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|Jared Diamond: Guns Germs and Steel
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2000
Diego Rivera: The Maize Festival, 1923-24 (detail)
Overall Impression: This is an interesting book written by a physiologist and evolutionary biologist, very broad in its scope, thought-provoking and challenging, for the most part refreshing in its outlook (definitely not Eurocentric!), but marred by an excess of political correctness and almost oblivious to the role of cultural differences and individuals in the shaping of history. What follows is a listing of his major points, with a few hyperlinks added, which I hope will assist other readers of this book.
Jared Diamond (JD) has done extensive field work in New Guinea. His indigenous New Guinean politician friend Yali asked why whites had been so successful and arrived with so much "cargo" compared to the locals. JD rephrases this question: why did white Eurasians dominate over other cultures by means of superior guns, population-destroying germs, steel, and food-producing capability ? JD's main thesis is that this occurred not because of racial differences in intelligence, etc. but rather because of environmental differences. He wishes to play down Eurocentric thinking and racist explanations because they are loathsome and wrong. Modern stone age peoples "are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples." New Guineans are "more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is", traits which he attributes to survival of the fittest. Proper analysis of the current standing of various human societies must trace developments beginning before the onset of historical record.
Upright humans began c. 4 million years ago... Human history made a Great Leap Forward c. 50,000 years ago when standardized stone tools, cave paintings etc. appeared. This was approximately synchronous with a major extension of the range of humans to Australia and New Guinea using watercraft c. 40-30,000 years ago. Mass extinctions of large mammals occurred simultaneously. The Americas were colonized with the Clovis culture c. 11,000 BC--this corresponded to the end of the Pleistocene Era, the recession of the last Ice Age, and the beginning of the Recent Era, and was also associated with mass extinctions...
The Maoris overran the Morioris in the Chatham islands in 1835, though both were of Polynesian extraction, due to greater warlike capability of the Maoris, etc. Polynesia presents a moderately varied set of climates, geography, resources, size, political and social complexity, isolation, etc. leading to moderate diversity of human populations and adaptations.
JD details the conquest by Francisco Pizarro and a few hundred men over the Inca emperor Atahuallpa (or Atahualpa) at Cajamarca Peru in 1532, by means of superior steel weapons and armor, horses and cavalry, new diseases (smallpox had recently killed the emperor Huayna Capac and there was contention for the throne between Atahuallpa and Huascar), maritime technology (ships with sextants and compasses brought them there), early guns (harquebuses), writing facilitating better communication (Atahuallpa had heard little about the treacherous Spanish whereas Pizarro had heard from Cortés on his success in Mexico), and centralized political organization (i.e., the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V=Charles I of Spain). These however were only the proximate causes leading to the conquest--what allowed such a dominant culture to develop in the first place?
Throughout the book, JD emphasizes the importance of development of "food production", a term he uses to encompass the domestication of wild animals and plants and their improvement for human purposes through selection of favorable mutations, etc . He describes the benefits of animal domestication and herding over hunter-gathering. Increased available calories (through milk, meat, manure fertilization, and pulling a plow). Increased crop yields allows larger population density, more frequent child-bearing, storage of food surpluses which can sustain specialists such as a political elite, priests, scribes, artisans, etc. Animals also provide hides for warmth, transport capability, and animal-derived germs (smallpox, measles, flu, etc.) for which partial immunity had developed and which have facilitated conquests.
He describes calibrated C14 dating (correlated with tree rings etc.) Using this dating, the major independent sites of food production (with their major primary domesticates [imported domesticates in brackets]) include:
Other areas imported food production or were overrun by such producers, then developed additional domesticates after adapting the food production lifestyle: e.g., West Europe, Indus Valley, Egypt. Food production gave a competitive advantage to cultures.
The decision to convert from hunter-gatherer to the alternate strategy of food producer is a gradual one and is influenced by the decline in availability of wild game, prestige, and cultural attitudes, the availability of domesticable wild plants and animals, technologies, and population pressures from growth, etc. The first farmers are often less well nourished than the hunter-gatherers they will gradually replace. Hunter-gatherers have persisted to modern times in Khoisan, California, and Australia.
