A great book about the history of technology, agriculture and about why the world is as it is.

The key question that Jared Diamond seeks to answer is "Why is it that European civilization conquered the other civilization, and why didn't it happen the other way round ?"

The answer is basically "technology", but this only begs the question. For the author, the reason is that some civilizations had a head start on others, because they developed centralized agricultural states (and iron and writing and other tech) much earlier than others.
The book establishes a "baseline" moment, when all the men on Earth had more or less the same technological level: this is fixed at 11.000 BC. After that, divergent fortunes.

The reasons of the head start, again, boil down to luck: the author shows how some areas had the good fortune of having both good climate (for a fairly elastic definition of good) and a good starter set of wild species that lent themselves to domestication. The luckiest ones, apparently, were the Mesopotamians that got the wild ancestors of wheat, chickpeas, flax, barley, cows, goats, pigs and other terribly useful species. Close seconds where the Chinese.
Contrast that with the Central America, where the starter set was only the somewhat difficult to select corn, turkey, amaranth, beans and no large pack animal.

This is a very good book, and it will make you think. It could be said that Diamond downplays the importance that culture had in certain historical moments (I am thinking of the strain of Greek rationalism that gave Romans their laws, survived thanks to the Arabs and finally blossomed into the Renaissance and ultimately gave us science and philosophy), and that it fails to answer certain questions, for example "why didn't the Chinese conquer the planet ?": nonetheless, this technological/economical perspective is certainly a stimulating one, and a welcome counterbalance to idealism.

The best and worst thing about this book is that every chapter is written in such a way that it stands on its own, without requiring the reader to skip to other parts of the book. Indeed, many of the chapters were originally articles in various popular science magazines. This is good if you want to come back to the book for reference after reading it, but it can get annoying if you read it straight through, as you read for the Nth time about why some forms of grain were more domesticable than others. In fact, I ended up skimming over the final five chapters, in which Diamond's theories are examined in real-world examples, because they were almost entirely restatements of the book's central theses.

If you want a good laugh, and you want to exercise your bullshit detection muscles, look this book up on Amazon.com and wade through all the reviews given by irate racists whose worldview is belittled by this book.

To add to the original writeup:

This 1997 work of non-fiction by UCLA professor Jared Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize and was a bestseller on a number of lists, including the New York Times Bookreview's. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond is looking at history from the perspective of paleobiology or biohistory, or whatever you'd like to call it, which is a pretty recent approach to more traditional forms of history that almost sidesteps a lot of the political quagmires involved with the history of western dominance.

I won't repeat the summaries of the other writeups, but I'll add that I was pretty amazed to find out that before domestication corn actually looked like those tiny ears of cocktail corn, and it's the corn we're used to seeing that's a mutation and not the other way around.

The scope of this book is wide, and Diamond has interesting comments on all manner of things, including, for example, necessity not being the mother of invention:

"A good example is the history of Thomas Edison's phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison's list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs -- but for use as dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music."

Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of human societies” is an amazing book by Jared Diamond, who is winner of numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize (for this book), MacArthur Foundation fellowship and the 1999 National Medal of Science.

Diamond was researching bird ecologies and migratory patterns on the coast of New Guinea when he happened to have a conversation with a local politician named Yali, who was then helping the native New Guineans start to administrate themselves when the eastern half of the island gained it’s independence in the early 1970’s. Among other questions, he asked Diamond a fairly simple question, but with an extremely complex answer.

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

His fundamental question, the question Diamond tries to answer in his book, is why did some cultures dominate other cultures in the past? Keep in mind that this is not a racist book, and he goes so far as to even (in his mind) claim that possibly the average New Guinean is smarter than the average European (due to the fact that New Guineans have to deal with life and death situations every day that constitute a much tougher and mentally demanding environment). The book instead focuses on the environmental reasons why some cultures dominate others.

His basic response, which he explains in around 400+ pages, is a set of four main factors:
  1. Continental differences in wild plant and animal species available initially for domestication. Eurasia (he treats all of Asia, Europe and for the most part Northern Africa as one continent) for the most part had the vast majority of large docile pack animals, which were ideal for domestication, while the Americas had only one animal (other than the dog) domesticated before 1492, the llama.

  2. Rates of diffusion and migration inside a continent. It is much easier to move east/west through a similer climate physically and culturally than to move north and south. To travel from France to Japan, even though there are great distances involved, requires fairly few changes in basic climate, day length, etc. The various environments required to moved from South America to North America, including deserts, jungles, mountains, etc., are much more of a barrier to technological diffusion and cultural spread.

  3. Rates of diffusion from continent to continent. Africas main source of domesticated animals was the Fertile Crescent region in Asia, which was also a large source of it’s domesticated food, which allowed intensified agriculture. The Americas were isolated from all other cultures (with some very limited exceptions), which kept them from using domesticated animals not present locally to help in agriculture and in technological diffusion.

  4. Continental differences in area and population. The size of Eurasia has been of great advantage, with it’s multitudes of climates, locales, and indigenous people. Australia has a much more limited environment without that advantage, and the land it does have is not suitable for farming (plus it didn’t have any useful domesticatable plants). The Americas were fragmented climatically and geographically, which effectually rendered the Americas into several smaller continents.
This book is amazing because it does something that (to the best of my knowledge and his) has not really been done before: it takes a scientific approach to history. Other sciences have been scoffed at by physicists as not being true sciences, such as biology and paleontology. Classical scientists say that to be a true science you must be able to have experiments, be able to reproduce results, and predict things successfully.

He uses many natural experiments to prove his hypothesizes, some of which include

  1. New Guinea, from which he himself has spent much time.

  2. Australia and Tasmania, and their supposed “backwardness” which was more caused by the lack of domesticated plants and animals that forced them to remain in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

  3. Polynesia, which he uses as the proof that one can look at history this way. Almost identical (culturally and technologically) Austronesian people colonized many different types of environments and subsequently developed predictably according to the type of islands they lived on.

  4. Sub-Saharan Africa, where he describes the colonizing effect of Bantu farmers had on the OTHER native Africans that we Americans tend to forget about, the Khoisan and Pygmy peoples. Since food production developed in the Sahel region of Africa (West Africa), the people there (Bantu) had a natural numerically advantage against the other southern Africans.

  5. The multitudes of Native American peoples, and the difficulty technology and food had in traveling the seemingly short distance between Mississippi, Mesoamerica and South America.
The Science of History does not have reproducible results, as you cannot experiment with indigenous people ethically. On the other hand, doctors use scientific methods to understand why a patient becomes ill.

Diamond uses scientific methods to understand why cultures are distributed the way they are, why super powers exist in the places that they do, and why race has nothing to do with it, that it’s all in the environment. He hopes that this outlook on the past can help us understand how today has been shaped, so that we have a better command of the future.

As wharfinger points out, the ease of east/west travel by cultures is mainly due to the fact that people bringing their previously domesticated plants generally stay where the plants would thrive, which is at about the same latitude, where the growing season and other factors remain about the same.
A book, written by Jared Diamond.

I rank this as one of the most interesting books I've ever read. It's concerned with the factors that made the world into what it is today; the reasons why people in different parts of the world have ended up with unequally large pieces of the cake.

A basic assumption is that those differences are not motivated by actual biological differencs between peoples. It is not strictly necessary for the book, but it is probably what motivated it. The author states his own inability to find any basic characteristics (such as "intelligence" or "industriousness") which differ noticeably between peoples during his travels and therefore wants to explore other explanations.

Reasoning from many different scientific disciplines is employed in order to explain the mechanisms behind human (pre)history; geography (the layout of continents play a huge role), biology (what kinds of domesticable plants and animals were available?), climatology (climate playing a large role in the spreading of plants, etc), linguistics (what can be said about a civilisation based on knowledge of their language?) and of course archeology (which builds the foundation of facts ready to be interpreted using other disciplines) to name a few.

The author takes you on a tour through the whole development of human civilisation, describing the most important factors that determine what society will look like. Continuously you're presented with examples from different parts of the world and history, demonstrating the principles at work. Often the author makes generalisations and assumptions, but they are always very carefully pointed out and generally seem well grounded (of course, dealing with history is a difficult subject when it comes to establishing hard facts; what can really be known about what has happened?).

