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Guns Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond

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Up until end of last Ice Age, about 11,000BC, all people everywhere were hunter-gatherers. But by 1500AD radical differences in technological and political organisation. No suggestion that Civilization is "better" - modern states have higher standard of living and longer lives, but much less social support, which we've identified as the source of most human happiness.

Microcosm of farmer v hunter-gatherer happened in NZ. In 1835 two shiploads of Maoru warriors arrived in Chatham Islands and slaughtered or enslaved the entire Moriori popn. Both groups had started from the founder Polynesian settlers around 1000AD, but the mainland Maoris had experienced continual warfare and lived by the sword.The Moriori had a peaceful hunter-gatherer society where disputes settled by discussion. Because the traditional polynesian crops cd not be grown in the Chathams, the Moriori had to become hunter-gatherers. That meant they cd not generate a food surplus, and so cd not support a chiefly culture.

Possible that the average European is actually less intelligent than average New Guinean. Forces of natural selection blunted in most modern societies by eradication of disease and war, which removed the weak and the unlucky from the gene pool before they could reproduce. Whereas in places like New Guinea far more ruthless selection for smartness genes in terms of finding food and avoiding murder

Political correctness actually harms debate. For example, everyone is well aware that it was the white Europeans who conquered the brown Africans and Americans, not the other way round. It seems logical to assume that this is due to some innate differences. Of course, we're told that it's not polite to talk about this, but this prevents a search for any explanation, so most people continue to (privately) suspect that the racist explanations actually correct.

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Population density a crucial starting factor. Low density societies are egalitarian - the chiefs work and dress the same as everyone else. Higher populations can support craftsmen such as canoe builders and tattooists and chiefs who do no work at all.

Chieftain societies introduce fundamental dilemma of all centrally governed states - how to balance out the transfer of wealth from commoners to upper classes. The difference between a wise statesman and a kleptocrat is only one of degree.

An elite has to keep control of population to avoid being overthrown. 1) Disarm populace; arm elites 2) Redistribute some of the tribute received 3) Maintain public order and curb violence 4) Start a religion.

Religion most important. Old supernatural beliefs didn't support elite or justify tribute. But by institutionalising these beliefs, the new priestly class functions to justify leaders and tribute (now renamed 'taxes')

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Oh, for more history written by biologists. The great thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is the detail: Jared Diamond starts with a proposition every good Guardian reader would wish to believe - that all humans are born with much the same abilities - and then proceeds to argue, through meticulous and logical steps, that the playing field of prehistory was anything but level.

The inequalities kicked off with the development of agriculture in one small part of the world, the so-called Fertile Crescent in what is now western Asia. Agriculture stimulates increasing population density, which means disease, which means acquired immunity. Civilisation requires the food surplus only agriculture can provide, but it also imposes a need for specialisation, for technology, for ingenuity. Competing civilisations (and they turned up soon enough in Europe and the Middle East) provoke an arms race.

So you start with stone tools and the raw materials for a Welsh rarebit and you end up with galleons, guns and measles, all of which helped 168 Spanish conquistadores in 1532 to overthrow an army of 80,000 Incas half way around the world.

But what was so special about the Fertile Crescent?

It had emmer and einkorn, species of grass with heavy seeds. Some individuals in these wild wheat ancestors had developed mutations that boded ill for their evolutionary survival. Instead of spilling their seed upon the ground, these doomed stalks kept their ears pricked, so to speak: their seed heads stayed neatly on the stem, long past ripening. This accident made them dish of the day for foraging nomads, and then ideal for the first, tentative plantations by the hunters and gatherers who so casually launched human civilisation some time after the end of the last ice age.

Pretty much the same mutation then occurred in certain wild pulses, which stayed in the pod, as a kind of packed lunch, rather than falling to the soil to multiply.

But it took more than one or two convenient plants that were ripe for the picking to get civilisation off the ground. The shuffling of the evolutionary pack dealt the hunter gatherers who happened to be living in eastern Turkey, the Levant and the valley of the Euphrates a whole suite of wild staples, all in that one huge curve of valley, hillside and floodplain: barley and lentils, olives, figs, sweet almonds, chickpeas, mustard and so on.

The seeds of wild wheat were not just big and easy to gather, they delivered the best nourishment. And not far away, contentedly chewing on a choice of the other wild grasses and pulses, were wild cattle, sheep and goats all suitable for domestication, and potentially docile swine as well.

So the groundbreaking farmers of the Fertile Crescent, with their makeshift mattocks, stone sickles and crude pestles and mortars, already had about them the makings of the first ploughman's lunch of bread and butter and cheese and beer; the first Mediterranean diet of wine, olive oil, peas and prosciutto; and everything for a beefburger except the tomatoes, ketchup and mayo.

Agricultural settlement also began independently in China and Mexico, because these places also had little packages of this and that - rice and soya, maize, beans and squash - from which to construct a cuisine and a culture.

Other places were not so fortunate. The entire continent of Africa produced a few scattered plants - coffee, millet, sorghum, groundnut and yams - but these species did not share the same climate so they could not all be grown in the same place. And not one large African mammal has ever been satisfactorily domesticated, even now. Meanwhile, the Fertile Crescent had four of them at the end of the last ice age, mooing and bleating and oinking for human attention.

And the same package of plants and animals that flourished in the Fertile Crescent could - with a bit of adjustment - do just as well on both sides of the Mediterranean, in the Alpine valleys, on the great European plain, and all the way to the Breton coast.

So the ploughman's lunch was not just a local meal: it could be exported from Nineveh to Nuneaton.

This is an exhilarating book. Not all the argument is quite as beautifully constructed as the passages that deal with plants and animals. Diamond's foray into human prehistory provoked the American Anthropological Association into devoting a whole session to examining the ideas he sets out in this book and more especially its sequel, Collapse.

The latter then became a scholarly Cambridge text which was reviewed in Science on 22 January. This particular issue of Science might have been edited with our club's choice in mind. The big feature focuses on evidence for permanent houses of stone, built by hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent 14,500 years ago, long before the emergence of agriculture.

Another feature is devoted to the disappearance of Australia's giant marsupials, 40,000 years ago, around about the time the first bands of human hunters turned up. These extinctions - and similar megafaunal massacres happened in Eurasia too -left Australia and North America with no candidate creature for domestication, which is why the locals were better off with their old skills of hunting and gathering.

If I have a problem, it is with Diamond's prologue. On page 22 of Guns, Germs and Steel, he argues that people in New Guinea today who have never been exposed to passive televisual entertainment, and with every stimulus to think for themselves, might even be, because of their environment, mentally more able than Westerners. This seems to concede that some lineal groups can be innately "better" than others, which is the starting point for all racist claims.

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