Saturday, April 7, 2012

Beyond the Broad-Brush

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The history of humans on Earth is mind-boggling. For more than ninety percent of human’s brief history, humans have wandered in small bands, scraping out an existence in a world fraught with danger from animals, the weather, and disease. Only recently did humans decide to settle in villages and grow their food rather than hunt and gather it. And then humans learned to live in larger societies, eventually forming governments, class structures, economies, and empires, and some of these societies came to dominate others, and some got richer than others. When probing into it, one will discover deeper and deeper questions about why Europeans are now in America, why China didnt conquer Europe with its more advanced culture, and so on. Jared Diamond took on the task of having a reasonable discussion about the intriguing question of why Europeans spread all over the world during the past few centuries to a greater degree than ever before in human history? In Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies, he takes a wide-angle view of world history from very high up, in order to provide an overview of human societal development from about 11,000 BC to the present. Its an impressive book, but overall, Diamond’s presentation is a little uneven, making this book difficult to rate.

Despite the fact that Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies is broad and attempts to cover all major aspects of societal development (including technology, politics, language, and economics), but the book has its limitations. Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies is a book that works very well within the specific range it covers, but it turns out that that range is somewhat limited. In other words, Diamond is guilty of false advertising. The books cover and introduction imply that he is going to tell people why Europeans came to dominate the world in the past few centuries. He does not do this, because his arguments do not apply on that time scale, nor do they apply to such a modern situation. This book is well worth reading, as long as a person is aware of where it fits in the historical landscape.

Diamond focuses on the geographical and environmental factors that affect human societies. These are indeed very important factors. Remember that humans used to live outdoors. Humans used to carry most of our belongings with them. Humans used to know very few humans outside our own group. Humans used to be at the mercy of where the herds wandered, what the weather was like that year, and what the climate was like that decade. Diseases and droughts regularly wiped out whole tribes. Rivers or mountain ranges could literally be uncrossable for years at a time if conditions were not right. For the majority of human history, humans have been profoundly shaped by the immediate surroundings in which they lived.

Diamond makes a great case for why some areas of the world learned things earlier than other areas. How could a society possibly learn to domesticate animals if no domesticable species lived in that part of the world? How could they learn agriculture if few or none of the native plant species were domesticable? Indeed, the distribution of animal and plant species suitable for human domestication was not very equitable in the ancient world. Some areas just had it luckier than others. The winners were in Eurasia, which had the largest number of qualified candidates for domestication. For animals, qualification has to do with reproductive cycles, and other factors that make them easy for humans to adapt and modify to their purposes. For plants, qualification is about having large grains, being cultivable from cuttings, and other factors that make farming better compared to gathering. In contrast to Eurasia, Africa and the Americas suffered from a lack of candidates.

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Geography also affects the spread of information, or it did for most of human history. By looking at archaeological findings, it is possible to trace who knew what when, at least roughly. One can see types of pottery getting passed from society to society, for instance, as well as farming techniques and tools. Thus, large regions tended to share information faster, thus accelerating their development.

Many of Diamond’s arguments are believable. The Earth is the way it is, and humans have been amazingly adaptive to be able to live in many diverse regions, from desert to tundra. But that doesnt mean that all humans had an equal shot at developing new lifestyles or at inventing new technologies. It would have been impossible for metalworking to evolve on some Pacific islands since some of them have no metal! In many cases that Diamond describes, those humans who developed certain capabilities are exactly the ones one would expect to have done so, given the physical surroundings they lived in. Thus, Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies is a detailed, well-researched, and thoughtfully organized book of what one would call physical history. Diamond describes unquestionable advantages that Eurasia had over the rest of the world. As he says, I expect that if the populations of Aboriginal Australia and Eurasia could have been interchanged during the Late Pleistocene, the original Aboriginal Australians would now be the ones occupying most of the Americas and Australia, as well as Eurasia, while the original Aboriginal Eurasians would be the ones now reduced to downtrodden population fragments in Australia. . Its the environment, not the people.

There are many specific issues that can to be brought up to react to Diamonds thesis. First of all, there are a lot of supporting factors that are important in societal development that cannot be explained by geography, local wildlife, and climate. They include factors like religion, the number system and languages. In the factor of language one could only wonder why did some parts of the world end up with alphabets, and others sets of characters? This may have had a deep effect on which societies were able to record and share information most easily. In the factor of the number system, the roman numerals are notoriously tedious for doing calculations. Arabic numerals, in contrast, are still in use today because they proved to be much easier and more adaptable. This may contribute to the dominance of Middle Eastern science a few thousand years ago. “The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.” In the factor of religion Diamond makes the fascinating point that religion evolved in parallel with systems of state government, primarily as a means to justify military action and class differences. This is a broad explanation for the development of complex religions designed for mass appeal in societies of thousands of people. Why did Buddhism and Taoism evolve in East Asia, while monotheism arose in West Asia? Did these differing worldviews shape the societies that practiced them, perhaps contributing to their paths of development?

Diamond did bring up these very points, but he does not do much with them. He has little to say beyond setting up the structure, such as why state religions evolved in the first place. In these cultural cases, Diamonds view is simply too little.

The bottom line is that physical arguments are very broad-brush. They are entirely acceptable when considering large area of history that cover thousands of years during which humans were totally dependent on their environment. But they cannot help on short time scales, where local cultural effects matter a lot. Nor are they relevant in the modern, interconnected world where geography plays much less of a role. That is not to say that it has no effect, only that it has less effect now than it did when humans were wandering around in groups of 40 people or so. Guns Germs and Steel The Fates of Human Societies doesn’t give one a complete answer to Yali’s question in full, but explains different cultures limitations and advantages geographically and environmentally. So Guns, Germs and Steel The Fates of Human Societies is a solid book to explain such things as why Native Americans developed agriculture after the Chinese did, and why some Pacific Island cultures never developed it at all. It explains why small pox and syphilis were so devastating to tribes of the New World, while their diseases rarely did so much damage to people of the Old World. It explains why cultures that had agriculture could go on to develop complex states, which supported specialist classes, including the class of soldier. But do not expect to learn why Britain hates France or why China adopted Communism. These things are beyond the broad-brush of physical analysis. So in the end, one will stick to what one said at the beginning that this is an excellent book for the range it works in. But that range is a bit limited.

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