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Book Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

My Personal Summary

This book explains why rates of progress differed among cultures around the world.

The surprising answer: Continents with east-west orientations and many suitable wild species simply had greater agricultural advantages, which lead to food surpluses, which lead to large societies where people could specialize and trade, which lead to technology and the development of writing, politics, epidemic diseases, swords and steel, which allowed them to simply progress faster and conquer other nations who were less endowed geographically.

In a nutshell, some cultures developed faster simply because they were blessed geographically, not because the individuals in those regions were smarter or more talented.

Book Notes

  • This book seeks to answer the question “why did the rates of progress differ so much among cultures from different continents?”
  • The answers turn out to be mostly differences in environment, not differences in biology.
  • Different cultures developed “guns, germs, and steel” at different rates, which enabled them to dominate other cultures.
  • By 11,000 B.C. humans had inhabited all continents of the earth. But Eurasia is the continent that developed most quickly, and this book explains the reasons why.
  • The Polynesian islands are used as a micro example of how environments differences can lead to differences in progress. Specifically, differences in climate, geology, soil, mountain ranges, and isolation allowed some islands to use agriculture more effectively which lead to population growth which lead to people being able to specialize in skills outside of agriculture which lead to more complex societies, technology, and political structures, which are the things that underly progress and advancement.
  • Agriculture first began in the Fertile Crescent region in the Middle East because the climate offered nearly perfect conditions for a wide diversity of crops to grow. It had nothing to do with the superior agriculture intellect or knowledge of the people living there.
  • People in New Guinea are extremely knowledgeable about plant species, yet were unable to evolve food production extensively because there were few domesticable cereals and animals in the region, which lead to protein deficiency and a lack of ability to develop a larger population. The problem was the natural environment, not the people. When more productive crops did arrive from elsewhere, the natives did adopt them and as a result population began to increase.
  • Of the 148 potentially domesticable large mammals from around the world, only 14 were actually ever domesticated because they met the requirements for growing quickly (no farmer wants to wait 15 years for a gorilla or elephant to reach maturity) only requiring plants to eat (no carnivores have ever been domesticated), reproducing quickly (cheetahs go through a lengthy courtship process that they’re unlikely to carry out in captivity), not being too dangerous (grizzly bears could provide a lot of meat but they’re too deadly to tame), not panicking around humans (this rules out deer and antelope), and having a social hierarchy that allows for humans to easily be their leader
  • It just so happened that most domesticable large mammals were located on the Eurasian landmass, which gave the people in that region a massive advantage since it allowed them to possess meat, milk products, fertilizer, land transport, leather, military assault vehicles, plow traction, and wool, as well as germs that killed previously unexposed peoples.
  • Eurasia is oriented on an East-west axis while the Americas and Africa is oriented north-south. It turns out that this simple difference has massive effects on the rate of spread of crops, livestock, and inventions like writing, wheels, and technology.
  • Certain crops grow best at certain latitudes. Since the Eurasian landmass was East-west oriented, agriculture spread much faster since plants taken to new areas East and west could grow well in those climates.
  • “Portugal, northern Iran, and Japan, all located at about the same latitude but lying successively 4,000 miles east or west of each other, are more similar to each other in climate than each is to a location lying even a mere 1,000 miles due south.
  • By contrast, domesticated plants and animals did not spread as quick in the Americas or Africa because they’re north-south oriented and the climate changes too much between latitudes.
  • “For thousands of years after corn was domesticated in Mexico, it failed to spread northward into eastern North America, because of the cooler climates and shorter growing season prevailing there.”
  • The central idea here is that a certain crop or animal only needs to be domesticated once in one place before it can quickly be spread to other regions in Eurasia, whereas plants or animals had to be domesticated independently in Africa and the Americas since new discoveries and domestications couldn’t be spread easily once they were discovered.
  • Societies in East-west oriented land masses naturally engaged in more crop trade, which meant they also shared other discoveries and inventions like the wheel, the alphabet, and writing systems. This further gave these societies advantages.
  • Crowd diseases evolved in Eurasia as a result of diseases that thrive in large dense populations and as mutations from domesticable large animals in that region. These diseases spread from animals to people since people were living in such close quarters to the animals they were raising.
  • Thus when Europeans arrived in the Americas, many of them had immunity against these crowd diseases but the Indians did not, which is why it decimated their populations. Germs killed far more Indians than warfare.
  • Technology advanced faster in Eurasia than the Americas, Africa, and Australia mostly due to geographic reasons. Their head start on food production and their East-west orientation meant their populations were larger and the ease for diffusion of new technology was higher, which meant they had more individuals to work on inventing things and spreading inventions to neighboring regions and improving upon existing inventions was easier. There are plenty of people as smart as Edison in New Guinea, but people had to worry about surviving via hunter gathering as opposed to being able to specialize and tinker with new inventions.
  • Societies gradually grew from tribes to bands to states to empires because it became advantageous economically and in terms of organization.
  • Australia is the driest continent on earth, has the most infertile soil, has a lack of domesticable plants, and has a highly unpredictable cycle of seasons, which made agriculture a nightmare. This meant most natives remained hunter gatherers, never developed large populations, and as a result didn’t develop technology, writing, or complex social structures.

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