Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

I’ve recently finished reading the non-fiction Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. In the book, Diamond applies his extensive background and strong intellect to try and explain why and how the world has developed as it has. For example: why is it the West colonised Africa instead of Africa colonising the West? Why has technological advancement been more apparent in some regions than others?

It is an informative book under-girded by substantial research and well thought-out hypothesise. I particularly appreciate how Diamond often discussed several competing academic ideas, comparing and contrasting them. Diamond deserves congratulations on his research goal and the depth of approach he takes to answer it. Though a challenging book to read due to it’s dense subject matter, I feel as though it is a condensed master class on many topics.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to dot-point his findings and reasoning as best I can summarise in a short fashion. I’ll not be caveating, so it’s true only in broad-brush terms.

  • Only some crops can be domesticated, and they were not evenly distributed in the world. Land-masses that are stretched East-West favour crop-spreading better than a North-South orientation due to lesser climate changes.
  • Only some animals are suitable for domestication (which is different to taming). On some continents the large animals became extinct before the opportunity to domesticate them. Domesticated animals provide important protein, labour (farming), transportation and military advantages.
  • The spread of crops and domesticated animals is affected mainly by climate and geography, lesser by trade. Inhospitable environments and impassable terrain provide natural barriers.
  • Agricultural societies with crops and domesticated animals produced substantially more food than hunger-gatherer societies. This means a far denser population, and some members of society are freed freed from the food-production role. This enables them to specialise: giving rise to technologies, better organisation through bureaucracies and religion and (eventually) professional military.
  • Hunter and gatherer societies were often displaced, subsumed or eradicated by agricultural societies due to their higher population (‘the weight of numbers’).
  • A denser human population in close proximity to animals develops diseases (and then immunity to them). When these people come in contact with more isolated peoples’ disease often wiped out more than were killed militarily.
  • The development of writing facilitated “political administration and economic exchanges, motivating and guiding exploration and conquest, and making available a range of information and human experience”.
  • Technology is most often iteratively developed, and seldom from a single “brilliant” person. However, a greater population with more education is likely to develop more technology.
  • All of these factors snowballed and built-upon themselves to grow the power of the state: the larger groups often overwhelmed the smaller.

A couple of other interesting points Diamond mentioned:

  • Environment plays a huge factor. “In ancient times, however, much of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean region, including Greece, was covered with forest. The region’s transformation from fertile woodland to eroded scrub or desert has been elucidated by paleobotanists and archeologists. Its woodlands were cleared for agriculture, or cut to obtain construction timber, or burned as firewood or for manufacturing plaster. Because of low rainfall and hence low primary productivity (proportional to rainfall), regrowth of vegetation could not keep pace with it’s destruction, especially in the presence of overgrazing by goats. With the tree and grass cover removed, erosion proceeded and valleys silted up, while irrigation agriculture in the low-rainfall environment led to salt accumulation.”
  • Political decisions have ramifications. “The end of China’s treasure fleet gives us a clue. Seven of those fleets sailed from China between AD 1405 and 1433. They were then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions of the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents). The former faction had been identified with sending and captaining the fleets. Hence when the latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade oceangoing shipping. The episode is reminiscent of the legislation that strangled development of public electric lighting in London in the 1880s, the isolationism of the United States between the First and Second World Wars, and any number of backward steps in any number of countries, all motivated by local political issues. But in China there was a difference, because the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible, because no shipyards remained to turn out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision, and to serve as a focus for rebuilding other shipyards.”
  • The modern keyboard layout was actually designed to be inefficient. Originally for typewriters where too much typing speed meant the typewriter would jam. Faster keyboard layouts exist, but the current layout is so ubiquitous that we are resistant to change.

And then the other shoe drops…

Ever changed the plot and had it have unforeseen consequences later in the story? Well, now I have…


And as yet I don’t know how I’m going to solve the problem of my own making.

On another note I came across a story yesterday about Japan’s evaporating people. Reading stories like these help to broaden my mind beyond my own culture, which is never a bad thing when you’re trying to create your own cultures.

