Guns, Germs And Steel: A Short History Of Everbody For The Last 13000 Years
- Publication Date:
- 25 April 1998
- General & World History
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Extremelly worthwhile book that I haven't yet managed to finish, though I must say I think I got through the best stuff and Diamond was beginning to repeat himself. This is the explanation I've always searched for about why the "first world" countries have always done so well in nearly ever regard compared with sedond and third world countries, the Middle East, Latin America, etc. Reasons go back to the beginning of humanity and make plain and simple sense.
In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond displays an amazing ability to explain the big picture of the rise of human civilizations. He believes history should be a science, and, using his own scientific expertise in evolutionary biology and ecology he answers his New Guinean friend's question "Why does your society have so much cargo and mine doesn't" He comes to the conclusion that the attributes that allow some civilizations to prosper more rapidly than others are: a predominant east-west vs north-south axis, the prevalence of domestic-able animals, the development of a chieftain type political system, an accepting rather than conservative attitude toward novelty, and the presence of individuals able to innovate. Eurasia's predominant east-west axis and domestic-able animals allowed for the development and dissemination of crops, language, and mechanical invention. Africa and the Americas with their predominant north-south axis and lack of domestic-able animals were comparatively slow to develop and disseminate crops because of the presence of large ecological barriers. One would think that Africa at least would have the advantage of numerous animals, but for animals to be domesticated they have to have steady temperaments, low fright thresholds and be herd animals. Africa was sadly lacking in just such animals. Diamond states that a tribe of Africans could have conquered the world riding on rhinoceroses, but the rhinoceros, alas, lacks the temperament to become pack animals. The east-west axis of Eurasia allowed for crops to be grown along the same latitude for thousands of miles so that they were easily improved and disseminated. Increased crops lead to increased population size which lead to increased specialization which lead to increased political activity which lead to the ability to expand the barriers of the state and conquer other states. This is why Europe with its nautical technology and Russian horses was able to conquer the Americas, which had a slower spread of food production and few domestic-able animals: alpacas and llamas, which were not used for either riding, pulling or milk production, dogs and guinea pigs. One interesting fact was that the wheel was invented in Mexico independently of its invention in Eurasia; however, since there were no draft animals, it was used only on toys, not as a part of a method for human transport.Another benefit of animal domestication was that it gave rise to diseases to which the people who lived with the animals could develop an immunity allowing them to conquer vulnerable people from other continents. Eurasian diseases did much of the work of decimating the peoples of the Americas. The Americans, on the other hand, with their paucity of animals had few diseases to repel their conquerors.In discussing the ability to adapt to novelty, Diamond tells of a tribal man who was illiterate and lead a stone age existence, but, seeing immigrants use of coffee developed coffee production for himself, eventually buying new facilities and a fleet of trucks with $100,00 in cash. Meanwhile, another tribe near him seemed immune to novelty so was being pushed aside by those willing to change. The rise of specialization lead to the rise of politics as tribes became chiefdoms which then became states. Political maneuvering allowed for the rise of a kleptocracy which took money from the people for the use of their leaders. Specialization and politics also gave rise to religious kleptocracies which promoted devotion to the state allowing for increased political maneuvering and warfare.In general increased political cohesiveness allowed for greater development and expansion; however at a point where a whole continent, China, comes under one rule development stops and even goes backward. Ship building and the ability to lead expeditions for conquering other continents, clock making, steam engines and a Chinese industrial revolution were all curtailed by a government that could turn a whole continent on the whims of a few rulers. Europe, because of its resistance to unity and its many states promoted discovery and invention.There was a large section on linguistics which, alas, I just kind of breezed over because of lack of interest. However, it seemed to reinforce Diamond's ideas of the growth of culture. One tidbit from it was that Sequoia, a Native American, when confronted by the European's ability to write down their language developed a method of writing down his own. One man developed a written language. Because of his facility with many different areas of knowledge Diamond encourages those following him to explore history not as just one damn fact after another but as means for scientific discovery of the development of humanity.
Possibly the most interesting book I've read in the last 10 years. The author presents the idea that western culture (particularly Europeans, as opposed to indigenous Australians, Americans, Africans) are dominant in the World today only because they (the Europeans) originated in an area of the world that was rich in animal and plant recources (that could be utilized via domestication), and was geographically in an area where ideas like domestication, writing, town and city life and state building could be easily spread and picked up by neighbours of the region.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Diamond does a great job connecting science and social studies through examining geographical and environmental factors that shaped today's world. The book brings together many of the pieces of history and science that traditional classes never connected.
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