| Home | About Edge| Features | Edge Editions | Press | Reality Club | Third Culture | Digerati | Edge:Feed | Edge Search |

Why Did Human History Evolve Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years?
A Talk By Jared Diamond

Timothy Taylor, Marc D. Hauser, Kevin Kelly, George Dyson, Clifford Pickover, Pamela McCorduck, Gregory Benford, Jared Diamond, Peter von Sivers, and Bill Gates

From: Timothy Taylor
Date: 5-12-97

In the earlier part of this century the Egyptologist Grafton Eliot Smith tried to explain many of the same historical facts that Jared Diamond now addresses. He had a race-based view of cultural worth, and argued that the ancient Egyptians were the only significantly gifted people in the world and that they had carried the torch of civilization to the 'sluggish, uncultured' peoples of the globe, sailing in their papyrus boats and evangelizing their religion. Eliot Smith's image has been hard to erase, and has latterly inspired Thor Heyerdhal (and, more recently, Grahame Hancock); academics, as Diamond rightly notes, have not been particularly interested in promoting an alternative theory, and I am sure he is right that this leaves an open field in the public mind for racist interpreations of history. His attempt to promote an easily graspable, historical explanation - geographical possibilism, of the sort H.A.L.Fisher once espoused when reviewing the more limited canvas of European history - is to be welcomed, yet I get little sense from the short presentation that he understands why scholars in the social sciences have left this question alone.

Diamond rightly eshews the race-based approach to explaining the chosen historical facts, but he still retains Eliot Smiths underlying understanding of cultural worth. Diamond talks of the the Tasmanians technological changes through time as 'cultural losses', as if they had become somehow impoverished by their isolation. Underlying his analysis then, is - ultimatley - an assumption of western cultural superiority, and this, of course, underpins the formulation of the whole question he is trying to answer. To compare cultures, one needs to evalute them on a scale. Yet cultures, by their very nature (Gellner), have incommensurate value systems.

Of course it is possible, with a historian's or an archaeologist's eye, to look back and say this culture survived while that other one did not. Although he doesn't quite challenge Adolf Bastian's concept of universally shared 'elementary ideas', he suggests that innovation and response to environmental challenge is damped by cultural isolation. The Tasmanians, according to Diamond, would have been better off if they had fished. In whose terms, and how do we know? The only sure thing is that Victorian explorers came along and shot them for sport. That doesn't mean the Victorian explorers were better in any general way, just that they were more effective in mortal combat.

These musings lead me to two criticisms of Diamond's argument, insofar as I have read it, one 'relativist', the other 'comparitivist'. The relativist one I have already indicated, and it can go for the Americas as much as Tasmania, where there were religious factors connected to the military and epidemiological ones which facilitated Cortes's victory: the Aztecs had a different perspective on their fate and chances of eternal salvation than the ones we back-project today. Here we touch the science versus religion debate. Diamond sees environmental adaptation and an expansion of the resource base as self-evidently good. The Maya saw the location of cities close to subterranean caverns as self-evidently good, whatever the ecological costs in our terms. The Maya behaviour of intensifying monument construction to the point where their system collapsed seems like the 'wrong' decision to us, but their behaviour seemed right to them.

Diamond makes much of animal domestication as a benchmark achievment; in The Prehistory of Sex I suggested it could be construed as a 'bad' move, involving a shift in cultural values from quality of life to quantity of life, and from balanced and sustainable systems to unbalanced, exploitative ones. But I argued not only that pre- and non-agricultural societies might not just have been more enjoyable to live in, but comparatively more adaptive in the long term.

The comparitivist criticism involves simply noting that the jury is still out on the efficient environmental adaptation, as we currently understand it, of particular human cultures. The Tasmanian system may have been the only one that could have lasted the next four million years, and now it is lost and unavailable as a 'resource' (in Diamond's sense of global social evolution). On the other hand, it may only be a spaceage superpower that can divert the next big asteroid impact, fly us out of a naturally dying planet, etc ... the point is, we just don't exactly know what might be, or have been, most adaptive.

