Diamond makes environmental differences [among the continents] seem so compelling that it’s hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection.
by Steve Sailer
Published in National Review, 5/19/97, as “Why Nations Conquer”
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, 448 pp., $27.50
An early version of this book’s subtitle illustrates its ambitiousness: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Jared Diamond’s goal is to explain why Eurasians conquered Africans, Australians, and Americans instead of the other way around, even though conventional social scientists shy away from such a fundamental question out of fear of what they might find. Since random accidents of personality and culture appear too trivial to account for the clash of continents’ lopsided outcomes (e.g., a few hundred Conquistadors demolished the grandest empires of the New World), this leaves only two possible underlying causes: either the winners had better homelands or better bodies and brains. Deeming genetic explanations “racist” and “loathsome,” Diamond sets out to reaffirm the equality of humanity by showing the inequality of the continents.
To him, the three most important engines of history are location, location, and location.
Few are more broadly qualified to write history in terms of geography and sociobiology. A molecular physiologist at UCLA, Diamond is also an evolutionary biologist in the field. His 33 years birdwatching in the tropics, especially in New Guinea, home to 1000 of Earth’s 6000 languages, put him in touch with a remarkable variety of humans. Diamond wrote surprisingly little for popular audiences before his dazzling 1992 book, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. In contrast to that kaleidoscopic page-turner, Guns, Germs, and Steel hammers away at a single thesis, sometimes repetitiously. Nonetheless, it rewards the effort.
Diamond argues that the broadest aspects of the modern world — e.g., North America’s domination by whites — were largely determined by the continents’ dissimilar natural resources of domesticatable plants and animals. Regions offering an abundance of these could support the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder, allowing higher population densities. And those communities that could free up the most manpower from farming to specialize in technology and war could conquer their neighbors. A few areas, especially the Middle East, were home to many easily domesticated foods: both wild grains like wheat and large mammals like cows and sheep. Other parts of Eurasia such as Europe were close enough to the Fertile Crescent for early diffusion of these crops and livestock.
In contrast, much of the Earth, including seemingly congenial landscapes like California, lacks native plants that would be more profitable to cultivate than to gather. What valuable vegetation the New World did possess, like Mexico’s corn, was slow to migrate north and south along the Americas’ main axis because crops’ growing seasons are sensitive to latitude. (Since the vast Eurasian continent’s main axis is east-west, however, foods diffused more easily there.)
Also, the New World was badly lacking in large domesticatable mammals. Excluding boutique operations, today humans raise just 14 species of mammals of over 100 pounds. Of these, only the llama/alpaca is native to the Americas. Of course, 13,000 years ago the New World teemed with potentially useful beasts like horses and camels. Then the American Indian arrived and, Diamond says, ate them. This rapacity made their Aztec and Inca descendants both militarily impotent and dreadfully susceptible to the Conquistadors’ diseases. The Spaniards, in contrast, were heirs to not just Eurasia’s foods and technologies (including Chinese inventions like paper, gunpowder, and the compass), but also to immunities to its germs. Since the worst epidemics are descended from farm animals’ diseases (e.g., smallpox from cows), native Americans had no diseases of their own (except possibly syphilis) with which to fight back.
Diamond’s geohistorical approach certainly clarifies continental-scale history. Most of world history, however, is Eurasian history, and he’s only sketchy on why the West Eurasians eventually overcame the East and South Eurasians.
Diamond is not content, however, to merely write the history of the last 13,000 years. He also claims that his evidence is of great political momentuousness because it shows that no ethnic group is inferior to any other: each exploited its local food resources as fully as possible. For example, after the Australian Outback explorers Burke and Wills exhausted their Eurasian-derived supplies, three times they had to throw themselves on the mercy and expertise of the local Stone Age hunter-gatherers. These Aborigines, the least technically advanced of all peoples, may not have domesticated a single Australian plant in 40,000 years, but in 200 years down under scientific whites have domesticated merely the macadamia nut. Farming only pays in Australia when using imported crops and livestock.
But, are indigenous peoples merely not inferior? In truth, on their own turf many ethnic groups appear to be somewhat genetically superior to outsiders. Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it’s hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection. And in fact, Diamond himself briefly cites several examples of genetic differences impacting history. Despite military superiority, Europeans repeatedly failed to settle equatorial West Africa, in part because they lacked the malaria resistance conferred on many natives by the sickle cell gene. Similarly, biological disadvantages stopped whites from overrunning the Andes. Does this make Diamond a loathsome racist? No, but it does imply that a scientific-minded observer like Diamond should not dogmatically denounce genetic explanations, since he is liable to get tarred with his own brush.
The undeniability of human biodiversity does not prove that we also differ somewhat mentally, but it’s hard to imagine why the brain would differ radically from the rest of the body. Consider the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The ant’s personality traits — foresight and caution — fitted him to survive his region’s predictably harsh winters. Yet, the grasshopper’s strengths — improvisation and spontaneity — might furnish Darwinian superiority in a tropical land where the dangers are unpredictable.
Like many, Diamond appears to confuse the concepts of genetic superiorities (plural) and genetic supremacy (singular). The former are circumstance-specific. For example, a slim, heat-shedding Somalian-style body is inferior to a typically stocky, heat-conserving Eskimo physique in Nome, but it’s su
perior in Mogadishu (and in Manhattan, too, if, you want to become a fashion model and marry David Bowie, like Somalian supermodel Iman).
In contrast, genetic supremacy is the dangerous fantasy that one group is best at everything. Before the European explosion began in the 15th Century, it seemed apparent that no race could be supreme. Even the arrogant Chinese were periodically overrun by less-cultured barbarians. The recent European supremacy in both the arts of war and of peace was partly an optical illusion masking the usual tradeoffs in talents within Europe (e.g., Italian admirals were as inept as English cooks). Still, the rise and reign of Europe remains the biggest event in world history. Yet, the era when Europeans could plausibly claim supremacy over all other races has been dead for at least the 60 years since Hitler, of all people, allied with Japan.
The historian who trumpets the political relevance of his work must consider both the past and the future, which Diamond fails to do. Surprisingly, ethnic biodiversity is becoming more important in numerous ways. Until recently, one’s location and social position at birth closely constrained one’s fate. But, as equality of opportunity grows, the globalized marketplace increasingly exploits all advantages in talent, including those with genetic roots. Pro sports offer a foretaste of the future: many are resegregating themselves as ethnic groups increasingly specialize in those games they’re naturally best at. In summary, Diamond may prove a better guide to the last 13,000 years than the to next 13.