How did we all get to be where we are today? The story of guns, germs and steel.

This post has nothing to do with cyber security or antispam.  But one of the advantages of having a blog is that I get to write about topics that I find interesting, and I find this particular topic very interesting.  Thus, I am writing about it.

Recently, I finished a book by a biologist by the name of Jared Diamond.  Diamond is an expert on the bird life in Papua New Guinea.  But 30 years ago, he was asked a question by one of the locals of the island: “How come you white men have so much cargo?  And how come we Papua New Guineans have so little cargo?” (Cargo is the word for “stuff”).  It’s a good question.  Try to answer it yourself.  Why is there so much imbalance in the world?  Why is the distribution of wealth and science so heavily concentrated in Europe?  Why did the Europeans go out and conquer the rest of the world, instead of the rest of the world going out and conquering Europe?

At first you might say that Europe had better technology than the rest of the world.  But that only begs the question – why did the Europeans develop better technology faster than the rest of the world?  How is it that they came to acquire it and others did not?

Do you have any theories?

Diamond answers the question in his book.  The answer is very complicated, and yet it is also very simple.  20,000 years ago most humans were living more or less the same existence.  We were hunters and gatherers with stone tools and lived a very basic life.  We would go out and kill animals for food or gather nuts and berries and bring them back and eat them.  When the game moved, so did we.

But something changed.  Some societies developed faster than others – much faster.  When Europeans landed in Australia in the 1700’s, they found native Aborigines still using stone tools.  Why did the Europeans build complex states while the Aborigines were still hunting and gathering?  What advantages did they have?

The answer is not racial.  Europeans are not more innately talented than others.  To put it simply, the answer is food.  Food is the answer.

What do I mean?  In any society, survival is the basic requirement.  You spend your day just sustaining yourself and that requires food.  However, if you have a surplus of food, you can now support a class of people that are not dedicated to gathering food.  Instead, this class of people can invent things, create bureaucracies and maintain standing armies.  If one society is spending all of its time gathering food to live, while another only spends part of its time gathering food, it will develop more rapidly because the people who are not gathering food are advancing society.

That’s why Europe advanced more rapidly than others.  They had a surplus of food and was able to support a non-food-gathering class.  But that begs the question – why did Europe generate food surpluses?  Why not the Africans?  Or the native North American population?  Or the New Guineans?

It all started in a part of the world known as the Fertile Crescent.  It is called this because the shape of the landmass that it forms looks like a crescent moon.  It starts in the Palestine/Israel area and forms an arc over to Mesopotamia. 


The Fertile Crescent is where agriculture first started.  It is an area of land that is particularly receptive to growing crops.  It had the best soil and rain flow.  Mesopotamia is the birthplace of civilization (but not humanity), and the reason is that this is where large human societies first started to settle.  The crops that could be grown here are wheat and barley, two of the most important crops even today because of the high protein content.  The crops were native to the area and could be domesticated (domestication is the modification of organisms thereby making them more useful to humans).  When humans figured this out about 8500 BC, people began to settle in one area rather than wandering around as nomads (agriculture and hunting and gathering co-existed for a period of time before hunting and gathering was supplanted).  The Agricultural Revolution was beginning.

The people of the Fertile Crescent got a head start because they discovered at an earlier age that they could grow crops and reliably produce food rather than have to hunt it down.  However, food production began natively (without input from people who wandered into the area and brought it with them) in other parts of the world.  In southern China, they began producing food around 7500 BC.  Food production also occurred independently in Papua New Guinea (about 4500 BC? I forget), in Mesoamerica (Mexico) about 3500 BC and the northeastern United States around 2500 BC.  However, the crops grown in these parts of the world were not as useful as the Fertile Crescent because they were harder to grow (such as corn in Mesoamerica) or didn’t provide the same amount of protein as wheat and barley.

As the cradle of civilization grew, they expanded west through northern Africa and into Europe, bringing their agricultural techniques with them.  But you may be wondering – if Mesopotamia and the middle east started producing food the earliest, why aren’t they the world powers today?

Indeed, why aren’t they?  The reason is that humans are not very good at managing the land.  Because of deforestation, they would clear the soil and eventually the Fertile Crescent became more desolate.  Iraq today is a desert but it wasn’t always that way.

But look at Europe – it is farther north but has a much wetter climate.  It is more resilient to deforestation.  Humans can work on the land but it recovers much faster.  Thus, humans in Europe were able to produce more food and generate food surpluses much more than anyone else in the world because of the climate zone they lived in.  This food surplus enabled them to support a warrior class (soldiers) and develop technology to go out and conquer the rest of the world.  They were able to do this because they had the time to do it.

The reason Europe conquered the world, and not vice versa, is because the inhabitants of Europe just so happened to live in a part of the world that was conducive to food production.

More in my next post.

Comments (1)

  1. Tanya SantaCruz says:

    hi Mr. Diamond where would you request me for some more information? I'm in the middle of a big assessment about guns, germs and steal.

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