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guns, germs and steel

guns_germs_and_steel_malaThe phrase “guns, germs and steel” comes from Jared Diamond’s 1997 book of that name. He calls it “a short history of everyone for the last 13,000 years”. It answers the question of how whites got on top. He says our destiny is written not in our genes but in our geography.

Diamond went to New Guinea to see its birds. He made friends there and one of them, Yali, asked him why whites were so rich:

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?

Diamond ruled out intelligence: New Guineans were “more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.”

He also ruled out culture and politics: those things are always changing and have little long-term effect across thousands of years.

That leaves him with geography and biology: with the lands and seas, the plants and animals that make up the world.

Not all places are created equal:

  • Of the 13 kinds of large animals that are easy for man to tame and control, 12 live in Eurasia: cows, pigs, goats, horses, camels, etc. Only the llama is missing. Men do not ride zebras, for example, because they are too wild to be tamed. Places like Australia, New Guinea and North America had no large animals that could be tamed – just dogs.
  • Of the grains that are easy to plant and store, again most are found in Eurasia. Australia had none at all!
  • Eurasia goes mainly from east to west. So plants and animals that work in one part of Eurasia work well elsewhere. That is way less true for Africa and the Americas which run from north to south.

This meant that civilization could spread more widely and deeply in Eurasia than elsewhere. Civilization is based on being able to produce more food than you need, freeing up human labour for other things.

So the world’s four largest civilizations are found in Eurasia in a chain that stretches from east to west: China, India, the Middle East and Europe.

It was just a matter of time before one of these invented gunpowder and ocean-going ships and be able to take over the world. It was China that invented those things, yet it was Europe that took over. Why?

Because Europe’s geography makes empires rare. There are just too many mountains and rivers. So while in China the emperor could (and did) outlaw building ocean-going ships and not suffer in the short term, no country in Europe could get away with that.

But genes do matter in one way: disease. From living with cows for so long  most whites had built-in defences against smallpox – but not against malaria. That made it easy for them to take over and stay in North America (where smallpox played a big part in wiping out the American Indians), but not in most of Africa.

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