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There are a lot of 20th anniversaries for me this year. 1997 happens to be a year of outsized importance in my life — I graduated from Ponderosa High School and started attending the Colorado School of Mines, after all — but important cultural winds were blowing aside from matriculation, including the release of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Although I didn’t pick up the book for several years after its publication (I was busy doing other things … like calculus) the influence that this work would have upon the world — and the worldview of those who have read it — is important and worth discussing now that time has allowed for cool reflection upon its central and provocative thesis.
That thesis, in short, is this: European powers were capable of overwhelming native populations in places like the New World due to the confluence of technology developed by those societies, largely as a result of factors outside of their control. The development of germs to which native populations had little resistance was mostly due to the domestication of animals that passed their diseases over to their symbiotic partners (humans) and the presence of those domesticable animals was itself a function of geographic luck in the first place.
Eurasian populations also benefited from temperate climates which had enabled the selective breeding of highly productive plants which set off a positive feedback loop, improving agricultural outputs, allowing for urbanization and economic specialization, development of technology, and the centralization of political power. The relative alignment of Eurasia also led to inherently greater speed with which technology and domestication could occur due to large East-West travel routes of similar climate, so such innovations didn’t need to be invented sui generis in every geographically distinct location.
So, how has Diamond’s thesis held up over the last 20 years and why is it important to me? To begin with, I’ve always been fascinated by history. If I weren’t numerate, I could have envisioned myself becoming a historian, and my college and high school transcript reflect it. A four on the AP American History Exam (I had mononucleosis when I took the test…) and a five on the AP European History Exam are probably my crowning Prep School achievements which I attempted to continue even in the environment of engineering higher education.
I keep my copy of Palmer and Colton’s “A History of the Modern World” as a reference whenever I need to place important historical events in context. Although those AP courses wiped out most of my liberal arts requirements, I nonetheless kept up my interest with elective classes like “The History of Technology” and a couple of other courses which led me directly into reading Guns, Germs, and Steel.
It is precisely that academic and casual interest in history that has led me to the conclusion that Diamond’s thesis is deeply flawed, and flawed not because he presents facts which are incorrect, (although some are certainly debatable) but because he allows his personal views and attachments to the native cultures that he has personally studied and interacted with to color his judgment. It’s arguable that Diamond is also something of a cultural relativist, given how far he goes out of his way to point out that even though the vast majority of scientific, mathematical, and societal achievements have come from Eurasian civilization, this has nothing to do with the inherent intelligence or moral character of the native populations that he has come across. Instead, he lays credit for the outcome of history — European hegemony over the known world such as what had emerged by the 18th century — at the feet of what I’ll call “geographic determinism.”
Several facts militate against Diamond’s explanation for this ordering of world affairs.
This piece does a workmanlike job of taking down at least one of the legs of the stool of Diamond’s thesis — mainly the portion about Germs — in which his unsupported assertion that many areas had undomesticable animals and plants is debunked. There were animals and plants available for domestication in those far-flung locations but the proper incentives to do so likely didn’t exist. He may have been correct about Europe being a petri dish for novel bacteria and viruses, but for the wrong reasons. Many of the diseases endemic to Europeans didn’t leap from animals, but are ancient. And add to this the fact that there were simply more people to serve as a breeding population for pathogens, and a population that needed to resist them to survive and, voilà, you can have carriers of disease that are resistant to that disease but can nonetheless pass it along to others without such resistance.
What I’m more interested in, however, are the looming counterexamples that Diamond omits on the frontiers of Guns and Steel. Really, this is one topic in that you can’t have guns without steel, but what this actually consists of is an expression of a society’s capability to synthesize something novel out of a variety of unrelated disciplines ranging from mathematics to metallurgy to chemistry and even economics.
The counterexample to which I refer that bestrides the horizon and casts severe doubt upon these remaining legs of Diamond’s thesis is of course China.
China’s culture is incredibly old. There is evidence of Homo Erectus using fire at some sites in China over a million years ago, and there is a relatively unbroken string of historically documentable civilization there going back at least 2,000 years before the Common Era (BCE). For reference, classical Egyptian civilization extends as far back as 3000 BCE, but whereas Egyptian civilization essentially collapsed from within and before an onslaught of various outsiders, including Persian conquerors and dynastic failures, Chinese civilization was defined primarily by consistent internecine rather than external conquest, the exception being the conquest of Genghis Khan.
