Monday, February 06, 2006

Guns, germs and steel

The Purist

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
"You mean," he said, "a crocodile."
That bit of Ogden Nash whimsy came into my head as I thought about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, a reflection on human history through the lens of evolutionary biology. Diamond, unlike Professor Twist, is seeking answers to real world problems. In this case, he seeks to understand the plight of indigenous peoples and their subordination to European and Asian cultures in light of evolutionary pressures. Even so, Diamond struggles awkwardly in his attempts to justify the ways of the Blind Watchmaker to men. One false note comes early in the book, when he departs from his evenhandedness to assure us that not only should we not hold New Guineans to be less intellectually endowed than Europeans (a reasonable enough assumption), but that they are probably intellectually superior. He admits that he can't demonstrate that superiority empirically, so that assertion strikes the reader as an attempt to curry favor by a politically correct reverse bias.

On the other hand, there's a lot of really stimulating and interesting stuff in this book. Diamond talks about: what kinds of foodstuffs are necessary to support civilization; why disease almost always flowed from native Europeans to native Americans (and not vice-versa), whereas Europeans encounter many new diseases when they attempted to enter Africa; why those previous two topics are related; how innovation happens; etc. It seems like there's an interesting fact or point of view whenever you turn the page.

The book seems to want to be a complete explanation for the course of human history -- it's got that sort of broad, sweeping intellectual appeal that a large work of philosophy or science has. For example, after someone learns Newtonian mechanics, he tends to see the entire universe as the interplay between physical forces that are expressed in terms of differential equations. A similar dynamic happens here.

As with most grand theories, it's important to see that there are some important limits to the analysis. While we can see why, in broad strokes, European and Asian peoples might have overwhelming advantages in human history in purely biological and geographical terms, Diamond's analysis is of no help in answering historical questions that still might strike us as large, but come within the realm of European or Asian culture, instead of at the border with other peoples. For example, it's hard to see how his analysis adds anything to our understand of conflicts such as the Greco-Persian wars, the rise and decline of Rome, the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War. Certainly these questions are important, and we rightly inquire into agricultural, military, political, and culture causes for these events. In these cases Diamond's analysis is largely impossible, since we are dealing with peoples that share genetics, foodstuffs, climates, terrains, etc.

Perhaps I'm nit-picking. It's an excellent, thought-provoking book. I'd just like to temper the inevitable temptation to view all history through this lens.
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