July 26, 2005


Is This How the West Won?: a review of Guns Germs and Steel (Michael Balter, July 8, 2005, Science)

Jared Diamond is a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles; a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Now he is also the star of a three-part series, based on the book, that airs this month on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States. The series details Diamond's influential yet controversial explanation for why the world is divided into haves and have-nots--the principal reason, he maintains, is geography: At the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,500 years ago, prehistoric hunter-gatherers living amongst the wild ancestors of today's domesticated plants and animals--most notably the wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle native to the Near East--were ideally situated to invent farming and amass the agricultural surpluses that fueled the rise of civilization and technology. Meanwhile, the unfortunate inhabitants of geographic regions with few domesticable species--such as Africa and the New World--lagged behind in their development; even worse, they eventually fell victim to armies of (mostly European) colonizers whose technologically superior weaponry allowed them to subjugate entire continents. Adding to this onslaught of guns and steel, Diamond argues, were the ravages of deadly diseases that the invaders brought with them, such as smallpox, to which Europeans had developed some immunity (often through their long coexistence with domesticated animals) but which felled native peoples by the millions.

Diamond's thesis is one of the most widely discussed big ideas of recent years, and deservedly so. For one thing, it is an explicitly anti-racist explanation for social and economic inequalities on a global level, an explanation that dispenses with subtle and not-so-subtle assumptions about the inherent superiority of Europeans and their descendants. The have-nots, Diamond counters, are simply those whose prehistoric ancestors were dealt an unlucky draw of the geographical cards. The book, a best-seller in both the original and paperback editions, is required reading in many university courses. It has stimulated considerable debate; for that reason alone a film version, which will undoubtedly reach an even wider audience than the book, seems justified. And it would be churlish to deny Diamond the star treatment he receives in the film, even if one repeated scene of the biologist cruising down a river in Papua New Guinea--while the narrator, actor Peter Coyote, tells us dramatically that Diamond is "on a quest" to understand the roots of power--seems just a bit too focused on the person rather than the ideas.

More worrying, however, is the fact that during all of Diamond's journeys--which take him across the globe by boat, train, airplane, and helicopter, with film crew in tow--the viewer is told only once (at the end of the first hour) that there are scholars who disagree with his thesis. Nor are any of these dissenters ever interviewed, even though a number of other experts and personalities appear in the film to bolster Diamond's viewpoint. This imbalance is a disservice to television viewers, who are surely sophisticated enough to hear challenges to Diamond's ideas without losing track of the plot line. The omission might not be so serious if Diamond had only recently presented his thesis, but over the eight years since the book was first published its tenets have been much debated. Indeed, it is usually assigned to university students precisely so that they can discuss the merits of Diamond's arguments. In 2001, for example, Cornell University in New York required all of that year's incoming undergraduates to read Guns, Germs, and Steel as part of a new student reading project. Members of Cornell's anthropology department organized a campus-wide debate about the book and raised a number of important questions--including whether the geographic vagaries of 11,000 years ago are sufficient to explain why hundreds of millions of human beings live in dire poverty today.

Mr. Diamond's thesis is so manifestly absurd that you can't present any counter-arguments or there'd be no show. But here are a few: silver foxes, Brush Creek Buffalo Farm and Catfish Farmers of America.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2005 10:47 AM

what a surprise! oj dismisses as manifestly absurd a thoroughly researched, well-documented exercise in scholarly refutation of his core belief that every observable condition of the natural world is evidence of intelligent design.

Posted by: lonbud at July 26, 2005 11:09 AM

GGS is good for explaining humanity's development up till the year 1000AD or so. After that you're best off reading JM Roberts' Triumph of the West.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at July 26, 2005 11:23 AM

GG&S isn't good for explaining any human history - almost every assertion Diamond makes is not only wrong but is in fact the exact opposite of the truth. Anyone who finds any merit in GG&S is either completely ignorant of basic geography or possesses absolutely no critical reading skills.

