Guns, Germs, and Steel

At one point in his life, Jared Diamond was a biologist in New Guinea studying birds. This was about the early 70’s, I think. (With audio books it’s difficult to verify the details because you can’t just leaf through the pages or refer to the index, so I apologize if I get the details wrong.) Okay, it was the early 70’s and he was having a conversation with this local politician in New Guinea, named Yali. Yali asked a question of Diamond that went something like this, why do you people (white, Euro-types) have all of this advanced technology and we don’t? What is the cause of this disparity? Well, Diamond sets out to explain the answer.

Diamond begins by walking you through the evolution of people, beginning at about 7 million BC. He gets you to about 11,000 BC before he really starts making comparisons between different peoples and continents. He concentrates first on the rise of food producing societies and their subsequent displacement of people engaged solely in hunting and gathering. This domestication of plants and animals for food allows a society to progress much faster because members can spend less time looking for food and more time reading, writing, studying, and creating complex, hierarchical political systems.

Once he establishes the import of domesticating plants and animals, he explains how the east-west orientation of Eurasia was much more amenable to rapid adoption of farming across the continent than the north-south orientation of Africa and the Americas. He illustrates this by pointing out, for example, that it took much longer for corn to find its way from Mexico to the United States than it did for certain cereals from the Fertile Crescent to spread much longer distances across Eurasia.

He concludes:

That faster spread of Eurasian agriculture, compared with that of Native American and sub-Saharan African agriculture, played a roll, as the next part of this book will show, in the more rapid diffusion of Eurasian writing, metallurgy, technology, and empires. To bring up all those differences isn’t to claim that widely distributed crops are admirable or that they testify to the superior ingenuity of early Eurasian farmers. They reflect instead the orientation of Eurasia’s axis compared with that of the Americas or Africa; around those axes turned the fortunes of history.

With only about two hours left, I expected the pace to pick up a bit if he was going to bring me back around to answering Yali’s question. And it does.

His next topic is germs, which also helped domesticated, well-organized, Eurasian societies to displace others. Germs, you see, thrive in domesticated animals like cattle and sheep. Eurasian societies lived near, and sometimes with, these animals for years. After numerous plagues, they developed resistance to many of the diseases in these animals. So, when Spanish conquistadors landed on the shores of Mexico and effectively destroyed a society of millions of Aztecs, it was less so the fierceness and intelligence with which the Spanish fought and more so the fact that the Aztecs were not resistant to the smallpox that the Spanish brought with them.

He goes through the details of three more topics and explains how they affected the rise and fall of different societies. They are, in order of presentation:

  1. The advent and cultivation of writing
  2. The rise of technology
  3. The development of complex political systems

It was really some fascinating audio. He made a complicated, controversial, and potentially boring topic very captivating. I turned it off feeling that I know more about the world. The last chapter in the audio book is 8 minutes and 35 seconds worth of summary that really ties it all together.

Here is how he sums it up:

The striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves, but to differences in their environments.

The most important differences in the environments, per Diamond, are as follows:

  1. The differences in starting material for domestication of plants and animals.
  2. The differences in rates of diffusion of certain developments across societies within continents.
  3. Inter-hemispheric diffusion of certain developments.
  4. Continental differences in area and population size.

Great stuff. Read it or listen to it and you will get more detail than you can consume on how each of the four differences resulted in widely disparate societies.