Book Review: 1491


My favorite podcast is “Stuff You Should Know,” hosted by Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant. Well, Josh has this crazy-nerd obsession with the book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, and talks about it all the time.

Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I decided I needed to read it. Obviously at 400 or so pages I can’t really summarize the whole book, but I thought it worthwhile to mention a few impactful things that I took away from it.

Most of us have a vague concept of a few small Native American tribes that existed in the Americas before Spanish, English and French settlers “discovered” the New World and quickly strong-armed their way to dominance.

Research has come a long way since then, as evidenced by the hundreds of books in the bibliography. Bottom line: We were educated pretty poorly and they have not updated the textbooks.

In the pre-Columbian, pre-“contact” Americas, there were as many as 100 million (possibly more) inhabitants from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. These societies were very diverse, and some were highly advanced and flourishing nicely, thank you very much.

The biggest factor that I took away was that when Europeans first made contact after tens of thousands of years of population separation, the lack of immunity to smallpox (in addition to other bacteria and viruses) quickly swept from east to west, north to south, eradicating as much as 90-95% of the native population. Yes. Read that again. Up to 90+%.

Think about that for a second. Had smallpox not decimated the population, a small settlement of a few hundred people at a time–even with guns and horses–never would have been able to take over the land in a few hundred years.

Now on to what, exactly, was wiped out. We mostly think of Indians (as they still refer to themselves–everyone the author talked to did not use or like the term “Native American”) as leaving no ecological trace and living lightly on the land, hardly turning so much as a leaf in nature. In fact, advanced farming techniques and extensive use of fire to shape the landscape was the norm.

When we think of the East Coast today, dense forests are the de facto landscape. But when the first settlers made their way through this are in the 16th and 17th centuries, the woods were cleared of all underbrush, such that a “four-horse carriage could easily drive through them,” reminiscent of the parks in England. This was due to regular use of fire throughout a fairly densely populated region.

Even more mind-blowing (to me) was the section about Amazonia. You think of this as untouched wilderness of dense tree canopy and zillions of creatures. But as recent archeology has found, extensive charcoal layers prove out that–in this case–not fire but charcoal was used to enrich the very poor Amazonian soil and create a nutrient-rich topsoil for orchards. Many of the trees even in existence today are actually edible because they were planted in pre-contact groves for food. Mind! Blown!

On to probably my favorite ancient society described in the book: the Inca (or Inka). Situated along the spine of the Andes in modern-day Peru (and beyond), the Inca were the most sophisticated pre-Columbian society. Interestingly, they only advanced to this level shortly before being conquered by the Spanish, with about a 100-year rein of their peak civilization.


(Machu Picchu in modern-day Peru, built ca. 1450. Martin St-Amant/Creative Commons)

The crazy thing is that they did not have the wheel, steel tools or weapons, draft animals, or a system of writing.

Nonetheless, they built incredible stone structures, advanced farms at every elevation, a road network 25,000 miles long, cable bridges made of grass fibers that could hold an entire team of llamas, and communicated over long distances using a sort of human-on-foot pony express.

Check out this video of the only remaining grass bridge, which Incan descendants rebuild annually:

Knotted strings called khipu (or quipu) were the closest thing they had to writing. I recently got to see one in person (fangirl moment!) at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. They had an exhibit running called “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” where I spent hours poring over every display (photo by me).


Imagine if your only way to convey information over distances was via knots on strings? About 90% of the translation can be attributed to a base-10 counting system, representing numbers. The rest is completely unknown. Unfortunately there is no Rosetta Stone (early Spanish translation directly from talking to Incans).

Incredible feats of terracing made farming the steep mountainsides possible from extremely high elevations right down to sea level. Maize, potatoes and quinoa provided plentiful food throughout the climate zones that could be traded if one crop had a bad year.


(Farming terraces at Macchu Picchu. Creative Commons)

The system of roads made quick travel possible up and down steep stretches, even with a caravan of llamas in tow. Impressive stone structures were so well-built that “not a knife blade could fit between the stones,” and they survived many earthquakes in the region to this day, even with no mortar.

Another point that really got under my skin was the question as to WHEN. WHEN did people get here? The story of 1,000 people crossing the Bering Straight land bridge from Russia/Asia during the last Ice Age exactly 12,000 years ago before it closed back up as the ice melted–followed by people populating the Americas right down to the southern tip of Argentina within 1,000 years–isn’t as air-tight as we were lead to believe.

The so called “Clovis cultures” (defined by the Clovis archeological dig arrow heads) were believed to be the oldest evidence of human activity in the Americans. The search for Paleo Indians (pre-Clovis) has been met with fierce resistance for some reason, and evidence of more ancient societies has been refuted intensely. However, it does appear that the first cultures existed anywhere from 40,000-20,000 years ago. Certainly seafaring  cultures existed long ago, so this is possible. It’s something I’m very interested in reading more about.

