Monday, January 15, 2007

More about Jared Diamond

There are some interesting comments on my previous post about Guns, Germs and Steel. These have led me to think more about the book. It's bothering me, niggling at me, so I may keep commenting as I read. My sense of Diamond is that he is overfond of sweeping statements, which means he is ignoring the compexity and variety of history. It's very appealing stuff for science fiction writers, who like Big Ideas and simple analyses. (Simple is dramatic, and SF is very much a fiction of high drama.)

I suspect Diamond is moving toward the inevitable triumph of Europe and Europeans, while arguing against racism in every chapter. I may be wrong. I am only halfway through the book.

As I mentioned before, he talks about the edge that farming societies have in making war, since they have surplus food, governments and a literate elite.

But the history of Eurasia is full of many examples of settled, literate farming societies getting creamed by illiterate nomads. I have a vivid memory of being in Bamian as a kid and looking across the valley floor at the ruins of a city, partially excavated by the French. The remaining walls were a few feet high. Our Afghan driver said in a brooding tone, "Genghis Khan did that." Afghan agriculture has not yet recovered from the damage the Mongols did. I don't know if it ever will.

I don't think it works to make nomads honorary farmers. Yes, they had domestic animals. But aside from that, the Mongols of old are closer the Lakota (who also had domestic animals, come to think of it) than to the Chinese or Romans.

His arguments work by oversimplifying. For example, he says that hunting and gathering peoples never develop writing. It depends on what you mean by writing. The Lakota painted their tipi liners with "winter counts," histories of the families in the tipis. These combined pictures with symbols. Was it writing? Well, people could read the counts and explain the story being told.

Why not say that writing exists along a continuum, including pictographs and the knotted cords used by the Incas, and that many peoples have invented many different ways to keep records? The English kept tax records on notched staves for centuries, because so few people were literate. The staves were split in half, one half for the government and one half for the taxpayer. When the taxpayer came to pay his or her taxes, the two halves were fitted together. "Aha! Your records and my records are in agreement!" The government staves, kept somewhere in London, were finally destroyed in a 19th century fire, if I am remembering correctly.

Agriculture also exists along a continuum. The Dakota, eastern relatives of the Lakota, settled by rivers after the spring floods were over and planted gardens of corn, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. In the fall and winter, they moved to other areas and fished, trapped and hunted. Were they farmers? Yes. Did they also hunt and gather? Yes.

It was horses that enabled the Lakota to move onto the plains and become full-time hunters. Before that, they combined hunting with farming. Once they began to follow the buffalo, they gave up their gardens. So the domestication of a specific animal moved the Lakota away from farming. Were they hunters and gatherers? Or were they a nomadic herding people, since their herds of horses were absolutely key to their culture? I'd say they were nomadic herders and hunters, descended from semi-settled farmers and hunters.


Blogger liz said...


Pls check comments to your post "Another trip to Duluth" for a note from me. For some reason that post showed up at the top when I found your blog a couple of days ago.


10:17 PM  
Blogger Eleanor said...

Liz -- I did see your comment. It was great to hear from you. How do I get hold of you? Do you still have your Yahoo account? Or do you have a blog?

6:51 PM  
Blogger liz said...

Hi again! No blog, but the Yahoo account is good.

6:01 PM  

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