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A Talk by Jared Diamond

In Guns, Germs, and Steel I asked why history has unfolded differently over the last 13,000 years in Eurasia, in the Americas, in sub-Saharan Africa, and in Aboriginal Australia, with the result that within the last 500 years Europeans were the ones who conquered Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians and sub-Saharan Africans, rather than vice versa.

Most of that book, was concerned with comparing the peoples of different continents, but I knew that I couldn't publish a book comparing the histories of different continents and considering Eurasia as a unit without saying something about the fascinating problem of the differences of history within Eurasia. Why, within Eurasia, was it Europeans who conquered the world and colonized other people, rather than the Chinese or the people of India or the Middle East? I devoted seven pages to that subject at the end of Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I think I arrived at the correct solution. Nevertheless, since the publication of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I've received a lot of feedback, and the most interesting feedback has been about the implications of that comparative analysis of the histories of China, Europe, India, and the Middle East.

In particular, in addition to the review of my book by Bill Gates, I've received a lot of correspondence from economists and business people, who pointed out to me possible parallels between the histories of entire human societies and histories of smaller groups. This correspondence from economists and business people has to do with the following big question: what is the best way to organize human groups and human organizations and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth? Should your human group have a centralized direction, in the extreme having a dictator, or should there be diffuse or even anarchical organization? Should your collection of people be organized into a single group, or broken off into a number of groups, or broken off into a lot of groups? Should you maintain open communication between your groups, or erect walls between them, with groups working more secretly? Should you erect protectionist tariff walls against the outside, or should you expose your business or government to free competition?

These questions about group organization arise at many different levels and for many types of groups. They arise, of course, about the organization of entire governments or countries: what is the best way to govern a country? Remember the classic arguments about whether the best government is a benign dictatorship, or a federal system, or an anarchical free-for-all. The same questions also rise about the organization of different companies within the same industry. How can you account for the fact that Microsoft has been so successful recently, and that IBM, which was formerly successful, fell behind but then drastically changed its organization over the last four years and improved its success? How can we explain the different successes of what we call different industrial belts? When I was a boy growing up in Boston, Route 128, the industrial belt around Boston, led the industrial world in scientific creativity and imagination. But Route 128 has fallen behind, and now Silicon Valley is the center of innovation. And the relations of businesses to each other in Silicon Valley and Route 128 are very different, possibly resulting in those different outcomes.

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