The ‘broadest pattern in history’ is a pattern of diffusion of innovation (cultural and technological innovation). The outcomes of the flow of innovation in culture, political and economic organization, and technology, are what caused – eventually – a giant rift between the ‘old world’ and the new one, and between different political entities.
A discussion based on the book by J. Diamond (Link below).
Why did some empires / countries ‘progress’ and ‘conquer’ others? Why was there such a big difference in wealth and civilization when the empires of the Old and the New world met in the 15th century A.D.? Why was it a European explorer who started a colonization and conquest of the Aztecs and the Mayans, not a Mayan explorer leading a colonization of the Spanish/British/… Kingdoms?
Yali, a local politician in New Guinea, once – during a walk – asked the author J. Diamond a very interesting question. “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?”
The answer to this question, can be thought of as having different levels.
Why was it that Spanish explorers were conquering empires in America? Guns (not really). But then… Why did they have Guns, while the others didn’t? Ships? Same. They were more technologically advanced? Had more resources? Why?
On History and Ideology
One of the goals of Jared Diamond, in ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ is to try and treat history as a science. A science in the sense of using objective evidence and the different methodologies used by other more ‘solid’ sciences, and things can be quite tricky.
If there are simple and mundane reasons for the giant rift in civilization and tools, this might poke giant holes in other narratives about the inherent rationality, diligence, honesty, or ‘hard work’ of certain races or groups… and this might lead to making this book a source of some angry debates.
The story starts by understanding that ample evidence says that humans left Africa around 1 million years ago, first into the Near East (West Asia), and from there went on to central europe, central asia, and beyond.
A story of Innovation Diffusion
The deep answer to Yali’s question lies in an understanding of how and why certain innovations spread in certain regions of the world… and the relative speed of this diffusion.
The major innovations examined here, and that many historians think influenced the trajectories of different civilizations include (from memory, and in no particular chronological or causal order):
- The Invention of language in easy-to-use forms (alphabet)
- The domestication of plants, particularly wheat (corn is much harder and probably took much longer to domesticate)
- The domestication of ‘large mammals’ (e.g. sheep, goats, cows, and horses) [there weren’t any, except the dog, in the Americas]
- The utilization of steel in manufacturing of tools
- The development of complex, large-scale, political settings (e.g. states)
The author traces different pieces of evidence, trying to understand where some of these innovations originated, and how they moved to other nations and people.
Certain groups, because of time variables, or because of certain geographical circumstances were first (and early) to develop certain innovations, that became corner-stones into other, more complex ones.
In a most extreme and comic dramatization of this story : The nice conditions of the fertile crescent, allowed a particular group of african immigrants to domesticate some interesting plants and animals… and this why Europeans killed off entire populations a few thousand years later.
East-West VS North-South : Axes
Large mammals domestication started in different places, but that depended on which mammals lived in the region before human settlement. This is why – for example – goats were domesticated first in the near-east, sheep somewhere to the North-East from there, etc…
Similarly, wheat appeared in that region first, which – in turn – was key to the agricultural revolution. With agriculture came larger human settlements, and new cultural and political innovations. With time, each of these innovations was compounded with other ones.
Wheat and cattle allowed for the transition to agriculture. This created cities, more centralization, and allowed for the formation of different classes in societies, including full-time warriors and leaders (religious/political). This in turn created conquest and facilitated the creation of better tools (e.g. steel ones, better writing and communication systems,…).
Some of these innovations were “killer apps” and they either spread widely, or allowed their adopters to conquer and ‘change’ those who didn’t (see the story on Guns & Japan below).
Here, and in describing the reasons for particular trends in the diffusion of these innovations, the author invokes the ‘axes’ of the different regions. Eurasia has an east-west axis (horizontal), while America and Africa have a north-south axis (vertical). On earth, if we move horizontally, we can expect similar climates, and so similar animals and plants can live. The same doesn’t apply for vertical movements.
