Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

I got this book nearly ten years ago, I saw the PBS miniseries, and my boyfriend has been harassing me to read it for over two years, but I just now got around to it. Yes, it was largely due to the book's imposing size and density, but I am glad I finally read it!

The book is about geographic determinism. Mr. Diamond sets out to show why civilization and technology developed where it did (the Fertile Crescent, Europe, China) instead of where it didn't (the Americas, Africa, Australia). He's completely convinced that the theories of old are wrong (that the Europeans are simply smarter, and obviously that means their race is better and destined to rule), but at the same time there must be some explanation and no one had really come up with an alternate explanation to racism, even though it was obvious that there must be one.

So here it is: geographic determinism. There are several causes of the varied development, but it boils down to a few things: what animals and plants were available on the continent, which way the continent was oriented (North-South is not good, East-West is), and the ease of mobility and trade to other continents. If you were lucky enough to be born in Europe and Asia, you had many potential crops to domesticate that would provide good value and nutrition. You also had many potential animals to domesticate, which were not only good for food but also for hauling and plowing, and living in close contact with these animals gave immunity to a host of diseases that would eventually prove wildly destructive to other peoples who did not have that exposure. You could easily get both the good food and good animals from your neighbors. Since they were at the same latitude, the crops likely would grow well in your area too. Plus, it was easy to travel across Eurasia with its low mountains and width. In the Americas for example, corn was the only crop option, which was very difficult to domesticate and didn't provide many nutrients. The only animals option was the llama, which was in the Andes and never spread very far. If you wanted to take corn and spread it to another country, you were changing latitudes considerably, which changes climate and the corn might not grow well or at all in the new area. Also if you are traveling very far, you have to deal with huge mountains (the Andes, the Rockies), and then you have to get across the very skinny isthmus of Panama, and what is now the Southwestern United States was basically a big desert. If you managed to get through all of these barriers, you still had something no where near as good for you as wheat or rice or barley. And yet, you were still much luckier to be in the Americas than Australia, where the Aborigines had no domesticatable plants (the only one that even modern scientists have been able to work with is Macadamian nuts) and no domesticatable animals.

In fact, Mr. Diamond almost makes the assertion that the "natives" elsewhere in the world proved they were not only just as smart, but possibly even smarter, by their super-fast adaptation to non-native plants and animals when they were introduced (think of Native Americans riding horses) as well as other technologies (guns), although as a scientist he'd never make a statement quite that bold that can't yet be proven. Although he also points out that a head start and good luck with plants and animals doesn't always mean a civilization would dominate -- look at the Fertile Crescent. They had an incredible head start with both food sources, they developed technology very early, and then they stagnated. They cut down all the trees in their delicate environment, causing what was once the most fertile land on earth to become today's deserts.

The early access to good food was necessary for civilizations to appear. Without farming, people stay hunter-gatherers, and hunter-gatherers can't develop specialized technologies like metallurgy and writing. For those developments to happen, there needs to be large-scale food production so that those specialized tradesmen could trade for food instead of procuring their own. Once farming develops, civilization soon follows. Then many technologies were developed separately on separate continents, although with more or less success in different areas (in the Americas, wheels were only used on children's toys.)

Finally, the question he began the book with is addressed - why did Europeans conquer the "new" world, instead of the other way around? This is the question the title answers: because the Europeans had developed guns, germs, and steel. Germs were really the very most useful for conquering, although the Europeans had no idea they were even doing it. And luckily for them, the diseases raced ahead of them, wiping out populations before Europeans ever set foot in some areas. Of course then guns and steel armor proved no match for arrows and quilted armor and the end result was a forgone conclusion. But the only reason the Europeans had these advantages over the rest of the world, is that they were lucky to be born in a place with favorable environment and native plants and animals. If wheat and cows had been naturally appearing in the Americas or Africa instead of Eurasia, the history of the world might have been very different (although it would have taken longer to get to this point, due to the North-South orientation of those continents and the difficulty that added to these issues.)

The book was fascinating, although I found it a little long. Particularly in the last chapters where he's talking about how languages have evolved and how those evolutions prove certain time frames for the adaptations of certain technological advances, well I could have done without that. At times he got a little technical for a book for a general audience. But the vast majority of the book is very accessible and it's so important that a scientist addressed this longstanding question that previously had only been answered with racism. I'm very glad this book has been so successful for so long, and hope it will continue to be read for generations. I loved the 2003 updated afterword, where he's able to expand on the New Zealand Musket Wars, on why Europe and not China dominated, and how the book has been adopted and adapted by business schools and business professionals (including Bill Gates) to apply to the world of product development and domination today. I hope Mr. Diamond continues to update the afterward periodically and that scientists continue to explore this fascinating and vital area of questioning, to find further answers as to why modern society evolved the way we did.

I do not remember how I got this book but it was a long time ago and I did not do book reviews at that time.

1 comment:

Tea said...

I would have to read this one very slowly. I might even need to take notes, or I wouldn't understand a word of it.