Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (W.W. Norton & Company 1997, 1999)

Reading this book was a learning experience. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. The author studies bird evolution in Papua New Guinea. The book is about how and why different human societies developed in different ways. It really gets to the heart of the matter and much of the conclusions are undeniable. It debunks a lot of myths about racial superiority and inferiority. It shows how strongly human societies were influenced by geography, food availability, and the luck of timing. Basically the different continental areas are compared: Eurasia (including a small swathe of North Africa that has a similar climate), sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, and Australia/New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. The complete histories of all these areas are recounted and compared and the results are rather fascinating. The story begins when one of the author’s New Guinean friends, Yali, asks him why the Westerners have ‘cargo,’ or stuff, and the New Guineans don’t. The book is an attempt to answer that question and it does so quite adequately and in great detail. Hopefully I can summarize the key points of this book for it would be great if everyone knew them. In fact, I think this would make a great textbook for a college-level class – a kind of mixture of History, Historical Science, and Geography. The author’s own summary of the book in one sentence is: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

The book begins with an overview of the spread of humans out of Africa nearly a million years ago and the likely 2nd spread out of Africa around 50,000 yrs ago of homo sapians that we all descend from today. From then and there the peoples spread out to all the continents, the latest to be inhabited being distant islands less than a thousand years ago.

The author notes that the biggest population shift of modern times has been the colonization of the Americas by Europeans and the resulting conquest, reduction, and in some cases complete demise of Native American groups. The turning point was rather well documented at Cajamarca where a few hundred Spaniards with some crude guns, horses, and much luck and crazy boldness were able to conquer and subjugate first 80,000 Incas and then the vast Inca Empire. A few other advantages they had in their initial 500 to 1 odds were some Native Indian spy intelligence and the ability to model war tactics on past campaigns through the European literary tradition. One of the biggest factors was that some years earlier Spanish settlers to Panama had brought smallpox and other diseases which began to wipe out northern Incas and the empire split up into a civil war which the Spaniards exploited. In fact, it is estimated that European diseases wiped out somewhere around 95% of the Native American population! – and this is mostly in advance of the main settling activities of Europeans.

This book contains copious charts, tables, and maps which provide great information on timing of things like plant domestication, animal domestication, arrival of certain traders and invaders and their products, suitability for domestication, written and spoken language expansions, agricultural expansion, and many other comparisons among the people of the various continents.  The next several chapters provide most enlightening histories of food production in different places in the world, first farming, then livestock. Collection of suitable and abundant large-seeded wild cereal grasses by hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent led to food surpluses and trade. This allowed the humans there to remain settled in one area and develop settlements. This gradually resulted in seeds being selected and planted and after the development of these settlements agriculture was born. This occurred somewhere around 8500 BC in this area and over the next four or five millennia spread to the corners of Europe and Asia. There were other centers of agriculture where new and different crops developed. The Rice Belt in China, the Andes in South America (and possibly the Amazon Basin as well), Mesoamerica in southern and central Mexico, and the eastern U.S. are areas where food production likely developed independently – although the American cases came thousands of years after (2500-3500 BC) the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia (8500 BC) and China (7500 BC). Four other areas are possible although in some cases food production was likely imported. These are the Sahel region of Africa, tropical West Africa, Ethiopia, and New Guinea.

The author examines why agriculture developed in each of the areas and what plant species were available. He examines basic food ‘packages’ of various places and peoples in terms of nutrition. The protein content of wheat certainly provided an advantage in getting nutrition without the need to move and hunt as much. Basic packages consisted of cereal grasses, pulses, fiber (to make clothing) and in some areas roots and tubers, and melons. The package from the Fertile Crescent provided the best nutrition especially early on before other foods were added. As far as availability of suitable high-protein big-seeded cereal grasses around the world the Fertile Crescent area far outweighed all other areas combined. These crops were suitable to spread through the temperate regions of the world which ended up being firstly mainly the east-west expanse of Eurasia which has more or less similar climatic conditions. This agricultural spread gave the Eurasian populations a somewhat homogenous plant nutritive profile. Later on (around 4000 BC) came the beginnings of fruit and nut tree domestication where again more species were found to be domesticatable in the Eurasian areas. Basically, the bio-diversity was greatest in these areas due to terrain, elevation, and micro-climatic diversity. In terms of the cereal grasses, these differences are thought to have influenced them onto an annual cycle of production, seeding, and death.

