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Thursday, October 02, 2003

Guns, Germs, and Steel

I just had to share a short synopsis I wrote almost two years ago of one of best books I've read in the last 5 years; Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. If you haven't read it, you should...

This Pulitzer Prize winning book from 1997 attempts to answer the question, "why was the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro able to capture the Incan emperor Atahuallpa on November 16, 1532 within minutes of their first meeting when Pizarro commanded 168 terrified soldiers and Atahuallpa 80,000?" Of course, the broader question is why Europeans so easily conquered native peoples in many parts of the globe after 1492. Diamond's answer is that Europeans inherited guns (advanced weapons), germs (diseases that natives did not have resistance to), and steel (advanced technology including writing) as lucky accident of their environment rather than any innate difference in ability.

He then spends most of the book discussing what he views as the four proximate causes since 13,000 BC that allowed European civilization to develop more quickly.

1) The first is the availability of domesticable plants that allowed people in the Fertile Crescent (who spawned the eventual European societies) to move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary farming lifestyle. This also allowed individuals to move away from food production and become specialists (soldiers, chiefs, etc.) which in turn drove political organization and increased population densities allowing new technologies to be invented more quickly. His contention is that while food production arose independantly in five or six areas of the world, the Fertile Crescent had far and away the best wild candidates for domestication. As a result, farming developed first in this area.

2) The second cause is the domestication of animals that spurred both agriculture and food production. Domestic animals also infected those farming peoples with diseases to which they eventually built resistance and which proved decisive when the farmers come into contact with nomadic tribes. Once again the Fertile Crescent had many more animals that were able to be domesticated than other places. For example, the Americas contained only 1 large mammal (the llama) that could be domesticated while Africa, despite being known for large mammals, had none that were ever domesticated (and still aren't) because of various traits.

3) The third cause is the axes of the various continents. For example, the Americas are situated in a north-south axis along with Africa while Eurasis lies east-west. A north-south axis is less desirable for the spread of populations, technology, and crops since latitudinal changes bring environmental barriers such as deserts (the Sahara), rainforests (Brazil, Congo) that are difficult to cross without adapting a different set of crops and technologies. As a result the most advanced societies of the New World (the Incan and Aztec) had no knowledge of each despite being separated by only 700 miles. Conversely, trade between mediterranean societies acted as a positive feedback mechanism between the varying cultures.

4) The fourth cause is simply the available land mass that is able to support various cultures. Basically, the more people there are the more quickly technologies develop. In this respect Eurasia is much larger than either Africa or the Americas (with Australia very much behind).

The author walks through each cause and provides many interesting facts and some speculation. He then devotes a chapter to each major continent and traces its history as he sees through his proximate causes and from archeology and linguistic evidence. I found the book fascinating because it provides a framework for understanding history. Its especially interesting to note where certain crops were first domesticated even though we think of them originating from different areas today (for example coffee was developed in Ethiopia, not South America). Now, when you sit down to dinner you can have a lively discussion of where all the food you're eating comes from (by the way, your spouse may find this quite annoying).

Diamond's field work has mostly been done in New Guinea so there's an overemphasis on the migrations from China through Indonesia and New Guinea finally culminating in the population of Easter Island, but the book is still well worth reading.

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