Sep 14 • 1HR 32M

Charles C. Mann - Americas Before Columbus & Scientific Wizardry

How Bitcoin is like China’s Silver Trade, Geoengineering, Collapse of Native American Societies, The Unlikely Ending of Slavery, & Much More!

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Charles C. Mann is the author of three of my favorite history books: 1491. 1493, and The Wizard and the Prophet

We discuss:

  • why Native American civilizations collapsed and why they failed to make more technological progress

  • why he disagrees with Will MacAskill about longtermism

  • why there aren’t any successful slave revolts

  • how geoengineering can help us solve climate change

  • why Bitcoin is like the Chinese Silver Trade

  • and much much more!

Watch on YouTube. Listen on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or any other podcast platform. Read the full transcript here.

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If you enjoyed this episode, you may also enjoy my interviews of Will MacAskill (about longtermism), Steve Hsu (about intelligence and embryo selection), and David Deutsch (about AI and the problems with America’s constitution).

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Timestamps

(0:00:00) -Epidemically Alternate Realities

(0:00:25) -Weak Points in Empires

(0:03:28) -Slave Revolts

(0:08:43) -Slavery Ban

(0:12:46) - Contingency & The Pyramids

(0:18:13) - Teotihuacan

(0:20:02) - New Book Thesis

(0:25:20) - Gender Ratios and Silicon Valley

(0:31:15) - Technological Stupidity in the New World

(0:41:24) - Religious Demoralization

(0:44:00) - Critiques of Civilization Collapse Theories

(0:49:05) - Virginia Company + Hubris

(0:53:30) - China’s Silver Trade

(1:03:03) - Wizards vs. Prophets

(1:07:55) - In Defense of Regulatory Delays

(0:12:26) -Geoengineering

(0:16:51) -Finding New Wizards

(0:18:46) -Agroforestry is Underrated

(1:18:46) -Longtermism & Free Markets

Transcript

Dwarkesh Patel   

Okay! Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Charles Mann, who is the author of three of my favorite books, including 1491: New Revelations of America before Columbus. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World. Charles, welcome to the Lunar Society.

Charles C. Mann   

It’s a pleasure to be here.

Epidemically Alternate Realities

Dwarkesh Patel   

My first question is: How much of the New World was basically baked into the cake? So at some point, people from Eurasia were going to travel to the New World, bringing their diseases. Considering disparities and where they would survive, if the Acemoglu theory that you cited is correct, then some of these places were bound to have good institutions and some of them were bound to have bad institutions. Plus, because of malaria, there were going to be shortages in labor that people would try to fix with African slaves. So how much of all this was just bound to happen? If Columbus hadn't done it, then maybe 50 years down the line, would someone from Italy have done it? What is the contingency here?

Charles C. Mann   

Well, I think that some of it was baked into the cake. It was pretty clear that at some point, people from Eurasia and the Western Hemisphere were going to come into contact with each other. I mean, how could that not happen, right? There was a huge epidemiological disparity between the two hemispheres––largely because by a quirk of evolutionary history, there were many more domesticable animals in Eurasia and the Eastern hemisphere. This leads almost inevitably to the creation of zoonotic diseases: diseases that start off in animals and jump the species barrier and become human diseases. Most of the great killers in human history are zoonotic diseases. When people from Eurasia and the Western Hemisphere meet, there are going to be those kinds of diseases. 

But if you wanted to, it's possible to imagine alternative histories. There's a wonderful book by Laurent Binet called Civilizations that, in fact, does just that. It's a great alternative history book. He imagines that some of the Vikings came and extended further into North America, bringing all these diseases, and by the time of Columbus and so forth, the epidemiological balance was different. So when Columbus and those guys came, these societies killed him, grabbed his boats, and went and conquered Europe. It's far-fetched, but it does say that this encounter would’ve happened and that the diseases would’ve happened, but it didn’t have to happen in exactly the way that it did. It’s also perfectly possible to imagine that Europeans didn't engage in wholesale slavery. There was a huge debate when this began about whether or not slavery was a good idea. There were a lot of reservations, particularly among the Catholic monarchy asking the Pope “Is it okay that we do this?” You could imagine the penny dropping in a slightly different way. So, I think some of it was bound to happen, but how exactly it happened was really up to chance, contingency, and human agency,

Weak Points in Empires

Dwarkesh Patel   

When the Spanish first arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries, were the Incas and the Aztecs at a particularly weak point or particularly decadent? Or was this just how well you should have expected this civilization to be functioning at any given time period?

Charles C. Mann   

Well, typically, empires are much more jumbly and fragile entities than we imagine. There's always fighting at the top. What Hernán Cortés was able to do, for instance, with the Aztecs––who are better called The Triple Alliance (the term “Aztec” is an invention from the 19th century). The Triple Alliance was comprised of three groups of people in central Mexico, the largest of which were the Mexica, who had the great city of Tenochtitlan. The other two guys really resented them and so what Cortes was able to do was foment a civil war within the Aztec empire: taking some enemies of the Aztec, some members of the Aztec empire, and creating an entirely new order. 

There's a fascinating set of history that hasn't really emerged into the popular consciousness. I didn't include it in 1491 or 1493 because it was so new that I didn't know anything about it; everything was largely from Spanish and Mexican scholars about the conquest within the conquest. The allies of the Spaniards actually sent armies out and conquered big swaths of northern and southern Mexico and Central America. So there’s a far more complex picture than we realized even 15 or 20 years ago when I first published 1491. However, the conquest wasn't as complete as we think. I talk a bit about this in 1493 but what happens is Cortes moves in and he marries his lieutenants to these indigenous people, creating this hybrid nobility that then extended on to the Incas.

The Incas were a very powerful but unstable empire and Pizarro had the luck to walk in right after a civil war. When he did that right after a civil war and massive epidemic, he got them at a very vulnerable point. Without that, it all would have been impossible. Pizarro cleverly allied with the losing side (or the apparently losing side in this in the Civil War), and was able to create a new rallying point and then attack the winning side. So yes, they came in at weak points, but empires typically have these weak points because of fratricidal stuff going on in the leadership.

Dwarkesh Patel   

It does also remind me of the East India Trading Company.

Charles C. Mann   

And the Mughal empire, yeah. Some of those guys in Bengal invited Clive and his people in. In fact, I was struck by this. I had just been reading this book, maybe you've heard of it: The Anarchy by William Dalrymple.

Dwarkesh Patel   

I’ve started reading it, yeah but I haven’t made much progress.

Charles C. Mann   

It's an amazing book! It's so oddly similar to what happened. There was this fratricidal stuff going on in the Mughal empire, and one side thought, “Oh, we'll get these foreigners to come in, and we'll use them.” That turned out to be a big mistake.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yes. What's also interestingly similar is the efficiency of the bureaucracy. Niall Ferguson has a good book on the British Empire and one thing he points out is that in India, the ratio between an actual English civil servant and the Indian population was about 1: 3,000,000 at the peak of the ratio. Which obviously is only possible if you have the cooperation of at least the elites, right? So it sounds similar to what you were saying about Cortes marrying his underlings to the nobility. 

Charles C. Mann   

Something that isn’t stressed enough in history is how often the elites recognize each other. They join up in arrangements that increase both of their power and exploit the poor schmucks down below. It’s exactly what happened with the East India Company, and it's exactly what happened with Spain. It's not so much that there was this amazing efficiency, but rather, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement for Tlaxcala, which is now a Mexican state. It had its rights, and the people kept their integrity, but they weren’t really a part of the Spanish Empire. They also weren’t really wasn't part of Mexico until around 1857. It was a good deal for them. The same thing was true for the Bengalis, especially the elites who made out like bandits from the British Empire.

