Thursday, 10 September 2009

A History for Everybody

Book Review: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (London: Vintage Books, 1997)Bipin Adhikari
Source: New Spotlight Newsmagazine, September 11-24, 2009)

It is unconventional to review a book after twelve years of its publication. Many readers may consider such a book no longer worth a review. But some books deserve a special treatment. Jared Diamond's 1997 science book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is one of them.

Diamond is one of the most remarkable contemporary scholars of the United States. In this book, he seeks to explain Eurasian hegemony throughout history - and the reasons behind it. The question before him is - why history unfolded differently on different continents over the last 13 thousand years? Is it because, as racists usually equate, some people are superior to others? He answers the question in four parts.

In Part I, from Eden to Cajamarca, Diamond explains what happened on all the continents before 11,000 B. C.? Then he deals with how geography molded societies on Polynesian islands. After that he explains why the Inca emperor Atahualpa did not capture King Charles I of Spain?

Part II deals with the rise and spread of food production. It is here that he analyses the roots of guns (military superiority), germs (capacity to control diseases) and steel (powerful organizations), and geographic differences in the onset of food production.

Then Diamond discusses about the causes of the spread of food production and unconscious development of ancient crops. Completing this he poses three important questions: why did peoples of some regions fail to domesticate plants?; why were the biggest wild mammal species never domesticated?; and why did food production spread at different rates on different continents?

It is in Part III that Diamond explores the course of development from food to guns, germs and steel. This is an equally substantial part of his study. Here he provides references on the evolution of germs, writing, technology and of government and religion.

In Part IV, Diamond brings in the histories of Australia and New Guinea. He also refers to the history of Austronesian expansion. The histories of Eurasia and the America have also been compared with each other. The last item here is the history of Africa - the question being how 'Africa became black'.

Jared Diamond's answer to the biggest question of history – why history unfolded differently is environmental not racial. For example, differences in the availability of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication have been one of the important factors in the evolution. Another difference had to do with the shapes and orientations of the continents. As such, Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences. Rather they originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops.

Diamond holds that even when cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), these advantages were only created due to the influence of geography and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes. As a result, the geography of the Eurasian landmass gave its human inhabitants an inherent advantage over the societies on other continents, which they were able to dominate or conquer.

No doubt, the book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a short history of everything. Diamond has hundreds of references from ecology, archaeology, genetics, linguistics and various historical case studies to prove his thesis. Still his study does not pay adequate attention to the historical variables of the Arab and Asian regions, which have significant contribution to what is known as civilization. One can also observe from the sideline that he has generalized too much when arguing his case. But, with all these comments, it will be difficult for anybody to counter his conclusion in significant ways. This is the most readable special work on the history of mankind.

Suitable books for review may be sent to:Bipin Adhikari

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