Guns, Germs, & Steel Book Review

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A year ago, during a summer break from university, I did some volunteer work in Mapungubwe National Park, a game reserve that borders Zimbabwe and Botswana in the far north of South Africa. The park is named after Mapungubwe hill (hill of the jackal), atop which one has a spectacular view of the broad Limpopo meandering lazily to its confluence with the Shashe river. And beyond, an unending expanse of dry, rocky Savannah. I had the somewhat surreal experience of helping park rangers, Patrick and Stephen, survey trees along the Limpopo river for damage caused by parasitic plants, flooding, or elephants. Stephen would march ahead along the river bank scouting for the correct trees with his GPS tracker and Patrick would languidly assess given tree and then boom in his resonant African voice his estimation of tree damage: “CRRREEEPEEER… GIVE IT… FIFFTEEEN PAAACENT! THE REST… ZERO! ZERO! ZERO!”. My job was to jot down his estimations onto data sheets. In this fashion we would pass on, locating and scoring all the trees along the riverbank, all the while keeping a wary eye out for predators and elephants.

Mapungubwe’s main claim to fame is it was once the site of an advanced Iron Age settlement, which, in the 13th century, was the capital of the first and largest kingdom in Southern Africa. On site, there is an impressively modern museum that houses some of the archaeological findings, including dextrous bead-work, metal-work, and pottery. But the crowning find is displayed in pride of place at the culmination of the exhibition – a small rhino fashioned from delicate gold foil. It was discovered by amateur archaeologists alongside a large quantity of other gold artefacts in a royal grave in the 1930s. However, the significance of the finding was ignored during the apartheid era because it indicated significant pre-colonial African achievement. This contradicted the wide-held belief that European settlers had arrived from the cape at an ’empty land’ at the same time as Bantu settlers from the North. In fact, native people had inhabited the area hundreds of years previously and had lived in complex, socially stratified societies. Royalty and other elites occupied Mapungubwe hilltop and commoners lived below in the surrounding Savannah plains, producing the agricultural surplus to feed the craftsmen and nobility. They raised cattle and sheep and grew sorghum and millet. Basic agriculture as well as cattle herding and hunting and gathering constituted the bulk of the economy, but the large amounts of gold, ivory and glass beads found on site indicates long-distance trade routes with ports on the East coast of Africa connected with India and China.

While there is no doubt these archaeological findings highlight a complex and highly skilled culture, this society reached its iron-age peak only in the 13th century AD. So why did it take this part of the world so much longer to develop a level of sophistication that had been achieved in the Fertile Crescent millennia before? If homo-sapiens’ origins are in Africa, why did this African kingdom not develop the writing systems, monumental architecture, and artistic achievements of the mighty Classical civilisations of the Mediterranean, given the evolutionary head-start. More pressingly, why did Europeans and not Southern Africans have the navigational capability, military sophistication and knowledge of agriculture necessary for colonial expansion and dominance in Africa beginning with Dutch colonisation in the 16th century? Was it a cultural paucity that inhibited sub-Saharan Africa’s ascent to civilisation, or were there broader, underlying reasons – perhaps handicaps in resources, climate, or disease. Indeed, it was climate change that brought upon the downfall of the Mapungubwe kingdom. Rainfall diminished after 1300 AD and farming could no longer sustain the people, who were forced to migrate.

Mapungubwe-Goldrhino

In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond tackles similar themes and questionsHe was first prompted to do so by a New Guinean politician, Yali, who asked him why the West possessed such advanced goods and technology and New Guineans so little. Diamond had no comprehensive answer at the time, but lodged the question in the back of his mind and he began to think about and analyse history in its broadest strokes, looking for the roots of this disparity in power. Hewanted to understand the ultimate causes underlying the proximate reasons for why certain people in certain places developed key innovations far in advance of other peoples? The illustrative historical event he analysed was the clash of Europe with the New World. A handful of Spanish conquistadors under Pissarro were able to quash the once mighty Inca empire. How did they achieve this? The invisible ace up the conquistador’s sleeve was infectious disease – germs. The Spanish carried pathogens such as Smallpox and Measles, which spread with lightning speed ahead of the invaders and obliterated the Native population, in some cases by as much as 95%. This destabilised the central political order and weakened military power, making it much more difficult for the Inca to mount a unified defence. The conquistadors dealt the killer blow with their terrifying and far superior weaponry – their guns and steel. This combination of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond argues, was far more influential in determining the outcome than cultural differences, such as the misplaced religious terror that may have temporarily paralyzed the Inca’s judgement.

