addabook home timeline gallery
signup or login
Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Fates of Human Societies
Jared M. Diamond
read on February 1, 2016

Much ink has already been spilled about this book, and searching for reviews and opinions online leads to very polarizing results. There's a lot about this book that I didn't like, a lot of places where the logic didn't quite add up, and for me it happened enough that I'm pretty squarely in the "skeptical" camp regarding Diamond overall. I don't buy into every detail here, but I think he does largely get the story right. That story being that Eurasian people were the first to colonize the planet only because of geographical conditions in Eurasia that led them to develop civilizations (guns, germs, steel) before other cultures were able to do so. This is in contrast to any kind of theory that Europeans were smarter, more apt or able, destined, or simply lucky. Diamond argues that what happened simply couldn't have happened any other way, given the initial endowment.

And that's what I like. I don't necessarily agree with every point, but I appreciate that Diamond is creating a theory of history, rather than simply telling a story. He's not describing what happened, he's describing the theory behind it. He's approaching it scientifically, insofar as one is able to without the benefit of falsifiable hypotheses. It could not have happened another way.

There is simply no way indigenous Australians could have ever colonized the world first; regardless of ingenuity, they simply didn't have the resources. This is obvious, and yet, somehow controversial.

Anyway, some quotes.

Once people began to produce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter-gatherers whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human population densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food.

 

Of the 200,000 wild plant species, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have been more or less domesticated. Even of these several hundred crops, most provide minor supplements to our diet and would not by themselves have sufficed to support the rise of civilizations. A mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world’s annual tonnage of all crops. Those dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. Cereal crops alone now account for more than half of the calories consumed by the world’s human populations. With so few major crops in the world, all of them domesticated thousands of years ago, it’s less surprising that many areas of the world had no wild native plants at all of outstanding potential. Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating.

I don't buy this logic at all, it rings of survivorship bias to me. Of course the most important crops we eat today are the ones that were domesticated long ago. That goes without saying. But that isn't evidence that no other plants could have been domesticated back then as well, or that if having done so, they wouldn't be more productive today.

Australia and the Americas, but not Eurasia or Africa, lost most of their candidates in a massive wave of late-Pleistocene extinctions—possibly because the mammals of the former continents had the misfortune to be first exposed to humans suddenly and late in our evolutionary history, when our hunting skills were already highly developed.

I feel like here you could argue that a more intelligent people would have had the foresight to domesticate these docile megafauna, but that's neither for nor against Diamond's case.

Finally, a higher percentage of the surviving candidates proved suitable for domestication on Eurasia than on the other continents. An examination of the candidates that were never domesticated, such as Africa’s big herd-forming mammals, reveals particular reasons that disqualified each of them.

Similar to the quote above with plants, Diamond seems to argue that horses were more domesticatable than zebras by showing how modern horses and modern zebras differ. Well of course they do, the horses have been domesticated. Had anyone actually succeeded in domesticating zebras, then zebras would be quite different. Diamond never looks at what cows or pigs or sheep were like before they were domesticated. Why can we assume they were easy to domesticate? I'm sure there are answers to this, and I think Diamond tried to address it, but he never convinced me.

A striking example from the history of writing is the origin of the syllabary devised in Arkansas around 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah, for writing the Cherokee language. Sequoyah observed that white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers’ debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed. Around 1810, Sequoyah decided to go on to design a system for writing the Cherokee language. He again began by drawing pictures, but gave them up as too complicated and too artistically demanding. He next started to invent separate signs for each word, and again became dissatisfied when he had coined thousands of signs and still needed more. Finally, Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers of different sound bites that recurred in many different words—what we would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and one vowel. As one source of the signs themselves Sequoyah’s syllabary is widely admired by professional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah’s signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers. Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even principles from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 3,500 years previously.

How awesome is this? I'm fascinated by the epiphany moment here. Imagine what it's like to just realize that words can be written down. Could there still exist leaps forward like this that require no significant new technology - just a new perspective?

Author Bio:

Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical society. Among his many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan’s Cosmo Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize Honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by Rockefeller University. He has published more than six hundred articles and his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.