Thursday, February 24, 2011

Guns, Germs and Steel.

Having heard about the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (I think it was Richard Morgan who recommended it) I managed to pick up a copy from a local charity shop. However, when I tried to read it my eyes started glazing over and I ended up sticking it to one side. It then ended up in that pile of books destined to be sent to a charity shop under the label ‘Life’s too Short’.

A number of weeks ago I then noticed a Channel 4 documentary with the same title and recorded it. Just yesterday, feeling knackered after having to get up at 4.15AM to drive my mother to Gatwick, I decided to do something less mentally taxing so sat down to watch it.

The essential question posed was, ‘Why have the Europeans always been the winners?’ Why have they generally been ahead of the rest of the world? Jared Diamond’s reasoning is essentially this: most of the animals that can be domesticated are only found in Eurasia, which took farming in this region beyond the subsistence level thus freeing up human resources for technical and social development e.g. the smelting of metals like steel and really, the building of civilization. This domestication of animals also led to an increase in the diseases the Eurasians suffered and subsequently gained some immunity to. So, armed with steel, rapidly developing technology and a shitload of diseases they went off and conquered the world.

This is, of course, a simplification. The documentary itself was almost certainly a simplification of the book.

A particular case cited is that of the Conquistadors. Armed with steel, experience of warfare and mounted on horses, Francisco Pizarro and his men first defeated the Incas in battle (mainly because of the naïve stupidity of their emperor), then the small pox the Spanish carried finished off the job. Yes, historical fact, but was it necessary to imply in this documentary that the small pox was somehow deliberate?

The logical thread of this is very attractive and certainly has much truth. However, the continuous use of the liberal buzz-word ‘inequality’ throughout should have clued me in to how specious some of the reasoning was. The first hiccup was with that domestication of animals and non-subsistence farming. This happened in the Middle East and with a bit of hand-waving and talk about how it spreads latitudinally, it magically became the big advantage to the people of Europe. One then has to ask the question: why wasn’t it the middle easterners with their ‘guns, germs and steel’ conquering the rest of the world? I’ll take the forgiving view that this is all a bit more complicated than portrayed in the documentary, so perhaps I really should read the book.

Next we go to tropical South Africa which the Europeans struggled to conquer because their farming methods didn’t work and because the diseases were on the side of the Africans. However, the Europeans did win there because the steel was on their side – mainly the Maxim machine gun, then the train. Okay, I get that – more historical facts. But what got my back up here was the glorification of the native and the life style of the ‘noble savage’. And please stop it with the implication that the Europeans destroyed some wonderful agrarian idyll and that a return to that life style might be a good thing. Yes, the life-span in the place depicted is about 40 now, but did those ‘noble savages’ live any longer? Did the women enjoy popping out baby after baby until dying of it? Did they all enjoy labouring every day just to put food in their mouths?

Diamond then moved away from his central contention to claim that the similarities between tribal languages indicated a previous single underlying language and an African civilization, on the bones of which the Europeans built their African empire. I can see the point of the language thing when we look at the ‘romance languages’ and the like. If you want to you can contend that the Europe we know is ‘built on the bones’ of earlier civilizations (The Greeks and then the Romans). Thing is, we’re still digging up those bones. Nothing remains of this particular African civilization because they built nothing long-lasting and invented no more than had already been current in the Stone Age, which is a curious and highly convenient definition of civilization.

It would have been better if this had stuck to Diamond's original contention about ‘guns, germs and steel’ rather than straying into the apologia and fatuous fact-twisting of political correctness.

In the end this documentary was another of those liberal self-flagellation fests; another deep revel in white guilt and the present practically Luddite attitude towards technology. It was highly selective of its ‘facts’, quite good at confusing correlation with causation (another common one nowadays). Yes, I perfectly understand the point that no single race possesses some underlying superiority, but I damned well disagree with the idea here that because luck and circumstance put the Europeans on top that they should feel guilty and be all apologetic. The reality of this documentary is that those who produced it don’t really understand their own proposition of underlying equality, which is that if the ‘guns, germs and steel’ had arisen elsewhere in the world, it would have been the Europeans who got the kicking.

Strange isn't it, how the politically correct revel in a guilt that stems from their own assumed superiority.
Noblesse oblige.


Chris said...

Oh thank goodness! I was beginning to think I was alone in wondering if that particular emperor had no clothes...

I had the good fortune to read David Landes' "Wealth and Poverty of Nations" before ever coming across "Guns, Germs and Steel". By comparison with W&PoN Diamond's GG&S was simplistic and sophomoric.

In his - IMO far superior - book Landes ascribes European success in the modern era almost entirely to cultural factors, rather than inherent technological potentials.

He makes the case that, in the long run, willingness to discard restrictive, irrational traditional social forms in favour of innovation, peaceful exchange, security of property and the rule of law make your culture a winning one simply through the workings of private self-interest.

No charge of racism or orientalism will stick; cultural cringe needed: anyone can try their hand at that open secret.

Disco Stu said...

Nah...I'm with Rider-Haggard in 'King Solomons Mines'. All the natives were simply overawed by our 'beautiful white legs'.

