Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Something about Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel...

     Initially published over twelve years ago, Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond has become one of the most transcendental books that try to explain the differences in development among the societies of the world. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and an Aventis award in 1998. Further, the book has become essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. It has become a required text for university courses and even spawned a National Geographic documentary in 2005.
Diamond, a professor of Geography and Physiology at the University of California in Los Angeles, begins his book by telling us about Yali’s question. Yali is a New Guinea native who allegedly asked our author, “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?” (Pp. 14). Yali’s question is Diamond’s research purpose in his book, which is to try and give the reasons why some parts of the world, namely Eurasia and North America, produced more technology, wealth and power than the other corners of our world.
The main approach one should take into consideration when reading this book is that Diamond has set a clear thesis to his writing and strictly tries to defend it. He believes that the reasons why some societies grew stronger while others did not are because of environmental factors and not because of racial or moral characteristics. He argues that factors such as wildlife, plants and geography have affected the outcomes we see today.
For instance, he argues, perceptibly, the importance of food production. Hunter-gatherers experienced a shorter lifespan, inferior nutrition and nomadic lifestyles which disabled the chance of them ever starting a civilization. Thus, food production is key and Diamond argues that the advent of farming began, among other similar reasons of ecology, when hunter-gatherers saw their wildlife sources depleted. In point of fact, in the chapter To Farm or Not to Farm, Diamond outlines 5 main causes for the invention of farming. Similarly, the availability of appropriate wildlife also constituted a major factor in the development of societies. A key example Diamond mentions in his book is that of the availability of domesticable animals. Pigs, cattle and chickens were found in Eurasia, while zebras, elephants and lions were found in Sub-Saharan Africa. The point here lies in that even though Africa contains such a vast megafuna, virtually no animal in the region is able to become a farm animal, even to this day, they are not domesticable.
To mention another example, Diamond also places great emphasis on the geographical distribution of the world. He argues that Eurasia could initiate trade (and therefore development) because of its predominantly east to west axis. Travel (and thus trade) was easier given that Eurasia experienced a relatively smoother terrain and similar weather conditions throughout, thus allowing for the diffusion of plants, animals and people. Conversely, the Americas visibly hold a North to South axis where conditions change, making travel and trade much more difficult than in Eurasia. For example, the jungle in Central America barred the possibility of the domesticable llama from the Andes to ever reach Mexico which resulted in the civilizations of the northern hemisphere to remain without pack animals, a trait critical for development.
And perhaps the most telling of all examples is that of time. Eurasians experienced an overwhelming head start in the development of their societies than those of the Americas. As a matter of fact, Diamond writes, “…humans have occupied Eurasia for about a million years, far longer than they have lived in the Americas. According to archaeological evidence, humans entered the Americas at Alaska only around 12,000 B.C., spread south of the Canadian ice sheets as Clovis hunters a few centuries before 11,000 B.C., and reached the southern tip of South America by 10,000 B.C.” (Pp. 363).

Many past reviewers have exemplified this work and its validity is unquestionable. The assumption of the environment as the sole cause in the development of mankind is astonishingly supported and defended throughout the book. In point of fact, all the reasons mentioned in every chapter have undoubtedly influenced the history of the societies of the world. However, Diamond does leave room for suspicion, and the weaknesses that could be argued come not in the form of incoherence, but in omission. Had he not relied so strictly on the assumption that environmental causes are the only responsible agents for the development of societies, this intent to point out the weaknesses of the book would not be possible. Guns, Germs & Steel, Diamond says, caused the differences in societies, but he fails to mention other phenomena.
The problem with Diamond’s, admittedly, remarkable book is that he fails to consider other aspects such as the genetic evolution of human development. Science has produced evidence[1] that seems to indicate that natural selection molds the species that inhabit this planet; human beings are not an exception. With this in mind, Darwin’s theory of evolution is ignored by Diamond; at no point in his book does he open the possibility of natural selection playing a part in the evolution of societies. It cannot be that far-fetched that within thousands of years of conditioning – probably initially due to the facts Diamond does discuss – human beings in different environments evolved genetically in different ways.
We know that the different characteristics of physical traits are the product of different environmental factors. For instance, black human beings became black because it allowed them to be more tolerant of the sun; on the contrary, red headed people who predominantly exist towards the North Pole are not very tolerant of the sun’s rays precisely because they evolved in a part of the Earth where the presence of sun is weaker. Likewise, we have other several different physical traits in human beings that have presented themselves because human beings are excellent in adapting to their environments. With this in mind, why can’t it also be that our genetic evolution also changed our mental characteristics?
Recent studies have pointed out how humans can actually change their DNA within one’s lifetime[2], therefore there should be no doubt that thousands of years of different conditioning would produce different capacities among peoples. The abilities of an individual are only partly environmental, they are also genetic. And the capacities innate of their genetics are inherent to the previous conditioning of the individual’s ancestor. Genetics determine the ability of individuals. Thus, if a child is born to a line of ancestors that has been receiving an education for greater periods of time, that child will most probably have a greater faculty than a child who is born to a line of ancestors who were not educated.
So, as mentioned already, the problem with Guns, Germs & Steel is not a lack of thoroughness in his arguments, but rather the omission of a great part of the puzzle. Had Diamond resisted on outlining his thesis as simply the environmental factors that influenced the development of societies instead of trying to insist that all the reasons for the difference in development are environmental, room for criticism would have been vastly reduced.
At the very least, he should have included a chapter addressing the topic of genetic inheritance and admitting to the fact of differences in human beings at birth because of ancestor background. Then explain that the reasons for the different ancestor backgrounds were those of environment, consequently, it would have inhibited scrutinizing readers from pointing out weaknesses.
In all, the omission of what I consider a crucial aspect in human (and societal) development does not diminish the importance and excellence of this book. He has produced some amazing insights into the subject that have been impossible to reject. Objectively, Diamond does try to answer one of the most controversial and difficult questions ever placed on the social sciences and philosophy.

[1] Specific details of these investigations can be readily found on many publications in the subject. Furthermore, agreement with the point in question is part of a general scientific knowledge (i.e. Darwin’s theory of evolution).
[2] http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/labnotes/archive/2008/07/01/train-your-mind-change-your-dna.aspx
Diamond, Jared M. Guns, germs, and steel the fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Print.
"Michael Levin's review of Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel - Stalking the Wild Taboo." L. R. Andrews, Inc. - Home. Web. 18 Oct. 2009. .
"Train Your Mind, Change Your DNA - Lab Notes Blog - Newsweek.com."Newsweek Blogs - Blogs. Web. 18 Oct. 2009. .