Chinese civilization possesses many of the features and advantages that Diamond claims Eurasian civilizations benefited from and came by naturally, including:
- temperate weather
- navigable rivers
- domesticable animals
- abundant natural resources
- plenty of arable land
- over-land routes of transportation to other Eurasian civilizations enabling easy transfer of technology
Using these numerous advantages, the population of China surged and its civilization prospered such that by the time of the 10th century, many of the features of the modern technocratic state had emerged. Alongside the invention of advanced metallurgy and knowledge of chemistry which allowed for the manufacture of functional firearms, the Chinese pioneered the invention of moveable type, had invented hydromechanical clocks and were even practicing the use of insurance for ships involved in commerce and performed exchange with paper money.
While classical European civilization had collapsed with the end of the Roman Empire, the Chinese were sailing to Eastern Africa and possessed the world’s largest naval fleet. Using this economic and technological might, China grew into the dominant power of Southeast Asia until the coming of the Portuguese and Dutch in the 1500s. After that time, Chinese power relative to European colonial power ebbed, as both internal and external foes steadily ate away at the Empire.
So, what happened between the height of classical Chinese civilization and the coming of the Colonial powers that shifted the balance so dramatically that the British seized Hong Kong in the Opium War? The aforementioned internecine warfare, of course, but something else entirely novel to Chinese civilization. In comparison to its Western European rivals, one of the principal features of Chinese culture was its adherence to Confucianism, which led in turn to a more inward-looking and xenophobic society just as China was reaching its zenith economically and politically relative to its neighbors around 1200 CE.
Given similar advantages to those possessed by the vast majority of the Eurasian powers, Chinese society chose instead to look inwards rather than out, and the advanced technology that they possessed relative to their competitors was quickly surpassed. The various warring factions within China failed to unite under a common banner and proved intractable when faced with new and diverse threats, preferring to maintain its older culture rather than advancing where possible.
For instance, everybody “knows” that Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press sometime around 1450, but the reality is that this technology had already existed for hundreds of years in China at that point. So, why did this invention help spark a scientific and cultural revolution in Europe, while the technology had seemingly peaked in China? The answer of course is that Europeans possessed the pre-existing technology of Phonetic written language, whereas the Chinese written language (especially prior to the “simplification” of written Chinese) consists of over 80,000 unique characters. With just 52 interchangeable characters (upper and lower case — not counting numbers or punctuation) a person could theoretically spell out any message in English, and adding just a few more characters gets you close to practically any European language you want to select. In comparison, it is impractical to have on hand a sufficient number of type-set worthy characters to mass print and transmit anything beyond the most rudimentary message in Chinese. Add to this the difficulty of regional dialects and usage, which were quickly overcome in Europe due to the efficiency gains associated with coalescing around common usage and grammar.
Also, in order for this to be useful, you must not only be able to read and write this complicated language (an elite educated class) but possess all of the prerequisite technology to build a printing press, (such as metallurgy) the medium upon which you are going to print (paper or papyrus), and lastly, have sufficient numbers of people available who want and are able to read what you’re printing.
When mating the technology of the printing press together with phonetic language, Europe was able to leap far ahead of their Chinese counterparts by quickly disseminating all manner of knowledge throughout the economic spectrum and radically increasing the value to an individual of learning to read and write. Meanwhile, the economics of reading and writing the Chinese language remained prohibitive for all but the wealthiest members of Chinese society. Serfdom in China carried on for centuries, long after it had been functionally abolished in Europe, largely as a result of the explosion in knowledge brought about by the printing press.
The story of this sort of technological transfer and improvement is repeated in the European context over and over again, where it was ultimately put to very effective use in conquering of most of the planet.
This synthesis of varying technological strands into one Earth-shaking invention is the sort of cultural dexterity that Jared Diamond scoffs at and dismisses when he ascribes all of the differences in outcomes that we see between cultures to what boils down to luck of the draw in where your ancestors ended up.
Thomas Sowell once said, “Those who say that all cultures are equal never explain why the results of those cultures are so grossly unequal.” Guns, Germs, and Steel attempts to answer that thorny dilemma and does so in a very compelling manner. It’s an important book and should be read — but it should also be examined and have its flaws explained even as its virtues are extolled.