In his million-copy bestseller 'Guns, Germs, and Steel', Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world.
Diamond is trying to explain inequality across regions of the world, the roots of power. He begins from the belief and his experience that people across the globe are fundamentally the same. It has not been a lack of ingenuity or intellect that explains why certain cultures have not progressed in the same way that others have. Instead, Diamond claims, it's all has been about geography and the shape of continents. More specifically, about wheat and cattle. People who lived in places where they were forced to spend nearly all their time feeding themselves (the hunters and gatherers) could never create enough food to allow others within their society to specialize in tasks besides food-production. On the other hand, in the cradle of civilization in the Middle East – the Fertile Crescent – high quality food and domesticated cattle were aplenty 9000 years ago. There was thus enough extra food to feed a small group of individuals who could specialize in the creation of such things as metal tools. Later, as the crops and the cattle from the Middle East spread east and west along the same latitude (and climate), the ability to produce and store food allowed the armies of Egypt to build the pyramids and the artists and poets of Greece and Rome to create culture. Subsequently, during the 16th century, when wheat and cattle were imported to the New World, they fueled the expansion of our continent.
Geography explains it all, Diamond believes. It's all about the hand people were dealt, the raw material hand. And then when those who had not developed technology early were invaded by those who had, that's the end of the story. Well, not quite the end. Diamond writes about the conquest of the Incas that began in 1532. Spain had been at war for some 700 years before they came to the New World. At that time, Spain was largely an agricultural country; its farms were dominated by livestock that had come from the Fertile Crescent. It was climate and the ability to domesticate animals within that climate that led to the expansion of agriculture, giving certain cultures a large head start in developing (the advantage of meat, milk and muscle, he calls it). Did you know that of the thousands of animals on earth, less than 15 that are large enough to perform work tasks have ever been domesticated? All but one (the llama) were native to the Middle East. Migration of both crops and animals happened far more easily east/west (the shape of the Eurasia continent) rather than north/south (the shape of the Americas) due to similarity of climate, day length and vegetation. I have never though about the shape of North and South America as inhibiting the flow of such things, but it makes total sense.
'Collapse', companion volume to the bestseller 'Guns, Germs, and Steel', Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?
Subtitled “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Diamond takes readers through a series of societies — past and present — that collapsed due to environmental damage. Some of societies included are the typical examples — Mayan culture in South America, Easter Island, and forest degradation in Haiti — while others were completely unexpected.
The section on modern societies is interesting, possibly because these societies are more tangible or understandable to us as readers. His looks in to societies and regions as varied as the genocide in Rwanda, environmental degradation in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and bit surprisingly environmental challenge faced by Australia, which I always assumed is doing fairly okay in this respect.
Jared Mason Diamond is an American scientist and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Originally trained in physiology, Diamond's work is known for drawing from a variety of fields, and he is currently Professor of Geography at the University of California.
Penguin.com (USA) and Wikipedia