Some concordances are planned, such as a book on the siege during a visit to Vienna or a Janacek opera in Brno. Others happen by chance, and these are more likely than first glances might suggest, though not less surprising when they are realised. At the start of Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, however, I did not expect to find myself reading about the significance of pandemics in history whilst actually being part of one.
Bought in a second-hand shop smelling of old clothes, feet and other things quintessentially human, the book’s cover proclaimed nothing less than A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Much of that history seemed to surround me as I paid one euro for this and two other books, thinking they would provide holiday reading on a couple of pending trips. Indeed, they have accompanied me in a now forced confinement during Spain’s significant corona virus epidemic, the pending trips having been summarily and understandably cancelled. Such concordance cannot be predicted and is all the more powerful as a result.
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel presents a discussion based on an unanswered, perhaps unanswerable question. It was posed to the author by a New Guinean politician in 1972. Its substance was why history appears to be a transfer of things from white Europeans to others and not the other way round.
There exists an easy and racist answer. Like most easy answers, it is both inaccurate and wrong, but neither discussing it nor dismissing it is to disprove it. In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond tries to offer such proof. He cites many factors, racial characteristics not among them, in the construction of social, economic and technological development of the human race.
The title, incidentally, Guns, Germs and Steel, may also be instructively read as aggression, disease and technology. In reverse order we learn that technology began in the solution of problems that arose out of success. That resulting technology equipped its possessors with significant advantages over others who could not access it. Alongside the development of agriculture, it also promoted a more socially concentrated and sedentary lifestyle to replace the unsustainable but previously universal hunter gatherer society that had existed since human beings took that name and perhaps before.
Along with proximity came disease, transferred to and from animals now domesticated and to and from the nearby people who, for the first time in possibly millions of years, were not genetically similar family members. With advantages of knowledge married to capability arose the opportunity of asserting control of resources via aggression. The notion possibly always existed, especially if one views human existence containing and essentially competitive streak. But what human development increased was the chance of sustained success.
Jared Diamond traces the development of agriculture from its earliest known manifestation in Western Asia’s Fertile Crescent. Later, but in the same place, writing developed, probably as a means of recording the transactions that passed between trading producers. Jared Diamond then looks at how this new organisation of human affairs differed from previous eras, locations and cultures, as far as we can be aware from archaeological evidence.
But what is also interesting about this analysis is how its author divides his world. Instead of the usually named continents, he uses a paradigm in which the Americas are viewed as a unit, alongside sub-Sahara Africa and Australasia. Unusually, he combines Asia, Europe and much of North Africa into a single unit he calls Eurasia. It comprises everything from Japan and China to Portugal and Ireland and further includes all those lands across the Mediterranean coasts of Africa that in recorded history were part of northern empires. This grouping is important for the author’s argument, because Eurasia thus defined forms a continuous land mass whose major axis is east-west, that is at roughly constant latitude, as opposed to north-south and at varying latitude as was the case in both the Americas and sub-Sahara Africa. The traversing of Eurasia allowed a majority of crops and domestic animals to accompany the migrants and conquerors, whereas changing climates meant that north-south movements had continually to confront new challenges. The paradigm, crucially for Jared Diamond’s argument, reflects population movements and migrations in prehistory, being a predominant east-west tendency in Eurasia as against a north-south preponderance in the Americas and Africa.
Australasia, uniquely and as a result of its remoteness from other land masses, always merits special consideration. Jared Diamond makes much of this east-west versus north-south orientation and ascribes to it a propensity for development via cultural assimilation, transfer, conquest and communication in Eurasia that did not exist elsewhere. Other continents always lacked at least one of the essential items, most of which had to be available to facilitate change via increased capability to survive.
Thus, the development of human societies, their technologies and politics could happen, be transferred and adapted within Eurasia far easier than anywhere else. Alongside this, Jared Diamond cites the greater availability of animal and plant species suitable for domestication in Eurasia and contrasts this with a dearth elsewhere. Thus, the guns and steel aspect of power arose out of historical, geographical and ecological, and thereby not racial accident.
But it was the germs that really changed things. These developed as a result of sedentary lifestyles that brought about agriculture and thus greater social contact. The domestication of animals, a process that spanned millennia, also exposed humans to regular doses of new microbes and viruses, but at a rate that allowed immune systems to build resistance amongst those who survived the experience. When communicated suddenly to people whose lifestyle and development had not gradually introduced this resistance, a lack of immunity resulted in the near extinction of whole societies and races. This was of course the predominant experience of colonialism and European expansion as experienced but those who were on the receiving end of the process. We now live on a planet where a dominant lifestyle and societal organisation has undoubtedly arisen. And its origins lie in gradual change via the adoption of agriculture, writing, technology and immunity that were possible across Eurasia, but not elsewhere. And that provides the answer to why the transfer of influence moves in the direction it unquestionably does.
Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating read, though in places it is certainly rather repetitive. It makes a brilliant and convincing case, but also illustrates how hard it is to argue against prejudice, which, in the face of fact, always has answers. Fermat’s last theorem, perhaps analogous to the racial basis for explaining colonial history, is easy to state but very hard to prove. The theorem was eventually demonstrated, but clearly not in the way its originator intended. Perhaps the racial theories of difference might just attempt to identify the mechanisms upon which its blind assertions are based. But on completing the book, one is also reminded that perceptions of advantage are perhaps less permanent than we might once have believed. The Eurasian dominance of other peoples and the environment may just be one pandemic from pure illusion.