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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The ultimate meaning of life is to embrace that which compels you to act in spite of fear.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Guns, Germs, and Steel ... and books

I'm just about finished Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. For years now my good, and well-read, buddy Kris has been praising the book and urging me to get my Western ass to the book store so I can read the book which won the Pulitzer Prize for introducing the world to a broad and far-reaching explanation as to why the world is the way it is. Okay, Kris never said the words Western ass, but this seems an apt expression for a book about how the Europeans (and the places they colonized) became the big, fat cats of the world.

I see what he means. Finally I read a book that addresses the questions I've been asking myself, and a few of my friends, for years now. The thrust of the book is that we here in the West won not because we are smarter than others, but because of geography, or as Diamond puts it, good real estate. Or as I'm putting it now, location.

Here it is in a nutshell: Eurasia (particularly the Fertile Crescent and China) had great geography and the best plants and animals for farming, so it developed food production first, which meant societal complexity and specialization, which meant writing systems for recording events and keeping track of trade, which also meant military to guard the food and land, which meant professional soldiers to conquer the hunter-gatherers, which meant more land and people, which meant more resources and technological advancement, which meant formalized learning and, eventually, stories (and propaganda) about conquests to inspire or subdue people. And so on.

By the time of the Greeks and Romans, most of the crops and livestock we take for granted today had become the norm. As the Middle East dried up the power continued to move west.

So how did China, a great civilization that had developed writing when my Celtic ancestors were still carrying the heads of their slain enemies on their belts, manage to lose out to Europe?

Again, the answer is geography, says Diamond. China eventually became a highly centralized, rigid, and politically unified society due in large part to its smooth coastline the unimpeded east-west travel east within the country. One bad decision could have wide and long-lasting consequences. Conversely, Europe became a collection of diverse societies due largely to mountains, peninsulas, and other geographic nooks and crannies that promoted inventiveness and power as its many cultures competed with one another. Columbus tried several avenues before getting the green light and money to sail across the Atlantic.

By the Middle Ages, we had developed guns, steel, and immunity to germs because of our millennia of exposure to livestock. Conquering Australia and the Americas was a slam dunk.

Now, I've grossly oversimplified Diamond's impressive research. He brings together linguistics, biology, history, and a much more detailed examination of geography than I have here. He takes a broad look at the world , going back in time long before the points where most history classes start. He looks at ultimate causes, not just proximate ones, which are often biased, Euro-centric, and tied up in myths about cultural and ethnic superiority.

Now, having said all this, I must add that Diamond doesn't say that individual intelligence, culture, and unforeseeable events (both human and environmental) don't play into it. These other factors are certainly part of the mix, which is why Diamond's work is more about general patterns than it is about trying to predict future events the way pure scientists do. However, he does say that some societies had the good fortune to have started out with more, which influences choices and events early on.

I think this is one of those books about the distant past that will stay with me far into the future. Maybe Gutenberg was just lucky to have been a European, as I am to be a Canadian.


Anonymous Sam said...

Some books like this change the way you think. I love Bill Bryson's history of nearly everything. It's really incidental that the world is the way it is and yet it seems so meticulously planned.

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3:11 AM  
Blogger oakwriter said...

Hi Sam. Thanks for your comments. I've been considering Bryson's book for a while now. Being someone who likes patterns, naturally I like Diamond's book. I don't think he's talking about planning, however. Humans couldn't have planned the continental shifts anymore than we could've planned they ice ages. And while I don't believe that everything is incidental, I also don't believe we ever have a complete handle on the world. The complexities are too much for any one writer or scholar to nail. For one thing, some feel the true ultimate cause is something beyond all of us. And that's another discussion entirely.

6:45 PM  

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