Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Reflections

I recently just finished listening to the audiobook version of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.  It's a fascinating book fill with all kinds of tidbits and facts about anthropology.  The book breaks down as follows.

We observe the following:  Some nations have dominated and colonized other nations and groups in modern history.

What best explains this observation?

Diamond divides up the explanation between proximate and ultimate causes.  The proximate causes, i.e. what more directly explains this fact about history is that the dominating countries had the technology, communication via writing, and political structure that provided the means by which they could colonize other lands and subjugate other societies.  Moreover, the germs and diseases carried by members of dominating societies decimated those of the conquered societies.  These proximate causes are what are summed up in the title "Guns, Germs, and Steel."

The ultimate causes are supposed explain why certain societies ended up with the guns, germs, and the steel.  For Diamond, there is one ultimate cause: food production.  Societies that settled down and mass produced food, as opposed to hunter-gatherer groups, were the ones that ended with the means to advance technology, form complex political organizations, and build immunity to certain kinds of diseases.

Much of the book goes on to explain in detail what sorts of environmental factors led certain societies to transition into agrarian food producers.  It also attempts to establish the causal connections between mass food production and advancements in technology, writing, and political organization, as well as the introduction of certain diseases that proved to be fatal to other groups.  The last third book consists of case studies on various groups.

Here are two thoughts about this book.  First, what Diamond deems as ultimate and proximate causes give necessary conditions, but themselves don't seem jointly sufficient.  Stuff like technology gives groups the ability to invade and conquer someone else's land, but technology itself doesn't compel groups to go out and take other peoples' lands.  Why do people feel the need to take over other societies?  Where does this motivation come from?  There doesn't seem to be much in terms of explanation regarding the collective psychological of dominating societies.

This in turn leads to another thought.  The desire to expand and conquer, is this desire innate?  I'm of course interested in the intersection between culture and technology, so it would be good to get some idea of what culture was like at the dawn of civilization.  Did early man have values?  A sense of aesthetic?  In general, what sorts of normative beliefs did the earliest hunter-gatherer groups share?  Having some idea about this helps us to see how those beliefs might have evolved as technology progressed.  This I'll save for a later post.

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