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Geography Is Fate : GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: The Fates of Human Societies. By Jared Diamond . W.W. Norton: 480 pp., $27.50

March 09, 1997|ALFRED W. CROSBY | Alfred W. Crosby is professor of American studies, history and geography at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of several books, including "Ecological Imperialism" and, most recently, "The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600," both from Cambridge University Press

I am ethically obliged to start off with the admission that I have never read anything by Jared Diamond that I didn't like. He is broadly erudite, writes in a style that pleasantly expresses scientific concepts in vernacular American English and deals almost exclusively in questions that should interest everyone concerned about how humanity has developed. He is capable of generalities of such vastness as to boggle most minds, especially those of academic kittens who would prefer to chase their own tails than to notice sky writing. He is arrogant enough to rattle your preconceptions and your teeth, and just when you begin to splutter objections, he is off to his next intellectual Mt. Everest. Reading Diamond is like watching someone riding a unicycle, balancing an eel on his nose and juggling five squealing piglets. You may or may not agree with him (I usually do), but he rivets your attention.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" is his answer to a question proffered by his New Guinean friend, Yali: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [steel axes, umbrellas, matches, soft drinks, etc.--the material stuff of civilization], but we black people had little cargo of our own?" It is an obvious and important question, and one to which professional historians, including myself, tend to react as if we'd discovered a coral snake in the shower. We do so for two reasons: We used to answer Big Questions confidently because spellbinders like Marx, Spenser and Spengler had showed us how and were demonstrably wrong so often that we now prefer to gabble on and on about trees and underbrush, while ignoring the forests. In addition, we shy away from Yali's question because the easiest answer is one that many bray and bray about and others would rather die than utter. Race.

How come white folks got all this stuff and New Guineans and Ibos and Yaqui Indians don't? 'Cause white folks--as many might reply--are smarter and work harder and better, that's why. It is an answer that most professional analysts of the human experience bite their tongues to suppress. Some don't even want to acknowledge the question because the only alternative answer they have to the work-harder-and-smarter response is some footless spiel about how white capitalists . . . did what? Prevented New Guineans from smelting metal ores and getting out of the Stone Age 5,000 years ago? Not likely.

Jared Diamond has done us all a great favor by supplying a rock-solid alternative to the racist answer. He is well-equipped for the task. His mother is a linguist and his father a physician. He is a specialist in molecular physiology, evolutionary biology and biogeography. He knows the difference between information and visions. He has spent much of his adult life working not in London or Cairo or Beijing but in New Guinea (with side trips to the Australian outback). Thus, when he practices comparative history, his comparisons are not, say, between medieval Baghdad and Detroit, which even a Cro-Magnon time traveler would see as similar and equally incredible, but between Stone Age and 20th century existences.

Diamond's book-long answer to Yali's question is, put simply--geography and food production. For example, to answer the question of why Australian aborigines were so "backward" as compared to the British, he points out that Australia, compared to the British Isles, is poor in fertility, impoverished in native cultivable plants and domesticated animals and unpredictable in climate except insofar as its middle region is permanently bone dry.

Above all, it is located hell-and-gone at the end of the world. Long ago in southwest Asia, some folks domesticated wheat, tamed cattle and invented the wheel, and a mere two or three millenniums later, the British, who lived only a few thousand kilometers away (and connected by a land route that mostly stayed in the same climactic zone), had leavened bread, milk, wagons and bureaucrats. They were well on their way to "civilization." The Australian aborigines didn't so much as lay eyes on any of these southwest Asian items until the British arrived in the antipodes with them approximately yesterday, and the Abos are themselves now on the way to "civilization."

To become civilized--that is to say, to enjoy and to suffer a sedentary lifestyle, dense populations, centralized governments, elites, writing, technology, professional armies, large-scale architecture--one must start with or get from elsewhere plants that produce a lot of food fast. Big, nutritious and powerful animals that will accept harness or at least herding without always trying to kill their keepers are a help too. These requirements assure the slow advance toward civilization in a lot of the world. Without them, the going is more difficult. Southern Africa, for instance, had and has no native plant comparable to wild wheat or barley in caloric productivity, and while a zebra looks a lot like a horse, go lasso one. Go ahead and try.

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