This is a review of Jared Diamond's book: "Guns, Germs and Steel." Diamond has reopened the question of what caused human development. His research shows that it had more to do with the "luck of the environmental draw" than about supposed superior intelligence.
Treating the world as an onion, Diamond covers 13,000 years of human history in a mere 500 easy to read, lively and entertaining, yet devastatingly precise, and informative pages -- telling us in the process that he thinks modern human development was due to the latter -- the luck of the environmental draw, rather than to superior biological intelligence (whatever that may be).
The thin outer layer of his narrative onion is modern man; the deeper layer -- the 99% of the human family and human history -- is pre-literate societies. Since it is pre-literate societies that represent the root node of modern man; and since modern man cannot really learn about the world by only studying himself, it was a "no brainer" for the author to turn to pre-literate societies in order to better understand how they eventually developed into modern literate ones. What he discovered is that eleven thousand years ago, the world was flat -- meaning that all people were hunter-gatherers and equally at the mercy of the "luck of the environmental draw." Landing in terrain with a rich biota, and a good climate was a leg up -- much more important to history as it turns out than superior intelligence.
From this unique vantage point, peeling back the onion and uncovering the basic substance, the ultimate factors, and the fundamental interactions and strategies that made up the substrate leading directly to modern societies, proved to be a straight forward, if not an alway easy task. In fact he gave us a graphic view of the whole process. The dynamic elements of thirteen thousand years of history appears diagrammed on page 87.
The context of that page is developed in the text and shows that from literally only a handful of domesticable plants (200) and animals (14), eventually spread out across the entire globe; and due entirely to nature's skewed distribution of them -- a distribution that importantly heavily favored the Eurasian continent -- a slow multi-millennial chain reaction of events was set in motion. This chain of events would set the predicate for and become the precusor to modern societies.
But the glue that connected the dots could not be seen in the diagram on page 87. It remained in the subtext and was developed by the author over several chapters within the text. The "game changer" in my view, was the narrative that showed why it was easier for pre-literate societies to acquire already domesticated plants and animals from others, rather than domesticate them in-house themselves.
In my view, it was this fateful choice of acquiring from others, rather than domesticating in-house -- this cross-fertilization by humans sharing already domesticated plants and animals through trade and acquisition, that unleashed the slo-motion chain reaction of events that would lead to modern societies.
The chain as depicted in the flow chart on page 87 goes somewhat as follows:
Proximity to easily acquired domesticable plants and animals led directly to the ability to produce and store food on a large scale (but it also led to diseases acquired from living in close proximity to these same plants and animals). The ability to produce and store food, led directly to large-scale stratified societies. Large stratified societies, led to, among other things, the use of draft animals for farming and for conflict and conquest. These uses led to technological advancements, such as development of the gun, and to oceangoing travel. Oceangoing travel and the gun, led to conquest and the transportation of diseases to distant conquered lands. QED
All of this is packaged in an easy to read narrative that explains in clear analytically supportable terms how around 1500 AD, mostly European societies, after much infighting, formed into organized political units, and there afterwards began to exert their power, accumulated wealth and influence across the globe.
Until this volume, however, our history books had been content with another origin story. Almost as an article of faith, and as an established part of our Western catechism, they, as a group, took for granted that discrepancies in wealth and power among societies "must have been" due to superior intelligence and superior technology by certain privileged peoples, viz., Europeans.
But this book shows that the truth is vastly otherwise. If the historical truth were ever really told about our historians, it would be that as a group they have let us down: They have never really tried hard to fill in the blanks between what we know, and our own self-promoting and self-fulfilling chauvinistic treatment of sensitive parts of our own history. Arguably, this book fills in that gap by replacing historical chauvinism with testable facts and analysis.
For instance, in most of our history lessons, we knew that the way Cortes and Pizarro tricked both the Aztec and Inca Kings into submitting to them, had little to do with superiority -- unless guile is considered the best measure of superiority. Yet, we continued to hold on to the belief that the discrepancy in power and dominance favoring Europeans, had more to do with iron-making, guns and horses than with the luck of the environmental draw.
How the biota and the environment mediated and facilitated this development at every step of the way, did not come into play, and yet, it is this untold story that constitutes the narrative of this book.
Being a scientist, the author has re-examined old assumptions with new analytical eyes and new analytical tools, and many of the old "convenient" "comfortable," but "wrong" assumptions have fallen by the way side. This is a rich read for anyone who wants to know the truth about human development. Five star
Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...