The Fates of Human Societies


A Short History of Everybody for
the Last 13,000 Years

Jared Diamond

We may or may not know who Scott Fuller is…

Diamond first entered the saturated pop-science book market back in 1991 with the publication of his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee.
After making a few million and hurting his neck from wearing assorted
medals, our friend Dr. Diamond set his mind on producing one of the
most ambitious pop-science books in living memory. Arguably more
ambitious than Dawkins’ attempt to compress Darwinism to within 400
pages (The Blind Watchmaker) and packed with more information (true or not) than a million year’s worth of The New York Times,
Diamond unleashed this beast upon the public back in 1998. As the
subtitle states, this book is ‘a short history of everybody for the
last 13,000 years’. Not ambitious in the least, but interesting
nonetheless. Before I begin any kind of analysis of the book’s central
theory, it must be stated in advance that a number of anthropologist
co-workers have expressed their contempt for this book to me on a
number of occasions. Not because of the theory, or even because of the
wide-ranging perspective, but mostly because of the details surrounding
whether Diamond was entirely correct in identifying a species of corn
which may have existed in the Fertile Crescent circa 7000B.C.
As I said to these illustrious scholars, I don’t really give a fuck
whether one species of corn or another, closely related, species of
corn existed in region x at time y. What I am interested
in is whether Diamond’s overall theory holds up/makes any sense. For
some reason, my inclination towards the theory over the nitpicking over
details has since alienated me from these scholars. Oh well.

Ignoring the concerns of anally-retentive anthropologists,
paleo-geologists, paleo-agronomists, and all their related brethren, we
can now move on to a brief examination of Diamond’s book. It is
probably best to think of this whole book as answering one basic (or
not so basic) question:

If there are no essential differences among the
different peoples of the planet, then why did the historical
trajectories of these people diverge so much?

Not uncommon in the enlightened world of the bigot or the
Eurocentric fuckhead, is the claim that the different historical
trajectories of the different ‘races’ of the human species represent
underlying differences between these races. We have heard all of this
stuff before: it was the Europeans who developed technology, science,
etc., whilst the rest of the world waded in their own feces and played
drums to summon up the spirit of the volcano, etc. Assuming that one is
not a racist, the claim that the different paths of cultural
development of the different people in the world indicate that
Europeans are superior to, say, the Australian aborigines is unlikely
to convince. Nevertheless, a cursory reading of history will lend
support to claims that there were/are in fact substantial differences
to be found in the level of cultural, technological, and agricultural
development of the different peoples on the planet. The problem for
Diamond, or rather, the problem which Diamond sets for himself in this
book, is how to explain the differences in historical development
amongst the different groups of humans without assuming some kind of
explicit or implicit racist assumption.

Drawing on his experiences living with various tribes in
Papua New Guinea (the Mecca for anthropologists everywhere, or so it
would seem), Diamond presents us with the following problem: If the
current generation of New Guineans is separated by only 3 or 4
generations to when PNG was almost completely ‘primitive’, and if any
version of the ‘innate differences (racist)’ theory was true, then how
is it that modern New Guineans can master modern technology with no
significant problems? This question basically cuts to the heart of the
theoretical project which Diamond has set-up for himself. The fact that
the modern descendents of ‘primitive’ people can easily accommodate
themselves to modern technology (given the opportunity), despite the
fact that they have no historical link to such technology, provides prima facie
evidence against the validity of any ‘innate differences’ explanation
for why the historical development of different groups of people
diverged so much. As you can pretty much anticipate, the only ground
left for Diamond to provide such an explanation will centre on the
historical, geographical, biological, and ecological contingencies in
which different groups found themselves inhabiting.

What our buddy (and he is our buddy) Diamond argues
for is the thesis that the reason for why different groups developed so
differently over the centuries is due to the environmental (broadly
construed) situations in which they were placed. It is due to the lack
of suitable vegetation in certain areas (like sub-Sahara Africa) that
prevented the people living there from developing agriculture. But it
is necessary to make something clear at this point: it was not as
though the people living in these unsavory areas looked about them to
find suitable plants to domesticate, failed to find any, and then
resorted to a hunter-gatherer existence. No. As Diamond illustrates,
the origin of domestication (with the corresponding growth of
agriculture of both flora and fauna) would be entirely accidental and
unintentional. For those of you who know your Darwin, you would be
aware that Darwin first developed the idea of ‘artificial selection’ in
order to lay the ground for his theory of natural selection. And in
that section, Darwin was explicit in claiming that the domestication of
plants and animals by humans would have been entirely accidental in
origin. By the vagaries of human thought and preferences, certain
species of plants and animals would have been favoured by humans. This
initial favorability would slowly give rise to a selection pressure in
favour of more ‘favourable-to-humans’ organisms and so on. Intentional
selection of organisms by humans would only be a late development upon
the originally unintentional artificial selection. This unintentional
origin is consistent with Diamond’s general thesis against any ‘innate
differences’ theory.

