Guns, Germs, and Steel:

The reviews I have read of the PBS series Guns, Germs, and Steel have been fairly negative, especially regarding the entertainment value of the show. As a result, I was almost going to skip watching it on tv, but I liked the book so much when I read it, I thought I would go ahead and give the program a try. I'm glad I did. My wife and I watched the first episode last night (it will be three episodes total), and we both enjoyed it immensely. I especially thought some of the visual graphics and other production values were pretty neat. I recommend it.

In the end, of course, Diamond's basic thesis is probably incorrect. As he states it in the first episode program, his argument is that "the causes of inequality can be summed-up in one-word: 'geography.'" It is difficult to see how "geography" explains the differences in economic conditions between North and South Korea, or how Argentina went from rich to relatively poorer in a few years of Peronism, or, most notably, how Hong Kong has prospered despite having essentially no geographic endowments at all. China was the richest and most advanced civilization in the world at the first millenium, but the industrial revolution (which created the "inequality of cargo" problem that Diamond is studying) did not happen there. Institutions, and especially the rule of law and constitutionally-limited government, are plainly more important than geography in explaining why some countries have gotten rich and others have not. The funny thing is, Diamond has a pretty good chapter in the book on the role of economic and political institutions in promoting freedom and prosperity, but appears that this subtlety may drop out of the series (it was one of the later chapters in the book, though, so I hold out hope that they are going to get to it later in the series).

As my colleague Pete Boettke often asks about a claim such as Diamond's, "Where's the counterexamples?" I can think of many counterexamples where countries have grown rich notwithstanding poor geographic endowments and have remained poor notwithstanding ample geographic endowments. But show me the country that adopted freedom, the rule of law, free trade, and constitutionally-limited government, yet remained poor? And if geography and the latitudinal migration out of the Fertile Crescent into Western Europe was so important, why did it take so long for the countries of Western Europe to catch up to China, and they why did Western Europe then go roaring past?

Or, to put it another way, "There are many ways that people can choose to live. But there are relatively few ways that people can live in peace and prosperity."

Notwithstanding that I recommed the program (and the book as well, of course). Lots of very interesting things to think about here.

I have provided a summary of some of the extensive literature on the relationship between the rule of law, freedom, and prosperity in my article by that same title. The article was a foreword to a Symposium I organized a few years ago on this topic which was published as a special volume of the Supreme Court Economic Review. SSRN (which very well may hold the distinction as the world's least reliable website), has been "replacing a drive on [its] server" for a couple of days now," so I can't link you to that version of the article. So here's the Working Paper version that was included in the series at the International Centre for Economic Research (ICER) when I was a Research Fellow there.

Actually, Hong Kong has a major geographic advantage -- a good harbour.

Otherwise I would agree that Diamond systematically overstates the role of geography and technology and undervalues political and economic systems. In part, this is b/c he does not recognize that a political or legal system _is_ a technology. Inventing the joint-stock corporation or the research university may be more important than inventing the steam engine or a new type of steel.

I enjoy reading Diamond, but it bugs me that the computer game Civilization presents a better model of development than his book -- the civilization with the biggest continent will win, but only if it becomes a democracy/republic quickly enough, and only if it researches corporations and belief systems as well as purely physical technology.
7.13.2005 9:28am
Universal Acid (mail) (www):
"In the end, of course, Diamond's basic thesis is probably incorrect."

I think this is a bit of a strawman. Diamond's book is strongest on explaining the difference between pre-1500 civilizations in Eurasia versus those in the Americas, Africa, and Australia. To that extent, Diamond's thesis is pretty obviously correct, and that's how far he takes the strong version of his thesis. He himself admits in the book that his thesis doesn't apply so well when comparing Europe to China, or explaining developments in the modern world.

I also think it is a mistake to apply Diamond's thesis to countries in the modern world growing rich/poor despite lack/abundance of natural resources. Diamond is not talking about whether your geographic endowment contains gold, oil, coal, iron, forests, etc.; he's talking about whether 10,000 years ago your ancestors had easily domesticable plants and animals lying around that would give them a head start in developing agriculture and all that followed (namely, guns, germs, and steel!).
7.13.2005 9:35am
rbj (mail):
Japan is resource poor, and while it did advance significantly under its old system as well as essentially a military dictatorship, it only became the number two economy in the world after it had accepted democracy (though there is a significant "old boys network" - to use a poor phrase -hampering it today).
Imperial Russia/Soviet Union/Modern Russia is at least as resource rich as the US, and has had a centuries longer head start, yet is unfortunately a basketcase today.

