Sunday, January 14, 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel

I am now reading Guns, Germs and Steel. I have mixed feelings about this book. Diamond has some interesting ideas, and he knows how to write a popular science book. But some of his generalizations make me uneasy. For example, talking about farmers in comparison to hunter-gatherers:

Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armor, to own more powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest.

The moment I read this I thought, Was Genghis Khan literate? A half hour later I realized that the north Asian nomads were not hunter-gatherers, but herding peoples. So may be Diamond's generalization stands, sort of.

But it's good to remember that the highly centralized, very literate farming culture of traditional China had an ongoing problem with nomadic barbarians, and while the Han Chinese of northern Chinese were highly successful in moving south -- assimilating almost every culture down to Vietnam, they did less well moving north onto the steppe; and they never figured out how to eliminate the nomads as a threat. The military theory of Sun Tse makes a lot of sense, when you remember that the nomads were always a problem. The best way to deal with an enemy is to pay one enemy group to fight another enemy group, according to Sun Tse. This really does work with nomads. Invading the steppe does not work.

Diamond also writes:

The biggest population shift of modern times has been the colonization of the New World by Europeans, and resulting conquest, numerical reduction, or complete disappearance of most groups of Native Americans.

Well, yes, maybe. There are as many or more people of Native American descent in the U.S. and Canada now than there were in 1492. Granted, they are a minority in two white countries; but Native American and mixed race people from south of the Rio Grande are reclaiming the U.S., which will have a nonwhite majority by 2050.

The current president of Venuzuela is mixed race and leading a revolution of the country's mixed race majority against the country's traditional white ruling class. The current president of Bolivia is Native American and represents the mixed race and Native majority of that country in their struggle against a white ruling class. The current political struggle in Mexico -- like so many previous political struggles in Mexico -- pits the country's mixed race and Native majority against the white ruling class. (The great Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata was a native speaker of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.) The current Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas is Mayan Indian and the latest in a long, ongoing series of struggles by the Mayan people against colonization.

I haven't checked the demographics, but I think most of the people in Latin American are Native or mixed race. Yes, the Indians were conquered -- at the time and for a long time. But they did not vanish; and the race wars of the conquest period have become class wars, which still continue.

I may be misreading Diamond, but I think he is writing off the Native peoples of the Americas, and he shouldn't. There are plenty of Hispanic working people in the Twin Cities who have brown skins and straight black hair and classic Mayan profiles right off the art of ancient Mayan cities.


Blogger Tallgeese said...

For what it's worth,I've been told that Immanuel Wallerstein had his blurb removed from subsequent editions of his book, after the first ed. I think he (as well as some of my friends who are close to him) have come to view Diamond as a bit of a technological determinist.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhere in there Diamond explicitly classes herders and farmers together. Also, it's my understanding that he isn't writing anyone off. The book came about as an attempt to explain the power balance of the world in about 1980 and not as a predictor of where things will be in the future. The original question he was answering was a "how did we get here?" kind of question, not "where are we going?" If you're interested in what he thinks about where we're going, read "Collapse."

7:19 AM  
Blogger Tallgeese said...

What is critical in assessing Diamond is the question of whether his mode of explanation takes history as inevitable (i.e., what happened was the only thing that _could_ have happened, whether for genetic, cultural, technological or climatological reasons -- there are a lot of options there), and whether he takes a serious look at examining the plausibility of possible alternative paths. My understanding is that he doesn't, which makes his approach to world history less complelling for certain schools (marxism, world-systems analysis)than other projects such as Eric Wolf's "Europe and the 'People Without History'", Andre Gunder Frank's "ReOrient" or Janet Abu-Lughod's "Before European Hegemony".

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think he's actually interested in either inevitability or possible alternative histories. What Guns Germs and Steel is is an attempt to explain what happened and why he thinks it happened. He's not proposing a grand historical schema so much as a plausible hypothesis to explain past events. He's not approaching things as a theorist so much as he is from an engineering standpoint. From that point of view he makes a pretty compelling argument.

11:44 AM  

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