guns, germs, steel, and creeping determinism

ggs_coverThe standard historical narrative holds that Pizarro overran the Inka because of superior weaponry and the ravages of smallpox. That is, his “victory” owed to guns, germs, and steel (or more specifically, a steel-based centralized economy). Guns, Germs, and Steel accepts that view, but it’s a misleading title: Diamond doesn’t care much about the immediate causes, but ultimate ones: if guns, germs, and steel mattered, then how and why did some cultures end up with guns, germs, and steel before others?

Historically, the answer given by the “conquerors” was that Europeans were superior—intellectually and morally—to the “savages” they colonized (and in fact, that superiority licensed or even mandated imperialism as divine or natural right). You can even see vestiges of that belief in Nicholas Wade’s recent (reprehensible) book about the genetics of race and culture, which essentially holds that Europe won the genetic lottery. Diamond’s thesis is the opposite: Europeans benefited from geographical advantages, not genetic or divine ones. Their societies flourished and grew because of optimal environments, whereas others places were forced to overcome the limitations of their surroundings.

Consider four of Diamond’s primary claims:

1. The Eurasian landmass is oriented along an east/west axis (compare to South America or Africa). Because climates are similar along latitudes but differ by longitude, agricultural strategies, technologies, and people could rapidly diffuse across Eurasia with relative ease.

2. Nearly every known domestic-able beast of burden could be found in Eurasia; South America had one—the alpaca—and Africa none.

3. Native grains and cereals (and to a lesser extent, fruits and vegetables) on the Eurasian landmass were more calorie-dense and more easily cultivated and grown in mass quantities than those in the Americas. Mass agriculture, supporting mass populations, proceeded apace.

4. In part because of points two and three, Europe became a densely populated and well-traveled center of mass agriculture. The larger population meant new technologies were developed more rapidly (if only because more people were working on them), and that living in close proximity to beasts of burden created a breeding ground for communicable diseases.

Thus, nothing more than terrestrial luck of the draw meant Eurasian societies had a built-in advantage for the growth and diffusion of agriculture, technology, and population. Moreover, those factors are interconnected: mass agriculture allows for big populations, and big populations have more people working to develop new technologies or help new diseases evolve (like the mythological group of monkeys typing Shakespeare). Those advantages, dating back to human prehistory, are realized to horrific and deadly consequence when Europe starts colonizing.

• • •

The Gladwell/TED axis undergirds an entire industry of “big idea” books and talks that—usually—aim to upend conventional wisdom through the surprising incisiveness of a simple, counterintuitive explanation. Among the problems with this genre, of which GGS is a spiritual forebear, is that such explanations are, almost inevitably, superficially valid (see here, here, and especially here for related discussions). What I mean is that the core idea at the center of those books and talks is almost always broadly accurate: of course practice informs expertise, of course introverts aren’t just weirdos, and of course geography influences the growth and structure of societies (Andean terraces and, you know, igloos demonstrate that; though admittedly that domesticable animals were asymmetrically distributed across the globe is less obvious). But the more complex the topic, the more nuance and subtlety are washed away; rough edges sanded down and outliers explained away as exceptions. Tragically for Diamond’s project he has chosen to explain the whole of human (pre)history. This goes beyond “rough edges;” he has sanded the idea down to a nub, completely smooth and nanometer thin. Pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain, it’s so glossed over it’ll blind you if you look at it.

Things are off-track from the start. The book’s title accepts that guns, germs, and steel underlaid Pizarro’s genocide of the Inka—that, in other words, European technological and immunological superiority made the slaughter of Mesoamerican cultures foreordained. The hindsight bias—though I prefer to call it creeping determinism—is the tendency to view past events as having been more predictable than they were. Was the obliteration of the Inka (and Aztec, and North American tribes) so straightforward? By the grammar-school history of simple tribal people terrified of boom-sticks, it seems obvious. But in reality, Pizarro’s forces were nearly eliminated before he allied himself with local enemies of the Inka; the Spaniards saw woven armor as superior to their own bulky steel chestplates; Spanish horses were virtually incapable of scaling steep Andean cliffsides; multiple conquistadores had set off before Pizarro and were never heard from again. Diamond means for us to see the Spanish domination as akin to a guided missile strike against a tribe of hunter-gatherers—and yet for a cosmic coin flip or two, Pizarro might have disappeared like those who went before him. How can we draw broad conclusions about the arc of human history from those events? Oswald killing JFK wasn’t foreordained because he made the decision and had a rifle; it still took a confluence of events so improbable that 50 years later most people don’t believe them to be true. We can’t always ascribe meaning to those improbabilities.

You also have to assume that technological progress is linear. It’s a fallacy to treat evolution as a ladder with humans at the top; it’s just as wrong to treat technology as a chain of achievements that are reached, in order, by growing societies. Mayans put wheels on toys but didn’t use them for farming. Were they technologically backwards, or did they just not have any oxen to pull wheeled vehicles? Is the “advanced-ness” of technology measured only its warmaking abilities?

Finally…whither China? Note that almost all of Diamond’s geographical advantages are found on the Eurasian landmass, which means he needs to explain how Europe became the colonizers of record and not China. This requires almost comical intellectual contortionism. Europe, Diamond says, is characterized by an undulating coastline and areas geographically separated by mountains, which caused it to develop as a hodgepodge of distinct, independent nation-states. China, in contrast, lacks those geographical separators and was therefore destined to become a uniform, unitary, and ultimately despotic nation-state. And because it wasn’t full of small nation-states constantly at war, China lacked the “competition” (i.e., the literal arms race) that “forced” Europe to technologically flourish. I can buy that geography influences agriculture and therefore population growth, but we’re also supposed to believe it determines the structure of governments and whether a giant landmass will end up with a despotic ruler? And nevermind that China was routinely centuries ahead of Europe technologically. This is after-the-fact dot-connecting at its finest.

• • •

A charitable take is that what Diamond wants to say is “you might be surprised at how intertwined culture and geography are,” which is a perfectly reasonable claim. What he actually says, though, is so overgeneralized and oversimplified that it’s barely coherent, an idea stretched microns-thin. The disconnect between this book and Charles Mann’s much more scholarly 1491 is jarring: Mann makes clear how advanced and complex these American cultures were, and how wrong the “Spanish have guns and smallpox, terrified Inka get decimated” narrative actually is. Diamond uses that narrative to explain human history.

That said, I’m almost more intrigued by the reaction to the book than its arguments. Guns, Germs, and Steel won multiple awards, was turned into a PBS documentary, and was ahead of the curve on TED talks. And it’s also been brutalized: Diamond has been called racist (for his paternalistic attitude towards tribal societies), retrograde (for dredging up a century-old “places not people” argument and a century-old belief about technological innovation), and an environmental determinist (for seemingly excusing the barbarism of his forebears as an historical fait accompli). One academic finally boiled over with an article titled F**k Jared Diamond.

I tend to think Diamond is neither as smart as the plaudits make him seem, nor as much of a monster as the blowback suggests. But mostly I keep thinking about an article I read recently, talking about how the Scots once invaded England, which was reeling from a plague epidemic. But rather than capturing the enfeebled country, the invading army was infected with plague and brought the epidemic home with them. I’m not exactly sure where that fits in Diamond’s perspective, but it seems relevant.

For further reading on the ideas Diamond raises, please see here.


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