Germs, Guns and Steel, or Doctors, Gunsmiths, and Steelworkers?

My comment on GERMS, GUNS, AND STEEL by Jared Diamond: I cannot imagine an honest reason why this book attracted public attention. I admit that there are some fascinating details about the Paleolithic farmers breeding for certain seed-types, or the domestication of the dog, but I don’t see why the average reader of average intelligence could not notice the huge intellectual flaw marring the whole work.

I will explain. Once I read a book in law school a friend asked me to read: I cannot recall the title. (It may have been IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM by Paul Wolff.) In any case, the author establishes his definitions, postulates and axioms right at the beginning, as he should.

He asks why men obey political authorities? But he said he would limit his inquiry to those reasons, aside from moral sanction or moral suasion, which might call upon a man to obey a political authority. With this as his starting point, he draws the reader through many a page of argument and speculation, and arrives at his concluding point: namely, that there is no moral sanction nor reason of moral suasion which call upon a man to obey a political authority. In other words, his argument is circular. He starts by saying he will not look into the possibility that there is a moral sanction for political authority, he investigates the other possibilities, and then concludes that there is no moral sanction for political authority.  His conclusion: government was nothing more than the ingrained habit of humans acting like cattle when a gang of robbers come first to raid and loot, but who lingered to protect their human cattle from other raiders and looters.

My friend from law school generously thought I had performed some act of genius by penetrating through to the flaw in the book: but no, all I had done is remembered what had been established on the first page by the time I turned the last page.

The idea that rational men can prefer to avoid the Hobbesian war of All against All for moral and rational reasonslet us say, for example, they do not want to see their wives raped and children’s brains dashed out against the stones by invadersand therefore might rationally decide to combine with their brothers and cousins under the natural authority of their grandfather or clan elder, to vow and to honor vows of fealty to a just and strong and successful leader, and hold themselves to be obligated to obey the chief’s justice in peace and warin other words, the normal thinking of normal menthat is one idea that never comes up in all the pages of the book, and is never even propped up as a straw man to knock down. It is simply ignored.

I can only assume the people who praised Jared Diamond in the popular press have poorer memories than my admittedly poor memory when it comes to books. All Mr. Diamond does is that same shtick as that lightweight anarchy book. In the introduction, the author ponders Yali’s Question: “Why do the White People have so much Cargo (i.e. material goods and other advantages) and we so little?”

Mr. Diamond establishes the limits of his inquiry right at the beginning, as he should: Mr. Diamond sets himself the task of investigating why “history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people’s environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.”

In other words, any difference of race and culture, of genes and memes, are ignored. If the same ethnic group of people occupying the same plot of ground before and after a cultural paradigm shiftfor example, the pagan Bedouins before Mohammed and the all-conquering Islamic empire afterMr. Diamond limits his inquiry to discovering the non-cultural and non-racial causes of the behavior. The mere fact that groups in the same time and place and environment act differently because they are motivated by different ideas and different methods of organization is simply factored out of the equation. Only an environmental explanation is sought, and so, consequently, only an environmental explanation is found.

Well, the differences between the Europeans on one side of the Mediterranean and on the other, in terms of environment, are inconsequential. The differences in culture and organization are paramount. One cannot say the Greek-speaking Romans of Alexandria were environmentally so different from the Latin-speaking Romans of Londinium. Why, then, does the sun never set on the British Empire (or, theses days, on American military bases) whereas Carthage is merely a pile of rocks in the wastelands of Tunisia?  

Waving all this to one side, Mr. Diamond discovers, by his final page, merely nothing more than what he assumed on his first page: due solely to the different environment of Europe and Asia, the situation of continents and watercourses, and the fortunate availability of the domesticable horse for war and labor. Only an environmental explanation is sought, and so, consequently, only an environmental explanation is found.

