Note 1: This blog is republished under a new title from my old site. It is from April, 2010 but bears repeating. The opinions remain mine and the authors’ truths are timeless.
Note 2: Here is a link to a January 9th, 2013 Guardian review of Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday by none other than Wade Davis. It is quite enlightening. Wade Davis makes the important criticism that there is still a sense in Diamond’s eloquently humane, but anthropologically naive, work that the fundamental paradigm of the superiority of the European worldview is alive and well. Diamond simply believes that the West can benefit from tweaking derived from insight contributed by an appreciation of the way in which indigenous cultures relate to the unity of all living things on the Earth. Davis, on the other hand, recognizes that the apparently primitive indigenous approaches to understanding and to life are equally valid ways of living and that European peoples need to recognize this if we are to survive. Only a new appreciation of the complete validity and worth of indigenous worldviews will take us where we hope to go: alive into the next century.
OK. Back to the original post:
I don’t know exactly when I bought the paperback version of Jared Diamond’s great book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, published in 1997 or 1999 (those Copyright notes are confusing), but it was possibly as early as 2004. I soon got distracted (saw something shiny, maybe) and put it down, probably somewhere around page 100. I finally finished it yesterday, all the way to the end of the 2003 afterward – page 440, after several other shiny objects interfered. My friend, Bill, called me a while back and mentioned being impressed by it, which reminded me that I owned it. I was impressed with the fact that Bill seems to have plowed through it at what seems to me like Mach 2, but why should anything he does surprise me? He seems to be able to do so many things energetically (and well), often with brilliantly funny self-effacement. Anyway, after working my way to page 200, I became obsessively determined to finish it and must have raced through the second half in less than two months!
You might have gathered that it’s not an easy read. The Da Vinci Code it is not! But Diamond is one of three authors concerned with the people and other living things on this Planet that are worth taking out your highlighter (if your memory is as short as mine) and plowing through. Wade Davis, who is more to be savoured and reflected upon with awe than plowed through, is my favorite. David Suzuki, whose meticulous documentation and depressing truth-telling can damage more than one plow blade, is the third. I find myself going back to their books over and over, looking for some particularly important factoid, insight or inspiration. My irregular progress through Diamond’s book is marked with several different generations of highlighter, my favorite fine black retractable ballpoint and even my beloved blue-black fountain pen.
What Diamond has done with his book is to try to answer the question: Why did the last 13 000 year chunk of human history turn out as it did? I.e., with the Europeans winning and every other culture losing. The answer, for him, lies in the accidents of geography and not in differences in intelligence between races.
The overall driver of “success,” as we simple, materialistic triumphalists call what we have done, was agricultural food production, which enabled sparse, formerly hunter-gatherer, societies to develop into densely-populated areas. Large populations required organization and specialization. Writing, crafts and the arts developed from these pressures and opportunities. Time for these other activities produced scientific knowledge, discovery and invention. And I mean scientific knowledge in the broad sense, which would include, for example, Polynesian navigating expertise, far superior to European when the Spanish first sailed clumsily into the Pacific.
Four geographic factors, more than anything else, influenced food production and, ultimately, dominance:
1. Availability of plant and animal species suitable for domestication was very different. Eurasia had a huge advantage here: the best grains and peas, and cattle instead of rhinos or alpacas!
2. Geographical factors within continents affecting the spread of these crops and migration of people and ideas. The East-West axis of Eurasia made the spread easy because of similarities in climate at similar latitudes. Africa and the Americas have a North-South axis, preventing the spread of crop types due to differences in climate between latitudes and obstructions to migration such as deserts or ice. Furthermore, the hourglass shape of the American continent was no help.
3. Factors affecting diffusion between continents – oceans, etc. – resulting in isolation.
4. Continental area and population size enable inventive adaptation. In Greenland, for example, a small population of Norse farmers failed to adapt and became extinct, replaced by the better-adapted Inuit.
Germs had a devastating effect on the native peoples of many areas conquered by the Europeans. Many of Eurasia’s diseases, such as smallpox, came because of their proximity to cattle. The explorers (from the Eurasian continent) were resistant to these germs. Amerindians, for example, weren’t. They were originally populous and numbered in the millions, but did not use cattle or horses. In many cases the germs preceded the conquerors, decimating the indigenous American populations before the human conquerors arrived!
Later in the book, J.D. raises a few very interesting questions:
a) Why did the Fertile Crescent, where the most easily domesticable crops and animals on the planet were abundant, lose its early advantage over the rest of the world? Answer: They chopped down all their trees and degraded the bounteous lands until it bacame desert. What I call The Lorax Effect.
b) OK, why not China instead of Europe? The answer to this one is fascinating: China was unified. Europe was not. Unification, originally an advantage, became a disadvantage because one central regime’s stupid decision (such as to stop all oceanic travel and trade) could set the whole nation back for centuries. In Europe, the geographical-cultural barriers were significant enough to prevent political union, but not so great as to prevent the spread of technology and innovation. Hence, when Spain started showing off the tremendous wealth it had acquired by its fortunate decision to finance Columbus, the other nations followed suit. Keyword here: Competition. Europe had a degree of connectedness that was “just right.” Not too much, but enough. What I call The Goldilocks Effect.
c) In Diamond’s 2003 Afterword, he mentions the way business has observed parallels between his loose connectedness theory for Europe’s success and the modern competition between corporations. A favourable review from Bill Gates got this started. Microsoft’s business style, in which many small, relatively free groups work on the ideas that excite them but freely communicate with other groups, has been very successful. It is not hard to draw parallels.
Diamond is a geographer and his ideas have some considerable merit in the insight provided into human and geographical considerations that produced the history of the last 13 000 years – and perhaps some clues about how we might negotiate the next 50 years or so, if we last that long…
Here the work of others, such as Wade Davis and David Suzuki, is invaluable. Diamond has really not addressed the present yet. For me, the questions posed by Wade Davis about the cultural importance of the indigenous peoples – who are the geographical and economic losers of the battles of the last 13 millennia – must be addressed. Davis and Suzuki both point out that the current course of human development is unsustainable. Davis, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, has repeatedly said Westerners must stop thinking about indigenous peoples as “failed attempts to be us.” The Western model is seriously in need of modification if our species is to survive another 1000 years. We must look at our Planet from many different cultural viewpoints to appreciate its value and its vulnerability. For Davis, the worldviews of the Vodoun in Haiti or the Yanomano in Amazonia are just as valid as ours and must be an integral part of the way we show Mother Nature the respect and consideration She deserves.
Davis and Diamond both appreciate the cultural intelligence and fundamental equality of all peoples from firsthand experience and involvement with, and in, their societies. Diamond’s book is a pivotal achievement in demonstrating this equality from a historical perspective. Davis points out that indigenous peoples, while they had no concept of conservation, possessed a worldview that had immense respect for the natural world. In many cases they were without guile or corruption, unlike their conquerors. In my research on Cuba I learned that Columbus had wonderful praise for the gentleness of the Taino that welcomed him when he landed near Baracoa. With the advent a few years later of the devout Christian torturer, Diego Velásquez, things went downhill fast. But I digress…
As Diamond has shown, factors that are advantageous at one point in history can lose that advantage at another point. Competition, in view of the current environmental balance sheet, must defer to inter-cultural respect, new interpretations of the cosmos, and co-operation. Authors like Davis and Suzuki must be studied if Homo sapiens is to navigate a successful, sensitive path through the somewhat threatened “forests” of the present into the hopefully treed future.