Next we come to the histories of animal domestication which also begin in the Fertile Crescent areas where again by far the most suitable animals for domestication occurred. There were known to be other large mammals that may have been suitable for domestication available in both the Americas and Australia but these were thought to have been hunted out by early human inhabitants (or possibly became extinct rather suspiciously at the same time as humans arrival).  In the case of Australia this would have been 35,000 to 40, 000 years ago. In the case of the Americas it would have been 13,000 to 10,000 years ago during the period of the Clovis hunters. Goats and sheep were the first livestock around 8500 BC in the Fertile Crescent and cattle a little later. Pigs were domesticated in China by 7500 BC, turkey, llamas, and guinea pigs in the Americas around 3500 BC, and guinea fowl in the African Sahel around 5000 BC. Of course the large mammal domesticates of the Fertile Crescent also provided manure for better agriculture. They also harbored diseases that were spreadable to humans – now living in larger settled communities. As time passed humans in these communities developed genetically-induced immunities to these diseases. Other isolated peoples would later succumb to these diseases by the hundreds of thousands when they later encountered them.

The author also examines why other hunter-gatherer peoples did not develop agriculture and animal domestication and in most if not all cases finds that their local environment and the lack of availability of suitable candidates simply did not allow it. Australian aborigines never really developed agriculture although they did some selective preparation and harvesting of wild species. Even though there are several so-called zones of Mediterranean climate in the world such as California and Chile they did not have suitable native species for domestication and in some cases the wild food was abundant enough to discourage it. Even though Africa had many candidates for animal domestication, none were actually domesticated and the author examines why and finds that for various reasons they were entirely unsuitable in the end even with the best of skill. Some animals such as elephants could be ‘tamed’ from the wild but not truly domesticated and bred to live and breed among humans. He goes through all 148 candidate species around the world and the 14 that were actually domesticated of big terrestrial herbivorous animals. The reasons given for unsuitability include: growth rate (gorillas and elephants take too long to grow up), captive breeding (some animals just won’t breed in captivity such as cheetahs and vicunas), nasty dispositions (this includes grizzly bears, African wild buffalo, zebras, and other equids), tendency to panic (gazelles), and social structure – most all domesticated large mammals have three favorable characteristics: they live in herds, they have a well developed dominance hierarchy, and their herd ranges overlap – which keeps fighting way down as in some herds that migrate seasonally.  Humans took advantage of these characteristics so that the animals would imprint on humans as the dominant leaders and be easy to gather and lead.

Next we come to an interesting chapter about the axial orientations of the comparable continents. We find that the climate of Eurasia is much more homogenous than the others and also has less environmentally challenging barriers along its breadth. In Africa and the Americas where the orientation is north-south there is change from temperate to sub-tropical to tropical and back again. There are also formidable mountains, jungles, and deserts to cross. In fact some areas only hundreds of miles apart had very little contact compared with areas in Eurasia thousands of miles apart. This was a big factor on agricultural spread as well since crops developed in Eurasia would not do well in tropical climates and vice-versa until species were altered. The tropics of Africa also would not support horses and cattle as they tended to die from disease. Tropical diseases such as malaria tend to spread by mosquitoes and limited the influence of temperate peoples there so there was in general less Eurasian influence in tropical areas than in temperate areas.

Next he covers the history of microbes and ‘crowd diseases.’ Many of these killing diseases came from domesticated animals and armed the invaders of new areas with a most powerful weapon for wiping out indigenous populations. Since agriculture is able to support much higher population density than hunting and gathering – these crowd diseases passed more easily among settled peoples. Although these diseases like measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, and pertussis are now modified into human-to-human forms they originally came from similar pathogens passed among cattle, ducks, pigs, dogs, and chickens – as we even now are affected by fear of dangerous strains of bird-flu or swine-flu. Not only were Native Americans decimated by Eurasian germs but so too were Pacific islanders, Australian aborigines, and Khoisan peoples of southern Africa. The tropical killers – malaria, cholera, and yellow fever – by contrast posed a big obstacle to European colonization of tropical areas.

