Saturday, September 19, 2009
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” is one of the most interesting books and the only book I have ever read. Inspired from an interview with JP Narayan on TV, I collected this book from the public library during my stay at Middletown, NJ. I was not really specific about reading it initially, but then took it home, read the first page and din look back. Its a very interesting and broader view on the whole idea of humans, societies, their birth and the mystery of their existence.
The premise of this Pulitzer Prize winning book is that certain people have conquered the world and “taken control” of the important and strategic resources, etc., not because these certain groups of people are inherently superior (the prevailing “racist” argument, as the author notes) but because these now-leading groups had natural advantages of climate, resources, domesticable plants and domesticable animals. Long story short, these “things,” this “stuff,” enabled these groups to develop “guns, germs, and steel” and control the planet.
The racist argument held sway for many years, of course. Even now, the argument can seem, on its face, somewhat compelling. When Europeans arrived in North America, the natives were still living in animal skins and tents, did not farm (for the most part) and had no writing system. Meanwhile, Europeans (the author actually lumps Europeans and Asians in to one category, “Eurasians”) had already been through their “Renaissance,” had built the Roman Coliseum, and, contemporaneously with the conquest of the New World, had painted the Sistine Chapel. Native Americans were living in buffalo-skin tents nearly 1500 years after the Romans had built the mighty Roman Coliseum. Native Americans had not learned to write (outside of some rare examples) at a time when Europeans had painted the Sistine Chapel and Martin Luther is nailing “95 theses” to the door of the church.
It is very easy, and seemingly logical, to simply conclude that the Native Americans (and Africans, etc.) just were not as smart, or were not as innovative, or were not of the disposition to invent and create beyond providing for their simple means. The author argues this is a simplistic, racially-baised and wrong conclusion.
But the fact remains that Eurasians (from the Roman Empire to the Fertile Crescent) did/do dominate the world in nearly all respects. But why? For example, why did Spaniards, Portuguese and other Europeans sail across the Atlantic and kill or completely marginalize all of the Native American peoples - the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, and other “great” indigenous people? Why didn’t the Mayans sail across the Atlantic and conquer the Europeans? The simple answer that the “Europeans had the technology and the Mayans did not” is too simplistic. While true, it begs the further question: Why did the Europeans have the technology and the Native Americans did not? 10, 20, or 30 thousand years ago, groups of people were living equally in different parts of the world. People in Africa, the poorest and most technologically-behind of the habitable continents, had a multi-million-year head start with respect to developing technology. We all descend from the same person or people, so why did those that migrated to Europe and Asia surpass those that migrated to the New World (the “natives,” not the come-lately Europeans that now inhabit it) or Africa? Why aren’t the world’s most powerful in 2009 remnants of great African civilizations, where it all began? Instead, the world’s most powerful come from Europe or are the descendants of those that came from Europe.
The book is well-written and exhaustively researched. As noted before, the author shows that certain things are required for a civilization to advance to the state in which current 1st World countries find themselves: certain plants, certain animals, certain resources, certain geographical advantages, etc. (but none of these things, alone, is enough). I would highly recommend the book.