Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W.Norton, 1998. Print.
Horner, Jack. “Where Are the Baby Dinosaurs?” TEDxVancouver. Vancouver. Nov. 2011. TED.Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
Slutkin, Gary. “Let’s Treat Violence like a Contagious Disease.” TEDMED 2013. Apr. 2013. TED. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
Coates, Chelsea. “The World Wars.” The World Wars. History Channel. 26 May 2014. Television.
In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, the author combines a retelling of the history of the development of mankind with his own experience in New Guinea to discern the factors that help societies grow and explain the gaps between the progress of different civilizations in different places. He intends to dispel the belief that genetics and mental intelligence determine why some African and South American communities still rely on the small village typesetting rather than the complex city areas in Europe and North America to find the real reason for the different types of lifestyles. However, before he can make a conclusion of this magnitude, Diamond has to prove why an answer to the explain the divide needs to be found and why his explaining the brutal history is not the same thing as endorsing it. He asserts that “Understanding is more often used to try and alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it” and “[people who seek out knowledge of issues] seek to use their understanding of a chain of causes to interrupt the change” (17). His claim and specific reference to a chain reminded me of a lecture that I watched in my creative writing class last year.
Once a week in creative writing, we would watch a TED talk online and answer questions about it to increase our critical reading abilities. The one in particular that I thought of while reading Diamond’s justification was about a man who worked fighting epidemics like tuberculosis, cholera, and AIDS in Africa only to come back to the United States and find gun violence spreading like the diseases he was treating in Africa. Gary Slutkin saw the violence in Chicago spread through the minds of the people, specifically adolescents, and how the exposure of one person to gun violence would submit them to performing the same actions. His perspective on the issue revolutionized the method for making safer cities by focusing on the individual and reforming the mindset of the person before you have to condemn them. I remember thinking that this demonstrated how the big problem of people who try to unearth and fix the real problems in the world is not that they miss the trouble, but that they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The main focus of problem solving has to be the mindsets of the people because fixing the world has no effect if you forget the individuals that live in it. I also think that this proves Diamond’s assertion that you have to understand the full embodiment of something before you can make a move to change it.
After proving why he needed to write the book in the first place, Diamond moves on to tell the history of the evolution of the first human beings. He explains that so far the earliest human fossil has been dated about 1 million years ago, but that scientists argue that there could have been earlier human beings. He then introduces an idea that I found particularly interesting, “Whenever some scientist claims to have discovered ‘the earliest X’…that announcement challenges other scientists to beat the claim by finding something still earlier.” I found this quite humorous when reading it and thought of another TED talk that I had watched some weeks before while procrastinating called “Where are the baby dinosaurs?”. In his lecture, Jack Horner explained that many of the already existing different species of dinosaurs have so many common similarities in body structure that they could actually be of the same species at different age levels. The reason this possibility has not been investigated much is that the scientist who found the bones would rather name a new species and take the credit for the new discovery than claim it as younger version of something someone else had already found. I’ve found that the pride that is found in both Diamond’s and Horner’s example is not only understandable but a common trait among humans in the form of a desire to be liked and admired by others. Any time my brother performs his best old Scottish man’s accent or someone makes a joke in math class I can see how the desire for acknowledgement can affect a person’s actions, but wonder if this type motivation is always destructive to progress as in Horner’s case or if sometimes it can–and has been–a motivation for achievement above the average. While Diamond mentions this factor in a negative tone, it could have possibly been a key feature in the development of the technologies we have now. After all, these self-servant tendencies inspire competition between companies that create our technologies. Although money is also an incentive, the desire to be the best and recognized as such generates a type of impetus that can drive creativity and progress.
In the next section, Diamond describes the Spanish takeover of the Inca empire in Cajamarca which he claims is a textbook example of the results of the conflicts between people of the old and new worlds during this era. Some of the several factors that he demonstrates as the reasons the Incan people were at a disadvantage were the steel weaponry of the Spanish, disease causing civil unrest some time before the attack, the Incan people’s and their leader’s naiveté, and the Spanish horses. These are not factors that answer the overall question of the book, but do serve to display the short-term causes of this history. The mobility gained through horses is something I find intriguing because the Spaniards were faster, swifter, and could travel farther because of them and yet the advantage horses provided is something often overlooked. Mobility is a deciding factor in battle and when I read about the horses, I was reminded of the World Wars TV miniseries that the history channel came out with at the end of the last school year. There was a segment on General Robert Patton and his first battle in Mexico against Pancho Villa and other bandits. While running an errand to buy corn, he and his team heard about a possible location of some of Villa’s consorts. They decided to investigate, found three bandits, and shot them with a machine gun they had strapped to their car. This was the first time that weapons had been motorized which was revolutionary to the traditional methods of running war. Coincidentally, later Patton became the leader of a tank–mobile, armored guns–brigade that helped break the stalemate in western Europe. By WWII, mobility came in the form of aircrafts and brought a whole new type of warfare to life, showing this aspect was still relevant centuries later. Diamond’s description of the effect of horses was remarkably similar to the description of the effect of these mobile weapons during WWI in the History channel series which is why this scene came to my mind while reading. Horses and many other resources that the Spanish held allowed them to prevail over the Inca even they were outnumbered by 400 times. The new technologies are often the deciding factor in collisions of any kind and so I expect to see more of this trend in the remainder of the book. However, the effects of technology inside and outside of war are very contrasting so I will continue to consider the features that a successful society should have through use of historic and modern examples.