I actually don't think that Diamond's arguments will hit home against the 'racist' brigade, clear and thoughtful as they are. This is because the question of cultural value has indeed been hedged.

-Timothy Taylor

p.s. Reflecting on this further, and having now seen Jared Diamond's book, I would like to amplify my comments relating to Tasmania, which Diamond uses as a paradigm case. Firstly, the contention that Tasmanians once fished, stopped fishing, yet should have fished is based on an interpretation of the evidence that is open to serious question. Even from a comparativist viewpoint a strong case can be made to show that what they are known to have done was logical and efficient: the person who has been doing the work on this is Everett Bassett, who is currently based in this department.

Turning to fire. The Tasmanians could not, apparently, make it afresh: it was kept burning continuously and passed around communities in fire logs. This does not mean either that fire was unimportant to them, or that they had suffered a cultural loss. indeed the reverse could be argued, viz. because fire was so important they had it organized so it was always there when you needed it. This is similar to the situation with water in modern cities: ie individuals no longer have wells, the water is supplied centrally. Of course, if the central supply fails, we might have to reinvent wells. Not everyone would know how to do that, but not because of stupidity, or from neglecting the importance of water, but because, by valuing it highly, they had organized and delegated, like the Tasmanians had with fire. That is a comparativist argument. From the internal values side, the process of travelling round with the fire logs, relighting fires from time to time, was an opportunity for social contact, story telling, and so on... in short a pretext for valued "higher" activities that would not have been available with more self-sufficient fire making.

From: Marc D. Hauser
Date: 5-12-97

Jared Diamond has written a tremendous book, and it is of course easy enough to point to areas of interest that have been left out. Rather than do this, I would like to raise a topic that fails to surface in the book, but that is, I believe, directly relevant. And that is: the possibility that race, like our understanding of physical objects, language, and psychology, is theory like, with innate principles guiding our navigations through the world. Recently, Larry Hirschfeld, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, has proposed that children, at an early age, have quite abstract theories about race. Such theories derive, in part, from an early bias to cluster people by color and facial physiognomy (sorting by gender also emerges early on). This sorting appears to be stable cross-culturally, remains stable over historical changes, and even individual experiences. In several tests, Hirschfeld and others have shown that by around four years of age, children have a reasonable understanding of four key aspects of race. First, the concept of race as a category is derived from physical differences. Two, not all of the physical differences we can derive contribute to our racial typologies. Three, the physical properties we identify with racial types are immutable █ don't remind me of Michael Jackson! And four, the crucial physical differences come from one's family background, and are fixed at birth. Now, although such comprehension changes over the course of child development, many of the fundamental principles are in place early. This sets a bias, though as in other domains of knowledge, such biases can be overturned, in what looks like a theory change or paradigm shift in science.

I would be interested in hearing what Jared has to say about such apparently universal domains of knowledge, how these have shaped the course of evolution, and how the possibility of innate principles guiding racial typologies may have contributed to the history recounted in his book.


From: Kevin Kelly
Date: 5-12-97

Question for Jared Diamond: What does your theory of biogeographical origins of cultural differences say about the future? As biogeographical differences are eased by the homogenation of modern technology, would you expect all cultures to converge onto one culture, or will something else keep cultures separate?

-Kevin Kelly

From: George Dyson
Date: 5-12-97

I have yet to read Jared's new book but the summary rings true. In my particular field (Aleut ethnohistory) yet another scenario was played out, but it supports the same conclusions, with a slightly different twist. Aleut kayak technology, developed over as many as 10,000 years, proved so superior to any European inventions that the craft (and its builders) survived for 200 years after the onset of colonization, right up until the forced evacuations of World War II.