Next we come to the fascinating history of written language and how it influenced different societies to their advantage. Simply having a usable written language allowed knowledge to be more rapidly transmitted and in greater quantity and detail. Among the world’s large empires it was only the Inca that did not have writing. The author lists four possible places where writing developed independently. The two most likely places are Sumer and Mesoamerica. The two others are China and Egypt but they may have been influenced by earlier Sumerian cuneiform writing. The author notes the three strategies of writing systems where a sign can represent a single sound, a syllable, or a whole word. Although, most alphabets nowadays are mostly the single sign version – alphabetic – most are combinations of all three where some signs represent syllables and some are logograms like Egyptian hieroglyphs – even though the Egyptians also had alphabetic and syllabic or phonetic sounds too. Mesoamerican writing began a few thousand years after Sumerian around 600 BC among the Zapotecs of southern Mexico. The author does make the note that it is much easier to learn and adapt and alter to one’s needs an existing written language than to make one’s own – although in the cases of China and Egypt that may have occurred and even if they were influenced by Sumerian they certainly invented much of it. “The evolution of the alphabet can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, which included a complete set of 24 signs for the 24 Egyptian consonants.” The Semites took the logical next step beginning around 1700 BC of discarding the logograms and other conventions and developing a purely alphabetic writing system. The letters were given word meanings – probably for ease of remembering: ie Aleph – ox, Beth – house, Gimel – camel, Daleth – door, etc. with the sound of each letter the beginning sound of the represented thing. Other early adapted writing forms were the earliest syllabary of Minoan Crete – Linear A. The Greeks ended up going with the Semitic-derived alphabet – indeed it is thought that all alphabets derive from it. So from the Semitic- Phoenician-Canaanite punic writing all alphabetic writing derived and passed on through manuscript or blueprint-copying – or possibly occasionally through idea-diffusion like that of the Irish ogham. Through alphabetic writing was born the major literary traditions of the world where more concise, simple, and precise writing conveyed more ideas faster. That is not to say that the value of hieroglyphic or syllabic writing is any less sophisticated in the symbolic – just less quick and precise. Hieroglyphs and other symbolic runic systems may have special features adaptable to conveying information in different ways. He even investigates some more modern developed writing systems such as syllable writing systems developed by the Cherokee Sequoyah, the modern Korean syllable writing called Han’gul, and one probably invented by Polynesian Easter Islanders in the late 1700’s. The author considers that Chinese has a more likelihood of having developed independently as no writing systems were known from the time period between the Indus Valley and China – while in Egypt the development was probably through idea-diffusion where they made their own system knowing that the Sumerians used one successfully.
The author also shows the famed Minoan Phaistos Disk where about 241 signs of unknown meaning were clay stamped (ie. technically printed) into a disk. No other writing of this sort was ever found and the disk is dated to 1700 BC. This can be considered the first printing although the process was not to be rediscovered until much later by the Chinese and then again by Guttenberg in the Middle Ages. This next section in the book is devoted to inventions and how and why they occur. They tend to occur much more gradually than is shown in history, many occur as result of accident as by- products when looking to solve a wholly different problem, and another factor is acceptability or convincing the populace that an invention will be useful or economic or enhancing in some way. One rather odd example is the letter arrangement on a typical keyboard – the QWERTY – named for the first five letters on the top line of letters. The reason it ended up like that is that typing too fast was causing problems with early metal typewriters so that configuration was designed to slow down typing. After typewriters got better and faster it was too late as too many people had learned that way and so now we are stuck with it so-to-speak. In addressing whether certain ‘primitive’ societies are as  ‘inventive’ as so-called more civilized societies the author makes notes of his many hours among Native New Guineans where he notes that they are extremely inquisitive and know in great detail their local environment. He goes on to show how various indigenous cultures took ideas from Eurasian societies and inventively adapted them and expanded them for technological and artistic benefits. Here he notes that some indigenous societies were more receptive to new technologies than others for various social reasons. So he suggests that over time and space when some technology becomes available and is accepted for use the innovations will come. Many inventions passed to others through idea-diffusion and so copying the invention. More geographically isolated societies did not benefit from this.

