2. Guns, Germs and Steel: Jared Diamond

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2. Guns, Germs and Steel: Jared Diamond

Post  Patguy on Sun Nov 08, 2009 8:56 pm

The subtitle is: The Fates of Human Societies.

For sheer explanatory power, this book is hard to beat. Diamond has written a history of, essentially, the development of human societies over the past million or so years, and he attempts to explain why different human societies developed at such dramatically different paces. He rejects the argument from genetics:

“A seemingly compelling argument goes as follows. White immigrants to Australia built a literate, industrialized, politically centralized, democratic state based on metal tools and on food production, all within a century of colonizing a continent where the Aborigines had been living as tribal hunter-gatherers without metal for at least 40,000 years. Here were two successive experiments in human development, in which the environment was identical and the sole variable was the people occupying that environment. What further proof could be wanted to establish that the differences between Aboriginal Australian and European societies arose from differences between the peoples themselves?

“The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong.”

Diamond ascribes the differences in societal development not to genetics, but ultimately to accidents of geography. Those societies that arose among a higher number of domesticatable plants and animals found it expedient to abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and become agricultural societies, which gave rise to a larger population, which allowed for greater technological advancement (such as writing) and necessitated new forms of political organization to keep the new larger groups stable.

This close proximity to domesticated animals meant that mutated animal diseases could jump into the human population and cause epidemics. This might not seem like a benefit, but natural selection meant that the survivors were less susceptible or even immune to the diseases. So when the descendents of these survivors met previously-isolated populations (as when the Europeans met the Native Americans), the new groups had no immunity and were nearly wiped out. Primarily due to disease carried by European settlers, the native population of North and South America dropped by maybe as much as 95 percent in the two centuries following the first contacts.

Another interesting contributing factor is the physical geography and even alignment of the continents. Inter-group contacts are minimized if there are things like mountains and deserts in the way, so innovations (such as the domestication of a new type of plant or animal) spread more easily when the land is easily traversable. This in turn leads to further innovation, progress and the continuing spread of ideas. As well, the north-south alignment of Africa and South America means that those continents experience much wider climatic variation that the east-west aligned Europe and Asia. Plants that can grow in equatorial Mexico are unlikely to thrive in Patagonia, but crops raised in France might well thrive in climatically-similar southern China.

There’s a lot more in this dense 500-page book than I can do justice to here. But in the end, all of human history is determined by accident and natural selection. Very highly recommended.

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