August 06, 2005

Reading List: Guns, Germs, & Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond, 1997

GG&S tries to answer the question "Why did Europeans colonize the rest of the world and not the other way around?". The factors listed in the title are proximate causes, advantages that allowed Europeans to dominate whatever native populations they encountered. The question therefore becomes "Why did Europeans get all these advantages before anyone else?".

The simple answer is "population density". If one group has a million people while another has 100 million, then the second is a hundred times more likely to include a Da Vinci, Newton, or Einstein (or a Colt, Smith, Wesson, or Gatling). Also, closely packed people provide an environment in which nasty fast-acting diseases can persist instead of killing everyone in a small area and burning out.

So now the question is "Why did Europeans have such a high population density compared to everybody else?". The answer: food production. Most of the book is about the various (mostly geographic) factors affecting the availability of useful crops and livestock in different parts of the world. This is where Diamond shines: he was originally a biologist (specifically, an ornithologist), and he provides many fascinating details and statistics which make this book worth reading. Even better, he abstracts out some general rules and principles which can be used to predict the success of food production in a given place.

The book gets a bit repetitive near the end, when he starts repeating himself, but I nevertheless recommend you read this book. You may or may not agree that geographic factors are the only factors needed to predict the general shape of human history, but you will definitely come away knowing that geographic factors played a very important part.

On the other hand, you could just get the short version.


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