The distribution of productive grains and domestic-friendly animals was highly concentrated. This explains a vast amount of the inequality we face today.
That argument was made famous in the classic 1997 book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” written by Jared Diamond. The book’s case is so influential that I’ve seen it routinely referenced across dozens of books and articles I’ve read. I wanted to return to the source so I finally read the original book. It was even wider in scope than I realized.
Diamond posits that the root of cultural differences can be traced back to geographical and environmental factors, including the availability of domesticable plants and animals, the presence of diseases, and the ability to develop and spread technology.
One key point made by Diamond is that the availability of domesticable plants and animals played a significant role in the development of societies. For example, the Fertile Crescent, which includes the Middle East, had a wealth of domesticable grains and animals, such as goats, sheep, cows, and pigs, which allowed for the development of farming and the creation of larger, denser populations. In contrast, regions like Mesoamerica had fewer domesticable species and struggled to develop farming at the same rate.
Diamond also discusses the impact of disease on human societies, particularly the way that farming and larger, denser populations facilitated the spread of germs. In many cases, European colonizers brought diseases with them to the Americas and other regions, leading to devastating epidemics among indigenous populations. However, in a few exceptional cases, Diamond also notes that indigenous diseases decimated European colonizers and their livestock, as was the case in the tropics.
Finally, Diamond examines the role of technology in the development of societies, noting that the presence of metalworking and writing, for example, can be linked to the success of certain societies. Overall, Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” offers a thought-provoking examination of the complex factors that have shaped human history.
Portions of his wide-sweeping argument have been challenged. Nothing so simple is ever perfect. But it’s still provocative and important.
Find my notes from the classic below.
- Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?
- In 11,000 BC, we are all hunter gatherers. By 1500 AD, there are widespread inequities.
- North America is more like island nations than Eurasia (190)
- Mark Blumler’s research on wild grain species: virtually all the best grains were native to the Mediterranean. 32 of 56 best wild grasses were native to Fertile Crescent.
- Goat, sheep, cow and pig were all native to Fertile Crescent but no other Mediterranean-like zone in the world had any animal so readily domesticatable (California, Chile, Southeastern Australia, and South Africa)
- Mesoamerica: only had maize which was difficult to domesticate and slow, and only had turkeys and dog to domesticate. This likely only started in 3500 BC, settled villages not until 1500 BC
- Farming accelerated disease because it sustained larger dense populations.
- Claude Levi Strauss: writing’s main function was “to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings“ 235
- Greek was among first written language to go beyond bureaucracy: The first preserved example of a Greek alphabetic writing was scratched onto an Athenian wine jug of about 740 BC that announces a dancing contest “whoever of all dancers performs most nimbly will win this vase as a prize”
- Writing shows up in stratified urban population with excess food. Hunter gathers don’t even adopt writing (Sumer, Mexico, China and Egypt)
- Phaistos disk made with stamps not hand etching
- Farming popped up where they happened to have high yield crops, like wheat and barley in Middle East; rice in China, maize in the Americas and later sorghum, millet and yams in Africa
- Papua New Guinea farmed early too but their crops were lesser yield and less nutritious (low protein)
- “Farming was crucial to human inequality”
- Most productive crops, most productive farmers. Geographic luck
- Domestic animals: sheep first, but they all both were for meat and then for other purposes included plow and fertilizer and milk
- Mayans had wheels for children’s toys but no animals to pull real ones
- Domestic animals: large plant eating mammals that have a social hierarchy, reach maturity quickly and have human temperament
- Elephants and zebras have never really been domesticated
- Of 148 large plant-eating terrestrial mammals, 14 have been domesticated: the llama from South America and other 13 from Eurasia
- Best crops and best animals (pigs. Sheep, cow, horse) were native in Middle East
- Farming led to specialists to develop metal working and technology
- Similar latitudes in temperate zones of South Africa but the Tropic of Capricorn was a border in which their animals and farming and crops didn’t work; just two seasons
- Germs came from living in close proximity to those domestic animals (which is why more disease most usually flowed from Europeans to indigenous populations and not the other way around)
- In the tropics, indigenous germs reversed and killed Dutch and European colonizers and their cattle (unlike African cattle). Small pox and malaria. Europeans settled near lakes and rivers for water but Africans stayed in high and dry places
- Malaria and germs were less problems for less dense Africans in tropics
- Malaysia and Singapore eradicated malaria and transforming economy: understood geography and history
- “Explanations of the past can help us operate differently in the future”