Slave Revolts 

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, that's super interesting. Why was there only one successful slave revolt in the new world in Haiti? In many of these cases, the ratios between slaves and the owners are just huge. So why weren't more of them successful?

Charles C. Mann   

Well, you would first have to define ‘successful’. Haiti wasn't successful if you meant ‘creating a prosperous state that would last for a long time.’ Haiti was and is (to no small extent because of the incredible blockade that was put on it by all the other nations) in terrible shape. Whereas in the case of Palmeres, you had people who were self-governing for more than 100 years.. 

Eventually, they were incorporated into the larger project of Brazil. There's a great Brazilian classic that’s equivalent to what Moby Dick or Huck Finn is to us called Os Sertões by a guy named Cunha. And it's good! It's been translated into this amazing translation in English called ​​Rebellion in the Backlands. It’s set in the 1880s, and it’s about the creation of a hybrid state of runaway slaves, and so forth, and how they had essentially kept their independence and lack of supervision informally, from the time of colonialism. Now the new Brazilian state is trying to take control, and they fight them to the last person. So you have these effectively independent areas in de facto, if not de jure, that existed in the Americas for a very long time. There are some in the US, too, in the great dismal swamp, and you hear about those marooned communities in North Carolina, in Mexico, where everybody just agreed “these places aren't actually under our control, but we're not going to say anything.”  If they don't mess with us too much, we won't mess with them too much. Is that successful or not? I don't know.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, but it seems like these are temporary successes..

Charles C. Mann   

I mean, how long did nations last? Like Genghis Khan! How long did the Khan age last? But basically, they had overwhelming odds against them. There’s an entire colonial system that was threatened by their existence. Similar to the reasons that rebellions in South Asia were suppressed with incredible brutality–– these were seen as so profoundly threatening to this entire colonial order that people exerted a lot more force against them than you would think would be worthwhile.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Right. It reminds me of James Scott's Against the Grain. He pointed out that if you look at the history of agriculture, there're many examples where people choose to run away as foragers in the forest, and then the state tries to bring them back into the fold.

Charles C. Mann   

Right. And so this is exactly part of that dynamic. I mean, who wants to be a slave, right? So as many people as possible ended up leaving. It’s easier in some places than others.. it's very easy in Brazil. There are 20 million people in the Brazilian Amazon and the great bulk of them are the descendants of people who left slavery. They're still Brazilians and so forth, but, you know, they ended up not being slaves.

Slavery Ban

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, that's super fascinating. What is the explanation for why slavery went from being historically ever-present to ending at a particular time when it was at its peak in terms of value and usefulness? What's the explanation for why, when Britain banned the slave trade, within 100 or 200 years, there ended up being basically no legal sanction for slavery anywhere in the world?

Charles C. Mann   

This is a really good question and the real answer is that historians have been arguing about this forever. I mean, not forever, but you know, for decades, and there's a bunch of different explanations. I think the reason it's so hard to pin down is… kind of amazing. I mean, if you think about it, in 1800, if you were to have a black and white map of the world and put red in countries in which slavery was illegal and socially accepted, there would be no red anywhere on the planet. It’s the most ancient human institution that there is. The Code of Hammurabi is still the oldest complete legal code that we have, and about a third of it is about rules for when you can buy slaves, when you can sell slaves, how you can mistreat them, and how you can’t–– all that stuff. About a third of it is about buying, selling, and working other human beings. So this has been going on for a very, very long time. And then in a century and a half, it suddenly changes. 

So there's some explanation, and it's that machinery gets better. But the reason to have people is that you have these intelligent autonomous workers, who are like the world's best robots. From the point of view of the owner, they're fantastically good, except they're incredibly obstreperous and when they're caught, you're constantly afraid they're going to kill you. So if you have a chance to replace them with machinery, or to create a wage where you can run wage people, pay wage workers who are kept in bad conditions but somewhat have more legal rights, then maybe that's a better deal for you.

Another one is that industrialization produced different kinds of commodities that became more and more valuable, and slavery was typically associated with the agricultural laborer. So as agriculture diminished as a part of the economy, slavery become less and less important and it became easier to get rid of them. Another one has to do with the beginning of the collapse of the colonial order. Part of it has to do with.. (at least in the West, I don't know enough about the East) the rise of a serious abolition movement with people like Wilberforce and various Darwins and so forth. And they're incredibly influential, so to some extent, I think people started saying, “Wow, this is really bad.”  I suspect that if you looked at South Asia and Africa, you might see similar things having to do with a social moment, but I just don't know enough about that. I know there's an anti-slavery movement and anti-caste movement in which we're all tangled up in South Asia, but I just don't know enough about it to say anything intelligent.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, the social aspect of it is really interesting. The things you mentioned about automation, industrialization, and ending slavery… Obviously, with time, that might have actually been why it expanded, but its original inception in Britain happened before the Industrial Revolution took off. So that was purely them just taking a huge loss because this movement took hold. 

Charles C. Mann   

And the same thing is true for Bartolome de Las Casas. I mean, Las Casas, you know, in the 1540s just comes out of nowhere and starts saying, “Hey! This is bad.” He is the predecessor of the modern human rights movement. He’s an absolutely extraordinary figure, and he has huge amounts of influence. He causes Spain’s king in the 1540s to pass what they call The New Laws which says no more slavery, which is a devastating blow enacted to the colonial economy in Spain because they depended on having slaves to work in the silver mines in the northern half of Mexico and in Bolivia, which was the most important part of not only the Spanish colonial economy but the entire Spanish empire. It was all slave labor. And they actually tried to ban it. Now, you can say they came to their senses and found a workaround in which it wasn't banned. But it's still… this actually happened in the 1540s. Largely because people like Las Casas said, “This is bad! you're going to hell doing this.”

Contingency & The Pyramids 

Dwarkesh Patel   

Right. I'm super interested in getting into The Wizard and the Prophet section with you. Discussing how movements like environmentalism, for example, have been hugely effective. Again, even though it probably goes against the naked self-interest of many countries. So I'm very interested in discussing that point about why these movements have been so influential!

But let me continue asking you about globalization in the world. I'm really interested in how you think about contingency in history, especially given that you have these two groups of people that have been independently evolving and separated for tens of thousands of years. What things turn out to be contingent? What I find really interesting from the book was how both of them developed pyramids––  who would have thought that structure would be within our extended phenotype or something?

Charles C. Mann    

It's also geometry! I mean, there's only a certain limited number of ways you can pile up stone blocks in a stable way. And pyramids are certainly one of them. It's harder to have a very long-lasting monument that's a cylinder. Pyramids are also easier to build: if you get a cylinder, you have to have scaffolding around it and it gets harder and harder.

With pyramids, you can use each lower step to put the next one, on and on, and so forth. So pyramids seem kind of natural to me. Now the material you make them up of is going to be partly determined by what there is. In Cahokia and in the Mississippi Valley, there isn't a lot of stone. So people are going to make these earthen pyramids and if you want them to stay on for a long time, there’s going to be certain things you have to do for the structure which people figured out. For some pyramids, you had all this marble around them so you could make these giant slabs of marble, which seems, from today's perspective, incredibly wasteful. So you're going to have some things that are universal like that, along with the apparently universal, or near-universal idea that people who are really powerful like to identify themselves as supernatural and therefore want to be commemorated. 

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yes, I visited Mexico City recently.

Charles C. Mann
Beautiful city!

Teotihuacan

Dwarkesh Patel
Yeah, the pyramids there… I think I was reading your book at the time or already had read your book. What struck me was that if I remember correctly, they didn't have the wheel and they didn't have domesticated animals. So if you really think about it, that’s a really huge amount of human misery and toil it must have taken to put this thing together as basically a vanity project. It’s like a huge negative connotation if you think about what it took to construct it.

