Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W.Norton, 1998. Print.
Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991: A History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
“Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel – Anthropology 2.5.” Living Anthropologically. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
While continuing reading and researching the origins of civilization and the rates of development in different parts of the world, I realized that–in order to fully understand the different factors of what makes one society progress differently than another–I would have to first define the terms “civilization” and “developed”. Dictionary.com defines a “civilization” as an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.” In theory,“culture”, “science”, “industry”, and “government” seem like good factors to consider when deciding where a country ranks on the development scale, but often it’s difficult to relate them to the people in the places themselves. When these factors are not easy to see and their effects are the only thing shown, how does one tell which society is more “developed” or “civilized”? There are times where the answer is fairly clear. For instance, these two pictures.
Even without context the majority of people would take one glance at each picture and immediately claim that the society on the right is more advanced. A person’s reasons would likely be that the houses in the photo on the left are poorly built, rusted, and could be potentially dangerous, but the houses on the right are on a well paved suburban street, are surrounded by green plants, and are much bigger than the ones on the left. The children are also better clothed and appear to be coming home from school which is something we cannot determine from the picture on the left.
Because of the stark contrast of the physical conditions in the first two pictures, the more developed place is clear, but often we do not get the aid of a picture and at times images can be misleading so real examples may not be as easy to judge.
An interesting notion about the Western definition of “developed” came to me on my family’s trip to a cabin in Willow a couple of weeks ago where we spend time riding our snowmachines. We had been out on the trails for a while and my dad suggested that we go to the campground where we fish during the summer. As my knowledge about the trails and the area was limited to about the ten yards in front of the cabin’s porch, I agreed to follow him wherever he wanted to go. The ride there was uneventful except for the few bumps which the poor suspension in my sled made painful. When we arrived, my dad slowed to a stop and I pulled up next to him. He dismounted and came to talk to me about where the path was that led to the fishing river and how much snow was piled on the picnic tables, but he said one thing that make me rethink my entire view of our trip: “I might need to put more gas in the tanks when we get back to the cabin.” The reason that this struck me as strange was not because I was unaware that the machines ran on gasoline, but that we rode enough miles that the tank might need refilling. To me, gas was a precious resource that you put in a car to get you from point A to point B and should be conserved because at all costs because of its cost. More importantly, if you were to use gas to get somewhere, there should be a purpose for going. This then made me realize that we were riding for no other reason than because it was entertaining. This pointlessness weighed on me and I felt slightly like a hamster running in a metal wheel. Upon further consideration, I realized that nearly all activities that occupy an amount of free time were not necessary because truly the only things living creatures need are water, food, air, and shelter and the only necessary actions are the ones that provide those things. Of course, those actions look different for humans than any other animal and can vary a lot depending on someone’s life. I decided to refer to these obsolete activities and items as “embellishments” because they in no way detract from life and would appear to improve it, but in the end are superfluous. However, from a Western perspective, these embellishments seem like a good way to measure development because often we cannot do or have them if we are too busy trying to acquire the four basic needs. An example would be when the American middle class began to receive better pay and more free time in the early twentieth century. Going out on the weekends and engaging in recreational activities was becoming popular, but it is important to distinguish between these embellishments and the actual development. Americans having more fun was not the progress, but the result of the changing labor systems and growing middle class that were the real advancements of the country. However, there are also more modern examples of why the unnecessary things signify the most vital conditions. My family sponsors a child that lives in Burkina Faso in Africa and we often exchange letters with him talking about different things. Some of the letters are on a template and one of the questions that he answered on the paper was “what is your favorite activity?” He wrote his response in the blank next to it which someone translated before its postage and it said “the laundry”. A child’s favorite activity or thing to do is generally something like “playing soccer with my friends” so it broke ours hearts to read that because it showed that his embellishments were not anywhere near what a child’s should be and that reflected the poor state of community and the lack of development that it should have. In other words, the components of the lives of the average citizens reflect the true state of the nation or place itself.
In the main argument portion of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond demonstrates how agriculture was the most significant factor in the establishment of advanced cities and societies and how it grew to become more popular. While doing some online research, I found an editorial about the book called Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel in which the author claims that Diamond does not give his reader an accurate depiction of history or a rounded perspective on the question he is attempting to answer. The author, Jason Antrosio, states that the book “is a one-note riff. Whatever there is to be explained–guns, germs, or steel, as well as writing, military power, and European imperialism–everything is about early adoption of agriculture, the big domestic animals, and the longitudinal gradient facilitating trade and interaction. Diamond has lots of cool stories and anecdotes, but it always goes back to the same factors.” When I found this article, I was slightly confused with some of Antrosio’s assertions because while I agree that the focus of the book is food production, returning to the same factors and using stories as evidence creates a stronger case for Diamond and certainly does not weaken his argument. In the beginning of human history, farming was what allowed people to create things like the “guns, germs or steel” and “military power”–at least according to Diamond’s claim–so the relation of those things back to agriculture is not only logical structure but a natural one as well. Antrosio also states that “The Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel has almost no role for human agency–the ability people have to make decisions and influence outcomes. Europeans become inadvertent, accidental conquerors. Natives succumb passively to their fate.” This statement I agree with more because, at times, Diamond seems to lose some of the human aspect to his stories and recounts. However, in writing a book that encompasses such a long period of time and focuses on the biggest picture of the first development of human history, a loss of some personal touch is to be expected. However, this did make me realize that if I wanted to connect to modern society a bit more and link the previous progressions of nations and societies, I was going to have to find a recount of something more recent and specific. For this reason, I chose to read a book called Revolutionary Russia by Orlando Figes because he concentrates on the entire duration of the Soviet Union. I thought that zooming in on the rise and fall of one empire could help me focus on some smaller factors that might make it easier for me to relate Diamond’s work to today.
In the beginning of this book, Figes describes the conditions that became the ingredients for the start of a revolution. He explains the incompetence of the Tsar, the public’s desire for more power, the development of socialism, and the addition of a strong rebel leader all combine to create an uneasy atmosphere and inspire action. This complex of features seemed familiar to me because it resembles another situation that would happen a few decades later. After World War I, the German government became powerless as it was unable to fix any of the economic issues caused by the reparation Germany had to pay the Allied Powers. This economic travesty cause widespread panic and anger in the German people who felt cheated by the Treaty of Versailles, and another leader with a strong desire for power and a certain ideal rose up. While Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin had nearly opposite political policies, they both gained power in the same type of situation. As a whole, these two events are very different, but because they have some similarities and they are both societies that were powerful, but ended in failure, it was an interesting enough pattern to write down. To continue, I plan to find more opinions on what makes a well-functioning society/civilization and continue finding examples of some that succeeded and some that failed to determine some factors that may apply.