Tag Archives: Anna Karenina principle

Book: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel

460 pages, ★★★★★

Guns, Germs and Steel does three things:

  • It counteracts the misconception that “since the fifteenth century, enlightened Europeans have colonised simplistic New World natives”. Author Jared Diamond demonstrates how stronger societies have colonised weaker societies for all of human history, not just in the last 500 years.
  • It counteracts the idea that “European society was advanced compared to the rest of the world because European people were more intelligent”. The author states that people worldwide are of roughly the same intelligence—so something else must have accounted for the developmental disparity among cultures pre-globalisation (i.e. before 1500).
  • It reasserts the idea that China is a unique place that tends to buck the trends of world history, usually to its own benefit.

Some notes I made on this book are listed below.

Why farm?

  • Nutrition decreases.
  • Risk of starvation decreases.
  • Settlements, villages and towns are built.
  • No need to carry babies when migrating, so birth rate increases.
  • Population increases.

Food production originated in four main places:

  1. Iran/Iraq
  2. Mexico/Andes
  3. China
  4. African Sahel

We domesticated plants that were:

  • Convenient
  • Available
  • Self-propagating
  • Easy to modify/breed selectively (this depends on their genetics)
  • Not sought after in huge numbers by animals (squirrels prevented us from cultivating acorns)

Humans first domesticated animals with the following characteristics:

  1. Herbivores—carnivores are too expensive to feed;
  2. Fast-growing;
  3. Safe—poses no threat to humans, even in large numbers;
  4. Timid—pose no threat to each other;
  5. Willing to breed in captivity—even today, cheetahs can’t be tamed for this reason;
  6. Have a social hierarchy that features subservience—they obey humans

Anna Karenina Principle: “all families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Author Jared Diamond applies this logic to animal domestication (all undomesticated animals, such as cheetahs, giraffes and llamas were unsuitable in varying ways).


Why was Europe so advanced by the year 1500?

  1. Its East-West axis is easy to populate with humans, animals and crops. Most other continents have a North-South axis.
  2. Its native domesticable crops had a high protein content.
  3. Europe has no “severe ecological barriers” such as deserts, isthmi or impassable mountain ranges.
  4. Agriculture led to: food surplus, high population density, government, technology and the spread of germs. These all proved useful when conquering overseas territory.

There is still some debate as to whether idea diffusion (slow) or blueprint copying (quick) allowed for the spread of pyramidswheelsgunpowder and the atomic bomb.

There are no geniuses in history. Author Jared Diamond called statements such as “X invented Y in year Z” a “fallacy”. All great inventions (the example of the steam engine is detailed in this book) were built upon long chains of previous ideas that spanned long periods of time.

Both East and West are resistant to innovation. QWERTY keyboards were designed to slow typists down as not to jam old typewriters. Transistors were not adopted because of vested interests in vacuum tubes.

What makes societies welcome innovation?

  1. Labour shortage—search for technological solutions
  2. Patents reward innovation
  3. Technological training provides people with the means to innovate
  4. Capital investment structures invest in start-ups

What personality traits in a society make people welcome innovation?

  1. Individualism—personally, I question this one.
  2. Risk-taking behaviour
  3. Scientific outlook
  4. Tolerance of diverse views
  5. Religion must support technology—or it will not be adopted

States are inevitable in the long-run and arise from the following factors:

  1. Aristotle: “states are a natural condition of human society”. Too vague.
  2. Rosseau: “states are a social contract”. Not always true.
  3. Hydraulic theory: “complex systems (e.g. irrigation) require states to manage and maintain them”.

    Jared Diamond prefers number 3, Hydraulic theory, then suggests two more factors:
  4. Food production (1) requires division of labour, which needs to be decided; (2) creates a food surplus, which needs to be managed; and (3) gives some people sedentary jobs, which require being allocated in some way.
  5. Population expansion beyond a few hundred people makes most people strangers rather than friends. Large populations thus need some fraction of society to be responsible for maintaining social order. Author Jared Diamond suggests that any large population without a state would have quickly collapsed into anarchy (or formed a state).

Of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states (human population groups in increasing order of size), only chiefdoms and states can justify kleptocracy.

Kleptocracy needs to (author says, “it is in the interests of a kleptocracy to…”):

  1. Disarm the populace and arm the ruling élite;
  2. Redistribute wealth in popular ways;
  3. Promote happiness;
  4. Promote an ideology or religion that justifies kleptocracy. The author notes that governance ideology can be as strong (or stronger) than technology in giving power to states. Mao’s China and the Mtetwa Chiefdom are two technologically-weak, ideologically-strong states.

What helped unify China?

  1. Large East-West rivers helped East-West expansion
  2. China is wider than it is tall (that’s the East-West thing again)
  3. No major deserts/mountain ranges/isthmi in the middle
  4. Graphic writing system allowed for the unification of different spoken dialects—the author doesn’t mention this in Guns, Germs and Steel but has mentioned it elsewhere.

Most amazingly, Taiwanese explorers colonised both Polynesia and Madagascar! Evidence includes:

  1. Ta-p’en-k’eng pottery & stone tools, originally from Taiwan, which reached Polynesian islands at different dates;
  2. Canoe design, which evolved from island to island.

Four crucial technologies for the advancement of society:

  1. Germs—endemic germs weaken any enemies upon contact;
  2. Metallurgycopper then bronze then iron;
  3. Military technology—including animals and military philosophy;
  4. Machinerywagons, ploughs;
  5. Wheelstransport, power;
  6. Seafaringships, navigation systems;
  7. Writing—allows for the last point, which is:
  8. Political organisation—allows for large projects via pooling of capital.

Back to the point about “there are no geniuses in history”, the author states that Alexander the Great, Augustus, Buddha, Christ, Lenin, Martin Luther King, Pachacuti, Mohammed, William the Conqueror, Shaka (and I’ll add Confucius, echoing Roger Ames’ example) weren’t single-handed geniuses. They just described/personified trend that was already underway. In other words, Confucius didn’t invent Confucianism!

What’s missing from this book is:

  • How crops shaped religion (rice: collective work; wheat: exaggerated gender differences; fish: superstition).

Jared Diamond’s conclusion:

  • History is a science;
  • Historians can predict large trends but not the minute details;
  • The three conclusions I wrote at the top of this post.

I recommend this book for everyone. A perfect sequel to this book is Collapse by the same author. My review of Collapse is also coming soon. ★★★★★