 

In Africa, the situation with regards to infectious disease was different. In the Cape, Smallpox similarly devastated the native Khoisan hunter gather population, but inhabitants further North showed resistance to tropical diseases, which this time ravaged European settlers. The tables were turned in favour of the indigenous people, who had a long history of exposure to these diseases, and time for natural selection to build up resistance within populations. The further North the Dutch voortrekkers marched and their cattle and pack animals began to succumb to tropical diseases. On the other hand, the cattle that the African’s possessedwere resistant to local disease due to exposure over a longer period of time. The herding of cattle also may explain why these people were more resistant to smallpox than their Khoisan cousins further south. Smallpox is a zoonotic infection caused by the Variola virus, which is thought to have initially crossed to humans from rodents in Tropical Africa well before the birth of civilisation and agriculture. Furthermore, because of regular exposure native Africans had developed antibodies against Malaria, providing limited immunity, whereas the European settlers, with no immunity were vulnerable to the parasite. It was only through the use of medicine and the eradication of the Teste fly that European colonizers made any headway.

At the heart of this broad, sweeping book is a simple thesis: that differences we see between various groups of people is due primarily to geographical luck. The ultimate causes of these differences are environmental, not cultural or genetic, and include: the availability of wild plants and animals for domestication, rates of diffusion and migration within continents and between continents, and differences in continental area and population size. The people who by chance found themselves with the best real estate had the opportunity for higher levels of food production, which galvanized their organisation into more complex societies. In a positive feedback loop, the resulting high population density allowed the development of advanced technology, complex political organisation, but also the evolution and transmission of deadly infectious diseases. In Diamond’s words: “Peoples who, by accident of their geographic location, inherited or developed food production thereby became able to engulf geographically less endowed people”. Summed up in a phrase, geographical luck! The reason why great civilisations first developed in Eurasia was because here was a huge landmass with an abundance of readily domesticated crops and animals. Vitally, the continent is positioned on East-West axis with no major geographical barriers, which is essential for rapid diffusion of both people and their animal and plant domesticates.

Diamond’s central idea is highly compelling, both scientifically and morally. It implies a fundamental equality amongst people and contradicts any basis for racial superiority. It also means that given enough time, resources, and education underdeveloped countries can catch up with developed ones. In my opinion, it is implausible that there are no genetic differences between populations, but the differences, I agree, are negligible and not accountable for disparities in power. However, Diamond at one point reasons that Guineans probably have higher intelligence than Westerners because they must master complex tasks and knowledge just to survive in the jungle. While I hold firm that any question is open to scientific inquiry, differences in intelligence are very complex to measure and require rigorous testing. This line of argument is Diamond’s weakest, and seems to undercut his central thesis of racial equality.

Understandable given the already magnitude of his task, Diamond avoided an analysis of the influence of culture, individual agency and the power of ideas on the course of history. Possibly the most important of these ideas would be economic, such as the development private property rights and monetary exchange. Here the reader would be directed to Niall Ferguson’s books The Ascent of Money and Civilisation, which look at the development of economic thought and the basis of the West’s supremacy, which he argues rests on competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. A synthesis of both inquiries could make for a fascinating follow-up book. How and why certain ideas and cultural habits arose where and when they did, and the influence they had on shaping societies. Culture and ideas, no doubt, would be found to be intricately linked to geography.

Overall, I found Diamond’s book a very interesting read that was meticulously researched and forcefully argued, and all his arguments are considered and convincing.

 

 

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  1. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species)
  2. “We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny.” – Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man)
  3. “Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.” – Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene)
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  6. “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” – Christopher Hitchens
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