Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

This week I'm talking about the landmark book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond which I actually was first exposed to through a documentary I saw on netflix. Although I fully expect the documentary has long since disappeared from that site, the book remains available. I will say that going through the book felt very repetitive for me because the documentary which I remember fairly well covers the exact same ground as the book. So, for me at least, it was kind of repetitive and this book felt very dry, but it's an interesting perspective nonetheless.

In this book Jared Diamond seeks to explain why the world ended up the way it currently is, which is no small question in and of itself. More specifically, Diamond tries to untangle why Europe of all places ended up dominating the globe politically and economically even to this day. Why did Europe develop modern gunpowder weapons, steam engines, railroads, printing presses, and all the other things which generally get lumped into that glorious mess called civilization? For years the accepted answer had been race-based: white people are simply superior to the other people across the globe. More intelligent, more sophisticated, more ''evolved''. In more recent years this has been dismissed for the racist nonsense it is. People in Africa, Asia, and the Americas can adapt to the modern world just as well as Europeans and European descendents so clearly there's nothing about white people that makes them inherently better. But then what precisely was it that allowed Europe to dominate the globe? Surely it must have been something, right? It's a thorny question with no easy answers.

Diamond takes an extremely broad approach, some have argued far too broad, and focuses on biography and geography to take us back to the birth of ''civilization'' thousands of years ago. The main thrust of Diamond's argument is that it all ultimately comes down to agriculture. Diamond operates from the assumption that agriculture is necessary to create the food surpluses required so individuals don't have to focus on growing food and can instead specialize in different areas, such as rulers, bureaucrats, and craftsmen. This allows the development of different technologies which, over thousands of years built up the juggernaut of industrialized Europe. Now, I'll admit I'm not entirely up on modern anthropological research but I believe this view has become challenged in recent times and there may be examples of complex societies with food surpluses that do not rely on agriculture.However, I don't really have the information available nor the faintest inkling where to start looking.

Diamond's argument then continues from the assumption that agriculture is necessary for complex societies and then looks at areas where agriculture has been developed in history, specifically the Fertile Crescent, sub-Saharan Africa, China, Mesoamerica, and South America, each with their own staple crops adapted to the local climates. The bulk of the book focuses on the Fertile Crescent, which is where the most archaeological research has been done, and Diamond concludes that the Fertile Crescent had several distinct advantages, such as a large number of plants and animals suitable for domestication, as well as a large area with similar climates on similar latitudes where the agriculture could expand into new territory, a benefit it shared with Chinese agriculture. Diamond argues that African and American agriculture, however, was hampered by continents that covered a wide number of latitudes, creating environments where previously developed agriculture techniques would not easily adapt and thus hampering their spread. In addition, Diamond says that Africa and the Americas had fewer domesticable species of plants and animals compared to Asia, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

Diamond's argument makes sense in some areas, but it still raises quite a few questions. The lack of domesticated animals in the Americas certainly explains why as much as ninety percent of the American Indian population was wiped out by smallpox. Smallpox is, after all, a disease we most likely picked up from our domesticated animals. In addition, llamas and alpacas, the only large domesticated animals native to the Americas, were kept in very different conditions from cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs in Europe, Asia, and Africa so the Incas were not as regularly exposed to pathogens from their llamas. The resulting lack of immunity proved catastrophic for Indian populations and did far more for Europeans than any technology probably could.

Diamond's argument goes to great lengths explaining why the inhabitants Australia and its associated islands remained largely stone-age hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. There weren't any species suitable for domestication and in the areas where agriculture was imported, they were fairly small. There were fairly complex societies on islands such as Hawaii, but they remained small due to land constraints. If Diamond's dates for domestication of plant and animal species in the Americas are correct as well, it may explain why native societies were just beginning to tinker with copper and bronze working before the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century.

However, Diamond's argument certainly fails to explain why Europe came to dominate the world. Certainly a large part of Asia and northern Africa, sharing an agricultural and technological base, was equally likely to grow to be a dominant power and for much of history Asian powers were dominant. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that Europe began its long exploration of the rest of the world which finally culminated in the division of the world into European empires by the end of the nineteenth century. Why it was Europe instead of say India or China, that rose to prominence remains unanswered. Africa too, despite its lack of horses, could have been a dominant world power because they had extensive agriculture and steel weapons. Diamond himself even admits the shortcomings of his work and the fact it's far from complete.

There's also a distressing tendency for Diamond to refer to hunter-gatherer cultures as ''primitive'' or ''backwards''. There has been a push recently among anthropologists, sociologists, and historians to avoid utilizing those terms because they carry unfortunate connotations and have been associated far too frequently with the racist, imperialist terminology of the nineteenth century. While Diamond is trying to offer a non-racist alternative explanation, I fear he almost falls into some of the old value judgements he's trying to avoid by accident.

Overall, the book is interesting but far from complete. It's an interesting working hypothesis to explain some of why the world ended up the way it is, but it's far from the be-all-end-all work on the matter. By explaining some things, Diamond raises further questions and ultimately fails to explain why Europe rose to dominance. Certainly they had the advantage of agricultural and other technological improvements made in the Fertile Crescent which diffused elsewhere, but other locations had the exact same advantages. There's debate as to whether Diamond places too much emphasis on geography and environmental determinism but I don't think I know enough to be able to weigh in one way or the other. Clearly the answer as to why the world is the way it is will be a long and complex process which may never be answered.

- Kalpar

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