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History Upside Down

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

by Jared Diamond
Norton, 480 pp., $27.50

Guns, Germs, and Steel is an artful, informative, and delightful book, full of surprises for a historian like myself who is unaccustomed to examining the human record from the vantage point of New Guinea and Australia, as Jared Diamond has set out to do. The book is oddly titled, for Diamond has little to say about guns and steel, though he devotes a chapter to the role of germs in human history. A better title would be History Upside Down: A Biological View of the Human Past. But the author, a researcher in “evolutionary biology and biogeography” specializing in birds, would surely object to such a description of his book, arguing instead that it is historians who err by approaching their subject downside up, thanks to their myopic concentration on literate societies and the last five thousand years of history. No matter: there is nothing like a radically new angle of vision for bringing out unsuspected dimensions of a subject, and that is what Jared Diamond has done.

Diamond frames his book around “Yali’s question.” Yali, a politician of some note in his native New Guinea, overtook Diamond while he was walking along a beach there in 1972, and during a lengthy conversation asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” “Cargo” means all the useful material objects—metal axes and the like—that Europeans introduced to New Guinea, whose peoples still used stone tools, resembling those of Europe’s Neolithic Age, when traders from Europe first showed up on the island’s coasts a few hundred years ago. As Diamond says, such

huge disparities must have potent causes that one might think would be obvious.

Yet Yali’s apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn’t have an answer then. Professional historians still disagree about the solution; most are no longer even asking the question…. This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts to answer Yali.

The easiest answer is to attribute differences in levels of human technology and culture to innate differences in the minds and bodies of the various peoples concerned. “Today,” Diamond explains, “segments of Western society publicly repudiate racism. Yet many (perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations privately or subconsciously.” But, according to Diamond, “modern ‘Stone Age’ peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples.” That, he suggests, is because biological selection in Eurasian civilized societies was mainly for body chemistry resistant to infectious diseases which “had little to do with intelligence,” whereas in New Guinea the major causes of death were “murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems in procuring food. Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those causes of high mortality,” with the result that “natural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent.” Why then, Diamond asks, “did New Guineans wind up technologically primitive, despite what I believe to be their superior intelligence?”

Diamond’s answer is simple in principle, but complex (and largely dependent on inference) in detail, for he asserts that “the roots of inequality in the modern world lie far back in prehistory…because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” This sort of geographic reductionism is radically out of fashion these days, and Diamond’s thesis, so baldly stated, seems unlikely to win many converts. Yet he makes a good case for the critical importance of

continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication. That’s because food production was critical for the accumulation of food surpluses that could feed non-food-producing specialists, and for the buildup of large populations enjoying a military advantage through mere numbers even before they had developed any technological or political advantage.

In addition, toward the end of the book he discerns three additional environmental factors that are relevant to answering Yali’s question because they have an affect on the frequency of technical inventions and the rates of their spread. These are: (1) mountains, deserts, and day-lengths, varying with latitude and “affecting rates of diffusion and migration, which differed greatly among continents,” (2) distances across open water, “influencing diffusion between continents,” and (3) “continental differences in area or total population size.” Diamond concludes:

Those four sets of factors constitute big environmental differences that can be quantified objectively and that are not subject to dispute. While one can contest my subjective impression that New Guineans are on the average smarter than Eurasians, one cannot deny that New Guinea has a much smaller area and far fewer big animal species than Eurasia.

Quite so. No one can doubt the general accuracy of Diamond’s account of the environmental differences that he makes so much of. Yet one can doubt whether there was not greater scope for what I would call “cultural autonomy” than is allowed by Diamond’s effort to reduce (or raise?) history to the level of the biological sciences. What I have in mind is the way the propagation of an idea or cluster of ideas can provoke a group of human beings to alter their concepts of reality, and then by acting accordingly make all sorts of changes in their social and physical environments. It seems clear to me that human beings have been doing this ever since the invention of language permitted our ancestors to construct a world of shared symbolic meanings, and then to begin to adjust individual behavior to fit the needs and expectations of those around them. Indeed, personal and collective behavior shaped by shared meanings is what distinguishes us from other species. It is the hallmark of humanity. Diamond’s effort to make human history “scientific” by emphasizing the tyranny of natural environments while neglecting the way diverse symbolic worlds shape and reshape human societies and their physical environments thus seems misguided.

