Friday, May 27, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Diamond starts with an introduction that sets out the thesis that technological and historical success over other populations was not caused by racial biology. He then reminds us- not so subtly- that many of those victors achieved their success at least in part by being the bigger assholes in history.

(1) Despite the title, the first factors were what plants were available for domestication (ie. high protein wheats are better than corn) and what large mammals were available in the area for domestication (ie. horses were effective but zebras ineffective). The domesticated animals also helped with the plowing farmland. The migration of these plants and animals depended on the adaptability of those domestic plants and animals to the new area (horizontal or vertical migration). That's about the first 40% of the book.

The thesis of Guns, Germs and Steel is about the next 30% of the book but should be called Germs, Writing, Diffusion of Technology, and Huge Complex Warring Governments (haha, not as catchy):

(2) As for "germs," the people with domesticated animals caught infectious diseases from those domesticated animals and developed immunities. When they met people without these immunities they wiped them out with diseases both by accident and on purpose (again- the bigger assholes).

(3) Then Diamond talks about the development of written language, that also migrated along the domestic plant and animal routes- from groups that invented simple writing. Bureaucrats that were fed by food surpluses had time to adapt writing systems to their phonetic language. These bureaucrats also had a use for writing to manage large societies that grew from these food surpluses. While written language gave these people an advantage, Diamond reminds us that these "civilized people" didn't always defeat barbarians (example: the Hun).

(4) As for technology, it was developed on all continents and in all different types of societies. However, the diffusion of this technology (along these same trade routes of the domesticated plants and animals) helped maintain and grow technology. Isolated populations had less access to technology they could improve or have their technologies improved by others, and occasionally they lost this technology. Additionally, for the technology to get advanced quickly, a population had to be sedentary and be able to accumulate goods.

(5) Increased food production leads to increased populations which lead to large complex societies that in turn allow for job specializations, war and patriotic (read suicidal) military forces. Complex societies also develop lots of other things. There's a lot of belaboring the point in this section.

That's about it for the thesis, and though the title is a bit misleading, the thesis itself is solid.

The end of the book is a look at different regions of the world to show how these factors played out. This part feels like a rehashing and it covers too much area and history to be very helpful or memorable. I read this book twice and I didn't remember this part of it from my first reading. The areas covered are: Australia, New Guinea, China, other East Asian regions nearby, Indonesian islands, Polynesian islands, the continents of North and South America, and the entire continent of Africa. Each of these areas is compared to Europe (sometimes to the larger Eurasia area).

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