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Diamond or charcoal?,
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This review is from: Guns Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Paperback)A real reviewer once wrote: "Jared Diamond is suspected to be a pseudonym for a committee of experts". He (or she) had a point. Jared Diamond's book "Guns, germs and steel" could very well be re-titled The Book About Everything. It's a very ambitious undertaking. Essentially, the author wants to explain the main lines of human history for the past 15,000 years!
The book is very interesting, and I don't doubt that Diamond is right on many points. However, I also suspect that he is just as wrong on many others. Indeed, I found myself agreeing with the author all the way until the epilogue, where he fell flat to his face. Diamond became charcoal, as it were. Still, Jared Diamond should be commended for at least trying to analyze the big issues of human history and prehistory. In that sense, "Guns, germs and steel" is a must read. (Incidentally, I know that Jared Diamond is a high-ranking professor. That just makes it more fun disagreeing with him, don't you think?)
[THE QUESTIONS ADRESSED BY THE BOOK]
"Guns, germs and steel" addresses the following questions. First, why did most high cultures appear in Eurasia and North Africa? Indeed, why did the first high cultures appear in these regions? Second, why where the Eurasian and North African high cultures more technologically advanced, and developed faster, than the high cultures that did appear in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas? Third, why did no high culture ever appear in pre-colonial Australia? (I'm using the term "high culture" in a neutral sense. It's simply a culture with cities, an advanced division of labour, technology, etc.)
Diamond believes that the reasons are geographical and environmental, rather than genetic or "racial". He often explicitly argues against racist arguments. This may strike a sophisticated European reader as somewhat strange, until one remembers that the racist work "The Bell Curve" was a best seller in the United States only a few years before "Guns, germs and steel" was published. Diamond doesn't like to be called an environmental determinist, but it's hard to resist the temptation to call him precisely that. At the very least, he is strongly influenced by such ideas.
[THE ROLE OF DOMESTICATED ANIMALS AND PLANTS]
Diamond points out that many species of animals and plants in Eurasia could be domesticated. This was not true in America, Africa and Australia. There were no large mammals in America and Australia at all. Africa is teeming with large mammals but, by a curious accident, virtually none can be domesticated. Attempts to domesticate zebras or antelopes have all failed. This means that Eurasia got a head start in developing agriculture and the kind of massive food production necessary to sustain a high culture.
Eurasia also got the better deal in terms of technology. Large domesticated animals are needed to pull wagons. The wheel was therefore invented in Eurasia. The Aztec empire didn't have such animals (none were available), so naturally they never used wheels. In the same way, domestication of animals also paved the way for military success. Europeans and Asians had a cavalry. The Aztecs and Incas had none, and where thus quickly overwhelmed by the Spanish. Diamond points out, somewhat sarcastically, that if rhinos could be domesticated, Africans would have conquered the world!
Another factor is germs. Many epidemic diseases originally comes from "our" animals. Europeans therefore had a certain immunity against diseases such as smallpox, whereas American Indians had none. The Aztecs and the Incas were defeated in part because of smallpox epidemics, to which the Spaniards had a higher immunity. (Conversely, one of the reasons why it took Europeans so long to conquer Africa or reach the interior of New Guinea, was European non-resistance to malaria.)
[GEOGRAPHICAL FACTORS FAVOURING DIFFUSION, etc]
Another factor favouring Eurasia is the east-west orientation of the vast Eurasian landmass. This made it easy for domesticated plants from the Middle East to be introduced into southern Europe, India or China. All these areas have basically the same climate. It's also (relatively) easy to travel between Europe and Asia, facilitating cultural diffusion. America, by contrast, has a north-south orientation. Also, the various parts of the Americas used to be more isolated from each other due to various geographical factors. This made cultural diffusion more difficult. When the Spanish landed in Peru and attacked the Inca empire, the Incas apparently had no idea that Mexico had already been conquered by Spain! The Inca ruler Atahuallpa naively assumed that Pizarro was just a raider who could be bought off with gold. He never realized that the conquistadors were there to stay.
