Saturday, April 09, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

This book gives us a glimpse of what happened to us, our human society and its evolution in the past 13000 years. In the 13000 years since the end of the last ice age, some of us have ended up with literate industrial societies with metal tools, while some others only developed stone tools and non literate societies and rest of us remained as hunter-gatherers. This historical inequalities have long cast shadows into the modern world, for many of the literate societies with metal tools colonized, displaced or exterminated the other societies in the recent centuries.

‘Guns, germs and steel’ was initiated by a simple question from a New Guinean named Yali: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had a little cargo of our own?” Jared Diamond attempts to answer why we evolved differently in terms of technology in different continents, with Europeans ending up colonizing most of the world and not vice versa. As he sails pasts our history of 13000 years he brilliantly clarifies how geography played the most important role to shape our evolution and refutes the belief that the Eurasian domination is due to any form of intellectual, moral or inherent genetic superiority. 

An extremely short (13000 years in a single post?) rundown of what gave Eurasians the advantage over the rest of the world:

Success arises out of a steady accumulation of advantages
-Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Farmer power

Around 8000 years ago, the futile hunter-gather lifestyle was failing in terms of reduced calorie gained per human hour due to possible over exploitation of large animal resources as food and the inland of Eurasia offered few large rivers which meant meager aquatic resources. Due to climatic changes at the end of the , there was an increase in availability of wild cereals in the Fertile Crescent. 

The Fertile Crescent offers the Mediterranean climate, characterized by mild, wet winters and long, hot, dry summers. This climate favored ‘annual’ grasses (wild cereals) that pump most of their energies in producing big seeds (rather than making inedible wood or fibrous stems), which remain dormant in the dry summers and sprout when the rains come. This huge variation of seasons favored faster plant evolution that the Fertile Crescent ended up having 32 of the 56 potential domesticable wild grasses. In contrast, the food producing regions of Americas offered just 11 species, Saharan Africa just 4 and Australia none at all. Also the range of altitudes that the Fertile Crescent meant the then Eurasians could move up a mountainside harvesting grain seeds as they matured (plants at higher altitude produce seeds somewhat later than plants at lower altitudes) instead of being over-whelmed by a concentrated single harvest season. 

Thus the conditions in the Fertile Crescent compelled the Eurasians to adopt farming really long before the rest of the world did. This most important advantage of having a head start in food farming shaped the rest of the world history.

Animal friends

The to-be domesticated animal candidates must satisfy all these conditions to remain with humans all their life:
  • Favorable diet (to grow a 1000 pound cow needs 10000 pounds of corn say, to grow a 1000 pound carnivore will need 100000 pounds of corn)
  • Growth rate (one that grows quickly unlike elephants which represent a lot of meat)
  • Problems of captive breeding (like humans many animals like Cheetah that can be used as hunters don’t like to have sex under watchful eyes of others)
  • Nasty disposition (not too largely capable of killing a human like grizzlies)
  • Tendency to panic and social structure (no point building a fence around a gazelle)

These strict conditions probably explain why Africa, despite known for its animal kingdom did not provide a single domesticable animal. Australia and Americas lost most of their potential domesticable candidates in a wave of Pleistocene extinctions and possibly due to human over exploitation.

The early onset of food production meant that the Eurasians could afford to feed the extra harvest to the animals that could be kept as livestock for food, muscle power and clothing. The big animals that were eventually domesticated are all unsurprisingly herbivorous (which fed on the extra harvest): Sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse, camel, llama, donkey, reindeer, buffalo, yak and mithan. And again these were spread unevenly around the world with Eurasians ending up inheriting 7 of the 12 domesticable species.

Thus Eurasia had its second advantage from the domesticated animals which were utilized for their muscle power and food.

North-South VS East-West

Although we would have seen the world map a number of times, we would have hardly realized this fact: the Americas and Africa are spread longitudinally (neglecting Australia for its small size), and Eurasia is spread horizontally. 
This has far reaching consequences; the climate varies greatly along the longitudes while it is mostly the same along latitudes. Hence a plant or an animal domesticated elsewhere in a climatic region could be adopted without drastic changes along latitudes. This ultimately helped Eurasia to spread largely within itself the domesticated plant-animal packages than Americas and Africa. The narrowness of ensured that the North and South America remained virtually unconnected and the harsh Saharan region ensured the crops domesticated in Eurasia and North Africa do not spread to the rest of the Africa. 

The ease of widely launching the domesticated plant - animal packages in Eurasia is the third advantage it enjoyed over the rest of the world.

Necessity’s mother

The population size and density of a region is determined by the ability of that region to sustain its population. Eurasia with its highest population size and density due to its geographical advantages simply had higher candidates who would actively invent and innovate. The Eurasian farming and its population size also meant it could afford to raise non farmers who can get involved in specialized skills like weaponry unlike the fulltime hunter-gatherers. Also the settled farmers of Eurasia can produce a lot of good unlike the hunter gatherers who would have to carry the goods they produce all the time. And inventions self catalyzes itself driving the pace of the further inventions.

On the other hand, Australia at its peak simply supported population of under 1 million and with its extremely low density of population offered very low number of potential inventors or innovators to start with. Interesting point is that with the invention and the spread of wheel, Eurasia ended up using it to move large quantities of food and people using its domesticated animal power (horses in particular) whereas the same wheel ended up as toys in Americas and Africa due to the unavailability of domesticated animals (except for the pack animal llama) to pull the wheel in the first place. 

These successive advantages again ensured Eurasia to invent most of the technologies including the wide usage of metals and guns.

Lethal gift of the livestock

The five major killers of humanity throughout our recent human history - smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles and cholera – are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals. In epidemics, the rapid spread of microbes mean that everybody in the local population is quickly infected and soon thereafter is either dead or recovered and immune. The survivors are immune and the new generation inherits the immunity, until an infectious person (of the same microbe but with a mutation) arrives from outside to start a new epidemic.

The Eurasian farmers who had the head start in farming and livestock herding were in close contact with the animals for a long time. Eurasians developed immunity to these diseases (expect for malaria which slowed their progress in colonization of South East Asia) long before the world and when they visited the uninfected communities around the world, they breathed the lethal germs and fell most of the societies. 

All those military histories glorifying great generals oversimplify the ego-deflating truth: the winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing germs to transmit to their enemies. 

In all..

Hence it can be seen that the success of a specific community has got to do more about the environment than about the people of the community themselves. Perhaps Alexander the Great and his army did nudge the course of western Eurasia’s already literate, food-producing, iron equipped states, but he had nothing to do with the fact that western Eurasia already supported literate, food producing, iron equipped states in the first place. Surprising similarities with !

Bottom line (and the answer to Yali’s question): the striking differences between the long term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to the innate difference in the people themselves but to differences in their environment!

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