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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

(Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York: W. W. Norton, 1999) This is an important book. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and is one of the few books to have its own entry in the Wikipedia. I should have read it earlier. I am grateful to one of my sons-in-law for letting me borrow it. As a friend of mine who is a history professor recommended that I read it, it must have some credibility with historians.

The book, like most important ones, has engendered some controversy. In a sentence, Diamond's thesis is that the dominance of Eurasian peoples (including Europe, North American, China, India and Japan) in the world is due to accidents of geography and of plant and animal distribution. He denies any racial intelligence advantage or disadvantage. For what it's worth, which isn't much, I mostly agree with him. One thing Diamond doesn't allow for is Divine plan, or intervention, in history. He says very little about religion at all, and most of what he says about it is that it has provided motivation and cohesiveness for aggression against other societies.

The book is mistitled. Diamond had very little to say about steel, and much more to say about domesticated plants and animals than about guns.

On pages 406-7, Diamond summarizes his findings, pointing out what he believes to be the four most important variables which have influenced human history. The first is what wild animals and plants were available for domestication. The second is "rates of diffusion and migration" of ideas, domesticated animals and plants, germs, and people. Having a mainly East-West axis made such rates much more rapid in Eurasia than in Africa or the Americas, because the North-South axis of these continents meant that, say, domesticated animals from the Andes would have had to cross several different types of climate to reach Georgia, whereas that would not be true from, say, ancient Iraq to Spain. The third is diffusion between continents. The Americas and Australia were isolated, but Eurasia and Africa could have things and people diffuse between them. The fourth is total population size. If large enough, this enabled plague germs to develop, and ensured that innovations necessary for survival or success could arise in some part of the population. Larger population sizes also allowed more resources and people to be used in attempts at conquest.

Some quotes:
A mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world's annual tonnage of all crops. Those dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, ice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. Cereal crops alone account for more than half of the calories consumed by the world's human populations. . . . Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating. pp. 132-3

. . . an entire field of science, termed ethnobiology, studies people's knowledge of the wild plants and animals in their environment. . . . The studies generally show that such peoples are walking encyclopedias of natural history, with individual names (in their local language) for as many as a thousand or more plant or animal species, and with detailed knowledge of those species' biological characteristics, distribution, and potential uses. p. 143

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. If you think you've already read something like that before, you're right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's great novel Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." . . . The Anna Karenina principle explains a feature of animal domestication that had heavy consequences for human history--namely, that so many seemingly suitable big wild mammal species, such as zebras and peccaries, have never been domesticated and that the successful domesticates were almost exclusively Eurasian. p. 157

The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history--smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera--are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confined to humans. pp. 196-7

The book is a synthesis of history, geography, and biology, and not really suitable as a text in any of these fields, because it is so broad. That shouldn't deter people interested in any of those fields from reading Diamond's book. In fact, they should be required to do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Martin,

Thanks for the anonymous attribution!

As for being required to read GG&S, I don't but I DO place this book at the top my students' suggested reading list.

Not all historians like Diamond's arguments, but he has gotten people to think about the connections between biology, geography and history, and that's a good thing. many of my students "discover" history this way.

Curtis