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Review of Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

-- Bradford DeLong (, May 04, 2000


Here are a few points; I hope the relations between them will gradually become clear...

You're right to say that Diamond's title understates the complexity of his thesis.However I think you're wrong to say that he merely cites 'size' (of Eurasia) as the main geographic determinant of 'Western'dominance. As I read it, at least equally important to his thesis was the topography of Europe: the proliferation of natural barriers to conquest of the entire continent. According to Diamond, the China of the 15th Century BC was prevented from developing its military and technological power by the fact that no land barriers existed to block the dominance of a single power-group.Hence, when the dominant Imperial faction turned against naval expansion and technological advance, there was no chance for dissidents to find some sheltered mini-state and continue as before.More generally, European states were free to compete against each other; methods of social organisation which led to military, economic or technological weakness tended to be pushed out by better practices, but there was always plenty of leeway for different ways of doing things.(Anyone who knows any European history will have fun thinking of examples: Descartes fleeing to the Low Countries to think his dangerous thoughts; the Royal Society preserving its independence from the English Government at a time when continental Academies were rigorously supervised).

Another thought is that much of Diamond's approach seems similar to that of the British science journalist Matt Ridley in his book 'The Origins of Virtue'.I can't speak for Ridley's use of the natural sciences in his attempt to explain the social behaviour of human beings, but his exposition of game theory seems pretty sound.It would be interesting to hear DeLong and other economists on the subject of Ridley's book, although his last chapter lets the rest of the work down, with its dopy Hayek-for-beginners moralising.

A final point is that Diamond's book seems to me to be so valuable that it is time we had a volume of critical essays compiled on it. What is terribly exciting about this is the variety of scholars who would conceivably have something to say to add to, defend or refute Diamond's thesis. I mentioned his theory of the underdevelopment of China to Dr Kent Deng of the LSE's Economic History Dept., and he felt it was an implausibe explanation. Similarly, Diamond's explanation for the failure to domesticate indigenous African animals was criticised by the reviewer for the London Review of Books, a zoologist. He said Diamond's reasoning here was very improbable, and actually gave a numerical estimate of its improbability, although alas he did not include his workings: surely he could write an expanded paper putting this thesis forward.

In short, I feel a really good interdisciplinary argument over Diamond's book would be a marvellous thing. Anyone have any ideas how we might proceed with this: seminars, online debates, a book.....? Contributed by Dan Hardie ( on December 23, 1999.

-- Dan Hardie (, May 04, 2000.

>Eurasian populations have been "dense" from the perspective of disease transmission for only an eyeblink of Darwinian time.

I'm not sure this argument doesn't equivocate between "Darwinian time" in the sense of the time required for speciation, and the process of natural selection itself. Surely, for example, if you're in the half of the population which doesn't have the sickle-cell gene and there's a malaria epidemic going on, then "Darwinian time" is *right now*.

I actually find Diamond's argument quite a convincing explanation for the lack of genetic diversity in populations outside Africa -- that it is the result of regular removal of all non- resistant genes from the pool through epidemic, rather than through in-breeding from an originally small gene pool.

Although, of course, the conclusion that JD wishes to establish does seem a bit too politically convenient to be true. I don't see how there could be a gene for "general resistance to epidemic diseases" (the fact of evolution among germsn ought to see to this), and piecewise elimination of sections of the population by epidemics would be as likely to increase genetic intelligence as to decrease it. This would suggest that no amount of Darwinian time would be sufficient for differences in intelligence to predictably evolve as a result of exposure to infectious disease.


dd Contributed by Daniel Davies ( on January 4, 2000.

-- Daniel Davies (, May 04, 2000.

I enjoyed your comments about Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

I would like to add a little historical perspective to your comments. I knew Jared's Dad, Louis K. Diamond, M.D. very well. He is recognized as the father of pediatric hematology, my specialty in medicine. Lou used to tell me about his son, Jared, and how proud he was of him.

As you probably know, Jared went off to college to follow in his Dad's footsteps, but got side tracked because of his interest in physiology. He was also an avid bird-watcher, hobby that he had pursued from early childhood. The hobby became an avocation that often took him to remote parts of the world, especially the most primitive areas. Those expeditions brought him close to the primitive people, perhaps closer than anyone else from "our side of the tracks" ever got.

