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

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Jared Diamond was born September 10th, 1937. He’s written several books, such as The Third Chimpanzee and The World Until Yesterday. He was born from two Jewish, Eastern European immigrants in Boston. After graduating from Cambridge, he became a professor of physiology at UCLA. However, he has since written some of his best works on topics vastly different than those which he studied. In his fifties, he expanded from his careers in ornithology and ecology and developed a passion for environmental history, after which he became a geography professor at UCLA, which is a position he still holds.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel is a book about the development of modern civilization, primarily focusing on why certain world regions gave birth to societies far stronger than any other region of that same time period. The book begins by explaining the initial migration of humanity out of Africa and into Eurasia. The author uses fossil evidence and cave drawings to trace this migration, which first went into the Middle East and then southeastern Europe and middle Asia, before expanding to the edges of the Eurasian land mass and into the Americas via the Bering Strait. It is argued that most should reasonably assume that Africa would have birthed the greatest human societies, after all, it had a ten-million-year head start before migration out of the continent even began. The author believes, however, that this is easily attributed to the fact that most of that time period was spent by evolution. He explains that fossil evidence of former humans shows that our brains began as a mere fraction of their modern size, and over millions of years evolved. In essence, that ten-million-year head start was more of leveling the playing field, as it had no real effect on human societal development. The author then states that the reason still that Africa was not at the forefront of our development is because of lack of resources. The continent, while rich with goods, has them tucked away in areas almost impossible to get to. Deserts in the north for millennium blocked access to the rich Mediterranean while in the south mountains posed a hard to pass the barrier. The tropical rainforest and savanna were; therefore, the only place modern humans could easily live with, an area roughly the size of Europe. Yet still that presents the thought that such diversity, as seen in Europe, should still exist in Africa, and to that, the Author is uncertain but states that perhaps the lack of outside influence prevented this development.

In middle and eastern Asia, agriculture took root. Because of the development of a sedentary lifestyle, farmers would now be able to have more children. The author states that hunter-gatherers would have been limited to one child roughly every four years, as the parent would have to hold them until they were old enough to keep with the group, thus preventing the possibility of a second child, as simply put, there would be no one to carry them. With a sedentary lifestyle, it’s estimated this time is cut in half, allowing for a population boom and the development of food storage. With food storage, the farmers would be able to provide for the whole village, meaning some residents could begin to take up the jobs of a specialist, like a blacksmith, cobbler, etc. This trend was also seen in Europe, where a hierarchy of leaders and politicians began to form quickly after the development of food storage so as to tax residents and provide for the village, and eventual kingdom.

Europe was migrated to far later than Asia. Cave drawings in France show human activity dating back thousands of years, yet still not far enough to surpass Asia. Despite this, the ability to gain easy to access resources was tremendous in Europe. Most of the continent is a fertile plain, and there are very few mountain ranges and no deserts. In the south lies the Mediterranean, where fishing would allow for populations to grow and give birth to maritime culture. Because of a land connection to Asia and a sea connection to North Africa, it can be argued that cultures were able to explode in the region due to trade, which would have first been based on agricultural goods and livestock but would eventually transition to resources like iron and steel. In addition, horses were plentiful in the region. Modern day Ukraine, the place believed to be the point of human entry into Europe, was teeming with horses and cows. Because of this, man would’ve been given access to a devastating war machine, giving them the ability to easily conquer lesser foes, as seen in Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, where the Spaniards were able to capture the Incan King Atahualpa and route his army of some eighty thousand men, all without a single casualty. Europe, much like Asia, was, therefore, able to become an area where agriculture could thrive, with easy access to livestock power and natural fertilizers. Much like in Asia, this gave birth to specialists, with priests and blacksmith alike, which would later fuel the European war machine in the Middle Ages.