Posted by: Shelton at July 26, 2005 11:44 AM

lonbud: Actually, GGR reduces anthropology to the Religion of Environmental Determinism. Why are Europeans dominant? Because they're from Europe. How is this really any different from "Because they're smarter, which is connected to skin color"? His thesis is perhaps an interesting start, but nowhere near as insightful as he or his supporters think.

Posted by: b at July 26, 2005 11:46 AM

b is right. It is a materialist view of history for the most part; it mostly ignores culture and intellect as potential drivers of change.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 26, 2005 11:52 AM

I wouldn't say that GGS is patently absurd, just that it doesn't take into account all of the other factors that could explain differences in development. As far as historical explanations go it isn't a matter of winner take all. Many factors can contribute to the result, which doesn't mean that one factor may be the overwhelmingly decisive factor. It is a theory among other theories worthy of consideration.

My own view is that it is just a matter of timing, of which culture arrived first with the most knowhow. The Middle East benefitted from being a crossroads of cultures, where the technologies and ideas from a wide variety of cultures could be learned and combined. That then passed on to the Mediterranean world, then to Europe. Most of Africa was isolated, and the Americas became settled later, where it would take much longer to reach a population density where settlement and agriculture would become necessary. The Americas could have continued to develop to a point where science and technology ignited had they remained isolated for a longer time. We'll never know.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 26, 2005 11:56 AM

It's not so much that Diamond winds up
at a P.C. conclusion that is absurd but that he boldly states in the prologue that he intended from the beginning to arrive there.

This books tends to stir up biogeographic thinking
in its readers. Many of these readers can
easily transcend his breezy just-so arguments.

Posted by: J.H. at July 26, 2005 12:12 PM

OJ: It's even easier to refute: North America.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 26, 2005 12:15 PM

Assuming Diamond's thesis is spot-on (i.e.,
not everything is domesticable) why can't
the geographical have-nots make use
of the imported crops and livestock and
run with it?

It seems that Brazil has become an Agricultural
powerhouse in recent decades. Why not
Honduras, Guatemala or some of the central
African countries?

Posted by: J.H. at July 26, 2005 12:17 PM


Have you read the book? He argues that any animal or plant that wasn't domesticated in ancient times was incapable of being domesticated.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 12:23 PM

So, is the Near East the dominant part of the world?

Posted by: Bob at July 26, 2005 12:24 PM


Diamond doesn’t present his theory as one of many under consideration. He claims geographic coincidence is the only factor in the development of civilization. This absurd idea is made even more ludicrous when Diamond gets his geography all wrong. Again, all of Diamonds central assertions in GG&S are patently absurd when investigated to any critical degree.

No historian or anthropologist has ever argued that climate and geography have nothing to do with the development of civilization. Its Diamond's assertion that geography is the only thing that counts that makes him different - makes him dead wrong. Though the twisted logic and distorted facts he uses to try to support his theories are particularly funny.

Posted by: Shelton at July 26, 2005 12:47 PM

The usefulness of this book is that it lays out some data and gets people thinking about the questions of what went right and what went wrong for various cultures. Its conclusions are, as has been pointed out above, absurd.

Diamond would like his readers to think that the Cancer of History, aka the White race, prevailed by dumb luck and geography, as if institutions had not enabled it to transcent geography. For example, he reminds us that the Chinese invented gunpoweder and the Arabs firearms (neither assertion being precisely correct. Pray tell, how it it that the West effectively used technology--weapons, communications, transportation--while the rest did not?

Diamond fails because he refuses to recognize the role of culture as the answer to the above two questions. At the start of the television series, he has some Papuan guy ask, "How come you whites have all the cargo and we have so little?" The answer is that we know where cargo comes from, and what we have to do to get it. The dumb-a** (the author, not the native) thinks it's just a matter of luck.

His confusion is compounded by the P.C./leftist tendency to mix up race and culture. In that dream-world, culture and race are identical, and you can't assert cultural advantage, because that would just be--bad.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 26, 2005 1:20 PM

david: you should send that off to the dang new york review of books --you've got a future, man!

oj: explain the failure of proto-europeans to domesticate mastodons and saber-tooth tigers. how about modern failure to domesticate garden variety tigers? oh, i forgot, sigfried and roy did that. oops...

