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Guns, Germs and Steel

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  • 1. Guns, Germs and Steel Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, 1Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat But there is neither Easy nor West, Border,nor Breed, nor Birth When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth. [Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Ballad of East and West’(1889)] This book is inspired by just such a cross-cultural encounter as that between Kamal the border raider and the Colonel’s son of the Guides. In the first chapter the author recounts a conversation that he, a biologist studying bird evolution, had in New Guinea in 1972 with Yali, a local politician preparing his people for self-government, which culminated in the searching question ‘Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [goods] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own’ [p. 14]. ‘Yali’s question’ plays a central role in Professor Diamond’s enquiry into ‘a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’, leading him into a wide-ranging discussion of the history of human evolution and diversity through a study of migration, socio-economic and cultural adaptation to environmental conditions, and technological diffusion. The result is an exciting and absorbing account of human history since the
  • 2. Pleistocene age, which culminates in a sketch of a future scientific basis for studying thehistory of humans that will command the same intellectual respect as current scientificstudies of the history of other natural phenomena such as dinosaurs, nebulas and glaciers. 2on the morning of Nov. 16, 1532, the Incan Emperor Atahualpa greeted the Spanishconquistador Francisco Pizarro in the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa wassurrounded by some 80,000 Indian warriors; Pizarro came accompanied only by a raggedgroup of 168 horsemen and foot soldiers. The meeting was ostensibly friendly, but whenAtahualpa scorned an offered Bible, the Spaniards attacked. By nightfall, 7,000 Indians hadbeen slaughtered, without the loss of a single Spanish soldier. (Atahualpa was capturedalive and held for an enormous ransom of gold. When the ransom was delivered, Pizarroexecuted him anyway.) Within a few decades the Incan, Aztec and Mayan civilizations hadcrumbled, and within a few centuries 95 percent of the native population of two entirecontinents had disappeared as well.In Guns, Germs, and Steel, an ambitious, highly important book, Jared Diamond asks:How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca capturing Atahualpa, instead of Atahualpa inMadrid capturing King Charles I? Why, indeed, did Europeans (and especially westernEuropeans) and Asians always triumph in their historical conquests of other populations?Why werent Native Americans, Africans and aboriginal Australians instead the ones whoenslaved or exterminated the Europeans?Mr. Diamond, the author of The Third Chimpanzee and a professor of physiology at theU.C.L.A. School of Medicine, should be applauded just for asking this powerfully originalquestion. Perhaps it had never been posed in quite the same terms before because theanswer was assumed to be obvious: the Europeans triumphed because they weretechnologically and politically superior to the indigenous populations they encountered.Left to ferment unexamined, this assumption has led to the corollary belief, most oftenunconsciously held, that European hegemony had something to do with the Europeansinnate superiority as a people. We may no longer speak of the white mans burden orproclaim our manifest destiny, but books are still written and sold (The Bell Curve, to
  • 3. cite a particularly insidious recent example) that seek to reinforce the notion thatEuropeans got where they are today because they deserved to. Before analyzing the deeper (and ultimately accidental) causes behind European 3 domination, Mr. Diamond cleverly finesses the biological determinists with another tale of annihilation of one society at the hands of another. In the last two months of 1835, the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, off the coast of New Zealand, were slaughteredand enslaved by a small group of invaders who, like Pizarros men, used sophisticatedweapons and unmitigated brutality to defeat a politically and technologically moreprimitive native population. In this case, however, the