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Geography Is Fate : GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: The Fates of Human Societies.<i> By Jared Diamond</i> .<i> W.W. Norton: 480 pp., $27.50</i>

I am ethically obliged to start off with the admission that I have never read anything by Jared Diamond that I didn’t like. He is broadly erudite, writes in a style that pleasantly expresses scientific concepts in vernacular American English and deals almost exclusively in questions that should interest everyone concerned about how humanity has developed. He is capable of generalities of such vastness as to boggle most minds, especially those of academic kittens who would prefer to chase their own tails than to notice sky writing. He is arrogant enough to rattle your preconceptions and your teeth, and just when you begin to splutter objections, he is off to his next intellectual Mt. Everest. Reading Diamond is like watching someone riding a unicycle, balancing an eel on his nose and juggling five squealing piglets. You may or may not agree with him (I usually do), but he rivets your attention.

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is his answer to a question proffered by his New Guinean friend, Yali: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [steel axes, umbrellas, matches, soft drinks, etc.--the material stuff of civilization], but we black people had little cargo of our own?” It is an obvious and important question, and one to which professional historians, including myself, tend to react as if we’d discovered a coral snake in the shower. We do so for two reasons: We used to answer Big Questions confidently because spellbinders like Marx, Spenser and Spengler had showed us how and were demonstrably wrong so often that we now prefer to gabble on and on about trees and underbrush, while ignoring the forests. In addition, we shy away from Yali’s question because the easiest answer is one that many bray and bray about and others would rather die than utter. Race.

How come white folks got all this stuff and New Guineans and Ibos and Yaqui Indians don’t? ‘Cause white folks--as many might reply--are smarter and work harder and better, that’s why. It is an answer that most professional analysts of the human experience bite their tongues to suppress. Some don’t even want to acknowledge the question because the only alternative answer they have to the work-harder-and-smarter response is some footless spiel about how white capitalists . . . did what? Prevented New Guineans from smelting metal ores and getting out of the Stone Age 5,000 years ago? Not likely.

Jared Diamond has done us all a great favor by supplying a rock-solid alternative to the racist answer. He is well-equipped for the task. His mother is a linguist and his father a physician. He is a specialist in molecular physiology, evolutionary biology and biogeography. He knows the difference between information and visions. He has spent much of his adult life working not in London or Cairo or Beijing but in New Guinea (with side trips to the Australian outback). Thus, when he practices comparative history, his comparisons are not, say, between medieval Baghdad and Detroit, which even a Cro-Magnon time traveler would see as similar and equally incredible, but between Stone Age and 20th century existences.

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Diamond’s book-long answer to Yali’s question is, put simply--geography and food production. For example, to answer the question of why Australian aborigines were so “backward” as compared to the British, he points out that Australia, compared to the British Isles, is poor in fertility, impoverished in native cultivable plants and domesticated animals and unpredictable in climate except insofar as its middle region is permanently bone dry.

Above all, it is located hell-and-gone at the end of the world. Long ago in southwest Asia, some folks domesticated wheat, tamed cattle and invented the wheel, and a mere two or three millenniums later, the British, who lived only a few thousand kilometers away (and connected by a land route that mostly stayed in the same climactic zone), had leavened bread, milk, wagons and bureaucrats. They were well on their way to “civilization.” The Australian aborigines didn’t so much as lay eyes on any of these southwest Asian items until the British arrived in the antipodes with them approximately yesterday, and the Abos are themselves now on the way to “civilization.”

To become civilized--that is to say, to enjoy and to suffer a sedentary lifestyle, dense populations, centralized governments, elites, writing, technology, professional armies, large-scale architecture--one must start with or get from elsewhere plants that produce a lot of food fast. Big, nutritious and powerful animals that will accept harness or at least herding without always trying to kill their keepers are a help too. These requirements assure the slow advance toward civilization in a lot of the world. Without them, the going is more difficult. Southern Africa, for instance, had and has no native plant comparable to wild wheat or barley in caloric productivity, and while a zebra looks a lot like a horse, go lasso one. Go ahead and try.

Once you have developed (or as in almost all cases, borrowed) crops and livestock, you can settle down and grow into dense populations that, according to Diamond, are large enough to sustain communicable diseases. These germs are quite often those you share with (and perhaps are derived from) your dense populations of animals, your herds and flocks. These microorganisms will be your strong right arm, whether wanted or not, in your struggles with the sparse populations, too sparse to maintain such crowd diseases, on your borders.