With this caveat in mind, it is clear how Diamond is going to
set out to debunk any ‘innate differences’ theory of historical
development. The fundamental concept underlying Diamond’s argument is
the Gould-style emphasis on contingency. Assuming no significant
differences between the different groups of humans, one can explain the
different developmental trajectories of different groups purely on the
basis of material contingency. This is most obviously the case where
plant and animal domestication is involved, for if there are no viable
candidates co-existing with a given group of humans, then the process
of unintentional artificial selection will be much more difficult to
generate. The importance of focusing on the origin of agriculture for
the overall purpose of the book is due to Diamond’s thesis that the
development of agriculture is a critical point which must be passed in
order for other cultural developments to occur. By planting crops, this
had the effects of decreased mobilization, greater population density,
and eventually, all important specialization.

According to Diamond, the sedentary lifestyle which grew up
around intensive agriculture laid the groundwork for a whole host of
cultural and developmental possibilities which had been hitherto
foreclosed. By regulating social action according to the requirements
of the crops/animals, this not only allowed for the production of
surplus resources, but also initiated a new kind of social system based
upon such surpluses. A surplus of production would allow for the
development of parasitic, non-productive social formations which would
be ultimately dependent upon the production of the specialized
agriculturists, but which would also free up the non-producers to
perform other kinds of activities not directly concerned with
production. Much like how the development of bipedal motion allowed for
early hominoids to use their hands independently of explicit
transportational (I think I made that word up) purposes, the surplus
production of intensive agriculture laid down the material/economic
conditions needed for other purposes. As Diamond describes it, this
surplus production opened up quite significant paths for humans:

“…at high population densities only a portion of the
people came to be farmers, but they were mobilized to devote themselves
to intensive food production, thereby yielding further surpluses to
feed nonproducers. The nonproducers mobilizing them included chiefs,
priests, bureaucrats, and warriors. The biggest political units could
assemble large labor forces to construct irrigation systems and
fishponds that intensified food production even further.” (p. 62).

Or, in other words, the development of agriculture was the first
step in the formation of the modern state. Of course, there were
societies in which agriculture was developed but which did not
contribute significantly to the rise of sophisticated technology (the
above quote is in the context of the Pacific Islands), but the point
still stands. If one is attempting to retrace the steps from the modern
industrialized, highly technological, and highly specialized societies,
the birth of agriculture was absolutely necessary. Diamond makes use of
comparisons to the hunter-gatherer societies of pre-colonized Australia
(anachronism noted) and sub-Sahara Africa to highlight these claims.
Just like in the pre-Pleistocene fantasies of insane environmentalists,
early hunter-gatherer societies were decentralized and largely
egalitarian. Diamond is not claiming that the lack of any centralized
command structure and the lack of any recognizable agriculture was a
mere coincidence; he is claiming a causal link between (at this stage)
the economic structure of a society and the political/social
organization of a society. But this is no Marxist rant–Diamond is
making the empirical claim that without either an internal supply of
surplus production or an external (imported) supply of resources,
people will lack the degree of independence necessary for technological
innovation and other cultural feats. The surplus is the currency which
permits the exploration of areas not exclusively founded in productive
enterprise. And whether it is possible for an intensive,
surplus-producing agriculture to take root (pun intended) will be
entirely contingent upon the available flora and fauna in a given

That is the core of what could be considered the ‘benefits’
of sedentary agricultural societies. The negative side is integral to
the thesis of the book. Diamond argues that the formation of sedentary
societies facilitated the growth of diseases in human populations. By
living so close to animals and other humans, infections were not only
much more likely to occur, but they were also likely to remain in a
population. Dense concentrations of people in one area are the perfect
breeding grounds for a whole range of parasites, bacterial infections,
and viruses. Cutting to the point of this claim, Diamond argues that
the increased exposure to disease in sedentary communities would have
had the effect of building up immunity to such diseases by members of
those communities. The reason for why this is important is obvious if
one has even the faintest knowledge of colonial history (or if you
bothered to read the second word in the book’s title). The resistance
to germs and infection by the people who grew out of the agricultural
revolution had catastrophic consequences for those groups who had not
developed agriculture. So, not only did the production of surpluses
enable those societies to develop other innovations, it also had the
effect of killing off or severely disabling any hunter-gatherer groups
who so happened to cross their path.

