Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2014

by Jared Diamond (Norton, 1999, 1997)

This book was one of the recommended readings for a Coursera MOOC I took last fall (A Brief History of Humankind, taught by Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), which is not surprising. Many of the startling new (to me) perspectives on human history that Dr. Harari put forth seem to have come right out of Diamond’s book. They were no longer startling but seemed even more convincing. For example, the “agricultural revolution” was not such a good deal for people as individuals; they ended up working harder and more, eating a worse diet and getting sick from all kinds of new diseases that they contracted from their domesticated animals. Compared to a hunter-gatherer, they got the short end of the stick. But Homo sapiens as a species flourished, because agriculture made permanent settlement possible. Permanent settlements enabled women to have more children, and agriculture supported larger populations. The agricultural revolutions launched H. sapiens on the road to where we are now: seven billion and still increasing, literally crowding out other species of animals and even plants. Dr. Harari called this “history’s biggest fraud”; Diamond devotes seven chapters to “The Rise and Spread of Food Production,” arguing that it was agriculture that made it possible for Eurasian peoples (and in particular, European peoples) to drive out, absorb, or slaughter other “first peoples” of the world.

The question that Diamond is attempting to answer with this book was posed by a New Guinean friend of his: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo (=stuff) and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  Diamond broadens the scope of his friend’s question, applying it to native peoples of Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Polynesia, who, he explains, had the misfortune to populate continents that lacked many large mammals and plants suitable for domestication (he delineates certain indispensable criteria that make a plant or animal suitable for domestication). This lack put them at a huge disadvantage against the European explorers with their “guns, germs, and steel” (better weaponry and technology and having built up some resistance to the devastating illnesses that have plagued us since the agricultural revolution). (The Chinese and Japanese were among those who conquered other peoples before being conquered themselves by Europeans.)  In addition to the paucity of domesticable plants and animals, Africans and Americans were also disadvantaged by the north-south axis of the continents where they lived, because the differences in climate and geography made the transfer of technology impossible (oceans and deserts fulfilled the same function in Australia and Polynesia).

Diamond claims that when we understand the factors that led to the defeat by Eurasian conquerors of other peoples, we can no longer blame this defeat on some intrinsic weakness or deficiency of the people themselves–in other words, racism.

It’s a fascinating book, one I recommend strongly!

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3 Responses to “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”

  1. […] this blog, you know that over the past year or so I have read several of Diamond’s books (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Why Is Sex Fun? and now this one. Next up: The Third Chimpanzee). His books are […]

  2. […] read several Diamond books by now (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Collapse; Why Is Sex Fun?), and there is a lot of overlap among them, but they are all fascinating […]

  3. […] the frightening Zika epidemic that is spreading quickly through Latin America.). But after reading Jared Diamond, I can appreciate how the European powers’ conquest of Africa was delayed by trypanosomiasis […]

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