Thanks to this availability of suitable wild mammals and plants, early peoples of the Fertile Crescent could quickly assemble a potent and balanced biological package for intensive food production. That package comprised three cereals, as the main carbohydrate sources; four pulses, with 20—25 percent protein, and four domestic animals, as the main protein sources, supplemented by the generous protein content of wheat; and flax as a source of fiber and oil (termed linseed oil: flax seeds are about 40 percent oil). Eventually, thousands of years after the beginnings of animal domestication and food production, the animals also began to be used for milk, wool, plowing, and transport. Thus, the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent’s first farmers came to meet humanity’s basic economic needs: carbohydrate, protein, fat, clothing, traction, and transport.
Jared Diamond tries to explain why some societies developed better than others. For example, why 168 Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro could conquer in 1532 the million-large Inca Empire and not the other way around? Why some societies evolved to guns and others are still hunter-gatherers?
In short, Diamond considers that simple geographical luck, such as proximity to domesticable plants and animals (quite few worldwide) created centers of innovation. Those centers spread, if not stopped by natural obstacles like mountains or seas, their innovations.
The book follows the anthropological theory of cultural materialism, which says that environment shaped societies. It sounds a bit deterministic: no matter what you do, geographical luck determines your progress. For example, the Incas were doomed, mainly because they had no defense against the germs brought by Europeans.
Another lesson from this book is that, no matter the society, sooner or later, best innovations will prevail. For example, in the fragmented Europe, even if some societies refused some innovation for cultural or other reasons, the neighboring societies that adopted the innovation had a technical advantage that would make the laggard society to either adapt or be conquered.
Innovations drive the society forward, the society very existence depending on that, such as it is the case with Native Indians. This is a very strong argument for trade. For example, being constantly exposed to others through trade and competition, makes a society seeing what is best and allows the opportunity to adopt the new. This explains, for example, why competing and trading Europeans managed to surpass the bigger and earlier advanced Chinese. The Chinese closed up to trade and their earlier political integration worked in their detriment, the closing up happening to the entire center of innovation which was China.
To sum up, Jared Diamond considers that Europeans are no smarter than Australian Aborigines, they were just luckier to be closer and with easier access to early centers of human innovation.
On the down side of the book, Jared Diamond talks very little about guns and steel, as advertised on the title, and mostly about germs and farming. The book reads like an anthropology book with some detailed history from early human settlements to Antiquity.
Overall, a book with some very interesting ideas and with a strong call for open societies and humanity as whole.
(Featured image by John Doebley – A possible evolution of corn)