April 1st, 2008

reading, activism, writing

Book #12: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

One day, one of the local politicians from Papua New Guinea happened to be walking down the same stretch of beach as Jared Diamond. During their conversation the politician, Yali, asked Diamond, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [steel axes, matches, clothing, medicines, soft drinks, umbrellas and the like] and brought it here to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

The question launched a thousand pages, well 494 in my copy of the book. To sufficiently answer Diamond had to look through the last 13,000 years of human development and explain what happened. The resulting book puts to rest the racist idea that one set of humans developed lots of "cargo" because of any innate superiority.

Diamond explains, in great detail, how different accidents of geography, animal biology, and plant species distribution played vital roles in the vast technological differences Yali asked about.

For example, the Eurasian Continent had 72 possible candidates for animal domestication, 13 of which were eventually domesticated. Whereas, the Americas had 24 possibles with only one domesticated. Large seeded grasses were much more numerous in Eurasia and available for domestication than in other parts of the world. And Eurasia's east-west width, with numerous zones along similar latitudes, meant that one domesticated plant could live in many different regions with similar weather, therefore making it easier to spread.

With more food available from farming and herding, large concentrations of people can be sustained. More people near more animals meant more diseases and more eventual immunity. More population centers meant more people not involved with hunting or gathering, giving them more time for creating innovations like writing. And so on.

Diamond makes the point that if you had lifted one set of hunter/gatherers, from say Australia, and moved them to Eurasia they might have been the ones with the guns, germs, and steel rather than the other way around.

The long answer to Yali's question is a eye-opening lesson that should be required reading across the planet.