The message of the book, in my mind, is this; the world looks like this (at large) because it couldn't have been different. When humans started spreading out across the globe, it wasn't like the most intelligent ones ended up in the parts that are most "successful" today, bringing success with them. It was more like the other way around. Diamond identifies, for example, a large number of reasons why Europeans once conquered the new world and none of them are concerned with the europeans themselves. In fact, most of them are purely geographical when they are boiled down. Those who happened to live there just got an advantage in technology (among other things) for free.

I suppose I shared most of this world view already before reading this book, but mostly for lack of evidence to the contrary, and I had never actually thought that you could show it this convincingly. It was a pretty mindblowing experience for me, besides of igniting a whole new interest in history.

Read it!

I have little to add to the above write-ups, which provide very good accounts of Diamond's book. Diamond does a superb job of synthesizing much previous research; interested readers might want to check up historian Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange, and historian James MacNeil's Plagues and Peoples to see where Diamond got some of his biggest ideas from (those interested in an alternate view should look at anthropologist Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History, and geographer J.M. Blaut's The Colonizer's Model of the World).

But I want to call attention to a few problems in the book, and raise two basic questions. First:

What is "racism?"

If racism means hating, or inciting hatred of, people because of their race, then Guns, Germs, and Steel is clearly not racist.

If racism means believing that some people are biologically superior to others, then Guns, Germs, and Steel is clearly not racist.

But I wonder whether these are the best ways to define racism. I would like to propose another view, one that is much broader but one that I think calls attention to a more pervasive and perhaps even more dangerous view of the world: that racism involves the belief that political and economic inequalities are natural (and therefore not really about politics or the economy). In these terms, I have serious problems with Diamond's book.

As Baffo explains, Diamond's basic question is, "Why is it that European civilization conquered the other civilization, and why didn't it happen the other way round?" Baffo insightfully sums up Diamond's answer as "The reasons of the head start, again, boil down to luck." It does in fact appear to be luck, from an individual point of view, but it in Diamond's analysis this "luck" is not arbitrary: as Marluth put it, "the world looks like this (at large) because it couldn't have been different." Either way, Diamond's argument amounts to this: It is natural that Europeans have come to dominate the world. It may be a matter of luck that one is born in Europe -- but the advantages Europe has over other parts of the world are not a matter of luck, they are a matter of geography; they are natural advantages. Although Diamond does not explicitly condone European conquest of or domination over others, his determinism has this effect.

This view must be very comforting to those Europeans, or Euro-Americans, who might feel a little guilty about the disproportionate power and privilege they have enjoyed. If it was just luck, or if it couldn't have been diferen't, then it is certainly no one's fault. I am suspicious of power without responsibility, and I am suspicious of such a self-serving argument. (I am not saying that people ought to feel guilty about what their ancestors did in the past -- they shouldn't. But I am trying to understand why people would deny what their ancestors did, or deny that their ancestors were responsible for what they did, in the past.)

I do not raise this question of racism lightly (although given the seriousness of racism, I think people need to be alert to the subtle forms it might take); I raise them because of three problems I have with the "scientific" validity of Diamond's analysis:

Three Problems

First, I am not quite convinced by his presentation of geography and the environment. His argument hinges on a distinction between continents that have an east-west versus a north-south axis. Eurasia is an example of the former, and Africa and the Americas are examples of the latter. Eurasia's east-west axis, about 7,000 miles, is greater than it's north-south axis of 5,000; still, Eurasia's north-south axis is considerable and it is hard to say that the difference between the two axiis is significant. If we are willing to accept Diamond's separation of Africa from Eurasia (they are geographically connected), we should also separate North and South America -- and North America's east-west axis is about equal to its north-south axis. In any event, the reason Diamond cares about the axis is that an east-west axis links places with similar climates which promotes the diffusion, or spread, of technologies; the north-south axis crosses different climactic zones which inhibits diffusion. In fact, however, the agriculturally productive areas of Eurasia are geographically isolated from one another by mountains and deserts, which create serious impediments to diffusion. Moreover, there is a plethora of evidence for north-south diffusion (potatoes, for example, diffused within the Americas from the tropics to the temperate zones north and south).

