09-02-06, 04:52 PM #1
Eurasian Dominance explained! Pulitzer Prize winning Book.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA. In 1998 it won a Pulitzer Prize and the Aventis Prize for best science book. A documentary based on the book was broadcast on PBS in July, 2005, produced by the National Geographic Society.
The prologue to the book opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term "cargo" for inventions and manufactured goods, "Why is it that you white people have so much cargo, and we New Guineans have so little?"
Diamond found that he had no good answer. He says that the same sort of question seems to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, having thrown off colonial domination, lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15) He says that, unable to find a satisfactory explanation from the best-known accounts of history, he decided to make his own investigation to seek the root causes of Eurasian dominance.
Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation. These are covered in detail below.
The theory outlined
Before human beings developed agriculture, they lived as hunter-gatherers, as some still do. Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of sheer will or intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions. Specifically, the first step towards civilization is agriculture. Agriculture supports sedentary societies, rapid population growth, and specialization of labor. Large societies tend to develop ruling classes, which led to the organization of empires. Although agriculture arose in several parts of the world, Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication.
Eurasia's early lead in agriculture led to germs and technology that enabled Europeans to conquer the peoples of the other continents in recent centuries. European diseases ravaged the American Indian population, rather than the other way around, because Eurasians had acquired and developed immunity to pathogens from livestock. Early agricultural societies invented writing, which facilitated the spread of knowledge and eventually led to the invention of more powerful military technology in Eurasia.
In all these factors, geography favored Eurasia, with its large landmass with a long east-west distance. Its large area provided it with more plant and animal species suitable for domestication and allowed its people to exchange innovations as well as diseases. Its east-west orientation allowed breeds domesticated in one part of the continent to be used elsewhere in the continent due to similarities in climate and cycle of seasons. In contrast, Australia suffered from a lack of useful animals due to extinction, the Americas had great difficulty adapting crops domesticated at one latitude for use at other latitudes (and, in North America, adapting crops from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other), and Africa was fragmented by its extreme variations in climate from north to south.
Guns, Germs, and Steel argues that cities require an ample supply of food and thus depend on agriculture. As farmers do the work of providing food, others are free to pursue other functions, such as mining and literacy. (see Division of labour)
The crucial trigger for the development of agriculture is the availability of wild edible plant species suitable for domestication. Farming arose early in the Fertile Crescent since the area had an abundance of wild wheat and pulse species that were nutritious and easy to domesticate. In contrast, American farmers had to struggle to develop corn as a useful food from its probable wild ancestor, teosinte.
Also important to the transition from hunter-gatherer to city-dwelling agrarian societies was the presence of large domesticable animals, raised for meat, work, and long-distance communication. Diamond identifies a mere 14 domesticated large mammal species worldwide. The 5 most useful (cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig) are all descendants of species endemic to Eurasia. Of the remaining 9, only two (the llama and alpaca both of South America) are indigenous to a land outside the temperate region of Eurasia.
Due to the Anna Karenina principle, surprisingly few animals are suitable for domestication. Diamond identifies six criteria including the animal being sufficiently docile, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and having a social dominance hierarchy. Therefore, none of the many African mammals such as the zebra, antelope, cape buffalo and African elephant was ever domesticated (although some can be tamed, they are not easily bred in captivity). The Holocene extinction event eliminated many of the megafauna that, had they survived, might have become candidate species, and Diamond argues that the pattern of extinction is more severe on continents where animals that had no prior experience of humans were exposed to humans who already possessed advanced hunting techniques - i.e. the Americas and Australia.
Smaller domesticable animals such as dogs, cats, chickens, and guinea pigs may be valuable in various ways to an agricultural society, but will not be adequate in themselves to sustain large-scale agrarian society. An important example is the use of larger animals such as cows and horses in plowing land, allowing for much greater crop productivity and the ability to farm a much wider variety of land and soil types than would possible solely by human muscle power. Large domestic animals also have an important role in the transportation of goods and people over long distances, giving the societies that possess them considerable military and economic advantages.
Diamond also explains how geography shaped human migration, not simply by making travel difficult (particularly by latitude), but by how climates affect where domesticable animals can easily travel and where crops can ideally grow easily due to the sun.