In conclusion … there is no conclusion. I am currently reading Mann’s book 1493 (about the effects of Columbus and those who came after him) and have ordered four more books about the pre-contact inhabitants of the Americas, how they got there and when, and archeological finds from their societies.

Did you ever think about this? What do you think about it now? I encourage you to read 1491 if even one thing I mentioned seemed interesting to you!

Book Review: What to Expect When No One’s Expecting


This book captivated my attention for lots of nerdy and personal reasons. For starters, I’m a childless only child, so low rates of reproduction are a near and dear topic to me 🙂 Secondly, having studied population ecology as it relates to animals, learning how differently it works in humans is fascinating.

During Chapter 1, I almost hurled this book out the window, because the white, middle-class male writer seemed really judgey, blaming women’s rising rates of college education, participation in the workforce, delayed childbearing, and the Pill for America’s sub-replacement fertility rate, as though those were all really terrible things. Barefoot and pregnant! It’s your duty! But I read on mostly out of curiosity.

The Magical 2.1

Let me backtrack to define “fertility rate” – it’s a snapshot of the average number of children per woman in a given area. “Replacement fertility” is considered 2.1 – replacing the woman and her mate, with 0.1 extra to replace those who die early. Anything below this rate results in a population that will eventually die out, and anything above this means a population will grow.

It may surprise you to discover that the U.S. fertility rate is only 1.8. A little ditty called “The Population Bomb,” written by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, hyped up a big scare that the world population was going to continue growing exponentially until hundreds of millions of people died of famine in the 1970s.

Although he was wrong, this idea of a rampant population explosion took very strong hold in the collective psyche. I see it in article comments all the time – “The world is way too overpopulated already!” But yet here we are. Plenty of food for everyone (although it does not get distributed to everyone – totally separate topic).

If you take the time to look at fertility numbers, particularly since 1960, what you see will shock you. It certainly did me. Here’s a list of every country’s fertility rate in 1960 and 2015:

As it turns out, “modernized” countries are universally below 2.1 now – some well below, and falling quickly. From the link above, comparing 1960 vs. 2015:

  • World, 5.0 vs. 2.5
  • USA, 3.7 vs. 1.8
  • Mexico, 6.8 vs. 2.2
  • Brazil, 6.1 vs. 1.7
  • China, 5.7 vs. 1.6
  • India, 5.9 vs. 2.4
  • South Korea, 6.1 vs. 1.2 (current lowest)
  • Singapore, 5.8 vs. 1.2 (tied for lowest)
  • Kenya, 7.9 vs. 3.9
  • Rwanda, 8.2 (!!) vs. 4.0

I didn’t mention Japan or any European countries because their trends are remarkably similar: two-point-something in 1960 vs. one-point-something now – so their fall hasn’t been as dramatic, but their numbers are certainly below replacement.

Japan has the added constriction of near-zero immigration; their population is already shrinking, with a rapidly aging population and young people hyper-focused on careers and not super interested in dating. I think anyone can agree that’s a crisis for a technological superpower.

Practically the only countries clocking in well above replacement these days are in Africa – although they have also declined significantly. Can you imagine 7 or 8 children on average for every single woman? It’s mind-boggling.

What Does it Mean?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Modern life itself seems to be driving down fertility for the reasons mentioned above, plus many others that are outlined in the book if you’re curious.

As a thought experiment, following out the trend lines for a few hundred years means people will quickly go extinct in Europe, China, and the Americas. If modernization continues and fertility trend lines continue downward in Africa, India, and elsewhere, they’ll be on their way out eventually too. My brain is exploding here.

Why Did Old-Timey People Have so Many Kids?

“Back in the day,” you needed a small workforce for your farm. Plus a few were likely to die in infancy. Boys might go off to fight wars and never come back. Women really could not go out and get a job hundreds of years ago, so young marriage and poppin’ out 6 or 8 kids was life’s business (fantastic if you’re into it – eeeeek! if you’re not).

Also, before Social Security came around in the wake of FDR, children were your retirement program. You quite literally HAD to have them so someone would care for you in your old age.

Changing Attitudes

As the world modernized, life became more about fulfilling your personal dreams as opposed to fitting into and caring about a community. As the author, himself a father of 3 puts it, kids are a lot of work – and they really do not increase your happiness! But “things are more important than happiness,” he says.

Hmm, I am starting to see why some people would rather pursue their goals and happiness than come up with $1,000/month for daycare and $100k for college for the reward of having offspring. I love kids, I really do, but there are some hard sacrifices to be made if you plan on having one.

