Monday, 6 January 2014

Guns, Germs and Steel

by Jared Diamond

I was so inspired by the course on Global History of Architecture that I felt an urge to read more of world history of something. And this book was laying around the house just waiting for me to read it.

Naturally, there was a bit of scientific progress since the book was published 15 years ago. (For instance, now we know that there was at least some interbreeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon people. In this book’s context... it does not change much.) But I was struck how well the book has aged. And it does a great job busting some mildly racist myths which, sadly, are still around. Such as that the (Northern) Europeans are so good (in science, technology, economy) because they have to work hard in harsh climate, or spend their long winter nights inventing or whatever, while the people from warmer climes are just plain lazy.

I couldn’t help being fascinated by the geographical take on global history, even though I am not entirely convinced with some of the theories Diamond puts forward. Is it true that murder is the leading cause of death in tribal societies (because of lack of law-enforcing structures)? Maybe it is so in New Guinea. The best examples and stories come from New Guinea. The whole book, apparently, was inspired by a New Guinean’s simple question: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

For the last 33 years, while conducting biological exploration in New Guinea, I have been spending my field time there constantly in the company of New Guineans who still use wild plants and animals extensively. One day, when my companions of the Foré tribe and were starving in the jungle because another tribe was blocking our return to our supply base, a Foré man returned to camp with a large rucksack full of mushrooms he had found, and started to roast them. Dinner at last! But then I had an unsettling thought: what if the mushrooms were poisonous?
I patiently explained to my Foré companions that I had read about some mushrooms’ being poisonous, that I had heard of even expert American mushroom collectors’ dying because of the difficulty of distinguishing safe from dangerous mushrooms, and that although we were all hungry, it just wasn't worth the risk. At that point my companions got angry and told me to shut up and listen while they explained some things to me. After I had been quizzing them for years about names of hundreds of trees and birds, how could I insult them by assuming they didn’t have names for different mushrooms? Only Americans could be so stupid as to confuse poisonous mushrooms with safe ones.

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