Food surpluses will allow you to have nonfood producing specialists and elites--blacksmiths, weavers, scribes, artists, priests, soldiers, kings--whether you want them or not. With technologies and governments and taxation and religious orders and theologies, you will develop writing or, more likely, borrow it. Then you’ll be “civilized.”

Peoples who don’t possess or procure the suitable plants and animals may be as bright and energetic as “civilized” folks. Diamond thinks that the still “uncivilized” New Guineans, who have to find amusement in their immediate surroundings and who have no electronic pacifiers, are of necessity smarter than we are. But they don’t have much in the way of “cargo.”

Diamond ranges across the globe, describing and comparing and casting a cold eye on the process of gaining “civilization” in one continent and region after another. He doesn’t make angels or devils out of the greatest technological innovators and expansionists of the past half-millennium, the Europeans. While their arrival in a given region overseas was often an unmitigated catastrophe for the locals, whose survivors were offered no more than Christianity along with readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic in return for their countries, Europeans did not invent aggression or inhumanity. For instance, in 1835 a few hundred Maori, a farming people of considerable population, sailed from New Zealand to the Chatham Islands, then populated by a smaller number of hunter-gatherers. The invaders killed most of the locals and enslaved the rest.

The Maori are, by the way, as warm and hospitable a people as I have ever met; even nicer, I’d say, than the British, who came to New Zealand from a land of very heavy population and took the locals’ country away from them. Shoving is as old as life, and agriculturalists with metal weapons, nudged forward by population pressures and emboldened by their own self-esteem, have usually expanded. They have won almost all the ensuing contests or have swamped the losers genetically or, at the very least, have convinced the shoved to take up “civilization” too.

Evidence in support of Diamond’s grim views is all around us. Speakers of Indo-European languages stretch all the way from the northwest coast of Europe into India. They, sometimes genetically and always linguistically, are the descendants of a people of western Asia who thousands of years ago expanded and were probably able to expand because of their numbers and their advantages in plants and animals, particularly the horse. But not all imperialists come from the First World. The story of the Bantu in Africa, usually minus the livestock because of that continent’s tsetse flies, is similar. The northern Chinese had similar and significant advantages over their rivals and, as a result, China is relatively--relatively--more uniform in language and even genetics than any other such vast area of the world.

Am I a completely gaga Diamond disciple? Well . . . yes, if you mean in comparison with Marx and Spenser and the others who have tried to explain everything. He has stuck to measurable or at least discernible factors. He hasn’t slipped off into trances about the youths, senescences, personalities and inalterable destinies of classes, peoples, civilizations. But I do have my complaints. He does love to give chapters names that obscure rather than enlighten. What, for instance, is the content of “Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle”? And when he rushes through areas of scholarship about which I know something, I am often stunned by his simplifications. The plague of Antoninus, AD 165 to 180, may have been only smallpox, as Diamond suggests, but it also may have been other things. Many students of Amerindian demography, in another example, judge that there were many fewer than 20-million natives in North America and 8 million on Espanola in 1492, which Diamond accepts as the gospel truth. Or consider this: Did the ancient Mexicans fail to utilize the wheel for anything more important than toys simply because they had no draft animals to pull wagons? Wouldn’t wheels have been just as helpful for humans pulling wagons? Finally, I know that wheat has much more protein than maize or corn, but was that really a decisive difference between Amerindian and Middle Eastern civilizations? The ancient Mexicans didn’t necessarily languish because of the lack of protein in maize. They ate beans, too. Beans have plenty of protein.

But I carp. I’m paid to. This is a wonderfully interesting book, especially for historians of the usual liberal arts background, who will find the final chapter, “The Future of History as a Science,” alone worth the price of admission. In it, Diamond argues that students of humanity--while they cannot be as precise as physicists and chemists with their laboratory experiments, nor can they run history over again to see if this change can produce that result--have examples and “natural experiments” with which they can fashion informative comparisons.

Why did Christendom enthusiastically and permanently adopt the wheel, the key element in most machinery, while the Islamic societies largely discarded it? What happened when syphilis first appeared, as compared to what is happening today with the appearance of AIDS? What is happening to society in the highlands of Diamond’s home-away-from-home, Papua New Guinea, where people have hurtled from the technology of the stone ax to that of the computer within a lifetime? Diamond’s lesson is this: Think big like our astronomers, who begin their training not by trying to understand the nervous gyrations of the members of the asteroid belt but the simple and stately movements of the major planets over the years, decades and centuries. Think big. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a provocative start.


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