Thursday, 26 March 2020

Guns, Germs, and Steel

My friend Chris put me on to this after we were having a lengthy discussion about why some countries are technologically advanced and others are not, and about the large historic differences between Africa's technological development and that of countries along the Silk Road such as China and India.

It's one American man's attempt to answer his Papua New Guinean friend's question about the disparity in the economic and technological status of their countries. 

It was written in 1997, and is a pretty dry read. When you're used to receiving your world history from Harari, Frankopan and Bryson, this is more of an academic explanation than an engaging story. Quite a lot of lists of things and I lost count of the number of times 'Fertile Crescent' was mentioned.

However, there were some juicy nuggets of knowledge in there, such as why certain animals were never domesticated:

Zebras  are  also  virtually  impossible  to  lasso  with  a  rope — even  for  cowboys  who  win  rodeo  championships  by  lassoing  horses — because  of their  unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly  toward them and then to duck their head out of the way.

The fact that Japan adopted guns then completely abandoned them:

A famous example [of technology being adopted then given up] involves Japan's abandonment of guns.  Firearms reached Japan in A.D. 1543, when two Portuguese adventurers armed with harquebuses (primitive guns)  arrived on  a Chinese cargo ship. The Japanese were  so  impressed by the new weapon that they commenced  indigenous gun production, greatly improved gun technology, and by A.D. 1600 owned more and better guns  than any  other country in  the world. 

But there were also factors working against the  acceptance of firearms in Japan. The country had a  numerous warrior  class, the samurai, for whom swords rated as class  symbols and works of art (and as means for subjugating  the lower classes). Japanese warfare had previously  involved single combats between samurai swordsmen, who stood in the open, made ritual speeches, and then took  pride in fighting gracefully. Such behavior became  lethal  in the presence of peasant soldiers ungracefully blasting  away with guns. In addition, guns were a foreign  invention and grew to be despised, as did other things foreign in Japan after 1600. The samurai-controlled government began by restricting gun production to a few cities, then  introduced a requirement of a government license for  producing a gun, then issued licenses only for guns produced for the government, and finally reduced government orders for guns, until Japan was almost without  functional guns  again.  

Contemporary  European  rulers  also  included  some who  despised guns and tried  to  restrict  their  availability.  But  such  measures  never  got far in Europe,  where  any  country  that  temporarily  swore off firearms would  be  promptly  overrun  by  gun-toting  neighboring  countries.  Only  because  Japan was a populous,  isolated island could it get  away with its  rejection  of the powerful new military technology.  Its  safety  in isolation came to  an  end in 1853, when the visit of Commodore Perry's U.S.  fleet bristling with cannons convinced Japan of its need to resume gun manufacture.

And the fact that the wheel appears to have been independently discovered in South America as it is found on ancient Mexican ceramic toys, but was never developed for human transport or agriculture due to there being no domesticated beasts of burden capable of pulling it.

There's also some very interesting chapters on the origins of writing and types of writing systems. And it was interesting to learn that modern English shares something with one of the most ancient writing systems, cuneiforme, in that it's still read left to right, top to bottom.

The general theme of the book is that there are many factors that affect the technological advancement of cultures. Largely it rests on food production, climate, and the availability of native plant species and animals that are compliant for domestication. This leads to larger populations and less focus on daily food production - due to reserves - therefore more people can focus on other pastimes such as art, architecture and invention. As the title suggests, it also looks at the role of weapons, infectious diseases and available resources on development, which is interesting in relation to the current Covid-19 outbreak.

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