Posted by Michael Hiteshew on December 28th, 2004 (All posts by Michael Hiteshew)
It’s usually hard to go wrong reading a Pulitzer Prize winner and this book is no exception. Some books concentrate on a particular point in history, a particular event, or even – sometimes fascinatingly – the life of a single person. This book is on the opposite side of that spectrum. The author, Jared Diamond, attempts no less than describing the story of human social and technological development since the end of the last Ice Age, a span of about 13,000 years, in one 500 page volume.
But this is not a “normal” history book. You will not read about the Assyrians or the Hapsburgs. That is a scale so fine as to pass easily through this book’s filter. This book is better described as historical science. Diamond tackles the big, macro-scale questions of “How?” and “Why?” did the human race get to where we are today.
In the preface to this book, Diamond describes the book’s scope:
We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only non-literate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies.
In 1972, Diamond encountered a bright, charismatic politician in New Guinea named Yali who asked him that very question. “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Diamond wrote GG&S twenty-five years later in an attempt to answer him.
And the answer is far, far more complicated than you might surmise. Diamond digs deep, continually asking – and more importantly, answering! – the question, “But why? Why did it happen then and not some other time? Why did it happen there and not somewhere else? Why didn‘t this or that invention simply spread from this group to that one?” Hard as it may be for some to believe until you read this persuasive book, the answers are as deep as they are subtle. It often boils down to the absolute basics: geography, climate and the local flora and fauna. Those were the take-off points, setting in motion a series of cascading social and technological developments that eventually led to the wide disparities in human society we see today.
As an example, let me recount a little of Diamonds research into the question, “To farm or not to farm?”
Formerly, all people on Earth were hunter-gathers. Why did any of them adopt food production at all? Given that they must have had some reason, why did they do so around 8,500 BC in the Mediterranean habitats of the Fertile Crescent, only 3,000 years later in the climatically and structurally similar habitats of southwestern Europe, and never indigenously in similar Mediterranean habitats…
Before we can answer those questions, we must dispel some misconceptions about the origins of food production…What actually happened was not a discovery of food production nor an invention, as we might first assume. There was often not even a conscious choice between food production and hunter-gathering. Specifically, in each area of the globe people could not have been making a conscious choice…because they had never seen farming and had no way of knowing what it would be like. Instead, as we shall see, food production evolved as a by product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences.
It’s not until the next chapter, How To Make An Almond, that specific answers begin to emerge as to why certain plants lent themselves to agricultural production while others – which includes the vast majority of plants, including edible plants – did not lend themselves and still do not. The key lies in the genes of plants. And particularly in the genetic makeup of grasses that are native to Mesopotamia. I won’t give away the answer here because it’s just such a pleasure to read why. He unfolds it like a well told mystery story.
Other interesting aspects of the book include:
1. The way animal germ exposure led to disease and immunity among European communities with large domesticated animal populations and the huge impact that had much later in time when they encountered the hunter-gather societies in the New World.
2. Why certain animals lent themselves to domestication and others did not, and the huge impact that had on the development of societies who existed, coincidentally, around those specific animals.
3. The cascading effects of social and technological developments giving rise to huge disparities in power among societies.
4. How certain political, social and economic organizations of societies can encourage or inhibit technological and social development. Specifically, how dictatorial and centralized structures as well as overly loose and chaotic structures both inhibit development and expansion of those societies.
5. There’s also lots of more mundane (to me) information, such as how language and writing can be used as a research tool to track related peoples, or how various waves of immigration throughout history replaced various earlier waves with more advanced groups.
All in all, it was enlightening. Highly recommended.
Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology, evolutionary biology and biogeography at UCLA’s School of Medicine. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is the recipient of the National Medal of Science in addition to many other awards. His research was partly funded by the National Geographic Society, The World Wildlife Fund and the University of California. He’s authored more than 200 articles for Nature, Natural History, Discover and Geo magazines, as well as several previous books, including the award winning The Third Chimpanzee.