Civ is a great game.
7.13.2005 9:38am
G_G (mail):
"how "geography" explains the differences in economic conditions between North and South Korea"

I used to live in South Korea, and the explanation I got there for the discrepancy was based partly on geography. When Japan colonized Korea, the north was mountainous and made for better hiding for the partisan resistance. Among these guerillas was Kim Il Sung. The partisans in the north needed bullets, which communists were happy to supply along with propaganda. The southern resistance, having fewer places to hide, fled to the west and tried to drum up international support and raise funds from wealthy exiles. Today you have a militaristic, introverted, communist north and an trading, extroverted, capitalistic south.
7.13.2005 9:55am
John J. P. (mail):
Thanks for the back-up link to your paper. It looks like it will be a good read.
7.13.2005 9:57am
Two counter-examples that are the essentially controlled, scientific experiments that occurred in North vs South Korea, and East vs West Germany. Same base cultures, no significant difference in geography or access to materials (unless you say that capitalism inherently gives an advantage through trade - which seems to prove the fundamental point), no big difference in starting population or material condition (all sides started from a bombed-out state after a nasty war). The fact that the experiment proves to be valid when the underlying culture is changed seems to me to support the argument even more.

I could add Hong Kong/Taiwan vs China, but the Chinese seem to have discovered how to use free markets while maintaining a totalitarian political system, so far. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts. I don't think that the HK example disproves the first two - the movement of the Chinese to the western model, in fact, supports the argument.
7.13.2005 10:47am
frankcross (mail):
I don't think he's wrong so much as he may occasionally overclaim. The differences he points out in geography, fauna, etc. do not apply today, largely because of international trade and its ability to surmount those barriers. But they may have driven progress before 1700, I haven't seen counterexamples there.

Today, I think governance is a much more important determinant, as we have seen poor countries grow rich without changing their geography. Diamond's thesis probably has some residual power, though, as a country that was wealthier a couple of hundred years ago had a head start, and greater initial wealth probably contributes to better governance.
7.13.2005 10:50am
Dick King:
Oh, there's a more solid example than that.

In the land that is now called "The United States of America", there were numerous preliterate tribes of "Native Americans" who lived categorically differently from the way the future occupiers of the land would soon live.

Culture mattered more than geography here. We have a controlled experiment.

You can say the invaders brought technology with them, but Diamond's thesis is that the Native Americans had the bad luck to live in an ecological mileau where they couldn't domesticate a cereal and/or a large beast of burden. However, we now herd bison and horses, and raise numerous cereals including maize, in this region. All of these would have been available to the natives.

7.13.2005 10:55am
Dick King:
PS: I find Diamond's thesis to be oblique support for economic liberalism. Redistribution can only be morally justified to the extent that the income curve is a result of luck rather than ability or gumption.

[Of course for redistribution to correct it also has to not shrink the pie too much.]

7.13.2005 11:08am
Actually, the Native Americans did not have horses prior to European contact, so they couldn't have domesticated them. Alfred Crosby's _Ecological Imperialism_ provides a pretty good explanation of why European settler colonies were so sucessful in the US as opposed to Africa--early migrations of native americans hide wiped out the large mammals in the Americas. This ecological niche was thus open to pigs, cows, horses, that the Europeans had brought with them.
7.13.2005 11:10am

I was under the impression that horses were introduced to America by the Spaniards; the native Americans (in the plains at least) did domesticate them a short time later.

As for herding bison, this is a very modern development... not sure we can hold the lack of bison-herding prowess against the native Americans.
7.13.2005 11:11am
Christine Hurt (mail) (www):
I think one interesting comparison would be Texas/Mexico. Through some twists of fate, one chunk of Mexico became independent and then part of the U.S. Both have natural resources and they have similar geographical detail and access to the Gulf of Mexico.
7.13.2005 11:20am
Abe Delnore (mail):
Diamond deals with Dick King's objections quite authoritatively. Most readers will correctly recall that horses came from the Old World; the only horses in the New World ca. 1400 were fossils of tiny proto-horses. Furthermore the maize grown in Central America could not simply have been planted in the Great Plains; this is precisely the longitudinal-latitudinal thesis. And since the basic economy was different the Mesoamericans couldn't incorporate North America as easily as say the Romans could conquer the faming economies of barbarian Europe or the Chinese could rule a vast region.

