Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Books I'm Reading 28) Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

One of the interesting things about growing up on an island in the middle of the ocean, aside from panoramic beach views and surf, is being unaware of a time in which you the effects of human migrations weren't blatant.

I grew up with the vague understanding that there were quite a lot of Hawaiians at some point in the past, then most of them died from disease or being accused of rape by some white Navy officer's wife. I've never really had an objective analysis of the impacts that farming and domestication of animals had, just an inherent understanding of times before the visit of Europeans and a time after.

It's interesting that Diamond's book grabs from so many different cultures and geographically disparate peoples as examples. In one sense it's good but in another it's somewhat blinding. When you have a larger sample pool to pick from its easy to ignore the exceptions. For example, Diamond uses the idea of domestication of animals to explain the effects of disease on populations. South and Latin American peoples like the Inca didn't have domesticated food animals like pigs, in fact the closest they could have had would be something like the llama (which by the way, awesome name for an animal) so you get Europeans who built up long histories of interaction with domestic animals and hence disease antibodies. On the other hand Asians and pacific islanders domesticated animals such as pigs and to some extend dogs, yet immunities were also lacking. Some of this is due to mutation and the time it takes to develop virulent strains and the antibodies to survive them.

While it's hard to ignore the evidence, and indeed I would actually agree with the fundamental logic and examples provided in the book, I just think it would have made a more interesting read to focus on a few specific examples and look in depths of the effects that agriculture, large scale social structures and eventual migration had on specific peoples.

As far as he social interaction explanations in the book, One of the things Diamond talks about is this concept of how ideas spread, rote copying of innovations vs. reverse engineering of concepts vs. natural innovation that seems to appear in multiple places. Some of the examples he gives like the invention of languages, the wheel and, eventually, nuclear weapons, show how ideas MAY have spread, but it would be of more interest to me personally to look at specific examples and see the progression of those innovations and then the effects of those innovations. Written language for example, does aid in the more accurate, more detailed and better preserved transmission of information, yet it brings with it it's own problems. I can't read middle English. Chaucer is a foreign language to me. How does that language develop over time to explain new concepts? I'm damn sure my Chinese ancestors didn't have the concept of "telephone" and yet, I walk through Chinatown (great franchise by the way, how do I get in on that?) and everybody is on a damn cell phone.

This was a good book as far as the evolution of human social development goes. It would have been great during those four or five early chapters of 10 grade World History where I was trying to remember what river valley's first sprouted large scale farming populations (Tigris, Indus, Yellow, etc.) but it's an overview where I was hoping for a more detailed peek beneath the hood and into the engine of that development. I'd like to understand more why isolated groups of small people like Rapa Nui could build ridiculous moai, which as a concept seemed to come out of no known precursor. I'd like to look more into migration patterns and think about people coming out of equatorial African then moving into more temperate zones where the latitudes involved might have caused vitamin D deficiencies in their blood. It's something of a puzzle how all the pieces of genetic as well as social evolution occurs, the relationships between multiple competing factors is what I find interesting.

Consider Star Trek, every time you see a Klingon, he's dark, really fucking scary looking and may quite possibly eat you. And yet, Klingons couldn't have developed interstellar travel if they killed all the Urkel Klingons (too old of a reference?) so there must be some social structure based on competing values of worth. Where's the short Chinese Klingon with the bad accent? The Jewish Klingon with the yarmulke? These can't be merely developments of farming and growing larger social structures because more food = more people, so what drives that innovation? What drives that societal development?


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