Wild almonds are poisonous--must select mutants that lack amygdalin! Reviews the mechanisms by which plants are selected for domestication and improved: via oral/fecal spread of consumed preferred seeds, selection for larger size, more flesh, and better taste, selection for lack of germination inhibitors, selection of self-compatible hermaphrodites, peas with nondehiscent pods, seeds with softer external coats (testa), etc. Some edible plants have never been domesticated, e.g., acorn.
Seed crops are easy to grow and store, and their domestication came first. Then came fruit and nuts, later apples, pears, plums, and cherries. Most successful domesticates had been achieved by Roman times somewhere in the world (more recent domesticates include strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, macadamias, pecans, cashews, cranberries, and kiwi fruit.)
The rise of food production in the Fertile Crescent was facilitated by the Mediterranean climate (rainy mild winters, hot dry summers) favoring nonwoody annuals, a large number of larger-seeded annuals, hermaphroditic self-pollinators, a high percentage of plants suitable for domestication, a high number of prized large grass seeds (e.g., barley and emmer wheat), multiple usable domesticable mammals, the early domestication of eight founder crops, etc. In contrast, Mesoamerica, New Guinea, and the Eastern US were limited in the available large seed grasses, domesticable animals (only the turkey and dog etc.), edible pulses, & high protein domestic plants (the major domesticates were corn from teosinte, beans, and squash). Arrival of appropriate founder species such as the sweet potato accelerates food production where suitable plants were previously lacking. Local inhabitants routinely master their local ethnobiology (thus few domestications have occurred in modern times). However, there can be reactionary populations resisting change. Of 200,000 wild plants, only c. 200 have been domesticated for consumption, and 12 species account for 80% of world food tonnage: wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, soybean, potato, manioc (casava), sweet potato, sugar cane (world's leading crop), sugar beet, and banana.
Successfully domesticated animal species, like the happy families of Anna Karenina, are all alike in that all requirements--not just some--must be satisfied. All large animals that could be domesticated were domesticated by 2500 BC. Cultural obstacles do not explain the absence of domesticates at some locales: (1) Imported domesticates are typically rapidly accepted when appropriate to the locale, (2) pet keeping is universal, (3) domestication arose rapidly where appropriate species were available, (4) independent and parallel domestication occurred at different locales, and (5) there has been very limited success at modern domestications. Efforts in the 19C and 20C to domesticate the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and bison have met with limited success. Only 14 large animals have been domesticated: sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse, Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama and alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle, and Mithan (gayal, domesticated Gaur). (This chapter is less concerned with small animals such as guinea pigs and birds, which do not provide transportation, military uses, or load carrying.) The requirements for domestication are: (1) omnivore or herbivore (exception: dog), (2) rapid growth (elephants too slow), (3) breed well in captivity (cheetahs need more room, vicuña's long mating rituals are inhibited), (4) suitable disposition (grizzly bear, hippo, onager, zebra, and African buffalo cannot be tamed), (5) accepts penning (deer, gazelle, and antelope panic on penning), and (6) have a developed social structure and hierarchy so can accept subordinate role and herding (e.g., cats don't herd). Some species such as zebras, peccaries, etc. have never been domesticated. Domesticated animals are changed through mutations from their wild progenitors, not just tamed. Many have gotten smaller under domestication and have been otherwise modified for greater milk production, more wool, etc.
Only one large animal, the llama/alpaca, is a New World domesticate (other New World domesticates include the guinea pig, Muscovy duck, turkey, and dog). Eurasia had many more animal candidates for domestication than the New World, giving its inhabitants a competitive advantage.
The diffusion of food production was facilitated in Eurasia because its predominantly East-West axis presented similar climatic, geographic, and disease conditions to migrants and no insuperable barriers. In contrast, the diffusion in the predominantly North-South axis in the Americans, Africa, and New Guinea/Australia was slowed by the greater variation in climate, deserts, diseases (e.g., trypanosomes), nonarable lands, jungles (e.g., Panama), etc. It was Eurasia that had "amber fields of grain and spacious skies", not the New World. Diffusion rates varied from 0.7 miles/year out of SW Asia to 0.3 mile/year in the eastern US. The lack of adaptation of the domesticates to these widely ranging climatic and other differences was a major factor in slowing diffusion in the New World.
