Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
AP Biology – Hour 1
Semester 2 Book Assignment
April 18, 2006
Table of Contents
a. This book made me realize that…– 6
b. This book made me wish that…– 7
c. This book made wonder about…– 8
Article 1 – For the birds- 10
Article 2 – Does racism harm health?- 11
Article 3 – Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication 12
Guns, Germs and Steel is the most fascinating book I have ever read! The author, Jared Diamond, takes the reader back in history 13,000 years to a time when humans were little more than hunter-gatherer bands that roamed the lands. From there, Diamond systematically tackles every facet of human development, beginning with the rise of food production. He goes on to discuss domestication of animals, the origin of germs, and then the evolution of writing, technology, government, and religion. Guns, Germs and Steel is filled with example after example from history and from Diamond’s experiences in New Guinea, which help the reader to understand each concept.
The entire book is an attempt to explain why Caucasian society developed so much more quickly and became much more advanced than other societies of the world. Through understanding of what led to each step of human development, Diamond dispels any notion that the white race is any better than other races. He breaks down the reasons for history’s progression, arguing that human development is enormously based on our environment rather than our biology.
Over 110 pages are devoted to explaining how food production came into existence, after over a million years of human hunter-gatherers. Today, most of the world relies on food production, but a few societies never “advanced” that far. Diamond argues that this is not a result of biological inferiority, but rather that each society’s environment contributed heavily to that people’s development. For example, food production first arose in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, and also in Mesoamerica and in China. Diamond then reveals that many of the grains used for food were naturally present in those regions, and few or no food plants were present in other regions where food production was slower to take over.
This is the type of evidence that backs up most of Diamond’s theses, whether the issue be domestication of animals or the spread of writing. Again, animals that were readily domesticated were present in those cradles of civilization, and few or no such animals were present in other areas. This in essence gave peoples of some areas a giant head start over other people, which became an exponentially greater gap as time went on, especially as technology aided in human development.
Another major topic Diamond covered is the fact that germs wiped out millions of non-white peoples. He showed how most of our epidemic diseases arose from our close proximity to livestock – livestock which many other civilizations did not have, and thus Eurasians developed germs that less-developed societies lacked.
Other topics covered in Guns, Germs and Steel which do not pertain directly to biology include writing, government and religion. It turns out that writing only arose completely independently in one instance in history – every other time writing entered a society, it was either by “blueprint copying,” where one writing system was modified to fit another language, or by “idea diffusion,” where someone heard that a written language exists somewhere else, and they developed all the details from scratch, motivated by the knowledge that the end result is possible. Government, it seems, follows a progression from band to tribe to chiefdom to state. Smaller governments tend to form larger ones only by conquest or outside threat. Religion, throughout history, tended to come with government, for various reasons which Diamond discusses at length in the book.
a. This book made me realize that…
This book made me realize that human history depends a lot more on our environment than on humans ourselves. I previously had no explanation for why Europeans seemed to have all the advantages, be it food or guns or germs. Beginning on page 93, Diamond describes the geography of each major area of the world. He shows how people of Mesopotamia has several major advantages that other areas lacked, such as edible vegetation, abundant and diverse wildlife, and a temperate climate with much variation in a small area. This effectively led to the rise of the Eurasians ahead of any other continent – in fact, Europe had food production thousands of years before Mesopotamia, trailed by all other societies who either had to wait to acquire it, or develop it independently at a later time.
Many people think that whites are genetically better than blacks or Indians or other races, which is almost understandable as shown by history. Guns, Germs and Steel completely reverses that thought, though, by showing that it was not the people inhabiting the land that were better, but the land itself was.
Chapter 10, beginning on 176, explains how human development occurred much more quickly on Eurasia than other continents for an unexpected reason: the major axis of the continent. The Americas are mostly north/south, as is Africa, but Eurasia is very east/west oriented. Diamond explained that the east/west axis was favorable, because people could travel further and maintain the same climate and lengths of days, etc. That aided in the spread of crops. In the Americas, crops spread very slowly across the continent. This was because crops were genetically adapted to a certain growing season and climate. As you go north, the length of the day changes, as does the climate. This caused food – followed by technology – to spread much more slowly on the other continents than it did on Eurasia.
Many such examples like this showed me that one cannot assume anything, especially in regard to human history, without taking a close look at all of the evidence. If everyone read this book and understood that, perhaps this world would not have racism.
b. This book made me wish that…
Along the same lines, this book made me wish that everybody on the planet would read Guns, Germs and Steel. The profound realizations that come from reading this book make the 440-page work well worth the read.
On page 195, a chapter devoted to germs begins. This was a very interesting chapter. I had previously not known exactly how disease came into the world. Diamond makes the concept relatively understandable, beginning with a humorous anecdote about a man who got sick from having sex with a farm animal. This leads into how humans with livestock often lived in close proximity to those animals. Many times people kept cows or sheep in their houses, which caused humans to come into contact with manure and other sickly substances. Over time, animal bacteria made the jump to humans, through gross numbers. Most would die, but the select few with a genetic mutation that allowed them to live in humans multiplied until a new strain broke out. Eventually, the humans in that group would all get sick and either die or live. Those that lived would continue to carry the bug, which was a lethal consequence for anyone else they encountered. This was unfortunately the case when Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro all came to the New World. Most of the Native Americans that died as a result were killed by disease, not by weapons.
c. This book made wonder about…
This book made me wonder about what will happen in the future with the human race. On page 426, Diamond addresses how Guns, Germs and Steel applies to the world today. He hints at how germs continue to make the jump from animals to people. The most vicious germ of modern times is the HIV/AIDS virus, which probably jumped from African monkeys into humans, but others could arrive soon. Avian influenza is one in particular that has been gaining media coverage. This is a flu virus that apparently comes from birds, and so far 18 people have died in Asia as a result. The fear is that this could take the world by storm, and depending on how virulent, or potent, it is, a major epidemic could take place.
