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Peter D. Tillman
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How did the West grow rich and conquer the world? It wasn't
racial superiority, as the Victorians thought - indeed, Diamond
gives evidence that the average New Guinean may well be smarter
than the average European. His own one-sentence summary of the
book is: "History followed different courses for different peoples
because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of
biological differences among the peoples themselves"[clunk]. Or, it's the
environment, stupid. Or, the West got lucky.
I'm uncomfortable with history-as-polemics, but Diamond (usually)
keeps his facts and interpretations pretty well separated. And this is a
wonderful one-volume history of the human race. It is unusual, and
refreshing, to read a history written by a distinguished and literate
biological scientist. History isn't generally considered to be science -
"it's just one damn fact after another." But then, you could say the
same for large parts of astronomy, biology & geology.
13,000 years ago, the most recent Ice Age was ending, and people
everywhere still made their living as hunter-gatherers. Diamond starts
his story at the dawn of civilization. By Chapter 3, he's recounting
Pizarro's conquest of the Inca empire in 1532. In an afternoon, 168
Spanish soldiers routed an army of 80,000, killed 7,000, and captured
the Inca emperor. It's not surprising that the Spaniards would feel
superior. But the conquistadores' invisible allies had been at work
since 1492 - smallpox from Spain had killed the previous Inca emperor
and his heir, setting off a war of succession that fatally weakened the
empire. Diseases from Europe would ultimately kill up to 95% of the
native peoples of the Americas, often before they saw their first
European. The old American cultures were doomed from first contact,
even if the Old World visitors had been peaceful explorers and traders.
12,000 years of isolation had left native Americans with no resistance to
the lethal European microbes.
Where did these diseases come from, and why didn't the Indians
return the favor by infecting Eurasia? Many came originally from
domestic animals (for example, measles and smallpox from cattle), and
required large, dense populations to evolve. The Indians had few
domestic animals - one reason why they were poorer than Eurasians,
and those (fortuitously) had no diseases that "made the jump" from
animals to humans - good evidence for Diamond's "history as luck"
Diamond's history is wonderful, full of new science, strange facts, and
great anecdotes. The polemics get repetitious and a bit defensive at
times, but can be safely skimmed. This would have been a better book
had it been written as straight history, letting the facts speak for
themselves - but it's still well worth reading. Recommended.
Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA, is a frequent
contributor to Discover, Natural History, and Geo magazines.
Review copyright 1998, 2006 by Peter D. Tillman
Peter D. Tillman is a consulting geologist based in Arizona.
- Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
The final frontier?
Charles Darwin, an unsuspecting geologist's on HMS Beagle, recorded the rich variety of geological features, fossils and living organisms encountered on five-year journey to the new lands. A gift of critical insight, keen observation power, an ability to explain the observations by hypothesis, and an ability to bolster hypotheses by evidence leading to a theory helped him gain insight into the process which led to development of twelve different species of finches from a common ancestor. He theorized that the separate species had evolved because the birds were separated by space and time (isolation). In addition, the islands on which the finches existed had different materials they could feed on (environment). Reconciling the fossil evidence and his other observations he came up with theory of natural selection to explain the vast diversity of plant and animal life in biosphere. This theory has helped us understand the process by which genetically complex plant and animals and other phyla of organisms have evolved from single-celled microorganisms. The central thesis of the theory is that environment plays a vital role in origin of species. Application of this theory can help us understand the biological features in humans but not the cultural features. After all, aren't humans the only animals who modify their environment to suit their needs and not vice-versa? This specious argument coupled with racial theories propagated to justify colonialism led to claims that though humans are a species but they are divided into different races. The races differ on human characteristics such as cognitive skills, intelligence, strength, etc. Jared Diamond's chief contribution has been to explain the differences in human cultures based on the environmental factors coupled with quirks of history. Isn't it equivalent to opening of final frontier in understanding human societies? Some day, may be, our understanding of the process would be advanced enough to make simulation models explaining this difference.