conquerors were some 900 Maoriwarriors from the New Zealand mainland, 500 miles away. Both the Maori and the Morioriwere Polynesians; the Moriori were descendants of a group of Maori who had colonized theChatham Islands only a few centuries before. Biology was thus clearly not a factor in theirseparate fates. What lay behind the Maori triumph was instead the very different politicaland social organization of the two tribes. The invaders were members of a densepopulation of farmers with a penchant for belligerence fostered by generations spent livingin proximity to other equally ferocious tribes, while the Moriori were peaceful hunter-gatherers who had developed elaborate mechanisms for avoiding conflict rather than forprofiting from it. These differences in social structure in turn had their roots in the verydifferent natural environments that had produced them.With this object lesson in mind, the reader is primed to follow Mr. Diamonds dissection ofthe more complex chains of causation that led to the decidedly lopsided course of historyon a global scale. The proximate cause of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, forinstance, was the potent triad of guns, germs and steel of the books title. But Pizarro andhis compatriots did not enjoy the benefit of steel swords and horses because Spaniardswere inherently smarter folk. Mr. Diamond traces these advantages instead to the early
  • 4. development of farming in prehistoric Europe -- a means of food procurement thatsupported denser populations, which in turn allowed for the establishment of hierarchicalsocieties with centralized governments, strong leaders and social classes such as soldiersand bureaucrats, who, freed from the daily toil of providing food, were available to carry 4out other functions furthering the interests of the larger society. Lest the headstart onagriculture in Europe be itself mistaken for some kind of witness to European intelligence,Mr. Diamond shows how it in fact originated elsewhere (in the Fertile Crescent ofsouthwestern Asia), and not through any particular cleverness on the part of the people ofthat region either. It just happened that the Fertile Crescent offered by far the worldsrichest assortment and abundance of wild grasses and other plants that lent themselves toa gradual, almost unconscious process of domestication. And it just happened too that theeast-to-west orientation of the Eurasian continent meant that regions with similar climateand growing seasons butted up against one another, leading to the faster spread ofagriculture there than on the largely north-to-south-oriented continents of the Americasand Africa.Similar happenstances of prehistory, Mr. Diamond says, underlay the devastating effect ofOld World diseases on New World people. Smallpox had arrived in Peru only five yearsbefore Pizarro, but so many of the ruling class of the Incas had already succumbed thattheir entire political leadership was in shambles. Had it been otherwise, the Spaniardswould have faced a more powerful emperor with a more unified force behind him. But whydid Native Americans fall prey to European germs instead of the other way around? Densehuman populations are required for the spread of infectious diseases, but before contactsome Native American societies were as densely populated as European ones. Why didntthe conquistadors return to their homeland carrying germs that would wipe out 95 percentof the population of Europe?Most deadly human pathogens, Mr. Diamond says, actually originated in animal hosts. Thedomestication of animals emerged in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 B.C. and quicklyspread. Europeans had thus been living close to animals for millenniums -- ample time todevelop a genetic resistance to diseases harbored in livestock and pets. In contrast, most of
  • 5. the wild animals that might have been suitable for domestication in the New World hadbeen hunted to extinction by the earliest arrivals over the Bering land bridge, 12,500 years before the Europeans 5 arrived. Ironically, if those first Native Americans had been less adept hunters, their descendants might have been able to domesticate the indigenous American horse and camel, providing them with an invisible arsenal of microbes of their own when Columbus made his first fateful landing thousands of yearslater. The European conquest of the New World would have been far more difficult, andmight never have taken place at all.