He produced a lot of articles for nature magazines, like National Geographic because of these wanderings.

I think it is because of his hobby and avocation that we read such a long beginning about the intelligence of the New Guinea Aboriginals. I believe he truly loves these people and wanted others to share in that love.

Jared never made it to medical school, for that I am happy. He would have been a great doctor, just like his Dad was, but then we wouldn't have Guns, Germs and Steel, the best book I have read in at least a decade.

Harold M. Koenig, M.D. Contributed by Harold M. Koenig, M.D. ( on March 30, 2000.

-- Harold M. Koenig, M.D. (, May 04, 2000.

Brad, Jim Devine just made me aware of your review of Diamond's book. Actually took a look at it over the weekend, although I did not read it in detail cover to cover. One correction on your review: Sa'udi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and, if you want to grant it non-European status, Turkey all did not experience long-period European conquest that overthrew a previous political order. Now, in 1817, the Turks did destroy the Sa'udi capital of Diriyah to punish them for grabbing Mecca and the pilgrim tolls, which led to the Sa'udis moving down the wadi to the next town to make a capital, Riyadh, with no break in political control by the Wah'habist Sa'udi royal family. In Iran during WW II the Soviets, US, and UK forced Reza Pahlavi out and replaced him with with his son, Mohammed Pahlavi, and, of course the US and UK overthrew Mossadegh in 1954 in the infamous Project Ajax. But the Pahlavi dynasty was ruling continuously throughout. And the Soviets did install a regime for a brief period starting in 1979 in Afghanistan, but.... More substantively, I think you have overdone the praise of this book. I understand there are rumblings that a lot of it is not new. Sounds reasonable to me. There have been a number of books emphasizing the role of disease resistance that developed in Eurasia, and was even more prominently developed in Africa, compared with those in Austronesia and the Americas. This literature is large and goes way back, with Herman Zinsser's classic on Rats, Lice, Vermin, and History (if I have that title right) being probably the godfather about 40 years ago. The older view that this disease resistance reflects closeness to human origins explains why the Africans have the greatest disease resistance and the Eurasians are second, something that Diamond cannot explain. Also, wheat is not as good at supporting dense populations as is rice. Furthermore, corn/maize is not all that bad as its rapid diffusion and adaptation in the Old World shows, not to mention the glorious potato. I do think he makes some good points about the size of Eurasia, however. In short, I don't think this is quite a work of genius, and certainly not the most important one of the 90s. But, pretty interesting. Feel free to post this on your comment page, or parts of it. I was unable to do so. Have fun. Barkley Rosser Contributed by Barkley Rosser ( on April 19, 2000.

-- Barkley Rosser (, May 04, 2000.

A personal followup. I spent a year in KSA. Visited the ruins of Diriyah, which they preserve lovingly and which is now a suburb of Riyadh. Also went across the desert to find the camel trail up the escarpment that runs down the middle of the country and which must be surmounted if one goes from west to east, a very rough trip. Hidden behind "Faisal's Needle" the trail goes up the escarpment and was used by the then Albanian viceroy of Cairo for the Ottomans, later to rebel against them, Muhammed Ali, to drag his cannons up to attack the naughty Sa'udis who had dared to take away the sultan's hajji tolls.

The trail has remnants of stone put in place by Muhammed Ali so the heavy stuff could be dragged up. When we finally reached the top, we found a 4,000 year old "kite" rock formation from a culture dating to when the area had rain. The camel trail used by Muhammed Ali has been used for a very long time. Ah, path dependence....

Barkley Contributed by J. Barkley Rosser, Jr. ( on April 19, 2000.

-- J. Barkley Rosser, Jr. (, May 04, 2000.


This will start as a a normal sparring-match with Ricardo Duchesne (Mary 4) and then will be going to branch off into something perhaps far more interesting:

>It is clear from my post >that I was using the term 'backwardness' within the context of WS >theory, which is not about the medieval world. Diamond draws a >rough line across the African continent to distinguish "white" Africa >from "black" Africa proper. Egyptians, Tunisians, Moroccans, >Libyans and others in the northern areas are "white" - in quotation >marks because he knows that this terminology is arbitrary and >ignores the diversity within.