Charles C. Mann   

Sure, but there are lots of really interesting things about Teotihuacan. This is just one of those things where you can only say so much in one book. If I was writing the two-thousand-page version of 1491, I would have included this. So Tehuácan pretty much starts out as a standard Imperial project, and they build all these huge castles and temples and so forth. There's no reason to suppose it was anything other than an awful experience (like building the pyramids), but then something happened to Teotihuacan that we don’t understand. All these new buildings started springing up during the next couple of 100 years, and they're all very very similar. They're like apartment blocks and there doesn't seem to be a great separation between rich and poor. It's really quite striking how egalitarian the architecture is because that's usually thought to be a reflection of social status.

So based on the way it looks, could there have been a political revolution of some sort? Where they created something much more egalitarian, probably with a bunch of good guy kings who weren't interested in elevating themselves so much? There's a whole chapter in the book by David Wingrove and David Graeber, The Dawn of Everything about this, and they make this argument that Tehuácan is an example that we can look at as an ancient society that was much more socially egalitarian than we think. Now, in my view, they go a little overboard–– it was also an aggressive imperial power and it was conquering much of the Maya world at the same time. But it is absolutely true that something that started out one way can start looking very differently quite quickly.

You see this lots of times in the Americas in the Southwest–– I don't know if you've ever been to Chaco Canyon or any of those places, but you should absolutely go! Unfortunately, it's hard to get there because of the roads terrible but overall, it’s totally worth it. It's an amazing place. Mesa Verde right north of it is incredible, it's just really a fantastic thing to see. There are these enormous structures in Chaco Canyon, that we would call castles if they were anywhere else because they're huge. The biggest one, Pueblo Bonito, is like 800 rooms or some insane number like that. And it's clearly an imperial venture, we know that because it's in this canyon and one side is getting all the good light and good sun–– a whole line of these huge castles. And then on the other side is where the peons lived. We also know that starting around 1100, everybody just left! And then their descendants start the Puebla, who are these sort of intensely socially egalitarian type of people. It looks like a political revolution took place. In fact, in the book I'm now writing, I'm arguing (in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner but also seriously) that this is the first American Revolution! They got rid of these “kings” and created these very different and much more egalitarian societies in which ordinary people had a much larger voice about what went on.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Interesting. I think I got a chance to see the Teotihuacan apartments when I was there, but I wonder if we’re just looking at the buildings that survived. Maybe the buildings that survived were better constructed because they were for the elites? The way everybody else lived might have just washed away over the years.

Charles C. Mann   

So what's happened in the last 20 years is basically much more sophisticated surveys of what is there. I mean, what you're saying is absolutely the right question to ask. Are the rich guys the only people with things that survived while the ordinary people didn’t? You can never be absolutely sure, but what they did is they had these ground penetrating radar surveys, and it looks like this egalitarian construction extends for a huge distance. So it's possible that there are more really, really poor people. But at least you'd see an aggressively large “middle class” getting there, which is very, very different from the picture you have of the ancient world where there's the sun priest and then all the peasants around them.

New Book Thesis

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah. By the way, is the thesis of the new book something you're willing to disclose at this point? It’s okay if you’re not––

Charles C. Mann   

Sure sure, it’s okay! This is a sort of weird thing, it's like a sequel or offshoot of 1491. That book, I'm embarrassed to say, was supposed to end with another chapter. The chapter was going to be about the American West, which is where I grew up, and I'm very fond of it. And apparently, I had a lot to say because when I outlined the chapter; the outline was way longer than the actual completed chapters of the rest of the book. So I sort of tried to chop it up and so forth, and it just was awful. So I just cut it. If you carefully look at 1491, it doesn't really have an ending. At the end, the author sort of goes, “Hey! I'm ending, look at how great this is!” So this has been bothering me for 15 years.

During the pandemic, when I was stuck at home like so many other people, I held out what I had since I've been saving string and tossing articles that I came across into a folder, and I thought, “Okay, I'm gonna write this out more seriously now.” 15 or 20 years later. And then it was pretty long so I thought “Maybe this could be an e-book.” then I showed it to my editor. And he said, “That is not an e-book. That's an actual book.” So I take a chapter and hope I haven't just padded it, and it's about the North American West. My kids like the West, and at various times, they've questioned what it would be like to move out there because I'm in Massachusetts, where they grew up. So I started thinking “What is the West going to be like, tomorrow? When I'm not around 30 or 50 years from now?”

It seems to be that you won't know who's president or who's governor or anything, but there are some things we can know. It’d be hotter and drier than it is now or has been in the recent past, like that wouldn’t really be a surprise. So I think we can say that it's very likely to be like that. All the projections are that something like 40% of the people in the area between the Mississippi and the Pacific will be of Latino descent–– from the south, so to speak. And there's a whole lot of people from Asia along the Pacific coast, so it's going to be a real ethnic mixing ground. There's going to be an epicenter of energy, sort of no matter what happens. Whether it's solar, whether it's wind, whether it's petroleum, or hydroelectric, the West is going to be economically extremely powerful, because energy is a fundamental industry.

And the last thing is (and this is the iffiest of the whole thing), but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the ongoing recuperation of sovereignty by the 294 federally recognized Native nations in the West is going to continue. That's been going in this very jagged way, but definitely for the last 50 or 60 years, as long as I've been around, the overall trend is in a very clear direction. So then you think, okay, this West is going to be wildly ethnically diverse, full of competing sovereignties and overlapping sovereignties. Nature is also going to really be in kind of a terminal. Well, that actually sounds like the 1200s! And the conventional history starts with Lewis and Clark and so forth. 

There’s this breakpoint in history when people who looked like me came in and sort of rolled in from the East and kind of took over everything. And the West disappears! That separate entity, the native people disappear, and nature is tamed. That's pretty much what was in the textbooks when I was a kid. Do you know who Frederick Jackson Turner is? 

Dwarkesh Patel  

No.

Charles C. Mann 

So he's like one of these guys where nobody knows who he is. But he was incredibly influential in setting intellectual ideas. He wrote this article in 1893, called The Significance of the Frontier. It was what established this idea that there’s this frontier moving from East to West and on this side was savagery and barbarism, and on this other side of civilization was team nature and wilderness and all that. Then it goes to the Pacific, and that’s the end of the West. That's still in the textbooks but in a different form: we don't call native people “lurking savages” as he did. But it's in my kids' textbooks. If you have kids, it'll very likely be in their textbook because it's such a bedrock. What I'm saying is that's actually not a useful way to look at it, given what's coming up. A wonderful Texas writer, Bruce Sterling, says, “To know the past, you first have to understand the future.”

It's funny, right? But what he means is that all of us have an idea of where the trajectory of history is going. A whole lot of history is about asking, “How did we get here? How do we get there?” To get that, you have to have an idea of what the “there” is. So I'm saying, I'm writing a history of the West with that West that I talked about in mind. Which gives you a very different picture: a lot more about indigenous fire management, the way the Hohokam survived the drought of the 1200s, and a little bit less about Billy the Kid. 

Gender Ratios and Silicon Valley 

Dwarkesh Patel   

I love that quote hahaha. Speaking of the frontier, maybe it's a mistaken concept, but I remember that in a chapter of 1493, you talk about these rowdy adventurer men who outnumber the women in the silver mines and the kind of trouble that they cause. I wonder if there's some sort of distant analogy to the technology world or Silicon Valley, where you have the same kind of gender ratio and you have the same kind of frontier spirit? Maybe not the same physical violence––– more sociologically. Is there any similarity there?

