book report: Guns, germs, and steel by Jared Diamond

Cover of Cover via Amazon

I've been meaning to read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies by Jared Diamond since it came out over 10 years ago. I finally finished it. I don't know if his argument still holds water 10 years later, but it did win a Pulitzer Prize, and I found his ideas persuasive.

The book is written in reponse to a question posed by a friend of Diamond's in New Guinea. He asks, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" p. 14

The ignorant answer is that whites are better than non-whites. The answer Diamond gives is geographical determinism. Whites benefited from their origins in the fertile crescent with its abundant grains and domesticate animals. The sedentary life allowed class stratification, where people could trade abilities and craftwork for food. The animals in close proximity introduced diseases that eventually led to genetic resistance. That enabled population expansion. That enabled geographical expansion. That enabled larger kingdoms. That enabled expansion, which is easier east-west than north-south because one can bring their seed crops with them and plant them successfully in familiar rain cycles and day length patterns.

For example, the Americas never had large animals to domesticate. Nor did they have crops as successful as the ones introduced by the invading Europeans. But they quickly adopted them when introduced, think horses and sheep.
In those parts of the Americas that did support Native American agriculture, it was constrained by five major disadvantages vis-a-vis Eurasian agriculture: widespread dependence on protein-poor corn, instead of Eurasia's diverse and protein-rich cereals; hand planting of individual seeds, instead of broadcast sowing; tilling by hand instead of plowing by animals, which enables one person to cultivate a much larger area, and which also permits cultivation of some fertile but tough soils and sods that are difficult to till by hand (such as those of the North American Great Plains); lack of animal manuring to increase soil fertility; and just human muscle power, instead of animal power, for agricultural tasks such as threshing, grinding, and irrigation. These differences suggest that Eurasian agriculture as of 1492 may have yielded on the average more calories and protein per person-hour of labor than Native American agriculture did. pp. 356-7
Without close association with many livestock breeds, the native Americans also lacked diseases to pass back to the Europeans. Hence, the European diseases wiped out up to 90% of the American population. Then lack of any restraint by the professed belief in Christ of the invaders also resulted in more destruction.

He notes of cultures that reverted to hunting and gathering after settling a new area. It makes me think that when the protein is so easily attainable, the incentive to settle down and farm goes away. But the inability to work together on behalf of others you barely know or care about beyond your family group also makes a hunting-gathering culture very vulnerable to invaders who want their land. As long as there seems to be more land, why bother resisting and why not let them have the land? But it never is enough for the agriculturists.

It's a very thought provoking book. I enjoyed it. I recommend it.
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