Friday, March 16, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Have I got a long post for you today!

Here are my notes from this book:
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

I've translated my notes from the abbreviation-ridden shorthand I use, but if there's anything that's incomprehensible tell me straightaway.

The notes here don't follow the order of the book, but are rather grouped in ways that make sense to me. Click for whichever category you'd like to read:

Plant Domestication | Animal Domestication | Diseases | Writing | Inventions | Societies | Geography | In Sum

Plant Domestication:

Hunting-gathering -> food production (farming) b/c: depletion of wild game, more domesticable wild plants (i.e. via climate change), tech for gathering (sickles, baskets, etc.), population density up, prodimity to other farmers (replaced by them or adopt methods)

Birth rate up for food production v. hunter-gatherers

Plant domestication: unconsciously at first (hunting-gathering: eat the most promising, help spread the seeds; human selection negligible because animals also), then choosing + planting most desirable (large/seedless fruits, non-bitter, mutations that don't inhibit germination; must breed true)

Interplant competition up because more density

Diversity of environments (altitudes, climate variation) -> biological diversity, so better able to domesticate + become farmers

Cereals and legumes domesticated first; flax domesticated early for clothing (fibers)

Apples, pears, plums, and cherries domesticated in classic times

Roman foods: oats, poppies, Fertile Crescent crops, millet, cucumber, citrus, rice, apples, etc.

Staples: wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, soybean, potato, manioc, sweet potato, sugarcane, sugar beet, banana

Cereals > corn

Acorns = "fallback food" in Europe

Animal Domestication:

Domestication fails because: diet (biomass conversion 10%, so no carnivores), growth rate (nothing that takes too long to reach adulthood), elaborate/long courtship rituals, tendency to kill humans, nervousness/panic, lack of dominance hierarchy, territorial behavior (solitary)

Big domestic animals provide protein, wool/hides, transport of people and goods, vehicle of war, source of industrial power

Major domestic animals: cow, sheet, goat, pig, horse


Crowd diseases: need big, dense populations + waste; acute (die or recover quickly); epidemics w/ intervals rather than constant; not sustainable in small groups

Microbes from soil or animals can constantly reinfect

Diseases become less fatal in order to spread more


Symbols for words, phonetics, clarifying meaning


Solutions look for problems (invention begat necessity)

Based on previous models; do not come forth from a vacuum

To be accepted: 1. be economically useful, 2. prestigious, 3. compatible with existing technology, 4. observably advantageous

Wheels are viable only if there are pack animals

Isolation -> fewer inventions adopted and maintained

Sedentary living allows for bigger inventions because they don't need to be carried

Competition helps invention


Bands (5-80) - essential 1 or more extended families, hunter-gatherers, nomadic

Tribes (hundreds) - fixed or seasonally nomadic, food production, multiple clans, everyone knows everyone so no need for complex conflict resolution, no stratification or inherited leadership, little specialization

Chiefdoms (thousands, tens of thousands) - internal conflict, hereditary leadership, general bureaucrats, specialists, slaves, tribute

States (50k+) - multiple cities, capital, monopoly of information in positions of power, extensive taxation, specialization (also in bureaucracy), centralized economic control (disastrous when removed), slavery, formalized justice system, written laws, literacy, multiethnic/lingual, often non-hereditary

To justify "kleptocracy" (keep fruits of commoner labor): monopolize weapons, redistribute wealth in popular ways, maintain order/reduce violence, make religion that justifies (divine right)

Religion also -> unity, reason for sacrifice

Farmers can build public works in off season

Big societies need systems in place to resolve conflicts

Outside threat/conquest -> consolidation

War -> low population density -> defeated move farther away
|  \-> moderate population density -> take women and territory, kill men
\-> high population density -> use defeated as slaves or make them a tribute state


East-west major axis facilitates spread of everything

Rivers + gentle terrain unify

Rainforests, deserts, high mountains hurt diffusion


What affects a society's success?

  1. Difference in plants/animals available for domestication.
  2. Difference in factors affecting rate of diffusion (axis, barriers).
  3. Diffusion between continents (isolation).
  4. Area/population (larger is good - more inventions, competition).

And this handy graphic:

I encourage you to read the book for yourself. There's a lot of good stuff there that I can't explain well enough to include. Very helpful for worldbuilding!

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