I'd suggest that the computer game Civilization, while a fun recreation and capable of sparking some insights, is far too simplistic in that it largely ignores the basic technical concerns of agriculture and the presence of unaffiliated populations except in very rare circumstances. A more realistic game would feature a preexisting population onto which one overlays political unity and very rarely imposes successful economic changes. Seven Kingdoms is the closest to this I have seen.

Applying Diamond's ecological and geographical thesis beyond the eighteenth century or so is a considerable mistake and one not exactly authorized by Diamond. The book basically seeks to explain why the Old World conquered the New (plus Africa and Australia) and not vice-versa. By conquered I mean not just politically but biologically: Old World species are a great menace to New World species but the opposite is not true; this is the case from microorganisms to plants and animals. The well-known New World species that prosper in the Old World are useful species husbanded by humans.

Counterexamples based on say fifty years of different governments in the same geographical milieu don't speak at all to Diamond's thesis.

Why the history of the Old World from say 1500 to 1900 played out the way it did is an interesting question and something Diamond might be able to answer in a future book.

--Abe Delnore
7.13.2005 11:26am
Jeff the Baptist (mail) (www):
Geography can't be counted out though. Singapore is so successful because of it's proximity to major shipping routes. It is no coincidence that the British or the Ancient Greeks were seafarers. The Afghans have no ports, little good farm land, and little else. Is it any wonder they are poor?

As for the development of pre-colonial America, one of the major issues is the lack of large domestic mammals like the horse. A more important one is that the Americas (similar to Austrialia) were geographically isolated from the rest of the world's population. This meant that while the rest of the world was sharing ideas, the America's were out of the loop.

I think as trade has become easier and the world has "shrunk" the important of geography has been reduced and now ideology is becoming more important. Resources are cheap. Changing minds is not.
7.13.2005 11:28am
Universal Acid (mail) (www):
Abe Delnore is quite right in dealing with Dick King's objections. I'll add one more point: one of Diamond's major points is that maize took a *lot* of work to domesticate. The wild equivalent, teosinte, is tiny and has really tough kernels, whereas wild wheat is already pretty nutritious and easily harvested. Thus, people in Mexico and South America didn't domesticate corn until thousands of years after people in the Fertile Crescent domesticated wheat. With thousands of years worth of head start, it's really not a big surprise that Eurasians developed guns, germs, and steel before Native Americans did. And *that* is Diamond's thesis.
7.13.2005 11:35am
Dick King:
Horses was a bad example, for which I apologize, but bison is a solid example and our native cereals are solid examples. The fact that Bison has only been domesticated recently doesn't mean that it couldn't have been done a long time ago. It was done by "standard" techniques, not recombinant DNA, for heaven's sake!

7.13.2005 11:38am
Diamond makes a lot of interesting points in the pure *historical* information he provides. But it's like he's trying to hard to find an excuse for why Europe succeeded - you could backtrack and find any reason, and he made geography the ultimate one. What made North America so inhospitable for such success?

I think his thesis works better when explaining the obstacles for Africa - it's hard to work as much when it's so @$#%ing hot outside, and when malaria is a part of life. But then south Florida had malaria, too...
7.13.2005 12:00pm
Universal Acid (mail) (www):
Bison: according to Diamond, bison are temperamentally a lot nastier than the ancestors of modern cows. He also says that bison even to this day have not been domesticated very successfully (certainly not to the extent that cattle have). Do you have contradictory information?

Native cereals: as I said, corn was a lot harder to domesticate than wheat was. Plus, wild corn (teosinte) is only native to Central America, not North America. As Abe pointed out, the latitude v. longitude problem made it hard for domesticated maize to diffuse northward into North America, whereas it was easy for domesticated wheat to diffuse east and west. No surprise, then, that Native Americans were several thousand years behind in the development of agriculture, or that Native Americans in North America were far behind the Aztec and Inca Empires.
7.13.2005 12:05pm
Abe Delnore (mail):
The horseless Plains Indians were simply not capable of "domesticating" bison as we normally use that term. Pastoralist ecology requires riding animals; otherwise, it's nearly impossible to maintain a herd and accompany it on migrations. I guess you could pen some bison but that requires a lot of things the Indians didn't have, like for instance a reliable supply of feed. And, as pointed out, bison are mean and dangerous!

