Geography is destiny. Indeed. Yes. Sigh.
In his much acclaimed book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond answers the question of why, given the same biological attributes, different groups of the people who spread out across the world trod such different paths. Why did some develop writing and the technology that allowed them to conquer other people? Why did some groups, sometimes less than a thousand miles apart build empires while the others remained rootless hunter-gatherers?
As previously noted, a lot of this had to do with where you landed. Lucky groups founds themselves in a place where some wheat plants developed a mutation that allowed them to grow in stalks that produced edible wheat berries rather than the normal wild plants, whose husks shattered quickly in order to spread their seeds. Other fortunates found themselves in areas where there were large animals that could be domesticated for food and work. If a group was able to produce food, it became a better gamble to stay in one place and try to farm than to continue the hit and miss hunting and gathering. Once a group was involved in food production, a food surplus followed. A food surplus allowed a group to grow in number, which meant they needed leaders, were able to support craftworkers who made other goods. Once there were goods to track, methods of recording became necessary, thus, writing, etc., etc.
It all makes a lot of sense, if you think about it (or if you have worked on a decent high school/jr high social studies textbook). Diamond’s point seems to be that it was nothing to do with biological inferiority that led to New Guineans still working with stone age tools in the 19th century, but rather the resources available to them, combined with a remoteness that prevented the spreading of technology. The idea of biological inferiority seems very Victorian anyway and not something one should think much about nowadays (I mean, didn’t the genome reveal that humans are only a few steps away from fruit bats anway?), but just in case you were unclear, Diamond makes it plain.
That’s the best part of this book. It’s very calm, logical, with all the facts and ideas laid out in an easily understandable way. I think it’s used as a textbook in colleges, probably Anthropology 101; the copy I had was heavily highlighted and underlined and asterisked. Kid, I hope your paper turned out okay.
But while I appreciated the information and lucid manner of this book, I wasn’t exactly captivated (and we know I like books that captivate and enthrall me. I am one step away from turning into the heroine of a creaky melodrama). I had several problems. One is that while the book is indeed uncluttered and clear, I wonder if there could have been more of a narrative. I mean, if instead of just mentioning cave paintings, the segment is introduced with the discovery of the cave paintings, or if the findings of clay tablets in one area is used to help paint a portrait of what we know, from other found artifacts, life was like in that area. Could the mention of missionaries arriving in an area, instead of being general, have been made specific through the story of a certain missionary trying to establish ground in that place? Maybe I am childish in a way for wanting something more like a story. I’m sure that was not the mission of this book and there is nothing wrong with the way it is. But I guess I just wished it was something else.
Another issue was that it didn’t answer the questions I wanted answered. While Diamond goes into great detail about how certain plants were domesticated and how groups might have discovered this, which led to their transformation from nomads to food producers, he skips a big step: how did they get from wheat berries growing on a stalk to say, bread? I mean, how long did people sit around grinding their teeth on hard wheat berries and barley pearls before someone got the idea to do something else with them? Did a pile of wheat get left out in the rain, and when it was found softened, someone decided that was a better way to eat it from now on? When did people begin to grind wheat? What made them discover yeast? Most importantly, when did people begin to cook with fire? How did someone get the idea to throw that piece of meat in the fire (“Jim, are you mad? Why did you throw a perfectly good chunk of mastodon into the fire? I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.”)? What did it take to get from the presumed paste of wheat to bread baked on stones (I guess)? In the index of the book, surprisingly (well, at least to me), fire only gets two mentions. I find that odd because the realization of the uses of fire seems to me to be a pretty big step forward.
How about clothes? When did someone decide that they could not only eat the animal they killed, but also wear its hide? When did they notice that skins dried after a while became a different kind of material? Diamond talks about people raising flax and hemp for weaving, but how did people get the idea for weaving cloth out of flax plants? What made someone look at a ball of cotton and twist it into a string, or thread? I don’t know if there are answers to these questions, or about the cooking type questions. But if there are, I would have liked to see them here.
My other problem was just a tendency for Diamond to constantly tell you what the book is about, what each chapter is about, when something will be discussed. I mean in the intro, he goes blow by blow through what will be talked about in each segment of the book. In each chapter he tells you what the chapter will be about. He mentions something and refers to it as, “what we talked about in Chapter 4,” or “as we shall see in Chapter 12.” Maybe this is a very academic thing, as in the old joke about a paper structured as “this is what my paper is going to be about, here is what it is about, this is what I told you it was about.” Maybe this kind of reviewing is helpful for students, but I just found it really, really, irritating. Honestly, the book’s a quick read, but you could probably knock about a hundred pages out if you cut all the “in this section we will see…” stuff (okay, a hundred pages might be an exaggeration, but you get my point).
(Also, I should mention that Diamond drops in the phrase, "guns, germs, and steel," at every opportunity. Hey, that's a nice one for a title! But it wears out a little.)
But these are just my problems. As I said, this book is very informative; even if you’re familiar with these ideas and facts, it’s nonetheless valuable to see them again in a clear, lucid format. You won’t hurt yourself by reading this book, and in fact will probably come out feeling like you’ve learned a lot. You won’t have a bad time reading it. But I didn’t have a great time either.