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Continental axes and the roots of progress
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, is a Pulitzer-winning book about, well, the roots of progress. What follows is not a full summary like I did for Enlightenment Now, but more of an idiosyncratic review: what I thought of it, what I got out of it, and where I’m skeptical.
I didn’t read GGS for a long time after first hearing of it. Based on the title, and on a brief discussion with someone who had read it, I thought it was going to be one of those “grab bag” history books that looks at a few random topics and tells entertaining stories about them—mere “storytime history”.
I was quite wrong. GGS is a book that attempts to deal with some of the deepest questions of history, and does so in a systematic, methodical way. I enjoyed it, although I think it only tells part of the story (and arguably tries to stretch that part to cover the whole).
Diamond phrases the problem this way: “Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? … why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? Those disparate rates constitute history’s broadest pattern and my book’s subject.” This became painfully apparent around AD 1500, when Europe began to explore and colonize the world. A mere twelve thousand years earlier, all peoples on Earth had been hunter-gatherers using stone tools. By 1500, some peoples were living in advanced civilizations with agriculture, metal tools and weapons, oceangoing ships, writing, and empires; others were living in primitive states with no writing and only weaker metals such as copper; still others were still living as nomadic hunter-gatherers. How did these disparities come about?
He summarizes his answer thus: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” (Diamond is explicitly trying to counter any hypothesis based on the inherent biological superiority of some races or peoples over others; indeed, he sees doing so as a primary motivation for the book.)
What differences in environment? GGS identifies a few key factors:
Domesticable plants. To practice efficient agriculture you need wild plants that are suitable for domestication: they must yield a good amount of protein; they must grow quickly, ideally becoming ready for harvesting within a single season; they should capable of fertilizing themselves, so that desirable genetic mutations can be selected for and not lost in the next generation through interbreeding; etc. Most of the best agricultural plants, such as wheat and rice, are native to Eurasia and not to other continents. (The Americas had corn, but this may have taken a lot longer to domesticate from its wild ancestor.)
Domesticable animals. Domesticated animals are important for many purposes: we consume their meat and milk; we wear their skins and fur; the large ones pull our carts and plows, and carry our cargo and ourselves. Horses in particular became not only draft animals but military vehicles, conferring a tremendous advantage on their riders vs. unmounted foes. However, very few animals are good candidates for domestication. Carnivores are out, because they are expensive to feed (it’s trouble enough to raise plants to feed herbivores; it’s much more trouble to raise herbivores to feed carnivores). Small animals have limited use because it’s inefficient to eat them or wear their hides, and they can’t pull or carry much. Other species have behavior problems: some can’t be herded, some can’t even be tamed, some won’t breed in captivity. At the end of the day, pre-industrial societies depended on the horse, cow, pig, sheep, goat, chicken, and a small number of other species. Most of these were found in Eurasia and few on other continents. Australia and the Americas lost most of their large mammals probably because early humans hunted them to extinction; Africa just sort of got unlucky in the ornery or downright dangerous species it had (such as zebras, rhinos and hippos).
Total landmass. Bigger continents can have more people which means more chances for innovation; innovations in one place can then spread to others. A larger continent also means more chance for diverse environments and diverse species, which may have contributed to the above points.
Speed of diffusion. Eurasia has the advantage that its primary orientation is east-west, meaning that a lot of it is at roughly the same latitude, in a temperate zone. This means that crops, animals, and farming and herding techniques could spread far. In contrast, the north and south temperate zones of the Americas are separated by a tropical zone, not to mention the narrow isthmus of what is today Panama. In early state and pre-state societies, innovations spread very incrementally, so they couldn’t leap over a zone where they didn’t work: they would be stopped at the border. Africa has a similar problem, with a big tropical zone in the middle, not to mention a big desert.
Because of all of these factors, Eurasia got a several-thousand-year head start on agriculture and settled society, which led to a general head start on all technology: metalworking, writing, states and armies, etc.
Diamond points out that in many cases, when less advanced peoples encountered innovations for the first time, typically from Western explorers/invaders, they picked them up quickly—for instance, the horse was not native to the Americas, but once it was introduced, native American tribes quickly became expert riders. This is evidence that there was nothing about the peoples themselves or their culture that prevented them from making good use of plants and animals in their environment—it was that the environment itself was lacking.
To me, the most interesting part of the book was how it illustrated that, in the earliest stages of human progress, innovations were incremental to the point of being evolutionary. There was no conscious progression towards a long-term goal; instead, decisions were made locally and short-term, on the basis of what served a need here and now. Three examples of this:
Agriculture. This is the biggest example, and it pervades the book. The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture was slow and incremental. One step may have been the transition from nomadic hunting-gathering to settled hunting-gathering, which can only happen in particularly productive areas. Another step was creating the tools for agriculture, such as scythes for reaping or baskets to carry harvested crops, which initially would have been invented for gathering wild plants and later applied to domesticated ones. Limited agriculture probably existed for a long time side-by-side with hunting-gathering. The full transition took thousands of years.
Writing. One of the most fascinating passages to me was about the evolution of the alphabet. This, too, was incremental. The first step was using pictures to represent concrete nouns, such as sheep or birds (the first writing, in ancient Sumer, was used for financial records of credits and debts, which might have been paid in livestock). The next step was representing abstract concepts with homophones: for instance, the ancient Sumerian word for “life” was the same as that for “arrow”, so the concept of life could be communicated with a picture of an arrow. With this step, the picture came to stand for the sound more than the concept. This allowed the third step: combining pictures in a sort of Rebus puzzle, such as (in modern English) we might use a picture of a bee and one of a leaf to communicate the concept “belief” (“bee-leaf”). Through this process, the pictures themselves became simplified and more abstract. Finally, the pictures became fully abstract symbols and stood only for sounds, not words. (The letter A is derived from “aleph” meaning ox; if you turn it upside-down and squint, you can still see the head of a bull, with two horns.) With this the set of symbols became a true alphabet, capable of representing any speech.
