Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book review: Guns Germs & Steel

(from Wikipedia: Guns Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond)
The book attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations (including North Africa) have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops.

The prologue opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any genetic superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term "cargo" for inventions and manufactured goods, "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?"

Diamond realized the same question seemed to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin ... dominate ... the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, after having thrown off colonial domination, still lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists."

I think the author is overlooking a primary reason that western culture is successful: we don't assign spiritual value to utilitarian things (usually). Specifically, many if not most indigenous societies destroy a persons possessions when they die, and burn or abandon their house because of potential ghost sickness. Industrialized countries don't ascribe to that as a real thing. So an items utility re-use gives succeeding generations a slight edge over preceding ones in the form of an actual example of the design which is typically updated for re-use, and man-hours saved to build it.

Those man hours might not seem like much, but say it takes 2 days to make a rake. The rake could last for 3 or 4 generations. A wagon could last the same but take a month or more to make. If one breaks down during harvest, a neighbors can fill in because the design isn't proprietary. If not, the family or community looses critical resources. A house may take years to build.

Thus the possessions accrue. Industrialized cultures sometimes name cars and have favorite possessions/clothes/tools, but we don't have a process for communicating with them or ritually killing them or identifying/cleansing them when they pick up bad spirits. I heard there are farms in Japan that use tools 300+ yrs old. Likewise for gun collections, antiques, & scientific instruments, they have "value". We sometimes say a house is haunted but people usually continue to live there, and sometimes even have a friendly relationship with the ghost. I admit we accept the possibility of supernatural but there's no physiological process to access it so we don't actually give it authentication. (except maybe burning incense or calling those guys from TV)

Supernatural stuff is usually based on a biological form (symmetrical, mobile, possessing some kind of will to affect things, thus a mind), whereas "things" in the european industrial context, aren't. Some native people believe things take on the spirit of the maker or owner so the owner's spirit is still present in it after they've actually died and been dead for centuries, even though they never knew the person and have no proof of their nature. The possessions are destroyed out of fear of the unknown. In contrast, people from industrial societies often feel honored that their possessions would be useful to succeeding generations, and those generations acknowledge it as homage to their ancestors.

I wouldn't say that this concept is universal or complete, but it is a contributing factor.


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