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on 1 May 2008
Why are some parts of the world more advance than others?
A cursory analysis would yield the following suggestions:
1. Some parts of the world have better weapons i.e. guns
2. Some parts of the world have more complicated viruses and bacteria i.e. germs
3. Some parts of the world had an industrial revolution i.e. steel.

This book goes a step deeper and explores the reasons why some parts of the world got these competitive advantages.

The central part of the hypotheisis is that Eurasia had a better ecology and a hole host of benefits spawned from this - not all of which are obvious.

Eurasia (especially the fertile crescent) simple had a good permutation of land, rivers, mountains and climates that produced favourable conditions for a wide range of crops and plants. These favourable conditions also meant a greater range of domesticated animals. For example, most animals over 100KG were first domesticated in Eurasia. This includes, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys. All this meant, the transition from hunter - gatherer to agrarian lifestle was made sooner. With a sedentary lifestyle comes, population growth, societal organisation, and trade specialisation. But all of this was a indirect result of an act of nature, there was nothing innately special about home euroasio!

With stable sedentary societies, technological progress was inevitable. As were a wide range of germs due the range of domesticated animals and man's closer proximity to them. The complex arrangement of mountains of rivers gave rise to separate cultural and ethnic groupings and eventually nation states. Competition between them, ensured rulers had to innovate or else be face being wiped out by a grouping better organised in what became an almost Darwinian struggle - rewarding societal success and punishing societal failure.

We all know that to understand the present, we sometimes need to understand the past. The question is, how far back in past do we need to go? Well, this book would make me think that when it comes to the comparative evolution of societies, we certainly need to go right back to Pleistocene, have a look at mother nature and take a cue from there.

Want something for your mind to chew on, go for it. You'll enjoy this book.
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on 16 April 2011
An interesting and broadly successful try at exploring the geographical and biological causes of some historical events, including the dominance of the West. A welcome approach, putting history on a more "scientific " footing. Although unlikely to be the only elements in determining historical outcomes, the factors Diamonds described certainly deserve more attention than they have so far received.
In my locality, I know there to be strong links between geography and history. For example, the fortuitous combination of coal, water and ores lead to the pre-eminence of Swansea as a copper producing town in the 19th century. ALso, on the Gower peninsula there is a north -south geographical split, with the more productive soils on the south. It was here the Normans settled, driving the native welsh to the north of gower. This demarcation is reflected in the maps of the 19th century, with greater road networks in the south, and even today, with average house prices being higher on south Gower.
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on 13 June 1998
I found it refreshing to read something which genuinely attempted to grasp the big picture of history. Ably dismissing the conceited and partisan theories of earlier generations (and of most people living today), Diamond proposes sensible scientific alternatives which carry the ring of truth, and apparently so self-evident that it seems amazing no one thought of them before.
He isn't too concerned with the individuals and events which are the backbone of traditional histories. He won't explain why one or other political power in Europe gained the advantage in some situation. These are the fine details of the broader picture - and in a very real sense they don't affect the outcome of history. What Diamond wants to know is, for instance, why a steadfastly stone-age Europe was not colonised by gun-toting Native Americans. His ideas give a kind of tragic certainty to the history that we all know and I suspect that many will try to dismiss them as "cultural determinism", as they have with other authors in this vein.
If I have any criticism at all it is that Diamond rather labours the point, but this is not necessarily a bad thing with new and interesting ideas.
This is an approach to history of which I would like to see a lot more - I could not put this book down. I have read most of the science books shortlisted for the 1998 Rhone-Poulenc prize and am very glad that this one won.
If it is permissible to recommend a companion volume try "Cannibals and Kings" by Marvin Harris.
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on 2 June 1998
Diamond's self-confessed mission is to dispel racially deterministic accounts of economic disparity, as well as to aim off culturally deterministic explanations, which he sees as stalking horses for racism. This gets him into diffculties, as he is not always able to stick to his own line: thus, he argues that (eg) Australian Aborigines pursued an optimal developmental course in light of the limits they faced from the lack of domesticable plants and animals; but he also suggests that China's loss of leadership to Europe in the modern era may be explained by its greater centralisation. This is at best inconsistent.
It also points up the central failing of the book, as for all that it presents a compelling explanation of the advantages of Eurasia as a cradle of development, it fails to answer "Yali's question", offering little to explain how one rather than another part of Eurasia (ie, Northwestern Europe (and latterly its cultural successor, North America) rather than the Mediterranean, Levant, Indian subcontinent, or China) has prevailed in the last five hundred years and why the character of its dominance has been so overwhelming. Presumably this is because any attempted explanation would take Diamond further down the culturally deterministic road he prefers not to travel. For a powerful answer to the question shirked by Diamond, see "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations", David S Landes, W W Norton, 1998, which takes the strongly "culturist" line which seems to me inescapable.
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on 2 October 2017
Proposes several interesting hypothesis throughout, however the book suffers from being both an increadibly dry writing style and around 250 pages too long. Almost every chapter has repeats of synopses of both earlier and later chapters, I would estimate around 40 percent of the book is repeated points or personal annecdotes, usually tangentially related. This book was probably given a Pulitzer Prize on political grounds as it idealistically dismisses all biological determinism, not on literary grounds.
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on 6 June 1999
In 1972 Professor Diamond, challenged by a Papuan friend, considered the question "Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way." He relates that he didn't have an answer then," but twenty-five years later concluded that "History followed different courses because of differences among peoples' environment, not because of differences among peoples themselves."
In 1962, at the end of his book "The Origin of Races," Carleton S. Coon wrote, "Caucasoids and Mongoloids who live in their homelands and in recently colonized regions, such as North America, did not rise to their present population levels and positions of cultural dominance by accident. They achieved this because their ancestors occupied the most favorable of the earths zoological regions, in which other kinds of animals also attained dominance during the Pleistocene. These regions had challenging climates and ample breeding grounds and were centrally located within continental land masses. There general adaptation was more important than special adaptation. Any other subspecies that had evolved in these regions would probably have been just as successful."
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on 24 December 1997
"The Clash of Continents " -- by Steve Sailer -- Published in National Review, 5/19/97, as "Why Nations Conquer"
An early version of this book's subtitle illustrates its ambitiousness: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Jared Diamond's goal is to explain why Eurasians conquered Africans, Australians, and Americans instead of the other way around, even though conventional social scientists shy away from such a fundamental question out of fear of what they might find. Since random accidents of personality and culture appear too trivial to account for the clash of continents' lopsided outcomes (e.g., a few hundred Conquistadors demolished the grandest empires of the New World), this leaves only two possible underlying causes: either the winners had better homelands or better bodies and brains. Deeming genetic explanations "racist" and "loathsome," Diamond sets out to reaffirm the equality of humanity by showing the inequality of the continents. To him, the three most important engines of history are location, location, and location.

