Thursday, May 06, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel

I just finished "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1998 it won a Pulitzer Prize and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book and produced by the National Geographic Society was broadcast on PBS in July 2005.

The book itself seeks to answer why certain cultures dominated and continue to dominate other cultures. Why for example were the Native Americans ravaged by disease when the Europeans arrived but almost no major diseases ravaged Europeans. Why didn't Africans adopt gun powder and domesticate zebras? Why did aboriginal Australians remain at a stone age level of technology?

In a gross oversimplification the book argues that military and cultural supremacy ultimately arise from superior food production. Essentially he who is the best farmer ultimately rules the world.

This explanation of the last 13,000 years or so essentially equates to social evolution. Survival of the fittest on a grand scale. A dominate group will out breed and absorb or destroy it's rivals to expand and grow. Kinda explains why you don't see a family of Pygmies or Khoisans at Olive Garden on a Friday night.

It's a very persuasive argument but much like Darwin's theory of evolution that I just equated it to, it begins to get muddled in recent history. I'm not arguing that it's wrong just that I think that both cultural and genetic evolution in the human race has ground to a stand still within the last century.

Let's start with genetic evolution. In very simplistic terms let us assume that we have two tigers in the wild. Tiger one is stronger, faster, and smarter than tiger two. According to the theory, in all likely hood, tiger one is more likely to survive than tiger two, and is more desirable to the limited number of mates in the area than tiger two. Thus, tiger one will have many more offspring than tiger two. So if we follow this logic the next generation of tigers will have these dominate traits. Now let's say that we have a third tiger that is born with an mutation that is detrimental. Let's say that tiger three is mentally deficient and can barely function or learn new hunting techniques. The chances of tiger three living long enough in the competitive wild to breed are minuscule, therefore his mutation is effectively weeded out of the gene pool. Problem solved.

Now let's turn our tigers into people living in an American city. Tiger one becomes a professional such as a lawyer or doctor, tiger two becomes factory worker, and tiger three becomes a cast member of the jersey shore. In modern society does superior genetics equate to more offspring? Quite the opposite. It's estimated that birth rates to women on welfare are three times higher than by those not receiving public assistance. Definitions of success may vary but from a position of influence, education, and income those members of our society in the highest levels of achievement tend to wait until later in life to conceive and have less total offspring. If evolutionary success is based on reproductive rates, the current trend in our society is that the genetic traits of the least successful members of society are the most widespread. From a genetic standpoint it could be argued, that at least in industrialized countries, the human race is in fact devolving.

If the basis of Mr. Diamond's book is that more successful cultures eventually absorb or destroy less successful cultures how does this relate to the future? In the modern world if a nation is unable to effectively feed, educate, and protect it's citizens it is no longer an invitation to it's neighbors for conquest and genocide. There was a time when this was not the case. The English, Chinese, Roman, and German cultures are just a few examples of cultural spread by dominating their neighbors. Anyone in the world can name the basic characteristics of these cultures but one would be hard pressed to name a popular Gullah dish. With international aid to failing states and the umbrella of sanctions and/or intervention in response to wars of aggression, failing states may have revolutions, but absorption or elimination become less of a danger every year. Failing states now have began to inadvertently export their cultures to their more successful neighbors. So in much the same way as genetic evolution, superior cultural characteristics no longer translate into superior breeding rates.

The other portion of the book that I don't agree entirely with is how Mr. Diamond understates the importance of religion. Islam and Christianity provide broad justifications to martial spread of their respective religions and as a consequence the corresponding cultures. The associated religion also has a direct impact on technological innovation. I may get more into this in a day or two but this post is already entirely too long considering no one reads my blog. :)

All in all it's a tremendous book and I would recommend it to anyone.

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