The major infectious "killers of humanity" in recent history were acquired from animals [I will need further proof of this sweeping claim]: smallpox (from cowpox or related), flu (from pigs and ducks), tuberculosis (from cattle), malaria (Falciparum at least comes from birds), bubonic plague, measles (from cattle rinderpest), [AIDS from monkeys], and cholera. Pertussis was acquired from pigs & dogs. Farmers have increased exposure to the germs of their livestock. In addition, keeping pets, human intimacy with animals, and animal fecal contamination in crowded sedentary urban conditions contribute to the increased exposure of humans (and acquisition of partial immunity or resistance in the food-producing culture).
Some endemic diseases are shared by humans and animal reservoirs: yellow fever, yaws, hookworm, bubonic plague, etc.
The sequence of creation of epidemic illnesses confined to humans is: (1) Infections in animals which occasionally (sporadically) infect humans by animal to human transmission (e.g., leptospirosis, brucellosis, cat scratch fever, psittacosis, tularemia), evolve to (2) transient human epidemics that are communicated between persons but then die out (e.g., kuru [sic], Fort Bragg fever, O'nyonh-nyong fever), then (3) sustained epidemic human diseases that have not yet been shown to die out (e.g., Lassa fever, Lyme disease, AIDS), then (4) exclusively human epidemics (e.g., smallpox, measles). The exclusively human epidemic diseases all require large numbers of closely packed people (i.e., millions) in order to be sustained by shifting from one area to another, and are called "crowd" diseases--they could not arise in small hunter-gatherer cultures. Successful recurring epidemic (not endemic) diseases: (1) spread quickly and easily, (2) cause acute illness, (3) leave immune survivors, (4) are restricted to humans (not soil or animals). Examples include mumps (first attested 400 BC), pertussis (first described 16C), smallpox (first attested 1600 BC), etc.
Many disease manifestations serve the needs of the infecting organisms in providing a means of increasing transmission--e.g., rhinorrhea and sneezing. The transformation to exclusively human diseases involves changes in the intermediate vector (e.g., human body lice for typhus) and/or changes in the microbe (e.g., reduced virulence as in syphilis).
Newly introduced infections (initially smallpox, measles, flu, typhus; later, diphtheria, malaria, mumps, pertussis, plague, TB, and yellow fever) decimated up to 95% or more of the Mississippian Indians, Peruvians, Mexico Indians, etc. Khoisan, Pacific Islanders, and Aboriginal Australians were also decimated by imported diseases. Only syphilis may have traveled from New to Old World (its origin is still uncertain, perhaps from yaws). The paucity of domesticated animals and their noncuddly characteristics prevented New World acquisition of human epidemic diseases from their own domestic animals.
Although native epidemic tropical diseases did not deter the invading Europeans in the New World [is this true?], certain endemic diseases like cholera, yellow fever (endemic in African monkeys), and malaria did impede colonization in tropical Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, etc. [Also, imported infectious diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, once established, impeded spread of Europeans in portions of the New World].
The use of writing originated in SW Asia with Sumerian cuneiform (c. 3000 BC, logograms evolving to phonetic symbols and determinatives etc.), Mesoamerica (c. 600 BC), and probably China (1300 BC). Other cultures adopted writing by blueprint copying or less directly by idea diffusion. Writing systems may incorporate various combinations of logograms (representing words: e.g., much of Chinese, English symbols such as $, %), syllabaries (representing syllables: e.g., Linear B, Japanese kana), and letters contained in alphabets (representing roughly single sounds, though in some cases, a phoneme may be represented by 2 or more letters). Other possible independent sites of writing were Egypt (3000 BC) and Easter Island. Mycenaean Linear B developed 1400 BC from the Linear A syllabary of Minoan Crete. The alphabet arose from Egyptian hieroglyphs for consonant sounds, which Semites c. 1700 initially adapted. The Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet, adding vowel sounds (c. 8C BC). The Etruscans modified the Greek alphabet and later the Romans, leading to the Latin alphabet we now use. The Cherokee Indian Sequoyah developed a writing system for writing Cherokee using 85 symbols, including some from our own alphabet though not according to our usage. Other writing systems include Han'gul of Korea, ogham (Ireland), and the Rongorongo script of Easter Island.
