A Truly Fascinating History

When a friend recommended that I read Guns, Germs and Steel, I commented cavalierly, without having read a single word, that the book seemed like an oversimplification: How can one possibly account for all the twists and turns and blind alleys of human history? Now, as I race through the pages of Jared Diamond’s monumental work, I could not be more ashamed of myself. Subtitled “The Fates of Human Societies”, this large, and often dense book describes, through the lens of an evolutionary biologist and biogeographer, the fascinating journey of man on earth. Its claimed objective is to try to explain how today’s world came to be, with its glaringly unequal divisions of haves and have-nots. Diamond explains, painstakingly and precisely, why some societies became overlords while others remained primitive or vanished; why some people preferentially reaped the benefits of Guns (conquest), Germs (disease) and Steel (technology).

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA. His first love, however, is ornithology. It was the study of bird evolution that took him to Papua New Guinea, where a local politician put to him the question that was to germinate into his Pulitzer Prize-winning book: “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?”

The first step that Diamond takes in answering this question is to explain why he thinks it is necessary to answer it at all. Having explained this with a nuanced, delicate perspective that is increasingly lacking in much of the scientific nonfiction today, the writer proceeds to dispense with simpler explanations such as “X had superior technology and superior weapons” or “X developed education and language and trade”. These explanations, Diamond says, are only proximate, and a scientific inquiry into history must ask the question “Why is it that  X developed technology and Y didn’t?”

As one reads more and more of this book, it seems ludicrous that anyone can attribute the unequal distribution of wealth, technology, language, etc. to genetics. Yet, rationalizations such as “People from continent A have higher IQs than those from continent B, and this correlates with differences in their genes” abound in people’s minds. These thoughts are not often expressed because they would be considered indecent. One does not have to be a post-modernist (though it would certainly help in this case) to point out that an IQ test in society A is designed to test intelligence according to the conventions and culture of society A, and therefore said IQ test is not a good metric for society B. Recently, James Watson got into hot water when he made comments about Africans having inferior intelligence than Europeans. It is presumptuous to conclude that Watson was motivated by the racist sentiments that many people accused him of, but it is clear that if the difference in IQ test scores is not a good indication of a difference in innate intelligence, then the point about causative genetic differences is moot.

The method of Guns, Germs and Steel is to keep asking the “How and why” questions until they lead to one answer: The difference between the fates of human societies was caused by a difference in the environment in which those societies lived. This thesis seems simple and anti-climactic, but reading about the details is truly fascinating. I have read half of the book so far, and have been completely enthralled by Diamond’s explanations of the change in lifestyle from hunting-gathering to farming and the domestication of herbivores. How did man, at first unconsciously and later deliberately, influence the evolution of certain plants? Why is it that man took so long to farm apples? Why is it that over 13000 years, humankind has succeeded in domesticating only 14 large mammals? How did previously detrimental mutations turn into blessings for some crops, aided by the human hand, while previously beneficial mutations became excuses for extinction? Diamond answers these and other questions while being careful to evaluate the strength of the scientific evidence for those answers. One of the most intellectually rewarding consequences of doing science – or reading about it – is that a discovery (whether firsthand or not) causes something to “click into place,” that mental “light-bulb-going-on” effect. Reading Guns, Germs and Steel is akin to walking the road of history and discovering markers and lights – not too many, but just tantalizingly enough to enable us to connect the dots.

A book that attempts to compress 13000 years into less than 500 pages is bound to favor broad patterns over spatially and temporally specific threads of human history. Some of these hypothesized broad patterns, such as the role of the orientations of continental axes, are likely to be very speculative. Experts in modern (recorded) human history can easily give specific examples from the past 5000 years which point, not to the environment but to the role of culture and politics in the unequal distribution of wealth and power, and in this they are right. However, I feel that, if one is interested in the basic framework underlying the elaborate tapestry of history since the Pleistocene Era, Jared Diamond’s book is a superb accomplishment that is definitely worth reading.

If you are strapped for time, you might consider watching National Geographic’s TV series on the book. I wouldn’t judge the book from the TV series, but it would be a good first approximation. As of this writing, the program is available in 18 parts on YouTube.


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