Posted by: lonbud at July 26, 2005 1:21 PM

Diamond's thesis lays out very broad environmental principles that explain the general broad development of civilizations. It seems many of his critics here are insisting that Diamond's principles are the ONLY principles that effect development, and Diamond does not say that. Ali Choudhury's and Robert Duquette's are near my estimation of Diamond's book.

Because the book is about introducing the concept of environmental effects on development, he does not get into the subject of politics or economics. I do not believe he should be attacked because he does not address those. If certain reviewers are insisting that environmental factors are the only determinant, the critics should attack them, not Diamond - he does not make that claim as I recall.

In the latter part of the book, Diamond does mention that geographic regions that encourage autonomy for many states (such as Europe because of its pennisulas and various mountain ranges) will be more likely to develop better. That's because the absence of a central authority will encourage competition between those states and fuel development. This is where cultural factors really begin to come into play.

If China's ruler makes a bad policy, the entire cultural region will suffer. But if Spain's ruler makes a bad decision that causes decline, some other part of Europe will likely take a different approach and subsequently ascend. For instance, when Spanish policies harmed the success of the Spanish Netherlands, the merchants and artists had the option of escaping to the other Netherlands and fuel their rise. Such an option was not available to Chinese merchants under the Ming.

OJ is wrong that Diamond says that nothing domesticated in the classic world cannot be domesticated. Diamond says no such thing. He talks briefly about WHY animals were not domesticated. It comes down to whether it made economic sense. Elephants, for example, eat too much - it was economically easier to simply tame wild elephants when needed rather than feed domesticated ones. Hippos are so dangerous that it makes no sense to risk all the deaths necessary to do so. Likewise, why should the Sioux domesticate buffalo when they could simply hunt wild ones whenever they wanted to?

As for JH's question, the reason the have nots could not succeed after introduction of those elements was that by the time they did arrive, Europeans were conquering their lands. Both American continents and Australia are ruled by European descendents and established along Western lines. Other societies, more advanced, were eventually able to recover from Europe's period of dominance, such as East Asia.

The question between Brazil and Honduras, both essentially Western states, is out of scope of Diamond's thesis precisely because his book is about the broad environmental factors of development, not economic, political, and cultural factors between similar states affect development.

I know I write too much.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 26, 2005 1:21 PM

IIRC Thomas Sowell for one has covered similar territory (Conquests and Cultures) without making nearly the splash. Perhaps you have to oversimplify in order to sell books?

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 26, 2005 1:40 PM

So is the Near East the dominant part of the world?"

Not now, but it is the area which kick-started our dominant Western civilization, and which was the birthplace of Judeo-Christianity, which had a lot to do with the cultural ascendance of the West.

The problem with these analyses is that it measures the winners and losers at one snapshot in time. 100 years ago Europe dominated the world. Today it is in decline. Greece was once a cultural and military world power, now it is a poor backwater on both accounts.

Diamond may have an ideological axe to grind, but that alone can't be used to invalidate his argument. It is obvious that many of his critics have their own axe to grind, a cultural axe attributing the success of the West to Christianity alone. If you had to discard every argument that had some ideological baggage attached to it, you would learn very little.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 26, 2005 1:43 PM

Chris -

But Diamond is simply begging the question in all those examples.

His central theory is weakened by the unfortunate existence of the bison so he just makes a special case pleading for them and moves on.

Why should have the Plains Indians become herders when they didn't have to? Well... why should have Europeans become herders when they didn't have to? Neither culture had to do anything - he's just begging the question.

And of course he is missing the real answer to the question. Domesticating bison (and tending crops) would have given the Plains Indians all the same advantages that Europeans reaped from those technologies. That's why should have the Plains Indians domesticated the bison. But they didn't, and it wasn't geography that prevented them from doing so - it was lack of ingenuity and technological legacy, some of which can be traced to geography, but only so much.

