On Guns, Germs, And Steel

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer winner Guns, Germs, And Steel – The Fates of Human Societies – by Jared Diamond. As the author best summarizes:

Thus, we can finally rephrase the question about the modern world’s inequalities as follows: why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? Those disparate rates constitute history’s broadest pattern and my book’s subject. While this book is thus ultimately about history and prehistory, its subject is not of just academic interest but also of overwhelming practical and political importance. The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas today…It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place. We’re told that this too is to be attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages and limited opportunities…I harbor no illusions that these chapters have succeeded in explaining the histories of all the continents for the past 13,000 years. Obviously, that would be impossible to accomplish in a single book even if we did understand all the answers, which we don’t. At best, this book identifies several constellations of environmental factors that I believe provide a large part of the answer to Yali’s question. Recognition of those factors emphasizes the unexplained residue, whose understanding will be a task for the future.

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses. were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents. The military uses of horses and camels, and the killing power of animal-derived germs, complete the list of major links between food production and conquest that we shall be exploring.

There is no doubt that Europeans developed a big advantage in weaponry, technology, and political organization over most of the non-European peoples that they conquered. But that advantage alone doesn’t fully explain how initially so few European immigrants came to supplant so much of the native population of the Americas and some other parts of the world. That might not have happened without Europe’s sinister gift to other continents—the germs evolving from Eurasians’ long intimacy with domestic animals.

Knowledge brings power. Hence writing brings power to modern societies, by making it possible to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy and in far greater quantity and detail, from more distant lands and more remote times. Of course, some peoples (notably the Incas) managed to administer empires without writing, and “civilized” peoples don’t always defeat “barbarians,” as Roman armies facing the Huns learned. But the European conquests of the Americas, Siberia, and Australia illustrate the typical recent outcome. Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest. The commands of the monarchs and merchants who organized colonizing fleets were conveyed in writing. The fleets set their courses by maps and written sailing directions prepared by previous expeditions. Written accounts of earlier expeditions motivated later ones, by describing the wealth and fertile lands awaiting the conquerors. The accounts taught subsequent explorers what conditions to expect, and helped them prepare themselves. The resulting empires were administered with the aid of writing. While all those types of information were also transmitted by other means in preliterate societies. writing made the transmission easier, more detailed, more accurate, and more persuasive.

When a widely useful invention does crop up in one society, it then tends to spread in either of two ways. One way is that other societies see or learn of the invention, are receptive to it, and adopt it. The second is that societies lacking the invention find themselves at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the inventing society, and they become overwhelmed and replaced if the disadvantage is sufficiently great.

Considerations of conflict resolution, decision-making, economics, and space thus converge in requiring large societies to be centralized. But centralization of power inevitably opens the door—for those who hold the power, are privy to information, make the decisions, and redistribute the goods—to exploit the resulting opportunities to reward themselves and their relatives. To anyone familiar with any modern grouping of people, that’s obvious. As early societies developed, those acquiring centralized power gradually established themselves as an elite, perhaps originating as one of several formerly equal-ranked village clans that became “more equal” than the others.

Why were the trajectories of all key developments shifted to later dates in the Americas than in Eurasia? Four groups of reasons suggest themselves: the later start, more limited suite of wild animals and plants available for domestication, greater barriers to diffusion, and possibly smaller or more isolated areas of dense human populations in the Americas than in Eurasia.

These comparisons suggest that geographic connectedness has exerted both positive and negative effects on the evolution of technology. As a result, in the very long run, technology may have developed most rapidly in regions with moderate connectedness, neither too high nor too low. Technology’s course over the last 1,000 years in China, Europe, and possibly the Indian subcontinent exemplifies those net effects of high, moderate. and low connectedness, respectively.

There are many obvious reasons for these effects of history, such as that long experience of state societies and agriculture implies experienced administrators, experience with market economies, and so on. Statistically, part of that ultimate effect of history proves to be mediated by the familiar proximate causes of good institutions. But there is still a large effect of history remaining after one controls for the usual measures of good institutions. Hence there must be other mediating proximate mechanisms as well. Thus a key problem will be to understand the detailed chain of causation from a long history of state societies and agriculture to modern economic growth, in order to help developing countries advance up that chain more quickly.

A must read for anyone looking to better understand the past, present and future of human civilization.



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