Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (2009, read 2012)

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond ($10, link)

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (Yali, a man from New Guinea)

In other words (from above),

Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?

2015 notes:

Accompanying “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is above all a history book.. The Jewish guy argues that we succeeded versus other species because of shared stories among our thoughts, as opposed to other primates and hominid species. Diamond’s book is more compressed in its history – if we can call 15,000 years compressed, of course – but more detailed and accurate. They are both the greatest history books to read.

AUTHORS ARE REGULARLY asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

All human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.

He includes a few good quotes on marriage, although I’m not sure if I entirely agree with them.

Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness. —

He also notes that while geography was the most important factor in why Eurasian societies developed faster and dominated the world – indeed, if Africans had domesticated elephants, they might have done so as well – the fragmentation of Europe actually worked in its favor. [Why didn’t that happen in Africa?] China was too unified, and had too little competition between its regions to really foster competition, and thus innovation. Europe has always had strong powers, but rarely united; thus, that does of healthy competition (sometimes bloody) – along with shared communication – allowed for Europe’s dominance. Indeed, we are all European, like it or not. (We may all be African, ethnically, but we are all influenced by systems and technologies developed on the Eurasian peninsula.) Furthermore, he notes, the simultaneous fragmentation between the US states and its federal government is a similar strength of our country.

(I wrote that last sentence in 2015, I believe, but posting this online in 2017, I realize that’s part of the problem in the past few U.S. generations: having too many states leads most of us not to care about the state we reside in and have too much federal power. Innovation has ceased because our state/federal balance is a mess.)

He closes with this fragmentation, and also a discussion of the study of history as scientific. We’re doing the best we can, he argues.

There are at least five good references for further reading at the end of the book: the conquest of societies and related material.


2017 notes:

One day, I should read some of the more critical reviews on Amazon. Perhaps it was my youthful passion for Stratfor’s writings or early geography classes, but this book “clicked” with my unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Said in my own words:

Eurasia’s combination of compatible crops and climate allowed for planet Earth’s east-west division of powers, whereas the challenges of such north-south powers were too difficult to spread such power along those axes. What challenges? 1) Choke points (the central American landmass, northeastern Africa, and the oceans), 2) alternate geography (northern vs. Southern hemispheres vs. Tropical, year-round climates), and 3) their associated biological species. If we exclude strict plate tectonics and think of the earth’s rotation as the foundation of east-west similarities among climate and biology, then the very early motion of the earth set current geopolitics in place, even before there was water or life. Physics indeed.

The book fits in very nicely with why, after wrestling independence from this Eurasian axis and entering the world stage itself, the United States rose in power. Stratfor picks up on this book by continuing the geopolitics aspect: the USA isn’t special because Americans, per se, are special; the USA is special because its continent/land is incredibly productive. (This, of course, and the “brain drain” of attracting the brightest minds in the world to immigrate here.)

This book and Stratfor, I think, give me a pretty accurate worldview, and a priceless ability to ignore most of the newsmedia (especially international) when everyone else is overly focused on things out of our control.