The next section is about how societies are organized. He examines differences in a classification from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states in terms of membership, government, religion, economy, and social factors. For example a band is made up of dozens of nomadic kin of a single ethnicity, egalitarian government, no hierarchy, informal conflict resolution, no food production, no division of labor, no slavery, no social stratification, no tribute based on religion, no literacy, and only reciprocal exchanges. By contrast a state has tens of thousands of members in fixed villages and cities with much social stratification and centralized government, judicial system, state capital, possible religious tribute, intensive food production, division of labor, and possible large-scale slavery, etc. He goes through the details of these ‘stages’ and shows how several societies developed in these ways. He defines religion basically as supernatural beliefs that became institutionalized. The kleptocrat is the god-king or god-chief (among say the Hawaiians) who keeps too much of the tribute allotted him by the society. “The difference between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a percentage of the tribute extracted from the producers is retained by the elite, and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistributed tribute is put.” The elite has a better chance of retaining power if it has an ideology or religion that justifies its existence. Among hunter-gatherer societies there are a few that made to the organizational ability of chiefdoms but never to states. The comparison of food production leading to population or vice versa is a chicken and egg argument for society development. The author notes that they stimulate each other – by what he calls – autocatalysis. The example he gives is that population leads to societal complexity which leads to increased food production which in turn stimulates population. He notes three ways food production influences complex societies: First there is seasonal labor associated with things like planting and harvesting. After food ids harvested and secured there can be labor available for public works, ability to produce more food and people, and better opportunities for conquest. Secondly, food surpluses promote specialization of labor and social stratification. Thirdly, food abundance allows sedentary living and so promotes possession or ownership of goods.

Next he goes on to describe the histories of several distinct peoples. First is the island of New Guinea, once connected to Australia during the Pleistocene glacial period. He notes the very significant cultural differences between native New Guineans and native Australians, even those among New Guineans of different climatic regions and elevations of the island. He goes through the genetic divergence of these two peoples as well and of the later arrivals from China and southeast Asia of the pig to New Guinea, of the dog (dingo) to Australia, and of yams and taro that provided better nutrition in already developed agriculture of New Guinea. The Austronesian expansion from Indonesia which colonized the Pacific islands had much less impact on New Guinea and Australia due to their unique climates, less hospitable in the main landing areas. Next it is China with its uniquely unified culture. Sino-Tibetan languages from the north scattered other languages to the south and became the dominant culture and greater political unification. Food production, technology, writing, and state formation led to neighboring regions copying the model. Next in examining the settling of the Polynesian islands one comes to the conclusion based on language that The Austronesian languages come initially from Taiwanese languages so it is likely the Taiwanese first set out and settled the Indonesian islands conquering and intermarrying with the natives there. Archeological evidence suggests that this began around 2500 BC making it to Hawaii and Easter Island around 500 AD and finally to the Chatham Islands off of New Zealand around 1300 BC. There are a few artifacts such as the Taiwanese ‘bark beater’ used to pound bark into clothing, that link it to Polynesian cultures as well as the arrival of the pigs, chickens, dogs, yams, taro, and certain pottery styles. The development of the double-outrigger sailing canoe greatly advanced these peoples’ abilities to sail to explore the South Pacific seas. New Guineans, especially those in the interior were much less affected by Austronesians since they already had developed agriculture and other plant and animals domesticates from earlier Austronesian visits. Those earlier visits also let them gradually develop immunity to some diseases.

Continental and hemispheric comparisons occupy the next section. One thing of note is the observation that most language expansions are firmly associated with agricultural expansions. Two later historical ones are definitely based on horse-based pastoralism – Hungarian and Mongol/Turkic advances are late, in the 9th to 11th centuries. Possibly also the Indo-European is related to horse-based pastoralism but one can’t deny that food production may have been a factor, perhaps the main one as Renfrew suggests. He does a small section on settlement patterns in the north by the Norse to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and the coast of North America. The harsh climate and lack of resources were strong factors holding back Norse expansionism. Then there is a chapter about the history of Africa noting language variations, climatic differences, significant genetic differences among peoples there, settlement patterns, technological innovations, and agricultural expansion. One thing of interest is that the Austronesians settled the island of Madagascar intermarrying with natives there and may even have introduced the xylophone (balafon) to Africa. They also brought bananas and the Asian yam. Africans in the Sahel grew sorghum and pearl millet. Those just south of there in West African grew African yams and Kola Nuts. Ethiopians in East Africa grew coffee and tef as well as wheat and other crops that came from the Fertile Crescent. Agricultural expansion was found to lead language expansion among the Bantu who moved south and southeastward with the help of metal tools and weapons as well as crops and species from the Sahel zone.

The last section is about how history can and should be studied as a science and how this can proceed. Here he notes long-term comparisons of regions as yielding useful information. As I said before this book does serve to debunk myths of inferior/superior peoples and shows how strongly geography and climate affect historical developments. Chance and the luck of timing are also a factor that can’t be denied. This was a totally awesome book and a fun one to read. Well worth it. Finally he gives a section of further readings to this latest edition.

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