Thursday, May 5, 2016

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

Drawing parallels with the first chapter of this book on ancient migrations and my own personal life had me hooked from the get-go. My husband and I have migrated from the U.S. to Europe to Asia and will soon head to Africa to live and work. Our ten year odyssey is a microbe in history compared to Jared Diamond's look at migration patterns on continents 12,000 to 7 million years ago. The book is an analysis of what factors gave rise to complex human societies and the patterns that contributed to one society dominating another in history. Diamond tackles the racist response to dominance that the conquered society has inferior intellect. Touching on multiple disciplines in biology, geography, ecology, linguistics, archeology, and more, Diamond supports his hypothesis claiming society's environments and the availability of wild plants and animal species needed for domestication, as well as the shapes and orientations of the continents, are the most influencing factors on societal dominance instead of human intellect.

Guns, Germs and Steel refutes that Eurasian people conquered other societies because of their genes, but states that geography, germs, and biology had more to do with replacement or displacement of societies. Europe and the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East had significant advantages over other areas because it had the most domesticable animals and plants; an axis running east-west versus north-south allowing for crops, livestock, and tools for easy expansion; plenty of rainfall allowing for faster regrowth, and more. This laid the foundation for complex societies that replaced hunter-gatherer societies. When people in societies become sedentary and domesticate plants and animals for farming certain factors roll into motion. The extra food production creates a dense population with a sedentary lifestyle allowing for centralized political governments, metallurgy, military, religion, writing, and advanced technology. Most infectious diseases result from humans living in close proximity to animals; hence the Eurasian people had stronger immune systems having evolved over longer periods of time with animals. He then goes on to show how the isolation, lack of wild plants and domesticated animals left large societies such as the Native Americans, Incas and Aztecs at a disadvantage because their immune systems could not handle the diseases spread by Eurasians. Eighteen million Incas died from smallpox. This is just one of many examples he uses to support his hypothesis.

Jared Diamond's writing is academic and repetitive in parts; however, the text is teeming with amazing facts that blends biology and geography making it hard to put it down. I take that back. I actually had to put it down to absorb all the information. It took me two weeks to read and 12 pages of notes. Different sections will appeal to different readers. I was naturally drawn to the section regarding the Austronesian language that most likely originated with the Taiwanese Aborigines  in 3500 B.C. I live in Taiwan - it should interest me. The history of Africa and Cape Town with the invasion of Europeans in their colonization had personal interest as well since that is our next adventure. I was surprised that the botany section held my interest but this is an area of expertise for the author and his passion comes through the writing making it fascinating and a very compelling support for his argument. The section on infectious diseases and how they spread is equally fascinating along with the tales of the Spanish conquest of the Incas and Aztec nations. A terrific, complex book that I highly recommend.

Ironically, one of the criticisms leveled at Diamond's book by some anthropologists is that it shows, "geographic determinism" - a thorny issue within the scholarly community that doesn't make sense to me as an outsider. It would seem (from a quick Web search) that in the early 20th century, geographic scholars used environmental factors in racist and imperialist ways. Their reaction was to then not use environments as a way to explain human society. Diamond clearly refutes racism and examines geographic features and environments - plants, animals, climate, soil, topography, etc. and non-geographic features regarding culture and decision-making by individuals. He uses Hitler, North Korea versus South Korea and East and West Germany as examples to prove his point, but explains they don't affect the overall trends or patterns he is trying to prove in his hypothesis. These attacks seem silly and dismissive, but I'm not an expect in the field so take it for what it's worth. I think the book is excellent but dense. I would be very selective in recommending it to a high school student. I could see using chapters for essays but sticking with its dense text might be a struggle for most young adults.

5 Smileys

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