So the rocky British islands with her fogs and bad weather is the ideal environment for world supremacy in law, liberty, and organization, the home for statesmen like Disraeli and Burke, poets like Shakespeare and scientists like Newton and Maxwell and engineers like Watt. Whereas the Fertile Crescent is home for … what? Can anyone name an invention, a poet, a playwright, a statesman of any particular import springing from that area of the world who made a positive contribution to human happiness in the last one thousand years? What about in the Ukraine, the richest soil in the world? What about in Asia Minor since roughly 1007 AD? Could it be that the religious and political turmoil in the region since the decay of the Eastern Roman Empire, or the continual conflicts between East and West at the crossroads of the world, had at least some influence?

The environment of English-speaking North America is surely different from the environment of English-speaking England. And yet, suppose the American Revolution had been fought in a parallel world where Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and other polymaths, geniuses and giants of Revolution had been on the British side, and suppose the lame-brained placemen and dithering fools of King George’s cabinet had been running the colonial side. Swap the people and keep the environment the same: would the result have been the same?

The environment of Athens and the environment of Asia Minor across the Adriatic are identical. Could the difference between Hellenic culture and Persian be due, not to their environment, but to their good fortune in inventing different philosophies of human organization, and their hard work in adopting and sustaining those philosophies?

Let me anticipate a criticism: “Surely” (one might ask of me) “you are talking about small local variations in history, not of the grand sweep of things. Like the gas laws, the environmental effects on history do not track the individual efforts and effects of individual men and ideas, but of the whole taken over larger periods of time. You, Mr. Wright, are talking about events that have repercussions over a few centuries, whereas Mr. Diamond is talking about events having repercussions over millennia.”

Good question. What this brings out is the difference between Mr. Diamond’s view of the human race and my own. I think the acts of the aggregate of human beings are due to the acts of individuals based on the acts of previous individuals. I believe, so to speak, in Chaos Theory: microscopic differences in initial conditions lead to vastly different results.

Socrates was just one man; St. Paul was just one man; Caesar was just one man. But Aristotle, and all of his students, including Alexander the Great, were influenced by Socrates. St. Augustine, and all the Western and Eastern Church, including Constantine, were influenced by St. Paul. Augustus followed Caesar, and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, and every European leader with any pretension to universal sovereignty thereafter followed Caesar, copying his titles, style and name: the Czar of Russia and the Kaiser of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor are all Caesars, and even the Dictator of the Third Reich is copying his salutes, his eagles and his title, “Dictator” from the forms and constitution of the First Reich. (Hard to imagine that this word once had an august classical ring to it, like “Proconsul” or “Aedile” or even “Senate.”)

Would the Pilgrims have migrated to the New World had it not been for Socrates, St. Paul, and Caesar? Without the Pilgrims, no Great Awakening in the early 1700’s, no colonial revolution in the late 1700’s, no American industrial power thrown into the Allied pan of the balance scales during the two World Wars, no super-power to cow the gangsters, freaks, zealots and sadists running Soviet Russia during the Cold War, no Western Civilization surviving to the Third Millennium.

Why assume that anything happened in the Paleolithic or Neolithic differently? Some unknown Socrates was the first to question the nature of seeds, and to domesticate wild plants for consumption. Some primitive St. Paul established ideas of tribal rites and tribal loyalties which allowed the sky-father worshipping hunter bands of the Great Hunt to organize and drive away more anarchic earth-mother worshipping the hunter-gatherer bands, and proposed that even the Priest-King must obey Tabu and Maat, the divine order. Some primitive Caesar with a stick in the ground laid out the lines for the first permanent winter village, decreeing an end to nomadic life, and a beginning to civilization. If those three unknown Neolithic men had by chance arisen in Australia or Patagonia rather than in the prehistoric Near East, perhaps the Tasmanians or  the  Alacaluf would have developed (and retained) the technology of needle or the seal-harpoon, the fire-bow or the coracle, and the worship of Setebos overspread the globe.

The idea that human decisions, differences of national and racial or religious temperament, differences of philosophy, differences of laws and customs, or even a different distribution of figures of gigantic genius among the generations of different tribesin other words, the ordinary causes the ordinary reader of history looks for in seeking the causes of great world events that is one idea that never comes up in all the pages of the book, and is never even propped up as a straw man to knock down. It is simply ignored.

