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Saturday, June 7, 2008 -- 6:16 am

Reading Basil Davidson's Lost Cities of Africa has helped me connect the dots of world history in an interesting way, and there's a lot to be said in both fiction and non-fiction formats on the subject. One set of connections, interestingly, is really only between the civilizations that have touched Africa from the outside. Another is more properly between Africa and Italy.

I'm struck by the impact of the arrival of the Portugese in East Africa. It appears that before their arrival, warfare and trade along the rim of the Indian Ocean were very civilized affairs; they certainly occurred, and reflected the mores and manners of the time, but there were understood bounds of decency between opposing forces that included observed hours of combat, lack of surprise, and so on. The Portugese explorers, however, were used to the much more aggressive methods of warfare familiar in the Iberian peninsula, and for this reason faced little opposition -- much like Charles (V?) of Spain plowing through Renaissance Italy around the turn of the 16th century, where Italy realized to its terror that its civilized condotierre-driven battles were more or less dinner theater by comparison, and it was virtually defenseless against external European forces.

I'm also intrigued, and wishing to know much more, about the internal political forces in China that caused it to abandon altogether the world's most sophisticated navy and shipbuilding industries during the 15th century, and to renounce its active seafaring trade with Asia and Africa during this time. This seems to evoke parallels, too, with medieval Islam's decision to turn away from remarkable advances in science and mathematics at roughly the same point in history, and the modern tendencies to politicize science (or even criminalize it in the name of fighting terrorism) and to abandon fields such as genetic research and space exploration in favor of other priorities.

One lesson that I seem to be drawing from all this is probably an odd one, but I'll toss it out there. By abandoning fields of endeavor like space exploration, would we be setting ourselves up as a planet to repeat the consequences of abandoned expertise for medieval Islam and China? It seems to me that if China and the Muslim world had not refocused their priorities at a time coinciding with the Renaissance in Europe, Europe wouldn't have enjoyed nearly the same competitive advantage in subsequent centuries that saw the rise of colonial powers and the industrial revolution; and it's possible that much of recent history would have played out very differently. If and when we encounter extraterrestrial life, we can hardly count on them to be benevolent, and we would be doing well to advance our knowledge and technology in all fields of inquiry to be as well-prepared as possible to cope with the experience. Otherwise, it seems to me, we very much run the risk as a planet of repeating the misfortunes of much of the so-called third world: to have the flower of civilization crushed underfoot, to have our history and cultural legacy erased by foreign colonial powers, and then be told that because we're a backward, underdeveloped people who have never achieved anything on our own and don't know what's good for us, we're only fit for a subservient existence. I would hope that what we've learned from the atrocities of colonial imperialism already (slavery, the Opium wars, the burning of the Mayan libraries, etc.) to wish to avoid having them repeated.