This dividing line still ignores Ethiopia - is it black, colored - what is it? What I find troubling about this argument "no - Africa does not include North Africa, does not include Madagascar etc." is this. One might say that Ethiopia does not conform to the "East African" pattern that Madagascar doesn't, that - why not ? - the cities on the Swahili Coast don't (as they are of course pretty much akin to other merchant-cities across the Indian Ocean), and that additionally the Great Lakes region don't and that the Zimbabwe plateau doesn't. Because e.g. the Great Lake region has a very productive settled garden agriculture - developing over at least 1.000 years - and Zimbabwe too has a productive agriculture and productive cattle rearing which has supported the great architectural accomplishments of the Shona Yet these regions together supported - and support - the overwhelming bulk of the population of East Africa.

Basically, if you start excepting all these areas and say that for example only the dry savanna regions of East Africa are `really' East African isn't that a bit like distinguishing first a pre-set East Asian pattern and then you first start dropping China (which is I would think about the same as dropping Ethiopia out of the equation as it is `too white'), then drop Japan (Madagascar - offshore and mixed, therefore not typical), then drop the merchant-cities of Turfan (like the Swahili Coast - not `East Asian c.q. `African' enough), then go on dropping Korea and Vietnam (too isolated) so that you finally end up with the Ainu and the Manchus. Yes - in that case you can indeed prove without a doubt that East Asia was `backward, since its agriculture was not productive enough'.

Now, if Ricardo and Jim and I for once agree that in the pre-1500 period Africa was not markedly more `backward' than Europe and that thereafter `Africa' began to drop behind Europe not because of European colonialism (arms-sales, the slave-trade, plunder of African maritime trade, what have you) but because its agriculture could not keep up with European agriculture, therefore allowing for lesser trade, therefore allowing for less urban development etc. we have a major problem.

For most of West Africa is not a primeval rain-forest region but a very densely settled peasant agricultural region. The development of much of which took place AFTER 1400. And indeed, in some regions - e.g. in Ashanti region certainly post-1500 and in the Brong region (next to it) even partly post-1700. Once can therefore well argue that agricultural settlement - and hence almost certainly agricultural productivity - made a major leap forward post-1400. And that not only applies to West Africa but clearly also happened on Madagascar after ca. 1450.

Far from being stagnant or in decline the local settlement - history of at least parts of West Africa and Madagascar (both highland and lowland) tends to show that agriculture made major advances after 1500 and that both regions indeed grew until about 1700 - partly through the introduction of American crops like maize which appears to have revolutionized West African agriculture. - Africa's present underdevelopment can hence NOT be satisfactorily explained by its backwardness relative to European agriculture in the post 1500 period (I better leave the Neolithic to Jim). For far more land appears to have been brought under the plough (in Madagascar) or under the hoe (in West Africa) than in Europe in the early modern period. Sure - less than in the Americas of course but in Tropical America that's also partly an accomplishment of African farmers.

Again, sure - much of that was extensive hoe-agriculture, but - simply witnessing the West African landscape or that of highland Madagascar - it can not be doubted African farmers were none the less successful for that. For after all, much of this was achieved on thin tropical rainforest soil, which `European style - intensive' agriculture would have rapidly exhausted; one example being the `econocide' on Caribbean islands like Haiti.

Another - lesser known `laboratory' case (with which I happen to be a bit familiar) - being the disastrous failure of the Dutch East India Company's attempt to introduce European-style agriculture on Mauritius - which shares much of the characteristics of the soil and vegetation with nearby Madagascar - in the 17 th century, which turned to a disastrous failure, until the Europeans more or less learned the agricultural techniques from their imported Malagasy slaves. I won't go into the equally disastrous French attempts to found European agricultural colonies on Madagascar in the same period, which totally failed in the middle of rapidly advancing agricultural settlement among the Imoro. What the Europeans learned in each of these attempts was that European agricultural techniques could simply not be adopted to an African environment.

There's a more basic and more interesting point here - much of the `old style' environmental history (of which Jared Diamond or Clive Ponting are exponents) tends to assume the environment is `something given' - that it is `fixed'. Agricultural population tend simply to expand until they reach an `environmental wall, fixed by nature itself, which can not be moved. E.g. Europe is `more fertile than the tropics because its climate is moderate and it has thick soil, hence agriculture in the tropics is less productive, hence `civilization had less of a chance to develop in Africa than in Europe or in the Middle East'.

