Friday, June 13, 2008

Shelf Life: Location, Location, Location

One of the most popular adages in real estate is "location, location, location"; that the success of any project is ultimately determined by the its site. Apparently the same applies to the early development of civilizations as discussed at length by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997). Winning the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, the book, according to the author, is a short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years.

It traces the rise of early food-producing and animal domesticating societies, and how these societies achieved a head-start in development. Plant and animal domestication are of course determined by geography; hence, the earliest civilizations emerged first in the Fertile Crescent and other parts of the world that were conducive to such human activities. Food production helped the earliest humans transition to living in societies, as we all know in our history class.

The book concludes that "societies developed differently on different continents because of differences in continental environments... Advanced technology, centralized political organization, and other features of complex societies could emerge only in dense sedentary populations capable of accumulating food surpluses".

One of the main issues that the book addressed is that the rise of civilizations was brought mainly by the environment and not because of differences in human biology (i.e. race, intelligence, and so on). (This also explains why this book has been criticized for being too environmentally determinist.) Why, for instance, did Eurasian societies came to conquer the Americas rather than the other way around?

The author explains that the available menu of 'domesticable' plants in Eurasia is wider and there was likewise a good number of large animals that aid agriculture and transportation. On the other hand, the Americas are fragmented by geography and ecology, hampering the effective diffusion of food production, whereas, Eurasia's wide east-west axis allows plant and animal species to spread faster over a relatively unimpeded land terrain.

With Eurasians living in communities with denser populations, this gave rise to economic specialization and political centralization. This also paved way for technological developments that made it easier for them to conquer less developed societies.

Invasion is made more efficient by the disease/germs brought by invading armies that practically decimated the conquered population than the weapons brought by the invaders.

The book of course addresses the question: among Eurasian societies, why did Europe emerge as the more powerful society and not China? The author discussed this question at the end of the book, but it's not what the whole thing's all about.

Instead, he looks at the factors that led to the early rise of societies and explain the disparity the development of early human societies.

Referring to various disciplines as archaeology, linguistics, ecology, biology, and geology, the book is surprisingly easy to read... and very convincing at that. I've never been a fan of non-fiction, much less history, but this book, pregnant with enlightening information, is an easy read.

Still, readers are not supposed to devour the book completely as it generalizes too much and does not account for some of the more specific trends in history in various areas.

Nonetheless, it is a good starting point for any one who's interested in the patterns of historical development, at least for the case of this book, from the perspective of someone who focused on the role of nature spawning early human societies.

Go, go, go... get your copy now.

Photo Credit: Inchoatus

3 comments:

Hedonist said...

Interesting to come across your review. I read it a couple of years ago and loved it! I then read his next book Collapse and loved it too although this is definitely better and should at least be read first.

kawadjan said...

hedonist: holy shit, i'm a big big big fan of your blog. i'm not worthy, i'm not worthy...

i've heard about Collapse and i'm planning to read it as well. but not some time soon; i can only get little doses of jared.

Hedonist said...

Now I'm blushing, that's so sweet! Rule one never say your not worthy because you are!! Especially when compared to me lol

I did leave about half a year in between the books, it can get too much but I loved his take on history, such a different angle...

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