Another important development which arose out of the rise of
intensive agriculture was the concept and/or practice of private
property. Since anachronism is the order of the day here, it is
probably better to state that the concept of ownership (hence,
property) was first grounded in this revolution. Due to not only the
sedentary lifestyle, but also the necessity of crops and the management
of surpluses, some kind of system was needed to regulate this hitherto
non-existent phenomenon. Although evidence for cultural transitions
like these are extremely difficult to find, one source of evidence lies
in the development of writing systems. The Sumerian cuneiform writing
system is the oldest known system and it was developed in the area
known as the Fertile Crescent (modern day Iraq–also of note is the
fact that the first known anything written by humans was a beer recipe).
According to the thesis briefly outlined, this would fit in quite
nicely with Diamond’s argument because the ancient Sumerians lived in
what was once a highly fertile and dense agricultural region (the
Middle East, somewhere around modern Saudi Arabia and Turkey). The need
for written documents would arise in accordance with the need to store,
maintain, and distribute those resources (i.e., management of
property). Unlike a Marxist, Diamond does not claim that the
development of writing systems necessarily followed the development of
intensive agriculture (he provides counter-examples), but he does claim
that once writing was invented, it allowed for other cultural
developments not exclusively founded on agriculture.

The resistance to diseases associated with an agricultural
lifestyle, combined with the development of sophisticated technology
(the mastery of steel, for example), and the invention of more
effective weapons (guns, etc) all joined together to allow for these
cultures to more or less decimate other cultures. The story of the
South American invasion by the Spanish is a brilliant demonstration of
this point and is very well presented by Diamond. I knew nothing about
that invasion before reading this book and it is merely one of the
extra bits of information that you get from reading it (and if you know
about that invasion, rest assured that there will be others that you
won’t know – unless you’re a real geek). Relating the story of the
migration of homo sapiens into Northern and then Southern
America acts as a fine textbook example of how to provide evidence for
one’s theory in a clear and convincing manner. But Diamond is not
content to stick with the stories of the Americas–he has a stab at
every single major culture on the planet and the paths of their
interaction with one another.

And this is the style of argument and presentation which
underlies the whole book. By examining specific cultural feats in a
relatively detailed way (detailed for a pop science book, at least),
Diamond then proceeds to argue that certain avenues are opened up which
were previously impossible. Unlike a Hegelian, Diamond certainly does
not ascribe any sense of necessity to cultural development, but does
argue that certain things like agriculture lay down the necessary
conditions for things like sedentary living, although whether further
developments occur after these developments is contingent upon other
factors. There is an overriding sense of contingency to the whole book,
but the contingency identified in cultural developments are far from
being incomprehensible. This is why Diamond deserves to be ranked on
the same level with Stephen Jay Gould, for not only do they share the
same fundamental conception of evolution and cultural development they
also demonstrate their wide range of learning in each book. The most
interesting parallel between Diamond and Gould is that each thinker
understands that there is a political element to certain subjects, and
that insensitivity to those political elements is little more than
irresponsible (no doubt due to each man’s erudition). But just like
Gould, however, this erudition can sometimes be annoying in that a
particular tangent is taken which is not entirely necessary to the
point. Diamond has a love of linguistics and the origin of languages,
which is fair enough, but I cannot help but think that a good deal of
his ruminations on language could have been culled from the final edit.
Nevertheless, these mild divergences or extended meditations on
linguistic history (which is no doubt important) pale in comparison to
the numerous baseball references which clutter up some of Gould’s work.

I am nitpicking here (like those anthropologists mentioned
above), but there is no doubt that this book deserves to be placed
alongside the best that popular science writing has to offer. The
controversies can be left to the academics, but for a wide-ranging
theory on the origin of different human cultures, this book is outstanding.
He has clearly taken another step beyond the otherwise good first book,
and it will be very interesting to see what this man produces next (I
think he has another book out now). Plus, Diamond is a cool dude and
knows a lot more than me!