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January 03, 2005

In praise of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Quiddity of Uggabugga is still mad about Jared Diamond's 1998 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel (GG&S). He's so mad that he's not going to read Diamond's Op/Ed piece. [NYT permalink]

I'm surprised that Quiddity objects so strongly. It's also a pity because Diamond's intricate multi-factorial explanations would make great Uggabugga flowcharts.

GG&S is an attempt to explain why some parts of the world are currently powerful and prosperous while others are poor. Diamond is both a physiologist and a linguist who spends a good deal of his time living with hunter gathers in Papua New Guinea. As a researcher and as a human being, he is convinced that all people have the same potential. Hunter gathers are just as intelligent, resourceful, and diligent as anybody else. Yet material "success" isn't equally distributed across the globe. Civilization sprung up in relatively few places and spread in a defined pattern. I should emphasize that Diamond doesn't equate material prosperity with well-being or virtue. He's just curious about the global distribution of bling bling.

Diamond's hypothesis is that geography gave certain groups big initial advantages. Specifically, some places are more conducive to domestication of plants and animals. Most people think that domestication is just a matter of capturing animals and breeding them in captivity. This is a misconception. All domesticated species have undergone major genetic changes through years of selective breeding. Compared to their wild ancestors, the major cereal crops are more nutritious, quicker to germinate, and easier to sow and harvest. Domestic animals are more docile, easier to train, and generally more suited to life in captivity.

Diamond's central point is that not every wild species is equally susceptible to domestication and that domesticable species are not evenly distributed across the globe. Wild horses and camels had the "right stuff", reindeer not so much. As modern attempts to domesticate zebras confirm, they are simply not livestock material.

Diamond argues that large-scale agriculture arose in regions with domestic plants and large mammals to plow fields. The inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent (and a few other places) had both these advantages. This combination vastly increased food production, which in turn supported larger populations. From there, it's the standard political economy story about the positive feedback loop of prosperity and social complexity fostering ever-more elaborate social organization, specialization, technical innovation, etc. This is the Guns and Steel part of the story.

The Germs part of the story is an interesting twist. Most epidemic diseases are zoonotic, that is, they are incubated in domestic animals. Crowding facilitates the spread of disease. Diamond observes that peoples who spent thousands of years living near each other and their animals developed resistance to many communicable diseases. Groups who weren't subject to these pressures did not develop the same resistance. When Europeans came to the Americas after centuries of urban life, their diseases decimated the indigenous populations. The guns and steel also facilitated the conquest, but Diamond thinks the germs were the key factor.

I think Quiddity has misinterpreted several key aspects of Diamond's argument. He writes:

Hey! No large domestic animals, so there's your excuse for a failure in the Americas. But there was a domestic mammal throughout the two continents: man.

I think Quiddity is talking about slavery. But slavery doesn't explain the different fates of civilizations. Slavery was a nearly universal feature of human society until about 150 years ago. Everyone from hunter gatherers to state societies kept slaves. When Europeans clashed with North and South Americans, one group of slavers routed many other slave-holding societies. For example, Pizarro and his conquistadors utterly destroyed the Inca empire despite its massive population of slaves.

Maybe Quiddity is arguing that if there hadn't been livestock, humans could have just forced other people to plow the fields. This did happen, but it just wasn't as efficient as using livestock. It's an empirical question whether any combination of elbow grease and technology could have worked equally well. At the very least Diamond's assertion that livestock made a huge difference strikes me as plausible.

Diamond does not blame any culture for its way of life. He blames Europeans for their cruelty and chauvinism, but he has no illusions that any other culture would have been more beneficent given the same opportunities.

Quiddity accuses Diamond of assailing the Enlightenment itself in order to ingratiate himself to postmodernists:

Our view is that geography does matter, but not nearly as much as Diamond claims. It's the culture that makes the difference. Diamond, in GG&S, is minimizing the contributions of "dead white males" and "Western Civilization", which is another way of attacking the Renaissance/Enlightenment. Count us as supporters of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Those were cultural developments that really made a difference.

Diamond does not minimize the contributions of the contributions of individuals, their cultures, or technology. He's just telling the story at a different level of detail. Diamond is not a determinist. Agriculture and domestication are technological innovations that ushered in whole new ways of life. Smart people were responsible for these developments. It's not deterministic to point out that the same good idea may have occurred to a lot of people in different places, or that a lot of innovators may have tried and failed to implement similar ideas because the environmental conditions were unfavorable.

Among the hunter gatherers, almost every able bodied male has to engage in hunting and warfare full time and every female is occupied with gathering and child rearing. In other societies, some people can devote their time to science, technology, philosophy, politics, finance and the other cultural roles that define state societies.