Russian guns, germs, and steel did wipe out a large portion of the Aleut population in the period following Bering's second expedition to America in 1741, but, thanks to the unequaled capabilities of the Aleut kayak (and its builder-operators), the Russian-American colonial period led to a significant extension of the material culture and geographic range of the Aleuts. Ranging from Northern California to Northern Japan, their success at occupying the entire available ecological and technological niche (on an east-west axis, as Jared so well explains) was an unusual case of an indigenous, stone-age technology holding its own against modern competitors, in testimony to the superb intelligence and skill of the Aleuts. As Jared points out, and the Aleut experience demonstrates, large, centralized populations lead to disease; small, isolated populations lead to stagnation; while cultural and geographical archipelagoes lead to inventiveness, resilience, and success.


From: Clifford Pickover
Date: 5-12-97

Your question regarding the effect of geography on the evolution of humanity is an interesting one. I'm also interested in the evolution of humanity's maps of the world. In ancient Western civilizations, the world was considered to be ridiculously small. The Earth was generally believed to be shaped like a flat pancake floating on the surface of the infinitely deep surrounding ocean. This disc was large enough to hold all the land known at that time: the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, with adjacent parts of Europe, Africa, and a bit of Asia. According to Aristotelian cosmology, the entire universe was small, and space was thought to be finite and have a definite edge.

Of course, humanity's knowledge of Earth's geography gradually improved through time. However, even in 1544, maps of the Earth still contained some striking anomalies. One favorite example is Battista Agnese's map of the world. Though in many respects accurate, it still portrayed North America as an impressionistic blur, a borderless figment of the cartographer's imagination. Interestingly, even as late as the 1740's, maps often depicted California as an island.

Good maps have always accelerated the pace of civilization. For example, in the fifteenth century, the Turks closed lucrative trade routes from the Orient to Europe. This motivated the development of new routes, primarily by sea, to restore mercantile connections with the Orient. These new routes and avenues of trade, in turn, accelerated cartographic and navigational technologies. These two applied sciences, one of them visual and the other analytical, worked hand in hand to allow humans to circumnavigate the globe for the first time. It allowed Europeans to dominate the globe in less than a century. For the first time, the Earth became a global community. The power of merging visual and analytical technologies transformed humanity.

Let me diverge at this point and ask questions of your EDGE readers:

Consider Big Earth, a hypothetical Earth where the available inhabitable lands are much greater in area, say a 1000 times greater than on our Earth. What effect would this have had on the geopolitical evolution?

How would the world be different today, geopolitically speaking, if the ancient land masses had never drifted apart and, therefore, today's world consisted of a single supercontintent? How would biological life be effected?

What would today's world be like if the land mass which formed the Greek peninsula never existed? Would this effect be lesser or greater than if the Italian peninsula had never existed?

Why do all the major peninsulas on Earth point south? See for example: Italy, Greece, Florida, Baja, and the tips of Africa, South America, India, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, and many other landmasses.

Let me address just a few of these questions here. The profound effects of living on Big Earth, a world with inhabitable lands a 1000 times greater than today, are not entirely clear. Would wars be infrequent because territorial acquisition is unimportant in a infinite world? Would humanity's awesome sense of wonder in Infinity World decrease the occurrence of wars? In my opinion, wars would be just as frequent. Wars were quite common when our Earth was largely unexplored and the Earth had "unlimited" territory. Ancient civilizations have always been at war.

Would space travel evolve on such a large world? Since there would always be unexplored terrestrial regions, why would the inhabitants look to the stars for adventure, national prestige, or scientific advancement?

Would ecological concerns and "green" political movements evolve on Big Earth? Why would inhabitants be concerned with pollution, biodiveristy, and animal extinction with unlimited land and water? No doubt there would be local pollution concerns, but overall interest would be diminished.

Would an organization resembling the United Nations evolve? Would the dinosaurs still be alive today on Big Earth? Would criminals be more difficult to catch? Instead of fleeing to South America, they would only have to hop a plane to any one of a number of "maps". On Big Earth, there are "infinitely" many countries in which to hide.

I also like to imagine the effects of a world where their existed identical, repetitive landmasses. In my opinion, religion would be profoundly affected because the existence of exact repetition would suggest the presence of a creator as opposed to the random assortment of lands that we now have. (Can you imagine what effect the existence of a perfect square or circular continent would have on religion and science?)

