Sunday, July 16, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel

Well, that was quick. I finished the rest of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies this afternoon. Actually the whole book was a rather quick read, not at all like a more academic history text full of necessary-to-read footnotes and assumed context.

Essentially what the book lays out is the idea that while no race or ethnic group can be said to be inherently superior to another, let alone that racial characteristics might explain why Eurasian societies have come to dominate the world stage, rather that a series of environmental factors came together to create a positive feedback loop that encouraged adoption and evolution of an agrarian and city-state-based society over a hunter-gatherer one.

The key assertions of the book are:

Presence of large numbers of suitable plant species for farming - while every continent (Diamond refers to Eurasia & Northern Africa as a single continent, for the purposes of historical interaction, with the other continents being sub-Saharan Africa, Australia & New Guinea and the Americas), Eurasia, specifically ancient Iraq, referred to as the 'fertile crescent', contained a larger number of plant species, such as wheat and olives, that were able to be domesticated almost by accident, with gathered seeds cast away then taking root and growing new plants, making it fairly obvious to ancient people that this process could be taken advantage of. And with the ability to domesticate one species of plant fairly easily, a sedentary lifestyle was possible, thus giving more time and opportunity to experiment with more difficult-to-cultivate plant species.

Along with a variety of domesticable plants, Eurasia, specifically the Fertile Crescent region, is also home to the five most important large domesticated animal species, the cow, horse, pig, goat and sheep. By contrast, the Americans and Australia had no analogous megafauna, save for the Llama, but it was never brought out of its native region of the Andes, and was never kept in large numbers. Having cows and horses around allowed Eurasian peoples to plough fields and thus increase agricultural productivity.

The rise of city-states: The most important consequence of sedentary lifestyles and increased food production of agricultural societies was the increased population density that they allowed. This gives rise to two important advantages agricultural societies have over hunter-gatherer societies, the ability to wage war for longer durations, and as a breeding ground for infectious diseases that jumped from domesticated animals to their human keepers, who would eventually develop a resistance to them, but which was not shared by hunter-gatherer societies that they might come in contact with. This is how Desoto came across entire towns devoid of people in the Mississippi delta, smallpox had gotten there a couple of years before his exploration party.

Agricultural societies can fit more people in an area of land, many hundreds of people per squire kilometer compared with about 1 person per square kilometer for hunter-gatherer societies, and can grow at much faster rates. The average gap between children for hunter-gatherer societies was about 4 years, since a mother could only realistically carry one baby around with her when moving camp, but in agrarian societies the gap is only about 2 years between children. And with growth comes the need for territorial expansion, and thus the historical muscling out of neighbouring societies when encroached upon.

Geography and Communication - Eurasia differs from the other continents not only for being larger and having a wider variety of domesticable plants and animals, but also for being laid out in a relatively East-West orientation, whereas Africa and especially the Americas are very much oriented in a North-South fashion. In the Americas, your neighbours a few hundred miles to the North or South live in a markedly different climate and environment than you probably do, which makes growing season, soil characteristics and climate different enough to hamper the spread of crop technology from one area to the next. Mexican corn could not be easily transported further north to the Appalachian region and grown there, for example. This is why the native American societies that did develop some form of agriculture did it relatively independently.

The geographical layout of Eurasia permitted more solid communication and trade links between East and West, where natural barriers existed in the Americas, like the jungles of Panama and deserts of Northern Mexico which effectively isolated the Aztec civilization from the Incas to the South and the Mississippi Delta population to the North, or in Africa where North Africa was cut off from the rest of the continent by the Sahara desert.

The open communication links from East to West in Eurasia meant that interactions between neighbouring societies created a cross-pollination of technologies and ideas, and competition drove the development of newer and more efficient means of producing food. Diamond's central thesis is that this communication and interaction is what allowed talented and inventive members of Eurasian societies to fully realize their potential for discovering new technologies, while farmers produced the food that allowed the inventors to have such specialized pursuits.

What I found the book lacked was an exploration of the cyclical rise and fall of city-states based on their resource consumption patterns. Most notably, why is the "fertile crescent" now a desert? He refers to the ancient area now known as Iraq as the "fertile crescent" dozens of times throughout the text without tackling this question. In fact, the resource consumption and deforestation that goes along with growth in population and increasing agricultural production isn't explored at all. Nor is the unsustainability of most of the historically significant Eurasian empires that grew to dominate their own time periods. Rather, the progress of Eurasian societies was largely treated as a steady march forward, with the other societies around the world mostly staying as they are until they come in contact with Eurasian expansion and are either subsumed or exterminated.

The main assertions of this book were covered in a less complete, but more environmentally-focused way in Thom Hartmann's book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, which I found to be a much more compelling read. Diamond's book was more of a deliberate and systematic laying out of the factors behind how and why the world's civilizations developed as they did, while Hartmann's book brings it into the context of how the mindset created by this dominating and ever resource-hungry culture is creating our current environmental problems.

I'll write a longer piece, perhaps more than one post, about Hartmann's book soon, I want to give it a proper treatment since it is a more compelling and eye-opening book than Diamond's basic treatment of history.

I still recommend this book, though, as a good foundational history of how the world came to look the way it does, and for the tidbits of information about the development of the first writing systems and early agricultural technologies. Part of why I love reading non-fiction is that even if you don't end up being overly compelled by the text, the information you gain from reading it is still useful and interesting to carry around later, as long as it's accurate and well-researched, which Diamond's book is.
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