Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond was a biologist studying birds in New Guinea when his
native guide asked him "Why do white people have more cargo than us
New Guineans?" (cargo being the local term for technology).

In this book, Jared Diamond tries to answer this question. How did
the people of Eurasia come to dominate the world? His answer to this
is by their guns, their germs, and their steel. Then he goes on to
explore why they had the guns, the germs, and the steel to begin with.

The answer is not that Europeans are smarter (in fact, he argues we
may be on average a tad dumber due to millenea of sheltered
agricultural life). It's not that our culture, government, religions
and philosophy encourages innovation (actually, it had a role, but it
was a _symptom_ of our circumstances, not the root cause).

It boils down to accidents of geography, amplified over time.
Diamond systematically analyses factors from metals to animals and
plants distribution, to the arrangement of the continents (Eurasia has
a major east west axis meaning that there are huge bands of similar
climate along which domesticated plants can spread and be experimented
with. Americas and Africa are far more filled with isolated pockets
of different climates due to being oriented north-south and being
narrow east to west).

The fertile crescent had most of the worlds candidate grain species
(grasses with large seed heads). Southern Eurasia had most of the
worlds domesticatable large mammals (he goes into great detail about
what makes an animal domesticatable). He shows that when humans
arrived in Australia and the Americas, they were already very skilled
hunters and so took out most of the large mammals that could have been
domesticated, whereas in Africa and Eurasia animals had plenty of time
to become wary of human hunters. In Africa the story is a bit
different-- most of the mammals were simply not candidates for
domestication due to various disqualifiers, too ornery or too jumpy,
etc. (and white folks have not succeeded in domesticating any African
animals either), with the exception of cattle which may have been
domesticated independently there.

I am most amazed by the role disease had in our conquests. The
Americas had 10 million inhabitants before Columbus, and within a
hundred years that had been cut to 1 million, far in advance of
conquistadors. There was an advanced civilization in the southeast
US that we never hear about-- because they were wiped out before
Europeans got to that area. We had the advantage because we'd been
living in close quarters with animals in big cities for 10 thousand
years, sharing and incubating diseases with them and other people, and
becoming immune.

Anyway, it is an amazing book in its scope, bringing a scientific
vigour to human history. Every chapter is full of surprising facts
and mind changing concepts. It should be required reading.

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