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Jack Oughton - Environmental Determinism in Guns Germs And Steel.doc
 

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    Jack Oughton - Environmental Determinism in Guns Germs And Steel.doc Jack Oughton - Environmental Determinism in Guns Germs And Steel.doc Document Transcript

    • Jack Oughton I n Guns Germs and Steel Jared Diamond argues that history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments. The Eurasian domination of the planet he claims is not a product of any human factors, but of environmental determinism, and that these human factors that allowed Eurasia to prevail in a colonial sense, only arose because Europe had the most favourable environment for the development of the societies within it. His argument is expansive, incorporating his wide expertise in a myriad of environmental factors, from evolutionary biology, human physiology, linguistics, anthropology, geography and history. I believe however, that even this expansive argument cannot hope to address every single environmental factor which accounts for the hegemony of Eurasian civilization, and by its deterministic nature, ignores the most important part of what shapes human history, humans themselves! Although his work is an incredible piece of synergistic research, and there is no doubt that certain cultures have had ‘a better start’, environmental determinism is too simple an explanation, and to discount the many other factors, including the ones we could be yet unaware of, is unwise. I believe that there can be no ‘correct’ understanding of all the exact causes of economic situation of today, and that Diamond oversteps himself by trying to explain it. In the words of the historian, Victor Davis Hanson; “At some point a Cleisthenes, Plato… Sistine Chapel, Edison, or Einstein — and the thinking and substructure that produced them, is worth more than long, indented coastlines and concentrations of iron ore.” T he crux of his methodology rests on the basis that if a human society has the right prerequisites, it can choose to make the transition from hunter gathering into an agricultural collective. This begins a process that, with the right environmental factors available, allows it to develop the tools that allow it to evolve into a more formal civilization. These benefits of agricultural civilization confer a mastery over non agricultural collectives; "Food production led to high population densities, germs, technology, political organization, and other ingredients of power. Peoples who, by accident of their geographical location, inherited or developed food production thereby became able to engulf geographically less endowed people" (p386). Diamond outlines many conditions that are required for the creation and further development of an agricultural society. Firstly, there needs to be available varieties of animals and crops suitable to domestication. Domesticated food sources provide the ability for an agricultural society to devote more time to class specialization. This class system would allow an administrative social hierarchy to direct and govern the civilization, enforce laws that restrict the inherent human need to kill strangers, and redistribute resources by
    • means of a ‘kleptocratic’ government towards the objectives this hierarchy now sets. The time that would have been spent gathering food in the wild could now be invested by specialists in the advancement of technology, development of society, culture, and in the creation of a dedicated warrior class. A sedentary society can now put down roots and begin to acquire objects and material that facilitates its development, but would not have been practical for a hunter gatherer society of which survival depended upon mobility. This society can then make a greater use of the land and natural resources available to it, and now complete labour intensive jobs like mining or the creation of building projects. Secondly, birth rates increase as sedentary humans are now able to raise multiple children at one time, no longer having to wait for one to mature to the age at which he can travel great distances unsupported. Newly cultivated lands can support more people, yielding more calories per acre than an area of land not devoted to feeding humans, consequentially providing more humans, a resource in itself. These additional people mean more specialists to advance the civilization, gather the resources and confer a military advantage in numbers over people lacking farmer power. The domestication of animals allows agricultural societies to utilize even more calories in the long term from animals through milk, than through simply slaughtering these domesticates. These animals are also a vital and renewable source of protein for a society that’s food sources are heavily emphasized upon carbohydrate rich grains. Animal manure is utilized for crop fertilization, and pulling a plough, further facilitating agriculture. The same animals also have other intrinsic uses, such as providing hides for leather, sinews for rope and transport capability. The domestication of the horse provides increased mobility and military shock value to civilizations lucky enough to have access to it. Increasing proximity to and reliance upon livestock allows the development of