Guns, Germs, And Steel

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Guns, Germs, And Steel

The fates of human societies
By Jared Diamond

This is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond which won the Pulitzer Prize and Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. This book is very thick, and it is definitely not casual reading material, as the topic is quite heavy and dry. Unless you are a person who is very interested in history and how it brings about the differences in the world today, you will not be so keen into this book.

Nevertheless, I managed to learn quite a few things from this book.

Diamond finds that the striking differences between the long-term histories of people of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves but to differences in their environments.

I find this idea very similar to something that I read in “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell noted that, although there was little that could be done with regard to a person’s fate, society can still impact the “man”-affected part of an individual’s success.

According to Diamond, there are mainly 4 sets of differences in enviroment that caused the differences between the people across the continent (the have, the have-not).

1) Continental differences in wild plant and animal species for domestication

Food production is critical for accumulation of food surplus which leads to buildup of large population. This will lead to any technological or political advantage. Hence,you need to start with food production before you talk about technology or economically complex society.

Most wild animal and plant species are not suitable for domestication. The number of species suitable for domestication varied greatly among continents due to differences in the continental areas. So example Africa which had lots of lions and leopards,do not have much animals for domestication as compared to Eurasia etc. So they have less for food production, thus less technology etc.

2) Factors that affect rates of diffusion and migration, whcih differ greatly among continents  (Diffusion within continents)Eurasia had most rapid growth due to its east-west major axis and relatively modest ecological and geographical barriers. Due to its east west major axis, temperate and climate may remain relatively constant for the area, making it easy for movement of crops and livestock.

Diffusion was slow in Africa and America because of those continents’ north south major axes and geographic and ecological barries. It was also difficult for New Guinea where rugged terrain and long backbones of high mountains prevented any significant progress toward political and linguistic unification.

3) Factors affecting diffusion between continents

Some continents are more isolated than others. Example Australia, it is isolated from Eurasia by the water barriers. Hence, there is a need for boats or ships to be able to go there.

4) Continental differences in area or total population size

A larger area or population means more potential inventors, more competing societies, more innovations available to adope – and more pressure to adopt and retain innovations, because failing to do so will lead to elimination by other competing societies.

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Why is it within Eurasia were European societies, rather than those of the Fertile Crescent or China or India, the ones that colonized America and Australia, took the lead in technology and become politically and economically dominant in the modern world?

If you are a historian living betwee 8500 B.C and A.D. 1450, you would think Europe is the least likely to become so powerful s it was the most backward area during those times. The Fertile Crescent, eastern Mediterranean societies etc had a significant advantage over Europe. However they commit ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base, moving more westward etc.

China enjoyed undoubted advantages : a rise of food production, ecological diversity from North to South China, and from the coast to the high mountains of the Tibetan plateau, give rise to a diverse set of crops, animals and technology. These advantages and head start in food production enabled medieval China to lead the world in technology such as cast iron, compass, paper, printing etc. It lead the world in political power, navigation and control of the seas.

So why did China lose its technological lead to the formerly so backward Europe?

The end of China’s ship fleets give a clue. Due to power struggle between the two fractions at the Chinese court, the winning fraction had suspended all ships and fleets. In China, the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets all over China. Europe on the other hand, was politically fragmented. Christopher Columbus then have the opportunity to seek sponsor from many different areas of princes to sail.

China’s frequent unity and Europe’s perpetual disunity also lies in their areas (maps). Europe has a highly indented coastline with 5 large peninsulas that approach islands in their isolation. China’s heartland is bound together from east to west by two long rivers systems (Yangtze and Yellow Rivers) and it is joined from north to south by canals between these two river systems.

The histories of Fertile Crescent and China hold a salutary lesson for the modern world : circumstances change, and past primacy is no guarantee of future primacy. With internet and easy airfreight, one may wonder that the geographical reasoning employed in this book is still relevant. This is because new powers such as Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Japan have rise.

According to Diamond, the supposedly new rules are just variations of the old ones. The nations rising to new power are still ones that were incorporated thousands of years ago into the old centers of dominance based on food production or repopulation by peoples from those centers. Hmmm…. I wonder how does this apply to Singapore?  Singapore is too small for the food production. But it is repopulated by people from those centers having major dominance in food production.

Guns, Germs and Steel (YouTube Part 1/18)

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