During this time period, mankind was able to begin the art of cloth weaving. While sedentary lifestyles were beginning to come to fruition in Europe and Asia, some hunter-gatherer tribes were able to slowly move north into Siberia, where clothing proved vital. From there these groups would be able to cross into the Americas, and so they did. Roughly forty thousand years ago they managed to cross the Bering Strait. Two theories exist; they managed to develop boats to allow them to cross the 50-mile strait, or they managed to walk across it during winter when the land bridge would have been some thousand miles wide. Many agree on the latter as the more probable event, as the invention of boats would have meant that areas like Polynesia and Australia would have been migrated to much sooner.

Over the course of the next ten thousand years these natives, the Clovis People, managed a population boom, uncontested by anywhere else in the world. During this time, they managed to spread from the Canadian Arctic, through the entire contiguous United States, and into the Pampas of Argentina, as evident from the wide range of arrowheads found through the Americas. It is widely believed this population explosion occurred at the cost of the giant America Mammals. These mammals had evolved totally devoid of human interaction, and therefore had no perception of the Human threat. These gargantuan like the American Lion were therefore killed without much of a fight. Geologists have even pinpointed that around the same time the Clovis people would move south, these mammals would rapidly disappear. In addition, this population growth was also seen in the post-Colombian landing, where its estimated some two-hundred million natives were killed by the disease. In essence, at the time, the Old World and New World had the same population, yet the New World managed this growth in a far shorter time period, something which amazes archeologists studying the Clovis people.

Yet the question stills remain, why didn’t American cultures come to dominate those of the Old World? The author states simply that the lack of technological access and trade prohibited this greatly. Europe is an open continent, with oceans surrounding it, allowing Europeans to develop maritime capabilities and reach Asia both by land and sea. However, South American cultures were unable to do such. The most advanced societies, the Aztecs, and the Incas were separated. The Incas were never able to develop a navy due to the mountainous terrain they lived in. Likewise, they were unable to break past the jungles of Brazil and into Central America. In turn, the Aztecs were unable to do the same and reach the Incas. Much like Africa, the terrain was more of a deciding factor rather than resources.

The major scientific concept the author repeatedly refers back to is archeological evidence. The author repeatedly made parallel points with the focus of their example and the fossil record. One such example, as I talked about above, was the extinction of the giant American mammals in tandem to the ‘colonizing’ of the Americas by the Clovis People. I found this parallel to be extremely useful to my understandings of the chapter. The author also always tried to point out counter-arguments to his theory and further explained why he decided to go with what he believed was right, such as the crossing of the Bering Strait and the use of boats. He also sparingly used his own experiences which I found very eye-opening, He briefly mentioned words he overheard a drunk Native American yell to surrounding whites, where he ‘damned’ the ship they came on. While it seems minor, I thought this was useful to show how detrimental, and influential, European conquest was. In addition, the author also uses geographical evidence to support his points, such as the reason why Africa proved far poorer at developing conquering societies than one would expect. The author repeatedly points to the implications of trade and maritime culture on societies, factors which heavily rely on the terrain.

One truly powerful quotation I found explains the amazing advantage the Americas proved, “If the Americas eventually came to hold hunter-gatherers at an average population density of… one person per square mile…the Americas would eventually hold ten million people… if their numbers had increased at a rate of only 1.1 percent… descendants would have reached that population ceiling of ten million people within a thousand years.” The quote shows that because of the vast lands that were long empty of humans, wildlife and crops would have the perfect opportunity to grow. While the rest of the world population would take thousands of years to simply expand to a new part of a continent, the entirety of the Americas would have reached carrying capacity – in a fraction of that time.

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I thought the book was totally fascinating because of the above factors, and the author’s breakdown of them. However, the author tended to beat around the bush. Rather than getting straight to the point of the chapter, (e.g. why agriculture was so important) the author would take a specific example and explain what occurred. He would then go into why it even relates to the said topic of the chapter, before getting to what the main point of the chapter was and how this topic was seen all over the globe. Overall this made the book very hard and tedious to pick up and read, as each chapter was 70 pages longer than it should have ever been. Because of this, I find it really hard to actually recommend this book to someone who doesn’t care about geography or some sort of philosophy.

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