History As Told From the Hands of Fate Over the years, historical accounts of almost every realm have been disputed over different recollections, different interpretations, and different degrees of credibility. Some of these histories have been based upon written works, recovered artifacts, or word of mouth passed down from generation to generation. But what if the period of historic interest lies way into the past, before even the development of verbal and written language, and so long ago that artifacts are a scarcity? To further complicate matters, dissension is inevitable when one tries to explore something as broad and elemental as the origins of human societies and civilization, as Jared Diamond attempts to address in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Diamond’s book essentially revolves around the idea of attempting to answer a question presented by a New Guinean politician he had met while studying bird evolution—the question of why Westerners had so many technological innovations to introduce to other civilizations, whereas “black people” like himself had so few technological advances in their society, let alone to share.
Diamond refutes genetics as a widely perceived explanation, attributing intelligence and the appearance of intelligence as a relative factor based on environment. After exploring various other variable aspects including geography, climate, biology, and ecology, Diamond’s answer to Yali’s question essentially boils down to pure luck—that different paths of evolution were merely based on chance. Continents with large, open latitudes such as Eurasia, supported more diverse and advanced ecologies than did continents that were isolated by physical barriers such as mountains, deserts, or bodies of water, effectively stemming diffusion and migration of both ecology and culture.
Essentially, Diamond proclaims that different parts of the world featured different geologies and climates and therefore supported different species of plants and animals, laying out the cultural and foundations long before the people arrived there by chance. Although Diamond does thoroughly reason his answer with different approaches, mainly through scientific observations and mathematical reasoning, the succinct and almost absolute nature of his core theory was bound to bother some readers, such as William H. McNeill who later wrote a comprehensive review crediting Diamond’s perspectives but criticizing his final verdict as too theoretical. He disapproves how Diamond sees “cultural innovation [as] a mere reflex of numbers” under the assumption of creativity in all societies, how he “dodges the question of unpredictability” in evolution, and most of all, how he dismisses cultural diversity as a “mere reflection” of statistical and ecological differences. Essentially, McNeill argues that an event’s unlikelihood of occurrence doesn’t necessarily warrant its impossibility—that just because a civilization was unfortunate enough to have formed in a geologically, ecologically, and biologically restrictive region does not inevitably seal their fate to a doomed evolution Undoubtedly, not every single aspect of Diamond’s arguments is necessarily valid or undisputed, but the underlying concept of his argument is logically substantiated—that climate, geography, biology, and ecology play major roles in the origins of human culture. To pilot his perspective, Diamond sheds new light on the meaning of intelligence; rather than quantifying it objectively as he would quantify the area of a land mass or density of a species of animal, he quantifies it subjectively in his “impression that New Guineans are on the average smarter than Eurasians.” He admits that “while one can contest his subjective impression” on intelligence, “one cannot deny” his objective quantifications, effectively showing that intelligence is much more than a genetic measurement and more considerably related to culture. Diamond then references climate and geography as a major influence on ecology, which in turn affects mankind at both a social and biological level. Climate and geology play an omnipresent role in the daily lives of mankind and is therefore a considerable factor for differences in lifestyle, since there is little that people can do to change them and therefore adapt to them accordingly. Diamond often refers to natural selection as a “natural experiment of history” that preserves those that are strongest and most well adapted while removing the weak. He effectively proves his point in the example of the Westerners being immune to smallpox and other diseases from having domesticated certain animals, whereas Aztecs who had never even come in contact with such animals were easily wiped from existence. The pivoting factor of Diamond’s theory, however, is chance, as McNeill targets throughout his review. Biological natural selection and preexisting climate conditions do indeed have a considerable impact on human evolution, but they are not the sole factors as Diamond suggests. McNeill makes a valid point in frowning upon how Diamond dismissively regards cultural differences as “mere reflection[s] of differences of population densities arising from the initial domestication of different plants and animals”, but nevertheless Diamond’s explanation plays an integral role in setting the stage for cultural development.
Without encroaching too much onto the topic of fatalism, the human mind is still the unpredictable factor of any civilization in terms of creativity, imagination, and evaluation. True, the surrounding environment may greatly influence a civilization to adapt accordingly, but it does not absolutely warrant that they will choose the assumed pathway. Even Diamond admits the “possible significance of local cultural factors unrelated to the environment” that may “predispose a society toward more important cultural choices” as a “wild card that would tend to make history unpredictable,” although he remains convinced that “cultural variation is no doubt a product of environmental variation.” While Diamond’s perspective may sway a bit too scientific and absolute at times, the concepts uncovered in his theory are undeniably a huge step forward in retracing the steps back to the origins of human civilization.