Lets switch our attention to a hypothetical Earth that I call "One World". How would the world be different today, geopolitically speaking, if the ancient land masses had never drifted apart and, therefore, today's world consisted of a single supercontintent? How would biological life be effected?

My personal thoughts are that the diversity of languages would be far less in One World, a world consisting of one single supercontinent. For example, linguists such as Johanna Nichols from the University of California at Berkeley have done extensive studies reconstructing the spread of prehistoric languages based on comparative linguistics. Languages multiply more rapidly in tropical areas along coastlines and more slowly in the drier interior of continents. For example, the island of New Guinea harbors 80 families of languages, the greatest density of languages found anywhere in the world. On the other hand, a much larger region such as Australia only contains about 30 families of languages. If the landmasses of our world never divided, language diversity would be much less than we have today on our real Earth.

Most trade on One World would be accomplished by inshore sailing, since there would be little motivation for "blue water" voyages. Technologies driven by the need to cross oceans would be developed more slowly. (Consider the decreased need for long distance sailing, navigation, steam ships, and undersea cables.) Sea Power empires, like the British Empire, would not develop.

If the supercontient never broke up, there would be no totally isolated biomes. Therefore, disparate species such the Australian marsupials, or the old world and new world primates, would not have evolved.

If the continents never separated, the geological effects would cause unpredictable differences in the existence of oil and metal ores. Trade would be much more difficult and politically restricted, since most countries would have no seacoast and therefore wouldn't be able to send their ships out on the high seas. Trade barriers and tariffs would be much harder to circumvent.

In general, there would probably be large deserts and much less fertile land due to the decreased coastlines. Since Antarctica would be joined together with the rest of the world, we would live on an Earth with more accessible land. Historical progress would probably have been faster, due to the increased contacts between civilizations. There would be less diversity. Biological evolution would be slower, due to the reduced environmental variation and less change over geological time.

Perhaps even the entire world would have been united by a common culture very early in its history. Individuals such as Alexander the Great could easily have conquered the entire world.

From: Pamela McCorduck
Date: 5-12-97

It must be half a century or more since anybody has attempted a historical synthesis as sweeping as Jared Diamond's, and it's about time. People might quarrel with details (e.g., the Indian subcontinent must be as north/south as Latin America or Africa, but Diamond still counts it as part of Eurasia) but the big picture is wonderfully stimulating.

Here's another puzzle for Jared Diamond to put his considerable analytical skills to: all over the world, men's and women's traditional roles are differentiated, and although the actual tasks men and women do vary from culture to culture (in some cultures, X is men's work; in some cultures X is women's) it is almost universally the case that women's work is considered less valuable than men's.

Well, how come? One obvious answer is the vulnerability women suffer during pregnancy, childbirth and lactation--they are indeed "weaker" and "lesser" then. (Of course, this raises the paradox of all the hopes and prayers people the world over invest in their fertility, not just of their fields but of their tribe, at the same time they consider that state "weaker" and "lesser", but Paradoxes R Us.)

Suppose, however, that thanks to technology, the vulnerability women once suffered owing to childbearing no longer holds true. Now what?

From: Gregory Benford
Date: 5-12-97

I applaud Diamond's broad, insightful and lucid attack upon one of the major questions of history. It has many excellent points, but let me fix upon a failing.

Several times he says that the only alternative theory to his is racist. But this is false, for he neglects all cultural history and causality in his analysis. To be sure, the geographical and biological levers were powerful, but something more subtle is needed to explain several uncomfortable facts. Only in Eurasia did science appear over millennia as a powerful philosophical and practical movement of staying power. Though China had many advantages and a long civilization, as Diamond points out, one must explain why it had no Euclid or Aristotle, no Newton or Bacon█indeed, why none of the other high civilizations did.

