Derek Sivers

Guns, Germs, and Steel - by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel - by Jared Diamond

ISBN: 0393061310
Date read: 2016-07-25
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Why did the people of certain continents succeeded in invading other continents and conquering or displacing their people? Fascinating world history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. See the notes.

my notes

Weapons at Cro-Magnon sites include harpoons, spear-throwers, and eventually bows and arrows.

Those efficient means of killing at a safe distance permitted the hunting of such dangerous prey as rhinos and elephants, while the invention of rope for nets, lines, and snares allowed the addition of fish and birds to our diet.

During the Ice Ages, so much of the oceans’ water was locked up in glaciers that worldwide sea levels dropped hundreds of feet below their present stand. As a result, what are now the shallow seas between Asia and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali became dry land. (So did other shallow straits, such as the Bering Strait and the English Channel.)

Big mammals of Africa and Eurasia survived into modern times, because they had coevolved with protohumans for millions of years. They thereby enjoyed ample time to evolve a fear of humans, as our ancestors’ initially poor hunting skills slowly improved. The dodo, moas, and perhaps the giants of Australia / New Guinea had the misfortune suddenly to be confronted, without any evolutionary preparation, by invading modern humans possessing fully developed hunting skills.

The disappearance of all of the big animals of Australia / New Guinea had heavy consequences. Those extinctions eliminated all the large wild animals that might otherwise have been candidates for domestication, and left native Australians and New Guineans with not a single native domestic animal.

Human presence expanded 8,000 miles south in less than a thousand years. However, that translates into an average expansion of only 8 miles per year, a trivial feat for a hunter-gatherer likely to cover that distance even within a single day’s normal foraging.

The Americas evidently filled up with humans so quickly that people were motivated to keep spreading south toward Patagonia.

At an average population density of somewhat under one person per square mile (a high value for modern hunter-gatherers), then the whole area of the Americas would eventually have held about 10 million hunter-gatherers. But even if the initial colonists had consisted of only 100 people and their numbers had increased at a rate of only 1.1 percent per year, the colonists’ descendants would have reached that population ceiling of 10 million people within a thousand years.

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 ground sloths. Just as in Australia / New Guinea, in the Americas most of those large mammals became extinct. Most large wild mammal species that might otherwise have later been domesticated by Native Americans were thereby removed.

Of the five habitable continents, North America and South America are the ones with the shortest human prehistories.

The settlement of the world’s remaining islands was not completed until modern times: Mediterranean islands such as Crete, Cyprus, Corsica, and Sardinia between about 8500 and 4000 B.C.; Caribbean islands beginning around 4000 B.C.; Polynesian and Micronesian islands between 1200 B.C. and A.D. 1000; Madagascar sometime between A.D. 300 and 800; and Iceland in the ninth century A.D.

What, really, does a “head start” mean for the purposes of this book? We cannot take the metaphor of a footrace literally.

Maori developing more-complex and the Moriori less-complex technology and political organization. The Moriori reverted to being hunter-gatherers, while the North Island Maori turned to more intensive farming. Those opposite evolutionary courses sealed the outcome of their eventual collision.

The larger the size and the higher the density, the more complex and specialized were the technology and organization. At high population densities only a portion of the people came to be farmers, but they were mobilized to devote themselves to intensive food production, thereby yielding surpluses to feed nonproducers. The nonproducers mobilizing them included chiefs, priests, bureaucrats, and warriors. The biggest political units could assemble large labor forces to construct irrigation systems and fishponds that intensified food production even further.

All those differences among Polynesian societies developed, within a relatively short time and modest fraction of the Earth’s surface, as environmentally related variations on a single ancestral society. Those categories of cultural differences within Polynesia are essentially the same categories that emerged everywhere else in the world.

Plant domestication may be defined as growing a plant and thereby, consciously or unconsciously, causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor in ways making it more useful to human consumers. Crop development is today a conscious, highly specialized effort.

Peas were domesticated by 8000 B.C., olives around 4000 B.C., strawberries not until the Middle Ages, and pecans not until 1846. Edible acorns remain untamed even today.

