Saturday, November 23, 2013

Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is typical of his other books – engaging and exploring novel views of society, culture, and how humanity has evolved over time. It starts with a very simple question posed during a walk on the beach in New Guinea. Yali, a local politician, had initiated a conversation with Jared that eventually led to the question of why white people had been so much more successful in bringing cargo to New Guinea than New Guinea had been in creating its own cargo. The entire book unfolds from this simple question – why have certain societies advanced further and faster than others?

Through historical research as well as modern comparisons, Diamond asserts that, most likely, the differences in developmental progress across cultures are less about the innate capability of the people than the environmental circumstances that shaped their experience. The bottom line is that the succession from hunter-gatherers to farmers to organized groups with sophisticated institutions is the process through which any culture emerges. And, the conditions that stimulated each step along the way can either speed or slow the development.

The emergence of civilization is recognized as having come from the Fertile Crescent – but why? Diamond’s analysis is that it was the result of a rich and diverse environment of both plant and animal life. The conditions were just right to allow for a proliferation of species that would be useful to humans. First the animals would serve as food and eventually the natural plants would be domesticated to yield better and greater quantities of food to satisfy a growing population. Thus, food contributed to increased population and increased population required advances in food production. And, this growth required complex organizations and specialists to make it all work.

The increased populations supported by domestication of key animals and plants led to both human adaptations and technology advancements that then gave those in populous areas superiority over others. Animal domestication had one of the most powerful influences through the transfer of germs from other animals to humans. As various animals became commonplace in villages, humans encountered diseases to which they had to adapt, thus gradually equipping them with natural defenses not part of more primitive societies. The pattern of explorers coming to distant lands and killing the indigenous inhabitants of the new land as much through disease as aggression is repeated throughout history. Food was the first advantage and then germs became the determining force for advanced groups to conquer others.

Another natural advantage, first to the Fertile Crescent and then to other cultures of Eurasia, is simply latitude. Tracing the evolution of cultures, it is clear that the most advanced early cultures spread from Mesopotamia to the east and west. But why not east and west? Because the narrower band of latitude going from east to west in Eurasia allowed for plant life and improvements and agricultural technology to spread across the continent rather than up and down the continents with north south orientations such as Africa or the Americas – north to south required greater adaptation and thus the diffusion of plant species was much lower than in east to west environments. Additionally, the latitudes from Mesopotamia over to the Mediterranean zone afforded greater variation in altitudes and topography, resulting in greater diversification within the rich band and long growing seasons typical of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.

The superiority in food production continued to result in advancement of culture through the creation of writing and tabulation. In order to trade among the ever-increasing complexity of villages and communities, there had to be a way to record, thus the beginning of notation of various sorts. Notation then resulted in better communication and the creation of political organizations which could then explore and move out in conquest of others. This all resulted in an autocatalytic process that snow-balled and sped up over time, resulting in ever-increasing advantage to dominant cultures that then began to overtake, either through germs or warfare, and annihilate simpler and less-advanced cultures. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, advancing societies with complex organizations and governments resorted to religious beliefs to justify their growing dominance. If a society perceived itself superior to others by virtue of technology, and justified its status as granted from God, it was then easy to move to dominate and control other societies that were perceived as lesser, ignorant or backward. This perceived superiority also served as the justification for taking natural resources and wealth from others, again adding even more to the superiority of the advanced group.

Attempting to apply Diamond’s ideas of how technology, organization, language and culture advance in the modern day, it is only natural to ask what are the determining factors that might impact the welfare of our current most advanced societies? In Diamond’s words, “what is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth?” His answer is through the very processes that allowed earlier cultures to thrive – diversification and diffusion and the principle of optimal fragmentation; with these principles in operation, “innovation proceeds most rapidly in a society with some optimal intermediate degree of fragmentation: a too-unified society is at a disadvantage, and so is a too-fragmented society.” The question is how to achieve and maintain that optimal fragmentation. Perhaps through fostering good institutions that cultivate diverse perspectives while maintaining balance “through rule of law, enforcement of contracts, protection of private property rights, lack of corruption, low frequency of assassinations, openness to trade and to flow of capital, incentives for investment,” and more. And to add another to the list from my own vision of advanced societies – justice and equity.

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