immunity to animal borne diseases, which can be transmitted to unsuspecting non immune societies, for example the cross species jump of measles, tuberculosis and smallpox from cattle, influenza from pigs and malaria from fowl. Lastly, the rise of the specialist system allows for the development of organized and centralized religion, which is a societal tool to unite a people with shared goals and beliefs, and in some cases, create an evangelical mythos that requires the religion be spread, encouraging the civilization to adapt an aggressive and expansive strategy, in the name of God. Diamond expands upon this further, societies also require a convenient location to allow the diffusion of technologies, such as new crop and livestock packages, as in many cases, these crops are only domesticated in only one place at one time, and it is easier to learn from another group that has already a predesigned food ‘package’ than go through the process of domesticating your own. Isolated civilizations, such as the Tasmanian islanders, with no suitable species of their own to domesticate, and little to no connective links to other groups are denied the opportunity to adopt or copy farmer power, thus preventing them progressing beyond the hunter gatherer phase. Dominance among differing agricultural civilizations is determined by access to these environmental factors. Societies with the most of these proximate resources develop faster, and Eurasia, the most technologically and socially advanced continent of them all since the
    • dawn of prehistory to the present day, was especially lucky. The many examples of technologically unmatched conflicts, such as the utter destruction of the Aztec civilization by Hernan Cortes’ small band of Conquistadores, or the death of Atahualpa and routing of the Incan army that symbolized the downfall of the Incan people, by another small band of Spaniards lead by Fransico Pizarro, where foregone conclusions. They were simply the direct implication of Europe’s unfair environmental advantage and earlier adoption of agriculture, decided millennia ago. These factors gave Europeans the means to create and use GUNS GERMS AND STEEL. How did Eurasia ‘Win’? D iamond suggests a number of serendipitous advantages enjoyed by Eurasia; firstly in its unique axis; the primary axis of Eurasia is east-west, whereas the axes of Africa and the Americas are north-south. Because crops and livestock are climate adapted and climate varies more strongly with latitude than longitude, these domesticates could be spread across Eurasia more easily than anywhere else. Eurasia is also the largest continent with the greatest variety of climatic conditions and therefore the most empire building natural resources available. Of the large seeded grass species of the world, 32 of 56 are native to Eurasia, and in comparison with a lot of new world crops, such as corn, rice, or yams, many Eurasian staples were especially easy to grow, self-pollinating annually with a relatively higher protein content. Eurasia was strategically connected to the Fertile Crescent; which possessed the wild progenitors to all of the Neolithic founder crops, which are known to be the first domesticated crops in the world. The region also possessed four of the ‘big five’ most important species of domesticated animals; cows, goats, sheep, and pigs, and the fifth species, the horse, lived nearby on the Eurasian steppes. Eurasia also possessed 8 of the ‘minor 9’ domesticatable species; barring the alpaca, which is native to South America. In comparison, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia and the Americas had fewer domesticatable animals available. Of the 148 large (over 100lb) herbivorous or omnivorous species in the world, some of which became domesticated, Eurasia had 72, Africa 51, the Americas 24, and Australia only had 1, the Kangaroo. And even when these less fortunate areas had domestic candidates available, or the trade links available to obtain them, the huge transition from the hunter gatherer to the agriculturalist took a solid demonstration of the rewards of this new lifestyle, many of these regions did not have access to inspiring examples of other groups that had done the same. Sometimes tribes would only make this leap because of a significant decline in the availability of wild foods that would have forced agriculture out of necessity to survive, and many where quite comfortable. Australia suffered from a lack of useful animals due to extinction, and a predominantly arid climate through most of the land mass, not conducive to agriculture. The Americas, due to the huge longitudinal difference from peak to trough of its axis had difficulty adapting crops domesticated at one latitude for use at other latitudes, and in North America, adapting crops from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other. Africa was
