The BOOKPRESS March 1999

It Comes With the Territory

Steve Adisasmito-Smith

Jared Diamond.
Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies.
W. W. Norton, l997.
480 pages, $27.50 cloth.


This brilliant and comprehensive work, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1998, synthesizes discoveries in evolutionary biology and epidemiology with the latest findings in archaeology and linguistics to give a broad survey of the last 13,000 years of human history. Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, most recently authored The Third Chimpanzee, an account of human evolution, and is a frequent contributor to magazines such as Nature and Natural History. In the present book, Diamond is paying a debt, answering a question from a friend who helped with his research in Papua New Guinea over 25 years ago. His friend, Yali, a local politician, asked why the Europeans had so much "cargo" (trade goods, vehicles, weapons) when they arrived, while his people had so little. That question became Diamond’s personal entry into the historical problem of the evident inequalities of technology and material goods in past encounters between various cultures. While the immediate causes of the European conquests are generally acknowledged to lie in greater military force, more lethal infectious diseases, and more advanced technology—the guns, germs, and steel of the book's title—the factors that gave rise to these developments are disputed. Some theorists have claimed racial intelligence or cultural superiority, either blatantly or in a covert form, and many have tacitly accepted these answers for lack of a better explanation. Diamond, with admirable clarity, dismantles such theories and convincingly argues that geography and environment, not genetics, combined to give the Europeans their competitive edge. To do so, Diamond reviews developments on each of the continents and the islands of Polynesian since the last ice age, providing a true world history. While necessarily a broad sketch, Diamond’s account is nevertheless compelling and deserves to be read by anyone with a serious interest in human history and contact between cultures.

Environmental factors are key players in Diamond’s developmental scheme. The physical size and biodiversity of Eurasia contributed to the early domestication of plants and animals for increased food production, which resulted in the rise of elite social groups (such as a professional military) and the proliferation of infectious diseases. Its geographical orientation, with an east-west axis along similar climatic zones, facilitated the rapid spread of technological innovations. In Diamond’s view, nature is nurture, not in terms of an absolute geographic determinism, but rather because some environments provided more raw materials and favorable conditions to promote their use. He provides a solid rebuff to bell-curve theorists, by demonstrating that human ingenuity and intelligence can be found everywhere, but always adapted to the local environment.

In fact, one of the strengths of the book is the wealth of descriptions of interactions between non-European people. The majority of such cases are drawn from New Guinea, where Diamond lived and worked extensively. The New Guinea highlanders developed intensive farming at an early period, but the lowlands of New Guinea were unsuitable for these crops, as were the nearby coasts of Australia, so trade relations with the Australian aborigines remained sparse. One of the most intriguing chapters in the first part of the book presents the expansion of Austronesian peoples in case studies of how descendants from the same culture fared in the radically different environments of various Pacific islands.

The second section of the book chronicles "The Rise of Food Production." As might be expected, Diamond is most cogent when discussing the interaction of biodiversity, food production, geographical environments, and the rise of infectious diseases. Diamond’s analysis pioneers a kind of biogeography—the study of the effects of the environment on life forms and the development and dispersion of species in different areas. For example, how did almonds, bitter and poisonous in the wild, come to be domesticated? Humans picked the few mutant wild species that were fit for consumption, which selected for those genetic traits, and deposited them as refuse. In other words, trash piles and latrines became the first gardens.

While drawing on numerous such specific examples, Diamond extends his scope to the broadest trends. Eurasia, which had the greatest landmass compared to the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia, also had the greatest number of plant and animal candidates suitable for domestication. The east-west orientation of Eurasia facilitated the spread of domestication as different groups adopted the varieties under cultivation. Plants adapted to certain latitudes spread fastest among those latitudes where they were exposed to the same amount of sunlight, length of growing seasons, and roughly similar weather conditions. Animal domestication was subject to similar constraints. Diamond also postulates the "Anna Karenina principle:" just as happy marriages are all alike, but unhappy ones are unhappy each in their own way, so the pairings of humans and animals needed several requirements to succeed, but could fail in diverse ways. Several factors, such as the animals’ diets, social habits, and temperaments (zebra bites are vicious), combined to inhibit viable domestication.

Geographical barriers created a temporal gradient: similar developments in technology and food production occurred in the Americas as well as in Eurasia (the invention of the wheel and a system of writing), but they spread, developed, and combined at a slower rate due to the greater difficulty of access across the American landscapes. Eurasia, on the other hand, had a relative ease of dispersal due to more open routes of travel, with few ecological or geographic barriers. This resulted in a head-start for Eurasian societies and a faster rate of development as technological improvements acted as catalysts and as the cultures shared innovations.

Some of Diamond’s conceptual reversals are engaging, as when he explains the spread of disease from the microbe’s point of view: open sores, sneezing, and coughing, "so inconvenient" to humans, are excellent means for dispersal, exit ramps on the microbial superhighways. His explanation of the evolution of more lethal germs in Eurasia from interspecies infection is insightful. The population density of the herd animals transmitted mutant strains to human vectors, and the greater density of human population kept epidemic diseases in play and filtered out the less successful strains. Thus, when Europeans arrived in the Americas and Australia, they transmitted epidemics rather than catching them. The diseases spread in advance of the people, resulting in a death toll among Native Americans estimated as high as 95 percent.

Diamond becomes less convincing as he deals with more complex cultural phenomena. (In some respects, his description of the transfer of writing and technology sounds like the spread of epidemics.) Although his sketch of the development of writing systems is fairly accurate—there are still many gaps in what is known in this field—he does not convincingly demonstrate the connection between food production, population and the development of writing in some areas, compared to its lack in others. It is not a new observation that abundant resources and leisure time provide the opportunity, and the administrative and mercantile requirements of an increased population, the need, for written records. What requires more analysis is the leap from inventory lists to epics and religious texts that justify imperialism. While one chapter briefly sketches the collusion of social organization, government, and religion, the book stops short of an adequate discussion of the cultural factors which stimulated the European attempt to colonize the earth.

Though Diamond tries not to assume a necessary teleology in the way historical events unfolded, his careless diction at points gives that impression. Saying that certain geographical areas "had to await" the implantation of European crops and livestock not only jars the ear, but does much to undo his claims that these areas would have developed appropriate food systems or technology through their own initiative if the Europeans had not intervened. Furthermore, from someone who advocates developing human history as a science, the statement, "What use one makes of a historical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself," is critically naive. Questions that motivate the explanations are not themselves disinterested, and some explanations lend themselves to ideological misuse or post-facto justification of inequities. Such is the case, for example, with the racist theories he refutes.

Any book that tackles a subject of this scope must fall short, as Diamond acknowledges. Still, Diamond provides a clear look at the constellations of environmental factors that have shaped human history over the past 13,00 years. While only a partial answer to Yali's question, Diamond's work is a useful sketch, similar to an archaeological site plan that surveys the ground and traces the structures that must have been in place. Guns, Germs and Steel provides a solid, biological basis for beginning to understand the history of inter-civilizational contact.

Steve Adisasmito-Smith is working on his PhD in Comparative Literature.

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