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“Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” by Jared Diamond, Norton, 2017. In this 495-page paperback Diamond uses archaeology to trace the history of humans around the globe and to explain why Eurasians came to dominate. His short answer is the title: technology such as gunpowder and steel gave Eurasians superior weapons. And European germs like smallpox, measles, mumps, and TB devastated native populations.

The subject is complex and many aspects contribute. Diamond notes that Eurasia won the lottery in many respects. Cereal grains like wheat were discovered and cultivated in the Fertile Crescent in the Mideast. They spread across Eurasia. Transition from hunter gatherer to farmer greatly increased food supply and supported a larger population. Population growth allowed specialization and division of labor. Resources made possible artists, inventors, thinkers, and governments.

The development of metal tools was a major advance. Many other cultures were still hunter gatherers, often with stone age tools. Another was domestication of animals, especially large animals like the horse and the cow. Other cultures had agriculture, but their large animals proved difficult to domesticate. Some local plants were low protein. The author cites low protein diet as a reason for cannibalism in some cultures.

The horse and the water buffalo made agriculture more productive. The horse also improved transportation and cavalry was a military advantage.

Literacy and later printing were also major advantages. New ideas often traveled along trade routes. Gunpowder, tea and porcelain from China and spices from India are good examples. Communications across Eurasia made others aware of what was possible and encouraged development.

And then there are the human factors. Diamond notes that the Incas and Aztecs had large populations. They occupied lands with abundant copper, but still had stone age tools. Its interesting that they had gold but no metal tools.

Diamond notes that inventors are often tinkerers. Inventions can require multiple rounds of improvements before they become practical. The steam engine is given as an example. In some cases society found reason to reject new technology, sometimes for resistance to change. The Japanese knew about guns but rejected the technology because their Samurai culture valued swords. Others tried out a new technology but reverted to traditional methods.

The author cites the story of the transistor. Although invented in the US, the electronics industry had invested in vacuum tube technology and found it profitable. They were reluctant to adopt a new unproven technology that might undermine that business. Japanese companies licensed transistor technology and developed it causing US companies to play catch-up.

This book is a fascinating read. Thought provoking. The author provides further reading sections for each chapter (but many references are from the ‘70s). Index. Maps. Photos.
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