Charles C. Mann   

I think it's funny, I hadn't thought about it. But it's certainly funny to think about. So let me do this off the top of my head. I like the idea that at the end of it, I can say, “wait, wait, that's ridiculous.“ Both of them would attract people who either didn't have much to lose, or were oblivious about what they had to lose, and had a resilience towards failure. I mean, it's amazing, the number of people in Silicon Valley who have completely failed at numbers of things! They just get up and keep‌ trying and have a kind of real obliviousness to social norms. It's pretty clear they are very much interested in making a mark and making their fortunes themselves. So there's at least a sort of shallow comparison, there are some certain similarities. I don't think this is entirely flattering to either group. It’s absolutely true that those silver miners in Bolivia, and in northern‌ Mexico, created to a large extent, the modern world. But it's also true that they created these cesspools of violence and exploitation that had consequences we're still living with today. So you have to kind of take the bitter with the sweet. And I think that's true of Silicon Valley and its products *chuckles* I use them every day, and I curse them every day.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Right.

Charles C. Mann   

I want to give you an example. The internet has made it possible for me to do something like write a Twitter thread, get millions of people to read it, and have a discussion that's really amazing at the same time. Yet today, The Washington Post has an article about how every book in Texas (it’s one of the states) a child checks out of the school library goes into a central state databank. They can see and look for patterns of people taking out “bad books” and this sort of stuff. And I think “whoa, that's really bad! That's not so good.” It's really the same technology that brings this dissemination and collection of vast amounts of information with relative ease. So with all these things, you take the bitter with the sweet. 

Technological Stupidity in the New World

Dwarkesh Patel   

I want to ask you again about contingency because there are so many other examples where things you thought would be universal actually don't turn out to be. I think you talked about how the natives had different forms of metallurgy, with gold and copper, but then they didn't do iron or steel. You would think that given their “warring nature”, iron would be such a huge help. There's a clear incentive to build it. Millions of people living there could have built or developed this technology. Same with the steel, same with the wheel. What’s the explanation for why these things you think anybody would have come up with didn't happen?

Charles C. Mann   

I know. It's just amazing to me! I don't know. This is one of those things I think about all the time. A few weeks ago, it rained, and I went out to walk the dog. I'm always amazed that there are literal glistening drops of water on the crabgrass and when you pick it up, sometimes there are little holes eaten by insects in the crabgrass. Every now and then, if you look carefully, you'll see a drop of water in one of those holes and it forms a lens. And you can look through it! You can see that it's not a very powerful lens by any means, but you can see that things are magnified. So you think “How long has there been crabgrass? Or leaves? And water?”  Just forever! We've had glass forever! So how is it that we had to wait for whoever it was to create lenses? I just don't get it. In book 1491, I mentioned the moldboard plow, which is the one with a curving blade that allows you to go through the soil much more easily. It was invented in China thousands of years ago, but not around in Europe until the 1400s. Like, come on, guys! What was it? And so, you know, there's this mysterious sort of mass stupidity. 

One of the wonderful things about globalization and trade and contact is that maybe not everybody is as blind as you and you can learn from them. I mean, that's the most wonderful thing about trade. So in the case of the wheel, the more amazing thing is that in Mesoamerica, they had the wheel on child's toys. Why didn’t they develop it? The best explanation I can get is they didn't have domestic animals. A cart then would have to be pulled by people. That would imply that to make the cart work, you'd have to cut a really good road. Whereas they had these travois, which are these things that you hold and they have these skids that are shaped kind of like an upside-down V. You can drag them across rough ground, you don't need a road for them. That's what people used in the Great Plains and so forth. So you look at this, and you think “maybe this was the ultimate way to save labor. I mean, this was good enough. And you didn't have to build and maintain these roads to make this work”  so maybe it was rational or just maybe they're just blinkered. I don’t know.

As for assembly with steel, I think there's some values involved in that. I don't know if you've ever seen one of those things they had in Mesoamerica called Macuahuitl. They’re wooden clubs with obsidian blades on them and they are sharp as hell. You don't run your finger along the edge because they just slice it open. An obsidian blade is pretty much sharper than any iron or steel blade and it doesn't rust. Nice. But it's much more brittle. So okay, they're there, and the Spaniards were really afraid of them. Because a single blow from these heavy sharp blades could kill a horse. They saw people whack off the head of a horse carrying a big strong guy with a single blow! So they're really dangerous, but they're not long-lasting. Part of the deal was that the values around conflict were different in the sense that conflict in Mesoamerica wasn't a matter of sending out foot soldiers in grunts, it was a chance for soldiers to get individual glory and prestige. This was associated with having these very elaborately beautiful weapons that you killed people with.

So maybe not having steel worked better for their values and what they were trying to do at war. That would’ve lasted for years and I mean, that's just a guess. But you can imagine a scenario where they’re not just blinkered but instead expressive on the basis of their different values. This is hugely speculative. There's a wonderful book by Ross Hassig about old Aztec warfare. It's an amazing book which is about the military history of The Aztecs and it's really quite interesting. He talks about this a little bit but he finally just says we don't know why they didn't develop all these technologies, but this worked for them.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Interesting. Yeah, it's kind of similar to China not developing gunpowder into an actual ballistic material––

Charles C. Mann   

Or Japan giving up the gun! They actually banned guns during the Edo period. The Portuguese introduced guns and the Japanese used them, and they said “Ahhh nope! Don’t want them.” and they banned them. This turned out to be a terrible idea when Perry came in the 1860s. But for a long time, supposedly under the Edo period, Japan had the longest period of any nation ever without a foreign war. 

Dwarkesh Patel   

Hmm. Interesting. Yeah, it's concerning when you think the lack of war might make you vulnerable in certain ways. 

Charles C. Mann   

Yeah, that's a depressing thought.

Religious Demoralization

Dwarkesh Patel   

Right. In Fukuyama’s The End of History, he's obviously arguing that liberal democracy will be the final form of government everywhere. But there’s this point he makes at the end where he's like, “Yeah, but maybe we need a small war every 50 years or so just to make sure people remember how bad it can get and how to deal with it.” Anyway, when the epidemic started in the New World, surely the Indians must have had some story or superstitious explanation–– some way of explaining what was happening. What was it?

Charles C. Mann   

You have to remember, the germ theory of disease didn't exist at the time. So neither the Spaniards, or the English, or the native people, had a clear idea of what was going on. In fact, both of them thought of it as essentially a spiritual event, a religious event. You went into areas that were bad, and the air was bad. That was malaria, right? That was an example. To them, it was God that was in control of the whole business. There's a line from my distant ancestor––the Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony, who's my umpteenth, umpteenth grandfather, that's how waspy I am, he's actually my ancestor––about how God saw fit to clear the natives for us. So they see all of this in really religious terms, and more or less native people did too! So they thought over and over again that “we must have done something bad for this to have happened.” And that’s a very powerful demoralizing thing. Your God either punished you or failed you. And this was it. This is one of the reasons that Christianity was able to make inroads. People thought “Their god is coming in and they seem to be less harmed by these diseases than people with our God.” Now, both of them are completely misinterpreting what's going on! But if you have that kind of spiritual explanation, it makes sense for you to say, “Well, maybe I should hit up their God.”

Critiques of Civilization Collapse Theories

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, super fascinating. There's been a lot of books written in the last few decades about why civilizations collapse. There's Joseph Tainter’s book, there’s Jared Diamond's book. Do you feel like any of them actually do a good job of explaining how these different Indian societies collapsed over time?

