Sunday, June 30, 2013

Guns, Germs, And Steel: Book Review

Author: Jared Diamond 

Length(425 pages, plus a 15 page afterword)

What is It: Guns, Germs, And Steel is a theory on the evolution of society - not in terms of biological or evolutionary differences but in terms of geographical and sociological differences. GGS attempts to answer the question: "Why did history unfold differently on different continents?" The author goes beyond proximate forces like trade, technology, and societal organization to uncover what he defines as "ultimate causes".  Diamond does this by exploring a broader view of world history (beyond Europe, The Middle East, and North Africa), by studying smaller time scales (hundreds to thousands of years instead of the last 13,000) and by analyzing natural experiments (history of the Polynesian migration) in order to better identify, isolate, and understand these ultimate causes on a global scale.

What's Said: Geographical differences in the local availability of wild plants and animals were key driving forces in societal development. The orientation of the continental axes (east to west like in Euroasia is better than north to south like in The Americas & Africa) created stark differences in climate, biodiversity, and idea diffusion. Human migration led to the mass extinction of domesticable animals on most other continents besides Euroasia. The caloric efficiency of food production was the source of the gradual shift from hunter-gathering to farming. Farming affects population density by requiring settlement, necessitating storage, providing seasonal downtime, and supporting higher birthrates. Excess food production contributed to the permissibility of specialization, innovation, and kleptocracy. Bureaucratic organization becomes necessary because of limits to communal decision making, inefficiencies in pairwise economic exchange, increasingly difficult conflict resolution, and resource constraints. Writing was created to record food production and to protect systemic administration - not to support public expression. Religion and patriotism provided the shared ideology and motivation for citizens to sacrifice their lives and self interests on behalf statehoods, which was a radical break from the human social contract. Euroasia's conquest of much of the world (and not the other way around) was due to the separate trajectory of all these causes and evolutions.

What's TrueEuroasia is the world's largest landmass and one of its most ecologically diverse landscapes. Localities distributed across latitudes are very similar in terms of seasons, time, temperature, habitats, and diseases compared to longitudinal axesThe efficiency of farming is 10-100 times that of hunter-gathering. Food production (wheat, pea, olives) arose the earliest in Southwest Asia (Near East/Fertile Crescent), around 8500 BC. Only a very small minority of wild plants and animals have been domesticated for food. A dozen plant species account for over 80% of the modern world's crops, and less than 15% of wild animals are domesticable (18% Euroasia, 4% in America, 0% in Africa)Domesticating animals depends on their diet, growth rate, disposition, social structure, and captive reproduction. Domesticating plants depends on fruit size, dispersal mechanism, taste, fleshiness, oiliness, yield, fiber length, and reproduction. Eurasian culture likely yielded more calories and organization per person on average than Native American culture. Large scale deadly diseases (smallpox, measles, flu) evolved through the mutations of germs during animal domestication and is almost exclusive to large dense populations of social animals like humans and livestock. More Native Americans died from Eurasian germs than European guns and swords (over 95%). Archeological evidence suggests that North America was occupied by 20M local natives upon Columbus' arrival rather the 1M often cited. 

So What
The writing in Guns, Germs, And Steel is cumbersome at times, but given the breadth and depth of the material and the objective this can be forgiven. GGS paints a new picture of global civilization that is completely independent of the need for one race to be superior than another other - an astounding theoretical feat. This is not just an academic exercise, however. GGS is instead, a practical and political guide to the driving forces behind many of the historical legacies that still shape our geopolitical landscape today. The approach that Diamond takes is methodical, and I agree that more work should be done to adapt the methods of hard sciences into the study of history.

Final Word: Very Enlightening Read

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