The Fates of Human Societies

If you see Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond at a rummage sale — grab it. In fact this is one book that’s worth buying from a bookstore. (Don’t tell anyone I said that.) Diamond has an encyclopedic knowledge of biology, archaeology, anthropology and a jillion other ologies; not only that he has the ability to take an overarching view of the whole body of knowledge and show how all these ologies can inform one another.

Guns, Germs and Steel is nothing less than a comprehensive history of the human race, with an emphasis on the plants and animals that people domesticated. Want to know why horses can be domesticated, but zebras can’t? Want to know how the wild almond, which is poison, became the luscious delectable nut that we enjoy today? It’s all in there, every domestic animal and every crop ever cultivated.

But the work has a higher purpose, a very worthy one in my opinion. He’s looking for an answer to a question he was asked by a hunter in Papua-New Guinea: “How come the white guys have all the stuff?”

He wonders why South America didn’t colonize Europe instead of the other way around.

To get at a valid answer to this question, he first has to debunk explanations based on cultural or racial or national superiority, and other less offensive, but equally invalid explanations such as the idea that warm climates inhibit human creativity and energy. Though widely held, these explanations are not supported by evidence; quite the contrary. Diamond obliterates them in short order in a very readable way.

“The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome,” Diamond writes, “but also that they are wrong.”

Intelligence, he points out, continues to increase through the process of evolution in New Guinea societies where the principal cause of death is hunting accidents and homicide, but not in European societies where, for thousands of years, the principal cause of death has been infectious disease.

“Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic resistance dependent on details of body chemistry.”

Diamond’s final explanation for the dominance of Eurasian societies is that Eurasia is fatter than America and Africa. (I’m summarizing blithely here.) It has much more longitude along the same lines of lattitude. This gave them the advantage in agriculture and in domesticating large mammals. Exposure to the large mammals’ diseases built up people’s resistance to human diseases just as the dairy maids who had been exposed to cowpox were effectively immunized against smallpox.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I’m a little sketchy on the details, but I have to say this is the best written and the most comprehensive history book I have ever read.