Posted by: Shelton at July 26, 2005 1:53 PM

i've got another one for you, oj: kudzu

Posted by: lonbud at July 26, 2005 2:36 PM

I have not read Diamond, but I have read alll five volumes of Singer's 'History of Technology.'

Most of our technology came out of western Asia, as well as (though Singer does not say so) most of our religion.

Yet the inheritors of both traditions were relatively backward compared to East Asia -- which they vastly envied -- up to around 1600.

Partly from Christianity but mostly in opposition to it, around 1600 people for the first time became self-conscious about how they knew things.

Harvey, Galileo and a bunch of others, instead of just making crap up like Christians do, decided to go look.

What they found was a big surprise to everyone and turned out to be a source of material power.

Orrin's nonsense about domestication is on a par with his other natural history. Different species have different potentials to be manipulated. Humans have had swans around for a long time, but they are not domesticated.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 26, 2005 2:37 PM

Shelton, the Indians did cultivate crops. They domesticated maize, beans and squash.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 26, 2005 3:12 PM

Genetic evidence suggests that the populations
of Western Europe switched from hunting-based
societies to ones based on agriculture primarily
through cultural diffusion (i.e., w/out pop.
displacement). You might also say that in
some ways, the European hunting based societies
were no more advanced than many of the primitive
agricultural societies in Africa and certainly
less advanced than some of the monument-building
peoples of the Americas. Yet they were able
to make steady improvements in the agricultural
systems and eventually pull to the forefront.

Posted by: J.H. at July 26, 2005 3:20 PM

That's just a historical artifact--they're property of the king so ranching them wouldn't make business sense.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 3:20 PM


An excellent example. Kudzu was imported and cultivated.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 3:22 PM

initially, perhaps, on the kudzu, oj, but your intelligently designed man-kings of the american south failed at domesticating the stuff. ever taken a drive through mississippi?

Posted by: lonbud at July 26, 2005 3:37 PM

Robert -

Correct, which goes directly against Diamond's assertion that inferior cultures were inferior because they didn't have domesticable crops in their geographical location.

They (the Plains Indians*) also had domesticable animals, an easily navigable landscape, abundant natural resources of every type, contact with more technologically advanced cultures (Inca/Aztecs), space to develop counter-cultures; they lived in a climate harsh enough to reward ingenuity but not so harsh as to punish experimentation innovation - in other words, geographically speaking they had everything Europeans and Asians had and more, but they failed to develop into a comparable civilization. European (and Asian to a lesser degree) dominance over time has less to with geography than with the most important features of a consistently successful civilization - language and philosophy.

*same arguments apply to sub-Saharan Africans and to a lesser extent Australian natives.

Posted by: Shelton at July 26, 2005 3:41 PM

The fates of North and South/Central America put a lie to this thesis. Each half of the Western Hemisphere enjoys about the same temperate climate, virtually the same terrain and abundant natural resources. Yet, pre-Columbian South America developed several advanced civilizations while North America developed none that have been discovered to date.

Post-Columbian South/Central America suffered because Spain granted huge tracts of land to nobles who ruled them like fiefdoms, resulting in poverty which continues to this day. In post-Columbian, North America, pioneers forged their own way and developed the greatest civilization the world has ever seen.

Getting back to New Guinea. I seem to remember in school we were taught that people living in the tropics lived a simple, paradisiacal existence because everything they needed literally grew on the trees around them. Darn smart of them I'd say to stay out of the rat race and by-pass all the angst white Europeans went through since pre-historic times just so we can finally go on vacation or retire on that white sandy beach where the dark hued natives are waiting for us and saying, what took you guys so long to get here?

When dear God, when will we be rid of these idiots?

Posted by: erp at July 26, 2005 3:44 PM


You seem to be confused about domestication.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 3:46 PM

is that right? unconfuse me, oj.

