The Roots of Progress

Continental axes and the roots of progress

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, is a Pulitzer-winning book about, well, the roots of progress. What follows is not a full summary like I did for Enlightenment Now, but more of an idiosyncratic review: what I thought of it, what I got out of it, and where I’m skeptical.

I didn’t read GGS for a long time after first hearing of it. Based on the title, and on a brief discussion with someone who had read it, I thought it was going to be one of those “grab bag” history books that looks at a few random topics and tells entertaining stories about them—mere “storytime history”.

I was quite wrong. GGS is a book that attempts to deal with some of the deepest questions of history, and does so in a systematic, methodical way. I enjoyed it, although I think it only tells part of the story (and arguably tries to stretch that part to cover the whole).

Diamond phrases the problem this way: “Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? … why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? Those disparate rates constitute history’s broadest pattern and my book’s subject.” This became painfully apparent around AD 1500, when Europe began to explore and colonize the world. A mere twelve thousand years earlier, all peoples on Earth had been hunter-gatherers using stone tools. By 1500, some peoples were living in advanced civilizations with agriculture, metal tools and weapons, oceangoing ships, writing, and empires; others were living in primitive states with no writing and only weaker metals such as copper; still others were still living as nomadic hunter-gatherers. How did these disparities come about?

He summarizes his answer thus: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” (Diamond is explicitly trying to counter any hypothesis based on the inherent biological superiority of some races or peoples over others; indeed, he sees doing so as a primary motivation for the book.)

What differences in environment? GGS identifies a few key factors:

Because of all of these factors, Eurasia got a several-thousand-year head start on agriculture and settled society, which led to a general head start on all technology: metalworking, writing, states and armies, etc.

Diamond points out that in many cases, when less advanced peoples encountered innovations for the first time, typically from Western explorers/invaders, they picked them up quickly—for instance, the horse was not native to the Americas, but once it was introduced, native American tribes quickly became expert riders. This is evidence that there was nothing about the peoples themselves or their culture that prevented them from making good use of plants and animals in their environment—it was that the environment itself was lacking.

To me, the most interesting part of the book was how it illustrated that, in the earliest stages of human progress, innovations were incremental to the point of being evolutionary. There was no conscious progression towards a long-term goal; instead, decisions were made locally and short-term, on the basis of what served a need here and now. Three examples of this:

By 50,000 BC, humans had become a species capable of abstract reasoning. But our early development was still subject to a process of evolution—if not completely unconscious evolution, like natural selection, then at best semi-conscious evolution: each incremental step was taken consciously, but the final result was arrived at with no grand design.

At least, this is true up until roughly 500 BC. By that point, we had mathematics, astronomy, the beginnings of physics and biology, and above all, philosophy. By the AD 1500s, we had an explicit philosophy that “knowledge is power” and that we should be expanding human knowledge in order to find useful inventions. And so I think that Diamond’s arguments are far less convincing, at best, when he tries to extend them to the modern era (and it’s clear that he wants to do this, for which reason I am sympathetic to those of Diamond’s critics who accuse him of environmental determinism).

Apart from that, I was for the most part impressed with Diamond’s methodology. He poses clear and fundamental questions, works through them logically and methodically, and gathers systematic and even quantitative evidence when he can (for instance, counting the number of plant species suitable for domestication on each continent).

But I ran into a classic Murray Gell-Mann dilemma when I hit the chapter on the diffusion of technology—the first chapter I actually know something about. I was exclaiming aloud at some of Diamond’s statements about the history of technology, which I found wrong or at best misleading. On a simple factual level, he states that “James Watt designed his steam engine to pump water from mines”, when in fact that job was performed for over 50 years by the original steam engine invented by Newcomen before Watt did any work on the device. In a later passage, he acknowledges Newcomen’s engine, but places it in simple sequence stretching back to Thomas Savery and Denis Papin, treating them all as incremental advances on the same idea. This is somewhat true, but ignores the fact that Newcomen’s engine was qualitatively different and was the first practical invention in the sequence.

I also think he misleadingly characterizes the process of invention as one of tinkering with no clear purpose, rather than responding to actual human needs. He claims that “inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor.” I won’t refute each of these examples one by one, but I hope readers of this blog by now know that the light bulb had clear uses in, well, lighting, and that early automobiles had clear uses in (surprise!) transportation. The transistor was the result of a multi-year project by an entire team at Bell Labs; it was clear that a solid-state amplifier would be extremely valuable. Regarding the phonograph, Diamond elaborates that Edison didn’t predict the top use case for his invention, namely music, and in fact resisted this as an unserious use when it arose. But this doesn’t justify his conclusion that technology “finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being invented to meet a foreseen need.”

Now, I do agree with this bottom-line statement connecting the discussion of technology to the thesis of the book: “the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person.” But my dilemma is: how much of the rest of his facts and analysis is he getting wrong, unbeknownst to me because I’m not an expert in the other areas he covers?

My final and deepest criticism is of a part of the book that doesn’t get discussed much: the inclusion of “germs” alongside guns and steel. Most of the book is about progress in technology and social organization, which makes sense to me as a unifying theme. But Diamond also puts a significant emphasis on the fact that European conquerors and colonists brought infectious diseases with them, which killed a lot of the natives in some cases even before the Europeans themselves arrived. He presents some compelling evidence that this was an important factor (and he makes the case that the diseases too came from agriculture, which led to dense populations of both people and animals, in which these diseases could evolve and spread). But it seems to me that this could have been left out without changing the fundamental narrative of a head start in agriculture giving certain peoples a head start in technology, writing, and social organization. And so the inclusion of “germs”—right there in the title—strikes me as a deliberate attempt to dismantle any kind of narrative in which Eurasians and especially Western Europeans created modern civilization through any kind of actual achievement.

Instead, Diamond seems to characterize history as something like the curious unfolding of emergent phenomena from some kind of simple cellular automaton. Indeed, although I have here characterized the book as being about “the roots of progress”, Diamond himself disavows that concept, using the word “progress” in this sense only in scare quotes, and explicitly stating, “I do not assume that industrialized states are ‘better’ than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress,’ or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.” Alas. Perhaps Diamond should read a book on this topic.

All that said, I enjoyed the book for its fascinating discussions on many narrow topics, and its attempt (at least) at a grand synthesis.

Relevant books

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Get posts by email:

Become a patron

Get posts by email