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An overrated book
am 25. Februar 2005
Jared Diamond is a thoroughgoing geographical determinist. His book highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of this approach.
Diamond's major topic is the Neolithic Revolution. His intention is to demonstrate that environmental conditions were not equally suitable to the development of agriculture on different continents. Eurasia, he contends, was the most appropriate place. It had the largest number of domesticable plants and animals, an east-west axis favoring the diffusion of inventions, offered good possibilities for inter-continental communication, and was the largest and most populous continent. So the Eurasians were first in developing agriculture, gaining thus a headstart in history. Agriculture led to rising populations and created a dynamic that prompted the evolution of states, writing and a sophisticated technology (guns and steel). These social and technological advantages, plus immunity to the most dangerous infectious diseases (germs), allowed Eurasians to easily subdue the natives of the Americas, Australia and Southeast Asia.
On the whole this argument, which takes up the first 410 pages of the book, is convincing. Diamond is also right to insist on adopting a long time-frame. As early as 8000 years ago Eurasians had a substantial edge over their rivals on other continents, making it unlikely for those peoples and civilizations to catch up.
Had Diamond stopped writing at this point, he would have published a good work.
However, he was not content to treat only the Neolithic Revolution, but wanted to cover all major turns in world history. Hence the last 15 (!) pages of the book are devoted to a completely different subject. Having explained the rise of Eurasia, Diamond now wants to explain the rise of the West. Quickly the question becomes: Why Europe, not China? Borrowing an idea from Eric Jones ('The European Miracle'; but beware: Jones' approach is much more sophisticated than Diamond's, avoiding any kind of monocausal determinism) Diamond provides a simple answer: Europe was geographically more diverse than China. Therefore it did not become politically unified. Political fragmentation led to openness and openness to progress - ideas and inventions that were rejected at one place could succeed at another.
This speculation is not plausible at all.
First, there is no geographical NECESSITY for European fragmentation and Chinese unity. Europe has many features favoring political unity. Its long coastline and a great number of navigable rivers allow for easy transportation by water, offering an important asset to any would-be imperial power. The Romans took advantage of this to the utmost, and if they were able to conquer a great part of the continent, there can surely have been no compelling GEOGRAPHICAL reason for later powers to fail. Diamond himself seems to realize this when he admits that India had even more agricultural core areas than Europe. Yet India was ruled as a unified empire for most of its history.
Second, Diamond's explanation - even if assumed to be correct - accounts only for INNOVATION. It tells us why certain inventions made by Chinese craftsmen were not introduced into the production-process of China's economy. A more important question to ask would have been why many significant inventions were not made in China in the first place. A prime example coming to mind is modern natural science, which was never developed in the Middle Kingdom.
Third, it is easy to see that Diamond's argument is undermined by his own evidence. As he tells us, China was scientifically and technologically ahead of Europe (and the rest of the world) for more than 1000 years. If China could achieve this superiority despite its supposed geographical disadvantages, we cannot escape the conclusion that those disadvantages either did not exist or were of minor importance. Europe, on the other hand, remained a cultural backwater for most of its history despite its supposed geographical advantages. Again we cannot but conclude that these advantages either did not exist or were of minor importance.
Thus Diamond's environmentalism is completely refuted by Chinese and European history before 1500 a. d. Moreover, no other version of geographical determinism is likely to fare better. Since China's geography did not change within the last 2000 years, every purely geographical interpretation of its history must be wrong. It will either fail to account for the period of Chinese superiority or for the period of Chinese backwardness.
Diamond's errors are grounded in his method. Geographical determinism can explain the Neolithic Revolution, because this transformation was brought about by small bands of hunter-gatherers extremely dependent on their environment. Even so, Diamond needs FOUR causal factors to account for its different outcome on each continent (1. The wild plant and animal species available; 2. Orientation of the major continental axis; 3. Possibilities for inter-continental communication; 4. Size of area and population of a given continent). When we look at the great Eurasian civilizations, we have to deal with a type of society vastly more complex and far less dependent on its environment than are bands of hunter-gatherers. Yet Diamond wants to explain the history of these civilizations with reference to just ONE causal factor (the impact of geography on political unity). Instead of becoming more sophisticated in accordance with its subject, Diamond's approach turns brutally simplistic just as it is applied to the most difficult problem of world history.
It is unlikely that the rise of the West can ever be explained geographically. Any serious attempt to write global history for periods after the Neolithic Revolution will have to be sensitive to the complex interplay between geography, economy, technology, politics and culture that shapes the development of large societies. The work of Max Weber and Fernand Braudel provides good examples of the kind of scholarship needed for this task. Jared Diamond's book not only fails to rise up to this standard, but is crude, superficial and disappointing even from a geographical point of view.
Clearly Diamond did not know when to put his pen down. His book would have been better if he had refrained from addressing topics unsuited to his method.