Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
(W.W. Norton, New York: 1997)
includes Afterword dated 2003
READ: March 2005
I'd been hearing about this book for quite a while before I finally read it, and it was definitely worth it. Jared Diamond is not a historian but a professor of physiology, and he tackles his historical subject accordingly. Rather than telling us what has happened to get us to where we are, he tries to tackle the deeper root causes; that is, why have modern-day societies ended up where they are?
Obviously this is a complicated question. Rather than basing his answers on ideas of race, culture or other such related notions of ethnicity or linguistics, Diamond points toward the natural and environmental resources that were available in each region of the world, allowing some societies to easily flourish and others to eventually perish. There is a reason apart from the nature of human beings themselves to explain why things have turned out the way they did. Food production played a large role in this: some regions of the world did not lend themselves easily to farming those items deemed necessary for the stabilization of populations - e.g., wild cereals - and there was thus no impetus to consider these alternate forms of food production. The same can be said for the domestication of animals - there just weren't, for a myriad of reasons, as many easily-domesticated wild animals in North America, for example, as there were in Europe. Diamond also points to the axes upon which knowledge about crops and farming expanded - to a large degree, it is
much easier to "transplant" farming techniques practiced in central Asia into central Europe, and vice-versa. The east-west axis of Asia and Europe provided for a huge geographical advantage versus other continents such as Africa and both of the Americas, all of which are predominantly north-south.
While there are certainly many other factors that have led to the modern-day political, economic and social structure of the world, Diamond does raise some interesting points. If you've been avoiding it because it was slightly over-hyped, take my word for it: it is worth the read.