Further, the problem of why China did not lead the world into the modern age requires more than his attempted finesse. Certainly China had a homogeneous and traversible terrain, and Diamond says this lead to the primacy of orthodoxy, and to uniform rule. But why does this argument not work for the Mediterranean Basin, which is easier to cross? This discussion needs work. The persistence of Greek culture into Renaissance Europe is a striking and uniquely powerful cultural transfer. Why the eurasians produced the style and enduring enlightenment we now see as continuous with the modern is an outstanding puzzle, one little illuminated by Diamond's approach.

So something is missing: a theory of cultural history which interacts in a sophisticated way with the blunt factors Diamond highlights. Put another way, a la Dawkins, how did some unique eurasian memes come to have high fitness factors?

From: Jared Diamond
Date: 5-12-97

Jared Diamond's Reflections on Other Peoples' Reflections on Jared Diamond's Talk

I appreciate the comments that all of you made in response to my EDGE-site talk. Here are my thoughts in further response. Naturally, in trying to explain the contrasting courses of human history on all the continents since the end of the last Ice Age, I had some problems condensing all relevant details into a 480-page book. (The subtitle of the U.K. edition of my book was "A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years). I had even more problems condensing my book into an account short enough to be readable on the EDGE site. Those of you interested in pursuing your questions further will find more about them in my book itself: Guns, Germs, and Steel; W.W. Norton, New York, and Jonathan Cape, U.K.

Timothy Taylor's comments relate to the difference between history and values. That is, what actually happened in history may not have been "good" for people, may not have made their lives more enjoyable, and may not appropriately be judged by our own cultural values of richness or impoverishment. Yes, some human societies did domesticate wild animals; yes, the Tasmanians did not domesticate animals, did abandon the cultural practices of making bone tools and of fishing, and were unable to light a fire de novo (e.g., with a fire drill) but passed fire around in fire logs. In my book, I was careful to point out that all that didn't make Aboriginal Tasmanian life poorer, less enjoyable, or less good than the life of us moderns or of prehistoric farmers elsewhere in the world. Instead, my book dealt with the economies of Tasmanians and other people from the perspective of their direct relevance to the broadest pattern of history: that peoples of some continents ended up conquering peoples of other continents. Having spent much of the last 33 years of my life living with tribal farmers and hunter/gatherers in New Guinea, I know well that the technologically advanced societies that conquered those New Guineans aren't necessarily more enjoyable to live in.

Marc Hauser raises an interesting issue about the developmental origins of our perceptions of "race." While this subject does not arise in Guns, Germs, and Steel, it did occupy a whole chapter in my earlier book The Third Chimpanzee. Briefly, children do appear to respond preferentially to external appearances of people whom they see around them in early childhood, such as nuclear family members. Those childhood images appear to be particularly influential in imprinting our search images for selection of our sex partners and mates in adulthood. Those geographically variable external "signalling" features, such as skin and eye color and hair form and facial physiognomy, are encoded by only a tiny fraction of our genome but correlate imperfectly with other geographically variable genetic traits. As a result, the usual so-called "racial classifications" based on those readily perceived traits don't have close concordance with classifications of human populations based on the whole genome.

Kevin Kelly asks about implications for the future. For example, do I expect all cultures to converge onto one culture? For me, the big question about the future is whether complex human societies will have any future at all beyond the middle of the next century, in view of the exponentially accelerating problems caused by increasing human population and increasingly potent destructive technology. Until then, jet airplanes will surely continue to produce much more rapid worldwide cultural homogenization than did diffusion between neighboring groups in the past. But one has only to look at the inequalities of the modern world, and the emerging new inequalities (e.g., the economic tigers of Southeast Asia), to realize that the consequences of the last 13,000 years of history still lie heavily upon us.

George Dyson's example of the potency of Aleut kayak technology is vivid here in my home base of Southern California. Aleut technology was preeminent in the hunting of sea otters even on the Channel Islands of Southern California, a few dozen miles from where I sit now. Dyson's example is paralleled by a related example that I discuss in the last three chapters of Guns, Germs, and Steel: when Europeans (Norse from Iceland) colonized Greenland in AD 986, Inuit technology proved so far superior to transplanted European technology that, within 500 years, the Greenland Norse were extinct, leaving Greenland to the Inuit.