Before the horse, some of these American cultures were more settled and relied on mixed gathering/proto-agriculture and choke-point hunting. They killed bison by intercepting their migrations and ambushing them at choke points, forcing stampedes off cliffs, etc. In effect, you wait for the herd to come to you rather than maintaining one. This is a reasonably successful strategy since you have a nearly guaranteed supply of food, but there is a hard limit on how large each community can get.

We see it in the Old World, too, before introduction of agriculture and/or riding animals. Probably the cave painters of southwest France lived this way. The Northwest Coast Indians survived by the coastal analogue of this--they planted no crops, it should be remembered--and were prosperous enough to give us the word "potlatch." But the point is, it was still the best anyone could do, in terms of feeding people, in much of North America until the Europeans arrived with horses and hardy grains.

--Abe Delnore
7.13.2005 12:29pm
Dick King:
I can get Kosher bison. The rules of kashrut essentially rule out eating any animal that is caught in the wild — it has to be domesticated. Somewhere there's a herd of bison with somem members being ritually slaughtered on occasion.

There's plenty of anthropological evidence that the ancestors of modern cows caused plenty of injury to their captors during the domestication process. It shows in the skeletons our anthropoligists unearth now and again. Selective breeding gets us the cows we have now. Buffalo are a herd animal just like cattle.

Mexico was conquered by the conquistadores as was north America. Yes, teosinte may have been Mexican but that doesn't kill the counterexample.

7.13.2005 12:31pm
Mithras (mail) (www):
Or, to put it another way, "There are many ways that people can choose to live. But there are relatively few ways that people can live in peace and prosperity."

Perhaps we could say, "Wealthy nations are all alike; every poor nation is poor in its own way?"
7.13.2005 12:41pm
sonicfrog (mail) (www):
I also enjoyed the book, and had no idea PBS made a mini out of it. Diamonds theory is, I think, historically valid - if you stick to a macro view of the world, i.e. if you look at general long term trends. It breaks down a bit when comparing one small country to another in short time frames.
7.13.2005 12:58pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
"The Afghans have no ports, little good farm land, and little else."

The same could be said for the Swiss.

Re: Maize and domestic animals. Corn &Bean agriculture had spread across North America in pre-Columbian times. Further, Peruvians had domesticated the llama and other cameloids.

As for other resources, the Americas have them in abundance. The failure of the pre-Columbian Americans to develop ferrous metallurgy, cannot be attributed to resource shortages.

One interesting question is why wasn't there an extensive sea trade in the Americas before Columbus. Why weren't there Maya trading outposts around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean basin? Why hadn't Peruvians traded up and down the west coast of the America's? I do not think there is an ecological explanation for this.
7.13.2005 1:21pm
It's been a while since I read Diamond's book, but I do remember that his theory largely attempted to explain macro-trends: things that took thousands of years to develop (or not to develop, in some cases.) He wasn't ignoring the fact that short-term trends can stifle development (USSR &science, e.g.), but saying that there are more fundamental explanations for development, and that these can't all be explained by religion, government, and race.

Constructing counterexamples that deal largely with relatively recent, short-term trends kind of misses the point. Diamond's theory might not be able to explain, say, modern differences between Texas and Mexico, but then again, he's not claiming that it does.
7.13.2005 1:38pm
Universal Acid (mail) (www):

Corn &Bean agriculture had spread across North America in pre-Columbian times.

Yes, but only just! the Mississippian culture started growing maize around 1000 AD - about 9500 years after the first domestication of wheat in the Middle East, and thousands of years after the Sumerians and Egyptians were building huge temples and pyramids. (Maize was probably first domesticated in Central America around 3500 BC, again several thousand years after wheat was domesticated in the Middle East.) This massive head start in agriculture is the central point of Diamond's thesis, from which all else flows, and this is fundamentally due to the availability of easy-to-domesticate plants and animals: wheat is easy to domesticate; corn is not.

