Saturday, February 11, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read. In it, Diamond sets out to answer a question asked of him 25 years ago by a native New Guinean who, reflecting on the way Europeans seemed to have much more advanced technology at their disposal than his native islanders, said:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

In other words, and on a grander scale, over the course of human history, what has allowed some communities to develop literate industrial societies with metal tools, others to develop only nonliterate farming societies, and still others to remain seemingly frozen as hunter-gatherers with stone tools? It’s a big question, and Diamond has a big answer for it, but it is an answer that boils down to one sweeping concept.

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.

It is an answer that avoids most of the racial bigotry that has clouded the same question for hundreds of years. When human cultures that had been separated for millenia began clashing with one another—as when Europeans first came to what they called the New World—who conquered who was not biologically determined (i.e., white Europeans were not racially superior to Native Americans). Rather, each human society developed according to the advantages of their respective environments, and because the environments were different, the advantages developed by each were different.

For the bulk of his book, Diamond compares the advantages of the world’s different environments, chasing proximate causes back to what he believes is the ultimate one—the one advantage that set all the others in motion, and allowed the “Old World” to develop technologically literate societies before the “New World.” It is, quite simply, that the Old World is wide and the New World is tall.

On the surface this seems crazy, but let’s follow the logic. Eleven thousand years ago, after humans had spread out of Africa to nearly every corner of the globe, they lived universally in hunter-gatherer communities—tribes of no more than a few dozen individuals, moving across the landscape in the near-constant search for wild plants and animals for food. What we now think of as civilization began when some of those communities transitioned from this hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more agrarian existence, after the domestication of plants and animals. That transition didn’t happen overnight, and it happened in different places at different times, and it seems clear that it began first in what we now call the Fertile Crescent, the area in Southwest Asia roughly between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. And why did it begin there?

One advantage of the Fertile Crescent is that it lies within a zone of so-called Mediterranean climate, a climate characterized by mild, wet winters and long, hot, dry summers. That climate selects for plant species able to survive the long dry season and to resume growth rapidly upon the return of the rains. Many Fertile Crescent plants, especially species of cereals and pulses, have adapted in a way that renders them useful to humans: They are annuals, meaning that the plant itself dries up and dies in the dry season.

Within their mere one year of life, annual plants inevitably remain small herbs. Many of them instead put much of their energy into producing big seeds, which remain dormant during the dry season and are then ready to sprout when the rains come. Annual plants therefore waste little energy on making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes. But many of the big seeds, notably those of the annual cereals and pulses, are edible by humans. They constitute 6 of the modern world’s 12 major crops. In contrast, if you live near a forest and look out your window, the plant species that you see will tend to be trees and shrubs, most of whose body you cannot eat and which put much less of their energy into edible seeds. Of course, some forest trees in areas of wet climate do produce big edible seeds, but these seeds are not adapted to surviving a long dry season and hence to long storage by humans.

I find this fascinating. Hunter-gatherer humans in the Fertile Crescent were able to domesticate plants and become farmers because the wild plants in their region had been adapted by their environment to produce the kind of seeds that human could eat, store for long periods of time, and, eventually, plant and grow under their own control. It makes me wonder that if there had not been a place like this on earth, with plants naturally adapted in this way, would human civilization have ever arisen at all? Diamond would probably say yes, but, consistent with the overall theme of his book, it would have similarly been driven by natural selection and not by any human ingenuity.

In all this discussion of the Fertile Crescent’s advantages for the early rise of food production, we have not had to invoke any supposed advantages of Fertile Crescent peoples themselves. Indeed, I am unaware of anyone’s even seriously suggesting any supposed distinctive biological features of the region’s peoples that might have contributed to the potency of its food production package. Instead, we have seen that the many distinctive features of the Fertile Crescent’s climate, environment, wild plants, and animals together provide a convincing explanation.

There were, in fact, a few other places where food production arose independently like this—places like New Guinea and the eastern United States—but none of these places had the other environmental and climactic advantages Diamond attributes to the Fertile Crescent and, as a result, he says, the people of the Fertile Crescent “entered the modern world with more advanced technology, more complex political organization, and more epidemic diseases with which to infect other peoples.” One of those extra advantages that led directly to this future dominance was the domestication of animals, especially the domestication of large mammals to help in the labor associated with food production.

Diamond tells us that prior to the 20th century, only fourteen species of such animals had been domesticated by the world’s populations—sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, Arabian and Bactrian camels, llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, bali cattle and mithan—and of these, the wild ancestors of thirteen of them (all but the reindeer) were domesticated in Eurasia (including North Africa, which is biogeographically more similar to Eurasia than to the rest of Africa).