Now, to an inhabitant of Holland this argument, put in reverse: `Europe is fertile at least after the invention of the heavy plough', would seem plainly absurd. For after what IS the natural state of Holland ? Holland is not at all a region with a moderate climate and a natural fertile, deep, soil. Holland was as late as the 11 th century a peat-bog on which absolutely nothing would grow plagued by constant floods and in which any human endeavor was time and time ruined by floods and by high levels of salt water. If it would have been for the old-style environmental historians Holland ought not to have had any population at all. For Holland in its natural state is an extremely inhospitable place.

Of course, we know what happened: in generation, on generation, on generation Dutch farmers gradually dug away the peat, built canals to drain the marches and (yes - sorry for the Hansje Brinker-complex again) built dikes to stop the inundation's. That is Dutch farmers in a very long run of up to 500 years gradually moved the supposed `environmental wall' to make the country into Europe's most densely populated one. IN SPITE of the fact that Holland was strictly seen still not a very productive country since its soil was basically too wet to allow for grain cultivation and was really only suited for cattle.

You get my point here, Ricardo? As to its environment Holland is very poorly endowed and yet it's Europe's most densely populated region and I could go on saying that this applies to several other European core-regions too. Flanders for example which also suffers from too much water, or the Po-region, which has/had major problems with drainage and is badly malaria-prone, are also rather poorly endowed. They `should' have been un-inhabited if it wasn't for other factors. The actual regional geography of Europe does not support the idea that its core-regions are particularly well fitted for agriculture - instead we have to study the long-term trend of settlement, which in many of these cores is closely related to that of trade. E.g. Holland might not have developed at all if it would have been located in Jutland rather than on the Rhine.

As I wrote before, the environment is one production-factor next to several others: gender relations being one, definitions of property being another and technology being still another. Attempts to explain human history through the environment are therefore equally unsatisfactory as - the, to be sure, more common - attempts to explain everything through property-relationships. The environment is surely important but it should be seen as molded by human intervention, which is molded by technology, which is molded by property-relationships, which are molded by gender-relationship.

This is a point long recognized by `new environmental history': a field in which - I'm proud to say - Dutch medieval history has been a pioneer. Thus, e.g. in the extensive Dutch research on floods, and climatic change in the North Sea in relationship to agricultural development in Holland. Dutch agriculture constantly adapted to its really rather harsh environment; e.g. by increasingly resorting to cattle instead of grain in the much colder and wetter conditions in the fifteenth century as compared to the thirteenth.

Now, since I don't like simply calling for more research which is a very polite academic way of saying "I don't know what to do next", let me give an example of how something like that MIGHT (I say might because I don't have all literature and references around either) look like for Africa and on how that MIGHT be related to European hegemony there. The Africanists on this list are now certainly going to protest but let me repeat: MIGHT.

As most readers are aware the onset of the little ice-age by the late fourteenth century had very different effects on different climatic zones (and as these depend on latitudes this is one truly global field where studying developments in Arizona might be useful for explaining developments in the Sahara). Basically what seems to have happened is that while Europe became wetter and colder, Africa became dryer and colder. This was obviously bad news for the Sahel and the Sahara causing the abandoning of much marginal agricultural lands on the edge of the Sahara, in especially Tunisia and Southern Morocco, but also probably along the Senegal river. Thus there was essentially a move southwards of both peasants and pastoralists from the Sahel zones and hence a migration southwards of populations too which so far had lived more to the North as in the case of northern Ghana.

On the other hand it was good news for the rainforest area of West Africa in that heavy rainfall tends to wash away fertile soil, so that the only way to keep up its fertility was by regularly burning the vegetation. Hence, much of the forest-zone (not everywhere to be sure) had only been inhabited by slash and burn-cultivators before. Furthermore - I suspect generally dryer conditions caused a lessening of the incidence of malaria, so that populations in the rainforest also began to grow more rapidly. Now, to this should be added human factors, like the increasing spread of the use of iron for agricultural tools by the twelfth century, gradual improvements in productivity of crops (particularly the spread of rice), more demand for gold from the forest regions after the gold-deposits more to the north were becoming exhausted and demand for products from the cities which had sprung up along the Niger. Overall then we get conditions which were quite favorable to rapid agrarian growth in the forest-zones. To that should be added post about 1530 the new American crops and an increasing demand for ivory, causing hunter-parties to increasingly penetrate the hinterland.