Writing was initially used in complex stratified societies by an elite few (e.g., professional scribes) to maintain palace records and manage bureaucratic accounts (e.g., in Sumeria, records of goods paid in and out), collect taxes, facilitate enslavement (a principal use according to Levi-Strauss), promulgate propaganda and myths, promote religious practice, etc. Writing was not used by hunter-gatherer societies. Some complex food-producing societies never developed writing (e.g., Incas, Tonga, Hawaii, Mississippi Valley Indians, subequatorial and sub-Saharan West Africa--probably because of isolation and failure of idea diffusion).
The first printed (stamped, not handwritten) document is the Cretan Minoan Phaistos disk of 1700 BC, but it did not lead to a proliferation of printing apparently because it was ahead of its time, lacked receptive circumstances and supporting technology, etc . Though necessity is sometimes the mother to invention (e.g., cotton gin, nuclear weapons, steam engine), invention often precedes the creation of necessity (e.g., airplane, light bulb) and arises cumulatively from creative geniuses building by trial and error on the discoveries of their capable predecessors.
Early models of inventions often perform poorly and appear unconvincing. The flourishing of inventions requires acceptance within a society, which is influenced by the invention's: (1) economic advantage, (2) social value and prestige, (3) compatibility with vested interests, and (4) ease with which its advantages can be observed. Receptivity to technological innovation varies from society to society and is increased by (1) longer human life expectancy, (2) lack of availability of cheap or slave labor or a high cost of labor, (3) patents or other legal protections, (4) ready availability of technical training, (5) rewards for investment via capitalism, etc., (6) individualism, (7) encouragement of risk-taking, (8) scientific outlook, (9) tolerance of diverse views, (10) religious tolerance and religious encouragement of innovation, (11) ±war, (12) ±strong central government, (13) ±rigorous climate, and (14) ±abundant resources. Receptivity to innovation varies widely on each continent. Most new developments arrive by diffusion, which for places with geographic or ecologic barriers is limited.
Food production and large population and land mass favor more rapid technological development--e.g., in Eurasia. In New Guinea and other areas of the world, conservative (resistant) and more receptive societies lived side by side. The Navajo more than other Indian tribes adapted European use of dyes for weaving and took up ranching. The receptivity to innovation in Islam and China has varied over time. Thus no continent has been unusually innovative or noninnovative over history.
Important inventions such as guns can allow a culture to overrun another. Yet in Japan, the samurai restricted the adoption of guns until Commodore Perry arrived 1853. Other examples of cultures rejecting new innovations include the Tasmanians (fishing), China (ocean going ships), and Polynesians (pottery in some areas).
Technology is autocatalytic, begetting more technology, and the rate of development can accelerate dramatically.
The main factors leading to the difference in technological development between the conquering Europeans and the New World inhabitants were: level of food production, barriers to diffusion, and differences in human population.
Reviews the levels of societal organization.
The band has 5 to 80 people, are usually related by blood, typically nomadic, have 1 language and ethnicity, have egalitarian government with informal leadership, no bureaucracy, no formal structures for conflict resolution, no economic specialization (e.g., Bushmen, pygmies).
The tribe has hundreds of people, often fixed settlements, consist of kin-based clans, still 1 ethnicity and language, have egalitarian or "big-man" government, informal and often difficult conflict resolution problems (e.g., much of New Guinea, Amazonia).
Chiefdoms have thousands of people, have 1 or more villages possibly with a paramount village, have class and residence relationships, still 1 ethnicity, have centralized often hereditary rule, include monopoly and centralized conflict resolution, justify kleptocracy and a redistributive economy (requiring tribute), have intensive food production, early division of labor, luxury goods, etc.... (e.g., Polynesia, sub-Saharan Africa, etc.)