Few are more broadly qualified to write history in terms of geography and sociobiology. A molecular physiologist at UCLA, Diamond is also an evolutionary biologist in the field. His 33 years birdwatching in the tropics, especially in New Guinea, home to 1000 of Earth's 6000 languages, put him in touch with a remarkable variety of humans. Diamond wrote surprisingly little for popular audiences before his dazzling 1992 book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. In contrast to that kaleidoscopic page-turner, Guns, Germs, and Steel hammers away at a single thesis, sometimes repetitiously. Nonetheless, it rewards the effort.

Diamond argues that the broadest aspects of the modern world -- e.g., North America's domination by whites -- were largely determined by the continents' dissimilar natural resources of domesticatable plants and animals. Regions offering an abundance of these could support the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder, allowing higher population densities. And those communities that could free up the most manpower from farming to specialize in technology and war could conquer their neighbors. A few areas, especially the Middle East, were home to many easily domesticated foods: both wild grains like wheat and large mammals like cows and sheep. Other parts of Eurasia such as Europe were close enough to the Fertile Crescent for early diffusion of these crops and livestock.

In contrast, much of the Earth, including seemingly congenial landscapes like California, lacks native plants that would be more profitable to cultivate than to gather. What valuable vegetation the New World did possess, like Mexico's corn, was slow to migrate north and south along the Americas' main axis because crops' growing seasons are sensitive to latitude. (Since the vast Eurasian continent's main axis is east-west, however, foods diffused more easily there.)

Also, the New World was badly lacking in large domesticatable mammals. Excluding boutique operations, today humans raise just 14 species of mammals of over 100 pounds. Of these, only the llama/alpaca is native to the Americas. Of course, 13,000 years ago the New World teemed with potentially useful beasts like horses and camels. Then the American Indian arrived and, Diamond says, ate them. This rapacity made their Aztec and Inca descendants both militarily impotent and dreadfully susceptible to the Conquistadors' diseases. The Spaniards, in contrast, were heirs to not just Eurasia's foods and technologies (including Chinese inventions like paper, gunpowder, and the compass), but also to immunities to its germs. Since the worst epidemics are descended from farm animals' diseases (e.g., smallpox from cows), native Americans had no diseases of their own (except possibly syphilis) with which to fight back.

Diamond's geohistorical approach certainly clarifies continental-scale history. Most of world history, however, is Eurasian history, and he's only sketchy on why the West Eurasians eventually overcame the East and South Eurasians.

Diamond is not content, however, to merely write the history of the last 13,000 years. He also claims that his evidence is of great political momentuousness because it shows that no ethnic group is inferior to any other: each exploited its local food resources as fully as possible. For example, after the Australian Outback explorers Burke and Wills exhausted their Eurasian-derived supplies, three times they had to throw themselves on the mercy and expertise of the local Stone Age hunter-gatherers. These Aborigines, the least technically advanced of all peoples, may not have domesticated a single Australian plant in 40,000 years, but in 200 years down under scientific whites have domesticated merely the macadamia nut. Farming only pays in Australia when using imported crops and livestock.