Animals and plants originally being domesticated in the fertile crescent (west Asia) were easily moved to north Africa and Mediterranean Europe. Incidentally, alphabetic language moved in that sense too, while forms of political organizations moved in both directions along that access.
The same couldn’t be said about the connections between north and south Africa, or about transfer across America.
Systems of Innovation and Diffusion – the Probability of creativity & Ecosystems
This ‘early mover advantage’ featured so many times in history. It also featured with accelerating returns.
An interconnected set of systems for cultural, political, and technological production emerged around the Mediterranean, creating very fast progress. Opportunities multiply as you seize them, and generate more opportunities.
This can be said about markets and competition too. While in the 15th century there were 2 empires capable of exploration (theoretically) in the Americas, there were (~) 7 in Europe alone.
Centralization, Inertia, and many other factors can make a certain lead the cause of self-enforcing loop. If a certain empire is more advanced, and develops a certain weapon, then it will probably become even more advanced as it uses that weapon to conquer and exploit excess riches from its rivals.
Also, It is much easier to build once certain thresholds are overcome. If you have steel, many nice things will happen to you. If you invent the market, or math, or alphabetic communication – the same. If you do that before your neighbor, you’ll probably use it to conquer them and grow more. (People who’ve played “Age of Empires” will get a natural feel of what this means).
In summary, this beautiful flowchart outlines the key arguments of the book:
Innovation Diffusion: Randomness, Complexity, Survival of the Fittest
In essence, the answer to Yali’s question is a very interesting one. Albeit multifaceted and complex, it become obvious in retrospect.
Of course claims of the inherent / genetic superiority of some groups are useless, but one can easily miss the extent to which all of it is just subject to conditions of random variability (e.g. the variability of pre-existing wild planets, or the ‘friendliness’ of wild animals in a certain region).
There are a couple of noteworthy stories in the book that carry a lot of meaning.
The first is considering different south asian-australia migrations, where the Maori people of New Zealand were compared to dwellers of nearby islands. Having migrated from the southern Asian islands in similar time frames and with similar cultura/political/economic conditions, within 500 years, the Maori had – due to the nature of the island which they inhabited – developed agriculture, bigger groupings, and an aggressive force, that was enough to invade nearby islands, killing off their inhabitants (who were still hunter-gatherers, and seemed to be more friendly). If 500 years can make such a huge difference, imagine what 3000 can do!
Another story is about Japan: Guns were introduced to Japan, but were then removed and outlawed because of particular social and cultural characteristics related to the Samurai warrior class. If Japan wasn’t an isolated island, and if the nearby China was interested in conquest, this couldn’t have been possible. Any nation, not adopting advanced military and social innovations will probably be outrun by its neighbors, which in turn will spread the technology anyway.
It is all eerily similar to genetic evolution, but with cultural and technological memes!
Final Thoughts : Emotions, Reasons, and Chance
The role of factors beyond human control or understanding in the long-term evolution of the political and cultural systems here is very interesting. To me, the Guns, Germs, and Steel (what they stand for), are all about the ease and speed of diffusion of innovation. It starts because of arbitrary variables, and then evolves, and at some points, due to the system’s complexity, feedback effects cause accelerating impacts, and the leaders lead more.
‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance;’Matthew 25:29
Trying to approach history scientifically is a great endeavor, and even though it is at its infancy, seems much more promising than the ‘history of the aristocracy’ that many of us know.
The obscurity with which we treat many of the topics discussed in the book, and the backlash I’ve seen online against some of the arguments, are both symptoms of approximate thinking (on the dark side). People are unable to understand complexity properly, and conflate their own identities and beliefs with factual history, and this is understandable.
I’ve written about how some debates will automatically get derailed and become emotional as they touch people’s identities and their vision of themselves and others (Link : https://ahijazi.website/2023/success-fuzzy-thinking-values-and-politics/ ).
Compared to the more simplistic, and (severely) over-hyped Sapiens, this is a very insightful and rich book, with many lessons about history, evolution, biology, economics, and culture.
The Book :
Guns, Germs, and Steel : Amazon Link