Born in the Right Place: Review of “Guns, Germs & Steel” by Jared Diamond

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In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn’t the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles and cathedrals? Jared Diamond attempts to answer this question in Guns, Germs & Steel.

Why have Europeans tended to dominate other peoples on other continents? Does it have something to do with race? Were Europeans more clever than other races? Diamond says no. It wasn’t racial characteristics that tipped the scales of fortune for the Europeans — it was their geography. Their geography gave them access to the best domestic grains and animals, which led to specialization and advanced technologies like steel and guns. Their domestic animals also helped them develop potent germs — and the antibodies for those germs.

The importance Diamond lays at the hoofs and paws of domesticated animals is actually one of the more fascinating themes of the book. According to Diamond, our animals have played an uncanny role in our cultural and economic development, both in a negative sense (human contact with farm animals facilitated the germ-exchange that produced man’s deadliest diseases) and in a positive sense (men from the Russian steppes, riding their newly domesticated horses, spread the Indo-European language both westward into Europe and southeastward into Persia and India). Diamond’s point is that people living in areas with more domesticable animals (sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, etc.) gained an important advantage over people without them.

For example, Native Americans had only three domesticated animals before 1492: llamas, turkeys, and dogs. Why only three? Weren’t there wild horses and cattle in America too? Actually, fossil records show huge populations of horses, oxen, and millions of other large mammals in the Americas until about 11,000 BC. What happened around 11,000 BC? You guessed it: man showed up via the Bering Strait. The American horses, oxen and other large mammals, having never experienced a human predator, approached the new arrivals like slobbering puppy dogs, and were consequently turned into steaks. In fact, it was steaks every night for a couple thousand years for the new immigrants, until most of the continents’ large mammals— and all but one suitable candidate for domestication— were wiped out.

Now this is fascinating enough, but then consider that because the Native Americans didn’t have any horses, oxen, pigs, etc. left to exploit as beasts of burden and domesticated food sources, they also lost the civilizational benefits those animals would have brought (and did bring to Eurasians), not the least of which is germs. Yes, germs. Because the Native Americans didn’t live in close proximity to a plethora of “farm animals” like their counterparts in Eurasia, they lacked the “petri dish” wherein deadly germs could grow and proliferate. They thus failed to develop the infectious diseases and (more importantly) the antibodies to those diseases that might have protected them from the germs of invading Europeans when Señor Columbus and his crew showed up.

It was for this reason that when the Conquistadores did finally show up, they were able to wipe out 80% of the indigenous population before ever unsheathing their swords— with germs— with small pox and influenza, both diseases generated by the passing back and forth of germs between domesticated animals and their human caretakers (small pox between cattle and humans, and influenza between pigs and ducks and humans). If that doesn’t blow your mind, your mind is blowproof.

Then again, you may well ask: “What about moose and bison? Why didn’t Cortés and his boys float up to the Mexican shoreline and find a bloodthirsty cavalry of Aztecs on mooseback, energized by the milk and meat of their plentiful herds of bison?” Diamond surmises that by the time most the large mammals in America had been digested into extinction by their hungry human friends, there was only one suitable candidate left for domestication: the llama/alpaca. Every other large mammal that remained (including moose and bison) lacked the qualities that allow for domestication.

In all of human history only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans. Outside of these, no other large mammals have been transformed from wild animals into something useful to humans. Why? Why were Eurasia’s horses domesticated and not Africa’s zebras? Why were Eurasia’s wild boar domesticated and not America’s peccaries or Africa’s wild pigs? Why were Eurasia’s five species of wild cattle (aurochs, water buffalo, yaks, bantengs, and gaurs) domesticated and not Africa’s water buffalo or America’s bison? Why the Asian mouflon sheep (the ancestor of our sheep) and not the American bighorn sheep?

The answer is simple: we tried and it didn’t work. Since 2500 BC not one new large mammal (out of the 148 worldwide candidates) has been domesticated — and not for lack of trying. In fact, in the last 200 years, at least six large mammals have been subject to well-organized domestication projects: the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison. All six failed. Why? Because of one or more of the following problems: diet, slow growth rate, nasty disposition, tendency to panic, captive breeding problems, and/or social structure.

  • Diet — Why don’t we eat lion burgers? Because raising lions, or any other carnivore, is uneconomical. You need 10,000 lbs of feed to grow a 1,000 lb cow. You would likewise need 10,000 lbs of cow to grow 1,000 pounds of lion. That means you’d need 100,000 lbs of feed to produce 1,000 pounds of lion. Hence the lack of lion burgers on the Wendy’s drive-thru menu.
  • Growth rate — Why don’t we eat rhino burgers? Simple, it takes 15-20 years for a rhino to reach adult size while it only takes cows a couple.
  • Nasty disposition — Here’s where we eliminate zebra burgers, hippo burgers, grizzly burgers and bison burgers. These animals retain their nasty and dangerous tempers even after several generations of captive breeding. Did you know zebras injure more zookeepers per year than do lions and tigers?
  • Tendency to panic — No deer or gazelle burgers either. Why? Because they take flight at the first sign of danger and will literally kill themselves running into a fence over and over to escape the threat.
  • Captive breeding problems — Many animals have elaborate breeding rituals that can’t happen in captivity.
  • Social structure — This may be the most important requirement for domesticates. The best candidates for domestication live in herds, maintain a clear herd hierarchy, and overlap ranges with other herds rather than having exclusive ranges. Here humans just take over the top of the hierarchy. They literally become the herd leader (think “Dog Whisperer”).

So the reason European explorers didn’t find Native American ranchers with herds of bison and bighorn sheep is because these animals can’t be domesticated. Diamond contends that if there had been any horses left in the Americas, or any of the other 13 candidates for domestication, the Native Americans surely would have domesticated them, and reaped all the attendant benefits. But alas, their great-great-grandpas had already killed, grilled and digested them all.

Diamond’s book is a great read. If you’re a student of history, it’s a must read. The way I see it, the story of man (and the story of all things, for that matter) is the story of varied states of disequilibrium moving violently and inexorably toward equilibrium. What was Pizarro’s vanquishing of Atahualpa’s empire if not an example of such violent re-balancing? The beauty of Diamond’s book is that it seems to pinpoint, with surprising simplicity, the original source of disequilibrium among men: geography. Roughly put, some got born in the right place and some didn’t. Skin color had nothing to do with it. Race has always been nothing more than an arbitrary mark to show the geographical birthplace of one’s ancestors’.

By the way, if you do read this book, take note of the way we humans first discovered agriculture. According to Diamond, it happened at the latrine. We’d go out gathering seeds, eating some along the way, and then come back to camp and defecate, all in the same spot. Guess what started growing in that spot? Yes, my friends, as crude as it may sound, we humans shat are way to civilization. Thank your ass when you get a chance.