This growth of population first started on the coast which by 1450 already supported a very large population (for in favorable areas cultivation by the hoe can indeed support large populations - as around Accra which ca. 1700 may have supported up to a million inhabitants -), then also into the hinterland and finally also in the savanna-regions. This trend no doubt did not take place everywhere, did not take place everywhere at the same time and not all areas (particularly, I think, in heavily malaria-invested areas) but the overall trend appears to have been towards a rapid increase in settled populations - thus effectively producing the west African landscape as we know it, by 1700. Likewise the same growth also supported a rapidly increasing flow of trade both across the coast and in the hinterland, between the settled cores of the forest region as among the inhabitant of the forests-regions and those of the savanah. For it is by now abundantly clear that the international trade of West Africa was but a small fraction of a much larger internal trade within West Africa.

It was then within this context of rapidly expanding agriculture, feeding an increasing trade - as previously self-subsistent communities were bought into contact with the growing internal market of West Africa - that the Europeans (or rather the Portuguese) inserted themselves after 1480. For if obviously most studies on the Portuguese or the Dutch in West Africa have focussed on their international trade it shouldn't be forgotten that the European fortifications were first and perhaps foremost also centers of regional, and indeed of local trade.For European fortifications are often built near saltpans for good reasons - namely to attract purely local trade. While the international trade was an affair of the Portuguese crown and its monopoly-contractors regional and local trade was rather an affair of Africanized Portuguese renegades (lancados) in West Africa or of `Lusitanized' Africans - so that much of the trade of the fortifications concentrated in their African suburbs; some of them like Elmina and much later Cape Coast growing into centers of regional trade and manufacturing themselves.

Like in India the Europeans were simply so dense on the ground in West Africa then, because they met with a quite advanced agrarian civilization and a highly developed system of trade there - if the Europeans would have grasped into a really `backward' area after 1450 they wouldn't have established themselves there at all. This is immediately clear if you consider that there was not a single European settlement before the 19 th century along the 3.000 km long coastline separating Cape Town from Sofala. Although parts of that coastline were actually quite densely populated. That area was however backward in that, unlike West Africa, it did not dispose of a large internal markets and at least a rudimentary network of urban markets so that the Europeans could sell large amounts of products in one place. It was, hence, not cost-effective to establish permanent settlements there - if any barter was conducted there (Indian textiles for ivory mostly) it was conducted off shipboard.

Most of the products dealt with in that European regional trade were purely African products (textiles, foodstuffs, fish etc.) some of it were new products introduced by the Europeans, like first and foremost, tobacco. For one product you'll always find in almost any post-1580 excavation in Ghana and no doubt elsewhere are European made pipes - which no doubt were then a major product of internal trade within West Africa. Hence, the European settlements certainly stimulated internal trade within Africa, which was one reason Africans were much interested in attracting it. And if the Europeans surely exploited the Africans the African kings or federations were at least attempting to also exploit the Europeans by working through a system in which the Europeans had to exclusively deliver goods to them; or at least to the chiefs, kings or confederacies with whom the Europeans had to deal. And probably for the bulk of the African manufacturers, kings and merchants the trade with Europeans up to about 1700 may well have been advantageous, though obviously not to the slaves.

Now - let me be very clear here: unlike Jim Blaut I don't think the volume of trade, urbanization and general commercialization along the Bight of Benin approached anything like the levels of Holland, England, Gujarat, Honshu or parts of China around 1700. The volumes of trade appear to have been much smaller, the level of commercialization lower, there were large merchants alright - but West Africa certainly lacked the comprehensive banking-system of the aforementioned places and I don't think any West African city had more than perhaps 20-30.000 inhabitants, though there were certainly many small market-towns. So `I don't think West Africa would have industrialized if only left to its own devices'. But then perhaps the `why England and not Dahomey' discussion might not be the best way to approach African history. To study pre-industrial history we have also to approach it by pre-industrial standards. For it also needs to be recognized that very impressive progress had been made since 1400 in manufacturing, in trade and in agriculture. As said before between 1400 and 1700 western Africa had made much more rapid progress than Europe in the same period - for Europe's population levels in 1600 still barely approached those of three hundred years before. And all that in spite of a constant drain of population through the slave-trade.