Delving into Culture

This is an (updated) post I wrote on an earlier blog regarding the story of Betty Mahmoody told in Not without my Daughter.

Story Recap

Betty is an American woman who marries an Iranian-American. The courtship and the first few years of marriage were wonderful. Her husband ‘Moody’ is a successful doctor. Together they have what most would consider a successful life. After several years of marriage around the Iraq/Iran war, Moody falls into depression (no pun intended). Moody is increasingly critical of the US, and his old life and loyalties are a powder keg between his new life and wife in America. The relationship becomes strained.

Moody decides the family should have a 2 week holiday in Iran. Betty fears that if she goes she will be trapped in Iran if her husband refuses to let her leave (in accordance with Iranian law). If she doesn’t go, she fears she will never see her daughter again.

She goes, and as expected he admits that none of them will ever leave Iran. She is beaten repeatedly and locked in a room as her husband tries to break her will and turn her into a submissive Iranian wife. To her horror, she is in a foreign country hostile to women, hostile to Americans. Her captor is empowered through law, culture and religion. She escapes to the Swiss embassy, only to find that under Iranian law she is Iranian. and the embassy can’t help. Thus begins her journey to escape Iran before she is beaten into submission, killed or her young daughter becomes indoctrinated into Iranian culture.

While the writing style is satisfactory, the true story is engaging. It is a good read.

Cultural Differences

However, as a writer it was even more interesting. Growing up in the West without much exposure to other cultures, it was a good insight (albeit vicariously) into another culture. Not being particularly well-traveled, I naturally assume that some things are universal, but that is not the case.

Here were a few of the culturally interesting things:

  • The concept of taraf which is basically a polite offer of something, but with no intention of delivering. For example, as an avid reader of my blog I would be pleased to offer you a place to stay if you ever come to my country. Sorry, but that’s an insincere offer. Using taraf you can offer something, and the receiver will accept it politely, but know that they are not do actually expect it.
  • General cleanliness and hygiene. Bathing irregularly, not caring about spilling food all over the floor or having cockroaches scurrying around the floor. Insects in the rice? No worry, don’t bother trying to sift them out, just cook the lot!
  • A male relative in the house automatically becomes ‘the boss’ if the husband is not around.
  • Under Iranian law the wife and the children belong to the husband. If the husband dies, the children belong to a relative. They never belong to the mother.
  • A wife and children must absolutely obey her husband. If a promise is given to a man it will not be broken.
  • An alternative idea of modesty. In public a woman must completely cover up and be displaying no face or hair. The most devout women only show one eye. However breast-feeding can be in public without covering the breast. Betty also recounts seeing a live birth of national TV – showing all of the woman’s ‘bits’ except for her head and arms!
  • Making do. Cramming 10+ people into a car we would only seat 5.
  • Religious police who enforce the miniscule or nit-pick.

Character and Society Value Systems

If I had unlimited resources one of the things that I would like to do would be travel extensively. But when I say travel, I don’t mean visit: I would want to dig deeply. I’d want to literally live in a location for a year or two so that I could really get to know it.

Not having had that experience I’m aware that I have a very unary world view. I see things through my Western mindset, and don’t really appreciate that other people might see it differently.

I was reminded of this when recently I read…

In sub-Saharan Africa, relationship is such a highly regarded value that for many tribal Africans that value often takes precedence over truth – which most westerners usually consider the higher of the two values. That difference in perspective can create serious misunderstandings, unnecessary conflict and sometimes even tragic consequences. An African might choose to massage or shade the truth, or withhold important information, because he doesn’t want to cause offense. He might refuse to say something that others might not want to hear.
When that happens it would be easy for an American to see the African as deceitful and untrustworthy, even lacking in moral character. The African, however, might feel that he has actually demonstrated the highest integrity and trustworthiness by honoring what he has always been taught to believe was the most important cultural value. For him, consciously saying something that he feared could damage or strain a relationship would have been the far greater wrong. (Nik Ripken’s The Insanity of God, page 209)

When we are writing fiction it is important to really plumb the depth of our characters and societies to bring out diverse views and perspectives.  Part of what I find invigorating about writing is being able to take something which is ‘normal’ and turn it onto its head.