Modern humans are believed to have developed in Africa, east of the Great Rift Valley of the African continent, at one time or another (see Out of Africa theory). The Sahara kept people from migrating north to the Fertile Crescent, until later when the Nile River valley became accommodating.
Diamond continues to explain the story of human development up to the modern era, through the rapid development of technology, and its dire consequences on hunter-gathering cultures around the world.
In the later context of the European colonization of the Americas, 95 percent of the indigenous populations are believed to have been killed off by diseases unwittingly brought by the Europeans.
How was it then that diseases native to the American continents did not kill off Europeans? Diamond points out that the combined effect of the increased population densities supported by agriculture, and of close human proximity to domesticated animals leading to animal diseases infecting humans, resulted in European societies acquiring a much richer collection of dangerous pathogens to which European peoples had acquired immunity through natural selection (see the Black Death and other epidemics) during a longer time than was the case for Native American hunter-gatherers and farmers. He mentions the tropical diseases (mainly malaria) that limited European penetration into Africa as an exception.
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Some people criticize the argument of the book as derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julian Steward, and Esther Boserup, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture and economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.
Criticism of Eurocentrism and determinism
Others have criticized the book as an example of environmental determinism in the service of Eurocentrism. The charge is neither that the book claims any essential superiority of European civilization or culture, nor that the book claims any inherent superiority of some European race. These critics assert that the problem with earlier cultural and racial explanations of European superiority (explanations that Diamond rejects) is not just that their explanations are wrong, but that what they are trying to explain — European superiority — is itself a Western myth. Although Diamond explicitly argues against European cultural or racial superiority, the charge is that his own argument serves many of the same functions as nineteenth century European claims to cultural or racial superiority, by suggesting that Europeans were destined to rule the globe. Diamond anticipates this criticism in the first point in his introduction.
Specifically, some argue that:
It suggests that European civilization has "won" some competition. This suggestion is implicit; Diamond explicitly compares two Oceanian societies in a natural experiment in order to demonstrate the primacy of environmental factors in explaining why some societies are more developed than others. This is a false analogy, because a comparison is not the same thing as an experiment. Human history is far from over; therefore it is impossible to say that any one society has "won" over another form, as long as both survive. In other words, experiments must have clear endings and the human "experiment" has yet to end. Diamond himself emphasizes this in the final chapters, noting that the economic revolutions in Asia and the rise of telecommunications could provide the spark for, say, China to become a world power, but maintains his hypothesis that east-west diffusion is still more rapid and effective.
As well as supporting the above view, Timothy Taylor goes further by questioning whether Hernán Cortés actually "won" in his conflict with the Aztecs in the first place. Taylor accuses Diamond of assuming that Cortés was the victor because the European culture supplanted the Aztec. He says that this is a Eurocentric analysis, because the Aztecs may have considered their "fate and chances of eternal salvation" as more promising than the conquistadors'. He writes that while the book sees environmental adaptation and resource-base expansion as self-evidently good, the Maya saw the location of cities close to subterranean caverns as self-evidently good, whatever the ecological cost. In effect, the definition of success suggested by his New Guinean friend, though conformant to the standards of European, East Asian, and Melanesian societies, is not necessarily germane to other societies, in which the problem addressed by Diamond would not exist. See similar views from anthropologists at: Edge.org discourse
It overlooks or obscures the importance of non-European (especially Chinese) knowledge, technologies, and labor in European development, and the fact that Europeans "forcibly" appropriated much of this knowledge, technology, and labor. In other words, the "ascendancy" in question is one that has primarily benefited Europeans but is not specifically "European" in nature. This criticism is undercut, however, by Diamond's frequent references to European cultures as "derivative" cultures that until 1450 AD took advantage of their geographical location to absorb the Fertile Crescent and Chinese discoveries while supplying few useful discoveries of their own. Diamond actually mentions this disparity and theorizes that China's earlier adoption contributed to its development of more advanced technology, but that its isolation from threatening competitors led to atrophy of its growth.
The effect of the above three problems is that Diamond's book suggests the inevitability of ascendancy from the region of Europe. Although Diamond's reliance on geography is not "racist" per se, it has been confused with such.
