Monday, August 2, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society

Whenever I read a book that I really like, I always check out the bibliography to see if there are other books on the subject that I might like to read. I pay special attention to books that are specifically mentioned in the text of whatever book I am reading. Lately, one title has come up over and over, Guns, Germs, and Steel. I read it when it was published in 1997. Because so many authors are using it in their research, I decided that it was time to read it again.

Rereading this book was a pleasure. Enough time has passed since my first reading, that I experienced those “aha” moments again. Moments when what the author is saying is so clear and makes so much sense that I find myself wondering why I have never looked at the subject in that light before. His thesis is very simple. The reason that Eurasian peoples conquered and colonized the world was not because they were smarter than the so-called primitive societies that they encountered. Instead, the reason was simply that they had more plants and animals in their environment that were suitable for domestication which led to population increases which led to more people to come up with technological inventions such as the writing and sophisticated weapons.

Peoples lacking enough plants and animals in their environment that were suitable for domestication either got a later start at food production and technology or never moved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. Which is not to say that they were any less intelligent. My favorite anecdote is about two English explorers who perished while attempting to traverse the outback of Australia, an area where the aboriginal tribes had been able to find enough food and water to survive with no problem for thousands of years.

And while it is true that many conquered peoples died from the diseases that were introduced by Europeans, those same Europeans died of tropical diseases at the same rates until 20th century medicine was able to overcome them.

It’s no surprise that this book has become a classic. Nor should it surprise anyone that it is the Ur text for anyone writing on climate, food and human civilization.

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