States have over 50,000 people, have many villages and a capital, have class and residence based relationships, 1 or more languages and ethnicities, centralized government, many levels of bureaucracy, monopolies of force and information, have formalized laws and judges, may justify kleptocracy, have intensive food production, division of labor, pay taxes, public architecture, etc.
Kleptocrats maintain power by disarming the populace and arming the elite, making the masses happy by redistributing the tribute, keeping order and curbing violence (compared to bands and tribes), promoting religion and ideology that justifies kleptocracy (and that promotes self-sacrifice on behalf of others), building public works, etc.
States are especially good at developing weapons of war, providing troops, promoting religion (fanaticism) and patriotic fervor that makes troops willing to fight suicidally. States arise not just from the natural tendency of man (as Aristotle suggested), but by social contract, in response to needs for irrigation ("hydraulic theory"), and regional population size. The large populations require intensive food production, which contributes (1) seasonal workers for other purposes, (2) stored food surpluses which feed specialists and other elite, (3) sedentary living. Increased opportunities in states for conflicts forces the development of laws. The processes by which states form virtually never include voluntary merger, but rather (1) merger under threat of force (e.g., the Cherokee Indian federation), or (2) merger by conquest (e.g., the Zulus)--when population density is high, the defeated men are often killed and the women taken in marriage.
The Australian climate and terrain is mostly inhospitable and it supports a low population of primitive peoples. It and New Guinea were formerly united land masses and were last separated by water c. 10,000 years ago. New Guinea is wetter but grows very little protein. Australians did not absorb complex technologies from New Guinea as they might have. Penetration of Europeans in New Guinea was slow due to malaria, etc. as well as to the poor thriving of their cattle and crops. Australia was easier to settle, allowing the decimation of aborigines by Europeans who imported their technologies, guns, epidemics, etc...
China has a 500,000 year human prehistory and its human populations were once more diverse, but has become very uniform (e.g., single writing system) due to forced unification under the Qin dynasty 221 BC (this even influenced Korea and Japan). The Northern Chinese (who are similar to Tibetans and Nepalese) overran the Southern Chinese (who are similar to Filipinos and Vietnamese). Thus the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (incl. Mandarin) dominate except for SE Asia (where Austroasiatic languages including Vietnamese and Cambodian, etc. are found), Thailand/Laos (where the Tai-Kadai [or Daic] language family is found)--pockets of Miao-Yao (also called Hmong-Mien) languages are also scattered about. The conquests were aided by food production, animal domestication, possibly diseases, technologies, suppression [and probably genocide] of the indigenous cultures (such as the relict Negritos of the Malay Peninsula and Sri Lanka). The Austronesian migration may have been of peoples displaced from China.
The islands of the Pacific were colonized by waves of colonists from Asia, arriving in New Guinea c. 40,000 BC (these became the New Guinea Highlanders and prob. the Philippine Negritos). The Austronesian migrations began from the Chinese mainland, reaching Taiwan first c. 3500 BC, the Philippines by 3000 BC, Sumatra and Java by 2000 BC, Northern New Guinea by 1600 BC, Samoa by 1200 BC, Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar by 500 AD, etc. These Austronesian migrants became the Polynesians. The Austronesian languages include the Western Malayo-Polynesian (WMP) subfamily and Central-Eastern MP family including Oceanic. The double-outrigger sailing canoe made the Austronesian migration possible. Evidence of this spread comes from the characteristic artifacts (red pottery of Ta-p'en-k'eng style and subsequently the "tattooed" Lapita type of pottery, pigs, chickens, dogs, food production, seafaring, seafood, etc.) as well as analysis of the putative Proto-Austronesian language. They displaced less capable peoples but not the central or southern New Guineans, over whom they had no competitive advantage, and they had difficulty establishing themselves in W. and N. Australia (the languages there are not Austronesian).
