Greg's Reviews > Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
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's review
Mar 31, 09

bookshelves: general-non-fiction
Recommended to Greg by: Hatrack
Read in March, 2009

This book amazes me for not only a brilliant exploration of human history, but for how easily and succinctly this theory can be explained.

Super short version: It’s all happenstance and geography.

The entire book in five hundred words or less: Cultures dominated other cultures mainly by means of a few variables: superior weapons, immunity to diseases, and on a broader scale technological and societal advancements unrelated to weapons. There are two important factors that set the stage for these conquests. Plant domestication and animal domestication.

Plants: Every crop has attributes that make it either easier or harder to domesticate. Peoples who happened to live in areas with crops that were easier to domesticate were able to switch from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a more sedentary lifestyle. This allowed the birth rate to increase for a few reasons

1)hunter gatherers have a limitation on how many young children can be carried over long distances

2)the increase in food production associated with farming allowed populations to support more offspring

Animals: Similarly, animals have certain criteria that lend them be easier or harder to domesticate. Those peoples who happened to have domesticatable animals around were thus able to domesticate them. This not only provided populations with a valuable food source, but a valuable source of work energy to assist in agriculture.

This combination of plant and animal domestication directly led to the following advantages by means of allowing a sedentary lifestyle with a surplus of food

1)societies were able to support individuals not engaged in the struggle to find food. This includes examples such as government and bureaucracy, a military, and inventors

2)societies were able to support highly dense populations

3)due to a combination of issues regarding the sanitary nature of sedentary dense populations, as well as a close proximity to animals, early societies to adopt these lifestyles were prone to many diseases brought on by these afore mentioned things. While initially devastating this gave these people’s advantages in the future by creating populations genetically immune to many diseases.

These conditions led to an environment fruitful to technological advancement, including writing, transportation, and weaponry.

One last important aspect is the means by which information and materials were able to spread. This is the geographical axis that continents lie on. Information traveled quickly through Eurasia, but slowly or not at all in Africa and North and South America. This is because Eurasia runs on a East-West axis, where climate, day length, and seasons were similar, allowing for crops to flourish and ideas to spread easily. Geographical conditions in other continents created an impediment to materials and information traveling easily both due to the survivability of crops, as well as the ease of trade and travel between groups of people.

All these factors combine to explain much of human history and development, a premium example of which is how Europeans were able to develop large boats to travel to the Americas to(instead of visa versa), accompanied by horses and weapons to decimate the native American peoples, as well as infect large amounts of those same people with diseases which the Europeans were mostly immune to but which also decimated native populations(due to their lack of domesticated animals this transfer occurred in only one direction).

His detailed exploration of each culture's history in the latter half of the book is fascinating as well.
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