Instead, these critics argue that European ascendancy was far from inevitable, but rather a result of complex political and economic forces that cannot be reduced to environment, and likely a temporary phenomenon. Diamond apparently agrees with these critics: in the last three chapters, he repeats that his theory dictates Eurasian ascendancy, but he also claims there are less blatant geographic differences between Europe, China, India, and the Middle East. He particularly notes the fragility and subsequent desertification of the Fertile Crescent and the Middle East, the much larger number of barriers of diffusion in India (including the shift from predominately summer rainfall to mostly winter rainfall), and the contrast between the highly indented peninsulas and islands of Europe and the very regular and easily unified China.
For a review of these criticisms, see the geographer James M. Blaut's Eight Eurocentric Historians.
Some historians have questioned some of the specific propositions Diamond marshals to prove his case on grounds of fact and/or plausibility. For example:
Professor Joel Mokyr asks whether Northeast American Sumpweed is not a counter-example to Diamond's claim that Eurasia was endowed with the best of the world’s domesticatable crops. The book argues that although the flower is "a nutritionist's ultimate dream" it was not possible to use it in farming because it has tiny seeds aas well as causeing hay fever, skin irritation, and smelling bad. Mokyr says that these are unpersuasive arguments that might be applied to the ancestors of Eurasian crops.
Professor Victor Davis Hanson, a historian and conservative political columnist, agrees with Diamond in that he rejects a racial explanation for Western dominance, but Hanson argues that certain fundamental aspects of Western culture are responsible, specifically political freedom, capitalism, individualism, republicanism, rationalism, and open debate. Hanson has written that Diamond seems "terribly confused" about history, and that environment was "almost irrelevant" to Western success.  Supporters of Diamond, however, have argued that these cultural aspects were created because of the environment and resources at Europe's disposal.
Diamond cites modern zoologists' inability to domesticate the zebra as evidence that it could not have been domesticated over the past forty millennia in Africa. Again; this has been challenged as not in-itself a persuasive argument. It appears to these critics that modern failures to domesticate elephants and zebras are provided only as a fallbacks to Diamond's main point that since these animals have not been domesticated they could not be. (I.e. denying the antecedent, or as the Science & Society editorial puts it: "tautological reading-backwards from the present"). Supportive reviews have pointed out that Diamond produces further arguments, such as the ingenuity of native peoples in exploiting their environment as evidence of the difficulty of domesticating such animals. Surely, he writes, the native peoples who tamed elephants for use in war would have tried to breed them in captivity. If native peoples were clever enough to selectively breed modern forms of corn from the vastly different variety that grew in the wild, surely they could have found a way to domesticate elephants. Supporters of Diamond often theorize, however, that domestication is not as simple as becoming capable to breed an animal in captivity, but is subject to the species' diet, lifespan, social structure, and other attributes. In the specific case of elephants, Diamond and his supporters often cite the elephant's long lifespan as a factor. Because of its long life span, native peoples found it less work with equivalent profit to capture from the wild and tame elephants, with out breeding them.
Many historians dispute Diamond’s “law of history” regarding the dominance of agricultural societies over their non-agricultural neighbors.  There are numerous cases of nomadic societies conquering agricultural ones: the Hittites conquest of the ancient Middle East, the successive movements of Germanic people across Europe, the Aryan migration into India, the Seljuk Turks conquest of much of the Muslim world that began in the 11th century, and the vast Mongolian conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries. In Diamond's earlier book "The Third Chimpanzee", he uses the case study of the Hitites to prove that pastoral societies with horses have an advantage over impoverished, weakened, or early agricultural societies, particularly if the agricultural society lacks horses.
Professor Tom Tomlinson argues in a review of Guns, Germs, and Steel that Diamond's approach ignores "much of the current literature on cultural interactions in modern history" and that Diamond omits "almost all of the standard literature on the history of imperialism and post-colonialism, world-systems, underdevelopment or socio-economic change over the last five hundred years." Though Diamond's book is a popular history that is not primarily interested in engaging academic debates, this point exposes a failure of the book to deal sufficiently with competing hypotheses that is especially problematic in light of Diamond's calls for history to be written as a science.
