You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2007.

In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel (GGS), Jared Diamond explains the different factors that led to certain societies dominating over certain others. The motivation for the book is a question posed by Yali, a local politician in New Guinea that Diamond had met:
“Why is it that you white people brought so much cargo to New Guinea, and we black people had little cargo of our own?”. As someone that hails from a nation that had once been colonized by another, I was eager to find out what the book had to offer as an answer.

Diamond begins with the migration of our human ancestors outside of Africa about 1 million years ago. By 11,000 BC, most of the modern continents were inhabited, marking the beginning of the ‘Recent Era’. The rest of the book following the first chapter focuses on events since 11,000 BC. The book explains that different regions of the world had different number of potentially domesticable plant and animal species. With a greater number of such plant and animal species in areas such as the Fertile Crescent, agriculture had a headstart there, relative to most parts of North and South America, and Australia, where the scarcity of such plants and animals led to a continuation of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture consequently helped support denser populations, and freed up some of the individuals for governance, military, and other occupations. Eurasia’s east-west spread meant that most countries had similar climates, and allowed for an easy spread of domesticable plant and animal varieties, language, and other innovations. The north-south spread of the Americas and Africa meant a greater barrier to the spread of such developments. Societies that had a headstart in agriculture consequently enjoyed a headstart in development in technology, and that explains the ‘guns’ and ‘steel’ in the title as being responsible for the dominance of these societies. As for the ‘germs’, denser populations and proximity to animal species meant a greater exposure and consequently a better resistance to germs in the farming societies. When these societies confronted the predominantly hunter-gatherer societies that had no prior exposure to such germs, the germs transferred from the former wiped out large numbers within the latter.

The above is, at the risk of over-simplification and omission, a very brief summary of the book. One of the discussions within the book that I found particularly fascinating concerns the selection by the first human farmers of gene-mutant peas and wheat varieties that we consume today. In wild pea plants, the pods explode shooting out the peas into the ground for germination. In mutant pea pods that did not explode, the peas died within the pods preventing the mutant genes from passing on to future generations. However, the pea plants of interest to humans for harvesting were the non-exploding mutants, and so these non-exploding mutant varieties were selectively chosen and harvested. Similarly, wheat and barley grow atop stalks that, in the wild varieties, shattered spreading the seeds for germination. The non-shattering mutants were selectively chosen by the early harvesters for crop production. In this manner, the human farmers reversed the direction of natural selection through selection of mutants, whose genes had no chance of surviving on their own, and non-selection of the genetically favorable varieties.

GGS is divided into four parts – the first three explain the reasons for different paces of development in different parts of the world. The last part discusses the histories of specific countries and in doing so repeats the concepts discussed earlier, which I found to be tedious. Interestingly, all of the three people that have told me that they have read the book added that they never got around to completing it. This may well be a matter of personal preference than something to do with the book.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates