Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 21

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. 480 ppg.

            Two decades ago when I served in the Missouri National Guard we had an extended drill weekend at Ft. Leonard Wood for a live fire artillery exercise. This was a three day drill and I remember it clearly because it was the same weekend as Princess Diana’s funeral on September 6, 1997. I had been at the local library the day before we rolled out and saw an interesting book that promised to explain why western civilization had been the one to colonize the New World and rise to ascendancy over much of the world for a long period of time. That had always been an interesting question for me and one which many people do not know the answer to. I checked out the book and during some downtime I began to read. To say that the book grabbed my attention is an understatement. I started it on Friday and finished it on Saturday. My whole conception of how history had seen the rise of Western Civilization was fundamentally altered and would never be the same.

            At the time I thought that using Guns, Germs, and Steel as an educational tool would be a great idea. My dream of teaching history had never been realized and in 1997 seemed like it would never happen. However, history is full of strange things and in 2009 I got the chance to return to college and pick up my degrees. I began teaching American History in 2013 and was then asked to teach World Regional Geography for the Spring 2014 semester. They handed me a textbook and said, “Good luck.” As I drove back home I considered how I would teach this course and my mind recalled Jared Diamond and his Pulitzer Prize winning book. To make the story short, I built a course that used the textbook, Diamond’s book, and the National Geographic series based on the book. 

            Obviously I take what Diamond said in Guns, Germs, and Steel seriously. I think Diamond did some outstanding work in doing three decades of research and then writing a book which to me is resonates with readers. For many years the idea that Western Civilization was superior to any other form has been the dominant world view. Diamond rejects that completely by saying Western Civilization had advantages that others did not have due to geography, or literally where it was. When you stop and think about it, why were the Europeans so superior to others for so long? Was it their race, their ideals, or what? Diamond said it was because of where they started that they developed into the world spanning civilization we know.

            What advantages did the Europeans have over others? They arrived with technology superior to all others, were better organized, and had the lethal gift of germs which in the Americas killed over half the population and was the biggest reason as to why the Europeans took those lands over. When Diamond explored the germ theory he realized that these germs came from contact with domesticated mammals such as horses, cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats. These same mammals were what enabled Europeans to transport materials as well as have a convenient food supply and a power source such as horses pulling plows. 

            This idea works when you look at the Americas and Australia, but not when you look at Africa and Asia. The lethality of germs did not affect the people in those regions like it did the Americas. In fact, some of the diseases in Africa killed the Europeans and prevented them for exploiting Sub-Saharan Africa for centuries. Some of these germs are now known to have come from Asia as well along with domestic animals that came from there. Many of the larger mammals Europe had were also found in Asia. In fact, some of the technology such as gunpowder came from Asia as well. Diamond acknowledged this in his book and sought to explain why Europe was able to expand while Asia did not.

            This is something I really stress in my class and it is something which the book and National Geographic series does not explore as deeply as it should. Diamond saw a decision made in the 15th century by a Chinese emperor as being the decisive event that altered human history. At that point China was the leading power in the world. It had a great navy, the largest country, gunpowder, advanced technology and far more people thanks to its agricultural practices than any other nation at that time. The decision by emperors in China’s Ming dynasty led to China losing its technological advantage over Europe although no one had any idea that this was happening. These decisions or orders are called Haijin. 

            Diamond did not explore this in any depth other than to point to it and say that China’s inward looking policies which had existed for centuries were the result of its location, its geography. Its singular form of government used Haijin to build up its power at the expense of expanding China’s culture and boundaries. There is a lot here to work with, but Diamond seems to casually bring it up in the book’s epilogue. Instead he focuses heavily on the Americas where his theory of environmental determinism is the strongest. I think he gets the theory right, but in the case of Asia he needed to go deeper. 

            Since Diamond is an ornithologist by education, and his world journey’s focused on New Guinea, I think his point of view was heavily influenced through his contact with hunter-gatherers. His theory is at its weakest in Asia and specifically China. That again reflects his preference for focusing on one type of people versus another. This does not mean his theory is wrong. It just needs expansion and I do not think Diamond will be doing that any time soon. His recent works have dealt with different ideas. 

            Even with this glaring problem, I think this book is outstanding. It does answer the question of why Western Civilization dominated the world for the most part. For my geography class it is a wonderful tool. I focus heavily on how man domesticated two grains from the Middle East, wheat and barley, and built Western Civilization upon them. Coupled with the domestication of large mammals, the forerunners of Western Civilization spread through Europe. Geography played a huge role in why it went west and why there are so many differences between East and West on a cultural level. It also explains why there are such huge differences between North Africa and the lands to the south of the Sahara. 

            The role of geography in shaping mankind is without a doubt the single underlying reason as to why history occurred like it did. This is really hard for students to understand because they seem to have been taught a much different concept prior to taking a geography course.  Only by explaining the human-environment interaction do students begin to realize that geography caused man to make decisions which would reverberate for millennia. The people of the Middle East followed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers northwest into Anatolia and out of the desert. Man’s movement west, north, and south with the crops and animals of the Middle East were shaped by geographical barriers.

            Diamond points out how man overcame these barriers over time. The civilization that was able to do so developed greater technologies than others. He points to both European and Chinese naval developments in this regard. China’s need to continue to build its naval forces was negligible due to a lack of naval enemies while in Europe those enemies were often themselves as nations competed for resources and trade. Since China controlled all of its trade which was mostly internal or land based, its need for a navy was reduced. Europe surged ahead while China languished. 

            In my classes I point to the barriers as we explore the world’s regions. I show how these barriers played such big roles. We play a board game by Avalon Hill that helps to illustrate this as well. Diamond’s book plays a big role in my class and so do his theories. I find it really helps students take the principles and ideas from the first part of the class and begin to apply them to the world regions we study. They are able to make the mental leap to the realization that the people of the world are different for many reasons, the foremost being the place in which they live more than anything else. It helps them to break down and discard the erroneous belief which many of them have regarding their place in the world. Using Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel I am able to use Transformative Learning Theory to overcome the disorientating dilemma they find themselves in at the beginning of class. 

            I could build a new class out of Diamond’s book that encompasses geography, history, and sociology if my school would let me. In fact, I could build two classes out of it. One would focus on why Western Civilization developed like it did and expanded to the Americas while the second one would focus on the development of Eastern Civilization and its failure to expand beyond Asia itself. While courses exist that dive into those ideas, they are built around history more than anything else. Few instructors use environmental determinism in explaining how early mankind developed in the places it did. The ultimate objectives of these courses would be why they developed like they did, not just their history.

            Diamond has written several other books such as Collapse, The Third Chimpanzee, and The World Until Yesterday. He is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been awarded all kinds of prizes and awards for his research and work in multiple fields. I find it interesting that he began to study environmental history in his fifties which led to this book and many others. This to me is proof that you are not bound by formal rules regarding your education, but rather by using your interests coupled with the research capabilities your education has provided you new careers beckon. This book is a testament to following one’s interests and using one’s intellect. I highly recommend it to all readers. It is one of my favorite books and I have read through it multiple times.

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