In Praise of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jared Diamond's bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel (GG&S) is an attempt to explain why some parts of the world are currently powerful and prosperous while others are poor. Diamond is both a physiologist and a linguist who spends a good deal of his time living with hunter gathers in Papua New Guinea. As a researcher and as a human being, he is convinced that all people have the same potential. Hunter gatherers are just as intelligent, resourceful, and diligent as anybody else. Yet material "success" isn't equally distributed across the globe. Civilization sprung up in relatively few places and spread in a defined pattern. I should emphasize that Diamond doesn't equate material prosperity with well-being or virtue. He's just curious about the global distribution of bling bling.
Diamond's hypothesis is that geography gave certain groups big initial advantages. Specifically, some places are more conducive to domestication of plants and animals. Most people think that domestication is just a matter of capturing animals and breeding them in captivity. This is a misconception. Domesticated species of plants and animals have undergone major genetic changes through years of selective breeding. Compared to their wild ancestors, the major cereal crops are more nutritious, quicker to germinate, and easier to sow and harvest. Domestic animals are more docile, easier to train, and generally more suited to life in captivity. Diamond's key point is that not every wild species is equally susceptible to domestication and that domesticable species are not evenly distributed across the globe. Wild horses and camels had the "right" stuff, reindeer not so much. As modern attempts to domesticate zebras confirm, they are not livestock material.
The inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent (and a few other places) were lucky enough to be surrounded by readily domesticable plants and animals. Diamond argues that civilization arose from regions that were susceptible the domestication of both plants and large mammals to plow fields. This combination vastly increased food production, which in turn supported larger populations. From there, it's the standard political economy story about the positive feedback loop of prosperity and social complexity favoring the evolution of more complex forms of social organization, specialization, increased technical innovation, etc. This is the Guns and Steel part of the story.
Diamond's account has an interesting twist, though. Most epidemic diseases are zoonotic, that is, they are incubated in domestic animals. Crowding facilitates the spread of disease. Peoples who spent thousands of years living near each other and their animals developed resistance to many communicable diseases. Groups who weren't subject to these pressures did not develop the same resistance. When Europeans came to the Americas after centuries of urban life, their diseases decimated the indigenous...