Why Did Civilization Lag in Africa? (Darren Acemoglu: "A Coincidence")
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Great Theater of Miletus, Turkey: capacity 15,000 to 25,000. Built c. BC 400.

In Freakonomics in 2012, superstar economist Daron Acemoglu and his sidekick James A. Robinson used a Q & A with readers to promote their book Why Nations Fail and its all-purpose theory that “extractive institutions” rather than “inclusive institutions” were to blame for anything bad that ever happened anywhere in the history of the world.
Q. I am from Haiti, a country that you guys speak of quite often. I moved here to the States about ten years ago for school. Anyway, I’ve always wondered why countries dominated by blacks have done so terribly (and I am not trying to make us look stupid)? My questions stems from the fact that even within Haiti, the wealthier people are the sons and daughters of ex-pats from Europe or Syria, but in the larger picture, countries heavily dominated by blacks tend to fail. I don’t know many countries in the world where blacks are at the top of the social pyramid; it is concerning. Does it have to do with slavery; more than slavery, education? And how would it be solved in a 30-year plan for example? -Jean-Marc Davis
A. The fact that nearly all countries which are headed by black people are poor is a coincidence.
There is nothing intrinsic about black people that makes such countries poor. Just look at Botswana — it is run by and for black people, but it is one of the great economic success stories of the past 50 years. The same is true of several Caribbean countries, such as the Bahamas. The reasons for this are several-fold. Let’s focus just on Africa. Historically (before European influence), Africa developed extractive institutions for reasons that are not well understood.
For instance, the fact that the construction of centralized states in Africa lagged behind Eurasia is not really understood. This history of extractive institutions then created a terrible vicious circle in the early modern period. First, the slave trade destroyed states and made economic institutions more extractive, and the poverty of Africa then allowed it to be colonized by Europeans. This left a legacy of extractive institutions with which African countries have been struggling since independence. But there is nothing inevitable in this process. Fifty years ago, you would have asked “How come every country run by Asians is poor”?
We don’t ask that because we know that many Asian countries have changed their development paths. They, of course, had advantages Africa did not have, such as a history of centralized states. More broadly, there is nothing inevitable about the fact that the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain and soon after spread to Western Europe and these countries’ superior technologies allowed them to colonize large parts of the world. This was the outcome of a long contingent process of institutional change. This process did not happen in Africa, but that has nothing to do with black people but rather different histories of institutions and different shocks. In the book, we illustrate this by talking about Ethiopia. In 400AD, Ethiopia looked very similar to states in the Mediterranean basin, but then it experienced very different shocks and while these other societies changed, Ethiopia got stuck.
Obviously, this explanation wouldn’t strike anybody better informed and more objective than Daron Acemoglu, the Malcolm Gladwell of MIT, as terribly persuasive. (Of course, I often wonder if implausibility isn’t considered a virtue these days. If the point is to demonstrate your True Faith, then Acemoglu and Robinson’s opening tactical salvo of “The fact that nearly all countries which are headed by black people are poor is a coincidence” isn’t as funny as it would sound to the Man from Mars. If the point is not science but witch-sniffing, then making assertions so lunkheaded they are bound to raise a smile in anybody with an active brain is brilliant, even if it’s simultaneously stupid).

So, rather than critique Acemoglu’s thrashings, let me try to work out a fundamental explanation for why Africa, the home of anatomically modern humans, was long so far behind even other tropical lowlands such as the Yucatan.

I’ve put up a picture above of an immense ruin I visited five years ago, the theater in Miletus in what’s now southwestern Turkey, because there are a lot of ruins in this world. Turkey is full of ancient ruins (as are Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru).

This theater in Turkey is particularly jaw-dropping because it’s not just the usual hillside converted into seating, like in Ephesus or Bodrum/Halicarnassus. You drive through empty, flat farmland and them you come upon this old theater that struck me at the time as, “Not as big as Wrigley Field.” It’s definitely less massive than most current major league baseball stadiums, but I couldn’t say offhand how it compares in size to NBA/NHL arenas like the Staples Center. But it’s built on the same pattern as modern outdoor sports facilities, with big tunnels under the stands to help you get to and from seats without having to walk in front of most spectators who arrived earlier.

There’s an explanation for why this ruin is in the middle of an empty field today: back in Ancient Greek times, Miletus used to be a big port city. But the meandering Meander River silted up the harbor, so it’s now five miles inland from the Mediterranean. Miletus was a big league city in world cultural history: it was the home to Thales, whom the two most famous logicians in history, Aristotle and Bertrand Russell, considered the father of philosophy and/or science.

Is this sports and entertainment facility the creation of extractive or inclusive institutions? Well, I suppose you could argue it either way. But the clear lesson is that, in any case, to pay for and erect this grandiose edifice there clearly had to be a lot of institutions and a lot of surplus to extract. Otherwise, you couldn’t pay for this theater, as well as all the philosophers and scientists associated with Miletus (such as, besides Thales, Anaximander and Leucippus).

Why this meandering reminiscence of mine about a random ruin in Turkey? Because sub-Saharan Africa has remarkably few ruins for its immense size.

This fact is not well known. It is so hazy in the contemporary mind that Henry Louis Gates managed to sell PBS on a six episode miniseries about African ruins called The Wonders of Africa without, apparently, anybody in PBS management calling his bluff about the lack of wonders that his camera crew would wind up documenting in one of the most boring documentary series of the 21st Century.

