Thursday, March 9, 2017

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

This book and the next book by Dr. Harari which I will shortly follow up with in the next blog may not really seem related to genealogy. However, they are related to history and I have a deep interest in understanding not just my own personal ancestry but the larger ancestry of humankind that these two books address. Perhaps this blog and the next can be considered an extension of my earliest blog posts concerning DNA ancestry - which also fit into our larger long-term ancestry.

Jared Diamond, an American scientist and author, is best known for his 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. This book is now 20 years old and perhaps many already are familiar with it, but I wanted to write about it because of how much I love the book!

This book is a short history of the last 13,000 years of human history and attempts to answer the question why Europe became the dominant power of the last few hundred years, rather than some other power elsewhere in the world. The title of the book sums it up - it was more advanced technology with guns and steel, with the support of diseases that others were not immune to.

Diamond contends that there are no inherent genetic differences between Europeans and say New Guineans or any other race that would make Europeans more intelligent. Instead he theorizes that civilization developed from a chain of developments over thousands of years, beginning with something as simple as geography and available resources. As humans moved from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farming, this occurred only in areas where conditions would allow for this to occur. Both crops, such as wheat and rice, and large domesticated animals such as sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses were the beginnings of agriculture - and developed only in geographical locations where these resources were available, Only in such locations was it possible for larger societies to begin to develop.

The ability to control crops and animals led to food surpluses which then led to specialized work and larger societies. These larger groups then led to rulers and bureaucracies which led to nation states and eventually empires. These larger civilizations and empires grew in geographical locations that were favored by the right types of crops and domesticated animals. 

As civilizations grew and spread, animals and crops would also spread but only at the same latitude with the right climatic and geographical conditions. So the first civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt had crops and animals that could still handle conditions along an east-west axis - eastwards to India and China, and west into Europe, but were not suitable for moving too far south into Africa. The Americas had the disadvantage of sitting along a north-south axis, rather than a east-west axis like Eurasia and thus the spread of crops and domesticated animals was less likely due to greater climatic variation.

Since Eurasians lived close to farm animals with diseases, over time they became immune via natural selection such as the Black Death and other epidemics. The stark example of 95% of native Americans being wiped out by the colonizing Europeans, was primarily due to the diseases they brought with them which the natives had no resistance to.

So societies that started as agrarian and developed into larger empires with specialized skills allowed for artisans and technological advancements that lesser developed societies did not have - steel being foremost. So with more advanced technology and cunning, a few hundred Spanish conquistadors can conquer millions of natives in Mexico, and Pizarro with less than 200 men could conquer the Inca Empire of millions in South America. Then over the past few hundred years European nations also set up colonies in Africa, Asia, Australia and the islands of the Pacific.

It is easy to see how Europeans had more resources than sub-Saharan Africans or Australians or New Guineans and thus were able to create large states.  But why did the Europeans come to dominate the world? Why not the Chinese? China had a large civilization along the same latitude as Europe with many resources also. What about the Ottoman Empire in the Near East? Why didn't they do it? What about the large subcontinent of India? All of these areas lie along the favorable east-west climate axis. Diamond tries to answer this question based on geography and provides some really provoking thoughts, although I felt like the last argument about Europe vs China was a bit weak. Dr. Harari in his recent book Sapiens I think has the answer, which I will review in my next blog.

In 2005 National Geographic created a 3 episode documentary based on the book, with the same title Guns, Germs and Steel, which at one time I watched on Netflix but I believe is no longer available there. At least for now it looks to be available on Youtube (links below). Highly recommended to see. But read the book also.

Here are some links to help you learn more:

Cumberland Family Software:

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