Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jun 10, 2018

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel as a “reverse follow up” to Sapiens, which cited Guns, Germs and Steel (which I’ll refer to as GGS) as one of its inspirations.

There isn’t much of a sequence or overlap between the two books, other than the broad theme of claiming to explain the whole of human history. The scope and approaches are sufficiently different such that there isn’t much redundancy between them. If I were to simplify, I’d say Sapiens asks, and answers: how come we have evolved as humans into our current institutions in general? Whereas GGS adds geography and ecology to the mix and asks: why is it that there is this specific configuration of humans on Planet Earth today? In particular, how come some groups of humans (Western Europeans from the Eurasian continent) ended up conquering much of the planet and eliminating or subjecting many other groups? Why did Spaniards colonize Native Americans and not vice versa? Why do Westerners have all the “stuff,” or material exports, that the author’s New Guinean friends call “cargo”, and New Guinea has so little cargo to offer in return?

The author makes the case that this is all due to geographical and ecological factors, and nothing to do with groups of humans that happen(ed) to inhabit some regions. Eurasians got a better starting position because the Eurasian continent had more domesticable plant and animal species and more favorable conditions for innovation diffusion, which lead to faster development of food production, specialization in society, technology and weapons development, and all that follows.

I learned some interesting facts.

  • Wheat and many other staple crops of Europe originated in the Middle East (the Fertile Crescent) and were imported. Western Europe doesn’t have any native food crops.
  • Bananas originated in Asia. They were imported to Africa and South America where they are now a staple crop and highly productive.
  • The Navajo Indians being great weavers with their beautiful rugs and blankets? That’s mostly with sheep wool from sheep that arrived in America with colonization.
  • Although we think of Africa as the continent of great mammals (elephants, lions, hippos, zebras, gazelles, giraffes etc), none of them are suitable for domestication for various reasons. Some of them can be and have been tamed, but never domesticated.

I take issue with the book’s title of Guns, Germs and Steel. There was extensive discussion of germs as an agent of conquerors. (Due to Eurasians living in proximity with livestock, they acquired many diseases from the animals, followed by immunity to those diseases. On later conquests, those germs exterminated large parts of colonized populations, without any need for the conquerors themselves to do much. The same sometimes operated in reverse, with malaria and yellow fever in tropical regions slowing colonizers.) Guns are described in passing as a sign of technical and military superiority, but there’s nothing about steel in particular. Was it a military or industrial asset? Why steel and not iron that’s mentioned more frequently? One review mentioned that “Guns, Germs and Seeds” might be a much more appropriate title.

I find the presented material believable and compelling, but always try to look for opposition and criticism for a bit of balance. No theory or generalization is perfect, especially as broad as GGS presents. There’s some insightful criticism in Goodreads reviews. I’m in no position to judge the scientific accuracy, but the one piece that does interest me is about historical determinism. You might read the book as arguing that where we are today is determined historically, environmentally and geographically, and individual decisions, persons and heroes don’t really matter. I have two thoughts on that.

First, there are some examples in the book about how individual decisions can make a difference. The most striking one to me was about how China abandoned its ocean-going fleet in the Middle Ages despite being ahead of other cultures in many areas. Related to that is the discussion of how China being unified and Western Europe being Balkanized into different states affected progress. Although unified China enabled rapid innovation diffusion, it also magnified errors like the mentioned ocean fleet abandonment. Western Europe with its competing powers meant that states had to keep up with each other’s development and couldn’t lag behind, lest they be conquered.

Secondly, as uncomfortable as the thought may be, maybe on historic timescales, there is more determinism around us than we would like to think. The book does acknowledge though that this is all on a macro level, and shouldn’t affect how we, or whole societies, live our present lives. As an extreme example of determinism, it’s been well determined that our Sun is going to burn out in a few billion years, and there won’t be any humans in their current form left on planet Earth in its current form. Should this fact dissuade us from living a meaningful life in human lifespans and timescales? You can think of it as “there’s nothing we can do”, or “there’s progress to be made”. We see both in action in the modern world.

I don’t get to play games all that much these days, but this book did remind me of a particular scenario of Civilization (the world of today) analyzed to minute detail. When I first played the original PC version like 20+ years ago, I did find it set my mind free about how the world could be. I found myself reliving these thoughts as I read GGS. Time for another game. Or maybe real-world work and actions.