This very unequal distribution of wild ancestral species among the continents became an important reason why Eurasians, rather than peoples of other continents, were the ones to end up with guns, germs and steel.

Why? The germs part is maybe the easiest to understand. All of the communicable diseases that would later decimate the native populations of the New World had their genesis first in these domesticated animals living in close proximity to one another. Like the more recent examples of the AIDS and SARS viruses, diseases like measles, rubella, mumps, pertussis and smallpox were all animal illnesses that made the leap to humans. They killed thousands if not millions of Eurasians when each first broke out—think of the Black Death in the late 1340s—but Eurasians had hundreds of years to evolve immunities to these diseases. The Native Americans did not. And because the Native Americans never domesticated animals and keep them penned together in the way the Eurasians did, they never developed their own deadly diseases that could have decimated the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in their ships. The chapter in which Diamond describes this process is called the “Lethal Gift of Livestock,” and with good reason.

And once these factors are in place—an agrarian lifestyle assisted by domesticated animals—the next major step in societal development can take place: human specialization. As hunter-gatherers, a population of humans has to spend almost all of their time in the acquisition and preparation of food. But as farmers with livestock, food production can easily reach surplus levels, and far fewer people need to be involved with it to feed a much larger community. This allows individuals to specialize into a new variety of “careers,” before unheard of in human history. And the two most influential for shaping the growing society are those of politician and priest.

Centralized political organization, including religion, is the major factor driving the clash of cultures that began with Columbus’ journey in 1492, and which still persists to this day. Indeed, it is only through institutions such as these, and the fervor that is built up around them, that members of one population are made willing to sacrifice their own lives for the subjugation of another. This willingness, Diamond says, is…

…so strongly programmed into us citizens of modern states, by our schools and churches and governments, that we forget what a radical break it marks with previous human history. Every state has its slogan urging its citizens to be prepared to die if necessary for the state: Britian’s “For King and Country,” Spain’s “Por Dios y Espana,” and so on. Similar sentiments motivated 16th-century Aztec warriors: “There is nothing like death in war, nothing like the flowery death so precious to Him [the Aztec national god Huitzilopochtli] who gives life: far off I see it, my heart yearns for it!”

The last reference to the Aztecs is especially curious, given the words of Spanish conquistador Pizzaro upon the capture of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa.

Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the Emperor, whose vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian.

Incas are not Aztecs, I know, but how easily could this speech have been given by a conquering Aztec warrior, or the conquering warrior of any state whose citizens pledge themselves to their god and country? All it takes is the swapping of a few proper names and the text is instantly understandable by nearly any culture.

And this ubiquity of experience seems to be the central thesis of the book, a synopsis of human history that is still being played out today. People once spread across this globe given the pressures of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As populations grew they had to expand because they had to find more food for more and more individuals. And then, based on environmental factors, not on human ingenuity, some small pockets of those hunter-gatherers developed practices for better food production, leading apparently inevitably to animal husbandry, technology, religion and empire. And then the expansion began again, empires needing to conquer in order to sustain themselves, and clashes began between one group of humans with better technological advancements and another with less.

One of those technological advancements developed by some and not others is literacy. To hear Diamond tell it, written language only came into existence because of the surpluses of food created by plant domestication, and one of its first uses was to keep track of the extra food and who was entitled to it.

Early writing served the needs of those political institutions (such as record keeping and royal propaganda), and the users were full-time bureaucrats nourished by stored food surpluses grown by food-producing peasants. Writing was never developed or even adopted by hunter-gatherer societies, because they lacked both the institutional uses of early writing and the social and agricultural mechanisms for generating the food surpluses required to feed scribes.

When it comes to the centralized political structures that these new literate societies could support, Diamond describes a multitude, based primarily on the size of the available population, and the different factors and attributes that can define them. He classifies them, in ascending order, as either bands, tribes, chiefdoms or states, and describes these classifications as stages a single culture could conceivably move through, starting with one of various forms of egalitarian leadership and moving eventually to outright kleptocracies. In his study of these human societies, it’s worth nothing that he does an excellent job of describing the essential challenge of the kleptocrat.

For any ranked society, whether a chiefdom or a state, one thus has to ask: why do the commoners tolerate the transfer of the fruits of their hard labor to kleptocrats? This question, raised by political theorists from Plato to Marx, is raised anew by voters in every modern election. Kleptocracies with little public support run the risk of being overthrown, either by downtrodden commoners or by upstart would-be replacement kleptocrats seeking public support by promising a higher ratio of services rendered to fruits stolen. For example, Hawaiian history was repeatedly punctuated by revolts against repressive chiefs, usually led by younger brothers promising less oppression. This may sound funny to us in the context of old Hawaii, until we reflect on all the misery still being caused by such struggles in the modern world.

