reasons why this biota was so succesful in the new territories, and concludes that, in general, the climatic regimes there were sufficiently similar to those of its European origins and the indigenous biota was so 'naive' that 'victory' was almost assured to the invaders. To be sure, this is not an original conclusion, but the wealth of data Crosby uses, along with his synthetic power and sense of humor, makes of this book an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. People interested in searching for the biological causes of the successes (and failures!) of Europeans in the world should read this engaging book.
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