Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Audiocd) - Jared Diamond, Grover Gardner Reading this made me think of the story of the blind men and the elephant; a Jain version of the story reads: The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. At the end of the book, I did find Diamond persuasive enough to be convinced he had part of the truth, but I admit at this point of my life I'm skeptical of simple explanations that purport to explain everything. Granted, sometimes there are cases like that--at the root of the Theory of a Heliocentric System or Evolution by Natural Selection is a pretty simple concept. But think of trying to explain an individual human being solely by his environment. Similarly, Jared Diamond here tries to explain the "broad patterns" of human history by one factor--environment. Geography really. The argument goes something like this. Humans had a "Great Leap Forward" around 50 thousand years ago--probably through a reorganization of the brain--that allowed them to invent things more sophisticated than crude stone tools and fire. They then spread to every continent but Antarctica, and about 11 thousand years ago, after the end of the Ice Age, came the Neolithic and the first herding and agriculture. But this is where human society became complicated and unequal. Because the different continents offered a different "suite" of animals and plants to choose from for domestication--and in that respect the Fertile Crescent (and to a lesser extent China) were insanely gifted and the continents outside Eurasia poor. Also, the axis of the continents meant diffusion of these developments were much more rapid in Eurasia than the other continents. The package of domesticated plants and animals in Eurasia enabled much greater food production--but also the development of "crowd diseases" such as small pox that came with close association with herding animals such as cattle and sheep. The greater food production caused a population explosion that led to more powerful forms of political association devolping and specialization into professions and crafts and with it the invention of writing and other technologies. And all that is at the root as to why when the Old World and New World came into contact, who would win and who would lose was inevitable. There is something very appealing about Diamond's hypothesis. It's a theory of history without heroes or villains. Or at least without nationalist triumphalism or finger-pointing. It's the antithesis of racism. Diamond quickly dismisses the racist IQ theories such as presented in Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve. I'm using "racist" here, or trying to, in the objective, neutral definition that it consists of the belief that there are innate differences between subgroups of humans that make some superior to others. Of course, it would have helped if Diamond didn't talk about how he thought natives of Papua New Guinea are probably superior in intelligence to Westerners (tribal warfare and knowledge of natural environment selecting for intelligence more than literacy and video games). But as he'd argue, since that would only cut against the results you'd expect, it doesn't affect his analysis of the important factors that gave some parts of the globe a head start on powerful technologies and social organizations. I'm skeptical of Diamond's claims for his theory as the foundation of a "science of history" that could explain nearly everything. As with explaining the formation of individual character, I suspect history is formed by an array of factors--from material factors such as those Diamond details to the "Great Men" theory of Carlyle to the cultural and political factors such as those detailed in Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Much of Guns, Germs and Steel read like a refutation of Landes' book, which was actually published a year after this one. I don't want to go into the parallels between the books and contradictions point by point, except I think both works are worth reading and provide food for thought. Both agree that "fragmentation" of political control (which Diamond again thinks might have geographical roots) might explain why Europe, rather than China, was the center of the scientific and industrial revolutions. I'd give Diamond's book a slight edge over that of Landes simply because I found it more fun to read. I could have done without Diamond's politically correct sensibilities that made it necessary to always put "discovery," "exploration" and "backwardness" in quotes. At the same time his claim that what happened between Pizarro and Incan Emperor Atahuallpa is "well-known" based only on Spanish accounts was eyebrow raising. My eyes did glaze over a bit at the long, involved detailed discussions of linguistics, and many of his points are repetitive. Nothing is cited and sourced. But I found it fascinating to read about that crux between pre-history and history--when and where and why humans first developed agriculture and systems of writing and the development of human diseases. In my geeky way I loved reading about how writing developed independently in Mesoamerica, China and the Fertile Crescent. How writing spread from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt, which developed a system of writing that included an alphabet side by side its hieroglyphs developed into the first alphabet by the Phoenicians. How Sequoyah developed a syllabary for the Cherokee. As a once upon a time political science major in college with my own idiosyncratic political beliefs, I found Diamond's speculations on the formation of the state thought-provoking. I was surprised to find out leprosy is a pretty "new" disease that first appeared in 200 B.C. Given its mention in the Bible, I thought it a particularly ancient malady. And did you know chickens were first domesticated in China? Why we type on a QWERTY keyboard? Well, you would have had you read this book.