Saturday, March 30, 2013

Geographic Fundamentalism


“Guns, Germs & Steel – the Fates of Human Societies,” by Jared Diamond, 1999

This is the book that really brought Diamond to world attention, and was followed up by “Collapse” which took the same themes and focused on social failures in history.  (“Collapse” is also reviewed below.)  It is probably one of the seminal geography books published in the last 15 years.  Diamond essentially wrote this book to oppose the theory that either genetic or cultural factors in certain populations doomed them to be social failures, and that the alleged superiority of European or north American genes, culture or economics made it possible for them to rule the world.

The book is clearly written and detailed, though not quite so dramatic or overtly political as ‘Collapse.’  It could be read as a geography textbook.  He pivots on the famous meeting of Pizarro and the Inca Emperor Atahuallaca in the Peruvian city of Cajamarca.  After inviting him to a meeting, Pizzaro ambushed Atahuallaca with horses, guns, armor and swords and captured him, while routing and killing thousands of Incas with a tiny force of 158 conquistadores.  How could something like this happen?

Diamond bases his theory on careful geographic and environmental analysis, avoiding any hints of social idealism or myth-making, and as such, gives a materialist view on the origins of human civilization.  This book bases itself on environmental conditions, but it only goes to a certain point in history.  It focuses on the development of class structures leading to technologies that gave one society an advantage over other societies.  According to Diamond, that class structure was originally based on the development of agriculture and the surpluses derived from agriculture, a point Marx and Engels also made.  In Diamond’s telling, agriculture ultimately originates from the specific physical environments each society or group of people found themselves in accidentally.  These environments were not general to all parts of the world, but were specific to certain continents, and parts of continents. 

Just as Darwin used the Galapagos islands as a laboratory to study evolution, so Diamond uses mostly isolated or island cultures to study the evolution of societies.  In this book he has separate sections on Australia and New Guinea; China; extended Polynesia; the collision of Eurasia and the Americas and Black Africa.

Diamond maps the origins of the key grains, legumes and domestic animals in history, locating the most important geographic areas in the world – the main one being the ‘fertile crescent’ arching from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria through Iran, Iraq and Turkey.  This area was one of the first sources of agriculture, based on the superior environmental conditions present at that time – wet winters, dry, warm summers, varieties of elevations, the presence of certain key, easily available wild plants containing much protein – wheat and barley; lentils, peas, chickpeas and vetch; flax, source of clothing, rope and fabric; and wild mammals that turned into 4 of the 5 key domestic animals to this day – pigs, sheep, cows and goats.  These domestic animals were sources of food and work.  The Fertile Crescent was a virtual cornucopia of valuable agriculture, ripe for the taking.  Other areas in the world where herding and agriculture development began independently – China, Mesoamerica, New Guinea and secondarily, the Mississippi Valley; Peru and perhaps the Sahel – did not have as many natural positives as this environment according to Diamond. 

The development of agriculture can lead to surpluses, which leads to people who do not grow food, but specialize in other skills.  It leads to hierarchies, to population growth, to new technologies developed by the specialists, to writing and eventually conquest.  A hunter-gatherer society cannot withstand an attack by such a society.  Hunter-gatherer societies, inherently equal and communistic, would only transition to agriculture if the land supported such a process - and if hunter-gathering had reached its limits.  And this was not true in all locations.

Another benefit the Fertile Crescent had as a locus for agriculture was it allowed its discoveries and technologies to spread east to west along latitude lines, from the Atlantic to India’s Indus Valley, and just north into Europe.  No natural barriers existed, according to Diamond, even given the Bosporus.  However, in East Asia, the ocean blocked agricultural development south into the islands and Australia and so did the jungles south of China.  In Africa, it was the Sahara.  In the Americas it was the tiny isthmus and the jungles of Central America and the north Mexican/south U.S. desert.  Diamond calls this east-west geographic orientation fundamental for the spread of technologies and disseminating agricultural knowledge.  North-south dissemination proceeded with great difficulty.

As we know from AIDS and most other diseases, they originate from animals and then jump to humans.  The more pets and domestic animals a society has, eventually the population develops anti-bodies.  The less domestic animals, the fewer anti-bodies.  Far more Native Americans died from disease than warfare in the conquest of the Americas.  Why?  Because the Mississippians, the Maya and the Inca were more vulnerable to the crowd diseases of the conquistadores like De Soto, Pizarro and Cortez than their swords.  This happened because the Spanish and other societies in what Diamond calls the continent of Eurasia had adapted to domestic animal diseases.   The Inca only had llamas, and were more vulnerable.  Though this is not all just a one-way street - malaria and other tropical diseases have kept Europeans at bay too.