Charles C. Mann   

No. Well not the ones that I've read. And there are two reasons for that. One is that it's not really a mystery. If you have a society that's epidemiologically naive, and smallpox sweeps in and kills 30% of you, measles kills 10% of you, and this all happens in a short period of time, that's really tough! I mean COVID killed one million people in the United States. That's 1/330th of the population. And it wasn't even particularly the most economically vital part of the population. It wasn't kids, it was elderly people like my aunt–– I hope I'm not sounding callous when I'm describing it like a demographer. Because I don't mean it that way. But it caused enormous economic damage and social conflict and so forth. Now, imagine something that's 30 or 40 times worse than that, and you have no explanation for it at all. It's kind of not a surprise to me that this is a super challenge. What's actually amazing is the number of nations that survived and came up with ways to deal with this incredible loss.

That relates to the second issue, which is that it's sort of weird to talk about collapse in the ways that they sometimes do. Like both of them talk about the Mayan collapse. But there are 30 million Mayan people still there. They were never really conquered by the Spaniards. The Spaniards were still waging giant wars in Yucatan in the 1590s. In the early 21st century, I went with my son to Chiapas, which is the southernmost exit province. And that is where the Commandante Cero and the rebellions were going on. We were looking at some Mayan ruins, and they were too beautiful, and I stayed too long, and we were driving back through the night on these terrible roads. And we got stopped by some of these guys with guns. I was like, “Oh God, not only have I got myself into this, I got my son into this.” And the guy comes and looks at us and says, “Who are you?” And I say that we're American tourists. And he just gets this disgusted look, and he says, “Go on.” And you know, the journalist in me takes over and I ask, “What do you mean, just go on?” And he says, “We're hunting for Mexicans.” And as I’m driving I’m like “Wait a minute, I'm in Mexico.” And that those were Mayans. All those guys were Maya people still fighting against the Spaniards. So it's kind of funny to say that their society collapsed when there are Mayan radio stations, there are Maya schools, and they're speaking Mayan in their home. It's true, they don't have giant castles anymore. But, it's odd to think of that as collapse.

They seem like highly successful people who have dealt pretty well with a lot of foreign incursions. So there's this whole aspect of “What do you mean collapse?” And you see that in Against the Grain, the James Scott book, where you think, “What do you mean barbarians?” If you're an average Maya person, working as a farmer under the purview of these elites in the big cities probably wasn't all that great. So after the collapse, you're probably better off. So all of that I feel is important in this discussion of collapse. I think it's hard to point to collapses that either have very clear exterior causes or are really collapses of the environment. Particularly the environmental sort that are pictured in books like Diamond has, where he talks about Easter Island. The striking thing about that is we know pretty much what happened to all those trees. Easter Island is this little speck of land, in the middle of the ocean, and Dutch guys come there and it's the only wood around for forever, so they cut down all the trees to use it for boat repair, ship repair, and they enslave most of the people who are living there. And we know pretty much what happened. There's no mystery about it.

Virginia Company + Hubris

Dwarkesh Patel   

Why did the British government and the king keep subsidizing and giving sanctions to the Virginia Company, even after it was clear that this is not especially profitable and half the people that go die? Why didn't they just stop?

Charles C. Mann   

That's a really good question. It's a super good question. I don't really know if we have a satisfactory answer, because it was so stupid for them to keep doing that. It was such a loss for so long. So you have to say, they were thinking, not purely economically. Part of it is that the backers of the Virginia Company, in sort of classic VC style, when things were going bad, they lied about it. They're burning through their cash, they did these rosy presentations, and they said, “It's gonna be great! We just need this extra money.” Kind of the way that Uber did. There's this tremendous burn rate and now the company says you're in tremendous trouble because it turns out that it's really expensive to provide all these calves and do all this stuff. The cheaper prices that made people like me really happy about it are vanishing. 

So, you know, I think future business studies will look at those rosy presentations and see that they have a kind of analogy to the ones that were done with the Virginia Company. A second thing is that there was this dog-headed belief kind of based on the inability to understand longitude and so forth, that the Americas were far narrower than they actually are. I reproduced this in 1493. There were all kinds of maps in Britain at the time showing these little skinny Philippine-like islands. So there's the thought that you just go up the Chesapeake, go a couple 100 miles, and you're gonna get to the Pacific into China. So there's this constant searching for a passage to China through this thought to be very narrow path. Sir Francis Drake and some other people had shown that there was a West Coast so they thought the whole thing was this narrow, Panama-like landform. So there's this geographical confusion. Finally, there's the fact that the Spaniards had found all this gold and silver, which is an ideal commodity, because it's not perishable: it's small, you can put it on your ship and bring it back, and it's just great in every way. It's money, essentially. Basically, you dig up money in the hills and there's this long-standing belief that there's got to be more of that in the Americas, we just need to find out where. So there's always that hope.

Lastly, there's the Imperial bragging rights. You know, we can't be the only guys with a colony. You see that later in the 19th century when Germany became a nation and one of the first things it does is “Let’s look for pieces of Africa that the rest of Europe hasn't claimed,” and they set up their own mini colonial empire. So there's this kind of “Keeping Up with the Joneses” aspect, it just seems to be sort of deep in the European ruling class. So then you got to have an empire that in this weird way, seems very culturally part of it. I guess it's the same for many other places. As soon as you feel like you have a state together, you want to index other things. You see that over and over again, all over the world. So that's part of it. All those things, I think, contributed to this. Outright lying, this delusion, other various delusions, plus hubris.

Dwarkesh Patel   

It seems that colonial envy has today probably spread to China. I don't know too much about it, but I hear that the Silk Road stuff they're doing is not especially economically wise. Is this kind of like when you have the impulse where if you're a nation trying to rise, you have that “I gotta go here, I gotta go over there––

Charles C. Mann   

Yeah and “Show what a big guy I am. Yeah,––

China’s Silver Trade

Dwarkesh Patel   

Exactly. So speaking of China, I want to ask you about the silver trade. Excuse another tortured analogy, but when I was reading that chapter where you're describing how the Spanish silver was ending up with China and how the Ming Dynasty caused too much inflation. They needed more reliable mediums of exchange, so they had to give up real goods from China, just in order to get silver, which is just a medium of exchange––but it’s not creating more apples, right? I was thinking about how this sounds a bit like Bitcoin today, (obviously to a much smaller magnitude) but in the sense that you're using up goods. It's a small amount of electricity, all things considered, but you're having to use up real energy in order to construct this medium of exchange. Maybe somebody can claim that this is necessary because of inflation or some other policy mistake and you can compare it to the Ming Dynasty. But what do you think about this analogy? Is there a similar situation where real goods are being exchanged for just a medium of exchange?

Charles C. Mann   

That's really interesting. I mean, on some level, that's the way money works, right? I go into a store, like a Starbucks and I buy a coffee, then I hand them a piece of paper with some drawings on it, and they hand me an actual coffee in return for a piece of paper. So the mysteriousness of money is kind of amazing. History is of course replete with examples of things that people took very seriously as money. Things that to us seem very silly like the cowry shell or in the island of Yap where they had giant stones! Those were money and nobody ever carried them around. You transferred the ownership of the stone from one person to another person to buy something. I would get some coconuts or gourds or whatever, and now you own that stone on the hill.

So there's a tremendous sort of mysteriousness about the human willingness to assign value to arbitrary things such as (in Bitcoin’s case) strings of zeros and ones. That part of it makes sense to me. What’s extraordinary is when the effort to create a medium of exchange ends up costing you significantly–– which is what you're talking about in China where people had a medium of exchange, but they had to work hugely to get that money. I don't have to work hugely to get a $1 bill, right? It's not like I'm cutting down a tree and smashing the papers to pulp and printing. But you're right, that's what they're kind of doing in China. And that's, to a lesser extent, what you're doing in Bitcoin. So I hadn't thought about this, but Bitcoin in this case is using computer cycles and energy.

