Friday, 1 August 2008

Guns, germs and steel : a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years by Jared M. Diamond

Clear counter argument to assumptions that Western ascendancy is down to genetic advantage. At its simplest the historical decision of who turned right or left when the African Diaspora happen sealed the fate of many peoples. But this is being flippant about a serious issue.

The essential argument is that the availability of domesticatable plants and animals (and the level of benefit for switching from hunting-gathering)affected how early and successfully could food production kick off. A key to the availability and speed of transmission is the axis of the continents. Hence Euroasia with its west-east axis as the longest belt of similar temperature zones so skills and technology can move up and down with relative issue. This is not the case in say the Americas and Africa where the cultural hot-spots where both isolated from each other and lacked access to many of the key plants and animals.

Once food production took off then population increased which if with large scale animal production created a germ base that over time created a level of immunity not created for those societies less dense or with limited animal production. Again if limited transmission then limited immunity is built up. A lot of western conquests were down to having wiping the population out with germs and then importing the crops and animals that would allow for population expansion.
As population increases then the opportunity for technology and idea specialists develops and if ease of transmission then competition between communities/ states drives development. Lack of competition or isolation limited the drive to develop or use the technology. Japanese in the 16th century encountered and then improved the guns of the time but for 200 years withdraw and abandoned the technology that could have had serious consequences for the region. Or the central African tribes that independently discovered Iron and then Steel some 2000 years before the West.

Once he has established his thesis by examining each of the key continents, he explores a range of case studies to test if it can explain the different historical journeys of say China, Africa, and other major non western areas.

I think this is where some of the criticism comes from that the book is repetitive. He tends to do the lecture thing of telling you what he is going to say, say it and the summarizing what he has said. I found it useful as I read it over a number of days on trains, lunch breaks etc to keep the key points clear as they were "tested" with case studies.

The main criticism I would make of the whole argument which makes a lot of sense is that it tends to underplay the importance of social struggle within the constraints of the geographical base. He does mention that the social structure of Japan was a key factor in the isolation but misses that it was the struggle to create a central state and reject the rising Christian mission that drove the policy. Its geographical position enabled this to be a success. Likewise China kept frustrating possible technological or imperial leaps but less down to the whim of the Emperor but because those changes would have challenged the social order. But again I accept this as a policy was only possible because of the successful previous agricultural revolution that created a unified China.

For "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

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