Guns, germs, and steel

I have two copies of this fascinating book by Jared Diamond and now I have watched the three-part National Geographic special by the same name. It’s a book very much worth the read and/or a series worth watching. Here’s the Cliff Notes version.

Diamond is trying to explain inequality across regions of the world, the roots of power. He begins from the belief and his experience that people across the globe are fundamentally the same. I share that experience and belief. It has not been a lack of ingenuity or intellect that explains why certain cultures have not progressed in the same way that others have. Instead, Diamond claims, it’s all has been about geography and the shape of continents. More specifically, about wheat and cattle. People who lived in places where they were forced to spend nearly all their time feeding themselves (the hunters and gatherers) could never create enough food to allow others within their society to specialize in tasks besides food-production. On the other hand, in the cradle of civilization in the Middle East –the Fertile Crescent — high quality food and domesticated cattle were aplenty 9000 years ago. There was thus enough extra food to feed a small group of individuals who could specialize in the creation of such things as metal tools. Later, as the crops and the cattle from the Middle East spread east and west along the same latitude (and climate), the ability to produce and store food allowed the armies of Egypt to build the pyramids and the artists and poets of Greece and Rome to create culture. Subsequently, during the 16th century, when wheat and cattle were imported to the New World, they fueled the expansion of our continent.

Geography explains it all, Diamond believes. It’s all about the hand people were dealt, the raw material hand. And then when those who had not developed technology early were invaded by those who had, that’s the end of the story. Well, not quite the end. Diamond writes about the conquest of the Incas that began in 1532. Spain had been at war for some 700 years before they came to the New World. At that time, Spain was largely an agricultural country; its farms were dominated by livestock that had come from the Fertile Crescent. It was climate and the ability to domesticate animals within that climate that led to the expansion of agriculture, giving certain cultures a large head start in developing (the advantage of meat, milk and muscle, he calls it). Did you know that of the thousands of animals on earth, less than 15 that are large enough to perform work tasks have ever been domesticated? All but one (the llama) were native to the Middle East. Migration of both crops and animals happened far more easily east/west (the shape of the Eurasia continent) rather than north/south (the shape of the Americas) due to similarity of climate, day length and vegetation. I have never though about the shape of North and South America as inhibiting the flow of such things, but it makes total sense.

Back to 1532. The Incan army was some 80,000 strong. The Spanish force was made up of 168 soldiers and 37 horses. Ten years before, Cortez had invaded Mexico, capturing its Mayan leader and then letting the epidemic of smallpox do the rest. It is estimated that of the 20 million indigenous people of the Americas, smallpox brought from Europe and Africa wiped out over 95%. That’s truly a real weapon of mass destruction. It was November 16 in the village of Cajamarca, where Pizarro repeated Cortez’ strategy and captured the Incan leader Atahualpa. The beginning of the end of the Incan empire. The victory had nothing do with bravery or intelligence. Rather, it was treachery, betrayal, swords and horses that paved the way. And then, as in Mexico, the germ took over. The rampant spread of infectious disease was the most powerful weapon on earth.

Diamond moves onto the European conquest of Africa in his exploration of the three forces of conquest — guns, germs, and steel. Europeans landed at the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-1600’s. They found a climate nearly identical to that at home, hospitable to cattle and crops with which they were familiar. One hundred and fifty years later, the settlers en masse developed wanderlust and headed north in pursuit of land and riches. They soon encountered a highly developed and organized culture, the Zulus, and with the advantage of the gun, massacred them at the battle of Bloody River.

The settlers continued to push further and further into the interior of Africa, with the railroad as a prime mover of people and things. But it was another creation of the Industrial Revolution — the automatic rifle that could fire up to 500 rounds in a minute — that sealed the fate of many Africans. This time, however, the “germ” of the tropics — malaria –turned on the Europeans and their animals. At 23 degrees latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn marks the start of a new world. Instead of four seasons, it’s a world of only two, wet and dry. Crops like wheat and barley couldn’t survive, but the mosquito sure thrived. Unlike the indigenous population who lived in the highlands, the Europeans chose to build their settlements in lowlands near sources of water (and, of course, home to the malaria-carrying mosquito). The settlers and their animals died in large numbers; the interior would never be settled by these outsiders. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of this story. The interior of Africa is home to vast natural resources. The desire to harvest those resources to fuel their economies back home and to line the pockets of a relative few led to continued devastation of the continent. In the most brutal case, the Belgians drove, burned, and enslaved Africans out of their homes in the Congo by the millions.

Diamond’s Africa tale does not end there. He returns to the germ, the germ of malaria. As the African population was forced out of their villages and into crowded cities and the strains of the disease mutated, they became susceptible to malaria in new ways. In Zambia, for example, deaths from malaria grew three-fold in just a couple decades, to more than 50,000 annually. Seventy percent of all children suffered with severe anemia from the disease. Once again, the germ was determinative of a people’s fate. Yet, in the last ten years, things have changed for the better. Due to a massive effort (mostly as simple as distributing mosquito nets), anemia rates have dropped from 70% to 4%. Death rates have plummeted by two-thirds. This time, intentional efforts have mattered for the good.

I feel a little better-informed from my exposure to Diamond and his work. I invite you to explore the same, either through word or film. The real thing is always better than Cliff Notes.

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One Response to Guns, germs, and steel

  1. Bill Aitken '64 says:

    Much of this sounds similar to the general threads we learned in Western Civilization at Oglethorpe in the 60s. Never hurts to fill in more recent data and revisit such things from time to time, especially as the world becomes further globalized. Such sources are well worth bringing to the fore. Thanks for the references.

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