To me, it's absolutely extraordinary the degree to which people who are Bitcoin miners are willing to upend their lives to get cheap energy. A guy I know is talking about setting up small nuclear plants as part of his idea for climate change and he wants to set them up in really weird remote areas. And I was asking “Well who would be your customers?” and he says Bitcoin people would move to these nowhere places so they could have these pocket nukes to privately supply their Bitcoin habits. And that’s really crazy! To completely upend your life to create something that you hope is a medium of exchange that will allow you to buy the things that you're giving up. So there's a kind of funny aspect to this. That was partly what was happening in China. Unfortunately, China's very large, so they were able to send off all this stuff to Mexico so that they could get the silver to pay their taxes, but it definitely weakened the country.

Wizards vs. Prophets

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, and that story you were talking about, El Salvador actually tried it. They were trying to set up a Bitcoin city next to this volcano and use the geothermal energy from the volcano to incentivize people to come there and mine cheap Bitcoin.

Staying on the theme of China, do you think the prophets were more correct, or the wizards were more correct for that given time period? Because we have the introduction of potato, corn, maize, sweet potatoes, and this drastically increases the population until it reaches a carrying capacity. Obviously, what follows is the other kinds of ecological problems this causes and you describe these in the book. Is this evidence of the wizard worldview that potatoes appear and populations balloon? Or are the prophets like “No, no, carrying capacity will catch up to us eventually.”

Charles C. Mann   

Okay, so let me interject here. For those members of your audience who don't know what we're talking about. I wrote this book, The Wizard and the Prophet. And it’s about these two camps that have been around for a long time who have differing views regarding how we think about energy resources, the environment, and all those issues. The wizards, that's my name for them––Stuart Brand called them druids and, in fact, originally, the title was going to involve the word druid but my editor said, “Nobody knows what a Druid is” so I changed it into wizards–– and anyway the wizards would say that science and technology properly applied can allow you to produce your way out of these environmental dilemmas. You turn on the science machine, essentially, and then we can escape these kinds of dilemmas. The prophets say “No. Natural systems are governed by laws and there's an inherent carrying capacity or limit or planetary boundary.” there are a bunch of different names for them that say you can't do more than so much.

So what happened in China is that European crops came over. One of China's basic geographical conditions is that it's 20% of the Earth's habitable surface area, or it has 20% of the world's population, but only has seven or 8% of the world's above-ground freshwater. There are no big giant lakes like we have in the Great Lakes. And there are only a couple of big rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow River. The main staple crop in China has to be grown in swimming pools, and that's you know, rice. So there's this paradox, which is “How do you keep people fed with rice in a country that has very little water?” If you want a shorthand history of China, that's it. So prophets believe that there are these planetary boundaries. In history, these are typically called Malthusian Limits after Malthus and the question is: With the available technology at a certain time, how many people can you feed before there's misery?

The great thing about history is it provides evidence for both sides. Because in the short run, what happened when American crops came in is that the potato, sweet potato, and maize corn were the first staple crops that were dryland crops that could be grown in the western half of China, which is very, very dry and hot and mountainous with very little water. Population soars immediately afterward, but so does social unrest, misery, and so forth. In the long run, that becomes adaptable when China becomes a wealthy and powerful nation. In the short run, which is not so short (it's a couple of centuries), it really causes tremendous chaos and suffering. So, this provides evidence for both sides. One increases human capacity, and the second unquestionably increases human numbers and that leads to tremendous erosion, land degradation, and human suffering.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, that's a thick coin with two sides. By the way, I realized I haven't gotten to all the Wizard and Prophet questions, and there are a lot of them. So I––

Charles C. Mann   

I certainly have time! I'm enjoying the conversation. One of the weird things about podcasts is that, as far as I can tell, the average podcast interviewer is far more knowledgeable and thoughtful than the average sort of mainstream journalist interviewer and I just find that amazing. I don't understand it. So I think you guys should be hired. You know, they should make you switch roles or something.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, maybe. 

Charles C. Mann   

It's a pleasure to be asked these interesting questions about subjects I find fascinating.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Oh, it's my pleasure to get to talk to you and to get to ask these questions. So let me ask about the Wizard and the Prophet. I just interviewed WIll McCaskill, and we were talking about what ends up mattering most in history. I asked him about Norman Borlaug and said that he’s saved a billion lives. But then McCaskill pointed out, “Well, that's an exceptional result” and he doesn't think the technology is that contingent. So if Borlaug hadn't existed, somebody else would have discovered what he discovered about short wheat stalks anyways. So counterfactually, in a world where Ebola doesn't exist, it's not like a billion people die, maybe a couple million more die until the next guy comes around. That was his view. Do you agree? What is your response?

Charles C. Mann   

To some extent, I agree. It's very likely that in the absence of one scientist, some other scientist would have discovered this, and I mentioned in the book, in fact, that there's a guy named Swaminathan, a remarkable Indian scientist, who’s a step behind him and did much of the same work. At the same time, the individual qualities of Borlaug are really quite remarkable. The insane amount of work and dedication that he did.. it's really hard to imagine. The fact is that he was going against many of the breeding plant breeding dogmas of his day, that all matters! His insistence on feeding the poor… he did remarkable things. Yes, I think some of those same things would have been discovered but it would have been a huge deal if it had taken 20 years later. I mean, that would have been a lot of people who would have been hurt in the interim! Because at the same time, things like the end of colonialism, the discovery of antibiotics, and so forth, were leading to a real population rise, and the amount of human misery that would have occurred, it's really frightening to think about. So, in some sense, I think he's (Will McCaskill) right. But I wouldn't be so glib about those couple of million people.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah. And another thing you might be concerned about is that given the hostile attitude that people had towards the green revolution right after, if the actual implementation of these different strains of biochar sent in India, if that hadn't been delayed, it's not that weird to imagine a scenario where the governments there are just totally won over by the prophets and they decide to not implant this technology at all. If you think about what happened to nuclear power in the 70s, in many different countries, maybe something similar could have happened to the Green Revolution. So it's important to beat the Prophet. Maybe that's not the correct way to say it. But one way you could put it is: It’s important to beat the prophets before the policies are passed. You have to get a good bit of technology in there.

Charles C. Mann   

This is just my personal opinion, but you want to listen to the prophets about what the problems are. They're incredible at diagnosing problems, and very frequently, they're right about those things. The social issues about the Green Revolution… they were dead right, they were completely right. I don't know if you then adopt their solutions. It's a little bit like how I feel about my editors–– my editors will often point out problems and I almost never agree with their solutions. The fact is that Borlaug did develop this wheat that came into India, but it probably wouldn't have been nearly as successful if Swaminathan hadn't changed that wheat to make it more acceptable to the culture of India. That was one of the most important parts for me in this book. When I went to Tamil Nadu, I listened to this and I thought, “Oh! I never heard about this part where they took Mexican wheat, and they made it into Indian wheat.” You know, I don't even know if Borlaug ever knew or really grasped that they really had done that! By the way, a person for you to interview is Marci Baranski–– she's got a forthcoming book about the history of the Green Revolution and she sounds great. I'm really looking forward to reading it. So here's a plug for her.

In Defense of Regulatory Delays

Dwarkesh Patel   

So if we applied that particular story to today, let's say that we had regulatory agencies like the FDA back then that were as powerful back then as they are now. Do you think it's possible that these new advances would have just dithered in some approval process that took years or decades to complete? If you just backtest our current process for implementing technological solutions, are you concerned that something like the green revolution could not have happened or that it would have taken way too long or something?