Some plant species trick an animal into carrying their seeds, by wrapping the seed in a tasty fruit and advertising the fruit’s ripeness by its color or smell. The hungry animal plucks and swallows the fruit, walks or flies off, and then spits out or defecates the seed somewhere far from its parent tree.

The seeds of many wild plant species actually must pass through an animal’s gut before they can germinate.

One African melon species is so well adapted to being eaten by the aardvark that most melons of that species grow on the latrine sites of aardvarks.

Strawberry plants evolved through natural selection. The sweeter and redder the final strawberry, the more numerous the birds that dispersed its ripe seeds.

When the first farmers began to sow seeds deliberately, they would inevitably sow those from the plants they had chosen to gather, even though they didn’t understand the genetic principle that big berries have seeds likely to grow into bushes yielding more big berries.

That provides part of the explanation why many crop plants have much bigger fruits than their wild ancestors do. It’s especially familiar to us that supermarket strawberries and blueberries are gigantic compared with wild ones; those differences arose only in recent centuries.

Supermarket apples are typically around three inches in diameter, wild apples only one inch. The oldest corn cobs are barely more than half an inch long, but Mexican Indian farmers of A.D. 1500 already had developed six-inch cobs, and some modern cobs are one and a half feet long.

Natural selection acts oppositely on seeds and on fruits. Plants whose fruits are tasty get their seeds dispersed by animals, but the seed itself within the fruit has to be bad-tasting. Otherwise, the animal would also chew up the seed, and it couldn’t sprout.

Seedlessness provides a good example of how human selection can completely reverse the original evolved function of a wild fruit, which in nature serves as a vehicle for dispersing seeds.

Wild wheat and barley seeds grow at the top of a stalk that spontaneously shatters, dropping the seeds to the ground where they can germinate. A single-gene mutation prevents the stalks from shattering. In the wild that mutation would be lethal to the plant.

But those mutant seeds would have been the ones waiting conveniently on the stalk to be harvested and brought home by humans. When humans then planted those harvested mutant seeds, any mutant seeds among the progeny again became available to the farmers to harvest and sow, while normal seeds among the progeny fell to the ground and became unavailable. Thus, human farmers reversed the direction of natural selection. Over 10,000 years ago, that unconscious selection was apparently the first major human “improvement” in any plant. That change marked the beginning of agriculture.

The development of industrial melanism in British moths: darker moth individuals became relatively commoner than paler individuals as the environment became dirtier during the 19th century, because dark moths resting on a dark, dirty tree were more likely than contrasting pale moths to escape the attention of predators.

Strawberries remained the little berries that thrushes wanted, not the big berries that humans wanted. Only with the recent development of protective nets and greenhouses were we finally able to defeat the thrushes, and to redesign strawberries and raspberries according to our own standards.

Differences followed straightforwardly from the differing suites of wild plant and animal species available for domestication, not from limitations of the peoples themselves.

The famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.

This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failure.

A domesticated animal is defined as an animal selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply.

The wild ancestors of 13 of the Ancient Fourteen (including all of the Major Five) were confined to Eurasia.

This very unequal distribution of wild ancestral species among the continents became an important reason why Eurasians, rather than peoples of other continents, were the ones to end up with guns, germs, and steel.

The explanation for the lack of native mammal domestication outside Eurasia lay with the locally available wild mammals themselves, not with the local peoples.

There is no doubt that Europeans developed a big advantage in weaponry, technology, and political organization over most of the non-European peoples that they conquered. But that advantage alone doesn’t fully explain how initially so few European immigrants came to supplant so much of the native population of the Americas and some other parts of the world. That might not have happened without Europe’s sinister gift to other continents - the germs evolving from Eurasians’ long intimacy with domestic animals.

Inventing a writing system from scratch must have been incomparably more difficult than borrowing and adapting one. The two indisputably independent inventions of writing were achieved by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia somewhat before 3000 B.C. and by Mexican Indians before 600 B.C. (Figure 12.1); Egyptian writing of 3000 B.C. and Chinese writing (by 1300 B.C.) may also have arisen independently. Probably all other peoples who have developed writing since then have borrowed, adapted, or at least been inspired by existing systems.