Ferrous metallurgy was developed in Anatolia in 1200 BC, 7000 years after agriculture was first invented. If you fast forward in the Americas, that suggests that ironworking would have been invented in Mexico in approximately 3500 AD. And that's not even counting the fact that Eurasia had a much greater movement of people and ideas (hence probably faster innovations) due to the east-west axis v. north-south axis.
7.13.2005 1:48pm
LiquidLatex (mail):
I agree in concept with Diamond because of my ancient philosophy of "geopolitical" issues-driven society. Simply put the first thing that is important to a society is whether it is physically in a location of to stay independently wealthy via natural resources or is in a location to do plenty of trading for things it needs. One of the first lessons of making a successful business was the old saying, "Location, location, location." There's a reason Panama has or could have a better economy than it's neighbors after the Canal was built. Hint: it has little to nothing to do with whether they're a democracy. Although indeed they would not get as much trade if they were an unruly group.

Funny you should mention the Swiss, whom are directly in the middle of several large diversely unique trading cultures. Combine such geographic area with societal attributes towards being a hub of trading and peace for Italians, French, and Germans to receive one damn nice country in the Alps.
7.13.2005 1:57pm
erp (mail):
Post Columbian America.

It's politics, not geography or biology. Latin America shares our biology and geography, where we differ is that Spain gave huge land grants to nobles and others they wanted to reward. No ordinary settlers arrived to claim the land and build a great civilization like they did north of the border.
7.13.2005 2:08pm
dweeb (mail):
Hong Kong has a geographic endowment - one of the world's best natural deep water harbors.

It's interesting to note that geography does have some impact. The further you travel from the equator, the older and more stable the governments are. In the long, long, historical perspective, people HAD to learn to cooperate and form lasting governments and institutions in harsher climates. In the tropics, where it's easier, cooperation isn't as essential. Garrison Keillor said it best - "there is something inherently sobering about the realization that Mother Nature is trying to kill you."
7.13.2005 2:29pm
JonBuck (mail):
I'd think that applying Diamond's thesis to the modern world is problematic at best. The core issue, IMO, is: Where does it all begin? Under those constraints, Diamond's thesis is very compelling and there is a great deal of supporting evidence.
7.13.2005 2:36pm
markm (mail):
"Bison: according to Diamond, bison are temperamentally a lot nastier than the ancestors of modern cows. He also says that bison even to this day have not been domesticated very successfully (certainly not to the extent that cattle have)." As I understand it, the ancestor of domestic cattle was the old-world Bison called an Aurochs. It's apparently the animal called a "wild ox" in the King James translation of the Bible, and IIRC it was used as a symbol of untamed strength. It certainly could kill men who made any mistakes at all in capturing and taming it. Even modern domesticated "cows" can be quite dangerous if mis-handled.

Humans in Europe and Asia learned domestication techniques on smaller herd animals first (goats, sheep, donkeys), then applied them to the large and dangerous bison (and eventually even to elephants). In North America, it appears that all the small domesticable herd animals went extinct within a millenium or so of the first humans appearing on the continent, leaving them with nothing to attempt to domesticate but Mountain Sheep, Bison, Mammoths, canines, and birds. I presume the surviving sheep species were just psychologically resistant to domestication, and dogs and birds are so different in behavior from ungulates as to be of no help in learning the techniques. You'd have to be suicidal or insane to try your first experiments in domestication on a wild bison or a mammoth.

I'd have to think that the difference in outcomes in Eurasia and North America had more to do with the human groups involved than with the geography, or simply that the small group that crossed the Bering Strait lacked the variability of Eurasian cultures. That is, it only took a few odd-ball tribes to domesticate animals instead of killing and eating them all, but no such tribes crossed the Straits. And in the long run, humans did wipe out the wild root-stock of most of our domesticated animals even in Eurasia.

American Bison are indeed domesticated now. I frequently pass by a farm that raises them for meat (in Michigan!), and I can recommend the buffalo-burgers at Sleder's Tavern in Traverse City and Big Buck in Gaylord. However, it's not the same as raising cows. The buffalo pens go on out of sight, unlike most cow pens. I suppose the high price of buffalo meat reflects the higher wages paid for top cow-hands to work at an especially dangerous job, among other factors. Remember, domestic cattle have been selectively bred for thousands of years.
7.13.2005 3:05pm
JohnD (mail):
Some time in 1988 Scientific American had an article that addressed the question of why some countries succeeded while others stagnated. The one cause that stuck with me was the ability of the culture to adapt to change. I think that Diamond is right in his thesis as it applies until the rate of change becomes noticeable with in a little over one mans life time. Here I assume that this includes some legends from a few generations. At this point the ability of the culture to adapt to change can become dominate. Hong Kong was more adaptable to change than main land China in the near past. All bets are off now. Look at Shanghai.

