Sunday, January 21, 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years
By Jared M. Diamond - Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Amazon Astore UK | US

Book Review

Life isn't fair - here's why: Since 1500, Europeans have, for better and worse, called the tune that the world has danced to. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond explains the reasons why things worked out that way. It is an elemental question, and Diamond is certainly not the first to ask it. However, he performs a singular service by relying on scientific fact rather than specious theories of European genetic superiority. Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, suggests that the geography of Eurasia was best suited to farming, the domestication of animals and the free flow of information. The more populous cultures that developed as a result had more complex forms of government and communication--and increased resistance to disease. Finally, fragmented Europe harnessed the power of competitive innovation in ways that China did not. (For example, the Europeans used the Chinese invention of gunpowder to create guns and subjugate the New World.) Diamond's book is complex and a bit overwhelming. But the thesis he methodically puts forth - examining the "positive feedback loop" of farming, then domestication, then population density, then innovation, and on and on - makes sense. Written without bias, Guns, Germs, and Steel is good global history.


Extract of an interview with Jared Diamond from the PBS Guns, Germs and Steel website:

Question: When you set out to write Guns, Germs and Steel what was it you actually wanted to prove?

Jared Diamond: When I set out to write Guns, Germs and Steel I wasn't trying to prove anything, but I was trying to answer a question; the biggest question of history - why history unfolded differently on the different continents over the last 13 thousand years and the usual answer to this question is the answer that racists come up with; they say its because some people are superior to other people. What we found is that the answer doesn't have anything to do with people and it has everything to do with people's environments.

Q: In what sense?

JD: The answer has to do with peoples' environments especially in the first place because of the differences in the availability of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication, lots of them in a few areas like the fertile crescent in China and virtually none of them in other areas like the western United States or sub equatorial Africa. Another difference had to do with the shapes and orientations of the continents - those are perhaps the two biggest factors contributing to the explanation.

Q: So we're in Africa at moment and it's basically known as the world's basket case, it has the world's worst poverty rate and all the rest of it... Is there anything in the book that can actually help Africa?

JD: Is there anything in my book that can help Africa? I think so yes; I'd say the message of my book is that understanding can help us. There are things in this story that can make a difference to the lives of Africans. We've seen that the economic relative underdevelopment of Africa has nothing to do with African people but it has to do with some very specific factors; tropical agriculture; the history of tropical crops; the tropical disease burden and the history of colonialism - and once you understand these things you can do something about them. For example, one of the messages is, a high priority is to invest in public health; there are other tropical parts of the world like Africa that recognise the public health burden and they invested massively in public health and they are the countries that have grown the most rapidly economically in the last forty years. That's a hopeful message.


Extracts/Excerpt from Chapter 11 of Guns, Germs and Steel:

The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history - smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera - are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confined to humans.
Questions of the animal origins of human disease lie behind the broadest pattern of human history, and behind some of the most important issues in human health today. (Think of AIDS, an explosively spreading human disease that appears to have evolved from a virus resident in wild African monkeys.)

Microbes have evolved diverse ways of spreading from one person to another, and from animals to people ... Some microbes ... hitchhike [a ride] in the saliva of an insect that bites the host and flies off to find a new host. The free ride may be provided by mosquitoes, fleas, lice, or tsetse flies [or ticks] that spread malaria, plague, typhus, or sleeping sickness [or Lyme disease], respectively.

To sustain themselves [acute infectious diseases] need a human population that is sufficiently numerous, and sufficiently densely packed, that a numerous new crop of susceptible children is available for infection by the time the disease would otherwise be waning. Hence measles and similar diseases are also known as crowd diseases.

Crowd diseases could not sustain themselves in small bands of hunter-gatherers and slash-and-burn farmers ... [but] could have arisen only with the build-up of large, dense human populations. That build-up began with the rise of agriculture starting about 10,000 years ago and then accelerated with the rise of cities starting several thousand years ago. Among animals, too, epidemic diseases require large, dense populations and don’t afflict just any animal: they’re confined mainly to social animals providing the necessary large populations. Hence when we domesticated social animals, such as cows and pigs, they were already afflicted by epidemic diseases just waiting to be transferred to us. ... The close similarity of the measles virus to the rinderpest virus suggests that the latter transferred from cattle to humans and then evolved into the measles virus by changing its properties to adapt to us. ... Our intimacy with cattle has been going on for the 9,000 years since we domesticated them - ample time for the rinderpest virus to discover us nearby.


Jared Diamond on The Paula Gordon Show (Audio Excerpt):

"Dr. Diamond believes that the biggest question facing us in the world today is the explosion of human population. He tells us why we have 40 years to solve the problems associated with this explosion. He describes the alternative to getting the population explosion and destructive technology under control - our own children and grandchildren inhabiting a world not worth living in. He takes hope in humans' ability to learn from mistakes, to communicate what we know, and to act. He gives examples. He describes powerful, practical implications of China's early unification versus Europe's inability to consolidate, suggesting that all levels of human endeavor profit when more than one solution is available in the face of complicated challenges."


More book reviews by The New York Times (may require free registration), J. Bradford DeLong (Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley), and Michael Levin (Department of Philosophy of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York).

See "The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (P.S. (Paperback))" in the post "Evolution Books for Christmas (UK) [1]"