Jared Diamond's role
Jared Diamond is a trained biologist who is interested in understanding human societies. His work has taken him to societies vastly different from his own, which in turn has helped him form this perspective. He has worked extensively in New Guinea, Polynesia, and other such places where humans lived in Stone Age a few generations ago. Other societies such as European and some Asian societies have crossed this milestone thousands of years ago and are industrialized societies today. A few other societies are on verge of getting industrialized, or are an agricultural society while some remote societies are still in Stone Age or Bronze Age. Jared Diamond's principal insight has been to understand the role of environment and history for this difference.
Just as the development of different species of finch had provided a vital clue to Darwin, two different groups of humans with same ancestors but separated by time and space has provided vital insight to Jared Diamond. The two different human groups in question are Maoris and Morioris. The Polynesian people were the ancestors of Moriori and Maoris. This differentiation happened around 1000 AD when the Maoris had settled on all the habitable islands around New Zealand. The Maoris who remained on the mainland remained as farmers while those settling on the Chatam islands had to change their means of livelihood. The Chatam islands did not have climate that could support the tropical crops grown by the Morioris. Therefore, they had to revert to hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The mainland Maoris on the other hand remained agriculturists and their surplus produce led to development of labor. The Morioris however did not have enough surplus and all the able bodied people had to work to support themselves. The food could be captured by hand or with simple clubs and did not warrant any special technology. This lifestyle can only support a small number of people, which numbered 2000. Jared was able to reduce the differences in these islands to six environmental factors: island climate, geological type, marine resources, area, terrain fragmentation and isolation.
Explaining the New World
Developing on the theme further, he explains the reasons for colonialization of new world by the Europeans. He posits that environmental factors coupled with history were responsible for this as well. He analyzed such historical incidents as defeat of Incas even when their army was numerically superior. He traces the Incan defeat at the hands of Spanish conquerors to latter's use of steel swords, steel armor, guns and horses. On the other hand, the Incas had no horses and their weapons consisted of stone, bronze, or wooden clubs, maces, and handhold axes. With these weapons they could only injure Spanish people and not kill them.
The other factor, which helped Europeans, was the epidemics that spread among the Native Americans by coming in contact with the former. Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases as they had been in close contact with these diseases for a long time. For the Native Americans though, these diseases proved disastrous. It is estimated that diseases introduced with Europeans killed 95 percent of pre-Columbian Native Americans.
Jared's approach to explanations has been by using proximate and ultimate factors. The proximate factors are used in explaining the fates of societies at different developmental level coming in clash with each other. They explain the outcome of the event in itself. The proximate factors among others include guns, horses, germs, etc. The ultimate factors include factors such as orientation of continental axes (the civilization changes such as development of agriculture, use of other technology as gun powder was readily disseminated across Eurasia and not across the Americas), climate changes which isolated one group of humans from others, development of epidemics, etc.
His other chapters give details of origin and spread of agriculture, domestication of animals and resulting impact on the human societies. He details the reasons why some animals were domesticated whereas others could not. His documentation of some cultures adopting agriculture and then leaving it to revert to hunter-gatherer lifestyle and again adopt agriculture is really fascinating. His explanation of diseases as a gift of livestock is really fascinating. It was apparently a gift to Europeans as they were able to colonialize the lands without these diseases but not others.
His tries a cursory explanation of other cultures as well. He posits that Chinese were a heterogeneous people as well but they became monolithic by being conquered by Han people. The Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese are the distant Chinese cousins who fled Mainland China to escape the onslaught of monolithic culture. He gives a similar explanation for Africa.
I think that his thesis is essentially correct. However there needs to be serious research in applying the principles. As of now, it is a preliminary sketch on which the others have to build the idea. His explanation of why the Europeans were not the colonists but not the Indians is rather sketchy. One explanation could be that civilizations have their ebbs and tides. There could be time when Indians, Chinese, or people from parts of Africa were colonists but at the precise point when the European civilization was growing, the other civilizations were receding. The Roman Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, Mughal Empire had their zenith. They lost their empire to institutional factors or to due simply to lack of adaptation to changing times. The ruling classes had become too insulated from the general conditions to be able to provide guidance to changing times. One needs to research the individual events more to be able to generalize the phenomena.