Sunday, July 15, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Part 2

Ok, life has been really busy, but I have been reading GGS and it's been really interesting. I have to say, though, Diamond seems to repeat himself quite a bit and sometimes I just want to say, “ok, ok, we get it already!”. It makes me think of a Freakonomics podcast that I heard recently where one of the Stephens was saying that most (non-fiction) books are so repetitive that he figures chapters 7, 8, and 9 are superfluous and he doesn’t bother to finish them, ha ha! I don’t think that’s the case exactly here, but we’ll see because I haven’t actually finished it yet.

So, we have the basic idea that societies almost inevitably grow bigger due to increased food supply, conquest, or joining with other groups (usually out of fear of conquest). The only societies that were able to remain small were those that were not able to create an abundant enough food supply to increase population and were sufficiently secluded from other groups.

One thing that I found interesting about these small societies (tribes of a few hundred people or less) is that they are the most egalitarian societies that I’ve ever heard of, mainly because they’re too busy finding food and dealing with basic human needs to worry about who’s in charge. Diamond says that you can’t even pick out the chiefs in these communities because they look and act just like everyone else almost all the time. They don’t wear any special garments and they have to work and find food just like anyone. These societies are small enough that decisions can be made communally, like in a town meeting format. Pretty amazing!

Another thing I found fascinating was how population size affects crime and how it’s dealt with. He said that small communities tend not to have formal law enforcement, but because the community is so small almost everyone is related to each other in some way, and when disagreements arise there is usually someone with kin on both sides who will put pressure on the combatants to prevent them from becoming violent. They don’t all kill each other because someone with a personal stake stops them. I never thought of it this way, but in a society as big as ours we don’t have as much at stake to make us get involved in strangers’ issues. In our much larger society we rely on centralized law enforcement to prevent crimes because we don’t have the inclination to do it ourselves.

This leads to some really interesting stuff about material goods as well. In small tribes people may still have an uneven distribution of goods due to varying skills and opportunities, but because the community is so small they are able to distribute the goods amongst each other themselves by sharing and trading directly with each other. However, one of the things that leads to large, centralized governments is when a society gets too large to efficiently distribute goods to all members, especially when there are specialized workers who are not gathering food themselves. The government becomes the means by which goods are both collected and distributed (ie. taxes).

Of course, one of the things that happens is that the leader of these larger societies does not always distribute goods in the way that people want, and may keep an unequal portion for himself at the expense of the people. Diamond calls this a kleptocracy-great word! I was really struck by how relevant this is to our never-ending political controversies. Not that Obama is living it up on our dime in the style of Aztec rulers, but how to redistribute wealth does seem to be the central question of our government.

Another point about growing societies is the development of religion. Diamond says that religion is a luxury that most small tribes cannot really afford. Having religious people, or any people, in the community who do not gather food is just not feasible until a certain population density is reached. When an adequate population size is reached, religion develops, but I have to say that it’s not a happy story. It seems as though (and maybe this is only what one would expect) religion tends to become a tool of the government to endorse conquest and slaughter of other peoples.

An example that Diamond gives is the Spanish defeat of the Incas at Cajamarca in Peru in 1532 (and this is just one example of innumerable others, continuing to today of course). The Spanish came supposedly on a missionary quest to bring heathens to god, and they decimated the Incas while only suffering single digit losses themselves. Some disturbing details-the natives were basically unarmed or used stone tools and the Spanish had guns and just mowed them down; also, the friars absolved the soldiers of the sin of killing other human beings before the battle took place, saying that by conquering them they were saving their souls. Yikes. It seems that so much of the world now is still trying to recover from these “exploration” era conquests.

This made me think about how they could even communicate with each other accurately, and Diamond doesn’t really get into who or how things were translated, but there must have been people who could translate, I think. Still, there must have been so many times where people just didn’t understand each other and I have to wonder how much bloodshed these misunderstandings caused. One thing I’ve felt from my work is that not speaking the same language is a major factor in people feeling estranged from one another, and that makes it so much easier to be callous to each other. Diamond has a really interesting (to me) section on the development of language which I highly recommend, but I’m not going to go into it here.

Lastly, there was some really interesting discussion of germs and the role that they play in different societies, and population size is a factor here as well. I totally nerded out with this section, and thought of my mom a lot, who’s a microbiologist/virologist and totally awesome.

Ok, so maybe I’m just ignorant, but I didn’t realize that a lot of our diseases come from animals, and societies with domesticated animals therefore tend to get these diseases, whereas societies without domesticated animals often don’t. That goes a long way towards explaining why diseases from complex societies decimated small tribal societies during exploration and conquest, and not the other way around. For one thing, people in the complex societies would have been exposed to the disease and developed immunity, whereas people in small communities would not have. Also, smaller communities simply don’t have the numbers to survive an epidemic, whereas larger societies will have more survivors just be sheer number of people, some of whom might have natural immunity and some of whom might be saved by modern medical care and distance from infected parties.

Diamond discussed how ingenious diseases can be. For example, inducing symptoms that cause the spread of the disease from person to person, like open sores and sneezing. I also found it really fascinating the way that diseases mutate over time to further themselves. For example, Diamond said that leprosy used to be a disease that caused rapid degeneration of bodily tissue, but when the person died the disease lost its host, so leprosy developed into a slow degenerative disease that allows the host to live longer and infect many other people before it dies. It’s fascinating to think about something like leprosy, which seems unlikely to affect anyone I know, but sad when I think that AIDS works the same way.

Ok, that’s more than enough for now. But suffice it to say that I think this book is really interesting and I definitely recommend it. The last part of the book, which I am about to read, is called “Around the World in Five Chapters”. It tells the history of different parts of the world individually (Australia and New Guinea, East Asia, Austronesia, Eurasia vs. the Americas, and Africa). If I have something to say about those then I may post again. If it’s repetitive then I might not, ha ha! Hope you enjoy this as much as I did!