Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
In which the author sets out to explain why (among other things) Europe
colonised Africa rather than the other way round.
This was quite a long book, and there were a lot of useful nuggets of
information in there. For example:
- Hunter-gather cultures spend most of their time looking for food. It's
only when societies began to farm and store food that they had spare capacity
to develop other abilities/technologies/political organization. Therefore a
key factor to "civilisation" is farming
- Different areas of the world varied dramatically in the "raw materials"
available - in terms of animals suitable for domestication, plants suitable
for cultivation, climate suitable for farming, etc.
- Europe has an advantage over Africa and America in that it is more wide
(longitudinally) and has relatively fewer mountainous regions, which means the
climate is less varied, and so crops and animals are more compatible over the
region. In comparison, both Africa and the Americas are taller (cover more
latitudes) and so much more varied in climate.
- A consequence of domesticating animals is that you're in closer contact
with them, and this is a major source of disease. So a society which farms
animals will tend to evolve resistance to diseases. So when the Spaniards
invaded the Americas, one of the major reasons they conquered the Incas and
Aztecs was that they brought disease with them to which the natives had no
defence. There was only one native species (llama) in the Americas which was
suitable for domestication.
- Why do humans only raise a small set of animals (cattle, sheep, pigs,
goats) for meat? It's not because they don't taste good, rather:
- Meat-eating animals (e.g. lions) are very expensive to raise; you not only
have to feed them, you have to feed the animals that they eat
- Many species (e.g. zebra, giraffe, bear) can be tamed individually, but
attempts to domesticate then and raise them in herds do not work because the
animals are not amenable to it (e.g. won't breed in captivity)
- Some species don't grow fast enough to make it viable to farm
- Some animals have a "nasty disposition", e.g. African Buffalo
- Australia was home to many large mammal species, all of which died out
shortly after humans arrived. This is likely because they never evolved
alongside humans and so had no defences when the humans suddenly appeared
If I had to criticise, then I thought perhaps he tended to over-labour the
point on certain things. Also, it felt as if he was trying not to offend
anyone - emphasising that it is likely to be differences in environment,
rather than racial distinctions, which lead to one group of people gaining
superiority over another. Not that I disagree with him, but it sometimes came
across as a bit deliberately uncontroversial.
Completed : 18-Aug-2003