Diamond also points out that Australia and some parts of North America were unsuitable for agriculture, or at least for advanced agriculture. This explains why the Aborigines never developed a high culture. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the only feasible one under Australian conditions. Unless, of course, you have *already* developed a high culture, which could then simply be transplanted to Australia, as the English eventually did. But even with such a culture, surviving in Australia wasn't easy. The White explorers who attempted to cross Australia's hinterland fared less well than the Aborigines, since Western technology didn't do much good in the outback. As for the Tasmanians, their extremely low level of technology is due to Tasmania's isolation from the rest of the world. Other isolated cultures also regressed technologically. The Chapham Islands is another example.
But what about cultural factors? Diamond believes that some cultures are indeed more conservative, while others are more innovative. Here, he strays from "environmental determinism", since he attributes these factors to local idiosyncrasies. However, the sheer number of cultures that can be reached by cultural diffusion was higher in Eurasia than in America or Australia. Therefore, cultural innovation nevertheless became more likely in the Eurasian context.
[A PROBLEMATIC EPILOGUE]
So far, I think Diamond has made an eloquent case. The problem comes in the epilogue, where he tries to wrap up his theory, and connect the broad geographic-environmental perspective with questions about contingency, the role of individuals in world history, etc. He never really succeeds in this. In this last section of the book, Diamond also attempts to answer a fourth question: Why did the western part of the Eurasian landmass, the backwater known as Europe, eventually overtake not only America, Africa and Australia, but also Asia? After all, China, India and the Muslim world had an enormous head start compared to Europe. Then, something happened, around AD 1500.
To Diamond, Europe's eventual dominance over Asia can also be explained by environmental and geographic factors. This is not convincing at all. Diamond is right to point out that the decentralized character of 15th century Europe actually worked in Columbus' favour, since the Italian adventurer could lobby a large amount of kings and princes with his proposal for a westward voyage to "India". In China, by contrast, the centralized form of government proved disadvantageous to Chinese expansionism - when the emperor ordered that China shouldn't expand, that was it. The problem is that Diamond explains the centralization of China and the decentralization of Europe as inevitable consequences of geography. I beg to disagree. I consider it a contingent fact.
Europe was united for centuries by the Romans. Diamond writes that "only" half of Europe was under Roman control. True, but surely it was the better half! What if the Muslims had defeated Charles Martell or (much later) conquered Vienna? Then, large parts of Europe would once again have become "united". Diamond also writes that Napoleon and Hitler never united Europe. I don't know much about the Napoleonic wars, but Hitler *did* come very close to winning World War Two. There simply aren't any major geographical obstacles to uniting the important parts of Europe. Conversely, there have been periods in Chinese history when China was divided in many small states. That decentralization worked in Colombus' favour was also a contingent fact. After all, the Catholic monarchs of Spain almost rejected him as well. And what if the Europeans had decided to appease the Ottomans instead of fighting them? Then, Europe would have lost interest in westward journeys. Another curious argument put forward by the author is that deforestation in the Middle East made the centre of power move westward, to Greece and Rome, and then to northern Europe. This is a blatantly Euro-centric argument: in reality, Persia was just as strong as the Roman Empire, the Arabs were stronger than the "empires" of medieval Europe, and the Ottoman Empire was strongest during the 16th century, and it was still quite powerful two centuries later, i.e. during the same time as the European powers expanded internationally.
Thus, I can't see how "macroevolutionary" factors of geography or environment can explain why Europe managed to get ahead of the Muslims, Indians and Chinese.
Finally, there seems to be a curious tendency in Jared Diamond's later book "Collapse" to reverse environmental determinism in favour of a different perspective, zooming in on various idiosyncratic cultural factors.
Still, I regard Professor Diamond (or should I call him Jared?) as a highly erudite and stimulating author, and recommend his books to everyone interested in world history.
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Initial post: 21 Dec 2010 04:45:32 GMT
He stresses the importance of environment but omits that this lead to genetic changes too. Recent studies by the likes of John Hawks & Ben Voight have shown that genetic changes accelerated with the development of agriculture and population growth.
Books that build on Diamond's thesis, but include the genetic changes include New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade's 'Before the Dawn' & 'The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution' by Cochran & Harpending.
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