Posted by: lonbud at July 26, 2005 4:17 PM

do·mes·ti·cate Audio pronunciation of "domesticate" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (d-mst-kt)


tr.v. do·mes·ti·cat·ed, do·mes·ti·cat·ing, do·mes·ti·cates

1. To cause to feel comfortable at home; make domestic.
2. To adopt or make fit for domestic use or life.
1. To train or adapt (an animal or plant) to live in a human environment and be of use to humans.
2. To introduce and accustom (an animal or plant) into another region; naturalize.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 4:27 PM

Shelton, et al -

Plains Indians ... AKA horse culture Indians ... did have domesticated dogs and, um, horses. The horses enabled their nomadic hunting culture. It appears that Plains Indians may have been driven from their earlier (native?) woodland habitat by the Iroquois. But for stray Spanish horses, which they "adopted", they may well not have survived. The Plains are, in fact, pretty damn harsh.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 4:47 PM


Europeans brought them the horses.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 4:54 PM

"the wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle native to the Near East"

Which explains why the Near East (in this case the uplands of the tigris and euphrates rivers) is the wealthiest, most civilized part of the world today?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 26, 2005 4:56 PM

Only in the sense that Europeans (Spanish) brought horses to the continent in the first place. Indians intially rounded up some Spanish strays, found them useful, then stole themselves some more. And they knew how to domesticate the wild ones.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 5:00 PM

"Domesticating bison (and tending crops) would have given the Plains Indians all the same advantages that Europeans reaped from those technologies. That's why should have the Plains Indians domesticated the bison."

The Plains Indians were settled agriculturalists who lived by By the shore of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water. They became nomadic feeders off the bison after they found [traded for] horses, which were not to be found in North america between the end of the Clovis era and 1492.

The nomadic plains indians would have eaten all the bison by themselves if they had a bit more time. At that time, they might have domesticated the beasts.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 26, 2005 5:18 PM

Ghostcat -

When did I say that Native Americans didn't have domesticated animals? Didn't I say the opposite?

Semi-nomadic tribes were living in the Great Plains for thousands of years before the arrival of the horse. Evidence of drop-sites, hunting corrals, and notch-point spears (all of which show bison dependent cultures) are found all over the plains dating as far back as 1200 BC. Proto-shoshonean tribes were hunting bison in nomadic patterns similar to late Plains Indians (using pack-dogs instead of horses) 500 years before the horse showed up.

I'm not really sure what you are trying to say.

Posted by: Shelton at July 26, 2005 5:19 PM

thanks, ghost, for pointing out that spain is part of europe. i stand by my assertion, having been edified by oj's citation, that the intelligently designed man-kings of the american south failed to domesticate kudzu. in the sense, that is, that introduction of a pest species that overwhelms native flora & fauna and accustoms itself to uncontrollable replication does not qualify as domestication.

Posted by: lonbud at July 26, 2005 5:23 PM

Shelton -

I don't disagree, but thought you had overlooked the "domesticated dogs" part of the story. Apparently I misread you.

Do you not buy the "driven from the woodlands" part? (I recognize there were SOME scattered pre-Columbian people in the Plains.)

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 5:29 PM

lonbud -

But not all Europeans are Spanish (or Portugese). I don't believe the English (or the French, Dutch or Scotch-Irish) brought significant numbers of horses with them. They were on a quite different, um, mission.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 5:39 PM

I'd agree mostly - the Plains Indian culture made famous in popular history is markedly different than pre-columbian plains culture from my understanding.

Pre-columbian plains tribes like the ones I mentioned (such as the Apache and Comanche) became more dominant after discovery of the horse and other western technologies.

Also as you mentioned other non-plains cultures (such as the Cheyenne, Dakota, Arapahoe) were forced to adopt the Plains culture when they were pushed out of their lands by Europeans and other Indians.

While almost all the plains tribes had the horse by the 17th century the most successful tribes were those that learned to use the horse for warfare (raids) and trading in addition to hunting and moving.