Charles C. Mann   

It's possible. Bureaucracies can always go rogue, and the government is faced with this kind of impossible problem. There's a current big political argument about whether former President Trump should have taken these top-secret documents to his house in Florida and done whatever he wanted to? Just for the moment, let's accept the argument that these were like super secret toxic documents and should not have been in a basement. Let's just say that's true. Whatever the President says is declassified is declassified. Let us say that's true.  Obviously, that would be bad. You would not want to have that kind of informal process because you can imagine all kinds of things–– you wouldn't want to have that kind of informal process in place. But nobody has ever imagined that you would do that because it's sort of nutty in that scenario.

Now say you write a law and you create a bureaucracy for declassification and immediately add more delay, you make things harder, you add in the problems of the bureaucrats getting too much power, you know–– all the things that you do. So you have this problem with the government, which is that people occasionally do things that you would never imagine. It’s completely screwy. So you put in regulatory mechanisms to stop them from doing that and that impedes everybody else. In the case of the FDA, it was founded in the 30 when some person produced this thing called elixir sulfonamides. They killed hundreds of people! It was a flat-out poison! And, you know, hundreds of people died. You think like who would do that?

But somebody did that. So they created this entire review mechanism to make sure it never happened again, which introduced delay, and then something was solidified. Which they did start here because the people who invented that didn't even do the most cursory kind of check. So you have this constant problem. I'm sympathetic to the dilemma faced by the government here in which you either let through really bad things done by occasional people, or you screw up everything for everybody else. I was tracing it crudely, but I think you see the trade-off. So the question is, how well can you manage this trade-off? I would argue that sometimes it's well managed. It's kind of remarkable that we got vaccines produced by an entirely new mechanism, in record time, and they passed pretty rigorous safety reviews and were given to millions and millions and millions of people with very, very few negative effects. I mean, that's a real regulatory triumph there, right?

So that would be the counter-example: you have this new thing that you can feed people and so forth. They let it through very quickly. On the other hand, you have things like genetically modified salmon and trees, which as far as I can tell, especially for the chestnuts, they’ve made extraordinary efforts to test. I'm sure that those are going to be in regulatory hell for years to come. *chuckles* You know, I just feel that there's this great problem. These flaws that you identified, I would like to back off and say that this is a problem sort of inherent to government. They're always protecting us against the edge case. The edge case sets the rules, and that ends up, unless you're very careful, making it very difficult for everybody else.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah. And the vaccines are an interesting example here. Because one of the things you talked about in the book–– one of the possible solutions to climate change is that you can have some kind of geoengineering. Right? I think you mentioned in the book that as long as even one country tries this, then they can effectively (for relatively modest amounts of money), change the atmosphere. But then I look at the failure of every government to approve human challenge trials. This is something that seems like an obvious thing to do and we would have potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives during COVID by speeding up the vaccine approval. So I wonder, maybe the international collaboration is strong enough that something like geoengineering actually couldn't happen because something like human challenge trials didn't happen.

Geoengineering 

Charles C. Mann   

So let me give a plug here for a fun novel by my friend, Neal Stephenson, called Termination Shock. Which is about some rich person just doing it. Just doing geoengineering. The fact is that it's actually not actually against the law to fire off rockets into the stratosphere. In his case, it's a giant gun that shoots shells full of sulfur into the upper atmosphere. So I guess the question is, what timescale do you think is appropriate for all this? I feel quite confident that there will be geoengineering trials within the next 10 years. Is that fast enough? That's a real judgment call. I think people like David Keith and the other advocates for geoengineering would have said it should have happened already and that it’s way, way too slow. People who are super anxious about moral hazard and precautionary principles say that that’s way, way too fast. So you have these different constituencies. It's hard for me to think off the top of my head of an example where these regulatory agencies have actually totally throttled something in a long-lasting way as opposed to delaying it for 10 years. I don’t mean to imply that 10 years is nothing. But it’s really killing off something. Is there an example you can think of?

Dwarkesh Patel   

Well, it's very dependent on where you think it would have been otherwise, like people say maybe it was just bound to be the state. 

Charles C. Mann   

I think that was a very successful case of regulatory capture, in which the proponents of the technology successfully created this crazy…. One of the weird things I really wanted to explain about nuclear stuff is not actually in the book. I actually wrote a whole long section in but cut it out because I felt like it was just too much in the weeds. Anyway, if you have a coal plant, they have environmental rules. The rules are basically based on a threshold principle where you set a safe threshold for the emission of particulates and as long as you're below that threshold, you're fine. Nuclear power has a thing for its main type of pollution, which is radiation. It’s what’s called the Linear Threshold Model. What it says is that you have to reduce radiation to the maximum extent practicable, and essentially, if your nuclear power is way cheaper than coal power (which it is), that means you have more profits so you can spend more money on reducing it. So you're going even further on the road to diminishing returns. You have a completely different regulatory standard for nuclear (I'm talking about this country) than you do for coal. So you have this bizarre fact that coal power plants emit more radiation than nuclear plants do because of the residual radiation when the coal is dug up from underneath the earth. So you have a very strange case of regulatory capture, in which you have a completely inconsistent set of safety standards across different parts of the same industry. So the question to me in sort of an empirical vision is: How common is that? Is this some weird thing that's happened to nuclear? 

Finding New Wizards

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah, yeah. Okay so assume that you're in the 1960s. Let’s say that you’re a philanthropic donor and you’re the 1960s version of an effective altruist who’s interested in doing the most good possible. In retrospect, it's clear that you should have funded Borlaug. I mean, counterfactually, he still does it, but let's just say that his work depends on your funding. How could you have identified work like that? Is there some criteria that is broadly applicable where you could have identified his work in Mexico using it?

Charles C. Mann   

That's a really good question! I mean, that's the greatest good for the greatest number question. To do that, you would have to say, “What are the biggest problems facing the planet?” And then presumably, if you're Will McCaskill or somebody like that, you say, “All lives are equal. So what is the thing that's most affecting the most number of lives?” In that case, it’s probably clean drinking water. I think that's the biggie. So that means funding primarily urban infrastructure for water and setting up some kind of foundation or some independent agency that's insulated from the government to actually keep those water systems going. That would be my answer to that. That's how you would do it, I think you'd try to figure out, you know, “What are the bare necessities? What's killing more people than anything else?” In the 1960s, that was probably food and water. The Food and Agriculture Organization, once they got interested in Borlaug actually did a pretty good job of promoting him, and there's the creation of the sea guard system. Water is completely neglected and actually, I would channel it towards water.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Interesting. Okay. I'm going to name two trends, and I want to know what you think these two imply for the debate between wizards and prophets in the future. So one of the trends is declining research productivity–– in terms of how many new important advancements each researcher is able to make, there's evidence that shows that that’s exponentially decaying.

Charles C. Mann   

I think that's wrong that they think that and the reason is that in the areas that I'm familiar with, there are two things that are going on. One is in particle physics. It's harder and harder to make discoveries, because of the penalty of your own success, you're pushing harder and harder to really get to where you're going. It's just incredibly expensive. So that's a natural phenomenon. It's not anything really to worry about because, you know, what do you want to do? Undo the past 50 years of success in particle physics? People like Murray Gell-Mann could do a huge amount because we didn't know anything. So you're seeing just plain old diminishing returns. The second thing though, and I think this is something important, is that it feels like agricultural research. The vast majority of research is in a bunch of narrow areas: wheat, rice, maize, and so forth.

There are all kinds of alternative crops that are hardly looked at and could be really important, particularly in a time of climate change, when we are going to have to have a much more resilient in creating that varied agricultural system to deal with the uncertainties of climate change. There's hardly any research done in agroforestry–– all those crops are essentially wild. You know, how many people are you know, except for William Powell looking at chestnut there's practically no real genetic research into increasing tree crop productivity. There's also not nearly enough research into things like cassava, where you could do a huge amount. When I talk to people, I always say: go to these other crops that are really, really important. They're going to be even more important in the future, and there's virtually no research on them. By doing that, you could make giant strides rather than being the person who's trying to increasingly optimize wheat–– something that's already been optimized by 10,000 people. So part of it is that there’s this channeling of people into fields that are already well trodden. I think that you can see that in many many areas of research. That would be a partial answer to that question.