Clifford Pickover notes the power of maps in driving expansions of peoples. That's a good example of a broader issue, the historical power lent by writing in general, to which I devoted Chapter 12 of my book. While guns, germ, and steel have been the most immediate agents of conquest, so much so as to provide a metaphor for the title of my book about collisions between people, writing and technology and political organization and motivating religion have been equally important forces for which this metaphor stands. Pickover also raises the interesting question why the density of languages varies so greatly around the world: e.g., New Guinea harboring about 1000 of the world's total of 6000 languages, and Indian California also being very rich, compared to a mere 45 languages in western Europe. The answers depend ultimately on history and geography. The incredibly dissected mountainous terrain of New Guinea promoted language diversification by isolating human groups in adjacent valleys (example of a geographical factor). But (example of a historical factor) New Guinea was never homogenized by expansions of farmers and of empire-builders, in contrast to western Europe.

As Pamela McCorduck notes, when one tries to understand the big picture formed by contrasts between human histories on different continents, that relegates some huge intra-continental problems to the category of "details' █ e.g., the history of the Indian subcontinent. For example, McCorduck is entirely correct in noting that the Indian subcontinent has a north/south axis as much as do the Americas or Africa, and that Jared Diamond's reflections...axis played a crucial role in Indian history: the southward spread of food production through India, after its quick west-to-east spread from the Fertile Crescent to the Indus Valley in the north of the Indian subcontinent, took thousands of years because of the inevitable delays in adapting crops and livestock to lower latitudes, rederiving them independently, or importing them (notably cotton and millet) from comparatively low latitudes in Africa.

Finally, Gregory Benford notes that racist theories are not the only alternative to biogeographic interpretations of history's broadest pattern. In principle, environment-independent cultural differences could also be a factor. Benford's point is surely correct when applied to history over smaller spatial and temporal scales: e.g., the contrasting histories of Germany and France between 1793 and 1945. But I can find no hint of environment-independent cultural differences between populations of entire continents, contributing to history's different courses on different continents over the past 13,000 years. Naturally, some authors do postulate such differences, depicting Aboriginal Australians in general as living in a Dreamtime of the spirit world, Native Africans in general as inward-looking, and only Eurasians (especially western Europeans) as having the work ethic, scientific outlook, voyaging spirit, etc. In reality, there traditionally were big cultural differences within each continent. Native Australian societies ranged from desert nomads to villagers managing fisheries by constructing elaborate canals █ but all of those diverse Native Australian societies were ultimately limited by Australia's paucity of domesticable wild animal and plant species, small area, isolated location, low productivity, and unpredictable climate.

Science was just a late and relatively minor epiphenomenon in Eurasia's world dominance. By 2500 BC, long before the beginnings of Greek science, Eurasians already held a huge head start in metal tools, writing, nasty germs, intensive agriculture, military technology, cities, and empires over peoples of other continents. The comparison of China's and Europe's histories is a fascinating intracontinental question to which Guns, Germs, and Steel devotes parts of several chapters, but I agree that I haven't solved the whole problem. Another book there!

From: Peter von Sivers
Date: 9-20-97

The summary is very stimulating and adds quite a bit to the debate on the great sweep of world history. In the field of history it is, however, not quite as new and pathbreaking as it apparently looks in the sciences. Hegel's famous owl if Minerva traveled with the "progress"of civilization from East to West, although admittedly in an irritating Eurocentric way. Jaspers and Voegelin had quite a bit to add, although still in the manner of early 20th-century Eurocentrism.