However, IMHO this rapid growth began to run into a ceiling by 1700. First, I think the amount of new land, which could easily be brought under the hoe, began to run out - thus giving rise to an increasing struggle for new land between various groups: settled peasants, slash and burn cultivators and pastoral groups. Perhaps as they were often suffering less from malaria than along the coast populations in the hinterland appear to have grown more rapidly than along the coast after 1600 but further roads to agricultural expansion were being blocked by already established populations along the coast. This new and rapidly growing population in the hinterland had thus to increasingly resort to finding new and more marginal land in the dry savanna zones - I think this was, for example, one major mechanism behind the Ashanti expansion northwards rather than southwards where the way was blocked by the dense Fanti populations. Parallel to the increasing spread of firearms in West Africa and the rise of powerful mostly hinterland centered states and burgeoning European demand for slaves this gave rise to a spiral of increasing warfare of which the costs were essentially gathered by revenues from the slave trade.

Second - and here I would have like to refer back to a brilliant old posting of our moderator which he posted on 3 June 1998 (Frank/Landes debate # 21) - by 1700 decisive changes began to occur in the pattern of trade in the Bight of Benin. One thing was that by 1700 European demand for slaves began to grow so rapidly that it was beginning to have a demographic and agricultural impact. As obviously the slave trade above all hit young people. And, second, as the Europeans began to dump more and more products these (n.b. `these' means Indian manufactures - globally seen Indian wages may, hence, not only have undercut English but also South American and African wages by 1700) effectively began driving African manufacturing from the market. Again, it is also likely the slave-trade caused an increase in epidemics in West Africa as it brought so far separate disease-areas within West Africa and those in the Americas into ever closer contact.

Now, this model would undoubtedly need much more elaboration by persons who are much better qualified than I am - for this list has its share of fine Africanists - but what I am trying to point out is this: putative contrasts between `backward' African agriculture and advanced Europe are not going to advance our understanding of either the great bifurcation in the 18 th century or of world history as a whole. For the environment (or the climate) are not an absolute ceiling but are molded by human intervention in which different factors correlate AND correlate globally - for it's hardly a coincidence that an other area which is clearly also out of step with the global trend to a slowly growing population after ca. 1360 and which also appears to have witnessed a booming population post 1400 (up to about 1650) is also located in a tropical forest-zone (though obviously with a very different soil than in West Africa) namely Java.

This may be one way to tackle a problem Patrick signaled two years ago:

"On the other hand, after calling above for a more interactive approach, I have still tended to tell one more regional story. How to make such regional tales into a global analysis? Here are two rules that help: 1) relate local developments to global developments, 2) make explicit comparisons of linked regions. We still face the question of how best to describe the various regional currents, and to develop out of them a model for global interaction that goes beyond the reigning model of dominance and diffusion. Empirical work will help in the development of theory."

Well - maybe - just maybe - we are progressing, Patrick.

Finally, to deal with Ricardo again:

>Fine, but consider also why you think that only Europeans >have this moral burden to show understanding towards >every other culture? How do you think the Han Chinese viewed >the tribal cultures they exploited, colonized and massacre throughout >their long history of empire making?

Certainly others should have such a burden too - the Hova have a deep contempt for other groups on Madagascar - nobody seems to like Fulani people in West Africa very much; Christians have a deep contempt for Muslims in Ghana (and Fanti-speakers are still not really overly fond of Twi-speakers too) and so on and so forth - let every people have a right on its own prejudices.

But the problem is of course that the European/US discourse is still that of power in the world - and in Africa in particular. Or do you see, say, Sudan imposing economic sanctions on the US because it doesn't like the `pornography' coming out of the USA ? Or do you see, say, Nigeria sending marines to Britain to safeguard Nigerian citizens against police beatings? Or - to mention a case from only yesterday - Senegal cutting development-aid to Holland as a sanction on the activities of Dutch pimps recruiting girls in Dhakar ? Hence, Europe - and the US in particular - has a special responsibility for understanding other cultures for they have more power to influence them too.

-- R. J. Barendse, University of Leidenl (r.barendse@worldonline.n), May 07, 2000.

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