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Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?

A Talk By Jared Diamond

I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? This problem has fascinated me for a long time, but it's now ripe for a new synthesis because of recent advances in many fields seemingly remote from history, including molecular biology, plant and animal genetics and biogeography, archaeology, and linguistics.

As we all know, Eurasians, especially peoples of Europe and eastern Asia, have spread around the globe, to dominate the modern world in wealth and power. Other peoples, including most Africans, survived, and have thrown off European domination but remain behind in wealth and power. Still other peoples, including the original inhabitants of Australia, the Americas, and southern Africa, are no longer even masters of their own lands but have been decimated, subjugated, or exterminated by European colonialists. Why did history turn out that way, instead of the opposite way? Why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who conquered or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

This big question can easily be pushed back one step further. By the year A.D. 1500, the approximate year when Europe's overseas expansion was just beginning, peoples of the different continents already differed greatly in technology and political organization. Much of Eurasia and North Africa was occupied then by Iron Age states and empires, some of them on the verge of industrialization. Two Native American peoples, the Incas and Aztecs, ruled over empires with stone tools and were just starting to experiment with bronze. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa were divided among small indigenous Iron Age states or chiefdoms. But all peoples of Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific islands, and many peoples of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, were still living as farmers or even still as hunter/ gatherers with stone tools.

Obviously, those differences as of A.D. 1500 were the immediate cause of the modern world's inequalities. Empires with iron tools conquered or exterminated tribes with stone tools. But how did the world evolve to be the way that it was in the year A.D. 1500?

This question, too can be easily pushed back a further step, with the help of written histories and archaeological discoveries. Until the end of the last Ice Age around 11,000 B.C., all humans on all continents were still living as Stone Age hunter/gatherers. Different rates of development on different continents, from 11,000 B.C. to A.D. 1500, were what produced the inequalities of A.D. 1500. While Aboriginal Australians and many Native American peoples remained Stone Age hunter/gatherers, most Eurasian peoples, and many peoples of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, gradually developed agriculture, herding, metallurgy, and complex political organization. Parts of Eurasia, and one small area of the Americas, developed indigenous writing as well. But each of these new developments appeared earlier in Eurasia than elsewhere.

So, we can finally rephrase our question about the evolution of the modern world's inequalities as follows. Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents for the last 13,000 years? Those differing rates constitute the broadest pattern of history, the biggest unsolved problem of history, and my subject today.

Historians tend to avoid this subject like the plague, because of its apparently racist overtones. Many people, or even most people, assume that the answer involves biological differences in average IQ among the world's populations, despite the fact that there is no evidence for the existence of such IQ differences. Even to ask the question why different peoples had different histories strikes some of us as evil, because it appears to be justifying what happened in history. In fact, we study the injustices of history for the same reason that we study genocide, and for the same reason that psychologists study the minds of murderers and rapists: not in order to justify history, genocide, murder, and rape, but instead to understand how those evil things came about, and then to use that understanding so as to prevent their happening again. In case the stink of racism still makes you feel uncomfortable about exploring this subject, just reflect on the underlying reason why so many people accept racist explanations of history's broad pattern: we don't have a convincing alternative explanation. Until we do, people will continue to gravitate by default to racist theories. That leaves us with a huge moral gap, which constitutes the strongest reason for tackling this uncomfortable subject.

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