But, are indigenous peoples merely not inferior? In truth, on their own turf many ethnic groups appear to be somewhat genetically superior to outsiders. Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it's hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection. And in fact, Diamond himself briefly cites several examples of genetic differences impacting history. Despite military superiority, Europeans repeatedly failed to settle equatorial West Africa, in part because they lacked the malaria resistance conferred on many natives by the sickle cell gene. Similarly, biological disadvantages stopped whites from overrunning the Andes. Does this make Diamond a loathsome racist? No, but it does imply that a scientific-minded observer like Diamond should not dogmatically denounce genetic explanations, since he is liable to get tarred with his own brush.

The undeniability of human biodiversity does not prove that we also differ somewhat mentally, but it's hard to imagine why the brain would differ radically from the rest of the body. Consider the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The ant's personality traits -- foresight and caution -- fitted him to survive his region's predictably harsh winters. Yet, the grasshopper's strengths -- improvisation and spontaneity -- might furnish Darwinian superiority in a tropical land where the dangers are unpredictable.

Like many, Diamond appears to confuse the concepts of genetic superiorities (plural) and genetic supremacy (singular). The former are circumstance-specific. For example, a slim, heat-shedding Somalian-style body is inferior to a typically stocky, heat-conserving Eskimo physique in Nome, but it's superior in Mogadishu (and in Manhattan, too, if, you want to become a fashion model and marry David Bowie, like Somalian supermodel Iman). In contrast, genetic supremacy is the dangerous fantasy that one group is best at everything. Before the European explosion began in the 15th Century, it seemed apparent that no race could be supreme. Even the arrogant Chinese were periodically overrun by less-cultured barbarians. The recent European supremacy in both the arts of war and of peace was partly an optical illusion masking the usual tradeoffs in talents within Europe (e.g., Italian admirals were as inept as English cooks). Still, the rise and reign of Europe remains the biggest event in world history. Yet, the era when Europeans could plausibly claim supremacy over all other races has been dead for at least the 60 years since Hitler, of all people, allied with Japan.

The historian who trumpets the political relevance of his work must consider both the past and the future, which Diamond fails to do. Surprisingly, ethnic biodiversity is becoming more important in numerous ways. Until recently, one's location and social position at birth closely constrained one's fate. But, as equality of opportunity grows, the globalized marketplace increasingly exploits all advantages in talent, including those with genetic roots. Pro sports offer a foretaste of the future: many are resegregating themselves as ethnic groups increasingly specialize
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on 14 February 2014
Anybody who thinks they know history should read this book. How many "world history" classes that you took spend the time to really dive into the details about the origins of domesticated plants and domesticated animals. Or comparing the domestication of animals to marriage... i.e. lots of things have to be right before it will work. Quite an awesome work, and I'm now reading his latest book, The World Until Yesterday... and it certainly builds on GG&S. I had read Collapse and the 3rd Chimpanzee earlier, and seen the Nat. Geo video for GGS, but reading the actual book was well worth it, as it added valuable details which I hadn't found in any of the previous mentioned works. If you like the game, Civilaztion, you ought to read this book, as the game authors must have based alot of the assumptions about early society on the exact same things as Jared Diamond goes into great and inspiring detail.
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on 23 December 2016
A fantastic broadbrush history of whty we in the West got all the Cargo and the Underdeveloped lands of the South/Third World are left bereft. Really enjoyed this explanation of the evolution of humanity and the eruption of capitalism which seemed to confirm much of what Engels. great collaborator of Karl Marx, espoused.
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on 3 November 1998
Very readable and logically presented. An interesting cross disciplinary approach to answering the question of why Eurasia's civilizations advanced faster those of other regions, technologically and otherwise. The answer he proposes is geography. While this oversimplifies his case somewhat the basic reasoning is as follows: 1) The different regions of the world began with 'endowments' of domesticatable plants and large mammals (large mammals being especially important to the advancement of civilization as they provide labor, clothing, fertilizer, and above all, food) 2) It is significantly easier for plants and animals to spread along areas of similar climate so Eurasia's East-West orientation facilitated the spread of domesticatible plants and large mammals from one area to others whereas, other regions' (e.g., Africa, the Americas) North South orientation hindered this sharing of 'endowments' 3) To a lessor extent, the sharing of information / technological advances (e.g., the wheel, writen language) was also facilitated by Eurasia's East-West orientation
There are some weaknesses to the author's thesis to which he (refreshingly enough) openly admits. For instance, he is somewhat at a loss to explain why Eurasia's large mammals are so much more amenable to domestication than are Africa's.
Stylistically, everything 'works' except for the last chapter where the author essentially bemoans the fact that his field is not more quantitative and lays out potential areas for futher research. The reader can easily skip the chapter and lose little. But after the pleasure of reading the rest of this book, you're likely to be willing to indulge him by reading the last chapter.
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