There's nothing in Diamond's book to suggest that he is anything but a friend of the Enlightenment. He's a practicing scientist who attempts to analyze historical trends in scientific terms. He is also a sympathetic interpreter who respects and admires human diversity. He believes in progress, but he doesn't assume that technologically advanced people are superior or even uniformly better off. Finally, he affirms the values of the Enlightenment by suggesting how we can use history and science to build more prosperous, stable, and just societies.


Yeah, I'm a bit surprised: it's a serious misreading of the book, and I agree completely with your analysis.

I was also surprised at this remark: "Nobody is seriously claiming that there are genetic differences." Somebody ought to point him to, where not only do they seriously claim that there are important genetic differences, but they despise Diamond for GG&S.

'In our opinion, one of the problems with the left is their affinity for the Rousseau / Margaret Mead infatuation with the Noble Savage and a concomitant devaluation of science and engineering. Diamond is treading in their footsteps.'

Another willful misread by Ugga- in the book Diamond clearly has no illusions that 'savagery' is noble. This is merely a cheap attempt to box JD into a hole he does not create. His point is that had geography favored the cultures of NG or America they too would have done as the Euros and Chinese did. Good analysis. DAN

Dan's point on Diamond's geographic analysis is well-taken. The cultures operating in the broad temperate expanse of Europe/Asia (with fairly accessable avenues to the tropical "reservoirs of genetic turmoil") simply inhabited environs more supportive of efficacious development. The Western hemisphere is, comparatively, like a long-term laboratory of cultural interaction. So, maybe the Hopi and the Mormons have it right- it's the latest "garden of Eden"... ^..^

Funny that this would come up. I recently spent an afternoon typing and posting stuff from GGS (the Egalitarianism to Klepotcracy Chapter).

Well, Diamond's newest book (which I almost baught today, but am still considering 30 bucks) is a follow up to GG&C that most definitely does not follow the noble savage idea. Au contraire, he appears to analyze societies that destroyed themselsves, e.g., Easter Island (which, by the way is beautifully explained in a recent novel "Easter Island" by Jennifer Vanderxxx oops forgot!).

gg and c was a great read. it inspired many synaptic firings inside my skull. the detractors are a great read as well providing many more excited brain parts. the new book "collapse" is becoming a great read as well. i look forward to reading his detractors. in the interstice of their writings and his i learn many things. and it keeps his detractors from attempting original works.

What's particularly funny about the idea that Diamond is hostile to the Enlightenment is that the obvious predecessor to GG&S is Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws.

Check out the Edge world question center at: Jared Diamond is first on the list.

The question: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

Cannot wait for Parry's book to come out ...

Explorer Bruce Parry has dined with cannibals in West Papua, become a shaman in Venezuela and undergone painful rituals in Ethiopia. What on earth makes him do it?

Although I've not read GG&S myself, assuming that your post is accurate, I see no way to claim that he is in any way hostile to the Renaissance/Enlightenment. Rather, he's analyzing WHY Europe reached those landmark achievements and the native North Americans/Africans did not. Unless you assume that Europeans were somehow inherently superior to everyone else, it HAD to be either an environmental factor or pure luck.

What I'd be interested in is why European civilization industrialized and spread so readily, while Chinese civilization did not...

I really enjoyed GG&S. I hadn't even considered the question of why some societies succeeded more than others until I read this book. I personally thinkt Diamond's theory is a good one. I have not yet read any reasonable attempt to disprove it. Anyone have any suggestions?

What I'd be interested in is why European civilization industrialized and spread so readily, while Chinese civilization did not.

So go read GG&S, already!

Hahaha! Okay, I get the point. I'll pick up a copy next time I'm at a bookstore!

I did read Diamond's NYTimes Op-Ed. I have mixed feelings about that, and no particular stand one way or another about his new book.

My post was in a rush, and that's why I only cited his "no big mammal in the Americas" excuse. There were other problems I had with his book besides that.

But I have read your post and comments and will re-think the issue.

Diamond's hypothesis about why China failed to industrialize is a pretty standard one about political despotism and the lack of a compelling foreign threat to spur innovation.

A much more convincing ecological argument is brought forward in THE GREAT DIVERGENCE by Kenneth Pomeranz, who musters an enormous amount of economic data about 19th-century Japan and China. Pomeranz argues for a two-part combination of lucky events: New World colonization at just the right time, and large coal deposits in just the right place. China got neither break and bottlenecked at a high-level equilibrium, while England and France broke through to industrialization. Heavy reading, but backed by reams of data. Good stuff.

Diamond addressed the Chinese development question in a talk that was at one point available online. Stressing the geographical factors, the despotism and insularity of China were the result of it's isolating borders--mountains, deserts and ocean--and the fact that it was still able to be effectively managed from a central government due to it's relatively passable internal landscape, and it's many rivers, etc. Europe, on the other hand, filled with peninsulas, large moutain ranges, and settled from the south and the east, naturally became divided into many smaller, competitive units.

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