JD again reviews factors leading to the European conquest of the Americas: better food production, better domesticated plants and animals, better metallurgy, better weapons and cavalry, better transport and communication via writing, better political organization, etc. Development in the New World was more primitive due to: later arrival of humans there, later domestication, geographic and ecological barriers, migration through Siberian Arctic which had stripped away technologies for warmer climates, etc. The wheel had not been invented except as a toy in the New World and writing was limited to a few locations. The New World shows much less major language diffusion (except Eskimo-Aleut and Na Dene). Spain was stronger, more capable of conquest, had better germs and weapons. Many natives were killed by casual murders by private citizens--e.g., the Yahi tribelet of California.
The first European visitors to the New World (to Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland) were the Norse c. 1000 AD--they came from Greenland (they arrived there 986) and Iceland (they arrived there 874), but they could not sustain their colony on Newfoundland and it died out in the 15C. (They described attacks by the "Skraelings", local Indians or Eskimos.)
Africa has a high diversity of peoples and languages due to diverse geography and long prehistory. North African "whites" resemble whites in the Middle East and Europe and mostly speak Afro-Asiatic languages, of which the Semitic languages are an offshoot. Pygmies, now confined mostly to Central Africa, were once more widespread but were engulfed by Bantu farmers, and their languages were lost even where they continue to live. Similarly, Khoisan (Bushmen and Hottentots) were once widespread as were their click-laden languages, but now they have been marginalized to desert areas the Bantu could not farm. Madagascar has blacks blended with Indonesians speaking Austronesian languages (following the Austronesian migration from Asia c. 300 - 800 AD). "Blacks" occupy most of S. Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa. They mostly speak non-Bantu and Bantu versions of the Niger-Congo languages (which arose in W Africa: Cameroon and Nigeria) with some pockets remaining of Nilo-Saharan languages. The Bantu farmers dominated as they spread c. 3000 BC to 500 AD due to superior plant and animal domestication (incl. crops which like summer rains). They also had iron and bronze. They extended their range to Natal on the East coast and, as the Xhosa people, extended their range to the Fish River 500 miles east of Cape Town. Dutch white colonists at S. Africa 1652 faced only the poorly defended Khoisan, since the Bantus were far away, and brought crops well adapted to the climate. On expanding, they encountered and fought the Xhosas 1702. Further white colonization succeeded via better food production, cannons, etc.
The answer to Yali's question is that accidents of geography and environment brought about the domination of whites of Eurasian origin: differences in (1) animal and plant domestication, (2) rates of diffusion and migration due to ecological and geographical barriers including between continents, and (3) continental differences in population and areal size. JD acknowledges his view is one of geographical determinism, in which Europeans were favored merely by having more starting materials and more favorable conditions.
JD explores why Europe came to dominate over the Fertile Crescent and China. The Fertile Crescent was ecologically fragile and underwent desertification, erosion, salinization of the soil, deforestation, etc. Also it had no inherent advantage over other regions once they had developed food production. In China, the power struggle with the eunuchs led to abandonment of shipyards and its oceangoing fleets. Also, the very fragmentation, diversity, and disunity of Europe insured that Columbus would find a state leader willing to support his proposed voyage (whereas decisions in China were made monolithically and did not permit alternate approaches). Note that here he argues that some degree of geographic barrier ("moderate connectedness") is desirable--not too little (which might otherwise allow stifling unification) and not too much (which might otherwise prevent diffusion of technologies)--and that Europe was just right! PD acknowledges (somewhat tentatively and begrudgingly) that cultural differences and differences in individual people might also play a role in the shaping of history and make it unpredictable-- that eventual outcomes exhibit sensitive dependence on initial conditions. But he suggests that these other factors be considered only after analysis of previously discussed major environmental factors. He concludes that the role, if any, of "Great Men" remains an open question--again unwilling to ascribe a definitely established role though citing the impact of Hitler, etc.
JD claims to want to put history on a more scientific footing. Some of the difficulties encountered include the impossibility of performing replicable or controlled experiments, the complexity and number of variables and uniqueness of each situation, the long time scales and large spatial scales, etc. He cites certain natural historical experiments that have occurred. The history of human societies, while difficult to understand, should be no harder to study than the dinosaurs.