Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond, 1997, 2003, 2005

Another classic I’d been meaning to read for years that the Nature and Environment book group tackled. It’s a great book, with one of the broadest sweeps of anything I’ve read except maybe A Brief History of Everything. Diamond succeeds admirably in what he sets out to do—illuminate why human development “proceed at such different rates on different continents”—and it’s one of the delights of the book to see how his particular background enables him to do it justice, from having a linguist and a doctor as parents, to being obsessed with birds, to spending years in New Guinea. As we discussed in the book group, though, the title is a bit of a misnomer since guns are made out of steel, and it omits the huge role played by animal and plants species which the book itself emphasizes. “Domesticated Species, Germs, and Guns” wouldn’t have the same ring though.

Things I learned: how recent many of our familiar diseases are (mumps 400 BCE, leprosy 200 BCE, polio 1940); the orientation of continental axes (east/west in Eurasia vs north/south in Africa and the Americas) makes a big difference to agricultural diffusion because of day length and temperature changes; how irregularly large-seeded grass species are distributed (32 species in the Mediterranean zone vs only 11 in all of the Americas).

On political leadership in small groups: “The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person, or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs.” It’s interesting and depressing that the non-food-producing specialists who develop as a consequence of food surplus always include kings and bureaucrats, and not just craftsmen and artists.

In a band, where everyone is closely related to everyone else, people related simultaneously to both quarreling parties step in to mediate quarrels. In a tribe, where many people are still close relatives and everyone at least knows everyone else by name, mutual relatives and mutual friends mediate the quarrel. But once the threshold of “several hundred” … has been crossed, increasing numbers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers. … [M]any onlookers will be friends or relatives of only one combatant and will side with that person, escalating the two-person fight into a general brawl. Hence a large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflicts.

And yikes:

Even in democracies today, crucial knowledge is available to only a few individuals, who control the flow of information to the rest of the government and consequently control decisions. For instance, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, information and discussions that determined whether nuclear war would engulf half a billion people were initially confined by President Kennedy to a ten-member executive committee of the National Security Council that he himself appointed; then he limited final decisions to a four-member group consisting of himself and three of his cabinet ministers.

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