Ok, I’ve written/posted a few religion type posts. I don’t want you to think that’s all I think about or write about, because it’s not.
Today I’m going to write about a History topic. One that’s kind of divisive among amatuer Historians and History buffs, but not one that mid-level Academics, like myself, see as particularly controversial.
First a little background:
I listen to a podcast hosted by CGP Grey and Brady Haran both YouTubers and geeky celebrities in their own right. Some time ago Grey read, and tried to get Brady to read, Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Diamond isn’t a Historian, per se. He’s a biologist and a geography professor, but he has devoted his life to understanding how geography affects societal development. His book, which isn’t his only book, just his most well known, is one that draws a lot of criticism especially among folks who think his theories are somehow critical of non-Eurasian societies.
So what is it all about? The central point of GGS is that certain factors allow for the natural progression of indigenous peoples out of the stone age and into advanced society. In a way the theory is encapsulated in the title Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society. The reason I’m sitting here today, mostly of European ancestry, is because We had these things and the native population of North America, did not.
This theory is often called Geographic Determinism. Europe and Asia had domesticable animals in several varieties. They also had River Valleys that, along with herds of animals, allowed for systems of advanced agriculture to generate food surpluses. These surpluses allowed for job specialization. Once you have that you get scholars, priests, bureaucrats, and eventually YouTubers.
Since Europe had easily domesticated animals, cattle, sheep, and chickens that they lived in close proximity to for millennia they also were exposed to the microbes these guys were carrying around. We (I’m going use that pronoun for Eurasians here on out keep up) had plague after plague killing off our non-resistant ancestors and leaving behind the ones who could take a licking and keep on ticking. Africa had a similar situation, but that one is a bit more complex. They didn’t get quite as far as their native animals were a bit harder to domesticate and their other resources, which I will get to, were more scarce and some of their geography was hard to master as well. There’s a reason, we once called it the Dark Continent, other than the obviously paternal racist reasons.
So we’re humming along and we discover how to make bronze and then how to forge iron. Once you have iron it’s short, historically speaking, leap to steel. So now we have weapons that outstrip the other continents by a long way. We are resistant to disease, because we’ve lived with it for so long. Eventually those steel swords and armor became firearms and cannon and with these Europeans, who had slightly better resource availability and due to a whole host of complexities had pulled ahead in the race for global superiority, conquered vast swathes of the rest of the planet, despite it being already occupied.
How did we do it? Our invisible warriors the germs decimated non European populations, as they had us, but it took longer as there were less of them and they had not had our advantages. Enter those advantages and you see why our recent ancestors were able to plant the flag in the Americas and Australia with virtually no resistance.
Is Geographic Determinism absolute? Of course not. Asia didn’t become the dominant continent despite having many of the same advantages as Europeans. Diamond isn’t advocating that Geographic Determinism is the end game of society and civilization, but that it explains, to a great degree, how we got here.
I have to be honest and say that I haven’t read his follow-up books but from reviews and recommendations, I can say that they carry his theories forward and address the world we live in.
I highly recommend reading Dr. Diamond’s website even if GGS seems a little too dry and academic for you. He explains a lot of theories there and even addresses much of the criticism that has been levelled at GGS.
Thanks for Reading,