As much as a I agree with Diamond's concern about racism (of which the above Eurocentrism is a part) and his proposed study of environmental factors, technology, disease, etc. to overcome the racist drawback, for my practice of history he still smacks too much of reductionism. Consider just a few examples:

(1) World-historically speaking it was Africa and no other part of the world which dominated civilization for the longest amount of time and even colonized the rest of the world. In fact, the recent DNA results established at the Univ. of Munich confirm that Kenyan Homo sapiens colonized the world without even intermingling with Homo Neanderthaliensis. This fact should go a long way towards balancing today's myopia about Western civilization's innate superiority. On the other hand it seems futile to deny this superiority if Africa itself is busy catching up to contemporary, Western-originated scientific-industrial civilization.

(2) Diamond's article overlooks that agrarian-urban civilization was pioneered in the Middle East-India-China between 3500 and 200 BCE. Crete, Phoenicia, Asia Minor Greece, European Greece, Rome and eventually Western Europe were not pioneers but recipients of this civilization. One therefore would have to argue that there is something in acculturating societies which makes it easier for them to innovate, while the centers of old civilization carry the burden of too much and therefore inflexible civilization. Western Europe was a recipient third-hand of agrarian-urban civilization and did not even acculturate fully until c. 1000 CE -- contrary to Diamond it should therefore be carefully separated from the argument of civilizational evolution.

(3) Picking up on the acculturation-innovation theme. Acculturating newcomers to agrarian-urban civilization obviously carried quite a bit over from their pre-agrarian-urban heritage. The egalitarian comrade-in-arms-culture of the migrating Germanic tribes, Mamluk Turks recruited in medieval Egypt, Japanese samurai, sub-Saharan village and secret society assemblies surviuved for various lengths of time in Western Europe, the Middle East, Far East and Africa. In the Netherlands and Englands it survived into the period when Europe accomplished the transition from agrarian-urban to scientific-industrial civilization c. 1650-1800, in the form of constitutionalism. Why that was so (for both the survival and the transition) is another story too long to tell here.

As a world historian I love to stray into other fields for stimulation, but I cringe when I see world history reduced to limited concepts in these fields.

From: Bill Gates
Date: 4-15-98

Laying A Foundation For Human History

When Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro and other European colonists arrived in the New World five centuries ago, why weren't they driven into the sea by thousands of native warriors on horseback brandishing guns and carrying epidemic diseases?

Why didn't rhino-mounted Bantu warriors swarm north to decimate horse-mounted Romans and create an empire that spanned Africa and Europe?

These and many other questions are answered persuasively in Jared Diamond's fascinating new book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (W.W. Norton, 1997). It's the first explanation of history I've seen that gets at the key question of why Europeans and Asians, came to control most of the world, rather than Africans, Native Americans or other people.

Diamond's primary thesis is that there's no inherent superiority among any racial or ethnic groups, and that the often-tragic failure of other races to resist expansion by other peoples was largely a matter of bad luck.

He marshals mountains of evidence to suggest that Europeans and Asians achieved dominance because they had an abundance of plants and animals suitable for domestication, and because the east-west orientation of the Eurasian landmass eased the transfer of animals, crops, and technology.

Eurasia had 32 of the 56 prize wild grasses that were candidates for cultivation; no other region had more than six. It was home to 13 of the 14 animals most important to humans.

The Fertile Crescent, an area of Southwest Asia occupying portions of what are now Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, had six of the eight "founder crops" and four of the five most important domesticated mammals-the cow, goat, pig and sheep.

It's no surprise that the Fertile Crescent produced prodigious amounts of food and that the earliest known examples of many kinds of human development began there about 11,000 B.C. People outside Eurasia, and especially outside the Fertile Crescent, were at a big disadvantage because there wasn't much for them to work with. Few of the world's 200,000 wild plant species have food value to humans. More than 80 percent of the modern world's crop tonnage comes from just 12 species: banana, barley, corn, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet , sugarcane, sweet potato and wheat.

"Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating," Diamond writes.

Domesticated animals furnished fertilizer, meat and milk. They pulled plows. They helped win wars. Whereas the Fertile Crescent had many, California had no important mammals to domesticate, despite sharing a similar climate.

In fact, North America had no large mammals suitable for domestication other than the llama, and it wasn't widespread. When human hunters arrived in the Americas via the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago, they apparently killed most of the unwary mammals that would have been suited to domestication.

