Monday, July 23, 2007

History: the view from ten thousand miles

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, world history

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (GGS) is ten years old now, and a quick Google of the string '+"jared diamond" +germs and steel" +review' netted more than 110,000 hits. It doesn't look like a thorough review by me will add much. However, as a lifelong history lover I did have a few thoughts, which I can't resist inflicting on innocent readers.

The full title is Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond has worked with the people of New Guinea on and off for thirty years. The book is the beginnings of an answer to "Yali's Question", Yali being a prominent man who nonetheless lives more poorly than the least affluent whites in New Guinea: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

The question, and Diamond's answer, simply re-inflamed both historical/hysterical racists and the PC crowd, so most of those hundred thousand reviews are negative, one way or the other. Professional historians don't want the question to be asked. Racists have a pat answer.

Diamond contends that on average, New Guinea natives are smarter than Eurasians (mainly Europeans and Euro-Americans), for the following reasons (my summary):
  • New Guinea is a large island, historically isolated, with few natural resources.
  • It has very few plant and no animal species amenable to domestication.
  • Limited farming is only possible in the uplands, which are fragmented by rocky mountains.
  • The rest of the island barely sustains a relatively small number of hunter/gatherers.
  • Just surviving under these conditions takes more cleverness and diligence, a better memory, and a more supple imagination than what we see in Western "couch potato" culture.

Secondarily, this fragmented island has (or had) one-sixth of the world's languages. Low-level warfare between tribes and bands was continuous. A foolish warrior is soon a dead warrior, and in New Guinea, that means he is someone's lunch. This is no canard. My father's cousin was a missionary there in the 1950s; he and his fellows witnessed after-battle feasts. Prior to the introduction of pigs by Indonesians a few hundred years ago, the largest-bodied animal was the human. Easier eating than a bird of paradise or songbird.

But Diamond's larger thesis is really quite simple. In order of size, the continents are Eurasia, the Americas (counted together), Africa, Australia. I would personally separate the Americas into two continents each somewhat smaller than Africa. Antarctica was never populated, and Greenland only sparsely, being tillable only over an area comparable to Iceland.

Another crucial factor is the number of species that can be domesticated. In Eurasia these include wheat, rice, barley, millet, and peas (the "founder crops"), and of livestock, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most of these were domesticated by 8500BC. In North America (mainly Mesoamerica), the founder crops were corn, beans, and squash, by about 3500BC. The largest animal that allowed limited domestication was the turkey. South America didn't have the Northern founder crops, instead using potatos and manioc, but they did have llamas and alpaca. The guinea pig was a source of small meat on a par with European rabbits.

This is just one of a number of comparisons. Basically, there were few plants and nearly no animals that people in Africa or Australia (including New Guinea and Tasmania), or across Indonesia, could take advantage of. Perhaps because of its great size, the Eurasian continent simply had 90% of the species we still rely on for the world's food. It was not because of inability that Africans or New Guineans didn't domesticate local species. They had no trouble farming and ranching once appropriate species were introduced by Eurasians.

I've worked (briefly!) in a meat packing plant in South Dakota. I saw how placidly most cattle stroll into the killing pen. By contrast, the plant "processes" about fifteen bison once yearly, for the "buffalo burger" trade at Wall and Rapid City tourist stops. Why is a bisonburger twice the cost of a beefburger? Because bison aren't placid. They can smell the death ahead, and do thousands of dollars in damage to the chutes. It takes about three days of off time for the packing plant to "recover" from taking the lives of fifteen bison. Imagine hunting such animals (the size of a small rhino) with out horses, as Plains Americans did for a few thousand years. No way could they be domesticated.

I have a (now deceased) friend in the Black Hills, who spent seventy years cross breeding bison and other cattle animals, trying for a better burger. He had, of course, beefaloes, but also yakaloes, yakabeef, and brahma-bisons. They were all nasty, quick-tempered beasts. Beasts with a capital B!

OK, so what has happened? Why Diamond's title? Especially Germs?!? Modern kids grow up without getting measles, mumps, chicken pox, and polio, all of which I had in my first five years of life. Fortunately, I had polio at under a year of age, so it only made one leg and foot a bit smaller than the other (shoe sizes 9.5 and 11.5). I did get immunized for diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever, and rubella ("German measles"). My parents only for smallpox. Nearly nobody (in America) of my generation has died of cholera, typhoid, or tetanus. Yet the reason Sandusky, Ohio is a small town while Cleveland is a major port is because of three cholera epidemics in Sandusky from 1849-1854.

Where did these diseases come from? They were unknown in America, for instance, prior to the arrival of Europeans, and in just over a century, destroyed 95% or more of native Americans. Read 1491 by Charles C. Mann for details: the hunter-gatherer "culture" seen by the 17th Century pilgrims and puritans was a blasted remnant of an agricultural people who were suddenly too few in number to maintain their former lifestyle.

The diseases came from livestock. Every epidemic disease that Europeans brought to other continents originated from the cattle, sheep, goats, and birds they brought into their farms, and frequently into their homes. An animal disease that can infect humans is called a zoonosis. Bacteria and viruses mutate rapidly, and a "generation" can be an hour or less. A mutation that allows a germ to more easily infect humans and to spread from person to person will rapidly establish itself as an epidemic disease. That is the fear we currently have about the H5N1 strain of "bird flu". It is 50%-80% fatal once you catch it, but so far it is hard to catch, and has not evolved to be easily transmitted between people. If it ever does, Watch Out!

So, Eurasia is big, it has lots of agricultural riches, food production allows for a non-food-producer population to increase, so more people have the opportunity to develop better technologies, and once iron and steel can be produced (a costly proposition and impossible without advanced high-temperature technology), you have lots and lots of people who can make lots and lots of weapons. Steel-wielding Europeans invaded an America and and Australia peopled with stone age cultures. It was no contest.

It seems I find the thesis interesting enough to repeat it anyway. But I found another trend very interesting in what it may tell of our future. In the late middle ages, say 1450 or so, Eurasia probably held 60% or more of the human race. They had inherited quite a legacy, 10,000 years of agriculture and settled life. Yet in the distant past, each new crop, each new domestic animal, and each new innovation was produced in a small area, and spread to the rest, usually in a few generations. Europe in particular seems to have founded nearly none of these new things. But they were experts at adopting new things, from the Mideast ("fertile crescent") and Far East.

Who, today, is considered the most adept "adopter and adapter" of new technology? The Japanese. They are closely followed in this by the "Asian Tigers", principally Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. In the latter three areas, the main entrepreneurs are the "overseas Chinese". Diamond makes a point in his book, that some cultures are more open to receiving and adopting innovations, others less so. The latter either change or vanish.

I could see some of this before I read the book. For years, when asked my opinion, I've recommended that students learn an Asian language, preferably Chinese or Japanese. I have even more reason for doing so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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