The US Public Broadcast System (PBS) is running a series based on
the Jared Diamond book Guns, Germs and Steel.
The Pulitzer Prize winning book, first published in 1997,
sparked a debate regarding the relationship between
“geographic, cultural, environmental, and technological
factors which have led to domination of Western culture in
Diamond’s view provides a new way of understanding the
world by trying to answer the following questions:
- Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our
- Why didn’t the Chinese, or the Inca, become masters of
the globe instead?
- Why did cities first evolve in the Middle East?
- Why did farming never emerge in Australia?
- And why are the tropics now the capital of global
The answers he found are provocative. According to his
theory, what you could do, to a great extent, depended on
what resources were available to you. And what resources were
available to you was, to a great extent, based on luck (or
For example, in order to progress from a hunter-gather
society to a farming one, you must have plants and animals
that can be usefully domesticated. Lacking such resources, he
contends, no matter how intelligent you are, you cannot
progress up the ladder towards what we now call Western
civilization (such that it is).
Animals dramatically increase the productivity of
farming, through their meat, milk, leather, dung, and as
beasts of burden. Without them, farmers are trapped in a
cycle of subsistence and manual labor.
Of all the animal species in the world, only 14 have
ever been domesticated. 12 of these are native to Eurasia.
One, the llama, is native to South America – and the
farmers of New Guinea managed to domesticate the pig. But
pigs can’t pull plows, and until the arrival of Europeans
in the twentieth century, all New Guinean farming was still
done by hand.
Whether you agree with his theories or not, it is, I
believe, a different way of viewing history and perhaps a
useful way of predicting the future.