"Fundamentalist" by definition, at least from my experience, resist change. The least controversial to talk about is Islam where they retain their documents in the original language with great stress on exact copies. Since the Koran was written by one man much later than the Bible this is easier to do. This results in a built-in resistance to change that wasn't present in Arabic countries over 1,000 years ago. I will leave it to others to extrapolate this thought into other cases.

The United States has a history of tolerating change. There is risk in allowing change at too rapid a rate. This is the traditional engineering problem of finding the correct damping for a system. Our Constitution is a brilliant example of balanced damping. History is full of examples of systems of poor damping. Communism was over damped by the fact that they were "fundamentalist" about a lot of economic things. My father was an agricultural economist. In the late 1940s he pointed out to me that if you assumed that the revolution never happened and extrapolated the Russian agriculture forward that the Communist never once got up to the bottom of what the Czars would have done. Ross Perot's idea, carried to the extreme, of on-line voting by the public on all issues on a daily basis would be grossly under damped. Any time you arbitrarily tie down one term in an equation you eventually end up with trouble. This is one of the problems with an occupied country.

Did you know that the top 9 people in the Chinese regime are now engineers?

What did the man say? "For the times they are a-changin' " And that means almost any term in the equation tomorrow.
7.13.2005 3:10pm
Jim Cooper (mail):
I've read both Guns, Germs and Steel and David Landes' book, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor" and I think the Landes book is both much more interesting and much more persuasive. He points out that the invention and spread of eyeglasses, for example, resulted in and enormous increase in productivity because it meant that the most skilled work which required the longest training could be continued by people after they reached their mid forties and developed presbyopia. These kind of technological developments seem far more relevant because they tend to occur at the same time that the great disparities in wealth were occurring. Things like the domestication of animals occurred much earlier than the divergence rich and poor nations.
7.13.2005 3:46pm
Zywicki (mail):
When I was writing my post, I forgot to mention Frank Cross's excellent paper on "Law and Economic Growth" which surveys some of the same field as my paper that I link to. It's published in the Texas Law Review and also available on-line here.

As for those who raise the point that Diamond may be talking about long-term rather than short-term, that may be. But certainly in the episode I saw last night, and his repeated invocation of "Yali's question," I understand him to be providing a theory of modern inequality and growth divergence. It may be that it is oversimplified on tv; or, as I noted, in the book he seems to put in a hedge toward the end of the book for the role of institutions, so the tv show may also bring in some qualifications in later episodes. But the impression I took away from watching this episode was relatively unqualified.

But let me emphasize that notwithstanding this, I found it to be a very interesting, well-done, and quality production.
7.13.2005 4:17pm
Zywicki (mail):
Sorry, I should have been more clear--in the program, Diamond may be overstating his claim more than in the book, in that he seems to be saying that the geographic factors of the types of grains and cattle that can be domesticated continue to be the primary explanation for why the U.S. has "so much cargo" and those in Papua, New Guinea, have "so little."
7.13.2005 4:20pm
Dale Gribble (mail) (www):
Geography: North/south Korea
In Origins of Korean War, Bruce Cummings, book is critical of United States role in war, but book makes point that before Korean WAr, North Korea was by far the more industrialized part of the country,while South Korea was fairly rural; as far as Europeans' spreading diseases, I believe National Review pointed out once Native North Americans hooked us on tobacco.
7.13.2005 4:29pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
As for herding bison, this is a very modern development... not sure we can hold the lack of bison-herding prowess against the native Americans.
</blockquote>I am trying to imagine milking a bison. Yes, Europeans managed to go through the same process with wild cattle, but it is still an image that has enormous humor potential.

<blockquote>The failure of the pre-Columbian Americans to develop ferrous metallurgy, cannot be attributed to resource shortages.</blockquote>This appears to have been some sort of lucky accident when it happened in the Old World—and even then, iron smelting was developed well before someone figured out (because a tin shortage made bronze scarce) probably by accident, how to make steel. Pure iron makes lousy weapons. See <a rel="nofollow" href="">this paper </a>I wrote for an Ancient Near East class for a discussion of this.
7.13.2005 6:11pm
Abe Delnore (mail):
In Diamond's mind the reason North Americans are so rich and New Guineans are so poor today is ultimately that Eurasia was more hospitable to civilization than New Guinea: better grains, more useful animal species, etc. So Eurasians conquered the world while the Papua interior is literally in the Stone Age. It is possibly a longer-scale way of looking at things than most commentators are used to but remember the the Papuans are approximately ten milennia behind us computer users. On that scale things like the availability of eyeglasses or who owns our factories are not germane--the fact that they exist at all and we can take time off from finding food to bother about them is what's important.