"About 15,000 years ago, the American West looked much as Africa's Serengeti Plains do today, with herds of elephants and horses pursued by lions and cheetahs, and joined by members of such exotic species as camels and giant sloths," Diamond writes. Soon these species were extinct.

In Europe and Asia, food surpluses allowed some people to specialize in science or art and others to focus their energies on being soldiers. Civilizations grew in the Fertile Crescent and spread to the east and west.

One reason a native cavalry didn't drive Columbus and other European colonialists back into the Atlantic was that there were no native horsemen. The Americas didn't have horses again until Europeans brought them, and the natives didn't get them until they escaped from Spanish explorers.

Rhino-mounted warriors didn't swarm into Europe from Africa because rhinos can't be domesticated. Nor can elephants, hippos, zebras or any of the other African animals that would otherwise make great allies in war. These animals can sometimes be tamed into submission, but their breeding-and hence their genetic characteristics-can't be controlled the way horses can.

Diamond illustrates the enormous competitive advantage enjoyed by societies with horses and guns by recounting how Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro used 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers to destroy thousands of Inca soldiers on Nov. 16, 1532. In a matter of hours, Pizarro's small band captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa, leader of America's most advanced state, by panicking the emperor's 80,000 guards.

Disease was even more important than horses or guns in the European subjugation of the Americas and the rest of the world. Diamond estimates that European disease wiped out 95 percent of America's pre-Columbian population. Epidemics spread from tribe to tribe, often well in advance of the Europeans themselves.

Why, instead, didn't Indian epidemic diseases wipe out Europeans?

Epidemic diseases originated in domesticated animals. Measles, smallpox and tuberculosis came to humans from cattle, flu came from pigs and ducks, and pertussis (whooping cough) came from pigs and dogs.

Indians didn't have epidemic diseases or immunities because they didn't have the domesticated animals that gave rise to the diseases.

Besides having good grains, good animals and diseases on their side, Eurasians were blessed with a huge landmass that was oriented east-west rather than north-south like Africa and America.

People could take their crops and livestock long distances to the east or west, because climate tended not to change much along a given latitude. Trade routes eventually opened from Asia to Europe.

North-south migration tended to be vastly more difficult. Abrupt climate changes would render a crop useless, and mean the wrong forage and weather for livestock. African and American civilizations were isolated by mountains, deserts or rainforests and often unable to share in the advances of other cultures that might be as little as 1,000 miles to the north or south.

Natives of Australia, New Guinea and much of the rest of the Pacific suffered because of their isolation, too. Diamond makes a compelling case that traditional lifestyles in New Guinea and Australia, rather than showing a lack of "advancement," as defined by Europeans, were in fact intelligent adaptations to areas with difficult soils and climates and a lack of domesticable animals. A thousand years ago Asia was equal or ahead of Europe in many technologies.

Diamond argues that Europeans later pulled ahead of Asians because Japan and China became inward-looking and stopped trading ideas with other countries. The result, almost by default, was European domination of much of the world until after World War II.

Japan and now China have roared back as economic powers, and for Japan technological innovation has been a key to its enormous strides in recent decades. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" lays a foundation for understanding human history, which makes it fascinating in its own right. Because it brilliantly describes how chance advantages can lead to early success in a highly competitive environment, it also offers useful lessons for the business world and for people interested in why technologies succeed.

The book reminds me that innovation sustains success while complacency leads to stagnation and decline-a lesson I try to keep in mind every day.

In early human history, technological advantages were built on the availability of certain plants, animals and geographies.

In today's emerging information society, the critical natural resources are human intelligence, skill and leadership. Every region of the world has these in abundance, which promises to make the next chapter of human history particularly interesting.

(Copyright ę 1997 by Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)

Back to Why Did Human History Evolve Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years? by Jared Diamond

| Home | About Edge| Features | Edge Editions | Press | Reality Club | Third Culture | Digerati | Edge:Feed | Edge Search |

| Top |