I had high expectations of Gun, Germs and Steel – a Pulitzer winner with the ambitious subtitle A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. I am pleased to say I was right.
Remember being taught history at school? We learned very quickly that after the 15th century, as soon as the Europeans arrived somewhere, they conquered: Columbus and the West Indies, Pizarro and the Incas, Cortés and the Aztecs. Soon we took those facts of European conquest for granted and forgot the all-important question behind the simple fact. Why?
Well, it’s simple. The Europeans had guns and steel swords and the native population didn’t. The Europeans brought diseases that devasted the locals in Australia and North and South America.
So far, so true. But why? Why was it that the Europeans had guns and steel and the others did not? Why was it that the Europeans had immunity to those diseases that wrecked havoc with the local population, while illnesses like yellow fever and malaria did not manage to stop European conquest?
According to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel most of the questions are answered by three accident of geography:
- The plant and animal species which were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent were remarkably suited to human needs
- The East-West axis of Eurasia meant that domesticated plant and animal species could spread easily. When the continent extends on a North/South axis – the climate changes too rapidly for the species to accommodate easily.
- Those differences are in many ways self-perpetuating. If a society has access to plants and animals that are easily domesticated, it is more likely to abandon the egalitarian hunter-gathering lifestyle. This, in turn, means a society is more likely to develop innovations such as mathematics and writing, as these are the natural consequence of an agricultural society which has some form of centralised government.
I do not wish to summarize the whole book here, but I wanted to give you a glimpse of the intriguing ideas that feature in it. The questions being analyzed include: why the zebra was never domesticated, what caused China to abandon the exploration of the seas in the 15th century, and why the South American natives used toys for children with wheels but never actually realized the wheel’s potential for transportation.
This book is absolutely fascinating, and anyone with an interest in history should consider reading it.