The point far above about political and economic systems being technologies is an excellent one. Even the "primitive" ones take a long time to develop and implant--indeed, much longer than the ones we have now. Think about how long it might take a community to reorganize for agriculture and how likely it would be to fail. Especially because the current ecological system of say gathering berries and ambushing the gazelle migration seems to be working well for everyone.
7.13.2005 6:59pm
Dick King:
JohnD: " "Fundamentalist" by definition, at least from my experience, resist change. The least controversial to talk about is Islam where they retain their documents in the original language with great stress on exact copies. "

Jews treat their torah similarly, but most of them seem to adopt modernity, and they seem to be well represented in the learned professions. They always have.

7.13.2005 7:21pm
Blar (mail) (www):
Diamond makes it perfectly clear in his book that he is not giving a fine-grained explanation that can account for the different experiences of different countries over a few decades in the 20th century. He is writing at the level of continents and millennia, and his story essentially ends with the European conquest of America. Yali's question, as given in the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" (p. 14). They key word is "developed." Diamond's goal in his book is to explain the ascendancy that Eurasian civilization attained by 1500 A.D. I haven't seen the PBS series, but I am confident that it has the same goal.

It is not until the epilogue of Guns, Germs, and Steel that Diamond considers "A second extension [of this book] … to smaller geographic scales and shorter time scales" (p. 409). Having previously explained the ascendancy of Eurasia (largely due to its size and its E-W orientation, through various mechanisms), he here turns to the question of why it was Europe, rather than the Fertile Crescent or China, that became the ascendant civilization within Eurasia, when it had been the previous been the least advanced of the three. His answer is that the Fertile Crescent lost its huge lead in civilization because it had a fragile environment and destroyed its own resource base. China lost out to Europe because it was unified politically into a single country, which made it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of local politics, while Europe had competing countries which fostered innovation. One regime's unwise decision to turn inward and away from international shipping stunted the rise of China. In Europe, Columbus was able to shop his idea of crossing the Atlantic around to many different potential patrons before finding a government that would support him, and lots of other countries joined the game on the seas once they saw its promise. Diamond argues that this political difference between unity and plurality was a consequence of geographic differences -- Europe was a more geographically segmented territory, due to its peninsulas, islands, and mountains, while China was more geographically connected. We can see here that Diamond does not ignore the importance of good government -- he just usually deals with scales where a long period of time and many competing governments can wash out the errors of individual regimes.

Diamond does make a brief argument (on p. 417) that his account explains much of modern inequality, but geography only has an indirect causal role here. It seems that new technologies that can rapidly diffuse throughout the world might make these historical differences irrelevant, but Diamond says that it is not so. Countries that have long been part of a technologically ascendant region, like Japan, or that are populated by people who were part of such a region, like Australia, are prepared to rapidly adopt new technologies like the transistor, while countries that were left behind due to their geographic difficulties, like Zaire and Paraguay, cannot exploit these new technologies as well. This is just a partial explanation of why centuries old differences have not disappeared with globalization. Diamond does not even attempt to explain whether and how underdeveloped countries could "catch up" in the modern world. It's a book about the history of developing civilizations, and I'm sure that the TV series is about the same thing.
7.13.2005 7:24pm
Hattio (mail):
Three thoughts;
Several people talked about the dangers of trying to domesticate American Bison, and the domestication of the Aurochs in Europe into the modern cow. Does anybody know which was domesticated first, the cow or the horse? I can't help but imagine that having an animal you could ride and throw a rope from (or use to run away) would help the domestication project.
Secondly, I live in Alaska and know that there have been examples of domesticated moose. I've seen old pictures of them pulling sleds, etc. I don't know if it was ever done pre-contact, but assuming it was, it clearly didnt' become common. The likeliest reason is that the moose would have had a lot of disadvantages compared to sled dogs. 20 sled dogs means you can lose one and still move (indeed, you can use it to feed the others).
Finally, people are talking about the lack of smaller animals to domesticate. What about deer, and caribou? Caribou were domesticated in Greenland. Granted they are limited to the northern areas, but deer aren't, and they're a lot smaller. There's also elk, and muskox though they get pretty big themselves. There's lots of animals that could have been domesticated, but weren't. Isnt' the likely explanation lack of time? I think the best anthropological estimates have humans being in the Americas for 12,000 years. Don't they go back in europe more like 60,000 years? And in the fertile crescent even longer?
7.13.2005 8:29pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Cows are believed to have been domesticated about 8000 years ago, and were domesticated in more than one place. Horses were domesticated a couple millennia lately.