Posted by: Shelton at July 26, 2005 6:02 PM

And don't forget the pre-columbian Indians use of fire to manipulate their environment to the benefit of species (both plant and animal) they prefered to hunt.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 26, 2005 6:13 PM

And horse-thieving ability came to be valued as highly as hunting ability ... almost as highly as warrior ability.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 6:16 PM

Raoul -

The Willamette Valley still hasn't recovered! (Noble-Savage romanticists blame the white settlers, of course.)

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 6:20 PM

I had some of the same concerns with Diamond's book as Orrin has, mostly his determinism and his neglect of culture and communication. The American Indians arrived before domestication of animals was widespread (excepting dogs, who pretty much domesticated themselves while picking through our trash). Domestication was not a cultural concept they could pick up from their neighbors after arriving because of their isolation. Animals, to them, were simply prey. So shortly after they arrived, there were massive extinctions of New World megafauna, including horses. Oops.

When one tribe sees that another has made a technological advance, they can either adapt it to their own use or suffer from competition. The idea of writing seems to have originated with the Sumerians, but later systems borrowed only the concept, not the system (syllabic pictograms in Egypt, whole-word pictograms in China, a true alphabet among the Phoenicians and other Semitic peoples). We even saw this within recorded history, when Sequoiah borrowed the European concept of written language to formulate an entirely different system for Cherokee; one based on syllables, not on an alphabet.

Similarly, while wheat and barley may have originated in the Middle East, the concept of farming spread to places where other crops were better suited and different species (rice, millet, sorghum) were developed from the wild.

You can't get ideas (or diseases, for that matter) from your neighbors unless you have neighbors.

Posted by: Mitch at July 26, 2005 8:10 PM

Mitch -

Central and Soiuth American Indians got some fairly sophisticated ideas from somewhere.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 26, 2005 8:59 PM

gc: kontiki.

Posted by: cjm at July 26, 2005 10:10 PM

Wow. Quite a debate.

A few points to add:
First, in fairness to GG&S, it actually maintains that a tribe needs a 'package' of domesticable plants and animals not just one or two, to make it worthwhile to settle down and become a more advanced society. His favorite example is Australia where the English could only domesticate the Macadamia nut. I did not see this rebutted directly.

Second, the book really only explains what happened to get us to the point where advanced cultures developed and what factors enabled some areas to have more material success. It is not deterministic beyond that. I recall the book as essentially amoral beyond being anti-racist. I do not believe that it directly rejects OJ's (and Blair/Bush's) policy of helping bring 'end of history' to places like Africa or his occasional justification of some aspects of colonialism as preparing less fortunate cultures for liberty and the rule of law. It just provides a simple, plausible explanation of why some parts of the world were more likely to get there first. It does look like his show is a little more proscriptive (and left leaning), but I only saw a bit.

Third, I recall a WSJ op-ed by Diamond saying that his research essentially supports federalism as a good system of government in that it allows compartmentalized experiments in states while still spreading some overall benefits across states. He likened it to western europe with its peninsulas, etc.

My point is that there is no reason the average BroJudd reader should reject the book. I happen to think the thesis is simplistic and incomplete and I am more interested in culture and religion anyway, but I would not reject it along with some of the pseudoscientific nonsense ridiculed here.

Posted by: JAB at July 26, 2005 10:36 PM

kontiki: Thouroghly debunked.

The Kontiki hypothesis was that the polynesians started on the main land of South America and moved east. Genetic and linguistic studies show that the founding population started in Taiwan and moved south and then west.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 26, 2005 11:43 PM

"pre-Columbian South America developed several advanced civilizations while North America developed none"

Depends upon which continent you think Mexico is on.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 26, 2005 11:45 PM


Posted by: oj at July 27, 2005 12:01 AM

Diamond lists half a dozen plants that North American Indians had started to domesticate. IIRC the only ones still cultivated are sunflowers and squash. The rest got displaced by Central American plants like maize and beans. He explains why other plants like oaks couldn't be domesticated. So it doesn't seem unreasonable for him to conclude that the opportunities just weren't that good, compared to Central America and the Middle East.

