Book and Movie Review: ”Guns, Germs, & Steel”

I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read the book this time.  (But I do own a copy.)  I did watch National Geographic’s video version that has the author, Jared Diamond, as its host covering the same material that was in the book…so I think that counts.  The book, and movie, is entitled Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and takes an in-depth look at why there are haves and have-nots in the world.  Why did European societies rise to such great technological heights while African societies, for the most part, remain under-privileged?  It is not because one race is inherently superior to another…every derivation of human has its share of the talented and the talent-less, the smart and the stupid, the weak and the strong…so what caused some societies to develop rapidly while others did not?  As a writer, this is a fascinating and complex question to be answered and does a lot to advance one’s world-building.

Ironically enough, the answer pretty much boils down to geography.  Where a society develops and what resources they have access to is a huge determinant in how well and fast they develop.  Humans living in the Middle East had access to wheat and barley (high in nutrients and easier to grow than the maize in America), which they began to cultivate, allowing for farms and larger towns to develop.  The rise of domesticated grains also allowed for the domestication of animals like sheep, goats, cattle, and horses.  Did you know that out of 148 herbivorous, herd-oriented, land animal species big and strong enough to serve humans, only 14 have been successfully domesticated?  And of those 14 species, 13 are found in Eurasia and only 1 (the llama) is native to the Americas?  Having two steady food sources and most of the animals that provide food, clothing, and transportation gave the people of Eurasia a massive advantage.  Having these sources of food allowed for larger populations.  Using animals to help farm allowed them to grow more food with fewer workers, so some people began to specialize in other trades because there was now enough surplus food to support them.  Specialization allowed for an increase in technology because societies could now afford to start experimenting with metals, leading to the rise of guns and steel.  Better weapons, better nutrition, and burgeoning populations made Eurasian conquest of other cultures inevitable.

There were two major points that I did not know about before watching this movie. One was the origin of disease.  I knew part of the reason the Spanish found it a fairly simple matter to conquer the Americas was because the natives had no immunity from the diseases the conquistadors brought with them.  Cow pox and small pox decimated the native populations.  What I didn’t know was most of the diseases the Europeans were immune to came from the animals they raised.  Cow pox, small pox, and many others were originally diseases that struck animals, but then jumped species to infect humans.  Over centuries, Eurasians developed some immunity to those diseases while the Americans, who only had the llama, which weren’t kept in herds or used as a beast of burden, had no such protection.  Conversely, when the Dutch attempted to settle the interior of Africa, they were struck down by tropical diseases such as malaria, which the native Africans had developed some immunity to and had adapted their lifestyle (living in small groups in high-dry areas, etc.) to lessen their chances of infection.

The other point I was not aware of was the importance of longitude and latitude.  Humans spread out from the Middle East to the east and west into Europe and China, taking their animals and grains with them.  They were able to transplant their animals and way of life because they were all on the same latitude.  Areas on the globe the same distance from the equator share similar climates, plants, seasons, and wildlife.  Hence, South Africa has a climate very similar to Europe because it is the same distance from the equator, albeit to the south rather than the north, and this allowed the Dutch to settle there with their European grains and livestock.  But when they tried moving into the interior, they crossed the Tropic of Cancer and entered the tropics, which has an entirely different climate and set of rules for survival.  Native plants, animals, and people flourished while the transplants sickened and died.

You can read more in this Wikipedia article, but I highly recommend reading the book or watching the National Geographic video.  I haven’t been able to do it justice in this short entry, but it really opened my mind to the complexities of our world, and should be kept in mind during the creation of our fictional worlds.           

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2 responses to “Book and Movie Review: ”Guns, Germs, & Steel”

  1. Quite informative! Great capsule review of how we got the winners and losers on the world scene. Perfect to whet the appetite for more world history, which brings you to the why, where, hows of today. More people need to do this. Quote from Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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