Surely the environment influences history in a major way. The noted clannishness of highlanders from different continents, or the clustering of cities near rivermouths, betoken how the lay of the land influences where and how people move and behave. The lack of navigable rivers in Africa is a major factor hindering the growth of walled cities there; and therefore condemned that continent to centuries of predation by stronger neighbors.  Mr. Diamond correctly and insightfully (in my opinion) points to the lack of large domestic riding beasts in Africa, Australia, and South America as the major factor contributing to their military inferiority to Europe and Asia: they had no cavalry. 

Look at the contours of nations: borders follow rivers and mountains, by and large, because these places are militarily defensible battle lines. Only states created in times of peace, such as the large tracts of flat land in the American Mid-West, does one find lines of geometrical precision. The yardstick-straightness of the 49th parallel is a mute testament to the long period of peace between Canada and the United States. The crookedness of the Rio Grande border testifies to a warlike birth for the state of Texas. 

But other factors are in play as well. I will mention one, by way of example: Periods in history when infantrymen in large numbers are more cost-effective than heavy cavalry tend toward Empires: offense is cheaper than defense. Periods in history where capital formation requires concentrations of goods on expensive one-man systems—think of the medieval knight in his expensive heavy armor—tend to favor small states: defense is cheaper than offense. This depends more on the effective military weaponry than any geographical factor. Is the grunt with his lance in a phalanx more effective than the bronze-age Hellenic hero in his hoplite panoply? Is the Roman foot-soldier more effective for less cost than the heavily armored cataphract? From Queen Victoria’s time to World War II, and from World War II to the present, we have pass through one and perhaps two major shifts in military technology cost-effectiveness. The land mine and the machine gun have shifted the balance in favor of defense over offense. Since World War II, empires have withered and nation-states have grown. The idea of polyglot Imperium has also withered, and the prevailing political philosophy of the Modern Day is that every ethnic group, every language, needs its own sovereign territory.

If this is how much power weaponry has on history, how much more do ideas influence history, since ideas are the primary impulse of human action?

One cannot seriously study the question of the supremacy of Europe, North Africa, the Hellenized Near East, post-Columbian North and South Americalet us call things by their right names the supremacy of Christendom, without once mentioning the impact of Christianity, for good or ill, or both, on human history. It is a fine question to ask how the physical environment shaped the behavior of men over centuries. But it is a foolish thing to assume the intellectual environment makes no difference.

Mr. Diamond spends his chapter after chapter wondering what is different between Europe and her colonies and the balance of the world. Come now: the Aztecs and Incas were not noticeably inferior to the Chinese or Indians in engineering or social arrangement, and only slightly behind them in literature and philosophy. Mr. Diamond does not concentrate much time on explaining why the Yellow Man has “more cargo” than the Black Man, or why the Red Man in South America lived so superior a lifestyle to the Aborigine in Australia and Tasmania. That is not the primary interest of readers of this book.  

They want to know why the West now dominates the Earth. The readers of this book want to know why the White Man has all the Cargo.

What is it about Europe, North Africa, the Hellenic parts of the Middle East and post-Columbian America that made it different in history from the rest of the world? The question is a hard one to answer.

What is it about Christendom that made it different in history from the rest of the world? Ah. That question seems to be a little clearer, even though it merely substitutes one word for another. 

The book is famous because it gave the White Man an answer that is acceptable to his egalitarian, anti-racist, mechanistic, godless and profoundly anti-intellectual multi-culti dogma: European supremacy was a pure accident of the shape of continents and watercourses.

Anything purporting to be a history of the human race, or an anthropological study of human beings, which does not take into account the fact that men are reasoning creatures who are organized and motivated primarily by thoughts and ideas is a shallow and intellectually frivolous work.

Perhaps the work should not have been called GERMS, GUNS and STEEL, but, rather, PASTEUR, BACON and BESSEMER.