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

guns-germs-steel book cvrI posted a two part review of this book in 2011, but was inspired to reread parts of it as I was doing some other reading about history. The book by Jared Diamond won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. It is an excellent book that deserved awards and I decided it deserved a second review.

The Prologue is titled “Yali’s Question, The regionally differing courses of history.” The author explains that New Guineans had tens of thousands of years of history and were still using stone tools when the Europeans showed up with all manner of manufactured goods, including steel axes. New Guineans called all those goods “cargo.” Yali was a New Guinean politician who inquired, “Why do white people have so much cargo, but we New Guineans have so little?” The Europeans used their superior technology to impose a centralized government and dominate the New Guineans, who they considered to be primitive. Yali’s question is mentioned often in the author’s quest to understand how Europeans and Asians were able to dominate original occupants of many lands, such as Native Americans, despite having no genetic superiority.

Part I gives chilling descriptions of man’s actions against man.  One is about the Maori invading the Chatman Islands 500 miles East of New Zealand.  The Moriori who lived there had originated from the same Polynesian origins, but the Maori developed into highly organized warriors while the Moriori had lived peacefully.  The Maori told the Moriori they were their slaves, and those who resisted were killed and consumed.  The others were kept and killed like sheep.  One Maori explained what happened was “…in accordance with our custom.”  

There is another brutal historical event involving Spanish explorers. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro had a remarkably easy time of defeating the Incas and capturing their emperor.  Pizarro was leading 168 Spanish soldiers, “…in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of the local inhabitants…and far beyond the reach of the reach of timely reinforcements.”  Atahuallpa was in his empire of millions of subjects, surrounded by his army of 80,000 soldiers, and fresh from recent victories over other Indians.  Pizarro captured Atahuallpa within minutes and held him captive for eight months while the Incas delivered a ransom of gold that would have filled a room measuring 8 feet in height, 22 feet long, and 17 feet wide. Pizarro then reneged on his promise to free Atahuallpa, and executed him.

The Incas had no defense against the Spaniard’s steel swords. Thus we come to the basis of the last part of the title, “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” The charge by 62 cavalrymen on their horses that swept away any Indians who stood in their way had an obvious role in the outcome. The events of Cajamarca would be recreated by invaders conquering indigenous people in numerous other parts of the globe. Germs often had a larger role in defeating the native peoples than military conquests. Smallpox introduced to North American by Spaniards reduced the Native American population from 20 million to one million within a century or two following the arrival of Columbus.

Those descriptions illustrate the starkness of history portrayed in the book. However, the history that led me back to the book was the evolution the human race. “Human history at last took off around 50,000 years ago in what (the book) termed our “Great Leap Forward.” Europeans and Asians evolved from being hunter-gathers to the domestication of wild plants and animals. The animals brought plentiful protein, and domesticated draft animals created the ability to farm much larger areas of land. Domestication of animals also brought epidemic-causing germs, but the survivors developed immunity and grew to large populations supported by the ability to grow food. Technology advanced as people were freed from the continual search for food, more complex systems of government were developed, and armies could be formed, trained, and fed. Population densities increased, new lands were sought, and germs were introduced to the new lands and caused marked reduction in the population of the natives who might not welcome the new settlers. The well-armed settlers took over with the help of their armies. The book emphasizes the importance of producing food (farming) in the evolution of civilization. Hunter-gathers thrived in the occasions when they had the good fortune to kill a large animal while farmers continually fed the people and the soldiers protecting them and stockpiled food for lean times. The farmers were also able to support those who were striving for technological developments in weaponry for their soldiers and crops that gave even more dependable and increased yields.

The farmers also domesticated animals that “…were crucial to those human societies possessing them. Most notably, they provided meat, milk products, fertilizer, land transport, leather, military assualt vehicles, plow traction, and wool, as well as germs that killed previously unexposed peoples. The result was that there were far more farmers than hunter-gatherers, which yields an advantage in a dispute. But there was another advantage. “Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest.”

I recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in horticulture, because there are detailed descriptions of the plants found in different areas of the globe, and how the Europeans and Asians had the advantage that they were able to domesticate plants that produced large grains with high levels of protein.  Chapter 7, “How to Make an Almond,” describes how edible and harvestable foods evolved.  The title refers to the fact that most almonds contain chemicals that make them too bitter to eat, but a non-bitter mutant was eventually domesticated. Many wild plants have specialized mechanisms to scatter seeds, and that prevented humans from being able to harvest them. A genetic mutation developed in some of the plants that prevented the seeds from being scattered.  Humans harvested the seeds, ate some, planted some, and profited from the practice.

There are interesting historical facts throughout the book. I’ll give a few more examples of items that interested me, and perhaps that will help others decide whether they want to read the book. The author has an obvious interest in New Guinea. He observed that there no domesticated large animals or large game animals to provide protein, and the natives ate mice, spiders, frogs and other small animals that people elsewhere didn’t bother with. He proposes that the shortage of protein was probably why cannibalism was widespread. The Aborigines of Australia were getting along quite well despite the lack of large domesticated animals until white settlers arrived and drove them away from the coastal areas.  Englishmen Robert Burke and William Wills attempted to be the first Europeans to cross Australia from south to north. They fell on hard times, and were rescued on three separate occasions by Aborigines.  Burke scared away the final group of Aborigines when he foolishly fired his pistol at one of them, and the two Brits died of starvation. Perhaps that story is a good place to end this review while contemplating the lack of advantages to being “civilized” in the outback of Australia.

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