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Issue 31, October 1998

The Human Story

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
By Jared Diamond, Verso 1998, 8.99.
Reviewed by Mike Watkinson

AT THE GRAVESIDE commemoration of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels said that he had "discovered the law of development of human history; the simple fact... that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion".

I remember reading that for the first time and being staggered by the blinding simplicity of its revelation. Reading this book I found myself once again reconvinced of the materialistic outlook - the environment moulding events - and the enormous consequences of simple actions.

Diamond asks why is it that 'civilisation' developed in some areas and not others? And why were some peoples conquered or exterminated? He answers that "history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves". He refutes the racist argument about a people's destiny being genetically determined and places human development in the context of the accidental consequences of environment and geography: "Again and again when a single wave of colonists spread out over diverse environments, their descendants developed in separate ways, depending on those environments".

Societies need people. A substantial population depends on food. Hunter-gatherers can sustain a certain low-level society but it is only when food surpluses develop from the domestication of plants and, later, animals that populations rise, allowing technology to develop.

Food production probably arose only in a few climatically suitable areas and only certain plants and animals could be domesticated. The largest African animals - hippos, elephants, even zebras - have never been domesticated: "Had Africa's rhinos and hippos been domesticated and ridden, they would not only have fed armies but also have provided an unstoppable cavalry to cut through the ranks of European horsemen". (Hanibal's elephants were captured and tamed, not domesticated).

  Whether technology spread also depended on geography - the east-west axis of Eurasia made travel easier, whereas the north-south axis of the Americas or Africa encounters climate change and geographical obstacles, like deserts, mountains, or oceans.

More complex societies also developed more germs, which mainly came from animals (flu, smallpox, etc). These germs travelled through the populations but allowed them to develop resistance to later strains. Not so other populations.

When Spanish troops conquered the Inca and Aztec civilisations it was most probably germs that did most damage. Diamond reports that as many as 95% of indigenous 'Americans' died from smallpox and other diseases. True, there were some diseases fatal to the invaders and not the locals, like malaria or yellow fever, but they were not as virulent as those that had 'practiced' on the larger populations of the invaders.

  Using the example of New Guinean tribes, he describes the Fayu who, according to their own account, numbered 2,000 but were now down to 400 because of fatal squabbles. The need for a 'state', he argues, arises out of this situation: "A large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up". This generalisation carries a certain truth for past societies, but would not be the case in the future - but that's another story. However, Diamond does not really explain who benefits most from a centralised 'state' - which brought benefits to the whole of society whilst preserving the privileges of the ruling group. Neither does he mention the development of kinship or the family.

Burke and Wills, 19th century explorers in Australia, are worth mentioning. Despite camels and the latest technology they were rescued three times by Aborigines who knew about desert survival. However, when one of the explorers shot at the Aborigines, they were left alone and starved to death. In other words, he is talking about developments over time - it is 13,000 years since the last ice-age - and not suggesting that certain lifestyles did not have their own advantages.

I think he proves that "the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments". A good, well-written read.

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