How the environment molded history


Over the years I have had to buy four copies of “Guns, Germs and Steel”. When good old friends come to visit and the discussion seriously turns to issues of a philosophical nature it still happens that some do not yet know his work and invariably I end up giving my own book away. I am doing this for a good reason. Jared Diamond is one of the most important scholars of our time and I dare to say that his books should be compulsory material in every department of every University on the planet.

We live in an era that the word University has lost its original meaning and as far as I know there is no longer any syllabus anywhere on the planet that even remotely comes close to include ‘the whole of human knowledge combined into one’. Nowadays institutions of higher education turn out what I call ‘expertologists’, people who know absolutely everything within a narrow field but are myopic laymen in most other sciences. In this environment Jared Diamond is an extremely rare bird (and as an ornithologist he is unlikely to be offended by this classification). Some have called him the Charles Darwin of our time because his work offers great insight into a wide field of multiple disciplines from archaeology to zoology. While the discipline of history is generally not considered to be a science but something closer to the humanities, Jared Diamond convincingly makes a difference by approaching history with near-scientific precision and concentrating on the underlying factors to the broadest patterns of human history. In his analysis he brilliantly touches on the links to evolutionary biology, biophysics, geography, ecology, climatology, cultural anthropology, sociology and linguistics. Yet throughout he remains a classic scholar in the Socratic tradition who formulates key questions and then sets out to answer them.

 Why did one species of primate, unremarkable until 70,000 years ago, come to develop language, art, music, nation states and space travel? Why did history unfold differently on different continents? Why did Europeans conquer the Americas, Africa and Australia, instead of the other way around?

 I have been a history buff all my life but when I first read Guns, Germs and Steel, I came to the conclusion that I had lived some forty years in an unfortunate cultural ‘wilderness’ that divided the human past in history and pre-history. I had studied history in the mold of Arnold Toynbee where everything begins with the ‘rise of civilization’ and primarily focuses on the advanced literate Eurasian civilizations of the past 5000 years. The emergence of writing around 3200 BCE most certainly was a key turning point in our common past but it was not something that fell from the sky and neither was the wheel.

The subtitle of the book is ‘a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years,’ and Diamond first condenses into a single short chapter what probably happened from the time some seven million years ago that evolutionary human history began, as something separate from the history of our closest living relatives, the great apes. He mentions that the fossil record indicates how the evolutionary line leading to modern man had achieved a substantially upright posture about four million years ago but shies away from making definite claims about the earliest proto-humans or when Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens. Importantly however, he does hypothesize that sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago small evolutionary anatomical changes in the larynx and the human tongue may have triggered the emergence of human language, which in turn may have led to changes in the neural wiring of our brain. He further mentions as an important milestone, the time some 50,000 years ago, that he calls the Great Leap Forward when there are signs of standardized stone tools and the first preserved jewelry in the form of ostrich shell beads. In his view the Neanderthals were not a separate species of apelike brutes living in caves. Diamond emphasizes they had brains slightly larger than our own and left behind evidence that they were burying the dead and caring for the sick.

 A suitable starting point from which to compare historical developments on the different continents is around 11,000 BC. This date corresponds approximately to the beginnings of village life in a few parts of the world, the first undisputed peopling of the Americas, the end of the Pleistocene era and the last Ice Age, and the start of what geologists term the Recent Era. Plant and animal domestication began in at least one part of the world within a few thousand years from that date.

The central tenet of Guns, Germs and Steel is that history followed different courses for different peoples because of the differences in their environment and not because there were any significant biological differences between these peoples. Civilization was not the result of any superior intelligence, but the outcome of a set of preconditions.

For most of the time since the ancestors of modern humans diverged from the ancestors of the living great apes all humans on earth fed themselves exclusively by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. What changed the world was food production. Agriculture first arose in the Middle East about 8500 BC because that is where the wild plants were found that people first successfully managed to domesticate, such as emmer wheat, peas and olives. It is also where sheep and goats were found, the animals that turned out to be the easiest to domesticate. Farmers and herders can feed many more people than hunters and gatherers and it was food production that led to population growth, to the development of complex societies, to literacy, technology and eventually to advanced civilizations. Europe and the Middle East had good soil, plenty of easily domesticable animals and plants, and a main axis running east-west, instead of north-south, meaning that crops, livestock and tools could spread easily, unhindered by big changes in climate or day length.

Diamond convincingly argues that Eurasian civilization was not the result of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. Europe was able to grow a level of food production that allowed the emergence of political states with great military power. The transformation of warfare by horses began with their domestication around 4000 BC in the steppes north of the Black Sea. On horseback people could cover far greater distances than others on foot, attack by surprise and flee before a superior defending force could be gathered. Over the centuries Europeans developed guns and greatly improved maritime technology. In fact, the title of the book serves as shorthand for the underlying factors that enabled modern Europeans to conquer peoples of other continents. Over time humans living among farm animals had developed immunity to the diseases these animals carried. By the time they encountered other societies, their military power, metal tools and, above all, their deadly germs gave them the decisive advantage.

The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by the European conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords…For instance, in 1519 Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec Empire with a population of many millions…What gave the Spanish a decisive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitláhuac.

Like Darwin, Diamond has his critics. Some traditional historians resent the notion that individuals did not play conclusive roles in the grand sweep of historical affairs, but accidents of geography and environment brought about the domination of whites of Eurasian origin. Those who see history in a framework of dynasties, successions, treaties and alliances, object that he only deals with Alexander of Macedonia in a few separate paragraphs and does not even mention Genghis Khan at all.

However Diamond does devote an entire chapter to what he calls ‘the collision at Cajamarca’ when Pizarro, leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers faced Atahuallpa, the Inca Emperor who commanded an army of 80,000.

Pizarro’s military advantages lay in the Spaniards’ steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns and horses. To those weapons, Atahuallpa’s troops, without animals on which to ride into battle, could oppose only stone, bronze, or wooden clubs, maces and hand axes, plus slingshots and quilted armor. Such imbalances of equipment were decisive in innumerable other confrontations of Europeans with Native Americans and other peoples. 

Nowadays I keep Guns, Germs and Steel on my desk and I use it frequently when I need a refresher on some of those typical questions like how China became Chinese or how Africa became black…with Jared Diamond you never stop learning… 

One thought on “How the environment molded history

  1. Absolutely great insight…!!! I was lucky to have had a very extensive education,we used to complain about that in grammar school and later at the university..! However,I am happy that I had it,for nowadays education is lacking insight,and I find young people very poorly educated after graduating any of the universities..! Sadly..! Greetings,best regards…!!!

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