The only book I’ve read that has wrestled seriously with the implications of sub-Saharan Africa’s relative lack of ruins is John Reader’s extraordinary Africa: Biography of a Continent.

Reader’s argument is that the reason there are few ruins is because there was little wealth in sub-Saharan Africa before outside interventions. The Economist’s 1998 review of Reader’s book noted:

Much of Africa’s history is explained by its fragile soils and erratic weather. They make for conservative social and political systems. “The communities which endured were those that directed available energies primarily towards minimising the risk of failure, not maximising returns,” says Mr Reader. This created societies designed for survival, not development; the qualities needed for survival are the opposite of those needed for developing, ie, making experiments and taking risks. Some societies were wealthy, but accumulating wealth was next to impossible; most people bartered and there were few traders.
In fact, there were few people. Whereas the rest of the world tended to butt up against Malthusian limits on the amount of food that the burgeoning population could wrest from the ground, tropical Africa had plenty of land but strikingly few people.

The problem, according to Reader, was that African humans had a hard time outcompeting other living things in Africa, such as diseases (falciparum malaria and sleeping sickness, most notably) and giant beasts (such as elephants).

To put this in Darwinian terms, humanity not only evolved in Africa, but, unfortunately for the humans, co-evolved along with animals and germs, which gave humanity’s rivals a more than fighting chance. When humans arrived in the New World, in contrast, we killed and ate the local elephants (wooly mammoths) in short order because they didn’t understand how dangerous these two-legged creatures with pointy sticks were to them. In Africa, the elephants had seen us coming for millions of years and had time to evolve behavioral defenses against us.

A herd of elephants seems cute to us in America today, but one can eat an entire African village’s crop of food in a day, leaving it starving. So, as Reader notes, humans and elephants in Africa tended to form patchworks of habitation, with humans only living in areas where they could muster enough density of population to drive off the elephants and giraffes and predators.

But too high a density of population, such as in cities, made people sitting ducks for diseases borne by mosquitoes and tsetse flies. The germs in tropical Africa were even worse than the megafauna. Thomas Pakenham’s 1998 review of Reader’s book in the New York Times explains:

Why did Africa south of the Sahara fare so badly in the last three millenniums? Reader explains Africa’s handicaps in terms of disease and climate. He contrasts the happy colonists who ”by leaving the tropical environments of the cradle-land in which humanity had evolved . . . also left behind the many parasites and disease organisms that had evolved in parallel with the human species.” Up to a point, this must be right. In the African Garden of Eden lurked enemies all the more potent because they were invisible: the malaria bug and other lethal organisms. The liberation of Africa from these enemies began with the period of European exploitation and has continued, somewhat haphazardly, as European drugs are exported to Africa.
For example, from Wikipedia:
Plasmodium falciparum is a protozoan parasite, one of the species of Plasmodium that cause malaria in humans. It is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito. Malaria caused by this species (also called malignant[1] or falciparum[2] malaria) is the most dangerous form of malaria,[3] with the highest rates of complications and mortality. As of 2006, there were an estimated 247 million human malarial infections (98% in Africa, 70% being 5 years or younger).[4] It is much more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than in many other regions of the world; in most African countries, over 75% of cases were due to P. falciparum, whereas in most other countries with malaria transmission, other, less virulent plasmodial species predominate. Almost every malarial death is caused by P. falciparum.[4]
Humans in Africa evolved a brutal defense against this version of malaria, the sickle cell genetic mutation, which provides some protection if you get one copy of the allele, but (without modern medicine) kills you if you inherit two. We wouldn’t have such an inelegant genetic protection if humans in Africa didn’t need it against such a massive killer. (The less vicious vivax malaria has a safer mutation to protect Africans, the Duffy gene.)

So, tropical Africans couldn’t learn to live in dense urban populations, with all the advanced trades made possible by the concentrations of city life. They largely remained small villagers scratching a living from the ground.

Also, in contrast to the rest of the world, where sexual restraint had its Darwinian advantages in avoiding the Malthusian Trap, tropical Africans found it advantageous to procreate as thoughtlessly as an NFL star like Adrian Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, or Travis Henry. Children weren’t likely to starve because their working mothers could grow enough food for them in the thin tropical soil (without fathers needing to do the heavy lifting of plowing, as on continents with better soil).

And the children were probably going to die of random diseases anyway, for which no amount of paternal investment could protect them before modern medicine. (For example, the hypothesis that yellow fever, which originated in Africa, was spread by mosquitoes was first proposed by Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay only as recently as 1881 and proven by American doctors such as Walter Reed and William Gorgas around the turn of the 20th Century.) So, it made more Darwinian sense in tropical Africa for men to procreate with abandon than to parent carefully.

Is Reader’s late 1990s theory of the difference between Africa (and thus Africans) and the rest of world true? It’s similar to Jared Diamond’s theory in the contemporary bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, but is far more detailed, plausible, and interesting. Unlike Diamond’s rather airy theory, it has the advantage / disadvantage of explaining much that we see in modern America as well. Reader didn’t really want to draw out the modern implications in the manner of J.P. Rushton, but it’s pretty obvious reading his book that there are connections between prehistoric Africa and inner city black America.

In the decade and a half since Reader published his highly readable Africa: Biography of a Continent, has any economist, evolutionary theorist, or geneticist directly grappled with testing his model?

Not that I’m aware of. Instead, we have goofs like Acemoglu dominating our intellectual life, such as it is. Isn’t it about time to give serious attention to John Reader’s theory?

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