Other topics in this book make me wonder about the future as well. Government is one, for throughout history, the trend has been for smaller political units to combine in to larger ones by conquest or for protection. Perhaps one day the world will combine under one central authority for protection against outside invaders, who knows!?
On a somewhat trivial level, this book also makes me wonder about what foods we might have in the future. Although most of the crops that are domesticated now have been domesticated for thousands of years, several newcomers have arrived. For instance, the pecan was domesticated recently, and strawberries were first domesticated in the Middle Ages. Who knows what is to come?
Article 1 – For the birds
Many mysterious diseases have taken hold of various parts of the world recently. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) made worldwide headlines a few years ago, and many people died from the looming pandemic. In 2001, foot-and-mouth disease invaded Britain. The next major disease seems to be avian influenza, according to the article, is “highly infectious, spreading mainly through contact with bird droppings, and can be carried by dust, or on people’s clothes.” This has been causing extreme measures in many places, such as the Netherlands, where 18 million poultry were slaughtered and disposed of after several avian flu cases arose, killing one Dutchman.
This topic stems from Guns, Germs and Steel in that Diamond discussed how germs usually originate in animals that we rely on for food or keep as pets. This is interesting to me, as it should be to all people, because not being aware of a disease outbreak that could potentially be huge may result in death if you aren’t on the lookout.
Article 2 – Does racism harm health?
This article discusses the effects of racism on mental health and biology. The conclusion is essentially that racism is partially rooted in a perception of inferiority because of differences in genetics. In Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond addresses that issue throughout the book by showing that human environments were the cause of differences in development, and not human genetics. The article also discusses the effect of racism on health, giving evidence for eliminating racism. Some of the evidence that Nancy Krieger puts forth is that racism causes exposure to “(1) economic and social deprivation; (2) toxic substances and hazardous conditions; (3) socially inflicted trauma (mental, physical, and sexual, directly experienced or witnessed, from verbal threats to violent acts); (4) targeted marketing of commodities that can harm health, such as junk food and psychoactive substances (alcohol, tobacco, and other licit and illicit drugs); and (5) inadequate or degrading medical care.” All of these effects of racism apparently and obviously effect health.
This is very unfortunate, especially since Guns, Germs and Steel shows that racism is entirely the product of false information, that whites have better genes than blacks, etcetera. This is entirely false, and Diamond proves it in Guns, Germs and Steel.
Krieger goes on to analyze whether those negative effects are caused by racism itself, or by social class. She ends up showing that social class can be determined through racism in many cases. For example, Krieger discusses American Indian history in paragraph 6: “The Choctaw and Cherokee nations, forcibly evicted from their homelands after the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, likewise understood that their health was being decimated by not only territorial but also cultural dispossession, justified in the name of White supremacy.” She shows that, throughout history, racism has indeed led to a reduction in health.
This again relates to Guns, Germs and Steel because all of this ridiculousness is entirely the result of misinformation. That is why everyone should read Guns, Germs and Steel!
Article 3 – Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication
This article is actually by the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, and it also pertains directly to the book. The article is about future domestication of animals and plants, and also touches on the effects of humans changing their lifestyles.
For instance, Diamond discusses that humans were genetically programmed to store as much energy from food as possible. This was helpful when we were all hunter-gatherers, but these days that is no longer necessary. Our sedentary lifestyles do not require us to store tons of energy for later. The result is that we now have “metabolically thrifty genotypes that now predispose to type II diabetes, salt-conserving genotypes that predispose to hypertension, and other genotypes predisposing to other cardiovascular diseases and lipid disorders.” Diamond goes on to explain how certain people, such as Pacific Islanders, tend to have a 70% incidence of type II diabetes while living in the West because of the vast difference in food availability and types of food.
Diamond also explains many of the topics he covered in Guns, Germs and Steel in the article, occasionally throwing in new information. He shows how many of today’s most productive farmlands were not the original sites of food production. The fact that the societies with food production became the most advanced, even though they are not today the best farmlands, shows that the environment has profound effects on humans.
Overall, this article is just as intriguing as the book Guns, Germs and Steel was, probably because they were both written by the same author. The topic, evolution and the development of humans, is extremely fascinating to me. It’s a good think people like Jared Diamond exist to point out these things!
Guns, Germs and Steel provides a fabulous new perspective on everything you thought you knew about humans and how the world came to be how it is today. Exploring the roots of racism by way of the evolution of food production, livestock, germs, technology, government and religion, Jared Diamond systematically re-writes history from a broad perspective. This book will change your life, the way you think, and maybe even make you a better person.
For the birds. (2004, May 3). Economist, 367(8322). Retrieved April 10, 2006, from http://www.epnet.com/ehost/login.html
Krieger, N. (2003, February). They’re not playing around. American Journal of Public Health, (93), 2. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from http://www.epnet.com/ehost/login.html
Diamond, J. (2002, August 8). Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication. Nature, 418(6898), 700-708. Retrieved April 14, 2006, from http://www.epnet.com/ehost/login.html
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