Sunday, May 15, 2005

Book Review: Guns, germs and steel

I read 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers' a few years ago (actually because some guy in the Interchange (ESL) book said it was easiest to read in a foreign country). In it, Paul Kennedy explained the reasons for the course history took over the last 500 years. Specifically, he described two main forms of power, economic and military and the need for a careful balance of the two. It was not an easy read for me but large portions of it were interesting and convinced me to research further.

A much easier read was Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. The two works are similar in that they try to answer why some nations and peoples have been more successful than others. Diamond's book, though, finishes where Kennedy's starts and starts ten thousand or more years ago.

The first subject Diamond discusses is that he is not interested in racial arguements. Over the past few hundred years, Europeans have been more successful, but not because they are white or special. Indeed, he suggests that, on average, the New Guineans may be more intelligent than Caucasians.

He gave three criteria for a region's success. availability of suitable agricultural crops, availability of suitable livestock, and the general axis of the continent. The latter affects the spread of agricultural crops and technological information.

The first two surprised me but he explained his reasoning clearly. Very few plants are all that useful as food items for humans. Many of the best ones were originally found in the Mid-East. I think that's right, he describes it as the Fertile Crescent. Few large mammals are useful for human transportation or farm power either. Most such animals (horses, sheep, cattle) were guessed it, in the Fertile Crescent.

The axis arguement was harder for me to swallow. North and South America are relatively narrow, east-west and the north-south axis is not useful for transferring argiculture nor ideas. The Fertile Crescent is part of Euroasia, the largest continuous east-west space. The central idea of same latitude/same climate is a good start but hard for me to accept. The east-west axis in Canada or the US is about 3000 km, more than most tribesmen or neolithic travellers would think of going. It took me a while to accept that different cultures could cycle information East and west without much travel by individuals. Next, his examples of north/south obstacles seemed solid and believable. The desert region of Mexico and the so very-narrow bottleneck of Panama prevented Northern temperate crops from reaching Sourthern temperate regions and South American pack animals (llamas) from reaching the north.

The examples I connected with best were his island examples. His descriptions of various Polenesian islands and their measurable differences were compelling and showed real differential success.

It's time read his next book, 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed' which covers similar ground but from more of an environmental perspective.


James said...

I've read both those books in the last few years and I thought they were both great. Another one you might consider is David Quammen's Song of the Dodo about evolution in islands. Evolution has applications in business and politics and since South Korea is, practically speaking, an island, you might find this especially interesting.

kwandongbrian said...

Thanks for the suggestion. I have read some of Quammen's articles in Outside Magazine, so I may order the book.
I will have to read it before I complain to you but I am typically careful using Darwin's theories outside of Biology. It is a descriptor of 'what is', not 'what should be'.

james said...

First, let me thank you for linking to my blog, the first such link that I'm aware of. I've chronicled the event here:

Second, maybe I should have said that evolution has "analogies" in business and politics. Roughly speaking, businesses within an industry sometimes act like species sharing the same environment. In politics, organizations can be subject to similar pressures. It didn't occur to me until now that my comments might be taken to refer to social darwinism. My bad.

Let me know what you think about Quammen's or any other books you take a liking to. You seem to be hitting a vein of reading I enjoy a lot.

Hugh said...

Hey there,

I'm reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" right now and would really like my wife to read it because I think she would love it. You wouldn't happen to have seen a Korean translation? I've heard it exists but I haven't located it here in Seoul.

kwandongbrian said...


I don't live in Seoul anymore and currently am in Canada on vacation. I can ask around when I return to Korea but your wife could probably find it if she wanted.

Anonymous said...

You people are crazy. I have to read this book for my class and it's horribly boring. If you like it, you really need to learn what the term "fun" means.

kwandongbrian said...

There's a big difference between reading something because you have to and because you choose to. I currently have a bus commute of over an hour twice a day and so have time to fill.

On the other hand, its been three years and I still haven't finished Collapse.

What school program are you reading the book for?