I am reading Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island” at the moment, but it is hard going (I know it sounds like I am reading the originals of a series of bad movies, what with “George of the Jungle” and “Lost World”), so I am going to write about a book I read earlier in the year, namely Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel; a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”.
The title and the cover of the paperback is a little misleading, in that it suggests this is a work of popular science, but it is a more academic, heavyweight text than the presentation suggests. It addresses a fundamental question raised by the author’s experiences in field anthropology – why did European nations come to dominate the world in the second half of the second millennium? The simple answer is given in the title of the book – they had guns, germs and steel, and therefore were able to dominate militarily the nations they “discovered”. Sometimes the diseases they introduced removed the need for military conflict altogether; at other times small forces of European invaders were able to beat large armies of indigenous people, most notably in the extraordinary tale of the defeat of a native American army of 80,000 warriors by 168 Spanish soldiers in 1532. But each answer leads to a fresh question – why did the Europeans have guns and steel, and immunity to disease that the indigenous peoples did not? Why had their civilisations developed a particular degree of sophistication in metallurgy for example, when other nations had not even invented the wheel? I was amazed to read that one South American civilisation had in fact discovered the wheel, but saw no particular use for it – this is largely explained by their terrain, and that they had not domesticated a beast of burden suitable for haulage.
Ultimately, the answer given is that it all comes down to geography. Civilisations arose in and spread from places where there was a conjunction of factors that allowed settlements to develop. These factors included suitable plants that could be farmed, beasts that could be domesticated, the right climate, etc. The explanation is clearly much more complex than this, and Diamond shows amazing scholarship in how he charts the progress from small tribes to ancient and modern civilisations. His breadth of research across disciplines is equally impressive. A chapter towards the end of the book struck me with particular force as he charts how some civilisations “uninvented” certain technologies – they made sometimes puzzling but nonetheless conscious and usually Government led decisions to remove some technologies from their societies – I just didn’t know that had ever happened, and it undermines the argument sometimes used about nuclear technology – ie that it can’t be uninvented.
I really enjoyed this – parts were challenging – but the effort was very much worth it, and it has led me into another arena of reading, which has got to be good.