Building a Better Llama
Alex Tabarrok’s llama statue reminds me of an argument by Jared Diamond that no longer convinces me. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond forcefully argues that an important reason Eurasia was more economically successful than the rest of the world is that it had better domestic animals. Eurasia had the horse, but the Americas were stuck with the llama, and Africa with the zebra.
According to Diamond, the horse is just easier to domesticate and gives a bigger bang for your buck than a llama or a zebra. What made Diamond’s argument especially convincing to me was his claim that since the integration of the world economy, scientists and entrepreneurs have tried mightily to domesticate non-Eurasian animals, with little success. Zebras…
were tried out as draft animals in 19th-century South Africa, and the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild drove through the streets of London in a carriage pulled by zebras. Alas, zebras become impossibly dangerous as they grow older…Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. (Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.171-2)
In the 19th and 20th centuries at least six large mammals – the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison – have been the subjects of especially well-organized projects aimed at domestication, carried out by modern scientific animal breeders and geneticists… Yet these modern efforts have achieved only very limited successes. (Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.167-8)
But doubt about this argument started to well up in me when I reflected on Diamond’s history of corn:
Archaeologists are still vigorously debating how many centuries or millenia of crop development in the Americas were required for ancient corn cobs to progress from a tiny size up to the size of human thumb, but it seems clear that several thousand more years were required for them to reach modern sizes.(Guns, Germs, and Steel, pp.171-2)
Or to take a more familiar example, look at what we’ve done with wolves! We’ve turned them into everything from the noble Lassie to the irritating poodle. It really makes me start thinking, “Sure, the zebra is hard to domesticate now; but if we worked on them for a few hundred years, I bet the change would be amazing.”
On reflection, it’s not surprising that modern science has failed to domesticate animals like zebras. It would probably take generations, so the investment wouldn’t pay a reasonable rate of return. And we’ve already got something better, anyway.
But if breeding useful animals takes centuries, I don’t see this as a great explanation for why Eurasia did so much better than Native Americans and Africans. You’d just wind up asking, “Why were Eurasians more successful breeders?,” which seems like a special case of “Why were Eurasians more economically successful overall?”
Admittedly, there is more to Diamond’s argument, and it’s worth reading in its entirety. He also says that the wild ancestors of the Eurasian flora and fauna were initially closer to being useful to man than the non-Eurasian flora and fauna.
Maybe he’s right, but I’m worried that Diamond’s suffering from hindsight bias: If the Eurasians domesticated the horse, it must have been inevitable, right? But if the Incas had shown up in Europe in 1492 with deadly llama cavalry, and mowed down backward European infantry, I suspect modern Incan historians would have declared the horse a hopeless candidate for domestication too.