    • divided by its extreme variations in climate from north to south: domesticates simply could not be transferred through the searing desert in the middle. Meanwhile, thanks to Europe’s hospitable environment, the large number and variety of well connected cultures in Eurasia was leading to a greater diffusion of pathogens and ideas. In the densely packed human population centers of Europe, fed by farms fertilized with recycled sewage was possessed the most powerful accidental biological warfare arsenal a continent could muster. The evolution of world trade routes and the centrality of Eurasian nations as trading powers also helped facilitate this process, quickly spreading and absorbing new diseases as smallpox and the bubonic plague, in the biological exchange that occurred between Eurasia and America, killing 95% of Native American population before Europeans had even fully arrived, Diamond infers that Syphilis was the only disease the Native Americans transferred to Eurasians. Hence Eurasia was able to support a diverse range of larger, denser populations, and as a consequence of these environmental factors, helped develop more militarily formidable and technologically advanced, germ equipped civilizations than other regions, faster. These advantages enabled European civilizations to dominate the natives of other continents they subsequently encountered. T he first caveat with GGAS is in the argument that all human factors that differentiated the colonists from the natives arose only because of the environment. Whilst it is hard to dispute his argument that Europe did have access to more resources that facilitated more ‘advanced’ societies, he cannot prove his assumption that other regions, if provided with this environment, would have experienced the same results as the Europeans, this is hindsight bias [IE. Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen]. In an alternate world in which Llama mounted Mesoamerican cavalry decimated a polytheistic Spain, would Aztec historians make the same foregone conclusions? Take another example: among the disadvantages that American continent suffered from was a lack of founder crops. Yet Diamond concedes that some of them on the surface had great potential, such as sumpweed; "a nutritionist's ultimate dream”. Sumpweed, Diamond explains, did not become a staple because it causes hayfever, smells bad, and handling it can cause skin irritation (p. 151). Is it also a foregone conclusion that these vices could not have been bred out of them given time? All domesticated plants had originally undesirable characteristics, but through some lucky genetic drift and meticulous selection these traits where, over generations, removed. Diamond points out that much of our ability to improve plants depended on whether certain undesirable characteristics were the result of epistatic effects (caused by more than one gene). People could manipulate genetic traits as long as it was caused by one or very few genes; if it was controlled by many genes, this would become very difficult. But Diamond undercuts this argument when it he mentions maize, domesticated in Mesoamerica around 6000BC. Wild corn is a exceptionally poor candidate for domestication; it’s cobs are about the size of a human fingernail and
    • enclosed in an inedible bivalve shell. Is this not evidence for the potential of selective breeding that could have been applied to many other plants? Diamond’s arguments against Llama cavalry come from what he terms the Anna Karenina principle, named after a book of the same name by Tolstoy. The principle is that there are 6 crucial conditions that need to be met for an animal to be domesticatable, and a deficiency in any one of these factors prevents this. Therefore the fact that most animals remain wild is not a human factor as most of them are essentially untameable. He supports this by giving examples of the quick integration of domesticated animals into cultures that did not previously have access to them, such as the usage of horses by Native American Indians, and by the failures of modern experts to domesticate certain species, such as the zebra. What he doesn’t account for is that in recent years there have been new domesticates, such as the Macadamia nut in Australia, and the silver fox in Russia. Recent studies have also found that the process of domestication took thousands of years for staples such as wheat, and that the transition to dependence on agriculture was a gradual process (Ken-ichi Tanno, 2006). Given the fact that we do not know what the first horses were like, he makes an assumption the stubborn features exhibited in a modern zebra may not have also been in the first horse to be broken all those years ago, and perhaps in a few hundred years, if selectively bred, domesticated zebra breeds would be possible? Neither Jared nor I can say. However, Diamond’s deterministic argument really takes a hit from the clear historical examples of the effect of varying human factors on a society’s success. For example, how did the culturally Hellenic Ptolemaic dynasty rebuild a crumbling Egypt back into a force that eventually challenged Imperial Rome at the height of its power? What predetermined environmental factors accounted for the enduring success of the Greek city states, whilst centuries before them in that same spot the culture of the Mycenae failed? According to environmental determinism, the fates of these societies should have been sealed... and yet the human variable added an element of uncertainty, unexplainable by the access to horses of a small band of settlers on the Mesogea basin, millennia before. Some cultures even chose to relinquish technology, for example the Tasmanian islanders, who progressively abandoned the technologies