Diamond has a thorough chapter on why some animals are domesticable, and others not. One of the problems with gazelles, for example, is that they tend to spook easily and crash into walls. On the other hands, elephants, which can be tamed and probably could be domesticated, also mature slowly, which means they take a lot of effort to raise and it's simpler and cheaper to grab wild ones and tame them.
7.13.2005 10:19pm
Dick King:
"Diamond has a thorough chapter on why some animals are domesticable, and others not. "

I read that chapter, and to my eye it appeared rather post hoc. Recall that the human race has domesticated a predator that hunts in packs and used some varieties as draft animals [dogs, including sled dogs] and a solitary predator [cats].

7.14.2005 10:43am
Abe Delnore (mail):
Housecats are a lot of things but domesticated isn't one of them.
7.14.2005 11:50am
Tim Ridge (mail) (www):
"China was the richest and most advanced civilization in the world at the first millenium, but the industrial revolution (which created the 'inequality of cargo' problem that Diamond is studying) did not happen there."

Western Europe had the richest and most advanced civilization in the world 2500 years ago, and remained in that position for nearly 1000 years. If not for the hugely damaging factor of the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, the industrial revolution might have developed in Europe prior to the first millenium.

Christian zealots got control of the Roman army and used it to burn libraries and kill off the intellectuals who dissented from their dogma (in other words, practically all the intellectuals), thus creating the conditions that resulted in Dark Ages feudalism.

China at the first millenium had not yet developed the mining technologies used by the Greeks and Romans.
7.23.2005 12:33pm
Tom A (mail):
I think you all completely overlooked a major part of Diamond's thesis. His argument isn't necessarily that the physical landscape or the natural resources of a country are what give it an advantage, but rather an east-west geography favours the spread of innovation. Because the Eurasian landmass extends prodominantly in an East-West manner, similar climates, vegetation, wildlife, and lifestyles can exist along the same latitude. Therefore, any advances in technology or social awareness can be more easily spread across the continent. For example, it would be unlikely for an Inuit person of the North American Arctic to travel to Mexico to teach people how to build igloos and feed on whale blubber. However, it would be far easier and more likely for a Portuguese farmer to share his agricultural / livestock techniques with a farmer in Greece because they could be applied there. These similar geographic conditions along the same latitude in Eurasia are also responsible for the spread of disease (often through farm animals {that were similar all across the Eurasian landmass} and therefore lead to an enhanced immune system in Europeans.

The spread of innovation, knowledge, technology, and immunity were facilitated or even enhanced by the geographic layout of Eurasia (East-West landmass with similar geographic conditions) compared to the North-South landmass of North America which did not favour the spread of innovation.
10.3.2005 3:29am
The least controversial to talk about is Islam where they retain their documents in the original language with great stress on exact copies. Since the Koran was written by one man much later than the Bible this is easier to do.

Not quite. Muhammad's followers had nothing remotely comparable to the exacting scribal traditions of the Jews. His utterances were hastily captured on whatever was at hand - leather, bones, even leaves, many of which were lost or even eaten (by animals). Many sole eyewitnesses to the original utterances were lost in their many battles for military control. Finally there were so many competing versions that a Caliph had to order a standardization and desctruction of "losing" versions. The surviving "winning" version has many grammatical and factual errors, such as Alexander the Great finding the sun setting in a mud pool. (See for details.)

If not for the hugely damaging factor of the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, the industrial revolution might have developed in Europe prior to the first millenium.

It certainly was damaging to the Church, but you really need to read up on your history. The industrial revolution - and modern science - was practically birthed by the Church, which was the sole preserver of pagan literature during the Dark Ages (which, as modern scholarship is discovering, may be a misnomer). See
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. (I'm not Catholic, BTW).
10.14.2005 2:08pm