Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond was a bird ecologist from University of California who spent most of his professional life monitoring and studying birds around the world. He then took a trip to Papua New Guinea’s thick jungles. While he and his crew were unloading tons of heavy equipment from their boat, Yali, a local chief, who was used to seeing ship after ship full of containers passing by the bay, asked Prof. Diamond: how come you white people have got so much “cargo” while we blacks have so little of our own? Prof. Diamond did not have an answer.

The question, simple as it seemed, was profound and kept Prof. Diamond thinking for many weeks. For him, the question was: why other societies advanced far ahead than the others. Why are wealth and knowledge unevenly distributed around the world? Why history happened the way it did (for instance why were the Portuguese to come here and "discover" us and not us going there first, why the Spanish Conquistadors took over the Incas and the Aztecs and not the other way round, and so on).

He eventually decided to put off bird watching and undertook an extensive research to answer Yali’s question. The result of the research is an impressive look at the history of humas societies for the past 13,000 years in a book titled: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. It is a book that I recommend to everyone.

I will be doing injustice to Prof. Diamond's to attempt to summarise his work here. But in short, the book's conclusion is that European's hegemony (in science, wealth, economy, etc) is not due to any form of European intellectual, genetic or moral superiority (well, this is not new!). The gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences – at least back then when everything hinged on the environmental and ecological conditions.

At one point, every plant and animal was wild. Societies that succeeded first in domesticating plants spent less time looking for food and focused on inventions (such as of steel and gun-powder) and commerce. The point here is that people who lived in geographical/ecological conditions that allowed agriculture realised progress earlier. And success in the domestication of animals made the developement of resistance to [disease] germs - therefore longevity - possible, and made travelling further - therefore conquests - possible.

The Incas were intimidated to see the Spanish Conquistadors riding horses…and a band of 168 conquistadors on horseback (with swords) faced 80,000 strong Inca Empire army and decimated 7,000 Inca fighters, captured the Emperor and began a reign of colonialism in Peru. The difference: a horse, a sword, and written text. No Inca had seen any of those before then.

Anyway, Prof. Diamond’s work has been heavily criticized as “geographical determinism” and I am sure the debate over why some societies are far ahead than others will remain. Arguments kwamba tuko nyuma kwasababu ya colonialism do not make sense (that fact that one had to colonise you means he was already far ahead).


January Mwita said...

There's no question in my mind that Europe underdeveloped Africa and it she still does! Should we blame Colonialists for our Underdevelopment? the Answer is YES; should we dwell on that? NO. We must not ignore the damage they did to Africa but we also need to move on.

I know we have a fair share of our own failures, yes we do have a lot of self inflicted "wounds" that needs to be sorted out if we are to advance politically, economically, technologically etc etc. but letting Westerners off the hook for their past and current deeds without at least acknowledging those facts we will be kidding our selves.

salama said...

Nice post January.
I have the book but, I kept postponing reading it. Seem to be very interesting, I'll start reading it soon.

I strongly agree with the fact that we shouldn't blame colonialism for our underdevelopment ANYMORE. When we say we need to move on, we REALLY need to move on. My point is we need to stop wasting time on DISCUSSING about 'how colonialism underdeveloped us' and talk about new ideas and what we need to do to keep moving from underdeveloped world to developing world. When we keep talking about the past, I feel like we're reacting like some black folks who're still blaming racism for their failures instead of working hard and trying to prove to everyone that all human beings are equally created and need to be treated the same and can do what everybody else can. (Barack Obama)

Now, to why other societies are way ahead than others, like the book, back then it had to do with the environmental and ecological conditions but, for our time I thing it's a good idea to look at the fact that it has a lot to do with economic and social backgrounds, which recently disputed the argument that white kids are doing better in school than black kids.

Sorry for the long comment. I would also like to recommend another magnificent book by Prof. Jared Diamond. Collapse:how societies choose to fail or succeed.

January Makamba said...

Thanks Mwita and Salama for posting.

I agree that advanced societies eventually took advantage of the weaknesses of backward societies to further advance themselves and keep others behind...some using the cover of "bringing civilisation" to the savages.