In addition to the central thesis, Professor Diamond includes related (and sometimes controversial) observations:
In the prologue he writes that "in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners", which is his personal observation from interacting with both societies, and is defended with the sociobiological argument that the trait of "intelligence" was selected for hunter-gathering New Guinea societies, not densely populated European civilizations (where the major survival pressure was on the genes for resisting epidemics).
In chapter 13 (on invention) Necessity's mother he writes (page 248) that the QWERTY keyboard layout has become entrenched despite "trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent". This gives great weight to a trial carried out by the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard company (with a rival system to sell), as independent trials never replicated these results.
In chapter 19 (How Africa Became Black) he speculates that if the Dutch had arrived in South Africa after the Bantu they would have been unable to establish themselves in Cape Town, and says that since both sets of invaders displaced the Khoisan people the Dutch claim of prior occupation (although true) "needn't be taken seriously".
Responses to criticism
Anticipation of criticism
Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation (p. 17):
"If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today?" His answer is that this is a confusion of an explanation of causes with a justification of the results. "[Psychologists, social historians, and physicians] do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness." Rather, they investigate causes to be able to stop the results.
Doesn't addressing the question "automatically involve a Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of western Europeans ... ?" But, according to Diamond, "most of this book will deal with peoples other than Europeans." It will, he says, describe interactions between non-European peoples. "Far from glorifying peoples of western European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to Western Europe."
"Don't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable,...?" On the contrary, according to Diamond, civilization is a thoroughly mixed blessing, in ways that he describes.
Response to criticism of Eurocentrism and determinism
With regard to the question of whether or not there has been some sort of competition that has been "won and lost", Diamond asserts, in the third sentence of the prologue, that "the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies." It is possible that this defines the "competition" that Diamond attempts to explain, and that being conquered is a definite loss, even if not final or absolute. He says that in some cases (such as China) "absorbing the invader" is a long-term strategy for cultural survival that has proven successful, but in other cases – Aztec civilization for instance – the combination of germs and cultural shock has wiped out the colonized culture. Diamond cites analysts who predict the ‘supremacy’ of Asia in the 21st Century, and says that he does not dispute the claim that the current hegemony of Europe (and its colonies) is "temporary".
With regard to the fact that non-European peoples have contributed (often involuntarily) to European society, Diamond does not deny this; he writes that he is in fact concerned with exactly this: explaining facts like why Europeans enslaved Africans and not vice versa.
With regard to changes since AD 1500 in the power of southwest Asia compared with Europe, Diamond does touch on this in his conclusion, he says for example that SW Asia's intense agriculture damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility. He argues that because central China has fewer geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges or bodies of water) than Europe, China was unified relatively early in its history (see Qin Dynasty), and that political homogeneity led to stagnation. Indeed, it is a matter of historical record that, circa 1500, during the Ming Dynasty, China's naval superiority over anything Europeans could field was terminated in a single political decision; in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. He also says that India on the other hand may have been too fragmented for a monumental rise in power similar to Europe's. In fact, many attempts were made to ban technologies such as firearms, but only in politically unified and isolated nations (such as Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate) were such bans successful. Still, it is true that the book is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about AD 1500. Furthermore, Diamond's arguments are rather broad, and mostly argue that Eurasia (as opposed to Europe) would inevitably be dominant.
Diamond has answered the critique of historical counterexamples (in differing growth rates unrelated to material endowments) by claiming that these cases represent short-term growth over (at most) fifty year time windows. In the case of rapidly expanding economies (such as the "East Asian Tigers") the rapid growth is usually explained (in economics) as one country "catching-up" to the rest, through trade and technological transfer (which would have been very difficult between continents in the pre-1500 period the book concentrates on). Instances of civilizations stagnating or being conquered despite having access to superior resources than their neighbours are mentioned several times in this book; in Professor Diamond’s view these reversals of fortune support his thesis, providing a mechanism for the spread of cultural dynamism and technology within continents but not (until the "Age of Exploration") between them. (His later work, Collapse, tied environment and the fate of individual civilizations together more closely, but in Guns, Germs, and Steel his argument is made at the continental level, rather than the level of specific societies.)
