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Guns, Germs & Steel

  • #1
    Closed Accounts Posts: 6,609 Flamed Diving


    Has anyone read this book? It draws from many scientific disciplines, with much of it's influence seeming to come from geographic literature. For those who have not encountered it, here is a synopsis of the Wikipedia synopsis:
    In our earliest societies, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The first step towards civilization is the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, with the domestication and farming of wild crops and animals. Agricultural production leads to food surpluses, which supports sedentary societies, specialization of craft, rapid population growth, and specialization of labor. Large societies tend to develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which leads in turn 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. In particular, the Middle East had by far the best collection of plants and animals suitable for domestication – barley, two varieties of wheat and three protein-rich pulses for food; flax for textiles; goats, sheep and cattle provided meat, leather, glue (by boiling the hooves and bones) and, in the case of sheep, wool. As early Middle Eastern civilizations began to trade, they found additional useful animals in adjacent territories, most notably horses and donkeys for use in transport.

    (...)

    Eurasia's large landmass and long east-west distance increased these advantages. Its large area provided it with more plant and animal species suitable for domestication, and allowed its people to exchange both innovations and diseases. Its East-West orientation allowed breeds domesticated in one part of the continent to be used elsewhere through similarities in climate and the cycle of seasons.

    (...)

    The plentiful supply of food and the dense populations that it supported made division of labor possible. The rise of non-farming specialists such as craftsmen and scribes accelerated economic growth and technological progress. These economic and technological advantages eventually enabled Europeans to conquer the peoples of the other continents in recent centuries by using the "Guns" and "Steel" of the book's title.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

    An academic book review.

    And a fairly user-friendly economics take on it:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/101/10/3715


    I think for pre-industrial macro-explanations of how human societies developed, it is an amazing thesis. Although he does brush off the problem of China's failure to follow Europe into industrialisation somewhat. Nonetheless, it is a stunning demonstration of how geography affects our history.


Comments



  • For a more locally bounded overview, you might enjoy this.

    The introductory chapters are worth reading, I found their framework very useful. The slash-and-burn chapter is particularly relevant to Ireland




  • its a readable book that gives an insight in to some interesting "demi-regs" in our distant past. However it doesnt really help in explaining the difference in wealth disparity between Japan and Brazil say over the last 50 years?
    From memory I think he tries to oversell his case but still worth a read




  • There is a documentary based on the book here. Haven't got a chance to check it out yet but its on my list.




  • I thought it was an excellent book. Ultimately, Diamond reckons that the orientation of the earth's continents was the driver that explains European dominance of the plante's resources. All continents other than Eurasia have their long axis North-South, while Eurasia's is East-West. Plant and animal husbandry spreads more easily on the E-W line, as havitats tend to be similar, while the barriers to diffusion on the N-S axis are considerable.

    But there's an awful lot more interesting detail in there!




  • Jared Diamond's follow up book, Collapse, is great too. It follows the reasons why some societies succeed and some just collapse.

    Dr. Diamond is a Geography prof at UCLA.


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  • Jared Diamond's follow up book, Collapse, is great too. It follows the reasons why some societies succeed and some just collapse.

    Dr. Diamond is a Geography prof at UCLA.

    Friend of mine had Diamond as a lecturer when he was in UCLA, he said he was absolutely brilliant, best lecturer he had over there. I think Diamond speaks about ten languages as well!




  • Brillant book.

    'Collapse' was not as good but still very good. Perhaps the subject matter was less interesting?

    Would recommend 'Guns Germs and Steel' to anyone.

    Have also read 'The 3rd Chimpanzee' and 'Why is Sex Fun'....the last title being looked at askew by the missus! These are both good but 'Guns...' is brillant. His theories may be wrong but they make sense and the book is a great read. It makes you think.

    To use an example from the book. He theorises that Europeans have greater resistance to disease due to the close knit living conditions in cities of the medieval period,the Black Death killed the weak. Well I work in very close proximity to dozens if not 100's of people everyday,I rarely get sick,my GP says I have a strong immune system due to my job. Coincidence? Maybe...but it makes sense.




  • I don't think you are quite getting his point. Resistance to germs is built up through evolution by natural selection, therefore, over multiples of generations. That aspect of his hypothesis has nothing to do with your behaviour in the natural term of your life. Modern examples of human gene populations evolving resistance to germs/viruses are the Sickle-Cell Virus and the HIV Virus.

    The European Black Death undoubtedly had a massive effect on human gene populations in Europe, as those selected for their ability to fend off disease went on to spread throughout the gene pool. Anyway, this is biology, if you want to learn how this works then I recommend reading the "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. But the point being is that these are more than mere guesses.

    Finally, and this is just a tiny point to make, but all theories are wrong. The point we should focus on is how well they explain the world around us. I think that Diamond's theory explains a considerable amount of the "Why are some countries rich..." question, the rest belongs to economics, and other fields to explain.




  • I do understand his point (Must read that Dawkins book soon) I realise that what Diamond is writing about is the long term emergence and strengthening of the gene types that give greater immunity to disease. (I was trying to use my personal situation to illustrate a pale reflection of this process)

    My understanding of the process is that certain people were ressistant,thus passing this onto their children,over many generations the resistant genes got passed on more than the less-resistant ones. Thus the entire European population became on average, more disease resistant than another population that were not exposed to the same environment over many generations.




  • Dacian wrote: »
    I do understand his point (Must read that Dawkins book soon) I realise that what Diamond is writing about is the long term emergence and strengthening of the gene types that give greater immunity to disease. (I was trying to use my personal situation to illustrate a pale reflection of this process)

    My understanding of the process is that certain people were ressistant,thus passing this onto their children,over many generations the resistant genes got passed on more than the less-resistant ones. Thus the entire European population became on average, more disease resistant than another population that were not exposed to the same environment over many generations.

    Yeah, exactly. Further to that, the germs evolving too, which led to an "arms race" of resistance and attack in Eurasian populations. The Europeans brought an arsenal of diseases with them, when they headed west.


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