The Phaistos disk anticipates humanity’s next efforts at printing. However, those next efforts did not appear until 2,500 years later in China and 3,100 years later in medieval Europe.

Invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa. The motor vehicle was not invented in response to any demand. Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music.

That “heroic theory of invention,” as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work. From a patent lawyer’s perspective, the ideal invention is one that arises without any precursors.

Edison’s famous “invention” of the incandescent light bulb on the night of October 21, 1879, improved on many other incandescent light bulbs patented by other inventors between 1841 and 1878.

All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a time when society was capable of using their product.

Technology finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need.

The most isolated people on Earth in recent history were the Aboriginal Tasmanians, living without oceangoing watercraft on an island 100 miles from Australia, itself the most isolated continent. The Tasmanians had no contact with other societies for 10,000 years and acquired no new technology other than what they invented themselves.

Sedentary living was decisive for the history of technology, because it enabled people to accumulate nonportable possessions.

Variations in these three factors - time of onset of food production, barriers to diffusion, and human population size - led straightforwardly to the observed intercontinental differences in the development of technology.

The main axis of the Americas is north-south, forcing most diffusion to go against a gradient of latitude (and climate) rather than to operate within the same latitude. For example, wheels were invented in Mesoamerica, and llamas were domesticated in the central Andes by 3000 B.C., but 5,000 years later the Americas’ sole beast of burden and sole wheels had still not encountered each other, even though the distance separating Mesoamerica’s Maya societies from the northern border of the Inca Empire (1,200 miles) was far less than the 6,000 miles separating wheel- and horse-sharing France and China.

The New Guineans whom I know include potential Edisons. But they directed their ingenuity toward technological problems appropriate to their situations: the problems of surviving without any imported items in the New Guinea jungle, rather than the problem of inventing phonographs.

With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them. Part of the solution to that problem was for one person, the chief, to exercise a monopoly on the right to use force.

Size of the regional population is the strongest single predictor of societal complexity. A large but simple society could not maintain itself.

New Guinea has by far the highest concentration of languages in the world: 1,000 out of the world’s 6,000 languages, divided into dozens of language families and isolated languages as different from each other as English is from Chinese. Nearly half of all New Guinea languages have fewer than 500 speakers.

All but one of the world’s six most populous nations are melting pots that achieved political unification recently, and that still support hundreds of languages and ethnic groups. The great exception to this rule of the recent melting pot is China. But it seems absurd to ask how China became Chinese. China has been Chinese, almost from the beginnings of its recorded history.

China’s size and ecological diversity spawned many separate local cultures. In the fourth millennium B.C. those local cultures expanded geographically and began to interact, compete with each other, and coalesce. Exchanges between culturally diverse regions enriched Chinese culture and technology, and fierce competition between warring chiefdoms drove the formation of ever larger and more centralized states.

Geographic factors contributed to the early cultural and political unification of China, whereas western Europe, with a similar area but a more rugged terrain and no such unifying rivers, has resisted cultural and political unification to this day.

The historical southward expansions of Burmese, Laotians, and Thais from South China completed the Sinification of tropical Southeast Asia. All those modern peoples are recent offshoots of their South Chinese cousins. So overwhelming was this Chinese steamroller that the former peoples of tropical Southeast Asia have left behind few traces in the region’s modern populations.

Just three relict groups of hunter-gatherers - the Semang Negritos of the Malay Peninsula, the Andaman Islanders, and the Veddoid Negritos of Sri Lanka - remain to suggest that tropical Southeast Asia’s former inhabitants may have been dark-skinned and curly-haired,

Only on the remote Andaman Islands do languages unrelated to the South Chinese language families persist - the last linguistic survivors of what must have been hundreds of now extinct aboriginal Southeast Asian languages.

Korea and Japan were heavily influenced by China, although their geographic isolation from it ensured that they did not lose their languages or physical and genetic distinctness, as did tropical Southeast Asia.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous nation: big overseas movements long before Columbus, and prehistoric replacements of non-European peoples by other non-European peoples.