I also agree on the point of now looking to the future and exploiting/exploring opportunities presented by this new brave world. At some point, almost every other country was a colony. Countries such India are using the current "flattening" of the world to vigorously improve the conditions of their lot.

The counter-argument to Diamond's thesis, which I think requires a debate, is whether culture has an influence in our inability to progress. There are those who are mentioning "protestant ethic" as responsible for transformation of Europe (noting that the Church had a tremendous influence in socialising people to tie work to morality), and others are talking of the "Confucious ethic" - hard work, honesty and thrifty - as responsible for transformation of Asia (China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, etc). It is your call.

yahoo said...

I have been vigorously thinking over the claim, my observations reveal that the argument tends to substantiate for our continuing dilemma and predicaments with associated impediments. Being a case, the unleashed cycle of poverty will persist. I do believe we have to go far on that, come up with concrete strategies to eradicate problems. I have been in Europe several times, to my surprise, a lot of place which I visited on tour was very interesting and were established around year 1100-1300 I think at that juncture we did not have such houses. I would rather argue that let us connect Slavery trade with underdevelopment.

Lakini jamani mimi kinachonigusa ni culture yetu ya kuzembea zembea, Am civil servant, in most time we get students who conduct they field studies, upon finishing the field they do researches which sometimes have interesting findings and recommendation which are very efficacy, surprisingly no one dares to work on them. I just wanted to raise awareness on our culture.

Nimepita mitaani unakuta sehemu za kutupia uchafu zimetengwa lakini katabia ketu, watu hawatupi uchafu ule kwenye sehemu zilizotengwa bali wanatupa ovyoovyo tu.Hata hap Dar jiji limejitahidi kuweka litters dustbin ha ha ha…. No one cares! Hii inaweza kutuonyesha ni jinsi gain hatuko makini nadhani kuna uhusiano na kutokuendelea kwetu! Tunyooshe vidole kwa yale yenye stahili tu si kila kitu tuseme ni wakoloni ndiyo wametusababishia.

Dr Confusion

Anonymous said...

I have a different take of the book – Guns Germs and Steel (GGS). I read the book and I think you can divide the book into two parts. First, how Europe (he actually referred to it as Eurasia) the east-west geographical continent(s) acquired the GGS. Second, as to how the Europeans used GGS.

I agree to the first part, somewhat reluctantly, that maybe geography gave the Eurasia land mass a head start. I am saying so because now we know the Incas, Aztecs and other Central American ancient societies had far greater knowledge then Europeans but they used it differently – see astronomy and Aztec empire. We also know a lot about the Pharaohs and ancient Egypt (both of these empires were in the north-south continents). Nevertheless, to some extent I respect his research as to how farming and domesticating animals do indeed have lasting effect.

However, to the second part of how Europeans used the GGS to conquer and colonize the world – I am not sure if I agree. I think the first ones to get the power of GGS were the Chinese and not Europeans. Note that Prof. Diamond does not discuss China (even though is part of Eurasia) except as an afterword in the new edition. China had guns, gun powder, bigger navy and fighting ships before even Europeans figured out how to get out of Europe. See “When China Ruled The Seas” by L. Levathes. The Chinese used their navy fleet to trade in the whole Indian Ocean and did not rule anybody. They sailed as far as current Tanzania and Kenya. The ships were big enough to bring home a giraffe. This was around 1405; Chinese ships were over four hundred feet long while Columbus’s St. Maria was eighty-five feet. Vasco da Gama did not get to East Africa until 1498. And then he needed African captains to send him to India.

So the fact that Europeans had power, to me, does not logically translate to what they did to the rest of the world. And some of the passages in GGS were translated to give a particular meaning, especially the conquistadores’ episode in Peru. In the interests of keeping this short, I will just say, Native American historians have a different take of that incident. The American Indian army left their fighting tools at home, meeting the new comers as guests. They were not going to fight.

So how does this change how we move forward as proposed by Salama and January? I think it means we have to understand our own history clearly first before we figured out our own way forward. The “technical tools” – from knowledge to the best fighting instruments— remain just that: tools. The main question is what you do with them?

Jaffer Machano
NB: Sorry for a long post.

Francis Kessy said...

I don't know but i guess i have to read more, i want to be like you; infuential. I like the way you put your arguments.