You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Friday, June 11, 2010

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

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was published in 1997, years before Collapse. Diamond covers what he calls "history's broadest pattern," how the peoples of Eurasia were able to increase food production over the past 13,000 years and proceed to acquire technology that enabled the West to conquer most of the rest of the world. Diamond opens with a pivotal incident in history: Pizarro's defeat of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa and his 80,000 soldiers with only 168 Spanish warriors. The author asks the central question of the book: How did Pizzaro end up traveling thousands of miles to defeat the Incan emperor instead of an Incan warrior traveling thousands of miles to defeat the Spanish king? He steps back from proximate causes to explore the ultimate causes that led to the acquisition of so much technology and power.

The core of Diamond's argument is that Eurasia was better suited to provide for human population growth that the other continents. Eurasia contained many plants and animals that were domesticable, whereas the other continents did not. Native Americans domesticated corn, but other than that did not find other plants that could be farmed. The Americas, Australia, and New Guinea were devoid of large mammals that could be domesticated. Africa had many large animals but paradoxically most were not domesticable. Diamond was very thorough in discussing the difference in native plants and animals between the continents, including differences in seeds of plants and the natures of wild animals. He points out that elephants have been tames but never domesticated.

Another advantage of Eurasia was the east-west orientation of the land, which made the climate relatively consistent from one end to the other. Innovations in food production and other technology were able to spread to the east and west from the fertile crescent. Africa has a north-south orientation and straddles the equator, resulting in vast climate differences from one end of the continent to the other. Deserts and jungles proved to be insurmountable obstacles to the spread of crops and livestock. Likewise the Americas have a north-south orientation and many obstacles to the spread of people and ideas, including mountain ranges and the isthmus of Panama.

What this led to was two important factors that led to the primacy of Eurasian culture. First, the production of food with agriculture and animal domestication was efficient and productive enough to replace the food gathering lifestyle. However in other areas of the world agriculture did not provide enough nourishment to replace hunting and gathering. The second factor is that lifestyle and technologies were able to spread much fast in Eurasia than other areas. Ideas such as writing or the wheel were able to be adopted more widely. The increase in food and the increase in population fueled each other in a catalyzing spiral.

I enjoyed the meticulous detail that Diamond brings to the book. He describes and compares the many factors of culture that led to the primacy of Eurasian life. He gives a history of the peoples of Africa to illustrate how different cultures interact and conquer each other. He has a depth of knowledge about botany, anthropology, geography and other disciplines. The book builds a solid case for the unique advantages provided by Eurasia and dismisses any racial basis for the supremacy of Western culture. It provides a strong case for the driving force of human history. A-

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