  • 6. In similar fashion, Mr. Diamond peels away the causes beneath the causes of otherEuropean cultural advantages, as if the humanized world were a gigantic onion andrecorded history only its blighted surface. His multilayered analysis, however, should beconsumed with a grain or two of salt. Its sheer depth compels him to wear the hats of 6anthropologist, archeologist, plant geneticist, epidemiologist and social, military andtechnological historian, as well as his own academic headgear. Mr. Diamond acknowledgesthat no single person can be an authority in all these fields, yet he mentions most of theother scholars who must have informed his ideas not in the text but only in an addendum.This makes for a smoother exposition, perhaps, but combined with the sometimes didacticstyle of the narrative, it imparts an unwarranted sense of objectivity, as if everythinghappened when, where and how in prehistory just as Jared Diamond says it did. Each of thedisciplines into which he delves to further his argument is rife with uncertainties, differinginterpretations and opposing viewpoints. A closer examination of them would have onlystrengthened an already formidable work.This is an ambitious project, and no reviewer can comment on all of it with equal authority.Diamond asserts that most of the really important influences on modern history hadalready occurred before the birth of Christ. To a non-specialist, the account of humanprehistory presented here seems plausible and well-founded - the argument is that, ashomo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated to colonise first Asia, then Europe, thenAustralia, and finally the Americas, so a technical progression from hunting to settledagriculture, and a societal progression from warring bands to complex sedentarycivilisations took place largely determined by the environmental conditions in whichdifferent branches of the same species found themselves. Where plants and animals couldeasily be domesticated, as in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, settled agricultureemerged first, and was then diffused to other suitable areas.The development of surplus food-producing societies with high population densitiesprovided humans with resistance to the diseases carried by their domesticated flocks, andfacilitated other technological changes - especially the development of systems ofspecialized knowledge that led to advances in metallurgy, literacy and socio-economic
  • 7. organization - primarily within the Eurasian supercontinent, and its outlying regions in thewestern Pacific and northern Africa, where the environment, and the geographicalnetworks of migration, trade and communication, most favored their spread. Diffusion isthe key concept here - some continents and regions were more favorable than others, 7because of internal or external connections. As a result, when the scattered branches of thehuman species were reunited by trans-oceanic voyages and mercantile capitalism after1500, Old World invaders had a decisive advantage over their New World cousins - thedevelopment of guns, germs and steel ensured that Europeans settled the Americas,Oceania and Southern Africa, eliminating or subduing local populations unable to resistthem.Professor Diamond’s main concern is to reject any simple racial explanation of theapparent differences in material culture between different regions of the planet. Inparticular, he argues that there is no essential difference in intelligence between races;indeed, those who are able to survive in harsh and dangerous environments, such as NewGuinea, are likely to be more intelligent than those living a sheltered and sedentaryexistence in the United States, since mere survival requires much greater skills in theformer than in the latter. Much of his evidence here is anecdotal - accounts of his ownexperiences with ‘primitive’ peoples, and their capacity to adapt to severe environments orrespond successfully to new technologies. This seems an entirely appropriate starting pointfor a multi-cultural world, and one that is logical for an evolutionary biologist. No-oneclaims that the predatory activity of magpies that has diminished stocks of song-birds inBritish suburban gardens has occurred because magpies are cleverer than thrushes, butsimply because they are better adapted to take advantage of changes in environmentalcircumstances. The photographic illustrations in the book - 32 plates of human faces drawnfrom different racial groups around the world - are intended to illustrate this point,although they bear a striking resemblance to the albums of ‘native types’ that used to gracethe catalogues of colonial photographers as part of a very different discourse.Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Professor Diamonduses very broad brush-stokes to fill in his argument. This style is further exaggerated by his