that they took with them when they migrated from the Australasian continent thousands of years earlier, and when first visited by Europeans in 1642, couldn’t even start a fire. Diamond’s hypothesis for the periods prior to proper historical documentation via writing rests quite heavily on the archaeological record. And whilst thanks to modern techniques in carbon dating and advances in palaeontology the information it provides is now perceived as very accurate, what is important is what we may not yet have uncovered. The record is a collection of items that just happened to survive, and since we could not possibly found them all (archaeology is a continually evolving process), how can we see the bigger picture if we miss pieces of the puzzle? (Diamond alludes to this himself on page 37). Archaeology is a field very vulnerable to new discoveries that change the way old discoveries are perceived, and theories often have to be redrawn when new evidence comes to light, for example; in
    • 2007 archaeologists made a discovery that suggests chickens where native to South America long before the arrival of the Spaniards, brought millennia earlier by Polynesians in oceangoing canoes. (Powell, 2007) In his greater argument he divides the planet into competing continents, a gross political oversimplification that he hurriedly tries to address at the end explaining how Europe came to surpass Asia. Within each continent are numerous varying cultures, not working in harmony under some continental power structure, but with an infinitely more complicated system of political interactions. Hence, how can we judge the success of a continent? Are we supposed to average the success of the states that inhabited it? Considering Eurasia itself, I believe that the Europe’s perceived military and technological supremacy was simply an illusion caused by a trade-off of the strengths of individual nations e.g., Italian admirals were as inept as English cooks... except Europe just happens to contain roughly 80% of humanity. Taking the continental view is flawed, especially when the continents are as completely unbalanced in both human and environmental factors as it is anyway. Diamond also appears to confuse the concepts of genetic superiorities (plural) and genetic supremacy (singular). The former are circumstance-specific, for example; Europeans failed to settle West Africa, partly because they lacked the malaria resistance conferred on many natives by the sickle cell gene. In contrast, genetic supremacy is the impossible idea that one group is best at everything. Diamond’s argument from environmental determinism is so strong that it's hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection. I t is my belief that in taking a deterministic stance, Jared has written a book that encourages the dangerous concept that humans are not responsible for the implications of their actions. His argument of causality goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and I cannot resolve that ancient philosophical argument here, determinism cannot be proven or disproven, since we cannot go back in time and change the causes to examine the effects. I also dare to say that in taking a single explanation theory he has discounted what I believe to be the most self evidently important factor in any human success, which is innovation in all of its forms. He has also ignored the myriad random events, dumb luck, incredibly complicated socio-political factors and the inherent unpredictability and variance of humans in favour of extremely big picture thinking. There are unaccounted for variables, such as the random emergence of great people, technology rejection and natural disasters, such as at Pompeii and Minoa. As a scientist writing a history book, his scientific approach of trying to prove and defend a hypothesis is defeated by the absence of scientific conditions. His desire to have history treated as science as stated in the Epilogue is impossible. History cannot be tested with controlled variables and is only studied in retrospect, many of the variables being unknown! Most importantly, completely accurate predictions for the future are impossible. His argument from determinism is well thought out and compelling, but in an academic sense it is not falsifiable, as there is no conceivable data that can possibly
    • make Diamond's thesis untrue, and although I have argued for data which may make it seem less probable, I do not accept his conclusion. “History, as well as life itself, is complicated; neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.” – Jared Diamond; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Bibliography Diamond, J. (2006). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin Books Ltd. Diamond, J. (2005). Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (2nd Edition ed.). Vintage. Diamond, J. (1999, June 7). HOW TO GET RICH. Retrieved April 20, 2008, from The Edge: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/diamond_rich/rich_p2.html Hanson, V. D. (2005, March 28). Decline and Fall. National Review . Ken-ichi Tanno, G. W. (2006). How Fast Was Wild Wheat Domesticated? Science , 311 (5769), 1886. McNeill, J. (2001, Febuary). The World According to Jared Diamond. 34 (2). Powell, E. A. (2007). Polynesian Chickens in Chile. Archaeology , 61 (1).