No guilt in that.

Of course we did take such things as the Puckle gun which fired round bullets for christians and square for Muslim-Turks...

Nah, it was the legs....8)

Neal Asher said...

I'm not talking about the book here, Chris, since I haven't read it. I'm also not going to make the assumption that the documentary truly reflects the book because I'm thoroughly well aware of how documentary makers can twist things to their own ends.

It was the machine guns, Stu, which we would have been on the other end of if we hadn't invented them first.

Mr. Maigo said...

Notice that no one has tried to control people through happiness? It's always guilt and fear.

Oofero said...

I was under the impression that the underlying reason was the latitudinal placement of our crops, rather than any other particular event/item that preceded the explosion of invention/science that this allowed.

This type of excess of food at the time must have been something near incredible for people, at that time in our history, when the pursuit of hunger was prob a big part of a lot of peoples lives.

Our first experience of how science can benefit us, if we just make sure the scientists dont have to toil in the fields all day, like all the other workers.

Ryan said...

Trying to explain why Europeans came out on top at one point of history is so multifactoral as to require more attention than any documentary can give.

I had to read GG&S a few years ago at uni and I remember finding it quite contentious. The view that Europe was the place where science was invented and that's what propelled us forward is remarkably flawed. Greece and Arabia were places of much scientific and philosophical discovery long before any renaissance of Europe.

The Arab empires fell in on themselves though and receded much territory that would later be taken up by a Christian Europe. From this Europe inherited a lot of science that was then improved upon during renaissance times.

Europe was lucky more than anything, yes it's fertile (so are large parts of the Americas and East Asia), yes it had a renaissance (not the only place to adopt a scientific method) and yes there have been many diseases but at the end of the day if history was slightly different it may not have happened or it may have happened to some other continent. thats life for you

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

could've been contenders if they had thumbs:

Masada style.

Nebris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nebris said...

Diamond stole his book lock, stock and barrel from William H. McNeill's earlier - and far superior - "Plagues and Peoples".

*reposted w/ grammar fix..I'm obsessive..

Ben said...

You should've finished the book, Neal.

I can't remember the exact details - I read it some time ago - but the livestock/domestic plant/latitude point was only a small part of his overall thesis.

I believe that his main point was that future European domination was forged as a result of:

1) the geography of the Mediterranean, which was highly conducive to trade (and war) between many different cultures in close proximity which allowed the spread of ideas and technology;
2) the resulting arms race between the various European powers resulted in Europeans' technological superiority in warfare; which led to:
3) the rise of secularism, as people grew sick of religiously motivated wars (i.e. Hundred Years War etc) and the axis of political power swung from Rome back to the European elites. This in turn led to the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment.

Our only conceivable opponents from opposing cultures (i.e. non-Christian) during this period were the Chinese (who'd retreated into isolationism in the 13th century) and Islamic caliphates who'd retreated back into dark age barbarism and intercene warfare (which they are still arguably in) from their brief golden age. The Ottomans did much to reverse this, but they were still left playing catch-up.

So there you have it: a potted history of European domination.

I must admit I haven't seen the documentary, but I enjoyed the book. I didn't detect any liberal political correctness, nor any "noblesse oblige", nor any adulation of noble savages living in perfect harmony with their environment. (His hypothesis that highland New Guineans are smarter than Europeans because of the different selection pressures acting on them i.e. avoiding being murdered by your neighbours, as opposed to being resistant to the plague, gave me something to think about.)

As an aside, I thought it was an interesting exercise reading a book about history, written by a scientist (he's an ornithologist). Naturally, people writing outside their own field of expertise will attract criticism from the field's own experts, no doubt much of the criticism is warranted, but I don't think it was ever intended to be a serious scholarly work unlike Norman Davis's "Europe: A History" for example.

Caitlin said...

I got the book out of the library after having been promised a "brilliant, original and thought-provoking read" in a magazine review.

I lost the will to live after about 50 pages - and this is from someone who doggedly read ALL of Foucault's Pendulum.

I can't believe someone could take such a promising subject and turn it into such dense, dreary prose.

I watched the documentary as well and ended shouting at the telly, such was his sanctimonious, chin-bearded carry on.

Neal Asher said...

Oh I don't know, Mr Maigo. The carrots are there for those who toe the line: any of those jobs advertised in the Guardian, including at the BBC.

Oofero, yes, where the crops could be grown was important, but still does not explain why Europe dominated the world when they did rather than the 'cradle of civilization'. The documentary was a simplification.

Yes, I quite agree, Ryan.

Thanks Nebris, I might see if I can get hold of that.

Ben, documentary makers, go figure. Less time was spent putting over the points you mention and much more was spent on bits like him firing a bow with tribesmen (as in the picture) or getting all tearful in a hospital over malaria patients. The documentary was delivering a pc message rather than concentrating no the main thesis of the book I suspect.

That's my reaction, unfortunately, to many history books, Caitlin. I find it difficult to grasp who they manage to take an interesting subject and turn it into something as dry as dust.