Is history only a study of what happened' and when, and what happened next? Is it a 'mere' record of events? What are the lessons of history? Why is history taken from written down records alone considered 'recorded history' when we now have enough evidence from cave paintings and innumerable artifacts as to the kind of life humans lived say, ten or fifteen thousand years ago? These are some of the questions being asked as many branches of science are pressed into service in the study of history. The author pleads for the recognition of what are now called the Historical Sciences which include Astronomy, Cosmology, Ecology, Geology, Evolutionary Biology and Paleontology. The book under review has a marvellous passage in which he speaks of science and history in one breath, as it were. 'In science, we seek knowledge and understanding by whatever means are available and appropriate. There are many fields that no one hesitates to consider sciences; even though replicated laboratory experiments in those fields would be immoral, illegal or impossible. We cannot manipulate stars while maintaining other stars as controls, nor can we start and stop ice ages, nor can we experiment with evolving dinosaurs. Nevertheless, we can still gain considerable insight into these historical fields by other means. We should surely be able to understand human history, since introspection and preserved writings give us far more insights into the ways of past humans than those of dinosaurs.' The author reminds us that the root of the word Science derived from the Latin' Scientia' means knowledge and not 'replicated laboratory experiment'.
This book takes a sweeping look at the broad patterns of history from the period around 11, 000 B.C. to 1500 A.D. Until the end of the last Ice Age around 11, 000 B.C., all humans on all continents were still living as Stone Age hunter-gatherers (sobering thought!). By 1500 B.C., however, the Spaniards and other European empires had already started on their overseas expansion. They were also on the verge of industrialization, having reached 88 the pinnacle of the Iron Age by then. The Incas and the Aztecs of America had not yet got out of Stone Age or nearly Bronze Age empires. Mass production of copper tools had just then started to spread in the Americas. Parts of sub-Saharan A£rica were ruled by small groups of people £rom the Iron Age, while all peoples of Australia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands and many £rom the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa lived as Stone Age hunter-gatherers or farmers. How did this happen? The inequalities of the Modern World can be explained by the condition of the world around 1500 A. D. But how did the world reach that stage?Why did not the Incas, the Aztecs or the hunter-gatherers of A£rica or Australia, for instance, conquer the Old World, i.e. Eurasia, instead of the other way round? The author dismisses any suggestion of racial superiority as a possible reason for this division. From his own empirical observations in New Guinea over three decades, he has found the people, if anything, more intelligent and capable of looking after themselves in difficult environments, than the people of the advanced societies; and the New Guineans are just now coming out of being hunter gatherers. Further, innumerable attempts made by psychologists and others in U.S.A. especially have failed to establish any IQ differences between the various 'races' . For a passionate but informed critique of the argument for innate, genetic factors influencing intelligence, read 'The Mismeasure of Man' by that peerless science writer, Stephen Jay Gould (Revised Edition, Penguin, 1997). Gould demolishes all the major studies made on the measurement of intelligence over the entire 20th century and shows them for what they were - biased, racist and tending to perpetuate inequalities existing in society by attributing poverty and deprivation among the oppressed and disadvantaged groups to their being not quite on the same IQ level as the civilized Teutonic races.
It would, therefore, appear that there were other factors at work in bringing the world to the stage it reached circa 1500 A.D. And there were, reasons aplenty. The author lists a number of stages which the Eurasians went through due to a series of fortuitous circumstances. He classifies them into what he calls proximate and ultimate causes. Among the former are the taming of horses so as to make them swift-moving platforms from which to launch attacks on the enemy in a war. (Interestingly, horses became anachronistic only in 1917 when tanks came to be used late in the Great War). Then came the use of guns and steel and the spread of epidemic diseases, watercraft to cross oceans, writing and a centralized political organization. These became possible due to the settlement of large, dense, sedentary societies which had the leisure to work on improving their level of technology. In turn, domestication of many plant species and domestication of animals made such societies possible in the first place. Domestication of animals revolutionized land transport and made a significant difference in agriculture too as the animals were pressed into use to plough more area per day than a human could ever do. The ultimate factors are the geographical lay-out of Eurasia with its East/West axis, the availability of adequate number of wild plant and animal species amenable to domestication.
