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Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years.

Jared Diamond obligingly summarises his nearly 500-page book in one sentence:

`History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves'.

His book is a fascinating journey from the Pleistocene Ice Age to the present. Using ecology, linguistics, history and medical science, he attempts to explain the primacy of Eurasians, in particular Europeans, and their cultures in so much of the world. Or to put it in Diamond's own words: `Why did Europeans invade Australia rather than Australian Aborigines invade Europe?'.

He answers this on various levels, none of which assumes that Europeans are in any way superior to Aborigines. Indeed, he speculates that the average New Guinean -- he has done much of his field work on the island of New Guinea -- is more intelligent than the average modern European and American.

The immediate reasons for the 'success' of Eurasians in conquering so much of the world is that they were equipped with guns, germs and steel. But why did they, and not others, have this advantage?

Diamond argues that Eurasia -- the supercontinent of Europe and Asia -- offered its people distinct advantages for dominating cultural development, and that these were derived from environmental factors.

* Eurasians were lucky that they had many more suitable species of plants and animals to domesticate, particularly in respect to grains and large animals. Of the large terrestrial, herbivorous or omnivorous mammals, Eurasia had 72 species of which 13 were domesticated, sub-Saharan Africa had 51 of which none were domesticated, the Americas had 24 of which one (the llama) was domesticated, and Australia had one (the red kangaroo) which was not domesticated.

* Having a long east-west axis, as opposed to the long north-south axis of the Americas and Africa, Eurasia was able to engage in the cultural exchange of plant and animal domestication across similar climates.

* Eurasian livestock, and the denser populations made possible by agriculture, gave Eurasians a suite of animal-derived human diseases to which they gained immunity. These diseases, for example measles, tuberculosis and smallpox from cattle, and flu and whooping cough from pigs, devastated the peoples of other continents when contact was made.

* Eurasian horses gave an enormous military advantage and, when coupled with the wheel, led to other technological advances.

* Greater populations and easier communication gave a greater level of technological innovation in Eurasia. The development of writing was key to the rapid dissemination of information.

All this led to political systems able to conquer the world, but it left Australia in a particularly strange situation. To Europeans this was the continent with the least useful biological resources and the most `primitive' peoples. Except for the macadamia nut, which is hardly a major crop in Australia or the world, no Australian species have been domesticated.

An imported agriculture was superimposed upon the Australian landscape, with at times dreadful environmental consequences. But that is not to say that Australia has no potential for indigenous food production. Indeed, Diamond speculates that Aborigines, had they been given enough time, would have further evolved along the path that the Aborigines of south-east Australia, with their elaborate eel `farms' and associated `villages', were travelling.

South-eastern Australia was the most suited to imported agriculture; the extermination of Aborigines living there was among the most comprehensive. Europeans were restricted in their takeover of the tropical north by diseases such as malaria, to which they had no acquired immunity.

Australia became the great canvas for polarities: hunter-gatherer of indigenous species versus cropper and pastoralist of exotic species; European agriculture versus ecological reality. The political agendas of the 1990s still deal with the consequences of this: native title and environmental restoration.

Other chapters in Guns, germs and steel examine how China became Chinese, how Polynesia was peopled, and how Africa became black, all told from the perspective of the environmental factors that came into play.

Diamond finishes with a plea for a more scientific approach to history. The corollary is surely that history makers must learn from the past and recognise the environmental factors -- water shortages and fossil fuel addiction come to mind -- that will determine the future.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Krockenberger, Michael
Publication:Habitat Australia
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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