When an old and valued friend gave me a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, I have to confess that I initially groaned a little. It was written 20 years ago in support of Jared Diamond’s theory that the comparative success of the peoples of the world has everything to do with the geography of their origin and nothing to do with their human characteristics. I had not previously read it.
Now, nobody could sensibly deny that an early human population is bound to do better in some environments than others. It is hardly a surprise that there are early signs of civilisation in the Middle East but not in central Australia. Useful vegetation and animals that can be usefully domesticated are, well, useful. But Jared Diamond went further than that. He thought that any suggestion that different populations have different inherent characteristics – genetic characteristics – which affect their success is racist. He says so several times in the book. And he obviously feels, very strongly, that that is a BAD THING. Instead, he explains his viewpoint:
The term “geographic determinism” is used by many scholars as a pejorative, to justify the quick dismissal of a proposed geographic interpretation of a human phenomenon. For example, the charge of geographic determinism is occasionally leveled at my book Guns, Germs, and Steel. What does this term mean?
Many human phenomena and characteristics – such as behaviors, beliefs, economies, genes, incomes, life expectancies, and other things – are influenced both by geographic factors and by non-geographic factors. Geographic factors mean physical and biological factors tied to geographic location, including climate, the distributions of wild plant and animal species, soils, and topography. Non-geographic factors include those factors subsumed under the term culture, other factors subsumed under the term history, and decisions by individual people. Some human phenomena and characteristics are overwhelmingly influenced by geographic factors; others are significantly influenced by both geographic and non-geographic factors; and still others are subject to scarcely any significant geographic influence at all.
The human spirit won’t keep you warm north of the Arctic Circle in the winter if you are nearly naked, as are equatorial lowland peoples. Nor will the human spirit enable you to herd kangaroos, whose social structure is different from that of the dozen species of herdable Old World large domestic mammals. Neither Aboriginal Australians who have occupied Australia and been hunting kangaroos there for 46,000 years, nor modern European livestock breeders who have occupied Australia for 225 years and are experienced in herding cows and sheep, have been able to herd kangaroos. Instead, ranched kangaroos in Australia today have to be harvested laboriously by being shot one by one, rather than by just being herded onto a truck like sheep. The explanation has to do with details of kangaroo behavioral biology, not with the human spirit.
20 years ago, it was fashionable, even in academic circles, to suggest that there are no genetic differences between peoples, and that “colour is only skin deep”. Now, nobody except the daftest of the socks-and-sandals brigade would maintain that – the early results from mitochondrial DNA analysis have been entirely overtaken by more recent full genome mapping, and we know that Caucasians and Chinese peoples carry a fair proportion of Neanderthal genes – about 4% – whereas black African peoples have none. Traditionally, Neanderthals have had a poor press, being portrayed as unsophisticated sub-human brutes. I have always rather doubted this, but whatever the analysis on that issue, it would be startling if such an admixture did not have at least some significant impact on a people’s physical and mental capabilities. The overwhelming probability is that this genetic difference has something to do with the fact that Caucasian and Chinese people (with their Neanderthal genes) have done much better in the civilisation lark than Black African and Australian aboriginal people (who have none).
This is the elephant in the room that Jared Diamond skirts around in the book. He does so with great charm and dexterity, ranging across a huge tapestry of evidence from many fields, and makes many forceful and impressive points, in particular about connection between animal husbandry and the potency to kill rivals by means of spreading disease (he says that most of the big killers – smallpox et al, are diseases which originate from domestic animals, to which the keepers of those animals have acquired a level of immunity not shared by people who have never been exposed to those animals). But there are holes – big holes – in his analysis. Thus, he gleefully cites the example of the previously-unsuccessful North American Indians, who very rapidly made excellent use of imported assets like horses and better crops, as showing that their earlier lack of domesticated animals and widespread farming was mere geographical misfortune. But he does nothing to explain why horses, better crops etc were not similarly seized on by black Africans or Australian aborigines. In all of these places, of course, Western civilisation has since flourished without any obvious geographic impediment. Jared Diamond omits to note that the indigenous Americans in question were themselves Caucasians who had arrived across the Bering Strait from what is now Russia. Similarly, he tries in the final pages of the book to explain away the success of Europeans as contracted with the Chinese since 1492 in terms of the geography of rivers and coastlines. As to that, suffice to say that the explanation of JP Kennedy in his History of the Great Powers is much more convincing.
Personally, I think that differences between peoples should not be swept under the carpet like a guilty secret, but acknowledged, celebrated and enjoyed. Jared Diamond writes a lot about New Guinea, where he has done much field work, and his affection for the Guinean people is manifest. Good for him. Also good for him I say, that he has stayed clear of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau myth of the noble savage – Jared Diamond has acknowledged quite clearly that rates of murder and other violent death are hugely much higher among primitive people than in the modern Western world in which most readers of this blog live. And living in Australia, where the aborigines are really not doing too well at all, I fear that the Jared Diamond line – that nothing has held them back except geographical bad luck – would condemn them to no prospect of any improvement. It is not going to be possible to give them the help they need without understanding that there are some pretty fundamental underlying differences in the way they tend to behave. If we keep on measuring them against Western expectations, they will continue to fall short.
But there is no malice in Jared Diamond. On the contrary, he comes across as very likeable, and it is heart-warming to read a book which ranges so widely across so many disciplines. Rather to my surprise, I enjoyed his book a great deal.