  • 8. desire to identify ‘ultimate’ explanations rather than mere ‘proximate’ ones. Thus behindthe proximate explanation of the dominance of Old World societies and technologies overthe last two thousand years (guns, germs and steel) lurks an ultimate explanation - whybronze tools appeared early in parts of Eurasia, late and only locally in the New World, and 8never, before European settlement, in Australasia. One result is that many of the concernsof practicing historians who are trying to grapple with part of the same agenda are givenlittle attention. The spread of technology, and of the military conquests and economicchanges that it has wrought over the past thousand years, is dismissed as largely a questionof historical accident. For Diamond, technology is about inventiveness, and all peoples areequally inventive given the right circumstances. Even more compressed is the account ofsocio-political institutions on which many other analyses of the modern world depend.Here the entire history of political thought and state-formation from Aristotle onwards iscovered in a couple of pages, most of which is devoted to hydraulic theories [pp. 282-4],while all societies more complex than an egalitarian tribe are dismissed as ‘kleptocracies’that use control of literacy and organized religion to create legitimacy for self-serving elitesthat extract tribute to provide inefficient public services. [p. 276ff]. Remarkably, for a bookon this subject, there is only one brief mention of capitalism [p. 250], where it is listed asone of ten plausible but incomplete explanations of technical progress in Europe. It issignificant that ‘Yali’s question’ with which the book begins was ‘why is it that you whitepeople developed so much cargo .. but we black people had little cargo of our own?’, not‘why do the top ten per cent of white people have so much cargo, but the bottom ten percent have so little?’, or ‘why is so much of the cargo in the world manufactured in theUnited States?’. A book seeking to answer such questions would have to add a fourth totemof Western progress to its title and be called, perhaps, Guns, Germs, Steel and Coca-Cola.This approach distances Diamond’s analysis from much of the current literature on culturalinteractions in modern history - indeed, his suggestions for further reading omit almost allof the standard literature on the history of imperialism and post-colonialism, world-systems, underdevelopment or socio-economic change over the last five hundred years.Thus the large debate that is currently going on over historical explanations of the wealthand poverty of nations in a global context is here reduced to a sub-set of the ultimate
  • 9. question about bronze tools and geographic connectedness - ‘technology may havedeveloped most rapidly in regions with moderate connectedness [Europe], neither too high[China], nor too low [India]’ [p. 416]. For a sample of the wider debate, see the activecorrespondence about ‘Eurocentrism’ in the H-World list sparked off by Brad de Long’s 9review of David Landes’s forthcoming The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some SoRich and Others So Poor? dated 28.3.98. While Diamond gives ‘cultural idiosyncrasies’ somerole in explaining differential progress in material culture, and are singled out as animportant factor in making history unpredictable (as in the account given of the Chinesedecision in the early fifteenth century to ban merchant fleets as a result of court intrigue,which allegedly destroyed her medieval technological leadership in Eurasia), these areseen as simply accidents of history - on a par with the failure of the July Plot to assassinateHitler in 1944. There may be societal variation in the level of receptiveness to innovation (as shown by different responses by non- European peoples to the arrival of European technologies in the nineteenth century), but this simplydemonstrates that, on the grand scale, some societies on all continents would have hadequal chances to achieve technological progress if their environments had been equallyfavorable [p. 411ff].
  • 10. In contrast with the very compressed accounts of the socio-economic and political historyof the settled world, Professor Diamond’s frequent recounting of his personal experiencesin New Guinea bring his arguments into sharper focus. They also suggest irresistiblecomparisons with events nearer home. The intriguing account of the reaction of various 10tribes to contact with the modern world over the last fifty years provides a startlingperspective on events in other isolated and unworldly communities, such as the Historydepartments of British universities. We can all identify the Chimbu tribe, which respondedto contact with the outside world within a single generation by growing coffee as a cash-crop, and establishing saw-mills and trucking companies to grow rich, and also theirneighbours, the Daribi, who are described as ‘especially conservative and uninterested innew technology’, who have tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore all pressures to change and whoare now being taken over by the Chimbu [252]. Best of all is the description of the Fayu, atribe of about 400 hunter-gatherers that normally live as single family units, meeting onlyoccasionally to arrange marriages. Such meetings are frightening events since murder andrevenge-killings are a common occurrence that had led to the reduction of the tribe fromover 2,000 to 400 within living memory. At a typical meeting,one Fayu man spotted the man who had killed his father. The son raised his ax and rushed atthe murderer but was wrestled to the ground by friends; then the murderer came to theprostrate son with an ax and was also wrestled down. Both men were held, screaming withrage, until they seemed sufficiently exhausted to be released. Other men periodically shoutedinsults at each other, shook with anger and frustration, and pounded the ground with theiraxes [266].An exact description of the last meeting of the Faculty Resource Allocation Committee!Missionary intervention has since ‘saved’ the Fayu: what price the QAA?A future historian coming across this book in a thousand years’ time would have no doubtthat it was written by an American. The underlying vision of humanity as a salad-bowlmade up of distinct and insoluble ethnic identities would provide a clue, and the stress onthe arrival of Old World technologies and pathogens in the New World as the archetypalevent of human diffusion and coalescence would confirm this. Yet, while the impact of