As to the bison, if your main way of hunting an animal is to drive a herd over a cliff, that suggests that domesticating it is problematic, for whatever reason.

Posted by: Bill Woods at July 27, 2005 1:04 AM

Orrin is, as usual, not sticking to any known definition of 'domestication,' which exists in grades anyway.

To say, as he has now done twice so he must mean it, that kudzu was domesticated is meaningless. Bringing a seed from S. America and planting it in Georgia is not domestication.

The idea that anything can be domesticated is disproven by the example of reindeer as well as swans, and humans have worked hard to tame reindeer with modest success.

Why exactly so much early technology arose in western Asia seems inexplicable by any sort of general theory, though Karl Wittfogel's notion of oriental despotism, which is in bad odor among modern academics, must have some relevance.

At any rate, we should give credit where due, to the Sumerians on one hand (Samuel Noah Kramer wrote a book about their '41 firsts') and the marginal desert dwellers who seem to have been responsible for most of the innovations in Egypt.

But we don't know enough to make very positive statements about any of this.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 27, 2005 1:15 AM


Domestication is nothing more than cultivating a crop or animal with the intent of humans using it. The guarantee of constant supplies of such items leads to settlement and civilization. People who figured out domestication picked and chose from among various plants and animals. The Laps didn't domesticate reindeer because they didn't have anything to feed them. We've got reindeer on farms around here and they're happy as clams.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2005 1:23 AM

Llamas. Tobacco. Cocaine. Casinos.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 27, 2005 1:39 AM

Robert, For the purposes of this discussion, I put Mexico with South/Central America because it shared their fate along with their common Spanish ancestry.

The interesting question isn't whether I think Mexico is in North America, where it obviously is geographically, but why the advanced pre-Columbian civilizations never crossed the Rio Grande or developed independently north of it.

Posted by: erp at July 27, 2005 8:13 AM

Well, the posting of my Science review generated an amazing thread of blogs! One additional point: At the risk of plugging my book, if you are interested in a very different take from Diamond's on the origins of civilization--one that puts the emphasis more on sedentism, which predated domestication of plants and animals--you might check out my book "The Goddess and the Bull," about Catalhoyuk and the origins of the Neolithic. It is based on my reporting on this prototypical Neolithic site for Science since 1998. More details on my Web site, http://www.michaelbalter.com

Posted by: Michael Balter at July 27, 2005 9:55 AM

feeding those reindeer kudzu, are ya, oj?

erp: uh, i believe the incas & mayans predate the spanish in c/s america, though it is interesting they never settled north of the rio grande...

Posted by: lonbud at July 27, 2005 11:28 AM

But that gets back to one of Diamond's point, which is that it's easy to move crops/animals east or west, but hard to move them north/south. Therefore you have more cross-culture exchange in Eurasia than the in the Americas.

OJ is also being disingenuous by treating domesticability as a binary value ("yes" or "no") as opposed to a continuous function ("more or less difficult").

I also took Diamond's thesis as probabilistic rather than determinitive as to which region would develop advanced civilization first. And first is all that matters, because which ever culture does get there first will dominate all the others.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 27, 2005 12:05 PM


It works for cows.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2005 12:17 PM


To the contrary, I'm saying it is a continuum and everything on it can be domesticated if we want to.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2005 12:46 PM

What Guy said about domestication.

Orrin, you said you have pig farms in the area.

If you do, then you know about the pieces of angle iron in the farm trucks. Pigs are not wholly domesticated, either.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 27, 2005 12:51 PM


There's a package of bacon in my fridge and ham steaks in the freezer. They were cheap. We domesticated pigs.

You're confusing domestication with rendering something completely docile and pliable. Man isn't domesticated by that standard, which obviously renders it inane.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2005 12:55 PM

lonbud, Pre-Columbian means before the Spaniards showed up and that's the period I credited South/Central America with advanced civilizations. Mexico was implicitedly included as sharing the fate of the area of the Western Hemisphere south of the Rio Grande, then as now. The north and south developed very differently both in ancient times and in the more recent past, even though they share a common geography.

