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Cannonball Read III: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

By Jen K. | Books | July 4, 2011 | Comments ()

By Jen K. | Books | July 4, 2011 |


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I remember seeing this book when it came out over thirteen years ago, and I finally decided to actually read it recently. In the book, Diamond attempts to determine why certain societies and continents ended up where they did historically. Why was it Europe that conquered the Americas and not vice versa? While the proximate reasons for this are the guns, germs and steel of the title, a more appropriate title for the book may well have been "Food Production, Animal Husbandry and Geography."

For the most part, I quite enjoyed reading the book, though it did get a little bit repetitive in the last half, repeating over and over again advantages and disadvantages different regions had. His main argument is that food production led to societies that allowed for specilialization, which led to more structured societies (from band to tribe to chiefdom to state), and allowed for more technological advances. Due to food production, a certain amount of land would yield many more calories and allow for extra food, which meant that societies could feed people that weren't involved in food production and store food for future use. In a hunter-gatherer society, in comparison, everyone is focused on hunting/gathering. However, farming is quite hard work, and isn't something that would necessarily naturally develop very quickly. It all depended on the land's ability to support or not support a hunter-gatherer life style. However, more importantly, how quickly food production arose depended very much on the local plant life: Australia was still a hunter-gatherer society when the English first landed because none of the local plants were very suitable for domestication. Even now, with current technology, Australia has only yielded one local crop: the macademia nut. America faced similar disadvantages - though they developed agriculture in areas, its crops' calorie contents weren't as high as those of the wheats and barleys from the Fertile Crescent, which also had the advantage of a high protein percentage (additionally, wheat and barley are very similar to their wild ancestors, while corn would have taken quite some time and mutations to develop from its wild relative). It didn't matter how rich the land was if the right crops weren't there.

That is where Eurasia had the advantage: between the Fertile Crescent and China, several wild plants ended up being perfect for domestication. Additionally, these areas had an advantage when it came to large animals that were appropriate for domestication. The Americas and Australia in comparison had no large mammals on their continents at this point with which to start this process; most of the large mammals in Africa are rather impossible to domesticate due to their temper and other dispositions. Not only did animals provide food, help with farming and transportation, but animals were also the origin of many of the "germs" and diseases that would decimate the original inhabitants of Australia and the Americas due to their lack of exposure. Horses of course also were an advantage in warfare as seen with the conquest of the Incan Empire.

His other argument has to do with geography, idea diffusion and isolation. For example, Australia was very isolated, the people that inhabited Australia were isolated from each other due to the continent's deserts, and as a result, they didn't necessarily see what their neighbors were doing and use those ideas. In fact, they even appear to have lost technology such as the bow and arrow. For some reason, one area decided to stop using it, and since they weren't threatened by neighbors with that technology they never picked it back up. The Americas also had a bit of a problem with isolation due to geography: information and ideas simply didn't make it past the deserts/mountains separating Mesoamerica (the Aztecs and Mayans) from southeast North America very quickly, and the Incan Empire was also separated from Mesoamerica. Mayans had a wheel, Incans had llamas (the only large domesticaed animal in the Americas) but they never met and as a result were never put together to create easier transportation. Additionally, since the continent's axis (Diamond considered North and South America as one continent) ran north-south, it also affected the transmission of ideas (this can be seen in Africa as well) and crops. There is a much larger difference in day length, climate etc. from north to south. Plants that grow in one area wouldn't grow south of it due to climate changes, so even if there is an area much further south that would support those plants, they would not have made it past the inhospitable area. By contrast, Eurasia's axis is west-east, and its geographical barriers are not as extreme as in Australia and the Americas so the crops could spread between groups, people could see their neighboring societies' farming and pick up the habit, and they would also be able to gain technology from them. Diamond mentions the importance of writing as well and for the most part, writing styles were the result of idea diffusion and not natural development: only three or four places came up with writing independently; everyone else either simply copied it or heard enough about it to develop it (knowing about something and creating it and creating it from scratch are very different).

While Diamond lays out the geographical advantages that Eurasia was lucky enough to have and makes a convincing argument, this is by no means a perfect book. As I said earlier, it has its moments of repetitiveness. While he makes a good argument for why Europe conquered the Americas instead of vice versa, he waited until the epilogue to address why Europe did this and not China - China after all had developed many technologies long before the Europeans. Some of his statements seemed a bit odd at times since he appeared to be arguing against previously held beliefs that the conquest of America and colonization of other areas had something to do with the quality of the people in those areas. I didn't feel like I had to be convinced of this . . . One other random bit that I just thought was kind of interesting: I recently read Cloud Atlas and one of the stories discusses the Moriori of Chatham Islands and how they were conquered by Maori from another island - Diamond actually spent a page or two discussing this particular example in his book. I wonder if this means Mitchell read Guns, Germs and Steel, or if he came across the Moriori independently during his research.


For more of Jen K.'s reviews, check out her blog, Notes From the Officer's Club.

The review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.


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