  • 11. Eurasian diseases (assisted by enslavement and severe degradation in living conditions) onthe indigenous populations of the New World was a cataclysmic historical event, but it wasnot entirely without precedent elsewhere. The effect of plague, especially the Black Deathof the fourteenth century, on Asian, European and North African peoples and societies was 11similar in some respects, as was the impact of smallpox and cholera in east and centralAfrica in the nineteenth century. More generally, the use of Eurasia as a meaningfulgeographical expression in historical terms is a hall-mark of a transatlantic focus (it is alsoprominent in the work of Alfred Crosby, for example). Such a viewpoint over-simplifies alarge body of complex human experience, since much of the history of conquest, settlementand exploitation in the modern world is in fact concerned with what might be termed‘Eurasian civil wars’ - from the Neolithic invasion of Europe, via the activities of GengisKhan and his successors, to the fall of Constantinople, the arrival of European armedtraders in the East in the sixteenth century, and full-blown European imperialism after1750. The European empires of conquest in Asia, especially those of the British in India andthe Dutch in Java, were not based on clear technological superiority in armaments, nor onthe spread of disease, but they spawned a sense of ‘otherness’ and an attitude of culturaland racial superiority at least as intense as that aroused by colonisation in the New World.In Africa, too, European imperial troops (often of African or Indian origin) exploited only alimited and short-lived technical superiority in weaponry that lasted from the latenineteenth to the early twentieth centuries.Authors cannot be blamed for the publisher’s blurbs on their book-jackets, but it may besignificant that this work is described there as a work of ‘popular science’, not as a work ofhistory. Professor Diamond’s most contentious argument, by far, is his conclusion that thelogical consistency and precision of current discoveries in archaeology and prehistorymake it possible to foresee the future of human history as a science. There are a number ofdifficulties here. Any ‘science of human history’ is likely to be based on a search for laws,processes and explanations that are rooted in the agenda of the ‘new’, processualistarchaeology that was pioneered by the work of Lewis Binford and others in the 1960s and1970s. Such approaches have now been undermined by other theoretical approacheswhich deny the possibility of establishing general laws, stress the social, cultural and
  • 12. gendered nature of archaeological knowledge and explanation, and seek to uncover ‘thearchaeology of the mind’ and the spirit. Diamond’s use of contemporary ethnographicobservations of some peoples to provide explanations of the prehistoric past of all peoplescan be questioned on methodological grounds, and his refusal to place the knowledge he 12uses in its historiographical context weakens the force of his arguments as historicalexplanations. There isanother set of problemshere, too. The history ofhumans cannot properly beequated with the history ofdinosaurs, glaciers ornebulas, because thesenatural phenomena do notconsciously create theevidence on which we try tounderstand them, nor canwe detect a humanconsciousness in theiractions. Most important ofall, human history requireshistory to be studied on a human scale, so that we can empathise with the past, and see it inthe context of our present humanity. Here there is nothing between the minute and themonumental - anecdotal accounts of random individuals at moments in their lives, and thehuge sweep of whole peoples and continents across millennia.These cavils are to be expected. Historians cannot allow scientists to tell them how to dotheir job; if they did, then history would vanish forever into the intellectual establishmentof rational positivism, and would lose its capacity - to which Professor Diamond is sensitive- to unite beliefs about the present with an understanding of the past in ways that caninfluence the future. Yet despite its inevitable minor flaws, this book remains a veryimpressive achievement of imagination and exposition, which tells us much about the
  • 13. interaction between ‘civilised’ minds and ‘primitive’ peoples at the end of the secondmillennium of the Christian era. To end, as we began, with a nineteenth-centuryperspective on such matters:Though I’ve belted you and flayed you 13By the livin’ Gawd that made youYou’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din![Rudyard Kipling, ‘Gunga Din’ (1894)]