Saturday, February 25, 2006

It's all about farming

I am finishing up my reading of "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" (1997), by UCLA Professor Jared Diamond. This is a brilliant book, and one I recommend to anybody interested in understanding why socities developed differently, and at different paces, in different parts of the world. Diamond takes a very broad view of his subject, and his thesis is that the development of food production is ultimately the reason why Eurasian socieites developed the technologies, centralized governments, writing systems, and, as an unfortunate byproduct, the germs and epidemic diseases that allowed them to conquer and dominate the socieites of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Oceania. The Eurasian development of food production, in turn, is based on the availability of wild crops and wild large mammals suitable for domestication. Early developments in Eurasia (largely the "Fertile Crescent," but also in China) were spread easily throughout Eurasia due to that land mass's East-West access, which allowed societies from Europe to India to China to adopt plant/animal "packages" at similar lattitudes (though, due to geography, the interactions between China and the Fertile Crescent area were much more limited than the interactions between the Fertile Crescent, India, and Europe. Also, the more evenly distributed populations of the Eurasian land mass helped in the diffusion of crops, animals, and ideas, while the more isoloated populations of the other areas of the world were less able to share with each other.

Diamond is very convincing, and he discredits the old, at least implicitly racist, Euro-centric theories that attempted to explain why some cultures progressed more rapidy than others. In his broad sweep and fresh approach to the subject of world history, Diamond reminds me somewhat of the French "Annalistes" of the 1930s, who focused more on issues like the history of climate than on the more traditional subjects of their field. Also, sweeping theories of comparative history have been out of favor for years, and Diamond's book suggests the difficulties inherent in formulating such a sweeping theory; his theory takes into account plant and animal physiology (he is a physiologist by training), epidemiology, economics, political science, sociology, geography, demographics, technological innovation, linguistics, and cultural anthropology--and history too. With knowledge as specialized as it has become, the possibility of forumlating a single, broad theory of the history of the development of human socieites has been greatly reduced from the days of intellectual generalists. There are a few underdeveloped areas in the book, and Diamond himself mentions a few in his 2003 afterword--the role of cultural idiosyncracies, and the assertive proselytizing of Islam and Christianity being a couple of them. I thought he gave the role of religion in social development short shrift, limiting his discussion of religion to its role in supporting the social order in highly stratified societies. Certainly all of what we would call major religions (all of which are relatively recent in the long history of human life on Earth) have served that purpose, but it seems to me that the teachings of different religions have different and powerful influcences on their respective adherents and societies--whatever their unique historical and spiritual claims. Whether you accept Diamond's hypothesis or not, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is a brilliant, fresh approach to history, and one that makes for a damn interesting read. Posted by Picasa


mike said...

i actually just picked this book up from B&N the other night and started reading it this weekend. i've heard good things about it from some friends and acquaintances, and so i finally decided to pick up a copy.

i'm only a few chapters into it, but it's a fascinating read. i still haven't gotten to the chapters about ancient hebrew explorations of the new world.

Randy said...

I'm already well into Diamond's next book, "Collapse," which discusses the environmental factors involved in the failures or successes of various human socieities.