Thus disproving in every way this ridiculous thesis.

How do these moonbats get funding for running around the world conjuring up theories as to why those with more melanin than early Europeans didn't get their fair share of the world's goods, and proving once again that they are flaming racists. Their assumptions that white Europe is the ideal and that every other civilization is found wanting, is so insulting I can't imagine why anyone is giving this theory a second's glance much less making into a three part documentary.

Posted by: erp at July 27, 2005 2:29 PM


It's an observable fact that Europe was the first region to develop technological societies. Why? Pure randomness, or something more fundamental?

OJ says "better culture" but that just begs the question of why that culture developed in Europe and not elsewhere.

My reading GG&S is that Diamond thinks that, in the long run, technological society can arise anywhere. However, it is most likely to emerge first in places that (1) get a head start because of the relative ease of domestication of local species and (2) have a geography that frustrates large empires leading to a much richer competition and cross-fertilization between societies. And, as noted above, technological civilization will arise only once and so one will always observe it arising in a single region. I don't see anything "manifestly absurd" in that, although perhaps it comes down to how probabilistic vs. determinitive you view Diamond's thesis.

Also, it's not clear to me that pre-Columbian America civilizations developed all that differently, not in the broad scale we are discussing here. There are certainly a lot of parallels between the Aztecs and the Incas (not to mention the Aztecs and their predecessor empires). How, fundamentally, were the Mayan city states different from the societies on the Mexican plateau?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 27, 2005 4:18 PM


Cast your net wider, in the direction of the Innuit. Major differences as one heads North. It does appear, though, that many of the pre-columbian cultures in (what are now) the southern and eastern states appear to be derivative of Central and/or South American cultures.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 27, 2005 5:18 PM

AOG- They aren't different and that's what I thought I was saying pretty clearly in three separate comments.

My contention is the pre-Columbian grand civilizations south of the Rio Grande, i.e., the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayas, etc. are similar.

What is different is that although the area north of the Rio Grande shares the same geography, there are no signs of the same kind advanced civilizations.

So, if geography is destiny, how to explain this difference?

You don't have to agree with this analysis, but at least disagree with what I am actually saying.

Posted by: erp at July 27, 2005 6:03 PM

weren't the aztecs centered in mexico city, which is pretty far south of the rio grande ?. whereas central mexico (and the yuccatan) are lush, northern mexico is pretty inhospitable. maybe the aztecs just didn't see any reason to extend that far away from their center of power. also, they were usually pretty busy slaughtering people to really get into expanding their empire.

Posted by: cjm at July 27, 2005 7:26 PM

I think erp is using the Rio Grande simply as the dividing line between North and Central America. He's focussing on Central and South American pre-columbian cultures. Toltecs, Aztecs, Olmecs, Maya, et al in Central America, and Incas further South. Most of those cultures were pretty advanced for the Americas. While they did not have iron, they did have tin, copper, bronze, gold, and silver. Several had complex social structures, a rather elaborate "engineered environment", and a written language. Much more advanced than the North American Indians, even those descended from Central American "ancients".

Posted by: ghostcat at July 27, 2005 7:53 PM


I strongly disagree with your assertion that the geography north of the Rio Grande is similar to that south of it, particularly the regions where complex Central/South American societies arose. For instance, there are no Great Plains in that region, nor are there jungles north of the Rio Grande. Once you add climate (tropical vs. temperate) you have some very large differences. Moreover, if one considers the geographic range of South America and the cultures there, what we see is the existence of advanced cultures in the tropical zones of the Americas and not outside of it. That seems somewhat geographically deterministic to me.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 27, 2005 9:26 PM

AOG. Why the mountains in Peru? Shouldn't the Incas have been in the jungles of Brazil instead? If tropical climates generate advanced civilizations, why none in equatorial Africa?

You have a point, but I still say whatever sparked the pre-Columbian civilizations, I don't think it was domesticated animals or geography.

Posted by: erp at July 27, 2005 10:26 PM