How did sedentary societies come into being? The hunter-gatherers must have settled down to such a life because they need not have to go every day in search of food, which means they must have stored enough food for the cold winters or the rainy season. By trial and error, men discovered that they could grow the grasses and plants from which they had been hitherto feeding as they went about gathering their food. Deliberate planting and harvesting not only enabled them to settle down, they made it obligatory. to do so as you cannot plant and move on. To tend the crops and harvest them, you need to inhabit in one place. Fixed abodes came into existence for the first time in history. Yes, but where first and why?The answer is the Fertile Crescent in the Near East and in eastern China, the area near the Andes in South America, Southern Mexico, eastern North America and western Africa and Ethiopia. However, domestication of crops spread rapidly only from the Fertile Crescent and not from the other places because of a very interesting phenomenon: the Eurasian land mass is on a East/ west axis, thus facilitating rapid diffusion of crops and livestock, as well as migration of peoples from one part of the continent to the other, which would have similar climate. On the other hand the entire American continent is on a North/South axis, which would make such movement difficult, as it passes through a variety of dissimilar terrain and climate. In the main, Africa is situated on a North/South axis too and the people faced the same problem. Regions distributed across the globe but in the same latitudes have more or less the same seasons and their variations at the same time. Not surprisingly, the same kind of crops grow. On the other hand, lands lying even a few hundred miles to the north or south of these areas seem to live in a different kind of world altogether. Climate is different, vegetation and, what is even more significant, the animal life is of another kind too.
Thus humans who found themselves among domesticable crops developed agriculture and settled down to a fairly stationary life. The animals they hunted for food were becoming scarcer and they had to think of keeping some animals in their proximity as they no longer travelled far to hunt. Only a few species of animals commended themselves to domestication. If there were others, such domestications must have died in their place of birth. Their spreading to other regions were constrained by the North/South axis. Eurasia won out on animal domestication too. The author gives many ingenious reasons as to how animals render themselves liable for domestication. How does domestication happen? Domestication requires that a wild animal needs to meet all of the following prerequisites: a diet that human beings can provide, a fairly fast growth rate (for yielding milk and meat), willingness to breed in captivity (the recurring nightmare of zoo-keepers), a tractable disposition (snapping turtles and grizzly bears are out), a lack of tendency to panic when fenced in and a social structure involving submissive behaviour towards dominant members of the same species (how human!). The author then points out to two astonishing facts. The first is that Africa, the continent with the largest number of land mammals (51 in all), ended up domesticating not one of them! The Americas with 24 managed to salvage one (the alpaca/llama) but Australia drew a blank too as it could not tame even the one animal it had, the kangaroo.
On the other hand, Eurasia harvested a bountiful 13 out of a possible 72. In all, human beings from around 7500 B.C. to 500 B.C. could domesticate only 14 animals and no significant domestication has taken place since around the time of the Buddha. What a difference it would have made to world history if the rhinoceros and hippopotamus had been domesticated! Africa and not Eurasia would have been at the top of the world now.
Domestication of animals brought with it the spread of diseases which had hitherto been confined to animals, to the human beings who lived with them. Over a long period of some thousands of years, the peoples of Eurasia developed immunity to these diseases (not fully of course, as these are still with us) and, when the Europeans went to the New World, they carried these germs with them. It has been found that many more native Americans died of measles, influenza, smallpox and malaria than in the wars with the invading Europeans. Just as horses wrought havoc in battle, the native Americans had no answer to the biological weapons the Spaniards and others carried with them in the form of deadly diseases.
Thus, the world came to be divided into that particular group of haves and have nots because of the ultimate factors of the East/West axis of Eurasia scoring over the North/South ones of the Americas, Africa and Australia. This in turn resulted in easier: spread of plant and animal domestication, and the creation of sedentary, highly centralized societies with large food surpluses (the last one enabling the formation of a full-time soldier class). The invention of ocean-going ships, writing which helped in recording and passing on of information to contemporaries and to posterity, and guns and steel weapons completed the potent and lethal armory of the marauding Europeans. Equipped with deadly germs in their bodies (to which they themselves succumbed often), the Conquistadors and their English-speaking successors of the 17th and 18th centuries must have made a pretty picture. Need we wonder any longer what, in fact, happened in history and why?
Jared Diamond is a recent entrant into the area of writing popular books on science with a historical theme. His previous book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (viz., we human beings), won him a special prize for science writing. No wonder. This book is a worthy successor. Who would have thought that agriculture and domestication, geography and anthropology could be so absorbing? There is hardly an obscure passage in this book and the references to facts of which we are incredulous, are backed by notes on background material, followed by suggestions for further reading. A reviewer called this book 'a sideways-on view of human development which may well change the way we think about history.' It has certainly made me change mine.