Friday, 3 February 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and an Aventis Prize for Science Books

This book was provoked by a conversation Jared Diamond had with a friend from Papua New Guinea: why was it that the Europeans came and conquered the Papuans and not vice versa? How come the Europeans had all that stuff to help them (the guns and steel)?
It’s an interesting question, and you can find loads of history books that will tell you how things happened. For example, Francisco Pizarro and a small group of Spanish conquistadores managed to capture and kill the Inca leader, and in a short time overwhelm an entire empire in South America. But how were they able to achieve this. Part of the answer involves germs (even at the top of Inca society strange diseases had arrived before the Europeans, to cripple the Empire and its defences). The technology at the disposal of the Europeans far outclassed that of the locals too. How come?

Jared Diamond has had an interesting career. He began life as a Professor of Physiology at UCLA Medical School. Alongside this work, he developed a deep interest in the evolutionary biology of birds (I regularly cite his work in my teaching), leading to his current post as Professor of Geography at UCLA. His mother was a linguist and Diamond’s time on Papua New Guinea (awash with hundreds of different languages—you’ll see why in the book) also means he has a fascination with languages and culture. There are few people who would have the range of understanding and skills as Diamond in answering the question at the heart of the book.

It’s Diamond’s scientific approach that makes Guns, Germs and Steel a special book. His argument is relatively simple. At the base, is food production—you need to produce enough food to sustain specialists in society, like steelworkers and scientists. Hunter-gathers can’t spare the resources to maintain many specialists. So farming was vital, but different parts of the world had different sorts of biodiversity to work with. Domestication of animals and the development of staple crops were easier in some places than others just because of the “raw materials” found locally. Once some societies had developed agriculture, and populations grew, diseases became influential. At the same time, specialists in society began to develop technology: metalwork, writing, government, etc. Competition between rival peoples drove an arms race, speeding up technological advance yet further.

Of course, the book itself is much richer in detail and example. There are hundreds of points of interest, and the latter chapters compare different parts of the world in terms of the raw materials and subsequent development of society. There’s something for everyone here. It’s a great book, and one I would recommend to everyone, not just biologists. Read it, love it, and pass it on to someone else. Some of the chapters in this book were so influential that the American Anthropological Association set up a whole session at a conference to discuss the ideas he put forward.

If you liked this book, you might want to try his sequel, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, about the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history—and the lessons we can learn from this about our own futures. There is also a TV documentary of Guns, Germs and Steel, produced by the National Geographic Society of America.

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