Finally, Diamond's view is undoubtedly largely "deterministic" in that it argues that Eurasian dominance was inevitable, or at least very likely (sometimes called "Geographical determinism"). Nevertheless, Diamond explicitly asks (on page 17) whether this inevitability would "justify the domination", and whether it renders futile modern attempts to "change the outcome". He denies that it does because the effects of proven environmental determinism could be easily nullified by contemporary transport and communication, whereas the effects of proven racial determinism might be used to justify genocide.
Response to criticism of theory of history
In the epilogue Diamond discusses "The future of human history as a science", pre-empting the criticism that he fails to understand what history is about by defining what he thinks part of it should be. He contrasts various styles of historical interpretation, and compares these to the practice of other academics who call themselves "scientists". He says he is "optimistic that historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs".
09-02-06, 05:06 PM #2
09-02-06, 05:19 PM #3
I just came across this book today. So do you agree with it's premise?
Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of sheer will or intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.
09-02-06, 05:26 PM #4
Chinese civilization has most of the same advantages, and even though ours had a head start it's old enough to have accomplished the same things. Yet it spread slowly and, by the standards of our species, peacefully, propelled by the Buddhism it adopted from even younger India. The neighboring Mongols sent out wave after wave of adventurers and conquerors, once even taking China itself as their prize, whereas China sent monks to Japan, Korea, and other nearby countries and left the rest of the world alone.
09-02-06, 05:37 PM #5
Originally Posted by Fraggle Rocker
by Diamond's frequent references to European cultures as "derivative" cultures that until 1450 AD took advantage of their geographical location to absorb the Fertile Crescent and Chinese discoveries while supplying few useful discoveries of their own. Diamond actually mentions this disparity and theorizes that China's earlier adoption contributed to its development of more advanced technology, but that its isolation from threatening competitors led to atrophy of its growth.
Diamond does touch on this in his conclusion, he says for example that SW Asia's intense agriculture damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility. He argues that because central China has fewer geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges or bodies of water) than Europe, China was unified relatively early in its history (see Qin Dynasty), and that political homogeneity led to stagnation. Indeed, it is a matter of historical record that, circa 1500, during the Ming Dynasty, China's naval superiority over anything Europeans could field was terminated in a single political decision; in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed.
09-02-06, 06:05 PM #6Originally Posted by Blackrain
2. The book is almost ten years old.
3. The liberal news media reports news.
4. A ten year old book (which already got itself a Pulitzer) isn't really news.
09-02-06, 06:12 PM #7
Originally Posted by Roman
2. So you and the book are the same age?
3. News? Like how much Lindsay Lohan weighs or the Chornicles of John Mark Karr?
4. The Holocaust is 50 years old, but you can't go a day without hearing something about it.
Yeah, I can't retort with smart ass semantics too!
09-02-06, 06:16 PM #8
Look back ten years in news media. I guarantee you there was reporting on the book. Nothing wins a Pulitzer without making noise. You just heard about it late. Wonder why you didn't hear of it earlier?
And the holocaust is groovy because there's Nazis, explosions, gunfire and torture. All the stuff people like to watch.
09-02-06, 06:38 PM #9
Originally Posted by Roman
Ha Ha, yeah right. If you were to ask the average "college" student. Have they heard of the bell curve I'll guarantee you that 99% of them will say yes. But ask them have they heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel! And I'll guarantee you that 99% of them will say NO!
09-02-06, 07:37 PM #10
I'll guarantee you that most of the average college student will have heard of neither.
You know PBS made a documentary based on the book that aired last year?
Last edited by Roman; 09-02-06 at 07:42 PM.
09-02-06, 07:52 PM #11
Originally Posted by Roman
Dude, everyone knows what the Bell Curve is! Now you're just being silly.
09-02-06, 07:54 PM #12
China never felt threatened. A people who refer to themselves as the Center Country are above all that.
Perhaps they were justified in that feeling considering their much longer-term perspective than we of the transitory nations could ever have. They were conquered twice, by the Mongols and the Manchurians, and simply assimilated the conquerers, absorbing half or all of their own lands. It's been argued that communism is the third "foreign power" to conquer China and that China is well on its way to absorbing that one and returning to its old self but stronger for the experience.
There is much to be said for China's attitude.