His argument also hinges on the superiority of temperate zone cereals such as wheat and millet, and the relative inferiority of tropical cereals such as rice and corn, and tropical tubers such as manioc and yams -- rendering people in the tropics protein-deficient and weak. He argues that wheat and millet have more protein than rice and corn, but one can just as well say that rice and corn have a higher moisture content (understandable in the tropics). Moreover, people who subsist on low-protein tubers have access to many other sources of protein (some of which, like insects, most Europeans would consider inedible for cultural reasons). Europeans in the seventeenth century dismissed natives of the tropics as languorous. By selectively ignoring much research on tropical food production, Diamond reproduces the same stereotype.

Second, I am not so sure that Europeans achieved technological superiority due to the size, shape, and location of Europe. Diamond argues that these factors gave Europe a "head-start," but in the 1400s Europe was by virtually all measures behind the rest of the world. Indeed, much of the technology and skills Europeans relied on to conquer the Americas came from non-Europeans. Europeans had no natural superiority; they took advantage of the superiorities of others (two examples: European colonization of the Americas and the establishment of a large slave-based economy was based on rice, using varieties developed in the tropics, and using techniques for cultivation developed by people in the tropics; the industrial revolution in Europe involved population growth and concentration in cities fed primarily by the potato, a food developed in the tropics).

Third, there is no such thing as a natural experiment. An experiment must have a clear beginning, middle, and end for it to be meaningful -- but nature, including the experiences of humans, has no such end. What Diamond calls a "natural experiment" is really a comparison between two places or times with many variables involved (Diamond often reduces them to two variables, "environment" and "culture;" but even these words refer to many sometimes interpenetrating variables.) The history of the world is far, far, far from over, and in time we might see Africans or South American Indians ruling the world. No doubt, if they ever come to rule the world they will believe that their domination was in some "natural", just as the Romans and the Chinese and the Arabs at different times in history thought it was inevitable that they would come to rule the world. Those in power always have their myths to comfort them. That our myths often take the form of scientific arguments raises another question,

Can one study human society and history "scientifically?"

I think the answer is "yes, but carefully." By carefully I do not just mean accumulating many facts (which is one important part of science), I mean care in interpreting these facts, especially when one human is studying other humans, or when a Euro-American is writing about the differences, or relationship, between Europe and the Americas.

At best, Diamond has provided a partial explanation of why Europeans succeeded in conquering the Americas, but he has not explained why they wanted to or had to (these are important questions in part because they leave room for the possibility that Africans or South Americans could conceivably have developed polities that would have conquered Europe, but either did not want to or did not have to). I think part of the problem is that although Diamond draws on a wide range of research, he ignores debates among social scientists about method and theory. Indeed, this may be part of his appeal -- many people have dismissed the social sciences as bullshit science. But this is unfortunate. Many social scientists have had training in the natural sciences and understand that the scientific study of human society and history requires innovative methods and raises issues that natural scientists have never explored. Scholars in a variety of social sciences have written sophisticated arguments against various forms of determinism, including the geographic determinism that dominates Diamond's work. Moreover, they have formulated sophisticated theories of agency. Ultimately, it is precisely what makes social science different from physics, chemistry, and biology that makes it good science.

This is not the first time people have used "science" to "prove" that social (including economic and political) inequalities among humans have natural, rather than social, causes. Several years ago there was an uproar about Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve, in which they argued that I.Q. was largely inherited, and that differences in I.Q. scores could be explained by race. As the more sophisticated critics of that book pointed out, it was not a bad book merely because it used the word "race" or argued that biology is important. It was bad science because it was deterministic, and bad social science because it ignored (or misrepresented) evidence about historical and cultural causes of inequality. Diamond is a biologist by training, and is (successfully) very careful to avoid biological reductionism; alas, he is not successful at avoiding environmental or geographic determinism. In short, Diamond's book relies on geography rather than biology, but otherwise makes the same mistakes.

A more complete explanation of European domination would have to involve political considerations, which would reveal that although there may have been "good" reasons why Europeans were the conquerors, the conquest was by no means inevitable or natural, or even "likely" given Europe's "natural" advantages (a more generous reading of Diamond's book). This is a less comforting belief, but more honest -- which really ought to be the driving force behind any science.

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