Diamond also traces the development of writing to the development of highly-organized agricultural societies.  The first writing was developed in Sumeria in the Fertile Crescent – used by officials to track purchases, debts and sales of the state.  Other independent developments of writing – in China and Mesoamerica for instance – did not spread as rapidly as in Eurasia, which eventually led to U.S. script – English via Rome and earlier, Greece.   He locates technological innovations not among individuals, but among societies with enough numbers and surpluses to come up with inventions.  He locates the amalgamation of bands, tribes and chiefdoms into states to either external military threats or military conquest, not to economic factors, and links the establishment of states to population density.

Diamond calls the bureaucracies in states ‘kleptocracies,’ but also reminds readers that the hunter-gatherer bands were devastated by individual murders.  He notes that patriotism, nationalism and religious fervor were useful in states as ideologies which allowed people to risk their lives and kill for the state.  As such, this might mark a ‘successful’ society, in the sense that it won in the Darwinian struggle for survival.  He does not mention Frans De Waal’s theories of cooperation, inequity aversion and food sharing as essential to group survival – as these might only operate within a society, and not between them. 

The obvious questions here are – A, if the original source of agriculture and domestic animals was in the Fertile Crescent, why did Europe become the source of colonialism and capitalism, not the Fertile Crescent itself?  As Diamond makes clear, these Islamic societies were more advanced than backward Catholic Europe during the dark ages.  B, why didn’t China develop along those very same lines as Europe, since it was an independent source of agriculture … instead of being subject to the Opium Wars of English colonialism?  And C, if Russia is in "Eurasia" what was the environmental disability that did not allow it to follow northern Europe so closely?  And D, since agriculture is not the end of economic society, how does Diamond explain capitalism in this environmental scenario, and its early development in northern Europe

Diamond takes on the issue of China by describing its early political unification in 221 B.C. – with a mainly unitary language, government, agriculture (millet, rice, dogs, pigs and chickens, water buffalo, bronze-making, silk worms, etc.), transport and writing system.  Descending from the north, the Qin Dynasty pushed out earlier language and social groups in southern China, who were forced to move further south to southern Asia - Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia & Laos.  He points out that European diseases like the Bubonic plague, smallpox and influenza probably came from Chinese animals and populations.  Chinese merchants spread throughout southern Asia – its peninsulas, islands and lands – yet not as formal colonialists.  Ethnic south Chinese took over Taiwan, and Taiwan’s people incredibly then went on to settle all of Polynesia and nearly all the islands of South Asia.  But later, it was the French who seized Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; the Dutch, Indonesia; the Americans, the Philippines; the English, Australia, Burma and China itself.

In response to the issue of the “Fertile Crescent,” Diamond points out that climate change rendered this formerly wooded and fertile land a semi-desert and desert, removing the head start it once had.  The humans in this area cut down their own forests, thus leading to desertification.  The benefits it generated instead accrued to Greece, then Rome, then after a gap of centuries, colonial Spain, Holland and eventually England – which then became the location for the birth of industrial capitalism.

Regarding Russia and its partial lag behind Europe, it was the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 that transformed the former Czarist kingdom, and pushed it into the 20th century at a rapid pace.  This did not result in economic colonialism or imperialism, unlike Europe.  Diamond does not deal with Russia at all.  In a sense, it was not the bourgeoisie that led the way here, but the working class. 

Regarding China, Diamond asserts it was a conservative, isolationist bureaucracy that controlled the whole country, and at a certain point in the mid 1400s, forbade shipbuilding and other advances in technology.  Because China was a unitary state, their word became a law that lasted for a long time.  Stagnation set in from the top, which is one of the dangers of over-centralization.  This could not occur in Europe, as there were too many separate countries.  In this book, Diamond tracks other instances of societies turning their back on technology and science for mostly political reasons.  Of course, even in the U.S., global climate change and evolution, for instance, are somehow still 'controversial' science. He calls China a ‘gigantic island within a continent’ – easily cut off from strong outside influences for many years.  And that is what happened - until eventually British ships appeared off the Chinese coast.

And I bought it at Cheapo Books.
Red Frog
March 30, 2013

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