Writing itself was invented independently multiple times in human history, but the alphabet was apparently invented only once, and all modern alphabets are derived from a single common ancestor in Mesopotamia.
Government. GGS describes four levels of human organization: the band, the tribe, the chiefdom, and the state. A band is a small group of people, typically nomadic hunter-gatherers, all from a single family, with no social hierarchy: they may have a leader, but the position is neither official nor hereditary, and it is not made visible through special attire, housing, etc. A tribe is a larger group, typically living in a single village, and consisting of multiple families or “clans”, but still with no formal social hierarchy. At the level of the chiefdom, the society has become too large to exist in peace with no hierarchy, and an official chief emerges. He collects tribute from his chiefdom and distributes it; he wears special clothes or jewelry and lives in a larger hut or house to show his status. Finally, at the state level, a large number of unrelated people can be organized over a large geographic area, with an entire bureaucracy to collect taxes, make and enforce laws, etc.
These stages are evolutionary and every gradation exists in between them. No society consciously decides “it’s time to become a chiefdom now”; they choose a chief presumably in order to solve the problem of maintaining internal order and peaceably resolving conflicts before they escalate into blood feuds between warring families.
By 50,000 BC, humans had become a species capable of abstract reasoning. But our early development was still subject to a process of evolution—if not completely unconscious evolution, like natural selection, then at best semi-conscious evolution: each incremental step was taken consciously, but the final result was arrived at with no grand design.
At least, this is true up until roughly 500 BC. By that point, we had mathematics, astronomy, the beginnings of physics and biology, and above all, philosophy. By the AD 1500s, we had an explicit philosophy that “knowledge is power” and that we should be expanding human knowledge in order to find useful inventions. And so I think that Diamond’s arguments are far less convincing, at best, when he tries to extend them to the modern era (and it’s clear that he wants to do this, for which reason I am sympathetic to those of Diamond’s critics who accuse him of environmental determinism).
Apart from that, I was for the most part impressed with Diamond’s methodology. He poses clear and fundamental questions, works through them logically and methodically, and gathers systematic and even quantitative evidence when he can (for instance, counting the number of plant species suitable for domestication on each continent).
But I ran into a classic Murray Gell-Mann dilemma when I hit the chapter on the diffusion of technology—the first chapter I actually know something about. I was exclaiming aloud at some of Diamond’s statements about the history of technology, which I found wrong or at best misleading. On a simple factual level, he states that “James Watt designed his steam engine to pump water from mines”, when in fact that job was performed for over 50 years by the original steam engine invented by Newcomen before Watt did any work on the device. In a later passage, he acknowledges Newcomen’s engine, but places it in simple sequence stretching back to Thomas Savery and Denis Papin, treating them all as incremental advances on the same idea. This is somewhat true, but ignores the fact that Newcomen’s engine was qualitatively different and was the first practical invention in the sequence.
I also think he misleadingly characterizes the process of invention as one of tinkering with no clear purpose, rather than responding to actual human needs. He claims that “inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor.” I won’t refute each of these examples one by one, but I hope readers of this blog by now know that the light bulb had clear uses in, well, lighting, and that early automobiles had clear uses in (surprise!) transportation. The transistor was the result of a multi-year project by an entire team at Bell Labs; it was clear that a solid-state amplifier would be extremely valuable. Regarding the phonograph, Diamond elaborates that Edison didn’t predict the top use case for his invention, namely music, and in fact resisted this as an unserious use when it arose. But this doesn’t justify his conclusion that technology “finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need.”
Now, I do agree with this bottom-line statement connecting the discussion of technology to the thesis of the book: “the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person.” But my dilemma is: how much of the rest of his facts and analysis is he getting wrong, unbeknownst to me because I’m not an expert in the other areas he covers?
My final and deepest criticism is of a part of the book that doesn’t get discussed much: the inclusion of “germs” alongside guns and steel. Most of the book is about progress in technology and social organization, which makes sense to me as a unifying theme. But Diamond also puts a significant emphasis on the fact that European conquerors and colonists brought infectious diseases with them, which killed a lot of the natives in some cases even before the Europeans themselves arrived. He presents some compelling evidence that this was an important factor (and he makes the case that the diseases too came from agriculture, which led to dense populations of both people and animals, in which these diseases could evolve and spread). But it seems to me that this could have been left out without changing the fundamental narrative of a head start in agriculture giving certain peoples a head start in technology, writing, and social organization. And so the inclusion of “germs”—right there in the title—strikes me as a deliberate attempt to dismantle any kind of narrative in which Eurasians and especially Western Europeans created modern civilization through any kind of actual achievement.
Instead, Diamond seems to characterize history as something like the curious unfolding of emergent phenomena from some kind of simple cellular automaton. Indeed, although I have here characterized the book as being about “the roots of progress”, Diamond himself disavows that concept, using the word “progress” in this sense only in scare quotes, and explicitly stating, “I do not assume that industrialized states are ‘better’ than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress,’ or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.” Alas. Perhaps Diamond should read a book on this topic.
All that said, I enjoyed the book for its fascinating discussions on many narrow topics, and its attempt (at least) at a grand synthesis.