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Guns, Germs and Steel

Currently reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, subtitled A Short History of Everybody in the last 13,000 years. That's a grand subtitle, and it's certainly a book with a large scope. The main question Diamond seeks to answer is why civilisation, writing and technology emerged in certain times and places and not others. Drawing on many disciplines - geography, biology, genetics, archaeology etc. - Diamond makes a compelling case that these breakthroughs in human progress were largely contingent on environmental and geographic factors rather than any racial or cultural differences.

For example, farming (and thus cities) first emerged in the "Fertile Crescent" of the Middle East (modern day Iraq, Syria, Israel and Egypt) simply because there was an abundance of wild plants suitable for domesticating as food crops. By contrast, the American continent had a dearth of such plants (only corn and beans, until the arrival of Europeans), and the North-South orientation of the continent, with different climates depending on latitude, hampered the spread of agriculture - whereas Europe's East-West orientation enabled rapid spread (out to Ireland and Russia). Of course agriculture also developed in India and China, though again the range of plants was more limited than in the Fertile Crescent. Diamond also considers some interesting cases such as New Guinea, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa (which suffers from the same North-South climate issues as America). There were similarly local variations for availability of large mammals suitable for domestication. America possessed no domesticable mammals suitable as beasts of burden - hence why wheels appear as pre-Columbus South American toys, but never in use on carts.

Diamond also considers the relative inequality in infectious diseases between the Conquistadors and the Aztec and Inca societies (the impact of European diseases was far, far more significant than that of gunpowder in the destruction of native American civilisation). The reasons for this inequality are interesting and tied to farming and the relatively early emergence of city states in Eurasia compared to America.

There is much, much more to the book than I can cover here, but I hope the above gives some sense of its scope and topics. Considering I was terminally bored by geography at school, I've been surprised how interesting I am finding it. Definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in history, adding some perspectives that have in the past been rather overlooked by traditional historians.

Good to see you here, Mike.  I think I would enjoy this book too, though I was never good at geography at school either - I don't know if it bored me or not, but I do know that I was last in class in it in the third form.  This was a bit discouraging because I was used to being in the top five in most subjects.  I did take a beginning paper at university but gave that up when it turned out to have too much science in it, which I couldn't understand.  

But this one sounds a little like the one I read on Joseph Needham and the scientific discoveries of China, a book I liked a lot.  And I also enjoy Simon Winchester's work. Guns, Germs and Steel made a bit of a splash when it first came out and the knowlegge that it has a lot of history in it means I would find it fascinating, I am sure.  Interesting thesis too.
Joe McWilliams

Mike, I enjoyed this book several years ago. I believe my son has recently read it as well.
Geographical accident as the reason some people have 'more cargo' (in the New Guinea term) than others. It's as good an explanation as I've heard, especially when the alternatives usually have something to do with divine providence.

Thanks for the comments guys. I am still reading this - about 2/3 through it - but have slowed down somewhat since my holiday came to an end!

One of the other things that the book explained - which I hadn't really thought about before - is how much impact farming has had on the evolution of plants. Perhaps I shouldn't really call it evolution, as the unnatural selection practised by humans has in many cases run counter to the forces of natural selection.

We've bred plants that suit our growing and harvesting practices, but which wouldn't do well at all left to nature. For example, the strawberries we cultivate are large and fleshy, and in the wild would be feasted upon by birds and other animals - their size makes them more visible from a distance, and makes their energy gained/energy spent profile ideal for predators. By contrast, wild strawberries are much smaller. We have also bred many seedless fruits, which do not fulfill their original function at all. Many bitter-tasting wild plants have been bred into more palatable varieties (in the extreme case of almonds, from toxic to edible!). Diamond also mentions peas - which originally evolved to split open and spread their seeds much sooner than the varieties we've bred. Much the same applies to wheat and other cereal crops.

Perhaps all this is obvious to someone with an agricultural background; but as a confirmed Townie, it's not something I'd ever given much thought to!
Joe McWilliams

Well, I for one am glad somebody took the trouble to breed almonds up from toxic to edible. Not to mention those nutty visionaries who saw the possibilities in the olive.

Because I bought Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens from Amazon, Guns is frequently being recommended. So now I've put it on my ever growing wish list.

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