Fertility Bribes

There is a long section in the book about various countries with perilous low fertility, from Sweden and Russia to Japan and Singapore, that have tried providing healthy monetary rewards to get people to have more babies.

Everything from cash bonuses that increase per child ($9,000 for the second! $13,000 for your third!), to free state-run daycare, to a year-plus of paid maternity leave … none of it made enough of a dent to get above 2.1. I was actually quite amazed that you can’t bribe people into having kids they don’t want.


A seemingly obvious solution here is immigration. Maybe now you can see why a shrinking Germany, desperate for healthy young workers to prop up their economy, let in 1 million Syrian refugees in a year’s time, although it was certainly not a universally popular move.

From this perspective, we should just about be begging immigrants to come to America before their own countries can’t afford to spare them. Social Security is about to go over a cliff as Baby Boomers age into the program with so few tax payers supporting each one. In 1960, there were 5 workers for every retiree collecting. In 2010, the number was 2.9 and dropping fast.

No matter how you slice it, the math does not compute, unless in a few decades our taxes get hiked to  50%+ of our income. Current figures estimate around half of Americans have zero retirement savings. Guess all the old and childless in 2050 will just have to starve to death in the streets or find the next Dr. Kevorkian? That’s a legitimate question with so many moral implicatons.

The Environment

Depending on on how you feel about people, the human race dying out is either a great thing or terrible thing. Personally, I am super concerned about protecting the environment from modern-day pollution, plastic trash, etc. So, it seems a hefty cut to human population in the next 50+ years would go a long way toward decreasing those things.

HOWEVER. The reason I care about the environment is exactly because I want there to be a habitable earth for future generations of people to live on! Even if I don’t have kids, I want YOUR kids and grandkids to have clean water to drink, temperatures that aren’t too hot for crops to grow, etc.

In conclusion: Future parents, do not be shamed that “the world is already overpopulated!” If you want to have ’em, have ’em. Also, please reduce your use of plastic, recycle what you do use, drive the most fuel-efficient car possible, and avoid buying tons of disposable crap for no particular reason that will quickly end up in a landfill.

I would love to know your thoughts on fertility rates in the U.S. and the world! What do you think? Welcome more immigrants? Cash & prizes for babies? Discuss.

Can We Please Just Stay on DST All Year?


I’ve seen this cartoon going around a lot lately, and even shared it myself a year or two ago. Let me start by saying: I think Standard Time SUX. I was so happy when they extended Daylight Saving Time (DST – no “s” on Saving if you want to be technically accurate) around 10 years ago.

As an equestrian, all the other riders I know really appreciate having extra daylight after work to see their horse and ride. Us outdoor sportpeople/working stiffs have a really hard time fumbling around in the dark and cold. I’ve also recently learned from Facebook that parents HATE the time change because it messes up their kids’ sleep cycles for a long time.

Personally, the winter “fall back” absolutely knocks me on my butt. It’s been a few weeks and I still feel like death in the evenings and can’t seem to motivate myself to do anything at all other than fall asleep too early.

Since California is on the eastern edge of the time zone, we already have about an hour less of daylight in the evening than I did living in Kentucky, which while at a similar latitude, fell on the far western edge of the Eastern time zone. It’s pitch black by 4:30 p.m. on the shortest day of the year here vs. 5:30 p.m. in Kentucky.

I just discovered that California made a move to pass a bill this July that would keep DST going year-round in the state! ( Wuuut?! How did I not know about this? It’s one of my dearest-held beliefs. Should it ever pass, the U.S. government would have to “allow” it, however.

I won’t bore you with the history of DST, which goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin before being instituted throughout [most of] the USA in the 1960s. There was a brief flirt with year-round DST from Jan. 1974 – April 1975 during the oil embargo to save energy, but it’s been seasonal since then, albeit with two extensions, so that we now observe from March-Nov. instead of May-Oct.

PROS: DST has proven to be good for business, since people prefer to go out shopping after work if it’s light out. Of course there would be health benefits if people are more motivated to exercise when it’s daylight after work. It would be safer for pedestrians and drivers after work to navigate in daylight. Plus, the mere act of changing time in and of itself causes a rise in heart attacks, traffic accidents, and general lack of productivity while your body undergoes the “jet lag” period.

CONS: I always see people who say they “hate” the summer time change… I’m not sure who these people are. People who want daylight at 4:30 a.m. in the summer, maybe? It’s been proven that there is negligible energy savings in winter by having morning sunlight. Most of us wake up in the dark no matter what during the winter. The most legitimate downside I can see is children having to walk to bus stops in the dark … although I’m also a fan of later school start time to let growing bodies get much-needed sleep (separate rant).

What say you? Year-round DST, year-round ST, or leave it alone?