Environment as Destiny, History as Science


Diamond, J Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. . 1997 . Norton , New York. 480 pp. $14.95. ISBN 0-393-31755-2 .

A Personal Note

With this issue, I will have completed a six-year term as Associate Editor for Book Reviews. This period has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of books published in the field, and I have found the work exciting and informative. During my tenure, I have examined approximately 1000 books, of which over 200 were sent out for review. It was satisfying to work with a wide range of helpful reviewers, and I thank them all. For assistance in dealing with these advances in technology, I have to thank my friends, students, and family, in particular my son Daniel, who got me through each deadline.

Richard B. Primack

From the Editor: I thank Richard Primack for his dedicated service to Conservation Biology over the last six years, and I welcome the new Associate Editor for Book Reviews, Dr. Peggy Fiedler of San Francisco State University. She has been handling the flow of new books for several months, and the first reviews under her tenure will appear in the next issue. I look forward to working with her in the coming months and years.

Few books can truly change the way we look at the world, but this one can. It assembles a fascinating range of facts about our species' cultural history and environment and shows us how to interpret these facts within an ecological and evolutionary framework. I was reading this book while on the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Bali, and I found myself looking up and seeing the rice fields, the malarial mosquitos, and the outrigger canoes as proximate causes for the Austronesian displacement, 4500 years ago, of the original Indonesian hunter-gathers. I found myself examining the contrast between the art-filled culture of Bali and the hard-scrabble life of hill farmers on Sulawesi in terms of the volcanic fertility of the former and the old, poor soils of the latter.

The book is framed as an answer to a question posed 30 years ago by a New Guinean friend of the author: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” The question raises all kinds of racist and anti-racist ideas; we know what we should believe and what we want to believe, but doubts remain as to the truth. Diamond's case is clear and persuasive and partly a polemic against those who would attribute the current differences among continents in technological and economic dominance to biological differences (read intelligence) among their peoples. He contends instead that “history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments.”

Diamond's (perhaps overly long) answer starts with a striking example of the clash of two independently evolved civilizations. In 1532 Francisco Pizarro and 168 conquistadores defeated 80,000 Inca soldiers and captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa because of the Spaniards' access to steel-based military technology, horses, written information networks, and the resources of a large, centralized political state, and because of their transmission of and immunity to epidemic diseases. Diamond then traces these proximal factors back through 13,000 years of human history to find the ultimate causes of the differences between Europeans and South Americans.

His hypothesis is simple. Where potentially domesticable plant and animal species were present, natural selection—as opposed to intelligent choice—led to the adoption of sedentary agriculture. The large populations in these areas became afflicted by, and partly immune to, epidemic diseases derived from their domesticated animals. Large populations required some centralized (literate) organization and freed up craftsmen to invent. Neighboring “civilizations” then borrowed each other's ideas, leading to positive feedback among population size, technological advancement, and population growth rate. Because Australia, the Americas, and Africa contained only a few suitable plants and animals for domestication, and because ecological and geographic barriers blocked the spread of domesticated plants, animals, and ideas from elsewhere, the agricultural and technological development of their cultures was held back. Eurasia, on the other hand, started with many suitable species and became a large, interconnected, fertile melting-pot of crops, domestic animals, and ideas.

What stops his explanations from becoming “just-so” stories is Diamond's application of the methodology of natural experiments, which he himself helped pioneer in the ecological literature. He uses it to best effect in the consideration of the “adaptive radiation” of cultures in the Pacific. Starting with an original farming and fishing culture in the Bismark Archipelago, the expanding Austronesians diversified into both “retrogressive” hunter-gathers (Chathams) and “progressive,” multi-island chiefdoms (Hawaii), depending on the local conditions of the islands they colonized. Some historians will be dismayed at the low importance given to cultural factors as determinants of the success of societies, denouncing Diamond as a blind “geographic determinist.” This criticism, however, represents a misunderstanding of the scale of Diamond's hypothesis: he is explicitly addressing broad, repeated patterns of societal change—the “macroecological” patterns of human history. He himself acknowledges that at smaller spatial and temporal scales, cultural stochasticity may play as large a role as environment. By factoring out the geographic determinants of history, however, the historian is actually in a better position to recognize and explain the cultural residuals.

Few of the ideas in this book may be original on their own, but Diamond's brilliance comes in how he links the strands together in a single, compelling narrative. His melding of historical linguistics, biogeography, archeology, and genetic evidence into a “cultural cladistic” analysis of the mass movements of peoples is especially powerful. We are left at the end with a deepened sense of the essential similarity of all human races, despite the physical differences (beautifully illustrated with 32 plates). We also cannot escape wondering if we really are free of the influence of the environment on the future of our global culture, given the great effect it has had on societies in the past.