Indeed. What I like best about this section is how applicable it is to our modern societies. This is fascinating because Diamond’s book is so much a study of the past. It goes to show how little new there is under the sun. In seeking solutions to this dilemma, Diamond says, kleptocrats throughout history have resorted to a mixture of just four solutions.

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite.
2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways.
3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence.
4. Construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.

Sound familiar? If not, just listen for the rhetorical themes that dominate America’s typical presidential election cycle and you’ll hear them in spades.

But what does all of this have to do with the Old World being wide and the New World being tall? Well, as Diamond explains, all these developments begin with food production, with the move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one where humans stay in one place to tend domesticated crops, building up much larger surpluses of food than ever before. At the very earliest stages of this process, there is very little difference between the harvesting of wild plants and the intentional planting and harvesting of crops. The idea needed to spread fluidly and easily from place to place in order to take hold, and the same plants that worked in one area had to work in another.

And there was more room for this kind of expansion in Eurasia than there was in the Americas, because so much land in Eurasia extends to the east and to the west along similar lines of latitude. Look at a map. The plants that grew well in what is now Turkey also grew well in Greece, Italy and Spain to the west and in Iran, Afghanistan and China to the east. Side to side, Eurasia spans about 6,000 miles, and the discovery of food production could be easily communicated and successfully adopted by neighboring societies all across that length.

Meanwhile, in the Americas, no such wide stretches of latitude can be found where a similar climate prevails over many thousands of miles. What grows well in Mississippi won’t grow so well in Alberta, even though those two present day places are much closer to each other than many dozens of places in Eurasia that were able to share the same food production techniques. With today’s modern technologies we can surmount these obstacles, but to the aboriginal Americans, just making the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was just too difficult. The Incas did it in Peru. So did the Mayans in Latin America, and the Mississippian culture in the southeast United States. But none of them could share their discoveries with the others. They didn’t even know these other cultures existed. The geographic and climactic barriers of their north/south continent prevented it.

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Finally, there are a few interesting and seemingly unrelated tidbits that are just too good to pass up. The first is about the power of vested interests.

This book, like probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvements in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves towards keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.

The second is about China, and why, although it clearly “developed” more quickly than Europe, it eventually lost its technological lead.

Why didn’t Chinese ships proceed around Africa’s southern cape westward and colonize Europe, before Vasco de Gama’s own three puny ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope eastward and launched Europe’s colonization of East Asia? Why didn’t Chinese ships cross the Pacific to colonize the Americas’ west coast?

The answer, much like the idea that Eurasia being wide gave it the lead over the Americas being tall, is that China is smooth and Europe is jagged. That refers specially to coastlines, but it can be thought of in the context of political unification as well.

China’s frequent unity and Europe’s perpetual disunity both have a long history. The most productive areas of modern China were politically joined for the first time in 221 B.C. and have remained so for most of the time since then. China has had only a single writing system from the beginnings of literacy, a single dominant language for a long time, and substantial cultural unity for two thousand years. In contrast, Europe has never come remotely close to political unification: it was still splintered into 1,000 independent statelets in the 14th century, into 500 statelets in A.D. 1500, got down to a minimum of 25 states in the 1980s, and is now up again to nearly 40 at the moment that I write this sentence. Europe still has 45 languages, each with its own modified alphabet, and even greater cultural diversity. The disagreements that continue today to frustrate even modest attempts at European unification through the European Economic Community (EEC) are symptomatic of Europe’s ingrained commitment to disunity.

And this disunity, initiated by the numerous islands and peninsulas that dominate Europe’s landmass, as culturally distinct societies grew in power and in isolation from one another, is what gave Europe the technological edge over China when all those societies started coming in conflict with one another.

Europe’s geographic balkanization resulted in dozens or hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. Europe’s barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.

And finally, there are these wonderfully juxtaposing quotes, the first by Thomas Carlyle:

“Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”

And the second by Otto von Bismarck:

“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to His coattails and He marches past.”

Seems to me Diamond is much more in Bismarck’s camp than Carlyle’s. Great men, if they exist at all, are the result, not the cause, of history.


  1. Fascinating, this book has forever been on and off my list of books to read. It's going back on now, thanks.

  2. Thanks for reading, Deirdre. Let me know how you like it.

  3. I started the book last summer because of the fascinating premises that were explored, but plowing through it was laborious. It read like a scientific treatise. I would have preferred an easier, quicker read.

    I'll give it another shot.

  4. There were parts that I enjoyed more than others, David. I do tend to slog through things once I start them, but this one was engaging because of the ideas it explored.