Before the recent overseas expansion of Europeans speaking Indo-European languages, Austronesian was the most widespread language family in the world.

Taiwan is the homeland where Austronesian languages have been spoken for the most millennia. All other Austronesian languages stem from a population expansion out of Taiwan.

The last phases of the expansion, during the millennium after A.D. 1, resulted in the colonization of every Polynesian and Micronesian island capable of supporting humans. Astonishingly, it also swept westward across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, resulting in the colonization of the island of Madagascar.

The invention of the double-outrigger sailing canoe may have been the technological breakthrough that triggered the Austronesian expansion from the Chinese mainland.

In China the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible.

Contrast those events in China with what happened when fleets of exploration began to sail from politically fragmented Europe. Christopher Columbus, an Italian by birth, switched his allegiance to the duke of Anjou in France, then to the king of Portugal. When the latter refused his request for ships in which to explore westward, Columbus turned to the duke of Medina-Sedonia, who also refused, then to the count of Medina-Celi, who did likewise, and finally to the king and queen of Spain, who denied Columbus’s first request but eventually granted his renewed appeal. Had Europe been united under any one of the first three rulers, its colonization of the Americas might have been stillborn. In fact, precisely because Europe was fragmented, Columbus succeeded on his fifth try in persuading one of Europe’s hundreds of princes to sponsor him. Once Spain had thus launched the European colonization of America, other European states saw the wealth flowing into Spain, and six more joined in colonizing America. The story was the same with Europe’s cannon, electric lighting, printing, small firearms, and innumerable other innovations: each was at first neglected or opposed in some parts of Europe for idiosyncratic reasons, but once adopted in one area, it eventually spread to the rest of Europe. These consequences of Europe’s disunity stand in sharp contrast to those of China’s unity.

Navigation: China abandoned development of an elaborate water-driven spinning machine, stepped back from the verge of an industrial revolution in the 14th century, demolished or virtually abolished mechanical clocks after leading the world in clock construction, and retreated from mechanical devices and technology in general after the late 15th century. Those potentially harmful effects of unity have flared up again in modern China, notably during the madness of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when a decision by one or a few leaders closed the whole country’s school systems for five years.

To understand China’s chronic unity and Europe’s chronic disunity. The answer is again suggested by maps. Europe has a highly indented coastline, with five large peninsulas that approach islands in their isolation. China’s coastline is much smoother, and only the nearby Korean Peninsula attained separate importance. Europe is carved up into independent linguistic, ethnic, and political units by high mountains, while China’s mountains east of the Tibetan plateau are much less formidable barriers. China’s heartland is bound together from east to west by two long navigable river systems.

Geographic connectedness has exerted both positive and negative effects on the evolution of technology.

The histories of the Fertile Crescent and China also hold a salutary lesson for the modern world: circumstances change, and past primacy is no guarantee of future primacy.

Societies developed differently on different continents because of differences in continental environments, not in human biology. Advanced technology, centralized political organization, and other features of complex societies could emerge only in dense sedentary populations capable of accumulating food surpluses - populations that depended for their food on the rise of agriculture that began around 8,500 B.C. But the domesticable wild plant and animal species essential for that rise of agriculture were distributed very unevenly over the continents. The most valuable domesticable wild species were concentrated in only nine small areas of the globe, which thus became the earliest homelands of agriculture. The original inhabitants of those homelands thereby gained a head start toward developing guns, germs, and steel. The languages and genes of those homeland inhabitants, as well as their livestock, crops, technologies, and writing systems, became dominant in the ancient and modern world.

In the early 1800s, European traders, missionaries, and whalers began to visit New Zealand, which had been occupied 600 years previously by Polynesian farmers and fishermen known as Maoris.

Optimal Fragmentation Principle: 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.

If your goal is innovation and competitive ability, you don’t want either excessive unity or excessive fragmentation. Instead, you want your country, industry, industrial belt, or company to be broken up into groups that compete with one another while maintaining relatively free communication - like the U.S. federal government system, with its built-in competition between our 50 states.