Diamond does not explicitly dismiss conscious human action as a factor in history. Indeed he recognizes the importance of language and is, in fact, deeply interested in, and extraordinarily well informed about, the linguistic history of humankind. It is rather that he seizes upon the early era in the unfolding of human capacities when food production was getting started some 13,000 years ago, and then, with a single leap of the imagination, attributes all the contemporary differences among human societies to the relative advantages particular populations have enjoyed as a result of the differences in the plants and animals available for domestication in different parts of the earth.

No doubt prevailing tendencies and customs are always constrained by environmental factors. Yet the vast differences in the wealth and power that different human societies have at their command today reflect what long chains of ancestors did, and did not, do by way of accepting and rejecting new ways of thought and action, most of which were in no way dictated by, or directly dependent on, environmental factors. But Diamond seems to think that cultural innovation is a mere reflex of numbers, because “all human societies contain inventive people.” And since, when agriculture was new, local distribution of the numbers of human beings did depend rather directly on the crops and domesticable animals that happened to be available on different continents and more isolated islands like New Guinea, he feels justified in treating the usual subject matter of history, i.e., everything that has happened since, as no more than a natural process of elaboration whose pace and direction have been ineluctably dependent upon, as well as derived from, prehistoric differences in local agricultural resources.

He is, of course, well aware of how his effort to envision humankind as a biological species competing and cooperating with other species in the food chain departs from prevailing notions about the human past. “Among other factors relevant to answering Yali’s question,” he says,

cultural factors and influences of individual people loom large. To take the former first, human cultural traits vary greatly around the world. Some of that cultural variation is no doubt a product of environmental variation, and I have discussed many examples in this book. But an important question concerns the possible significance of local cultural factors unrelated to the environment. A minor cultural feature may arise for trivial, temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose a society toward more important cultural choices, as is suggested by applications of chaos theory to other fields of science. Such cultural processes are among history’s wild cards that would tend to make history unpredictable.

Does unpredictability make human history irredeemably unscientific? Diamond does not commit himself. Instead he dodges the question by arguing that the significance of

cultural idiosyncrasies, unrelated to environment and initially of little significance,…constitutes an important unanswered question. It can best be approached by concentrating attention on historical patterns that remain puzzling after the effects of major environmental factors have been taken into account.

If so, what historians usually concern themselves with is no more than a bothersome residual left over after the material, biological constraints on human existence have been scientifically studied and understood.

I do not accept Diamond’s dismissive appraisal of “cultural idiosyncrasies unrelated to environment.” A more persuasive view might be to suppose that in the early phases of our history, when technical skills and organizational coordination were still undeveloped, human societies were indeed closely constrained by the local availability of food, as Diamond convincingly argues. But with the passage of time, as inventions multiplied and more effective modes of coordinating collective effort across space and time were adopted, the course of human history became increasingly autonomous simply because our capacities to reshape actual environments to suit our purposes became greater and greater. Cultural idiosyncrasies—systems of meaning constructed out of nothing more tangible than words and numerical symbols, and largely independent of any external referent whatever—came into their own. This is the ordinary domain of history; and Diamond is wrong to dismiss it as a mere reflection of differences of population densities arising from the initial domestication of different plants and animals in different parts of the world.

All the same, those initial constraints were never entirely overcome. As we all know, Amerindians never caught up with Eurasians, still less did the peoples of New Guinea. By emphasizing those constraints and their enduring effects across subsequent millennia, Diamond therefore draws attention to an important dimension of the human past. Indeed, his account of the domestication of plants and animals and the subsequent expansion of linguistically distinct groups of food-producers at the expense of older populations of hunters and gatherers is a brilliant tour de force. Except for a few rhetorical exaggerations, his reconstruction of what happened in neolithic prehistory struck me as very convincing, and much of what he has to say about developments in South-east Asia and the islands of the southwest Pacific was nothing short of a revelation.

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