Thursday, April 15, 2010

Guns Germs and Steel by Kami

I feel I’m failing as to coming up with a decent post, let alone essay. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to respond to all of your commentaries with something a little more lucid and thoughtful because as I’ve mentioned before, I really did enjoy reading Guns, Germs and Steel. To be up front on the negative however, I found it more than a bit redundant (was it just me or did he talk about New Guinea more than any other place on the planet?) and sometimes more than a little dull (honestly, plant domestication really isn’t that interesting—to me anyway). Once past plant domestication and the size of seed grains though, I thought the chapters dealing with diseases, writing systems, and innovation were especially fascinating. Even if you totally disagree with all of Diamond’s theories, I think the information in those chapters makes the book worth reading. So to those of you still reading—keep going, it gets better.

For instance, who knew that when syphilis was first recorded in 1495 in Europe that it caused flesh to fall off of people’s faces and killed within a few months and then by 1546 the symptoms had changed to what we are now familiar with, making it easier for the disease to spread? Or that Japan was introduced to guns by the Portuguese in 1543, and by 1600 they owned more and better guns than any country in the world but because of pressure from the Samurai class they completely abandoned them again? Or that steel was manufactured in sub-Saharan Africa 2000 yrs. before Bessamer furnaces were used in America or Europe to manufacture it. These are the type of factoids I live for. And the book is full of them—most in support of Diamond’s theories, and some as he points out, the obligatory exception to the rule.

And now to the beef of the matter: What do I think of Jared Diamond’s theory that human civilizations have ended up where they are today because of resources available to them thousands of years ago and geography? Well, to be honest, he convinced me—but only as a general blueprint. I know in a few places I read online, some anthropologists and historians were up in arms with his book because it over simplified and was fatalistic. I agree with those points too, but I hardly think of them as negatives. Really, is there any other way to have a unified theory on the development of human civilizations without being over simplistic? I doubt it. No matter what, there’s going to be exceptions and cases of the extreme that don’t fit, however, it’s a generalized theory and overall it works very well. As for being fatalistic, I think I have a little too much belief in “manifest destiny” or “prophecy” for most modern readers and that basically interprets into fatalism anyway, at least in this sense. Perhaps I wasn’t very clear in that last sentence, I just think that in the scriptures, especially in the Book of Mormon, there’s a lot of promises and prophecies linked to “promised lands” and those determine much of our human history. In essence, I think God works through science—not against it or insensible to it—to bring about many of His plans, and much of what the author describes makes logical sense to me and I see no reason why the Lord couldn’t have used strategically placed resources and geography to accomplish His ends. I mean, the Lord created the earth right? So why not create it in a manner that will further His purposes?

In typing this though, it rankles me that people might think from my choice of the words “manifest destiny” that I shrug off or think it of no consequence what has happened to native people in colonial lands, or worse that I feel some sort of superiority myself or as a people. I don’t. It’s certainly a sticky topic though to try to discuss PC-ly, isn’t it—when you consider how Joshua was commanded to kill off all the former people of the land of Canaan and how the Book of Mormon says people will not be allowed to possess the Promised Lands of the Americas if they are unrighteous?

None of this was meant to be the focus of my post however; I simply had religion on the brain from all our discussions on the Eve book. My point that became lost several paragraphs ago, was that I think his theories are correct but only as a blueprint. They are more than logical and seem frankly obvious when overviewed from his perspective, but…BUT I still believe human factors play a huge role, especially once societies reach a statehood level. The author poses some questions regarding this issue in the afterward of the book:

“Did a linguistic or cultural factor account for the otherwise puzzling failure of complex Andean civilizations to develop writing? Was there anything in about India’s environment predisposing toward rigid socioeconomic castes, with grave consequences for the development of technology in India? Was there anything about the Chinese environment predisposing toward Confucian philosophy and cultural conservatism, which may also have profoundly affected history? Why was proselytizing religion (Christianity and Islam) a driving force for colonization and conquest among Europeans and West Asians but not among Chinese?…. What about the effects of idiosyncratic individual people?…Hitler, Alexander the Great, Augustus, Buddha, Christ, Lenin, Martin Luther, the Inca emperor Pachacuti,, Mohammed, William the Conqueror, and the Zulu king Shaka, to name a few. To what extent did each really change events, as opposed to “just” happening to be the right person in the right place at the right time?”

Those are the questions I find the most fascinating of the entire book—the ones related to culture and the role humans play in determining their own history. Yet when discussing cultural factors for accepting innovation, the author simply sweeps all of it aside, and states that on any continent at any given time there’s bound to be native societies open to innovation, hence negating (for his purposes) any need to figure out why some societies are open to it and others aren’t. And yes, for his overarching theory I suppose it isn’t necessary to know WHY, but for me who believes that humans vastly influence their own destiny it is a very pertinent question.

And I don’t have any answer to it either. Or to his other questions. I really wish I did, but I don’t. In his book, Diamond states two opposing views about individual people influencing history: one, that history is written by GREAT people, and two, that individual people just manage to be at the right place at the right time. I think that many are called and few are chosen.

However to defend my point of view that humans definitely do have an impact on the course of history, I’ll use one of his examples. When discussing why Europe conquered China and not the reverse, he states that he believes that Europe’s disunity allowed more for more opportunities for people to seek acceptance of their innovations elsewhere, or as in the case with Colombus, funding from elsewhere. Europe in 14th century had 1,000 independent statelets, 500 in AD 1500, 25 in 1980s, now back to 40 when the author wrote the book. In China on the other hand, it was so unified that if the Emperor said no, there was no other king to go to. He lists the Cultural Revolution of 1960’s China as a recent example of where it’s so unified that a few people can negatively affect the progress of the whole nation (all schools were closed for five years). As a past example, hundreds of Chinese treasure ships 400 ft long, with total crews of 28,000, were exploring as far away as Africa in 1405-1433 (they could have beat Colombus to the punch—heck, they could have hit Europe and we all might have been speaking Chinese now), but because of disagreements between two parties all ship building was banned (the losing side had supported the ships) and the sailors had no one else to ask for funding. Anyway, that’s all very fascinating, but my point is, that was a human decision. They could have decided to continue to support exploration and that might have had huge effects on the course of history.

Then again, I suppose the author could say in response to my argument that I’m looking at too short a time period, whereas he’s looking over the courses of thousands of years, I’m looking at mere hundreds. In fact he mentions how nations with a history of statehood are now rising (China, India etc.); it’s countries with no history of statehood that are still faring the worst in the world. Again in the short run (my mere hundreds of years), Diamond lists another perfect example of how much humans DO affect history. In discussing why some why some countries are rich and others not given similar enviroments, he answers that human institutions are responsible. Examples of these being: S Korea vs N Korea, Haiti vs Dominican Republic, East vs West Germany.

To sum up, I’ve yet to come up with a reasonable argument to Diamond when taking into account thousands of years, but that may be because I’m really rather tired, but I do believe humans are at the heart of our history however much environment played a role in providing advantages to crop production and innovation . And with that, good night. Perhaps one of you may be able to clarify things a bit more for me.

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