Agroforestry is Underrated

Dwarkesh Patel   

I see, yeah. So I was going to ask–– if there's declining research productivity, maybe there are less rabbits you could keep pulling out of the hat like Borlaug did. But let me just ask instead with regards to increasing the productivity of trees in order to potentially deal with climate change, what in the book you speculate about and C4 photosynthesis?

Charles C. Mann   

You know, that's just an example of the kind of thing that you could do.

Dwarkesh Patel   

What is the status of that? Are you optimistic about that, or?

Charles C. Mann   

Yeah, they're plugging away. You know, it's a hugely difficult problem, but it's extraordinarily interesting. To get something like C4 rice would be just an absolutely gigantic increase in productivity. But even in drylands areas, there's this method of agriculture that's used in West Africa and places like Northern Mexico called civil pastoral farming where you have ruminants, cows and so forth and trees. To create a system that is way easier on the land, uses way less water, and is almost as productive as annual crops. Almost no research has gone into that. That would be another example of a kind of thing that you could do that I would argue would have a much greater impact than the person trying to get the latest flavor of cherry-flavored nose drops are something–– which is what a huge amount of research is in.

Dwarkesh Patel   

There have been people speculating recently that environmental contaminants are leading to a host of bad outcomes in health in the West, especially obesity. How plausible do you think this is?

Charles C. Mann   

I always wonder about the mechanism. What would be the mechanism that these tiny trace amounts of these compounds have in them? How come that as our environment has generally gotten cleaner, obesity has risen? So I'm immediately skeptical of this. One of the issues here is that you're dealing with problems that are on the very limits of our ability to measure. If you're looking for these things, obviously, they have very very long-term effects–– whatever they are. So how are you going to actually ascertain that? People who make very strong claims based on facts without a mechanism that is at the very limits of our ability to measure just doesn't seem like all that promising to me? Yeah, so not impossible. Not impossible. But the claims you might see, I always think, how could they possibly know that?

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yeah. So one of these people is a good friend of mine: Slime Mold Time Mold who’s an anonymous blogger on the internet. They set up something called a potato diet and it was like a four-week study. I thought you might have interesting thoughts on this, given that the chapters in your book were dedicated to the humble potato and its impact on the world. So basically, they only ate potatoes for four weeks. And as you talked about in the book, potatoes have a bunch of micronutrients that––

Charles C. Mann   

They’re really good for you! If you're gonna do that, use potatoes.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Yep. And then people lost a lot of weight. Why? Is it something you would have expected? What do you think of this just recapitulating Irish history?

Charles C. Mann   

Well, the Irish history is both analogous and not analogous, because it is true–– they ate nothing but potatoes. But also those people who were always vigorously physically exercising, because they were out in the fields with really poor tools. So it's a really different situation from you and me where no matter how many times you go to the gym, that's not the same as working for 10 hours in the fields. Also, the epidemiological environment is so crazy different. All the people in Ireland only live to the age of 40. Anyway, there's a whole host of studies that show that extreme diets always work. You know, for example, people eat nothing but beans, etc. and people lose a lot of weight in the short term. It's really difficult to show that it's possible to keep it off and if it's possible for people to maintain these kinds of diets for long periods of time.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Right, right. I remember that part of the book where you have that passage from Adam Smith, where he's commenting on how all these Irish people only ate potatoes, but all of them seemed so healthy and beautiful.

Charles C. Mann   

Well, they're also on the fields and not in London, right? Adam Smith, looking at Edinburgh and places like that, which are the most unhealthy places on the planet!

Longtermism & Free Markets

Dwarkesh Patel   

Say you have no discount rate. So you think future people matter exactly as much as current people. Does that shift you more towards the prophet side or the wizard side? Not in absolute terms, but from where you're starting out?

Charles C. Mann   

I have to say, I'm uncomfortable with this entire thing and this reason is something Will McCaskill talks about. From what I've read of his work, he takes it seriously enough to question how we don't actually know what those future people will want. There's no question that what we want today would have seemed abhorrent to most people in the 1800s. So the idea that we can have any other idea other than they probably want to be alive? It seems much more questionable than I think it does. So, there's two ways to look at it. One is the wizards say-–– we have an idea: “they're going to want to live in this certain kind of utopia and live their longest lives and have the maximum possible physical comfort.” Which is generally what the wizards say. And that seems perfectly reasonable to me. But the prophets might say, “Well, we should be more epistemologically humble. We don't know what they want so let's preserve as many options as possible for them.” That doesn't seem crazy. I personally probably lean more towards the wizards on this. But if a prophet said that to me, I wouldn't say “Oh, you're wrong.” Because that's the same argument about burying nuclear waste, which I also think is very powerful. We should probably not bury it in some system where it can't be gotten rid of for 10,000 years, we should just make sure that we can track it for a couple 100 years, and there'll be more options for people 200 years from now than there are today.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Okay. What’s wrong with the basic free market objection to the carrying capacity arguments, which goes: let's say we do reach the ends of some resource? Then its price would just increase until you reached some sort of sustainable equilibrium, and people would just decrease their consumption and keep it constant or something. An example: people are concerned that as the developing world gets richer, people are going to eat more meat. But if it's true that it consumes 10 times the energy than the grain that's just like feeding them directly, then that will be represented in the price and so the trend lines might be mistaken because the price of meat will increase or something. 

Charles C. Mann   

I think that's a very powerful argument. But the problem with it is that the kinds of things that we're talking about and care about for carrying capacity are things like bubble gum, or things like food, water, and energy. Those have never, as far as I know, been governed by anything remotely resembling the free market. They aren't today, they never have been in the past. So it seems to me like an interesting thought experiment to imagine what would happen if you truly had a free market for those things. But it also seems pointless because if I had to bet, I bet that it would be the same way it's been for the last couple thousand years. And we don't have a free market, we already have all kinds of weird distortions. 

From your point of view––  the tremendous amount of food that's wasted, the crazy arrangements we have for water in the system, these ludicrous things like.. You're in Texas, right? So you have this thing where Texas has its own independent grid, so it can't trade energy with other states that are nearby. Like, what the heck is that? That's really crazy. I mean, I don't want to pick on Texas, but I think there are equally crazy things all over the place, the impossibility of building long-distance, high-tension lines, because various states have just arbitrarily imposed rules that make it impossible. There are all kinds of crazy things going on. So I guess, what you're saying is it's very likely to be true in a system that will never exist, unfortunately. Because that's kind of a nice idea.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Right? Okay. That seems like an excellent note to close on. This is extra.. I learned so much from the books and I learned so much from talking to you, so I really really enjoyed this.  The books that we talked about were 1491: New Revelations of America before Columbus. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World if anyone’s interested. So is there any other place that you would like to direct viewers who might want to check out your work?

Charles C. Mann   

Stay tuned for my book about the West! Which should be coming out next year if I'm at all lucky.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Okay, and I'd love to have you back on again when it comes out.

Charles C. Mann   

Oh, sure we can talk about how Texas has got an amazing history. Yeah, definitely. One of the things I learned about the Comanche Indians and their role in Texas history is just totally eye-popping really amazing. So that's actually a very fun part two so we can talk about your Texas roots.

Dwarkesh Patel   

Definitely. Well, thanks so much for coming on, Charles.

Charles C. Mann  

Sure. Pleasure. Nice to meet you.

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