Book review: Guns, germs, and steel (part I)


Why is it that Europe was able to conquer much of the rest of the world? Why didn’t Africa do the conquering instead? Or the Americas, or Australia?

This question is the topic of Jared Diamond’s Guns, germs, and steel. The three nouns in the title are, to him, the three main advantages that Europeans explorers and conquerors had over natives in the lands in which the former were exploring and conquering. But, that’s not a very good answer. Why should Europeans have been able to develop these bits of technology before people in other countries?

One of the first things Diamond discusses is that these factors are not due to innate differences in the people. Early people in all continents were more or less the same as each other, and if anything, the Europeans were at an early disadvantage. People in Africa should have had a headstart: people most likely lived there before they lived anywhere else, so if all else had been equal, they would have been able to develop advanced technology before people living elsewhere. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Diamond was interested in finding a purely geographical reason for the increased technology in Eurasia as compared to other continents. And he did.

In order for technological advances to be possible, many prior developments first have to be in place. Originally, all people were nomadic, leading a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Since such people must constantly be on the move, it is not possible for them to develop complicated inventions, since that process requires considerable time and possibly materials. Hence, a prerequisite to technological inventions is a more settled lifestyle. That means that societies must first develop farming before they can develop technology.

Many cultures in different parts of the world discovered farming independently, but Eurasia as a landmass had certain significant advantages over the rest of the planet. Not all plants are readily domesticable; even today, there are many types of plants that would be great to eat, but we haven’t yet discovered how to do so efficiently. For example, acorns could be good food for us, yet few people eat them because it’s so annoying for us to do so. On the other hand, domesticating certain types of grains, fruits, and nuts is a much less difficult task, and can even be accomplished relatively inadvertently. Similarly, certain animals are much more domesticable than others are.

It happens that Eurasia had a lot more species of domesticable grains and animals than did other continents. It wasn’t too surprising that the Fertile Crescent area was among the first to develop farming, since several of the world’s most domesticable grains were found there, especially wheat and barley. By contrast, relatively few domesticable grains existed in other areas. And, where they did exist, farming tended to be developed fairly early on. For example, corn and quinoa were domesticated in the Andes.

What Diamond doesn’t mention in Guns, germs, and steel, but that I learned from reading Simon Standage’s An edible history of humanity, is that farming was initially a really bad idea for all involved parties. For humans, farming was a bad idea because it requires more work than hunting and gathering (more hours per day), and it is less healthful, due to the smaller variety of things to eat (early farmers overwhelmingly ate whatever staple grain was prevalent in the region). Standage points out that the average lifespan after the advent of farming dipped from 21 to 17. For plants, farming was a bad idea because it selects for traits that make independent survival unlikely or impossible. For instance, consider the pea. Wild peas generally come in pods that explode at some random point. This is beneficial, as then the peas are dispersed, and more pea plants can grow. For humans, this is an unfortunate scenario, as it is hard to gather peas that have been randomly dispersed. Occasionally, though, wild peas have nonexploding pods, and it was they that were intentionally planted. Soon after, nearly all peas were of the nonexploding variety. That’s bad for the pea, since it can no longer reproduce without humans.

How humans eventually came to accept farming as a better way of life is unclear to me, given the drawbacks. Yet, this tended to happen.

Once farmers became more prevalent in certain areas, farming was able to spread to nearby communities, in one way or another. Sometimes, this was due to observation: a nomadic community might notice that a nearby farming community seemed to be better off, and the former community may adopt the latter’s methods. Another possibility is that of conquest: farming communities tend to be larger than nomadic communities, and they tend to have more advanced weaponry. Hence, a farming community might conquer another community, and that would help the spread of farming. Or, it might be extended by trade.

If two nearby communities were both farming communities, each could benefit from the developments of the other. For instance, they could exchange seeds, thereby increasing the diversity of food available to each of the communities. Other innovations developed in one could also be incorporated into the other community.

However, trading was not always effective. Being able to grow plants is not such an easy thing; some plants are quite finicky and will only grow under certain conditions. And here is where one of the great advantages of Eurasia can first be noticed.

In Eurasia, the main axis to get from one side to the other is the east-west direction. Contrast this with that of Africa or the Americas, where the main axis is the north-south direction. While it’s no guarantee that climate remains the same when moving east or west (and, indeed, it frequently does change), it is guaranteed that at least the number of hours of daylight remains constant. Hence, it is more likely that same plants will grow when traveling east or west than when traveling north or south.

The effect of this is that people in Eurasia eventually had a much greater selection of plants to choose from. Coupled with the fact that more domesticable plants existed on Eurasia than on other landmasses, this gave Eurasians a distinct advantage in getting to the next phase.

To be continued.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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3 Responses to Book review: Guns, germs, and steel (part I)

  1. Pingback: Book review: Guns, germs, and steel (part II) | Quasi-Coherent

  2. Pingback: Book review: Guns, germs, and steel (part III) | Quasi-Coherent

  3. Pingback: Book review: Being wrong | Quasi-Coherent

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